On the cusp of August, we are about to enter the preseason of one of the most intriguing NFL seasons in recent memory. The defending Super Bowl champions enter the season without their top two quarterbacks from last season, arguably the best player in the NFL is suspended for the first four games, Los Angeles will be fielding a team for the first time in decades, and the darling of the NFL landscape seems to be living in Oakland.
Truly there are many interesting and befuddling storylines entering this season and it should be thrilling to see them all play out. Lets breakdown the divisions:
The Patriots have proven in the past that they can win without Tom Brady. In fact, the last time they lost him for an extended period of time, they went 11-5 under journeyman Matt Cassel. I can sit here all day and list the weaknesses of the Patriots (i.e. no run game, holes in the defense, no go-to receiver, suspended quarterback, etc.), but at the end of the day Brady and Belichick seemingly always find a way to win and even if they go 0-4 with Jimmy Garoppolo, I do not see that changing.
2 – New York Jets (WC)
The Jets finally capitulated and signed Ryan Fitzpatrick to a one year $12 million dollar contract with potentially $3 million more in incentives. This was a move that needed to be made. Their second round rookie pick (Hackenberg) is no where near ready and Geno Smith has shown that he is not an NFL-caliber quarterback. Plus, this team is built to win now with veterans like Matt Forte, Eric Decker, and Brandon Marshall carrying the load on the offensive end, the Jets do not have time to develop a new quarterback.
One thing the Jets have to be wary of, is that the loss of Chris Ivory also marks the virtual elimination of their power running game. Matt Forte is a great back who may be the best pass-catcher on their team, but he has never been a power runner; a trait that was so important to the Jets’ success last year.
It seems weird to think that a guy who threw for 4,000+ yards and 20+ touchdowns is entering a make-or-break season, but that is exactly where Ryan Tannehill finds himself. Tannehill has had every opportunity to take the reigns and lead this team, including having the most underrated number one receiver in the NFL in Jarvis Landry (194 receptions over 2 seasons), and now has a new head coach who specializes in getting the most out of his quarterbacks. But at the end of the day, the only significant change to this team is the addition of head coach Adam Gase and I do not think Gase is worth 5-6 more wins over the course of one year.
4 – Buffalo Bills
I have always like Rex Ryan, but I am not sure how good of a head coach he really is. He has never shown the ability put together a consistently good offensive game plan and his loyalty to his players is absolute, even in the face of extreme mediocrity (i.e. Mark Sanchez). What this season will come down to is the ability of Tyrod Taylor to adapt and improve throughout the season and to not where down like last year. I do not think Taylor has the ability or the physicality to do either, hence their last place finish in the division.
The Bengals have owned this division in recent memory and I do not foresee that changing. They simply have more talent that all the other teams in their division. Even the losses of Marvin Jones and Mohammad Sanu will have a minimal impact on the overall effectiveness of this offense. As always, the question marks surrounding this team will be their ability to perform in the postseason, but the regular season is their’s to lose.
Had the Jets not resigned Ryan Fitzpatrick, the Steelers would have been my pick for the wild card. Last year the Steelers made the playoffs because of the Jets’ epic meltdown, plus they will be without Le’Veon Bell for the first four games and be without Martavius Bryant for the whole season. That offense will still be very prolific with Antonio Brown, Ben Roethlisberger, and D’Angelo Williams, but it will take a hit; further there are some major question marks on that defense and I am not sure the Steelers have any answers.
3 – Baltimore Ravens
Flacco is coming back, but will be forced to wear some protective leg-wear; so it is questionable if he will be at 100%. Also, with Bernard Perriman out the passing game will be highly reliant on the ageless one Steve Smith (who is also returning from injury). My hopes are night high for the Ravens this season, but they are saved from a last place finish thanks to sharing a division with a certain team from Cleveland.
4 – Cleveland Browns
This team is obviously in full-blown rebuild mode. While I agree with their approach and have hopes that if their owner shows patience, then it will be successful, I also have to realistic about this season. And realistically, it will be a miracle if the Browns do not finish with the worst record in the NFL.
The entire Chiefs defense is coming back healthy and entering Andy Reid’s fourth season at the helm, the offense should be a well-oiled machine guided by the highly accurate and precise Alex Smith. Jamal Charles is also coming back healthy and when he is at 100%, he is one of the best running backs in all of the NFL. In a division with a lot of question marks, the Chiefs have the most answers and have enjoyed with most stability with performance, personnel, and experience.
2 – Oakland Raider (WC)
The darling of the NFL offseason and I am not the only one expecting big things from the Raiders. They have a great young offensive core led by the tandem of Derek Carr and Amari Cooper and now they have a great young defensive core spearheaded by bookend pass-rushers Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin. They have everything they need to succeed, now they just need to put it all together.
3 – Denver Broncos
This season is going to be a disaster for the Broncos. They have lost a number of key defensive starters, their running game is average at best, the offensive line will strive to be mediocre, and they have arguably the worst starting quarterback in the NFL. But one thing the Broncos do have is playmakers. They have guys like Emmanuel Sanders, Demaryius Thomas, Von Miller, and Demarcus Ware. Any one of those individuals on any given night can turn a game around and single-handedly achieve a victory.
4 – San Diego Chargers
The Chargers did one thing to upgrade their team last year: drafted Joey Bosa. After that, they really did nothing of substance. This is a team that is in the fastlane on the road to nowhere. If I were the Chargers I would trade Philip Rivers in a heartbeat and get all I could for him. He is not a winner. He is a fantasy quarterback who will put up good stats, but will get your team no closer to winning. And once again the Chargers enter a season where their only hope of success rests on the combination of Rivers to Antonio Gates. Chargers will be drafting in the top 5 again next year.
This may be a bold pick. I know many are expecting the Jaguars to make forward strides, but I doubt very few have them winning the division. Here is the thing: the Jaguars already have an offense that can rank in the top 5 and now they have added potentially five new starters to their woeful defense. If those players can gel quickly, then the Jaguars will be a force to be reckoned with.
2 – Houston Texans
Lamar Miller may be the most over-hyped signing of free agency and I think Brock Osweiller is going to be nothing more than an average quarterback. The good think for the Texans is all they need is a bit of consistency from the quarterback position to make a playoff run, but starting the season with J.J. Watt recovering from back surgery creates a lot of question marks for a team that is desperately trying to find some playoff success.
Despite the past two seasons I am still a big believer and fan of Andrew Luck. The problem is that he is the head of a sinking ship. The Colts lack the talent to be serious contenders. They are weak on both the offensive and defensive lines, their run offense is sad, their pass-rush is horrid, and their pass-defense is virtually non-existent. A healthy and effective Luck is a great starting point, but it is no-where near enough to compete.
4 – Tennessee Titans
Like the Browns, the Titans are building for the future. This past offseason they invested in runningbacks to take pressure off of Mariota and offensive linemen to keep him upright. It is a great starting point, but the Titans still feature a young and incomplete defense and have virtually no weapons in the passing game. The Titans will be able to win a few here and there by utilizing ball-control and solid defense, but they are still a couple seasons away from being a legitimate contender.
1 – Dallas Cowboys
Tony Romo is a great quarterback by any measurable form. This season he will be aided once again by the enigmatic Dez Bryant as well as the Cowboys #1 draft pick Ezekiel Elliott. Their defense is solid and given the balance Dallas will have on both offense and defense I expect them to win this hotly-contested division.
2 – Washington Redskins (WC)
The addition of Josh Norman from the Panthers will pay huge dividends for this team. I also believe that Kirk Cousins will earn himself one of those 7 year $100+ million contracts by the end of this season. The running game is questionable with the load not being placed on the shoulders of second year back Matt Jones, who showed flashes of brilliance and mediocrity last year. But Cousins has no shortage of weapons in the passing game this year with possession receiver Pierre Garcon, deep threat DeSean Jackson, tightend standout Jordan Reed, and first-round pick Josh Doctson. The Redskins do not only have a chance to make the playoffs, but to do some damage once they get there.
3 – New York Giants
The Giants had one obvious goal this offseason: fix the defense. They spend over $100 million in contracts during free agency and used multiple draft picks (including their first) on achieving that goal. Unfortunately cohesion takes time and their is no guarantee that those signings will pan out. Personally, I think Eli Apple as the fifth best player on his own defense, is going to be a bust and Vernon Olivier’s success was due mainly from playing opposite of Cameron Wake. So while the Giants have talent, I am doubtful as to how much and as to how effective they will be.
The Eagles are going to suck. They are as completely devoid of talent as any team in the league and they are not going to even attempt to start their #2 overall pick. Philadelphia wanted to move on from Chip Kelly, but they had no idea about how to accomplish that goal. Like several other teams this season, the Eagles are in full rebuild mode and are a long way from being competitive.
The Vikings got a big possession receiver in the draft to go along with the athletic ones already on their roster. They also feature the best running back in the NFL and a young ball-hawking defense. As total teams go, this is one of the most complete in the NFL. Their one drawback is quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. Bridgewater has shown himself to be a capable game manager, but the Vikings want more out of their former-first round pick. If Bridgewater takes another step forward, the Vikings may be a legitimate favorite to win the Super Bowl.
2 – Green Bay Packers (WC)
As someone who has grown up in the suburbs of Chicago, the Packers are a constant source of frustration. What makes the Packers even more frustrating than ever is the level of their success, despite having a very underwhelming team. Eddy Lacy has been brutal, Jordy Nelson can’t stay healty, their skill position players have all proven to be dispensable, their pass-rush has been inconsistent, and that pass-defense even more so. But the Packers have Aaron Rodgers, possibly the best quarterback in the NFL and as long as they have him, they will always be competitive.
3 – Chicago Bears
John Fox is a proven winner and Vic Fangio is an accomplished defensive coordinator. This team will see vast improvement from the team that emerged last year. That being said, Chicago finds itself in one of the toughest divisions in football against teams that have arguably more talent. While big strides have been made this past year to improve the team in all areas, the Bears still seem to be a year away from being potential contenders.
4 – Detroit Lions
The poor fans of Detroit. Seemingly incapable of escaping the doldrums of the NFL landscape. The Lions seemingly did nothing to improve their chances of winning and lost their best player in the process. I love Anquon Bolden, but he is far past his prime and will do very little to increase Detroit’s win total. Barring and unbelievable defensive resurgence, the Lions will be lucky to win 5 games this year.
This is the most complete team in the NFL, led by a coach who is unafraid to try new things and push the envelope. One thing I like most about Bruce Arians is that he adapts his game plan to fit the talent that he has on his team. Too many coaches work the other way and in doing so squander talented players. Arians gets the most out of his players, whether they be old man Larry Fitzgerald, journeyman Carsen Palmer, or former-pariah Tyrann Mathieu. The only thing holding Arizona back is potential injuries.
2 – Los Angeles Rams
It seems like the Rams have been on the cusp of breaking out for a few years now. They have one of the best defensive players in the league in Aaron Donald, and perhaps the best running back in the league in Todd Gurley. While they will be starting a rookie quarterback, the Rams do have some talent around him to take advantage of. Along with Gurley, the Rams have uber-quick wideouts who given the slightest amount of space can turn a 2-yard screen pass into an 80-yard touchdown.
3 – Seattle Seahawks
There are multiple teams in the NFL that are adverse to signing free agents. These times favor the collection of compensatory picks and leaving themselves a lot of wiggle room in the salary cap when the time comes to resign elite talent. This makes sense in a lot of way, but eventually a team needs replace lost talent and are unable to draft and coach the new talent fast enough to keep pace with the departed players. Enter the Seahawks. They have locked in Richard Sherman and Russell Wilson, but they keep losing the glue guys that have made them so competitive. The only reason Seattle did so well last year is because Doug Baldwin and Wilson caught fire and had one of the greatest 8-game stretches in NFL history. They will not repeat that stretch and I have a feeling they will also regress.
I think Chip Kelly will eventually find new life with the 49ers and I do believe he will once again make San Francisco competitive. But they lost so much talent so quickly and right now they have a quarterback competition between two guys who might not otherwise make another teams’ roster. The lack of talent combined with the culture change that is starting typically is a recipe for disaster.
They have lost Josh Norman, but they are regaining Kelvin Benjamin. So while the defense may take a slight step back, I expect their offense to be even more dynamic. Benjamin reminds me a lot of a young Anquon Boldin and having that go-to receiver on the sidelines will do wonders for Cam Newton and the Panthers’ ability to repeat as NFC Champions.
Tampa Bay has done a great job of loading up on young talent and Jameis Winston thus far is looking like the real deal. Having a young quarterback with some big and talented targets is a great core to build around. Add to the fact that incumbent running back, Doug Martin, was second in the league in rushing. The Bucs chances of making the playoffs will hinge mostly on their pass-defense; hence the use of their first round pick on Vernon Hargreaves. The Bucs are poised to be great, but they’re not quite there yet.
I have heard a lot of rumblings about Drew Brees’ age recently and I just do not get it. Yeah he is getting up there, but he is shattering passing records, continually throws for 4,000+ yards and 30+ touchdowns, and threw 7 touchdowns in a game against the Giants last year. There is still life in that man and as long as he has life, the Saints have a punchers chance.
4 – Atlanta Falcons
Call it the curse of Tony Gonzalez. Ever since he won his first playoff game with the team and subsequent retirement, this team has struggled mightily. They may have a good run game, but Tevin Coleman is still unproven and Devonta Freeman had a huge falloff at the end of last season. The offensive line is a mess, the pass-rush is worse, and other than Julio Jones the Falcons have no one that is a game-breaker. With their inability to draft stars or attract top-flight free agents, the Falcons are going no where fast.
New England Patriots vs. Arizona Cardinals – Winner: Arizona Cardinals
Talent typically wins out and the Cardinals have the most of it. I think Carsen Palmer will bounce back from his disastrous outing at the NFC Championship and lead his team to the promised land.
Most Valuable Player: Carsen Palmer – Arizona Cardinals
Palmer would have won it last year if not for the breakout year for Cam Newton. He is a sentimental favorite whose career will likely be over after this year. The NFL likes its storybook endings and there is no better ending than Palmer winning the MVP and Super Bowl and then walking off into the sunset.
Coach of the Year: Bill Belichick – New England Patriots
If he wins another division with his best player missing four games, Belichick will once again show why he is the best coach going today. I expect Belichick to have the Patriots running on all cylinders and get a first round bye in the playoffs en route to yet another Super Bowl appearance. If he does all that, it will be very tough for anyone else to win this award.
Offensive Rookie of the Year: Ezekiel Elliott – Dallas Cowboys
For those of you who regularly read my material, you will know that I am high on this kid. I think he was the best player in the draft, I think he will finish in the top 5 of MVP voting and I think he will be a key cog in the Cowboys winning the NFC East. They won’t be able to hand Elliott the award fast enough at the end of this season.
Defensive Rookie of the Year: Vernon Hargreaves – Tampa Bay Buccaneers
This was the most difficult award for me to pick. There are a lot of potential breakout stars as well as a lot of rookies that will get immediate opportunity to contribute. I like Hargreaves because I believe he was the best cornerback taken in the draft and barring injury, the Bucs have no choice but to play him. He will also be protected because of the addition of Brent Grimes and not be forced to play the best receiver from every team.