Week 1 Overreactions

The overreactions column is going up before Monday Night Football because I will not be able to see either game in full tonight (Check my Twitter Wednesday morning for why).

Week 1 is always overwhelming.  But this year it felt a little less so.  For example, Miami did exactly what we expected them to (OK, well maybe not EXACTLY that bad but we knew they’d be bad).  So did Jameis Winston.  The Patriots and Chiefs look fantastic.  A lot happened that we knew would happen.  Here are some of the things that we didn’t think would, though.

Kyler Murray is really bad, wait, no, really good

What occurred Sunday afternoon was why Kyler Murray went No. 1 overall in the 2019 NFL Draft.

And it was why the Cardinals traded away Josh Rosen for practically nothing for him.

The trade, in a way, still hurts.  Not because Rosen was amazing by any means, but because of the public humiliation and shame that came with it.  The dumping of one  top ten pick for another in a single year’s time was unprecedented, and in a way unfair and borderline incompetent.

But man, does it seem like the right move now.

Slightly backed up by his performance Sunday, Josh Rosen does not do what Kyler Murray did in the fourth quarter of Arizona’s game against Detroit.

And sure, Rosen didn’t have talent around him.  That’s the whole case for the pro-Rosen camp.  He had (and still has) zero offensive line.  No real weapons (still true).  A defense that couldn’t carry him (still true).

Those points are good ones, sure.  But it was the same case for Murray Sunday.

That was evident in the first half of the game.  The offensive line, which was already banged up thanks to Marcus Gilbert being out with an injury, was horrendous and couldn’t keep Murray protected in the pocket.  Detroit used their underrated secondary to hover over Arizona wide receivers; the Lions finished the game with 11 pass deflections, four of which came at the line of scrimmage from the front seven (That might be the biggest concern regarding Murray’s height; not his durability).  The defense was fine aside from multiple blown coverages resulting in big plays downfield, and TJ Hockenson becoming the latest tight end to kill them.  Murray missed throws and forced things, leading to bone-headed plays like this one.

It was a simple case of trying to do too much.  Murray looked like a rookie out there in the first half.  And even though the offense was absolutely putrid, and at times hard to watch, it was okay.  Murray was going to struggle at times, and we knew that would happen.  He’s a rookie, and rookies do those things.

Then he turned into a veteran.

With 14:40 left in the fourth quarter, the Cardinals faced a 24-6 deficit and Murray took control.  Those missed throws in the first half turned into completions like this one.

This is more Larry Fitzgerald than Murray.  Give Murray credit for putting the ball in a spot where Fitz could get it, but only Fitz is able to actually get it in that position.  Only Fitz.  Very few side receivers in football make that catch.

Nonetheless, it was progress for Murray and for the offense as a whole.  That play felt like a momentum shifter.  It was the one impressive thing Murray had done all day.  More importantly, it started establishing trust between Murray and his receivers, which then led to this.

Again, not a great ball by Murray.  It was quite high, and David Johnson had to go up a mile to get it.  It would have essentially been a jump ball for the running back (AKA not Fitz) if Jalen Reeves-Maybin didn’t fall down.  But this time, instead of being a feel-good moment, it made things interesting.  It was a one possession game.

Detroit’s slogging around offensively, which was partly due to immense pressure brought on by the Cardinals (That’s the one thing the defense did very well Sunday), continued on the next possession, giving Arizona the ball back with 2:31 down eight.

This was the drive that Murray really showed it.  The skill.  The leadership.  It was all there, because he knew the moment and he knew the clock was ticking.

It was methodical.  For the most part, Murray moved the ball in small increments, gaining enough yardage every play except for this one, when he found Damiere Byrd down the field.

That’s a tough throw!  Murray had to complete that or else Arizona would have been facing 4th and 7.  Cornerback Jamal Agnew was draped all over Byrd too.

This set up the touchdown and following two point conversion, which was creatively designed by Kliff Kingsbury.

Notice how Fitz is in motion when the ball is snapped and starts his route without stopping.  That leaves Justin Coleman trying to catch up and adjust on the fly, giving Fitz just enough separation for Murray to be able to make the throw.

Christian Kirk then ran out route for the two point conversion, beating his man once again.

Murray’s magic didn’t stop there.  Despite the game ending in an underwhelming tie, the rookie almost made the most important throw of the game.  Of course, there were two sides to the play though.

This play is quite similar to the first Murray-to-Fitz pass.  Murray made Fitz work for it, but that almost makes it more effective, since defending a pass like that without committing pass interference is nearly impossible.  It’s what makes Fitz, Fitz.

No one was expecting the Cardinals to be good.  I had them at 6-10.  That’s probably still a realistic record.  No one should still expect them to be good.  But we knew they were going to be one thing: Fun and entertaining as hell.  So far, so good.

The Ravens are going to be unstoppable

Perhaps the most important part of Baltimore’s 59-10 slaughter of Miami was Lamar Jackson’s improved throwing ability.

The second-year quarterback threw for 324 yards and five touchdowns, 147 yards and two of those touchdowns via Marquise “Hollywood” Brown.

Brown had like a Randy Moss-like game.  In the first quarter, Brown had two catches for 140 yards and two touchdowns.

The first was more Brown than Jackson, as Hollywood used his speed to turn on the jets on a slant route.

But the throw was still one we weren’t sure Jackson could make.  He did have to fit it in there.

It was this throw though, that was stunning.

A couple things here:

  1. The amount of time Jackson had to uncork the ball
  2. The throw itself
  3. Brown getting separation then turning on the jets again

If Brown can be this type of receiver, where his speed is unmatched and he can run any route, then Baltimore’s offense is going to be a force rather than what I expected it to be.  After today, where Brown put on his show and Mark Andrews also had 100+ yards, Jackson may not need a ridiculous weapons core around him.  Sure, he was going against a Dolphins team that is confirmed to be not trying, but we didn’t even know Jackson could throw the ball as far as he did Sunday.  That development could go miles for Baltimore.

The Bears are in trouble

It is absolutely fair to say that Mitchell Trusbisky single-handily cost the Bears the game in the Thursday’s kickoff game.

Chicago’s defense was excellent, which is already starting to look like a wrong prediction of mine, but Trubisky was not, which is looking to be a correct prediction.

He only threw one pick, but should have likely had three on the night.

Here was the should-have-been second.

And here’s the third.

There’s likely more.  Trubisky forced balls and made poor decisions.  Chicago’s offense couldn’t get going due to Trubisky’s play and poor play-calling by head coach Matt Nagy, as they continued to throw the ball into the second half well after it was clear that Trubisky didn’t have it and that the running game with rookie David Montgomery did.

Chicago is going to be in trouble if Trubisky continues to play like this.  The Bears defense was outstanding given the loss; they got to Aaron Rodgers most of the night, and only gave up 10 points.  The Bears should have been able to manage that.

Only one of the defense or Trubisky can be bad in a game.  We may not have to worry about the defense regressing now, but them carrying Trubisky’s weight for the second straight season might wear them down, and for a team that has Super Bowl aspirations, that won’t be getting them there anyways.

The Cowboys are contenders

Dallas looked unstoppable Sunday.

Ezekiel Elliott didn’t get a lot of work, which was understandable after not practicing all offseason.  But he did score a touchdown and averaged 4.1 yards a carry on 13 of them.

But the running game, which is what Dallas has prided itself on since drafting Zeke, wasn’t the star of the show.

It was Dak Prescott, who threw for 405 yards and four touchdowns, dropping dimes all over the Giants’ secondary, giving two Cowboys receivers 100 yards each.

The Cowboys unleashed the air raid on the Giants.  New offensive coordinator Kellen Moore changed Dallas’ schemes so that they weren’t so heavily reliant on receivers getting themselves open; an issue that plagued them in the past.  Moore has opted to the RPO, which, when you have Zeke or rookie Tony Pollard in the backfield, is a deadly weapon.

Skip to the 19th second of this video and you’ll see how effective the RPO was.  Dak takes the snap and fakes the handoff, bringing Alec Olgetree, No. 47, down to account for it.

In this incredibly well-drawn and diagramed image, you can see Olgetree (down arrow) moving toward Pollard in the backfield while Blake Jarwin (right arrow) goes right by him, leaving Jarwin wide open for the eventual touchdown.

Another example is at the 57 second mark, where Dak fakes the run to Zeke out of the backfield and hits Michael Gallup for 36 yards.  There, the fake is to Zeke, which attracts a boatload of attention.

The two linebackers in the middle of the field, along with safety Antoine Bethea, all make minuscular movements to play the run.  Despite their slight reaction, it burns Bethea, who doesn’t get back in time to help No. 30 Antonio Hamilton in coverage with Gallup.

This change in scheme for the Cowboys, along with the pinpoint throws Prescott was making – throws that we’ve never seen him make before – makes their offense extremely dangerous.  To think Zeke only had 53 yards today is terrifying.  Maybe Sporting News wasn’t insane.

The Browns were overhyped

This isn’t an overreaction so much as it is actually true.  As I wrote in my preview, anyone who had Cleveland at contender status was buying in a little too much.

Sunday, those people got burned.

The Titans, as in the Marcus Mariota-led Titans, destroyed Cleveland 43-13 at home.

The Browns had a ton of issues.  First, simply put, their defense gave up 43 points to the Titans.  That’s not a good thing.

This may not be some fluke from the Titans either.  Tennessee looked explosive.  Rookie wide receiver AJ Brown had 100 yards on just three catches, including two deep shots, one of which was 51 yards.  Derrick Henry broke loose for a 75 yard receiving touchdown while also adding 84 yards on the ground.  Delanie Walker caught two of Mariota’s three touchdown passes.

Mariota was fine.  He only completed 14 passes; most of the big plays were after-catch products.  But he did enough for Cleveland’s defense to combust, and the offense certainly wasn’t there to save them.

Baker Mayfield had an extremely up and down game.  It felt like one of those Russell Westbrook games where he puts up a ridiculous stat line and dazzles you with a couple plays, but takes over too much in crunch-time and starts air-balling threes, including one at the buzzer.

Like Russ does sometimes, Mayfield tried to do a little too much.  Or completely missed passes like this one.

Yikes.  That ball was way behind his receiver.

Here’s another missed pass.

This was an instant “What the…” when I saw Mayfield throw this ball live.  There was no way it was ever going to get to Odell Beckham Jr.  Kevin Byard was right there in front of its trajectory, and Mayfield somehow never saw him.

The Byard pick was brutal. Cleveland was down just nine at that point with a whole quarter left, and in good field position too.

Mayfield then came back with this brutal throw.

That’s more inexcusable than the first.  Logan Ryan was draped all over Jarvis Landry and jumped the route easily.

It is important to mention that this was Mayfield’s 14th career start.  He hasn’t completed a full rookie season yet.  He’s still young and still learning.  He’s going to make mistakes because he is still kind of a rookie.  No matter what the surrounding cast is, guys are going to be playing their age.

Mayfield playing like a rookie sets Cleveland back a bit in terms of their plans and expectations for this season.  It could be a duel between him and the quarterback mentioned above later on in the season.

Quick hits:

  • We expected the Dolphins to be bad, but holy mother of God, for them to come out and play like that in Week 1 is a completely different level of bad.
  • I can’t tell if I feel bad for Josh Rosen after everything that transpired in Week 1 or not.
  • Who are the Dolphins players that want out?  Like, who is going to generate interest on that team?  DeVante Parker maybe?  They do have nice trade pieces in the secondary (Xavien Howard, Minkah Fitzpatrick).  Maybe those are the guys?  Reports have this as like a mass exodus.  Can someone name me 8-10 other players?
  • The Falcons going 11-5 already seems unlikely.  Matt Ryan looked like a 34-year-old out there yesterday.  Minnesota’s defense, which looks all the way back, swallowed up Atlanta’s offense, forcing two Ryan picks and holding the Falcons to just 73 rushing yards.  Their defense was dominated by Dalvin Cook, who also looks all the way back coming off ACL surgery last season.
  • Minnesota has the potential to be a Super Bowl contender, so maybe we should take this Falcons performance with a grain of salt.  Problem is, I thought Atlanta wasn’t very far behind them.
  • That was an Adam Gase coaching classic yesterday.  No one aside from Case Keenum (More on that soon) can play that well in one half and then do the complete opposite in the second.
  • Also, how does the Jets defense let Josh Allen of all people score 17 unanswered on them?  Allen was putrid Sunday, throwing two interceptions (including a pick six) and fumbling twice in the first half alone.   The Jets defense also got immense pressure on Allen.
  • The offense has to take most of the blame.  Sam Darnold was 28-41 for just 175 yards and a touchdown.  Their longest play of the game was 19 yards.
  • Gase wasn’t a bad hire.  The Jets just need to know that this likely what they’ll be getting in him.  He couldn’t get Ryan Tannehill to that next level. Who says he’ll get Darnold there?
  • Speaking of teams that also turned it around in the second half, the Eagles looked like two completely different teams against Washington.  You can say the same thing for the Redskins.
  • Philadelphia blew coverages and let Case Keenum light them up in the first half.  He finished with 380 yards and three touchdowns.  Washington got unexpected contributions from the everlasting Vernon Davis (DID YOU SEE THAT CATCH AND RUN) and rookie Terry McLaurin (This was less surprising).
  • But Keenum, as we’ve seen in the past, collapsed in the second half and couldn’t find the same spark.  Washington had zero chance running the ball, finishing with just 28 rushing yards total.  That made it hard for Washington to take things slow and kill clock.
  • The Eagles looked like serious contenders later in the game.  A bomb to DeSean Jackson and Alshon Jeffrey being used in the run and pass game shows the true potential of this offense.  They split carries between three backs too, with Darren Sproles oddly getting most of the work.
  • It’s amazing the Rams and Panthers put up 57 combined points considering how each offense looked.  Both Jared Goff and Cam Newton missed a lot of throws.
  • Neither were great.  Goff threw for just 186 yards with a touchdown and interception.  Newton threw for 239 yards, no touchdowns and an interception.
  • This season is already going exactly how I thought it would for Carolina.  Despite Christian McCaffrey running all over the Rams and looking quite impressive, nothing else could get going.  They didn’t get any seriously big plays.  Newton’s shoulder, after looking fine on the first drive of the game, came into concern later on.
  • Los Angeles’ usage of Todd Gurley was odd.  He ended with a not-so-bad 97 yards on 14 carries, and had a catch, but it’s clear the Rams are putting him out there less.  There multiple snaps where he wasn’t even on the field.  Perhaps some decoy use would have alleviated Goff?
  • The two scariest teams before the season were the Chiefs and Patriots and that was confirmed this weekend.  Kansas City lost Tyreek Hill and looked fine thanks to Sammy Watkins burning everyone.
  • The loss of Nick Foles is going to hurt regardless of Gardner Minshew’s performance in relief of him Sunday.  Minshew is a rookie who was hardly a NFL quarterback (I was higher on him than most though.  Big yards means big arm and that translates).  He’s going to make mistakes and regress.  Jacksonville needs to be prepared for that.
  • The Chargers’ speed was the biggest factor in their 30-24 overtime win against the Colts.  Their skill positions players dominated Indianapolis.  Austin Ekeler ran wild, scoring three touchdowns and making Melvin Gordon lose any value he has left.  Keenan Allen made a spectacular jump ball catch for a touchdown.  And this was a game where Mike Williams only had 29 yards.
  • This was almost a classic Chargers meltdown though.  They allowed Indy to score 15 unanswered points after being up 24-9, which included a possession where Indy missed a field goal (Bad day for the old man Adam Vinateri).
  • The Colts’ game-tying drive was impressive.  Jacoby Brissett was in control, and the ball to TY Hilton for the winner was a beauty.  It might be their defense that needs to step up.
  • Could the Bengals not be terrible?  They looked really good yesterday against Seattle.  They got pressure against Russell Wilson (A must for their defense) and the offense looked surprising explosive against one of the better defenses in the league (John Ross breakout year?)
  • I think Jameis Winston is going find himself on the bench sooner rather than later.
  • He cost the Buccaneers big-time in that game.  They could have won.  Score was not indicative of how close that game was.
  • The 49ers and their injury luck at the running back position… man
  • The Steelers would have been featured above if I was surprised by what happened last night.
  • I was not, so it wasn’t featured.
  • The Patriots might go undefeated, so maybe Pittsburgh’s performance was is being a little overrated in terms of his terribleness, but if Pittsburgh’s offense is going to generate just three points, then they are going to be in serious trouble.

How Each NFL Bottom Feeder Can Have A Successful Season + Predictions

For the remaining teams, there isn’t a lot of hope that can be had for this season.  So instead of making ridiculous playoffs cases for each, we’ll take a look at what needs to happen or be learned this season in order to set up a successful future.

Cincinnati Bengals: Think hard about a complete teardown

The Bengals can release Andy Dalton this offseason and incur a dead cap penalty of $200,000.

Hitting the reset button by ending the Dalton era might be the right thing to do.  This roster is in putrid shape.  The offensive line is starting the likes of Bobby Hart at one of the tackle spots due to first-round pick Jonah Williams’ injury.  The defense ranked 28th in DVOA last season and is only getting older, though they are bringing back Preston Brown at linebacker.  They can’t keep AJ Green healthy, as he’s missed six or more games two of the three previous seasons.

There is some talent for a young quarterback to come in and work with if the Bengals bottom out.  Joe Mixon projects as a long-term Bengal, so does John Ross III and Tyler Boyd.  But would Cincy want to risk bringing in someone to such a bad situation?  We’ve learned that may not be the right thing to do.

Buffalo Bills: Let Josh Allen show you what he’s got

It’s kind of up to Josh Allen now.

The Bills have an underrated defense which has just two holes (One at safety and one on the d-line, which may not matter at all given the talent there).  They went out and got him some receivers in John Brown and Cole Beasley.  And the offensive line, while not fantastic, is much better thanks to the signing of Mitch Morse and the drafting of Cody Ford (A steal!).

The offensive line might be even less of a problem due to Allen’s running abilities.  It was perhaps his most impressive trait last season, which isn’t necessarily a good thing considering what we need Allen to show is his hopefully improved accuracy.

It’s not an overwhelming group of receivers (Devin Singletary and TJ Yeldon can do some nice things out of the backfield), but if Allen is going to show us why he was taken No. 7 overall, then he should be able to get it done.  If he can’t, the Bills might have some reshuffling to do, because this roster is much closer than people think.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Let this season be Jameis Winston’s last chance

Tampa Bay’s decision to run it back with Jameis Winston after watching him stumble his way to 19 touchdowns and 14 interceptions while averaging 7.9 yards an attempt last season is confusing.  Winston has thrown 58 interceptions in 56 career games and has been nothing but a distraction off the field.

Bringing in Bruce Arians, a 66-year-old coach who “retired” two seasons ago, to “develop” him (Did you know 25-year-olds can be developed?) feels like a scapegoat move.  It’s been clear to tell since Winston’s second season that he’s not moving the needle for you; that a team can’t live with the interception totals since the most touchdowns he’s thrown for in a season tops out at 28.  That year, Winston threw 18 interceptions to go along with it.

Despite a defense that was the worst in the league last season by DVOA, there is talent on this Buccaneers team.  Mike Evans is one of the best receivers in football, Cameron Brate is a reliable target and Chris Godwin could burst onto the scene this year.

Winston has to be the guy to make all of those things true, though.

Arizona Cardinals: It might be early, but make sure the receivers work

Kyler Murray is going to be good.

But the Cardinals can’t let what happened to Josh Rosen happen to Murray.  They can’t surround him with zero weapons and no offensive line.  They can’t let the 5’10 Murray take the beating Rosen did last year, or else he’ll be out of the league quickly.

The Cardinals have hopefully fixed one of those two issues.  After drafting Andy Isabella and KeeSean Johnson (And Hakeem Butler, who’s out for the season unfortunately), signing Michael Crabtree and bringing back Larry Fitzgerald and Christian Kirk, they’ve given Murray not only a boatload of weapons, but weapons that fit the Air-Raid scheme Kliff Kingsbury is going to run.

When running the Air-Raid, you need each receiver to have one of two traits: Speed or jump-ball ability.  Run through each receiver on this roster and they’ve got one of those.

They’ve just got to execute it.  The sketchiness of the scheme is that it’s solely based on execution; you need the perfect players for it to work.  It’s extremely boom or bust.  If the weapons on the Cardinals bust, Murray is going to be in for a long season.  If it goes the other way, then watch out.

Miami Dolphins: For the love of God, play Josh Rosen and just see

There’s a chance the Dolphins have already given up on Josh Rosen given that he couldn’t beat out Ryan Fitzpatrick in camp.

But tanking the season away and potentially wasting it on a quarterback you don’t need instead of taking a different foundational player is squandering an insane opportunity.

The problem is that an accurate assessment might not be possible.  This Dolphins roster is somehow worse than the one the Cardinals trotted out last season.  I mean, DeVante Parker is the No. 1 option to throw to, besides Kenyan Drake screens out of the backfield.

And the defense has zero pass rush and no real impactful linebackers.  The secondary is fine, but it only came in at 24th overall in pass defense DVOA last season.

Rosen probably won’t show them anything because he won’t be able to.  But it would be disastrous to move on without having him play a snap.  If he comes in and is terrible (Whether it’s his fault or not), there’s at least a basis for moving on next offseason.

New York Giants: Hope Daniel Jones is good?

The Giants are in an incredible scenario in which they have two quarterbacks who should not be playing.

Eli Manning should not be playing because he’s old, sucks and has a high first-round pick waiting behind him.

Daniel Jones should be playing because, well, he likely sucks too.

We should give him a bit of the benefit of the doubt.  His preseason was quite impressive and had Twitter looking like a minefield of takes.  The guy hasn’t played a real snap yet and everyone is counting him out.

But the problem is that Jones went sixth overall.  That distinction will never leave him and always taint his value, because he’s likely never going to come close to living up to that ceiling.

Jones being “good” is him not being a disaster.  It is year one, so perhaps that’s where the benefit of the doubt is.  But the Giants are on thin ice with this one.

Jacksonville Jaguars: Figure out how to restock the core around Foles

The Jaguars are all-in with Nick Foles so much so to the point that it’s not worth discussing how they should get out of him.

They put themselves into the Foles hole, so we should focus on how they can maximize it.

If we learned anything about Foles in Philadelphia, it’s that you need the right infrastructure in place to make him the guy we saw leading the Eagles to a Super Bowl victory.

The Jaguars don’t have that yet.

They first need Leonard Fournette to have his best season ever.  After being injured for half of last season and rushing for not even 1,100 yards his rookie season, Fournette will have to carry the load for a Jags teams that has zero reliable receivers and a weakened defense.

Foles has a bunch of “maybes” to throw to.  While Dede Westbrook could be a fun downfield threat alongside Marquis Lee (Who’s working his way back from an ACL tear), we can’t be sure that either will emerge as a No. 1 option who Foles can rely on.  The same goes for second-year receiver DJ Chark in the slot.

Jacksonville’s defense is still good, but it may not be the type to carry this team to .500, especially with Foles’ lack of help.  The Eagles collective group in 2017-18 is much better than this one.

The line is still a force.  Marcell Dareus clogging the gaps with Calias Campbell and Yannick Ngakoue rushing the passer is terrifying.  Then throwing in Myles Jack in the middle and Jalen Ramsey above that creates a monster.  But the holes are there.  Ramsey playing corner leaves the safety spots in question with Tashaun Gipson’s departure.  Besides Jack the linebackers spots are iffy (Shouldn’t matter as much with that line though).  The offensive line is troublesome aside from Andrew Norwell (Taylor was a massive steal in the second round but has been dealing with injuries already).

Getting full value out of the Foles deal will be tough, but Jacksonville needs to do all they can to maximize it.  That should start immediately.

New York Jets: Push close to .500

A 6-10 season for the Jets would be a huge step forward.

Getting close to .500, which might be in range, would be monumental.

The possibility is there.  The Jets signed Le’Veon Bell and gave Sam Darnold other intriguing weapons.  They signed CJ Mosley away from Baltimore, putting an impact linebacker in the middle of their D. Quinnen Williams and Leonard Williams are a borderline unstoppable duo up front.

But eight wins seem really high.  The secondary has two holes aside from Jamal Adams and Trumaine Johnson.  The offensive line got help it desperately needed when they traded for Kelechi Osemele, but aside from him the situation is bleak.  When healthy, the weapons as a whole could lead to Darnold tearing things up, but Jamison Crowder and Quincy Enunwa have had trouble staying on the field due to injury.  The same goes for Robby Anderson, but that’s been a mix of on the field and off the field issues.

If injuries occur and the holes are too much to overcome, Bell is there for Darnold to lean on.  He’s got fresh legs and is one of the best running backs in the league.  His presence can’t be underrated.

Detroit Lions: Stay above or at .500 in a brutal division 

It’s amazing how Detroit spent all the money they did and still end up being a mediocre team.

While Trey Flowers was a much-needed and smart signing by them, it doesn’t necessarily move the needle.  Neither does Mike Daniels.  Neither does Danny Amendola.

The Lions are stuck in an extremely good division with a fine roster.  Matthew Stafford will put up numbers and has a good set of receivers (Watch out for TJ Hockenson.  That could be a needle-mover pick).  The defensive line got better with Daniels and Flowers.  But the linebacking core suffered a setback it didn’t need with Jarrad Davis’ injury in the third preseason game (He may or may not play Week 1).  Detroit also brought over Justin Coleman from Seattle to pair with Darius Slay (Underrated, by the way), which makes the group quite talented along with Quandre Diggs, but Tracy Walker is still inexperienced at the other safety spot.

It feels heavily like 8-8.  That might be a best case scenario in this division.

Washington Redskins: Put Dwayne Haskins in ASAP and build 

Dwayne Haskins was an absolute steal for Washington at 15th overall.  To get even better return on that pick, they need to see what they have immediately so they can make him the future.

They have various holes.  Despite wowing people in camp, wide receiver Terry McLaurin isn’t enough.  Sure, the return of Derrius Guice combined with Adrian Peterson will help out (The offensive line isn’t bad either!), and Haskins has the chance to make it work with whoever (His combination of arm strength and accuracy is unreal).  But as we’ve seen with Aaron Rodgers up in Green Bay, even the greats need some help.

The defense is much closer than the offense to becoming a force.  There’s spots here and there that need upgrading, but the talent in the front seven has the potential to develop nicely.  Keeping Case Keenum in at quarterback delays the identification of those holes.

Oakland Raiders: Decide whether Derek Carr is the guy

Despite all the nonsense that has taken place this summer, the Raiders made a lot of smart moves.  Their draft was close to a travesty, but they made smart trades and spent their money well otherwise.

They basically went out and told Derek Carr “Show it to us.”  The Kyler Murray rumors circling around them at the draft seemed quite real; Jon Gruden is crazy enough to do that.

It seems as if this is Carr’s last show.  There’s no excuses this time.  He has one of the best receivers in the league in Antonio Brown, along with Tyrell Williams (LOVED that signing) and speedster JJ Nelson.  They have two utility backs aside from Josh Jacobs, who figures to see a heavy workload.  The right side of the offensive line is stacked, the left side a little less so (That Kolten Miller pick needs to turn around fast).

Oakland may not win a lot of games, but that’s not necessarily the point.  The defense is relying on a lot of young talent and a lot of guys to step up.  They weren’t very good in either department last season (The front seven should be better however).

The defense doesn’t affect how Carr individually performs.  That’s all that matters this season.  Once they have that sorted out, they can then go about improving elsewhere.

Tennesse Titans: Make this Marcus Mariota’s last chance

Five years later, the two top picks of the 2015 NFL Draft are in the same scenario, and it’s not necessarily a good one.

It’s rare to have a situation where both guys might just suck.  Usually there’s a bust and a star.  Or two solid picks.  Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston could both be with different teams, or not on a team, after this season.

Like Derek Carr, the Titans need to really see what they have in Mariota.  They first need him to stay healthy in order for that to happen.  If another injury occurs, then that could be their answer right there.

The problem with the Titans is that, despite their best efforts, their receiving core around Mariota is still weak.  Corey Davis might be another miss at the top of the draft, and Adam Humphries is fine.  They did draft AJ Brown, who could come in and be a No. 1 target right away.  Counting on a rookie to do that may be too much to ask though.

The Titans may not need an answer right away because this roster is still far from contention.  But until then, you can lock down more mediocrity.  After three straight 9-7 seasons (which features just one playoff berth), this could be the year when things crater.

San Francisco 49ers: Know what defensive holes need to be plugged

Despite some concerning rumors emanating from San Francisco about their quarterback situation, we’re going to operate as if Jimmy Garrappolo is the guy going forward.  Whether they think he is or not, he kind of has to be given that contract.

In order to maximize that, the 49ers need to plug some holes.  They’ve been working on it.  They brought over Kwon Alexander this offseason after adding Richard Sherman before 2018-19.  They’ve also invested heavily in the defensive line which is a bit crowded but should be fantastic on paper.

But their holes defensively could be fatal.  They need another linebacker and another safety.  They need to make sure they’re going to be able to defend the run and not just rush the passer.

The extra linebacker hole is worrisome given the run defense.  I guess that’s why Alexander is there.

The offense is also concerning given the lack of a true No. 1 receiver and impactful weapons, but I trust Kyle Shanahan to make things better than they are.  Here’s to hoping they have the right man under center.



  1. New England Patriots, 12-4
  2. Buffalo Bills, 6-10
  3. New York Jets, 6-10
  4. Miami Dolphins, 2-14

AFC North:

  1. Cleveland Browns, 11-5
  2. Baltimore Ravens, 10-6
  3. Pittsburgh Steelers, 9-7
  4. Cincinnati Bengals, 3-13

AFC South:

  1. Houston Texans, 11-5
  2. Indianapolis Colts, 7-9
  3. Jacksonville Jaguars, 6-10
  4. Tennesse Titans, 5-11

AFC West:

  1. Kansas City Chiefs, 13-3
  2. Los Angeles Chargers, 11-5
  3. Denver Broncos, 8-8
  4. Oakland Raiders, 6-10

AFC Playoff Seeds:

  1. Kansas City Chiefs
  2. New England Patriots
  3. Cleveland Browns
  4. Houston Texans
  5. Los Angeles Chargers
  6. Baltimore Ravens

NFC East:

  1. Philadelphia Eagles, 12-4
  2. Dallas Cowboys, 10-6
  3. Washington Redskins, 6-10
  4. New York Giants, 3-13

NFC North:

  1. Minnesota Vikings, 12-4
  2. Chicago Bears, 9-7
  3. Green Bay Packers, 8-8
  4. Detroit Lions, 7-9

NFC South:

  1. New Orleans Saints, 12-4
  2. Atlanta Falcons, 11-5
  3. Carolina Panthers, 9-7
  4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 4-12

NFC West:

  1. Los Angeles Rams, 12-4
  2. Seattle Seahawks, 10-6
  3. Arizona Cardinals, 6-10
  4. San Francisco 49ers, 5-11

NFC Playoff Seeds:

  1. Philadelphia Eagles
  2. New Orleans Saints
  3. Los Angeles Rams
  4. Minnesota Vikings
  5. Atlanta Falcons
  6. Seattle Seahawks

The Race For The NFL Wild Card Spots

The wild card race in the two conferences couldn’t be more different.  The NFC is loaded and has six teams vying for two spots, while the AFC only features four.  One of those teams is so good that they could make the Super Bowl, which only leaves one legitimate spot open.

We’ll start with the mess that is the NFC.

Chicago Bears

A year ago, the Bears seemed like they were a year away.  There were a lot of new faces.  There was a young quarterback.  But there was talent.

A year later, we’re kind of stuck in the same place.

The talent is there.  Despite Jordan Howard now being an Eagle, the Bears still have a solid running back committee in Tarik Cohen and rookie David Montgomery.  They still have a nice group of receivers, which added Riley Ridley in the draft.  And the defense, minus Adrian Amos and Bryce Callahan, has its core back.

Except for the mastermind behind it all.

Vic Fangio leaving for the Broncos job might be the biggest reason the Bears didn’t make Monday’s column.  Despite other concerns, the defense is the engine behind this team.

There’s a chance we see the regression the Vikings’ defense experienced last season from the Bears.  Minnesota didn’t even lose their coordinator; guys simply just didn’t play as well as they did the season before because the performance in 2017-18 was that good.  The Bears could be staring at a similar fate this season.

The losses of Amos and Callahan, despite not affecting the core of the team, also restricts the Bears’ ability to play in the nickel and dime.  Instead of throwing Callahan out there as a fifth defensive back, the Bears are looking at offseason signing Buster Skrine instead.  Ha Ha Clinton Dix also came over from Green Bay, essentially switching places with Amos.  He’s been good when healthy, but health is massive question mark.

The possible reduction in defensive production doesn’t bode well for Mitchell Trubisky.

Trubisky took important steps forward last season.  He showed that he isn’t going to be terrible; that he could be at least an average, competent starter in the NFL.

How much higher can he go though?  Despite all the praise, Trubisky only threw for 3,223 yards with 24 touchdowns last season.  He threw half as many interceptions as he did touchdowns, and averaged just 7.4 yards per attempt.  And that was with a very good weapons core around him.

It was Matt Nagy’s first season with Trubisky though.  Perhaps he can take him to another level.  The Bears are going to need it, because the defense may not be there like it was last year.  Trubisky will have to prove he’s capable of leading a team to the Super Bowl rather than having a defense carry him there this season to show Chicago that he’s truly their guy, and for me to give them contender status.

Dallas Cowboys

Ezekiel Elliott is back after signing an absolutely massive contract extension this morning with the Cowboys worth six years and $90 million.

Despite it being a massive overpay, it’s huge for Dallas, whose whole offense revolves around Zeke being one of the best running backs in the league.

Remember in 2017 when Zeke missed Weeks 9-16 due to his domestic violence situation?  In four of the six games Zeke didn’t play in, Dallas’ offense gained less than 300 yards total.  It was a disaster.

Zeke came back and produced, rushing for 200 yards in his final two games that season.  But the Cowboys finished 9-7 and missed the playoffs.

The Cowboys offense without Zeke was hard to get excited about.  Dak Prescott is average; maybe a tad better than that depending on the weapons around him (He’s not, and will never be, worth $40 million a year though.  Get out of here).  The Cowboys added Randall Cobb and Jason Witten this offseason to Amari Cooper, but  Cobb was injured last season and Witten was broadcasting Monday Night Football.

Zeke makes the Cowboys a potential playoff team.  Without him, they’d comfortably be on the outside looking in due to some issues with the defense,  despite its improvements and its 9th place finish in DVOA last season.   The secondary is relying on young guys like Xavier Woods (He was good last year) and Chidobe Awuzie (He was not) besides veterans like Byron Jones and Jeff Heath.

The front seven is deep and full of strong linebackers and pass rushers though.  Sean Lee’s health is always a question, and an important one as Dallas’ defense tends to fall apart when he’s not on the field.  Still, the talent is there to help recoup from a possible Lee injury.  Jaylon Smith just got paid, and Leighton Vander-Esch should take another step forward.  Robert Quinn will form a physical pass-rushing duo with DeMarcus Lawrence when Quinn returns from his PED suspension.

Dallas getting Zeke back probably elevates them to at least nine wins.  They’ll have to run him into the ground because of the lack of explosiveness the offense has (What happens when teams double Cooper?  Can Dak make a deep throw to Cobb?), but that’s okay.  That’s what they’re paying him for, right?

Atlanta Falcons

The Falcons were a hard drop from Super Bowl contenders column.  The talent is there for them.  It’s a roster that could win 12 games, bearing performance and injuries.

This year is the one Atlanta should have had last year.  Injuries to Devonta Freeman, Deion Jones and five other starters (Among them were both safeties Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen) wrecked the 2018 campaign for the Falcons.  Their defense finished second-to-last in DVOA.  Both their run and pass defense were among the league’s bottom five.

The best case for the 2019-20 Falcons is what their offense could bring to the table. It has the chance to among the league’s most explosive.  Julio Jones, Mohammed Sanu and Calvin Ridley might be the best 1-2-3 receiving core around.  They have a great offensive line which should be back healthy.  Freeman did miss two games in 2017-18 before being hurt for practically all of last season, leading to some lower numbers and the Falcons don’t have a speedster in Tevin Coleman to partner Freeman’s ground and pound anymore, but second-year back Ito Smith could be featured more instead.

Atlanta’s front seven is nasty.  Jones, one of the most versatile players in football, is back.  Vic Beasley Jr. and Tak McKinley, along with Grady Jarrett and former Cowboy Jack Crawford inside, create a deep and menacing defensive line (Adrian Clayborn is back too after a stint in New England).  The Falcons can run exotic blitzes with their personnel.  Blitzing five, or even six, is possible when you have Jones and De’Vondre Campbell in the middle of the field (They’re two of the best coverage linebackers in the league).  With Jones surveying the middle, the Falcons can load the box with Beasley Jr. and Clayborn on the outside and McKinley, Jarrett and Crawford on the inside.  Good luck with that.

Of course, all of this is based on the Falcons being healthy.  That concern, coupled with a very competitive division that includes a Saints team looking for revenge from last season as well makes me put the Falcons here.  But they might be the first team out from the contenders ring.

Green Bay Packers

Like Atlanta, the Packers are another team where, if everything goes right, we could see them make a deep playoff push.

The Packers had a very unlike Packers offseason.  They hired a new coach and spent a ton of money.  They also completely revamped their offense.

These changes were needed, but their effect might not be as impactful as we thought.

Despite all the money being spend, none of it went into the offense.  Green Bay is betting on Matt LeFluer to turn things around with the same skill position players as last season, none of whom produced or Aaron Rodgers trusted.  LeFluer doesn’t necessarily have a dazzling background either when it comes to getting the most out of sub-par groups.  Sure, the oft-injured Marcus Mariota was the quarterback he had to work with in Tennessee, but the Titans’ weapons core, aside from Derrick Henry, always underwhelmed.

That could be blamed on the lack of talent, but the same issue exists in Green Bay.  Aside from Davante Adams, the picture is bleak.  Green Bay is looking at Marques-Valdez Scalding and Geromino Allison as their second and third receivers.  Jimmy Graham should be a more viable target, but he only caught 55 balls last season.

The running game isn’t much to be excited about either.  Though the ceiling on former Notre Dame running back Dexter Williams is high, Aaron Jones and Jamal Williams haven’t turned into reliable every down backs.  Feeding Dexter, a sixth-round pick in April’s draft, seems daunting given his inexperience.

The offensive line is very good though.  That is, when healthy.

That’s the key to the rest of this team.  Injuries certainly won’t be a plus for the offensive, but with the skill position group already as weak as it is, any injury that isn’t to Rodgers may not be as detrimental.

Green Bay invested heavily in defense this offseason.  They signed former Washington linebacker Preston Smith to a four-year, $52 million contract and former Ravens edge rusher Za’Darius Smith to a four-year, $66 million contract.  They got former Bear Adrian Amos to make a move north as well.

Za’Darius was a dire need for Green Bay.  Aside from Kenny Clark, who generates good pass rush for a defensive tackle but can’t do it all himself, Green Bay has zero quality ends.  Smith, who had 8.5 sacks last season, changes that.

Amos gives a very young and talented secondary a veteran presence, and can help provide a blanket compared to rookie Darnell Savage Jr., who’s more of an electric, ball-hawking player.

It wouldn’t be a stunner if the Packers defense ranked higher in DVOA than the offense.  They could be a top ten group in the league.

The offense, even with Rodgers, is the question.  The LeFluer hire wasn’t incredibly inspiring, especially considering the lack of talent at the skill positions.  While almost anyone’s scheme has to be better than what Mike McCarthy’s was, LeFluer didn’t show that he could take an average offense to the next level.  Then again, he didn’t have one of the best quarterbacks of all-time either.  This Packers season could really come down to Rodgers having to do it all yet again.

Carolina Panthers

If the Panthers were in another division, their ceiling for this season may be a lot higher.

The offensive side of the ball has long been the issue.  Whether it’s a terrible offensive line, a banged up Cam Newton or a lack of weapons, the Panthers’ inconsistency from season-to-season since their miraculous 15-1 Super Bowl run can be blamed on one or more of those causes.  Throughout it all, the defense has remained mostly the same.

Carolina added Chris Hogan in free agency, but the situation outside the hashes is still not great.  They’re going to need a big year from second-year wide-out DJ Moore, who gained just under 800 yards last season.  The same goes for Curtis Samuel, who enters his third season after an outstanding college career at Ohio State.

Samuel can get there.  A lot of people are high on him, and he showed his ability in school.  Carolina will need the young duo to really step up, because even though Newton has an above-average offensive line for once, Christian McCaffrey is someone who defenses might figure out this year.

It’s not that he’s not a good player.  Samuel and Moore’s performances this season directly affect McCaffrey’s.  The third-year running back is a target for defenses.  Since Carolina doesn’t have any real threats on the outside, they know that if McCaffrey is in the game, the ball is likely going to him. If that happens, it takes away the Panthers’ No. 1 threat offensively and puts Samuel and Moore in the spotlight.

Thankfully, while Newton is waiting for receivers to get open, he won’t have to get crushed anymore.  The Panthers invested in their line this offseason, signing Matt Paradis to a three-year, $27 million contract.  He, Trai Turner and Taylor Morton comfortably round out the right side of the line, but the left is a little more questionable.  Daryl Williams played three-quarters of a game last season after sustaining a knee injury in Week 1 and has rookie Greg Little starting down his back.  Greg Van Roten is a solid, durable player as well.

If the offense suffers from its lack of creativity and inability to move the ball, the Panthers should still be fine.  Their defense is top five in the league, and even in a loaded division, should be able to get them to at least 8-8.

How much farther the Panthers reach above that is dependent on those receivers taking a step forward.  If they can, it makes McCaffrey more dangerous, and Newton one of the best quarterbacks in the league.  In a division where explosive offenses are bound to ignite, the Panthers may find themselves sheltering from the fallout.

Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens were filled with promise until a purge of their defense this offseason left them without Eric Weddle, CJ Mosley, Terrell Suggs and Za’Darious Smith.

The missing pieces hurt.  While there’s still a lot of talent left, especially along the defensive line and in the secondary, it brings Baltimore’s defense down to a level where it may not be able to carry Lamar Jackson and the developing offense.

Jackson doesn’t have a lot of help.  His best, proven receiver is Willie Snead, who has had big years in the past but doesn’t necessarily fit the bill as a No. 1 option; the sixth-year wide-out gained only 651 yards last season.

Baltimore is hoping that first-round pick Marquise “Hollywood” Brown can become that guy.  One of my favorites in the Draft, he had the honor of having two Heisman Trophy winners as his quarterbacks during his two years at Oklahoma.  Brown is, and has been, ready to be the man.

Can Jackson get the ball to him?  He won’t have to throw a ton with offseason signing Mark Ingram, who will finally be used as a lead back in Baltimore, but when defenses start loading the box up to defend against Ingram and Jackson rushes, the Ravens are going to have to get big yardage elsewhere.  With Mark Andrews, Hayden Hurst and Nick Boyle, Baltimore figures to use a ton of three tight end sets, but those are the opposite of the 10-personnel, air-raid-like packages we’re seeing teams adapt to now.

The Ravens don’t have a chance in shootouts, which means the defense is going to have to hold its own.  They did bring in Earl Thomas to replace Weddle, so they’re not downgrading there.  But guys like the oft-injured Pernell McPhee and second-year linebacker Chris Board are going to have to step up.

Baltimore won’t have a heavy slew of competition for an AFC Wild Card spot.  They should be able to get in.  How far they go comes down to how far along Jackson or this defense comes.

Seattle Seahawks

The best case for the Seahawks this season is that their front seven could be the best in football.

The Jadeveon Clowney trade made too much sense for Seattle.  One, it cost them practically nothing: a third round pick and two linebackers they didn’t need.  Two, it turned an already frightening group into an even scarier one.

Using their first round pick on Collier as opposed to someone like Kaleb McGrady or Jawaan Taylor might seem a bit redundant now, but Clowney on the edge rather than a rookie adds a whole other level to this defense.  With Collier as an every down rusher, you could contend that this line has two holes along with nose tackle Poona Ford.

Seattle’s offense drew some ire last year, and it was deserved.  Their conservative, heavy run scheme coupled with their inability to block and resistance to throwing the ball downfield killed them in their playoff loss to the Cowboys.

Brian Schottenheimer is still unfortunately in charge, but things could change this year for Seattle.  Russell Wilson has some receivers!  Tyler Lockett is one of the best downfield threats in the league.  Seattle drafted D.K. Metcalf late in the second round, way later than he should have gone.  They also have former Cardinal Jaron Brown as another downfield threat, though his impact could a bit limited.  Seattle also has Chris Carson and Rashaad Penny to use as out of the backfield threats; Penny gives Seattle some needed speed.

Wilson has three legitimate receivers either way.  And perhaps more importantly, a better offensive line.

It’s still not great.  The right side consisting of DJ Fluker and Germain Ifedi is troublesome, but Duane Brown is a hold-the-fort-down tackle and Mike Iupati has had his talent wrecked by injuries.

The Seahawks will make the playoffs.  That defense as a whole is a bit reminiscent of their Super Bowl-winning group, and the hope for diversity in the offense powered by Wilson is hard to bet against.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Baltimore wasn’t the only team in the AFC North to have a whole side of their team purged over the offseason.

Pittsburgh not only lost their two best offensive weapons, but lost perhaps the two best players in the league at those respective positions.  That’s not a scenario you want to toss an aging quarterback into.

Despite throwing for 5,129 yards (the most in the league) and 34 touchdowns last season, Rothlisberger also threw a league-leading 16 interceptions and posted a quarterback rating of 96.5,  15th in football.

The signs of decline were there.  Sure, LeVeon Bell’s absence didn’t help.  But Rothlisberger had one of the best weapons core and offensive lines duos in the league and didn’t make us feel necessarily good about him exiting the season.  Pittsburgh had an extremely hard time getting going early in games; they scored the 21st most first quarter points in the league in 2018-19, ridiculous for an offense as talented as they were.

The defense was fine at best; their front played well but the secondary got cooked, though the numbers suggest it wasn’t that bad (They finished 17th in pass defense DVOA).

If the secondary improves, this could be a nasty group that bails out an underwhelming offense at times.  It’d be nice to see them be a little more athletic up front, but that’s made up for with their dynamic linebackers, which now includes former Michigan stud Devin Bush.

Bush has made waves in camp and it’s no surprise.  The versatile linebacker can play anywhere.  Pittsburgh using him instead of the positionless (Not a compliment) Mark Barron could benefit them, especially in pass defense, where Bush is a very capable defender.

The secondary has the potential to be better.  Joe Haden just got paid, and Terrell Edmunds is a stud.  The issue is the other half.  Steven Nelson got a hefty contract considering he was a major part of a bad defense last season (Their rush defense was very bad, but the secondary didn’t help things).  Sean Davis was better last season than the previous year, but a 69.8 PFF grade still doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence.

With the Steelers, you’re betting on a lot to go right. You’re betting on Rothlisberger  to stay healthy and still be a top ten quarterback. You’re betting on them not to feel the loss of Antonio Brown too much. You’re betting on the secondary improving.  You’re betting against the heart attack you have every week when you bet their over in the first half.  They shouldn’t be terrible, but I’ll keep my money.

Denver Broncos

Considering a Joe Flacco-led team for the playoffs seems absolutely insane.

But the Broncos might be talented enough to keep him afloat and contend for a playoff spot.

There’s really two things working against them: their insanely competitive division and Flacco.

Denver has the infrastructure to support the former Ravens quarterback.  They have a dominant defensive line with Von Miller and Bradley Chubb, with Shelby Harris and Derek Wolfe on the inside.  Their linebackers are a bit worrisome, but the run defense should be taken care of for the most part with their line.

They brought over Bryce Callahan from Chicago.  But he wasn’t the only person that made that move.

Vic Fangio’s arrival can’t be understated.  He has the ability to turn this defense into a monster like the one we saw with the Bears last season.  If the defense puts up a performance like that, Flacco can suck as much as he wants to.

That’s assuming he’s not a disaster.  He shouldn’t totally be one.  Phillip Lindsay is a workhorse back who can do a variety of things out of the backfield, while Royce Freeman is a fantastic second back.

Flacco has wide-outs too.  Though Emmanuel Snaders tore his achilles last season and is still working his way back from that, Courtland Sutton emerged big-time last year, and DaeSean Hamilton is another downfield receiver that Flacco can hopefully get the ball to.  The offensive line is a complete group, so it’s going to be almost entirely up to the new 34-year-old quarterback.

The AFC is pretty wide open for the Wild Card.  Fangio should be able to get the defense alone to eight wins.  From there, they’ll go as far as Flacco will take them.

Indianapolis Colts

I wrote extensively about the Colts after Andrew Luck’s shocking retirement a week and a half ago, so most of my thoughts on the team are already out.

One big thing changed though, and that was Jacoby Brissett’s lucrative extension.

Despite it likely being the right thing to do, the Colts can’t just give up on this season two weeks before it starts.  That’s a decision that has to happen before free agency and the draft.

So pumping confidence into Brissett before this season and having him down for at least the next year incase he flourishes makes sense.  If Brissett knocks everyone’s socks off this season, the Colts don’t have to pay him $25 million-plus until after the 2020-21 season.  It’ll give them more than a one-year sample size of Brissett, and let them decide they whether they want him or Trevor Lawrence as their future.

With Brissett locked in and a tank not forthcoming, the Colts can likely hang around .500.  The defense isn’t in position to carry Brissett to the playoffs yet, but if he’s better than we think, then they could make a case.

Projecting Brissett to be good enough to squeeze Indy into the playoffs is hard to do.  We’ve seen basically one full season of Brissett starts, and the numbers are less than great: 3,500 yards, 14 touchdowns, seven interceptions and a 59.1% completion rate.  But we also haven’t seen him working with this much surrounding talent.

The shock of Luck’s retirement might still be fresh and in Indy’s mind, and though making the playoffs would be a great comeback story, the freshness of the decision and the inexperience that it leaves behind might be too much to overcome.

The Texans And The Division Winners Outside The Contention Ring

The Texans have mishandled a lot of things this offseason.

They placed the franchise tag on Jadeveon Clowney, believing they were buying themselves time in order to pay him the contract he deserved, only for those discussions to turn sour and go nowhere.  They signed Matt Kalil to a one-year, $7.5 million with $2.25 million of it guaranteed only to cut him this past weekend.  They traded a fourth-round pick that can become a third-rounder for Duke Johnson Jr., who figures to be featured enough in the offense with Carlos Hyde that Houston will owe that third-rounder (The condition was based off whether Johnson plays in 10 games or not).

And this past weekend, they only added to the carnage, sending Clowney out the door for Jacob Martin, Barkevious Mingo and a third-round pick while trading two firsts, a third, Julien Davenport and Johnson Bademosi for Laremy Tunsil, Kenny Stills and a fourth-round pick.

The moves in the grand scheme of things are complicated.  The Texans are close to landing in yesterday’s column.  They need DeShaun Watson to stay heathy, which is partially dependent on him having a good offensive line, a sore need that was certainly addressed.  Despite the addition of Tunsil, one of the best tackles in the league, they still need three offensive linemen for the right side (First-round pick Tytus Howard will start and projects well); Sentreal Henderson was a nice player until he started playing like the seventh-round pick he was.  Nick Martin was not effective at center last season; neither was right guard Zach Fulton.

Offensive lines are like baseball teams. One guy can be good individually and it won’t mean anything if everyone else is trash.  Tunsil can’t put the whole line on his back.

In Tunsil, the Texans have a piece they can build around along with Thomas.  He’s young at 25 years old still, and a contract extension seems to be forthcoming sometime before next season.

Tackles are hard to come by.  Are they so hard to come by that it’s worth two first rounders and a second to get one that’s good?  Probably not.  Sure, Kenny Stills was thrown in, and while the Texans did need another weapon for a receiving core that can be partially blamed for Watson’s struggles, he’s not moving the needle.  Stills is a decent slot receiver whose production can be inconsistent.  Him and a fourth in addition to Tunsil just doesn’t feel like enough to give up two firsts and a second for.

You make this move if you know it’s the move that makes you a contender.

While The Ringer’s Robert Mays is right about Houston having a better chance, it doesn’t mean that they had one in the first place.

The Texans weren’t a team listed yesterday.  While Andrew Luck’s retirement makes them the favorite for their division, they aren’t a contender.

Tunsil is the first piece to make that the case.  But there’s still a lot of work to be done.

The Tunsil trade was a win-now move.  Trading away, or not paying, Clowney was not.

Either both have to happen or neither do.

The top two position groups you pay a premium for are quarterbacks and pass rushers, unless you have a true stud at another position (Tunsil will be a perfect example of this).

Clowney checks both boxes.  He’s a pass rusher and absolute stud.  There shouldn’t have been much negotiating between him and the Texans.  As long as Clowney’s demands weren’t exceeding $20 million a year, Houston should have been offering a blank check.

Perhaps their thinking was that Clowney wasn’t a detrimental loss.  That is partly true; this defense, and specifically the defensive line, is still pretty good with JJ Watt and Whitney Mercilus, along with new safety Tashaun Gipson Sr.  But keeping Clowney protects the absolute menace up front; that’s the most terrifying defensive line in the league, and at a time where pass rush is your most valuable asset on defense, trading Clowney, especially for the bag of chips they got back, is nonsensical.

The return can be defended by the lack of leverage Houston had, but that lack of leverage is still their fault.  Jacob Martin might be the most valuable asset received back. This is someone who was a sixth-round pick of Seattle’s in the 2018 Draft.

Houston must like the potential.  Martin was only on the field for 22.7% of the Seahawks’ defensive snaps last season and garnered only nine tackles.  He did have three sacks and forced two fumbles though, and Pro Football Focus graded him at a 66.5, which is considered to be in the range of a backup, but for a rookie with limited snaps may not be as bad.

Mingo, meanwhile, has been nothing but a journeyman.  He was better with the Seahawks last season, but PFF still had him graded at 55.4.

The Texans did a lot to get close to nowhere.  Sure, Tunsil is a foundational piece going forward, but after this weekend’s confounding moves, do we trust them to make the Tunsil trade pay off?

A couple other teams find themselves in the Texans’ position.  No, not the position where management is incompetent, but stuck in the middle as a division winner not equipped to win the Super Bowl.  Here are two other teams that find themselves there.

Cleveland Browns

Despite the ceiling being much, much higher than Chicago’s, the Browns are in a similar position to the one the Bears were in last season: They may be a year away.

The biggest difference between the Bears and Browns is the hype.  Cleveland has a lot to live up to.  The projections of 12 wins are quite high for a team that has a second year quarterback, a rookie full-time head coach and a division that, despite not having any contenders, still has two other quality teams in it.

The Browns won’t disappoint.  That is, if your expectations aren’t too high.

The defense is really good.  Myles Garrett and Olivier Vernon are a ferocious pass rushing duo with Sheldon Richardson in the middle.  The secondary has Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams (One of my favorite prospects in the 2019 Draft), along with Damarious Randall and Morgan Burnett at the safety spots.  It’s not a defense that’s going to carry a team, but it’s not going to have to.

Or at least, it shouldn’t.

There are new faces that will have a prominent role in the Browns offense.  Freddie Kitchens has to work Odell Beckham Jr. and Kareem Hunt into the scheme, which is protected by an offensive line that has some holes.  Joel Bitonio, JC Tretter and Chris Hubbard are all solid or better, but Greg Robinson on the blindside and Eric Kush on the inside is a tad concerning.  Second-year guard Austin Corbett could move inside to replace the journeyman Kush, but rolling with more inexperience may make the problem with the Browns worse.

These concerns are minimal.  Cleveland should be really good, and incredibly fun to watch.  They should win the AFC North.  But the label of “contenders” may be a tad premature.

Minnesota Vikings

The NFC North is full of potential.

The Packers could be a Super Bowl team if not for a stunning lack of talent around Aaron Rodgers (More on that tomorrow).  Chicago the same if not for the loss of Vic Fangio and the existence of Mitchell Trubisky as their quarterback (Again, more on that tomorrow).  And the Lions, well, we’ll get to them Thursday.

Point is, the NFC North should be football’s best division.  It still could be.  But major issues bring each team’s potential down.

Minnesota’s problem shouldn’t be one at all.  They rival the Eagles for the most talented roster in football.  On paper, they have a top five defense and one of the best receiving duos in the league, in addition to a young running back whose ceiling hasn’t even been scraped yet.

Their quarterback, the one who they still owe $60 million to, is what is holding them back.

But Kirk Cousins wasn’t the only issue last season.  Despite ranking fourth in DVOA, Minnesota’s defense was nearly as good as it was during the 2017-18 season.   Their rush defense, which was without Everson Griffen for five games, dropped from 6th to 11th in the league last season according to DVOA.  They allowed the 15th most yards allowed on the ground per game last season, computing to just an average rush defense.

This year, that shouldn’t be as much of an issue.  Griffen is back, and so is Anthony Barr, who almost left for the Jets in free agency.

The secondary, which struggled last year despite the numbers, should be better.  Xavier Rhodes looked like a shell of himself last season, which set off a chain reaction in the secondary’s performance.  If Rhodes can get back to his Pro Bowl level, the Vikings D should return to the level it got to two years ago.

It all comes down to Cousins.  His 7.1 yards per attempt last year was the 24th best in the league, ranking him in the bottom third of passers.  That number came in below names like Marcus Mariota and Eli Manning.

The offensive line wasn’t great, but it should be better this season.  Minnesota drafted North Carolina State center Garrett Bradbury to hold down the middle.  He may not make the All-Pro team like Quenton Nelson did last season, but comes in about as ready for the NFL as Nelson was.  Perhaps he can help Cousins make the big-time throws, and lead block for Dalvin Cook, who will be a fun new weapon for Cousins to rely on and play with.

The Vikings should win the NFC North.  They’re coming off a disappointing year, unlike Chicago.  They’re more talented than Green Bay.  They’re much more talented than Detroit.  This team should be a contender.  Cousins will have to make that happen.

The Six Teams That Can Win The Super Bowl

The NFL has perhaps the perfect balance of wide-openness yet competitiveness when it comes to who will be crowned champion.

The NFL Playoffs aren’t the complete crapshoot that is the MLB Playoffs in October, where just sneaking into the Wild Card can have you end up in the World Series a month later, but they also aren’t as predictable as the NBA Playoffs, where if the team you pick to win the Finals before the season doesn’t end up accomplishing that feat, then it’s likely your fault your pick was incorrect.

Those factors could make the NFL playoffs, and the Super Bowl Champion, the hardest to predict.  It’s definitely worth it to try and make a prediction unlike baseball, but it’s not as easy as the NBA.

Then again, when we predict a World Series Champion, do we really get SEVEN different teams coming up in the conversation?  Usually not.

That’s the beauty of the NFL.

With that, here are the seven teams I believe can be Super Bowl Champions (in no particular order).

Los Angeles Chargers

The Chargers biggest issue every season is that either injuries, boneheaded coaching decisions or disastrous kicking dash their hopes of ever making a deep playoff run.  They’ve never lacked the talent.

So far, the injuries have already made their mark.  Safety Derwin James, reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year nominee, suffered a broken foot and is expected to be out three months, or at least until Week 8 as the Chargers have placed him on IR.

James is a stud, but the Chargers do have some nice options to replace him back there. Second-round pick Nassir Adderaly was bit of a reach in the spot he was taken and has also been injured throughout training camp, but the high pick shows the Chargers have confidence in him.

Adrian Phillips occupies the other safety spot well, so whoever the fill-in option is, Adderaly or former Florida product Jaylen Watkins, will have decent company and a good shoulder to lean on.

The rest of the Chargers defense is filthy. Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram and Brandon Mebane create a ferocious pass rush.  Thomas Davis, though 36 (!!!), is still functional along with Denzel Perryman in the middle of the field.

Los Angeles lost wide receiver Tyrell Williams to the Oakland Raiders in free agency, but when he was your third receiver behind Mike Williams and Keenan Allen and was ahead of Dontrelle Inman, coupled with Hunter Henry at tight end, you’re probably going to be okay.

Melvin Gordon’s absence could make things not okay, though.  It’s sounding likely that he’s willing to pull a Le’Veon Bell and miss games.

With or without Gordon, the Chargers skill positions are still loaded.  But what makes them work is hinged on Phillip Rivers, who will be 38 by the time the playoffs come around.

Rivers hasn’t shown any true decay, which is miraculous for his age.  Like the other GOATs QBs, we can’t really say much until it actually happens or we have evidence of decline (With Rodgers, Brady, Rivers, and to a point Brees, we’re looking at this season as if they’re still good. With Ben Rothlisberger?  Maybe not so much.)  Rivers should be able to take advantage of the weapons he has and be at least above-average with them.  That is, if the offensive line can be decent (If everyone can get healthy, Russell Okung-Forrest Lamp-Mike Pouncey on one side is not terrible).

Gordon’s absence doesn’t give Rivers a work-horse running back to hand off to, though.  Austin Ekeler has turned fantasy heads and works well as a nice secondary back who can catch passes out of the backfield, but he’s not someone who’s likely to get 20+ carries a game and make them effective.  Justin Jackson could be that guy, but he lacks experience and would be thrown into a heavier workload out of the blew.

I don’t think Gordon’s absence is detrimental to the Chargers.  It would obviously be nice to have him around, as his presence would help reduce the workload forced on Rivers.  But could this be Rivers’ hail mary season where he does all himself? What if he’s unstoppable and torches everyone?  Rivers being the same guy he’s been in the past makes this team good.  If Gordon comes back, and James gets healthy, and the line is just decent, then the Chargers could be challenging the Chiefs long past the December division race.

Kansas City Chiefs

I was completely wrong on the Chiefs last season.

Mahomes legitimately cooked me.  I feared for his accuracy and his youth despite his cannon arm.  I didn’t trust Andy Reid (And maybe still don’t).  I thought the Chiefs were just going to be OK last season.

Turns out, Mahomes didn’t need accuracy (He had it, by the way).  When you had Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill, Kareem Hunt and Sammy Watkins all at your disposal, it made life a bit easier.

One of those weapons is gone in Hunt.  Hill should be gone, but that’s another issue.  The Chiefs made it work without their work-horse running back, using speedster Damien Williams instead.  He projects to have a larger role this season along with Darwin Thompson and now LeSean McCoy, who essentially replaced Carlos Hyde’s role in this offense.

McCoy, like Hyde, doesn’t exactly fit the Chiefs’ scheme of speed at all positions, but with Andy Reid, we could see McCoy be re-invigorated and turned back into his 2017-self, where he ran for 1,138 yards and six touchdowns.

With his age though, it’s more likely that McCoy is a third down back in this system.

Still, it’s another weapon for Mahomes, who should be the favorite for MVP.  He’s my pick.  The numbers from last year would be insane to replicate simply because of how gargantuan they were, but who’s to say he couldn’t?  Mahomes might already be the most talented QB I’ve ever seen.

Kansas City’s biggest issue last season was their defense, which was ranked 26th by DVOA.  They went out and made big time moves, swapping out Dee Ford for Frank Clark and signing Tyrann Mathieu to a large deal to help out the secondary.

I still worry a bit about the rush defense.  Clark is pure pass-rusher, and a very good one at that.  He got paid for that, not run defense.  His tenaciousness and athleticism could allow him to shift inside, stuff the A-and-B gaps and still generate pass rush.  Him and Chris Jones is a dynamic monster.

They’ll need that production up front, as the linebacking core is full of reclamation projects in Reggie Ragland and Darron Lee, both of whom I was high on in their respective draft classes.  For a team that desperately needed run defense, they’re certainly betting on a lot of uncertainty in that department.

The Chiefs could easily win the Super Bowl.  They have a top five player in football, a near impossible offense to contain and an improving defense that should be better.  A better defense maybe gets the one critical stop against Tom Brady in last year’s AFC Championship Game.  That might have been the one thing that stopped KC from winning it all last season.

Philadelphia Eagles

This might be the most talented roster in football.  We also said that last year.

It wasn’t necessarily the Eagles’ fault though.  Carson Wentz was hurt at the beginning of the season and the end.  Despite Nick Foles’ success, there’s a ceiling on how long a quarterback of his caliber can work for.  It can get you to about 9-7, which is where the Eagles finished at last year.

Now, Wentz has had a full offseason to recover from an injury much less severe than a torn ACL.  He should be 100% ready to go.

There’s no excuses this time.  I’m a big Wentz supporter and believe that the Eagles made the right decision by letting Foles walk.  But there’s also no doubt that Philly’s offense was more functional with Foles leading the way rather than Wentz.  The ball moved more, and more efficiently downfield.

Perhaps Wentz never got his feet truly wet before being injured again.  Now he’s going to be ready to go.  No more settling in and not preforming, because this roster is too good for Wentz to be just fine or average.

I really think this Eagles season comes down to that.  Can Wentz stay healthy?  If he does, will he preform like he did his rookie year?

There’s hardly any other concerns on this Eagles roster.  Their offensive line is one of the best in the league.  They have a mass of weapons, including five running backs who will all likely have a role (Josh Adams and Wendall Smallwood, both good players, were the casualties of the backfield during cuts).  Their secondary and defensive line are both stacked.  I worry about their outside linebackers a bit, but with Nigel Bradham commanding the middle and the run defense being as good as it already is, they should be fine.

The Eagles have the talent.  They should have the quarterback.  They have the missing piece that a team like the Colts suddenly don’t have. Wentz’s performance is the key to whether the Eagles can get back to where they were two seasons ago.

New England Patriots

There isn’t much that needs to be said here.

Every concern about the Patriots is overblown until it actually becomes a concern.  Tom Brady’s age?  Not going to worry about it until there’s evidence that he’s really breaking down (There was evidence last regular season, but then the playoffs completely flipped that thinking around). The receiving core? Wait, why is a group consisting of Julian Edelman, undrafted phenom Jakobi Meyers, Josh Gordon and Demaryius Thomas causing concern?

The biggest concern for the Patriots this season is simply how they match up with the Chiefs.  That’s what will likely decide the AFC.  Does Brady have the firepower to match Mahomes?  Can the defensive line take pressure off the loaded secondary?

These are the concerns we should have about New England.  Them coming to a head is a long way away.  Until then, we can likely pencil the Patriots in for 11-5 or 12-4 again.

Los Angeles Rams

Putting the Rams on this list was actually a tad tough.  There are some serious concerns with this team.

Todd Gurley’s knee issue which kept him practically inactive in the Super Bowl is still lingering around.  The Rams drafted Darrell Henderson in the third round of the draft in April, which many saw as Gurley’s successor.  They also have Malcolm Brown lined up behind him as well.

It’s likely this is one big overreaction, but if Gurley is going to be used the way he was in the last two rounds of the postseason, then the Rams are in serious trouble.  It was reported that Gurley already has arthritis in his knee, meaning that it can bother him at any time, as it did late in last year’s postseason.  Inconsistent or lack of production from Gurley puts much more pressure on Jared Goff to step up to a level that he’s maybe not capable of getting to.

Goff has been in a perfect situation the past two seasons: A genius coach, an awesome running back and good and deep-threat weapons surround him.  Taking away the workhorse that is Gurley puts pressure on Goff to deliver big time throws.  We saw the results of that scenario in the Super Bowl.

The interior of the offensive line is cause for some concern too.  Starting center Brian Allen and left guard Joe Noteboom have just over 100 snaps of experience between the two of them.  Whether it’s the younger backs they’re blocking for, Gurley or Goff, this isn’t the experienced and talented Rams offensive line we, or the running backs, have been used to.

McVay might be able to turn one of the two backups into Gurley 2.0 if his knee acts up, but that’s not the only issue with this team.

What our eyes told us about the Rams defense last season is backwards from what the numbers say.  DVOA ranked the Rams pass defense ninth in the NFL last season, while it ranked the rush defense 27th.

It felt like the Rams couldn’t cover anyone last season.  Marcus Peters was a shell of himself, and LaMarcus Joyner was given the 28th highest graded safety in football last year by Pro Football Focus.

The Rams signed Eric Weddle to replace Joyner, who provides an upgrade at a much lower cost.  They also have John Johnson III back there to help provide a blanket, and rookie Taylor Rapp, one of the many talented Washington defensive backs to enter the NFL over the past few years.

The defensive line will be fine.  Despite the numbers, they still have the best player in football in Aaron Donald.  They retained Dante Fowler Jr. and signed Clay Matthews for both run defense and pass rush.  They still have the seldom-talked-about Samson Ebukam.

The Rams should be on this list because on paper, they’re one of the most talented teams in the NFL and they have one of the smartest people in the NFL coaching them.  But a lot has to come together and go right for them to get back to the Super Bowl, or even win it.  Gurley’s knee might be the biggest x-factor of this NFL season.

New Orleans Saints

This year might be the Saints’ last chance.

They’ve suffered two of the most heart-breaking losses in football history in back-to-back playoffs, and with Drew Brees now 40 years old and showing some signs of decline and a competitive division, this could be their true make it or break it season.

The Falcons were a near miss for this list.  I projected them for 13-3 last season, believing in their weapons and young, talented defense.

I believe they can get to that level this year, but concerns about injuries and another season-from-hell are large factors in them not being included in this column.

I can trust New Orleans just a bit more.

It starts with Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas.  The NFL hasn’t seen anyone like Kamara in a long time, with his rushing and receiving skills built into a body that fast and agile.  He’s a top five running back in the league, and Brees having him to rely on along with one of the three best receivers in the league in Thomas makes the Saints still a super dangerous offensive team.  Those two, along with Ted Ginn Jr. (who only the Saints can make effective) and new tight end Jared Cook (Who if healthy is still extremely effective), give Brees essentially the same weapons core he’s had the past two seasons.  Mark Ingram is gone, but Latavius Murray is someone New Orleans can use to line Kamara up as a receiver in four wideouts sets.  Murray won’t be getting 20+ carries a game, but will still force linebackers to cave in during play-action sets.

Despite a troubling linebacker core, the Saints defense is talented.  Marcus Davenport, who the Saints traded an extra first-round and fifth-round pick to get in the 2018 Draft, should have a bigger role this season generating a pass rush with Cameron Jordan.  Sheldon Rankins also figures to help create pressure despite his run-stuffing presence.

The most talented layer of the defense though is the secondary.  Marshon Lattimore is an All-Pro caliber cornerback, and the Saints have two decent options behind him in Ken Crawley and PJ Williams.  There’s also Eli Apple in the mix, who was the target of a panic trade by New Orleans in the middle of last season due to an injury to Patrick Robinson.

Robinson figures to be back and lining up along with Lattimore, giving New Orleans Crawley, Williams and Apple to use in nickel and dime packages.  Apple wasn’t great last season, and needs to keep his head on straight, but perhaps his first full season with New Orleans could turn him around.  Crawley almost didn’t make the Saints roster, but letting him go for free to another team might have been a mistake.  He could help someone in desperate need.

The Saints also have Chauncey Garnder-Johnson at safety behind Vonn Bell, who was one of my favorite DBs in the 2019 Draft.  His lengthy coverage skills could allow him to see snaps in those nickel and dime packages if Crawley or Apple don’t improve.

The Saints have the potential to be a lockdown secondary unit, have a good pass rush with Jordan and their other younger linemen, and be the explosive offense we’ve seen the past three seasons.  Like the two other NFC teams on this list, it all comes down to the quarterback, and whether his production is enough to finally get New Orleans all the way.