Jacob, Ryan and Josh recap a crazy week three in the NFL where the Browns picked up their first win in over 600 days, the Titans picked up a nice third win of the season and the Patriots lost to the Lions. Jacob and Ryan give out their weekly awards and their ‘must watch games’ for week four.
What looked like a “meh” week of football ended up being the opposite. Games we thought were locks were far from it, and we finally got to see Baker Mayfield. On top of that, there were SO MANY bad decisions made. The roughing the passer penalty still sucks.
Here’s a look at a weird week of storylines.
Personal Foul, Touching the Passer
This has become a recurring theme, but there’s still something new to add on to it every week. Clay Matthews was flagged again. That isn’t new. What is new is the increased injury risk to pass rushers making attempts to decrease injury risk to quarterbacks. That was a weird sentence.
Miami Dolphins defensive lineman William Hayes suffered a torn ACL while trying to avoid putting his body weight on Derek Carr. Hopefully the league sees this and realizes the new rules benefit nobody, and pose risks much greater than a 15 yard penalty.
The Bills beat the Vikings. Yes, really.
It wasn’t some lucky bounce last-second win either. Buffalo dominated the Vikings all day en route to a 27-6 victory. Minnesota didn’t score until late in the fourth quarter. It was a pretty embarrassing performance.
Meanwhile, Josh Allen, who had been nothing short of abysmal threw for nearly 200 yards with a touchdown an no picks. He tacked on another two touchdowns on the ground, AND he hurdled a guy.
The Patriots lost to the Lions. Yes, really.
The newly acquired Josh Gordon was inactive on Sunday night.
Quick side note — Why was this the Sunday night game? I know it was Matt Patricia vs. Bill Belichick, but who thought this was the best game of Week 3?
Anyway, the Patriots might have wanted Gordon to suit up. Instead, they relied their run game, which was not great.
Perhaps more concerning was the predictability of the Patriot offense. Rookie running back Sony Michel played a season-high 23 offensive snaps, just under half of New England’s total. He touched the ball on 65 percent of those snaps, totaling 49 yards from scrimmage. The Lions might be bad, but the Patriots made it easy for them. This seems like poor game planning, but the Patriots don’t do that. Until now, I guess.
I shouldn’t have to say this, but it is not time to panic. Tom Brady is still their quarterback.
Houston, you have a problem
If you remember, I picked Bill O’brien to win Coach of the Year. I didn’t expect him to really do any of the work, though. I just though the Texans would be good and he’d win. Think of Jason Garrett in 2016. He didn’t do anything, but the turnaround earned him the award.
Bill O’brien might be doing too much. A team with as much talent as the Texans should not start 0-3. Blaine Gabbert and Eli Manning, handed them two of those losses, with the latter being a home game. Most of their problems can be traced to O’brien. It’s been a season of poor planning for crappy offenses and not letting Deshaun Watson play to his potential.
Raiders can’t hang
Soon after Jon Gruden said a good pass-rusher was hard to find (yikes), the Raiders blew their third second half lead in as many games. They have yet to score points in the fourth quarter. They came close on Sunday, with a chance to take a lead late in the game. Alas, they did not and Carr threw an interception in the red zone. A few plays later, Albert Wilson iced the game with a long touchdown reception.
You’re in, rookie
Going into Week 3, the only quarterbacks drafted in the first round not to see regular season action were Baker Mayfield and Josh Rosen. Both of them played this week, but the situations were very different.
Mayfield came in mid-way through the second quarter on Thursday night when Tyrod Taylor left the game, and led the Browns to a comeback win over the Jets. It was pretty fun to watch.
The Cardinals were down two with four minutes left, and THAT’S when they decided to put Rosen in the game. I’m all for rookies gaining experience, but making his debut on a potential game winning drive seems like a poor choice. Rosen proceeded to throw an interception, and the Cardinals lost. It wasn’t that fun to watch.
A little while ago you saw my predictions for the 2018 season. Through two weeks, some of those look pretty good, and some look pretty bad. After this week, a couple surprising 2-0 teams emerged. There are also a fair amount of 0-2 teams. Since 2002, when the current playoff system was implemented, only about 10.5% of 0-2 have made the postseason. That’s a cool fact, but there was some much cooler stuff that happened in Week 2. Let’s take a gander.
Not a lot of people know this, but Ryan Fitzpatrick went to Harvard. The 35-year-old quarterback threw for 402 yards and four touchdowns against the defending Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday. This was his second straight 400 yard performance, giving him over 800 yards, 8 passing touchdowns, and another rushing touchdown so far. DeSean Jackson, who caught a 75-yard TD on the first play from scrimmage, has already expressed his desire for Fitzpatrick to remain the starter after Jameis Winston’s suspension is up. I’d have to agree with him.
The seemingly new “FitzMagic” name caught the attention of another NFL player who shares a name with the quarterback. Miami Dolphins safety Minkah Fitzpatrick filed a trademark application for “FitzMagic.” He picked up the nickname in high school, and it appears he wants it back.
Mahomes Goes Mad
Ryan Fitzpatrick isn’t the only QB slinging large quantities of touchdowns. First year starter Patrick Mahomes has 10 through two weeks so far. That includes six in Week 2 against the Steelers. Consider yourself lucky if you have him on your fantasy team. The kid is a stud. The Chiefs were lucky to have Mahomes, as the defense allowed a taped together Ben Roethlisberger to throw for 450 yards and three touchdowns of his own.
Are the Saints okay?
The Saints dropped their season opener to Tampa Bay, and struggled mightily against the Browns in Week 2. Both of these games were at home. New Orleans really should be 0-2, but [now former] Cleveland kicker Zane Gonzalez missed four kicks, costing eight points. It was a three point game. Sean Payton and company can thank Gonzalez for their Week 2 win, but they should probably get it together soon.
The Rodgers Rule
Aaron Rodgers suffered a broken collarbone last season, and the particular play sparked the creation of new and questionable rules for sacking a quarterback. The pass-rusher is no longer allowed to bring his weight down on the quarterback. If he does do this, it results in a roughing the passer penalty on what should be a routine tackle. Quarterbacks deserve some protection, but the NFL needs to acknowledge that they are also football players who run the same risk as everyone else on the field.
Moving on. You might think the Packers supported this new rule, considering why it was made. I doubt that’s the case anymore. Green Bay picked off Kirk Cousins late in the fourth quarter, which should have sealed the win. But, Clay Matthews was flagged for bringing his weight down on Cousins — the correct call. Cousins took the Vikings down the field, scored a touchdown, and tied the game on a two point conversion. The score never changed after that and the game ended in a 29-29 tie.
First Round Byes
(1) Green Bay Packers, (2) Los Angeles Rams
Wild Card Round
(3) Philadelphia Eagles vs (6) San Francisco 49ers
(4) New Orleans Saints vs (5) Minnesota Vikings
(1) Green Bay Packers vs (5) Minnesota Vikings
(2) Los Angeles Rams vs (3) Philadelphia Eagles
(1) Green Bay Packers vs (3) Philadelphia Eagles
First Round Byes
(1) New England Patriots, (2) Houston Texans
Wild Card Round
(3) Kansas City Chiefs vs (6) Los Angeles Chargers
(4) Pittsburgh Steelers vs (5) Jacksonville Jaguars
(1) New England Patriots vs (5) Jacksonville Jaguars
(2) Houston Texans vs (3) Kansas City Chiefs
(1) New England Patriots vs (2) Houston Texans
SUPER BOWL: Green Bay Packers vs. Houston Texans
SUPER BOWL CHAMP: Green Bay Packers
MVP: QB Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers
Aaron Rodgers is fully recovered from the collarbone injury that forced him out of most of last season, and ready to wreak havoc on everyone who doubted him. The offseason narrative surrounding the NFC North has been the emergence of the Minnesota Vikings, but Rodgers is ready to remind everyone who the best team in the NFC is. Rodgers has a nice collection of weapons, his best defense in recent memory, and an unclear running back situation. Look for the Packers to lean heavily on Rodgers as he puts up absolutely monster numbers and leads Green Bay to a number one seed and a first round bye.
OPOY: QB Deshaun Watson, Houston Texans
Deshuan Watson has yet too play a full season in the NFL, but he is already considered among the leagues elite talents at quarterback. He was electric in his injury shortened rookie season, and should pick up right where left off. The offense line is a major concern, but Watson has enough talent to transcend their mediocrity and carry this Houston Texans team to an AFC South title.
DPOY: CB Jalen Ramsey, Jacksonville Jaguars
My original pick was DE Joey Bosa, but with news of his foot injury I audibled to the best player on the leagues best defense. Jalen Ramsey is the leagues best corner, and provides a toughness and ferocity at the position typically unaccompanied with a player of his stature. He’s the most physically intimidating corner in the league, possessing elite height (6’1) and quickness (4.41 forty time), and will shut down the oppositions best offensive weapon regardless of position. He may not put up the gaudy stats typically associated with this award, mostly due to the fact no quarterback dares throw his way, but as crazy sack numbers continue to decline voters will look to reward other statistical achievements. Ramsey notched the fourth lowest passer rating against (57.2), and captains last season’s stingiest pass defense. He’s the most important player on the leagues best defense, and should take home Defensive Player of the Year
OROY: RB Saquon Barkley, New York Giants
The easiest award to predict, Saquon Barkley should run away with this award and never look back. He is by far the most electric of the rookie running backs, and brings significantly more to the table than his counterparts. Barkley will be the focal point of an offense lacking in overall talent, and should get more than enough carries to put up some ridiculous numbers. He could easily lead the league in rushing, and has a serious shot at making the Pro Bowl and All-Pro teams.
DROY: LB Roquan Smith, Chicago Bears
The last rookie to sign, Roquan Smith is well worth the wait as he should transform the Chicago defense from the second he steps on the field. Fellow Bears Khalil Mack and Adrian Amos have more talent, but Smith’s ability to effect both the the run and pass game instantly makes him the most valuable player on that defense. He is the definition of a three down linebacker and should be a mainstay on the Bears defense for years to come.
COY: Bill O’Brein, Houston Texans
Coach of the Year often has less to do with who is schematically superior and more who captures a narrative. O’Brien is not one of the more advanced coaches in the league, and is often outmatched by younger smarter coaches like Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan, but if takes this Texans team to the heights I imagine them reaching O’Brien will be a natural for the award. He is competent enough to not hold back Watson and the rest of an exciting Texans team that I expect to overachieve.
CPOY: RB David Johnson, Arizona Cardinals
After a week one wrist injury knocked David Johnson out for the entirety of last year, he is primed to bounce back in a big way this season. He is the focal point of one of the league’s worst offenses, and through simple volume will be near the league leaders in rushing yards and yards from scrimmage. Whether it’s Sam Bradford or Josh Rosen under center, the game plan will be feeding the ball to Johnson. Add in the fact that in his last healthy season Johnson lead the league in yards from scrimmage and was fourth in touchdown, Johnson should nab Comeback Player of the Year in what could be one of the tightest races in recent memory.
Football is back, and there was no shortage of excitement during Kickoff Week. We saw a few surprising victories, incredible comebacks and records broken. Here are some notes on the cool things to happen in Week 1 of the NFL season.
The Longest Game Ever
The Tennessee Titans and Miami Dolphins kicked off at 1:00 p.m. EST and did not finish until after 8:00. Two separate lightning delays totaled almost four hours, creating a total game time of 7 hours and eight minutes. The previous record was set in 2013 when the Bears and Ravens played a 5 hour and 16 minute marathon. Miami won the game 27-20.
Four Special Teams Touchdowns
Two of them came in the aforementioned longest game ever. Jakeem Grant ran a kickoff 102 yards for a touchdown and Darius Jennings responded with his own 94 yard TD return. The others came on punt returns. One came from Tyreek Hill against the Chargers and the other was from Andre Roberts during the Jets’ beatdown of the Lions on Monday Night Football.
The Saints lost to the Buccaneers
The Saints were supposed to be really good this season, and the Bucs were supposed to be awful. Ryan Fitzpatrick apparently had other plans as he led Tampa Bay to a 48-40 upset on the road. Now we face this question — Is Tampa bay better than we thought or was New Orleans just rusty and unprepared in its opener?
The Bills looked really bad
The Bills were not expected to have a great season, or even a good season, but their performance on Sunday might have given us a preview of an atrocious season ahead. They lost 47-3 to the not-that-good Ravens.
Even with that ghastly performance, the true problem might point to Sean McDermott. He traded one of the league’s better backups in AJ McCarron, signaling his confidence in top ten draft pick Josh Allen. Just kidding, he chose Nathan Peterman instead. We all know how that went before, and to no surprise, he was just as bad on Sunday.
Khalil Mack is scary
Before Jon Gruden could even coach a game for the Raiders, he shipped their best player of to the Bears. A sunburned Gruden said this week that Mack did not want to be in Oakland, which doesn’t seem entirely true. Gruden can think what he wants and call Spider 2Y Banana as much as his heart desires, but based on last night’s performance, he might regret not even talking with Mack before the season.
Anyyywayyy, Mack racked up a strip-sack and a pick six off of Deshone Kizer. He had one of the best defensive performances of the week on a limited snap count, which is pretty impressive. Unfortunately for Mack and the Bears …
Aaron Rodgers is just as scary
After having his knee stepped on, and being carted off the field nearly in tears, Aaron Rodgers returned to the field and led the Packers to a 24-23 win after they had trailed 20-0 in the third quarter. It was a game for the books, in terms of both performance and toughness.
1. Los Angeles Rams Projected Record: 12-4
The Los Angeles added some of the leagues most exciting players to an already loaded roster, and they have asserted themselves as legit Super Bowl contenders. The addition of defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh creates possibly the most terrifying inside combination in league history, as he teams up with All-Pro Aaron Donald to provide offenses with the impossible choice of who to double team. Los Angeles linebacking corps is still the team’s weakest unit, but a strong season from linebacker/safety Mark Barron could alleviate some of the team’s weaknesses. In the secondary, the Rams added cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib to an already stellar group of defensive backs. While Peters and Talib will need some time to acclimate and may not quite be as dominant as expected from week one, but come playoff these former All-Pros should be back to form. Offensively the Rams took a huge step forward due in large part to the pairing of quarterback Jared Goff and head coach Sean McVay. In his first season as head coach, McVay proved himself something of a coaching savant. Goff was placed in the ideal situation for a quarterback of his stature, and running back Todd Gurley compiled a league leading 2,093 all purposed yards. The Rams wide receiving corps is solid, with last year’s third round pick Cooper Kupp looking to build off his intriguing rookie season. Schematically Los Angeles alway seemed one step ahead of the opposition last season, and there’s no reason to think that will change this year. Adding more talent to an already stacked roster spells more success this season for the Rams, and a long playoff run seems in the cards.
2. San Francisco 49ers Projected Record: 9-7
The pairing of quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and head coach Kyle Shanahan might be the most exciting aspect of the new NFL season, with the two representing a new era in 49er football. Garoppolo is one of the NFL’s best young quarterbacks, and he set the league on fire last season when he failed to lose a game in his six starts for San Francisco last season. Shanahan appears to be the next great offensive mind, and watching him duel with division rival Sean McVay will be an absolute joy for the forseeable future. The weapons surrounding Garoppolo are good but not great, and the season ending injury to running back Jerick McKinnon forces Matt Breida and Alfred Morris into featured roles. Regardless, Garoppolo has more than enough talent to elevate the average talent around him and should lead this unit to a top ten finish. This team’s biggest question marks lie on the defensive side of the ball. Free agent acquisition Richard Sherman should provide some legitimacy to an otherwise young and unproven secondary. Linebacker Rueben Foster is an absolute stud in the middle of San Francisco’s defense, and former first round picks DeForest Buckner and Erik Armstead help anchor the 49ers defensive line. In total, this team will go as far as Garoppolo and Shanahan can take them, and if everything breaks nicely this team should find themselves in the thick of the playoff race.
3. Seattle Seahawks Projected Record: 7-9
The Seattle Seahawk dynasty is certainly coming to an end, but the remains are still there of a Super Bowl team. Russell Wilson remains under center, and even with one of the league’s worst offensive line, he has enough individual talent to transcend their mediocrity and lead this unit to relevancy. The Seahawks are also lacking in skill position talent, and the injury to Doug Baldwin doesn’t help, but there’s enough ability between Tyler Lockett, Chris Carson, Brandon Marshall and others to keep Wilson sane. Rookie running back Rashaad Penny had a disappointing camp, and ultimately lost the starting job to Carson, but there’s enough promise there to think he could emerge later in the season. On the other side of the ball, the situation is dire with the exception of two future Hall of Famers. Free safety Earl Thomas and middle linebacker Bobby Wagner are two of the leagues best at their position, but they are surrounded by a lot of league average talent. Their defensive line is one of their weakest in recent memory, and it’s hard to see how current Philadelphia Eagle wouldn’t have helped this unit. The secret weapon on this team is their punter, Michael Dickson. The rookie from Texas looked absolutely dominant in the preseason, consistently placing his kicks within the opponents ten yard line. For a team that looks to struggle a fair amount on offense, having one of the leagues best punters could swing a handful of games and put this Seahawks right back in the playoff hunt.
4. Arizona Cardinals Projected Record: 4-12
The Arizona Cardinals return superstar running back David Johnson to a team that won eight games last season, yet the outlook remains bleak in Arizona. Quarterback Sam Bradford is the team’s option under center, but top ten pick Josh Rosen is nipping at his heels. The team’s offensive line looks to be one of the worst in the league, so there may be some thought that it’s advantageous to keep Rosen on the bench where he can’t get slaughtered. The Cardinals also aren’t doing whoever’s under center any help with their current crop of wide receivers. Ageless wonder Larry Fitzgerald remains a steadying presence for a unit searching for another competent pass catcher. Second round pick Christian Kirk seems promising, but the unit as a whole doesn’t project as a strength. The offense will be funneled through Johnson, and if he has another fantastic season there’s a chance he drag this team to relevance. Defensively, Arizona has a nice assortment of weapons at each level of the team. On the defensive line, Chandler Jones is one of the best pass rushers in the league and commands the attention of the entire opposing offensive line. Linebacker Deone Bucannon is one of the most versatile players around, and the perfect fit for the modern NFL. In the secondary, second year safety Budda Baker impressed in his rookie season and should have a monster season as the team’s starting free safety. In total, the Cardinals have a handful of really exciting players, especially on the defensive side of the ball, but not enough overall talent to overtake the other teams in their division.
1. Kansas City Chiefs Projected Record: 11-5
Alex Smith played at an MVP level last season, and most around the Kansas City Chiefs organization feel they got better at the quarterback position. I am buying all of the Patrick Mahomes stock available, and believe he can dominate from his first snap under center. The combination of Mahomes natural ability, the weapons surrounding him, and Andy Reid is absolutely deadly, and should obliterate opposing defenses. The pairing of Mahomes and Tyreek Hill is a match made in heaven, and running back Kareem Hunt remains one of the league’s most prolific talents out of the backfield. The Chiefs also boast one of the NFL’s most consistent offensive lines, with right tackle Mitchell Schwartz anchoring the line from the right tackle position. His job just got significantly easier with the stunning trade of Khalil Mack, but facing the duos of Von Miller/Bradley Chubb and Joey Bosa/Melvin Ingram twice a year remains one of the hardest jobs in football. While the offense looks to be one of the league’s most feared units, their defense should be a welcome sight for struggling offenses. Cornerback Kendall Fuller will try and fill the hole left by Marcus Peter’s departure, but the drop off from a Pro Bowl talent like Peters to league average will certainly be felt. The return of Eric Berry will also help stabilize the group, but overall the secondary has more questions than answers. The Chiefs front seven is equally uninspiring, with an assortment of solid rotational pieces but no elite talent. The pass rushing combo of Justin Houston and Dee Ford is solid, but the linebacker corps as a whole needs serious improvements. In total, Kansas City should be one of the league’s most exciting teams and their offense should prove very quickly to be must watch football.
2. Los Angeles Chargers Projected Record: 10-6
The Los Angeles Chargers have compiled one of the leagues deepest and most talented rosters, complete with elite level talents on both sides of the ball. The addition of rookie safety Derwin James, and the first full seasons for both wide receiver Mike Williams and guard Forrest Lamp adds three highly touted “rookies” to a team that won nine games last season. At quarterback, Phillip Rivers remains a steadying presence as he continues to crank out Pro-Bowl caliber seasons. Running back Melvin Gordon finally rushed for over 1,000 yards last season, and looks to set a new career high this season behind a much improved offensive line. For the first time in a very long time, the Chargers can evaluate their offensive line and feel optimistic about their chances. Even if the inevitable injury bug makes an appearance, Los Angeles has about seven or eight league average offensive lineman which is a lot more than many teams can say. On the defensive side of the ball, Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram will continue to wreak havoc this season as one of the league’s top pass rushing duos. The Chargers also possess one of the league’s deepest collection of corners, with All-Pro cornerback Casey Hayward captaining the squad. Trevor Williams and Desmond King III both took huge strides last season as up and coming corners, and each will play a pivotal role as Los Angeles looks to remain one of the best secondaries in the league. Where the Chargers remain weak is up the middle. Defensive tackles Brandon Mebane and Darius Philon remain huge question marks, and middle linebacker Denzel Perryman has yet to prove he can stay healthy and on the field. Los Angeles struggles in special teams can also not be overlooked. After the Younghoe Koo debacle last season, the Chargers failed to shore up the kicker position this offseason. Los Angeles signed both Caleb Sturgis and Roberto Aguayo to compete for starting kicker with Sturgis eventually winning out with Aguayo getting cut. Sturgis looked strong in the preseason, but he should in no way quell the fears of worried Chargers fans everywhere. If everything breaks right, the Chargers could overtake the Chiefs for the AFC West crown, but more than likely they will settle for second place and a wild card berth.
3. Denver Broncos Projected Record: 7-9
The Denver Broncos have enough exciting players to keep a lot of their games competitive, but lack the coaching or the star power to truly compete with the upper echelon of the AFC. Denver’s new starter under center is Case Keenum, who unlike any of the Broncos quarterbacks last season, is actually a competent NFL quarterback. The addition of rookie running back Royce Freeman should provide a spark on an otherwise bleak offense that probably peaked about three years ago. Neither Demariyus Thomas nor Emmanuel Sanders are the players they used to be, but while Sander’s career could be extended by Keenum’s affinity for short and intermediate routes, a deep threat like Thomas could see a dramatic dip in production. Defensively, the Broncos still employ a bevy of playmakers across all levels of defense, but it has yet to translate to a strong, cohesive unit. Rookie pass rusher Bradley Chubb should excel from week one, and lining up opposite Von Miller will only open up opportunities for the top five pick. At middle linebacker Denver has Brandon Marshall, a quick and versatile tackling machine who captains the Bronco defense. Finally in the secondary Denver has retained a few crucial members of their Super Bowl winning defense, most namely cornerbacks Chris Harris Jr. and Bradley Roby. Both Harris Jr. and Roby grade out as above average starters and the two form an experienced and savvy cornerback duo. Overall, the Broncos will remain close in a lot of their games this season, but will ultimately wind up with a losing record and on the outside of the playoffs looking in.
4. Oakland Raiders Projected Record: 3-13
New Oakland Raiders head coach Jon Gruden’s handling of the Khalil Mack situation has only cemented my belief the Raiders will be an absolute dumpster fire this season. It takes a special kind of coach to have already lost the locker room before week one even begins, but then again Gruden is a special kind of guy. The move to trade Mack for two first round picks makes theory in a vaccum (tying up almost half your cap in two players like the Raiders would have with Carr and Mack doesn’t make team building sense) but not for an Oakland team that believes they can compete now. Trading away a player of that caliber sends a clear message to the rest of the team that winning is no longer a priority, and when that player was a team leader like Mack it can be even tougher to see the silver lining. For now, Mack departs a defense that could be one of the worst in the league. Bruce Irvin and draft darling Maurice Hurst are both enticing players in Oakland’s front seven, but overall the unit is lacking in exciting young talent. The secondary has a couple intriguing young players, including second year corner Gareon Conley and third year safety Karl Joseph. On the other side of the ball, the Raiders seem equally inept. Derek Carr has come to be defined by mediocrity, while Marshawn Lynch continues to chug along in his twelfth season in the league. Oakland’s receiving corps is more style than substance, with big names like Amari Cooper and Jordy Nelson masking just how bad this unit could be. Incredibly, this roster is one of the oldest in league history with an average age of 27.4. This is a full six months older than the next closest team, the Atlanta Falcons who clock in at 26.9. All signs point to the Raiders having an absolutely dreadful season, as Gruden’s return to coaching should get off to a less than stellar start.
1. Green Bay Packers Projected Record: 13-3
The offseason talk surrounding the NFC has typically centered on a handful of certain teams. The Los Angeles Rams are getting a lot of buzz for their flashy offseason moves, while the Minnesota Vikings, New Orleans Saints and Philadelphia Eagles are generally considered the class of the conference. Yet much of football media has ignored the Super Bowl contender staring them in the face, the Green Bay Packers. Lead by superstar quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the Packers will once again field one of the league’s most dynamic offenses. The addition of tight end Jimmy Graham to a pass catching group that includes wide receivers Davante Adams and Randall Cobb will give Rodgers plenty of ways to pick apart defenses, and should make Green Bay absolutely unstoppable in the red zone. The running back trio of Jamaal Williams, Aaron Jones and Ty Montgomery complement each other nicely, and if one is able to step up and take on lead ball carrying responsibilities a major question mark surrounding the offense would be answered. Defensively, the signing of defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson was one of the most underrated acquisitions of the offseason and transforms the Packers front seven into one of the best in football. Wilkerson and fellow defensive end Mike Daniels are an absolutely lethal pairing in the middle of that defense, and linebacker Blake Martinez should continue where he left off last season after co-leading the league in tackles. Green Bay’s greatest question mark lies in the secondary, where the team is relying heavily on talented yet inexperienced cornerbacks like rookies Jaire Alexander, Josh Jackson, and second year pro Kevin King. Alexander and Jackson were two of the draft’s most highly touted cornerback prospects, and both possess the skills to contribute from day one. In total, the Packers should be one of the best teams in football and a real threat to bring home the Lombardi trophy.
2. Minnesota Vikings Projected Record: 12-4
The Minnesota Vikings are one of this year’s trendy picks to make the Super Bowl, and it’s easy to see why. The have one of the most complete rosters in football, and their defense top to bottom might be the most talented in the league. The signing of defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson elevates Minnesota’s defensive line from great to unreal. Being able to generate an obscene amount of pressure when only sending four is a massive advantage, and helps define the Vikings defensive scheme as a whole. Safety Harrison Smith and cornerback Xavier Rhodes anchor one of the league’s strongest secondaries, while linebacker Anthony Barr controls the middle of the field. On the offensive side of the ball, the signing of quarterback Kirk Cousins and the extension for wide receiver Stefan Diggs clearly indicates Minnesotas shift towards a more aerial attack. It makes a lot of sense, considering Diggs and fellow pass catcher Adam Thielen form the leagues most talented wide receiver duo. The team will also look to utilize running back Dalvin Cook, who looked absolutely electric before going down with an injury early last season. The biggest question surrounding the Vikings is Cousins, and if he ultimately raises their ceiling or handicaps it. The idea that Cousins will be significantly better than last season’s starter Case Keenum is presumptuous, and underrates just how impressive Keenum was last season. Cousins has yet to show he can lead a team to the playoffs, and the pressure of expecting to improve off of last season’s NFC Championship game berth may be a little bit too much for Cousins. Ultimately Minnesota’s defense should be one of the stingiest in the league, and they will keep the Vikings in essentially every game they play. I personally have some concerns about Minnesota’s offense, but still feel confident enough to project double digit wins and another playoff berth.
3. Chicago Bears Projected Record: 8-8
The trade for pass rusher Khalil Mack was probably the most shocking of the offseason, and adds a whole new element to one of the league’s up and coming defenses. A player of Mack’s caliber elevates everyone around him, and a front seven that also includes fellow pass rusher Leonard Floyd and top ten pick Roquan Smith should improve from a borderline top ten unit to one of the league’s best. Chicago’s secondary hovers around league average, and safety Adrian Amos is a superstar hiding in plain sight. The biggest question surrounding this Bears team is the offense, and more specifically the play of quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. Believers in the Bears project a stellar season for Trubisky, and Chicago’s front office has certainly made it a priority to make his life as easy as possible for the upcoming season. That starts with the hiring of Matt Nagy as the team’s new head coach. Nagy, an Andy Reid disciple, was one of the most innovative young coordinators in the league last season and should completely revamp the Bears offense. Chicago’s front office has also surrounded Trubisky with a bevy of weapons, including running backs Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen as well as free agent signings wide receiver Allen Robinson and tight end Trey Burton. Couple all that with an above average offensive line, and all the pieces are in place for Trubisky to have a Jared Goff or Carson Wentz style breakout sophomore season. Chicago has set themselves up very nicely for the future, and I personally would be more optimistic about their upcoming season if they didn’t play in such a tough division.
4. Detroit Lions Projected Record: 3-13
The Detroit Lions boast one of the weakest and most uninspiring rosters in football, headlined by longtime quarterback Matt Stafford. The Lions offense once again projects as a below average unit, as their inability to cultivate a run game handicaps the teams overall ceiling. The team drafted running back Kerryon Johnson in the second round, but buried him on the depth chart behind veterans Theo Riddick and LeGarrette Blount. Detroit’s wide receivers are nothing to write home about, with Marvin Jones Jr. and Golden Tate the most talented of the group. Defensively, the Lions lack difference makers are every level of their defense. Defensive end Ziggy Ansah is a powerful force off the edge, but he lines up alongside three other league average talents at best. Middle linebacker Jarrad Davis is bursting with potential, but he must improve off his abysmal rookie season if he wants to remain in the league. Detroits secondary is similar to the team’s defensive line in that one outstanding talent (cornerback Darius Slay) must try and compensate for the rest of the abysmal unit. In total, Matt Patricia’s first season as Lions head coach looks primed to be a disappointing one as he inherits one of the leagues worst teams.
1. New Orleans Saints Projected Record: 12-4
The New Orleans Saints devastating playoff loss to the Minnesota Vikings last season shrouded just how talented that Saints team truly was. Running back Alvin Kamara’s production on a per touch basis was unlike anything we’ve ever seen before, and with the suspension of Mark Ingram for the first four games Kamara should see an heavy workload from the jump. Pair him with wide receiver Michael Thomas, and you have the most electric receiver/back combo in the NFC. All of these weapons at the disposal of quarterback Drew Brees sets the offense up for another stellar season. Last year’s incredible draft, which included rookie starters Kamara, cornerback Marshon Lattimore and offensive tackle Ryan Ramcyzk, has extended Brees career and transformed the Saints into Super Bowl contenders. Lattimore headlines a defense that took impressive strides last season and should continue to improve. Cameron Jordan forced his name into the Defensive Player of the Year conversation with a breakout season from the defensive end position. Jordan, setting career highs in sacks (13.5) and tackles (48), anchored a defensive line that produced the seventh most sacks in the league. Linebacker Manti Te’o had a nice bounce back season as New Orleans starting mike linebacker. In the secondary, safety Marcus Williams had a breakout campaign alongside the newly departed Kenny Vaccaro. Overall the Saints are one of the leagues best teams and should seriously contend for another Super Bowl appearance.
2. Carolina Panthers Projected Record: 9-7
All signs point to an absolutely monster season from Quarterback Cam Newton, with a new plethora of weapons that doesn’t include Kelvin Benjamin. The loss of guard Andrew Norwell will hurt, but Newton is mobile enough to survive behind what is now just an average line. Rookie wide receiver DJ Moore is instantly the team’s most talented receiver, but will still likely be the team’s third option through the air behind tight end Greg Olsen and running back Christian McCaffery. McCaffery, with his proficiency in both running and catching the ball, established himself last season as one of the league’s most versatile weapons and should see increased production in new offensive coordinator Norv Turner’s running back heavy scheme. On the defensive side of the ball, Luke Kuechly played 15 games last season for the first time in three years, and earned his first All-Pro nod since 2015. He and Thomas Davis remain one of the league’s strongest linebacker duos, and anchor a defense that was the third stingiest against the run last season. Much of that also has to do with one of the league’s best defensive lines, who added defensive tackle Dontari Poe to a group that already included lineman Kawann Short and Julius Pepper. The secondary remains the team’s biggest hurdle to Super Bowl contention, but rookie cornerback Donte Jackson could help elevate a unit that currently slots James Bradberry as it’s number one corner. In total, the Panthers have some serious flaws that will likely hold them back from their full potential. All it takes though is one or two breakout campaigns for this team to find themselves in the thick of the playoff race.
3. Atlanta Falcons Projected Record: 9-7
The Atlanta Falcons remain one of the leagues most prolific offenses, with an impressive group of weapons surrounding quarterback Matt Ryan. Ryan certainly has his flaws, and he looked shockingly average without offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, but he still possess the talent to lead this talented Falcons team to the playoffs. Wide receivers Julio Jones, rookie Calvin Ridley, and Mohamed Sanu form an enticing trio that should give secondaries fits while Atlanta’s running back combo of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman remains one of the league’s most electric. Combine all that with an above average line, and it’s hard to see this Falcons offense not finishing as a top ten unit. Defensively the Falcons took sizable strides as the unit transitioned from liability to league average. Deion Jones asserted himself as one of the league’s premiere linebacker talents, and with another healthy season could lead the league in tackles. The season ending injury to safety Keanu Neal is painful, but Atlanta’s secondary is well equipped to handle his absence. Cornerbacks Desmond Trufant is one of the best in the business, and Robert Alford is certainly an above average talent. On the defensive line, pass rusher Vic Beasley Jr. looks to return to his 2016 form when he lead the league with 15.5 sacks. Defensive end Takkarist McKinley produced as a rookie, and defensive tackle Grady Jarrett took a huge step forward in both run defense and rushing the passer. All in all the Falcons still have one of the most talented rosters in the NFC, and will advance as far as Matt Ryan can take them.
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers Projected Record: 2-14
Nothing about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers offseason has inspired confidence in the team for this upcoming season. Whether it was their starting quarterback getting suspended for the first three games, or their rookie running back absolutely crapping the bed in the preseason, the Buccaneers season seems over before it has even begun. Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick will lead the team for the first three games and possibly more depending on performance, but is straddled with one of the league’s worst group of skill position players. The fact that second round pick Ronald Jones was unable to beat out Peyton Barber for the team’s starting running back job is disappointing to put it lightly, and a disastrous start to a career many expected to blossom from week one. The Bucs receiving corps hovers around league average, with neither Mike Evans nor Desean Jackson playing at the levels they once occupied. Tampa Bay’s tight end combo of Cameron Brate and OJ Howard is probably the most intriguing unit on the offense, as Howard should assert himself as one of the league’s next great tight ends. On the other side of the ball, the defense still possesses a handful of difference makers at each level. On the defensive line, Gerald McCoy remains as one of the league’s most productive players. Teamed up with outstanding weak side linebacker Lavonte David, the Buccaneers boast an above average front seven. In the secondary, cornerback Vernon Hargreaves should improve after an up and down sophomore season. All said and done, Tampa Bay will be lucky to escape this season with more than four wins, and should be looking for their quarterback of the future come next April.
A crucial point about the AFC South before we begin. It’s the best division in football. Each team has a quarterback they can feel good about, and some semblance of a plan (ok, maybe not you Indianapolis). All things considered, this division should produce some of the best games of 2018, and could potentially put three teams in the playoffs.
1. Houston Texans Projected Record 12-4
Before Quarterback Deshaun Watson went down last season with a torn ACL, the Houston Texans looked to be one of the league’s most dynamic offenses. The team averaged over forty points a game over Watson’s final four starts, and they now have the benefit of playing a last place schedule. Houston’s offense will pick up right where it left off last season, and should continue to torch defenses from week one. Wide receivers Deandre Hopkins and Will Fuller complement each other beautifully, while running back Lamar Miller provides a steadying presence in the backfield. The major question mark surrounding the offense is the offensive line. Houston gave up the second most quarterback sacks and allowed the most quarterback hits of any offensive line in the league last season, yet failed to substantially improve the unit heading into 2018. Seantrel Henderson is the team’s new starting right tackle, and he played alright in seven starts with the Bills last season, but he is far from the solution. The one silver lining is Watson thrived behind a slightly worse offensive line last season, and there’s no reason to think he can’t again. Defensively, the Texans boast one of the league’s strongest front sevens with the return of superstar defensive end JJ Watt and the emergence of linebacker Jadeveon Clowney. The signing of free agent Tyrann Mathieu was one of the savviest in the league, and should pay dividends from the jump. Mathieu should help legitimize a secondary that gave up the second most passing touchdowns and the most plays over forty yards in the league last season. Overall, I predict huge things for the Texans this season behind the greatness of their quarterback prodigy Deshaun Watson.
2. Jacksonville Jaguars Projected Record: 12-4
After capturing the AFC South and making a impressive run to the AFC Championship game last season, the Jacksonville Jaguars will look to build off their surprising success. The team added All-Pro guard Andrew Norwell and wide receiver Donte Moncrief, but the offense looks essentially the same it did last season. The offense will still revolve around running back Leonard Fournette, but their ceiling is only so high with Blake Bortles at quarterback. He showed slight improvement over the course of last season, but overall he’s still a bottom tier signal caller. The Jaguars front office hasn’t done him any favors, surrounding him with an uninspiring group of receivers, but it will be interesting to see how much Doug Marrone and the rest of Jacksonville’s coaching staff asks of him. On the defensive side of the ball, Jacksonville remains one of the league’s most feared units. Lead by All-Pros Calais Campbell and Jalen Ramsey, this defense is overflowing with talent at every level. With no conceivable weaknesses and plenty of depth, it’s hard not to see this defense continuing to dominate and carrying this Jaguars team to the playoffs.
3. Tennesse Titans Projected Record: 9-7
The Tennessee Titans spent the past offseason molding themselves in the image of the New England Patriots, and if there is a team to model yourself after it is certainly the Pats. With the hiring of Mike Vrabel as head coach, and the signings of both Dion Lewis and Malcom Butler, the Titans front office clearly placed an impetus on bringing the New England culture to Nashville. Vrabel’s biggest concern is likely the progression of quarterback Marcus Mariota, and to that he turns to new offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur. LaFleur, the first branch of the Sean Mcvay coaching tree, is the new offensive coordinator in Tennessee and Mariota’s new best friend. Mariota has never had a coordinator half as creative as LaFleur, and an offense heavy with play action, run pass options, and trick plays will best utilize Mariota’s unique skillset. At this point, Mariota has run out of excuses. The weapons around him have never been better; Corey Davis is an enticing option at wide receiver, Delaine Walker is still one of the leagues best tight ends, and the running back tandem of Derrick Henry and Lewis form an impressive one-two punch. On defense, the Titans have a number of enticing playmakers littered across the unit. Kevin Byard may be the most underrated player in the league, and Adoree Jackson showed flashes of dominance in his rookie season. Up front, Jurrell Casey remains one of the leagues best defensive tackles, and Derrick Morgan is a strong presence off the edge. The opportunities are there for the Titans to jump into the upper echelon of the AFC, but they all hinge on the play of Mariota. His improvement will almost singlehandedly determine the outcome of Tennessee’s season, and it could shake up the entire AFC playoff picture.
4. Indianapolis Colts Projected Record: 4-12
Similar to most last place teams, the Indianapolis Colts roster is bereft of talent. Unlike most last place teams though, they actually have a plan at quarterback. Assuming he returns to his pre injury form (granted that’s a big assumption), Andrew Luck has enough talent to keep the Colts in almost every game they play. Their wide receiving corps is nothing to write home about, as T.Y. Hilton proved last season how ineffective he is without Luck under center, and running backs Marlon Mack and Jordan Wilkins have much to prove before they could be considered starting-caliber backs. Thankfully the Colts front office have finally placed a priority on protecting Luck, and a combination of center Ryan Kelly and guard Quenton Nelson should help keep Luck upright for the foreseeable future. Defensively, Indianapolis is lacking in elite talent and should be one of the worst units in the league. Free safety Malik Hooker is the only long term solution at any position for the Colts, as he and pass rusher Jabaal Sheard may be the only NFL caliber players in the starting eleven. All in all, Luck will breathe some much needed life into this franchise, but their defense is far too young and inexperienced for the Colts to seriously compete in the cutthroat AFC South.