Saturday, September 01, 2018

A tale of two Jon Gruden Eras

By Douglas V. Gibbs

Khalil Mack is no longer a member of the Raiders' organization.  He was traded to the Bears, and Oakland gets a couple first round picks in the draft in return.  And just like that, the contrast between Jon Gruden's first Raiders ride and his new role in the Raiders organization became clear as can be.

Under Al Davis, Gruden was just a coach.  Unlike his contemporaries, owner Al Davis inserted himself as a major influence on everything regarding the Raiders.  The son of the late Al Davis, Mark Davis, is not quite so hands on.

Even Reggie McKenzie, the general manager, is suddenly not as involved as before.  The person to impress, if you wish to be in on the new Raiders revolution, is head coach Jon Gruden.  And, when it came to Khalil Mack, the best defensive player in the NFL, apparently either Gruden was not impressed, or Gruden believes he can build a better defense without the Defensive Player of the Year candidate.

So much for Oakland's foundation having the big bad Khalil Mack as its cornerstone.

The deal to the Bears gives Chicago a huge paycheck they have to pay Mack (which is expected to soar to record levels), and to the Raiders goes two-first round picks (2019 and 2020), a third-rounder (2020) and a sixth-rounder (2019).

Fellow defensive edge protector Bruce Irvin was shocked, tweeting "No f***ing way".  Quarterback Derek Carr also tweeted "No way" shortly after.

The shocking development has rocked the Raiders organization, to say the least.

The question is now if the Bill Belichick control in Oakland Jon Gruden now has is a good thing, or a bad thing.  I am not saying that Mark Davis taking an interest in the way his dad did would be a good thing (or would be even possible), but the great work putting this team together that Reggie McKenzie has accomplished being put aside in such a sudden manner can't be exactly what the Raiders faithful may have been hoping for when they jumped up and down over the return of Gruden to the Raiders.

That all said, the whole reason the last union of Gruden with the Raiders ended not so well was purely because Gruden did not have a hold of enough of the reins, and Al Davis .  The reality is, personality-wise, Gruden has a Belichick kind of personality.  He's a "my way or the highway" kind of guy.  One simply wonders if the Gruden pathway is the right one.  I suppose it doesn't matter.  Gruden is there for ten years, so Oakland has no choice but to find out.

Sure, success often requires risk, and Jon Gruden is a calculated risk with fairly good odds attached, but is it really a good idea to give him so much control that even Reggie McKenzie is waiting nervously in the corner and the team's best player heads out the door?

Mark Davis seems not to be worried, commenting, "[Gruden’s] vision is going to be most important building what type of team we’ve got. That vision, and that direction is going to be helpful to Reggie more so than not. I think they’ll work together very well."

Davis later added, “Jon’s the head coach and he’s going to be here a while, so it’s important that he gets the players he wants and builds a team he wants to build. Reggie is there with his staff to find the players, and also to keep the cap and everything else in order.”

In short, Jon Gruden’s vision is the most important one in the franchise.  He not only has sole possession of the reins, but everyone else has been thrown off the cart.

The Raiders may or may not be fine without Mack, but I will venture to say that my prediction of a 5-11 finish for the Chicago Bears may be grossly inaccurate, and an AFC West crown for the Raiders may not be a few seasons away.

If, once in Las Vegas, the Raiders become a powerhouse, and Gruden's decision brings the Raiders back to winning ways largely because of the draft picks he got because of the Mack deal with the Bears, we may have to put up with Chuckie's trademark smirky grin, and a hearty "I told you so."

Right now, however, for Raiders fans hoping to get the ship turned around sooner, rather than later, that possibility not only irks them, it is a death nail for the City of Oakland, who was hoping to at least be able to celebrate one more winning ride with their Raiders before the team takes off for a vision of greener pastures in the middle of the desert.

-- Gibbs Sports

Sunday, August 26, 2018

NFL 2018 Team Preview and Predictions

2018 NFL Season Predictions

AFC EAST

13-3 … New England Patriots:  I have never been a fan of the team, but I know greatness when I see it.  I remember when the Patriots were so bad that they nearly lost their franchise.  Then the dynasty arrived, and Tom Brady continues to defy time, and injury.  While I never bet against Tom Brady and his Patriots, the last Super Bowl revealed that Goliath can be slain.  But, that beating will not come easily, and only happen rarely.  Brady is still the best, and the 41-year old quarterback's age will not pose as a factor in keeping the Patriots out of the Super Bowl.

Brady’s targets are Rob Gronkowski, who is working to come back from an ACL injury, and Julian Edelman who is near the top of his game.  Chris Hogan, Cordarrelle Patterson and Phillip Dorsett round out the rest of the weapons, and they are fast.  Offensive Coordinator Josh McDaniels is going to have fun getting creative with that kind of speed.

The running game is good, not great, but with Brady at the helm, setting up a passing game with a strong running game is not a concern.

Last year the defense looked great until the Philadelphia Eagles tore a giant hole in the Patriots’ defensive scheme and scored 41 points.  Is the New England defense weak?  No pass rush, and a linebacker corps that is drastically underachieving.  While the secondary is strong, and a return of Dont'a Hightower from injury will return some edge power for the linebackers, a quick short game by talented offenses could give New England's opponents some opportunities to score higher than the Patriots would like.

Thanks to injuries, the special teams unit is nothing to scream about.

While New England should easily be able to win their division, they are no longer a slam dunk to go to the AFC Championship Game, much less any more Super Bowls.  I am not saying they won’t, or can’t, I am just saying that championship seasons are no longer a guarantee.

8-8 … New York Jets: The Jets have an interesting problem.  They have nowhere to go but up.  Draft pick Sam Darnold is looking like everything they’ve hoped for.  Josh McCown is still a capable quarterback if needed.  Teddy Bridgewater wants to prove he can still start in the NFL.  While they don’t have a blistering running back or a top notch receiver, they have capable solid players in both places. 

New York's defense, like the offense, is not necessarily bad, but nothing to plan for the playoffs with.  

Special teams is solid, and will be the best part of the Jets' game.

I am expecting McCown and Teddy Bridgewater to be gone early, as soon as some big quarterbacks somewhere in the league go down with injury, and teams out there somewhere beginning looking for reasonable replacements.  With Darnold behind center, the Jets will be better, but the rebuilding project is still a couple years out from bringing a winning recipe to Jets fans.  They will miss a winning season by one game.

7-9 … Buffalo Bills: In my opinion, Josh Allen was the most talented and most athletic quarterback in the draft, and while the Bills are still trying to build upon their playoff visit in the 2017 season, and they won’t be any kind of powerhouse, their improvement with Allen under center will be vast and noticeable (even if they wind up with less wins).  While the receiving positions still need to be filled with better talent, reliable ball catchers are available at tight end.

Last year’s defense was not bad, and improvements have been made.  The defensive line is a pretty good one, and the secondary is exceptional.  I believe they could have a winning record if they can find a way to keep the Jets from sweeping them, and they pick up a shock win.  It’ll be a slow start, with a tough schedule and a new quarterback, out the gate.  No playoffs.  It’ll be close.  They will be the team that almost has a winning record, and almost has a chance to go to the playoffs, but both things will elude them, giving rookie quarterback Josh Allen just enough encouragement to break out in 2019.

2-14 … Miami Dolphins: Everyone has decided the Dolphins will be bad.  Quarterback Ryan Tannehill is coming back from a knee injury, but he was not that great in the first place.  In the draft, the Dolphins said otherwise, not drafting any replacement, and putting all of their faith in their less than .500 QB.  Jarvis Landry is gone, so Tannehill will need to find a new favorite receiver.  The running game is capable, and newcomer Frank Gore, a likely Hall of Famer, should be an improvement. 

The defense is very young and very inexperienced.  The pick up of Robert Quinn from the Rams does put a much needed veteran in the mix.  The Secondary is good, and perhaps the strongest part of the whole team, with Rashad Jones leading the secondary at safety.  It’s a slow unit, but better than most realize.


AFC NORTH

13-3 … Pittsburgh Steelers: Experience and maturity matters.  Pittsburgh has both.  Everyone was surprised when the younger, less experienced, and less mature Jacksonville Jaguars knocked the terrible towel wielders out of the playoffs, last year.  A Tom Brady rematch with Big Ben Roethlisberger was fully expected, and it was disappointing that it did not happen.

The great Steeler defense lost all of its pizzazz when Ryan Shazier was lost in Week 12 last year.  That loss may be a large part of the reason Pittsburgh didn’t go deep into the playoffs.  The defense has been reconstructed, and the secondary is better as a result.  Special Teams, as always, remains more than reliable.

Big Ben is not as fast as he once was, but he’s dang-near as tough, and he is still a very capable quarterback with good enough pieces around him to make winning happen.  The AFC rematch between Pittsburgh and New England seems to be in the cards.  In the case of Pittsburgh, however, there are enough obstacles in the way that they will have to work to achieve it.  They will dominate in the win column, but each victory will be a fight that lasts all the way into the fourth quarter.

8-8 … Baltimore Ravens: I have always believed that Joe Flacco is overrated.  He’s an average quarterback that has somehow accomplished better than average things.  His success has largely been due to the fact that he’s been surrounded by extremely talented players.  That said, rookie QB Lamar Jackson is not going to dislodge him … yet.  The offense will be fine now that Flacco has put the back injury of last year behind him.   With Jackson nipping at his heels, Flacco will not regain his Super Bowl form, but will be good enough to keep the Ravens in serious contention.

The arrival of Crabtree will help when it comes to targets for Flacco, and he will have no shortage of reliable targets.  The return of a pretty good running game last year will carry into 2018.

The defense returns as it was.  While there were no improvements made, until they met Pittsburgh just in time to keep them out of the playoffs last year, Baltimore’s defense was a dominating force.
Punting and kicking is a powerful force for the Ravens, but the returners remain a question.

Baltimore is not championship caliber, but they will be solid enough to remain above .500 for most of the year (but the .500 finish at 8 and 8 will be heartbreaking for a fan base that is used to winning).

8-8 … Cincinnati Bengals: Little is changing, but with the Ravens dropping in the win column a little, the Bengals will smell the blood in the water and kick up their game a few notches.  The very bad offensive line will have to get into an acceptable mode of play.  The running game depends on it.  The passing game depends on the running game getting going.  In short, if Cincinnati can’t get their game in the trenches rolling, they may not be able to get into the win column.  Granted, quarterback Andy Dalton has A.J. Green, and a pretty reliable set of receivers to throw to, but that won’t matter if he’s running for his life every snap and has no running game because of a failed O-line.

The defensive coordinator left town to go to the Raiders.  The defense has not been horrible, but it’s not been anything to write home about, either.  I will admit, the locally developed secondary is more than capable and ranks among the better pass defenses in the league.

Special teams is essentially reliable, but still hasn’t proven to be among the better squads.  Likely, the best Cincinnati can do this season is an even .500.  Basic football, but nothing spectacular.

2-14 … Cleveland Browns: The Browns have won one game in two years.  They literally have nowhere to go but up after going winless last year, and with drafted quarterback Baker Mayfield, and Tyrod Taylor from the Bills, hope reigns supreme, and the light at the end of the tunnel has been official relit.  That said, don’t hold your breath just yet.  It will take time.

Taylor will be the starter in game one.  Eventually, his ineffectiveness and injuries will draw Mayfield into the starting position somewhere around the midpoint of the season (perhaps earlier).  Taylor will win one.  Mayfield will win one.  By the end of the season, unless there is an injury that makes the decision for them (and with Tyrod’s hand injury in week 3 of the pre-season, I wonder), the Browns will go into the offseason with the same problem: An equal competition between the two quarterbacks where going into 2019 the starting job remains up for grabs.  Don’t get me wrong.  I know that Baker Mayfield is considered the future of the franchise by the Cleveland organization.  The question is not if he becomes the starter. It’s when.  I think circumstances may work in Mayfield’s favor this season.

The offensive line has holes, especially with the departure of Tackle Joe Thomas who decided it was time to retire. The receiving corps is somewhere between a talent range of the XFL and the CFL.  The running game does not look promising, either.  If the offense is going to get kick-started, Taylor and Mayfield will have to light the fires themselves.  Whichever one is capable of that spark will likely be the one to start next year.

Last year the defense was downright awful, but with a reasonably decent draft the Browns may have improved upon their otherwise horrid defensive situation.  Draft pick Denzel Ward at cornerback is definitely an improvement for the secondary, Jamie Collins returning after a knee injury should enable the linebacker corps to be better, and the defensive line was not the most glaring weakness last year and may be serviceable this year.  The rookies on special teams have a year under their belt, and will likely be a lot better than last year, as well.  In the end, the Browns are better, but they are still a basement dweller for the time being.  However, they will win two games, which is twice as many wins as their complete win total over the last two years.

AFC SOUTH

12-4 … Jacksonville Jaguars: Talk about going deep into the playoffs.  The Jaguars reached the AFC Championship Game last season, and now they have to prove they belonged there.  The offense is better, the defense is near the top of its capabilities, I expect Jacksonville to continue to do well.
Quarterback Blake Bortles gets to keep his offensive line, and running game.  The receiving corps may have gotten better after replacing a few targets.

The defense, last year, pretty much ranked first or second in most of the categories.  The talent is returning, and more has been picked up.  What’s that saying?  You win games with offense, but you win championships with defense.

If there was any weakness, last year, it was on special teams.  The long snapper, after last year’s injury, will be returning, and there will be a few more returners in the mix.  Chances are, special teams will improve.

If the Jaguars don’t become their own worst enemy with smug arrogance, they may have a shot to reach the Big Game.

9-7 … Indianapolis Colts: While I don’t want to worry too much about what we see in the pre-season, Andrew Luck is not looking good on the field, and even if he was 100% healthy, the Colts have a lot of work ahead of them if they wish to compete.

In Week 2 of the preseason against the Ravens, Luck was sacked twice.  He also threw an interception.  He could not find any kind of rhythm.  Was it an offensive line problem?  Or is Luck a long way away from returning to his once great form?  As for his shoulder, this year’s pre-season is the first time Luck has played since his January 2017 shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum on his throwing shoulder.  A labrum injury is an impact injury, and a very painful injury, and it limits shoulder mobility and strength.  With the injury Luck is now, from a physical standpoint, only an average quarterback with a 50% chance of re-injury.  Fear of re-injuring the shoulder will make him skittish, more careful.  Unless the offensive line can protect him in ways that rivals the best O-lines in history, Luck is going to be sub-par.  One good thing from Luck’s point of view was that when he was sacked by Suggs in game two of the pre-season, and that shoulder was pounded as his right elbow was driven into the turf when he fell on it (in a manner similar to when he originally injured his shoulder), he got up and the shoulder survived.  Maybe the percentage of re-injury is not as high as we may think.

Under new defensive management, the scheme is switching from a 3-4 alignment to a 4-3 formation.  I wonder if the change will keep off balance a defense that already ranked near last last year in total yards and points allowed, and even worse in sacks.  The secondary still needs to prove itself.

The most stable part of the Colts’ game is kicker Adam Vinatieri, the ageless wonder who, in his 23rd year, keeps knocking them through the uprights.

The Colts are in a tough division, and there are a lot of questions.  It’ll be a tough return for Andrew Luck, but they’ll fight through it and maybe they’ll get into the playoffs, too.

8-8 … Tennessee Titans: A new beginning.  New helmets.  New uniforms.  New head coach (Mike Vrabel).  They finished last year with one playoff win.

Quarterback Marcus Mariota is no longer a rookie.  He’s an interesting player, with so much talent and capabilities, yet he struggled last year.  The Heisman winner has yet to pull off a 16-game season.
The receivers show potential, but again there has been injury issues. 

The running game is anchored by Derrick Henry who is capable of slamming through defensive lines, but struggled last year, achieving only two 100-yard games.

The offensive line is the strength of the offensive unit in Tennessee, and with a couple of free agent acquisitions, the O-line is one of the things that is not a concern for the Titans.

Like the offense, the defense has promise, but has not been proving itself like it should.  Rookie linebackers Rashaan Evans from Alabama and Harold Landry from Boston College will make opposing quarterbacks nervous.  The secondary is solid thanks to some key signings during the off-season. 

Special teams remains a strength, with Kicker Ryan Succop and Punter Brett Kern ranking as the best in the league.  This is a team that should be capable of reaching the playoffs, again, but I don’t see it happening.

2-14 … Houston Texans: Injuries killed the Texans.  New free agents and draft picks fill the roster.  Ownership understood it was just a perfect storm of bad luck, and decided to leave the coaching staff intact.  Quarterback Deshaun Watson was one of those injuries, so he remains an unproven rookie.  I am not sure he’s the great QB that his supporters say he is, and I am not even sure he’s ready for the regular season after the torn ACL he suffered last November.  The offensive line was pretty awful last year.  The running backs were lack luster, with no speed or big-play surprises.  Wide Receiver DeAndre Hopkins was last year’s high point, with over a thousand yards and an NFL best 13 touchdowns.  The rest of the receivers and tight ends never got a chance to show what they could do because they all were hit with injuries.

Defensively, J.J. Watt should be back from injury, as well as most of his defensive side battery mates.  Jadeveon Clowney will be frightful against NFL offenses.  This was a unit that was first in the NFL in 2016, but was crushed by injuries last year.  The secondary got some help with free-agent additions CB Aaron Colvin and Safety Tyrann Mathieu, which is a good thing because last year they were under fire the whole season.  Punting with Shane Lechler and kickoffs with Ka’imi Fairbairn are good, but consistency with field goals was not quite there.

Not a great lineup, and there has been questions about the ability to remain healthy.  Maybe it’s time to find some players who can stay healthy.  In short, the rebuild is not complete.


AFC WEST

9-7 … Oakland Raiders: The success of the Raiders depends on if the Jon Gruden experiment pays off as quickly as Mark Davis is hoping.  Gruden is the perfect coach for Quarterback Derek Carr, and Carr is the kind of talent Gruden needs.  Gruden believes in being tough, and exposing a QB’s talents through that hard work, and Carr is willing to learn.  Could we see a return in 2018 of the MVP Candidate Carr that went 12-3 before he broke his leg a couple seasons ago in 2016?

Gruden believes in a powerful running game that compliments a strong passing attack.  While I am not sure the running game can meet his expectations, I believe the receiving corps Amari Cooper and Jordy Nelson (fresh in from Green Bay) combined with Carr returning to his gunslinger ways is something that may be able to make Coach Gruden proud.

With Khalil Mack, the Raiders Defense is monstrous.  Without him, it’s all a question mark.  At the time of the writing of this article the beast that is Khalil Mack is still a no-show.  Should Oakland give in and pay him what he thinks he’s worth?  Can they get along without him?  Rookie tackles P.J. Hall and Maurice Hurst are ready to prove they can replace him, or compliment Mack if he decides to join the team.  Defensive End Mario Edwards is solid.  Bruce Irvin will likely have to be a pass-rush specialist off the edge, which will work fine for the man who started at outside linebacker last year.  New defensive coordinator Paul Guenther may be able to get these guys making some interceptions and sacks, something that was not happening last year (especially during the first 10 games under Defensive Coordinator Ken Norton Jr. who was fired at that point).

The secondary is in the middle of an overhaul, but since it was the largest weakness of last year’s defensive squad, the newcomers with 2017 first round pick Gareon Conley, strong safety Karl Joseph and free safety Reggie Nelson as the anchors could be a much better part of the defensive scheme.
I can’t say the same about the linebackers.  The defensive line has some great rookie additions, and should be a better unit in 2018.

Marquette King is gone.  Sebastian Janikowski was not re-signed.  Georgio Tavecchio is okay, but how do you follow behind the great Sea-Bass?  Returner Cordarelle Patterson is gone, too.  Special teams poses as a huge question mark.

The Raiders will definitely finish better than last year’s disaster, but I don’t see them recapturing the magic of the 2016 season’s 12-4 finish.  Carr, if he plays as he is capable, and if the Gruden magic does in fact get the Raiders back into high gear, it is possible the Raiders will get into the playoffs, especially with the rest of the division struggling, but they are definitely not a high odds favorite to do so in 2018.  Greatness may take a couple years.  That said, the Oakland faithful is hoping for a great season this year, because it might be their last one in Oakland.

8-8 … San Diego Los Angeles Chargers: I am still having trouble with that "The Chargers are in Los Angeles, now" thing.

San Diego always knew that Philip Rivers is a quarterback that should be winning, but he’s never had the personnel around him to help him do so.  Every year he’s running for his life thanks to a weak offensive line, and when he does get the passes off, the receivers have butter-fingers.  Experts say that won’t happen, this year.  This is the year Rivers finally gets his due.  The thing is, they said that last year, too.  I am not as convinced as they are.

The playoffs eluded the Chargers by one game, last year.  This year, the Raiders are experimenting with Gruden, the Chiefs have lost their quarterback Alex Smith, and the Broncos are still stuck in their losing ways.  Could that be a recipe the Chargers can use to win the division?

Antonio Gates is gone.  Keenan Allen remains.  The other targets are question marks, as is the running game.

Defense was manageable last year, and the Chargers worked to improve upon it with their first four draft picks.  Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram were fantastic last year, and with the new recruits the Chargers may be getting a lot more production from their defense than they’ve seen in a long time.
On paper, the secondary looks great.  Injuries haven’t helped.

Special teams have been a special problem, and last year the Chargers were better off going for it on fourth down.

Gruden’s Raiders will edge the Chargers, and Rivers will likely miss the playoffs by a slim margin, again, likely thanks to a downward plunge at the last minute.

They will likely finish second in the division.

7-9 … Kansas City Chiefs: Patrick Mahomes is not Alex Smith.  He’s a rookie.  He’s unproven and being thrown into a situation he is likely not ready for.  I don’t believe the start of the Mahomes era will be a complete disaster, but it won’t be the wonderful rise that Kansas City fans are making it out to be.  While he’s a physical specimen, and has shown himself to be a talented passer, the reality is that the NFL is a whole new animal that he will have to quickly adjust to.

Tyreek Hill will likely be his favorite target.  Hill is fast, and makes plays.  Sammy Watkins will be out there, too.  The free-agent has a proven record, when healthy.  Travis Kelce at tight end will likely be a capable target as well.

Kareem Hunt leads a strong running game.  The offensive line is solid.  Therefore, if Mahomes can hold it together and play his game, he definitely has the right supporting cast around him.

The defense does not have as glowing of a record as the offense.  Quarterbacks threw the ball with ease against the Chiefs’ defense, last year.  That said, the secondary has undergone a huge overhaul.  Perhaps there will be improvement. 

The Chiefs are good with their inside linebackers.  The defensive line still needs improvement, and the draft and free agent acquisitions from the off-season won’t do it.

The Mahomes offense may win some games, but the struggling defense will lose its fair share, as well.

After a slow start they will begin to win, but it won’t be enough.

5-11 … Denver Broncos: Champions, no more.  The downward spiral to the AFC West cellar happened quickly.  Having no solid quarterback leadership will do that to you.  The latest dabble will be Case Keenum.  He gave Minnesota some good moments.  He protects the ball, and plays basic football.

The coaching staff is largely gone, but head coach Vance Joseph got to stay. Bill Musgrave, after joining Denver after a couple years with the Raiders, will go from QB Coach to offensive coordinator.  Problem is, he doesn’t have a lot to work with.

Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders serve as two viable receivers, but they’re all Keenum will have, for the most part.  The running game is in disarray.  The offensive line needs improvement.
The only reason the Broncos have been competing at all is because of their defense.  But, 2017 was not a banner year for them, either.  Has the Von Miller-led squad lost a few steps? 

Special teams is a hit and miss.  Rookie returner Isaiah McKenzie fumbled six times, last year.  They have added former Raider Marquette King, which means the punting part of the formula will not be a problem.  Otherwise, special teams is a disaster.

I am not sure Keenum is the guy, and there are too many holes for the Broncos to effectively compete.  The basement will be their dwelling place in 2018, and likely next year, too.

NFC EAST

11-5 … Philadelphia Eagles: Repeating as Super Bowl Champions is near impossible.  It has been done.  It can be done.  But, it’s not likely.  Especially with a hobbling starter, and a back-up who surprised everyone last year.

Carson Wentz thinks he’s ready, after tearing his ACL last December.  Nick Foles proved he’s a more than capable back-up, winning the big game, and grabbing the MVP award to boot.  One thing is for sure.  Both quarterbacks are more than capable . . . when healthy.

The QB job still belongs to Wentz.  Foles, however, can not only handle the job if needed, but he has a good attitude about it, realizing the team really belongs to Wentz.

Philadelphia is an interesting brew.  Nobody really pops out as a star, yet the receiving corps is more than capable, and the offensive line surprised everyone with a solid performance in 2017.

The defense also surprised a lot of doubters, but finished fourth overall last year.  The defense was solid, racking up plenty of sacks and big plays when needed.  Even the secondary, who started slow in 2017, finished strong and formidable.

Jake Elliot’s rookie leg was nailing most of his field goal attempts last year, proving that he was the guy to kick it.  Sproles turned out to be a very capable returner.

Most of the team is back, most of them are healthy, and the team is built to pound its way through its schedule.  The Eagles will be in the mix, though I am not sure if they can repeat the Super Bowl magic of last season.

9-7 … Dallas Cowboys: America’s Team may be ready to pull it all together.  Dak Prescott has solidified his spot at quarterback.  Tony Romo is gone and the Cowboys are fine with it.  Wide Receiver Dez Bryant and Tight End Jason Witten are gone, too.  That’s okay.  Prescott has Running Back Ezekiel Elliott, and new targets to play with.  With the kind of offensive line Dallas has been sporting, Prescott will have all the time in the world to find his receivers.  All he needs is for them to catch the ball.

The defensive unit in Dallas has been good, too.  Replacements and rookies are in the mix, and they’ve completely remade their secondary, but on paper it all looks pretty strong.

If there is a concern, it’s special teams. 

Head Coach Jason Garrett would like to keep his job.  A winning season will help.  A playoff bid would be better.  With only two playoff appearances and one postseason win in seven years at the helm of the Cowboys, he’s on the hot seat, and I think he’ll respond.

Being in the same division as Philadelphia, the New York Giants, and the Redskins will make it difficult to get into the post-season, though.

8-8 … New York Giants: Eli Manning and his New York Giants stunk up the place, last year.  3-13 is a rough thing to go through.  At one point Eli Manning even got benched.  The Giants are ready to rebuild, but it seems they think Manning might have one more run for a championship left in him.  There’s two seasons left on his contract.

It doesn’t hurt to have Odell Beckham Jr. on the team.  An ankle injury only sidelined him for a while, but it looks like he’s back to his old self.  Sterling Shepard is a nice second target.  Saquon Barkley has been added to the mix, providing a running game that might be exactly what Manning needs in order to open up his passing game.

Manning, however, must produce.  This is his chance to do what needs to be done, and go out like his brother did, notching a fairytale ending to his career.

Unfortunately, New York’s horrid defense may be horrible again, which was a shock because it went from being among the best to the worst pretty quickly.

While many of the old defensive unit remains, the scheme will be changing from the 4-3 to the more aggressive 3-4 formation.  A few new faces will be in the mix, as well.  We’ll see how it all works out.

Special teams is a problem every year.  Don’t hold your breath about it in 2018.

The Giants are a contender, if Eli makes it happen.  It’s all up to him.  Everything seems to add up nicely on paper.  Manning has better protection, and that was the key to fix all of their problems, the Giants leadership believes.

4-12 … Washington Redskins: The Kansas City Chiefs did well with Alex Smith at the helm. Was it the quarterback, or the personnel around him?

The Redskins are now in possession of Alex Smith, an underrated quarterback who surprised quite a few folks while he was in KC.  Cousins is off to Minnesota, and while Smith is older than the QB he replaced in D.C., I think he’s the better field general.  The ‘Skins opted to use the 2018 draft to build a team around Smith.  They did, however, decide to keep quite a few of the players Cousins had to work with, as well.  The O-line is solid.  Tight End Jordan Reed is explosive.  The other targets, Josh Doctson, Jamison Crowder, Ryan Grant and Terrelle Pryor (the QB turned WR) are good ones as well.  Free agent Paul Richardson will definitely add to an already better than average receiving corps.

Setting up that passing game, however, may be a challenge.  There is essentially no running game. 

Last year the defense finished last in the NFL.  Repairing such a glaring problem became a focus of the Washington off-season endeavors.  They drafted big linemen, and used free agency to boost their run defense after re-signing the lead tackler from 2017, Linebacker Zach Brown, and keeping their linebacker unit from last year.

Pass defense was the strong-point in Washington, last year.  Nonetheless, more talented secondary players were brought in via the draft and free agency.  Since some of their key secondary warriors were lost during the off-season, it is a wonder on if the Redskins did enough to keep their secondary competitive.

The punting game is fine, but return men never seemed to be a consistent thing.  Nine different players shared the kickoff return duties in 2017.

The Redskins are better, and are getting better, but I don’t see a winning season on the horizon, just yet.  It’s coming … just not in 2018.  This season they will fall short of .500, not just because they are still building, but they’ve also got a pretty tough schedule.  Alex Smith, however, gives them hope that a winning season will happen sooner in their future, rather than later. 

NFC NORTH

12-4 … Minnesota Vikings: Last year the Vikings, at times, looked like the best team in the league.  They were 13-3 with Case Keenum as quarterback.  They had a good running game and a powerful defensive game.  All they needed was a more capable quarterback to get them over the hump.  Knowing that the QB position needed to be addressed, Minnesota’s management grabbed Kirk Cousins from Washington, and rewarded him with $84 million.  Cousins needs to prove himself, but the Vikings offense is willing to do what it can to make him look good.

Cousins is coming off of 4,000 plus yard seasons three years in a row.  With Running Back Dalvin Cook setting up the passing game, and a whole list of capable receivers at his disposal, I am thinking the offense will have no problem scoring.

The trenches is where the Vikings were winning last year, and that offensive line unit remains intact.  Minnesota made solid acquisitions to give the O-line some help, as well, just in case.

The defense is where the Vikings really shined, last year.  They led the league in fewest points allowed, and yards allowed.  Injuries left the unit largely alone last year, and the secondary has two first-team All-Pro picks in free safety Harrison Smith and cornerback Xavier Rhodes.  Some draft picks help to solidify an already strong defensive unit.

Place Kicker Kai Forbath struggled last year, but it was an uncommon anomaly.  He has a big enough leg to carry the duties.  Punter Ryan Quigley had a rough year in 2017 as well, but his ability to turn it around remains questionable.  Kick returns are not a weakness, with Marcus Sherels and sensational rookie Mike Hughes out of UCF (taken 30th overall in the draft).

With the size of the contract given to Cousins, the Vikings have shown that they have faith in their new quarterback.  In interviews, Cousins has proclaimed the same love for his new team.  The talent is definitely there.  A Super Bowl is definitely not outside of the realm of possibilities for this team.  It all comes down to chemistry.  If Cousins fits in well, the Packers have a tough division-mate on their hands in Minnesota.

11-5 … Green Bay Packers: There is an argument being waged about whether Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady is the best active quarterback in the NFL.  Regardless of the answer to that one, there is no doubt that Aaron Rodgers is the top NFC thrower.  Last year’s injury season for Rodgers was devastating for the Packers.  Last time he was injured, his rookie year in 2013, he came back and pulled off an MVP.

Last year Rodgers missed seven games, which caused the Packers to miss the playoffs for the first time in nearly a decade, and finish with a losing 7-9 record.  Rodgers says he’s back to full strength.
Another challenge is a new offensive scheme.  That means new coaching, new plays, and an additional obstacle to crawl over.  The new receivers, however, should be a boost.

The passing game is complimented by a running game that has a lot of potential, but the second year running backs Jamaal Williams and Aaron Jones are still in a learning curve.

On defense, the defensive coordinator Dom Capers is gone.  The defense underachieved, so changes were made.  A couple cornerbacks were drafted, four capable defensive linemen remain, and Green Bay hopes their linebacker unit can make some leaps toward improvement.

The kicking game is solid.

The Packers may pull off the division, and they may visit the playoffs, but it won’t be the season Aaron Rodgers wants, or is capable of.  They will win, but because their great quarterback will have to carry the Packers on his back.  If he doesn’t get injured, the Packers will make it interesting, but the NFC elite won’t have to worry about them going very deep into the playoffs.

9-7 … Detroit Lions: Matthew Stafford is a good quarterback.  With the right folks surrounding him, I believe he could be a great quarterback.  The Lions agree, and have been moving around their roster to try to find the right combination. 

The time is now.  Stafford is in his prime.  Despite a rash of injuries to his supporting cast, he still pulled off a reasonable season in 2017.

Detroit invested in the off-season in the running game, signing LeGarrette Blount, and drafting Kerryon Johnson.  The offensive line has been overhauled, as well.

Receivers are ready for the big plays, with Marvin Jones, Golden Tate, and Kenny Golladay having no problem getting down the field quickly.  Theo Riddick is a great target out of the backfield.

Last season the defense lacked toughness.  It ranked 27th in yards allowed, and it had its share of injuries.  Detroit’s General Manager addressed the issues, bringing in bigger linemen and a more pound-happy linebacker cast of characters – led by first round pick Jarrad Davis who hammers the run quite well, and who started all of the 14 games he played as a rookie.

The secondary was already a strength, and so there are no worries, there. Cornerback Darius Slay had eight interceptions in 2017, and Glover Quin and Tavon Wilson were strong at safety.  Free agency and draft picks have added talent to an already strong secondary.

Detroit’s special team unit is considered to be one of the NFL’s best all around squads.

The problem is that the Lions, as good as they seem to be, share their division with the Vikings and the Packers.  A winning record is not enough.  They have to slay the monsters in their division, and so far, they’ve not figured out how to do that.  In short, the Lions will be pretty good, but the best they can expect in their division is third place with another 9-7 finish.

5-11 … Chicago Bears:  Da Bears can’t remember the last time they’ve had a winning season.  The last four seasons have resulted in double-digit losses and basement dwelling in the standings.  New head coach Matt Nagy hopes to change all of that, but it will take time.

Quarterback Mitchell Trubisky has a lot of promise.  The problem is, the personnel around him are substandard.  Free agency was used in the off-season to give Trubinsky some targets, but the running game is a big gaping hole.  Running Back Jordan Howard has been impressive in his first two years with the team, but his lack of talent as a pass catcher limits his versatility. 

The offensive line is a work in progress, and the progress has been lacking. 

Defense remains to be the strength in Chicago, and much of the top ten squad remains in place.  The secondary is solid, complimenting a strong linebacker corps, and sturdy front line.

In the past the special teams has been something to wonder about in Chicago.  Placekicker Cody Parkey may be exactly what they need to put a cork in the problems.

The Good news is that the Chicago Bears are going to be better.  Bad news, they share their division with three much better teams.  Worst news, they will likely not have a better record than their 2017 offering of 5-11, and even if they did, there is no way they are going to get over .500.

NFC SOUTH

12-4 … New Orleans Saints: Drew Brees is a future Hall of Fame quarterback, and the Saints’ draft class earns an A+.  Twenty one starters return after winning the division last year, and the hunger is greater than ever after losing in dramatic fashion against Minnesota during the playoffs when the Vikings pulled off the win with a last play touchdown.

Sean Payton’s sophisticated offensive schemes, and Drew Brees’ talent rivaled only by Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers, means that the 72% completion percentage in 2017 of Brees, the exceptional receiving capabilities of Michael Thomas (his 196 receptions in the first two years of his NFL career is a league record), and the running game anchored by Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara not only has what it takes to win the division, but may be what it takes to go all the way. Meanwhile, the offensive line is one of the best O-lines in the league, giving an elite quarterback like Brees plenty of time to decide where to throw the ball.

The defense was about mid-range in effectiveness last year, but draft picks and free agents being added means that the squad is ready to lead the league, anchored by Cameron Jordon at left end.  The secondary improved with rookie Free Safety Marcus Williams in the mix, and veteran Safety Kurt Coleman balances out the attack.  Punting and placekicking is fine with reliable veterans, and the return and coverage units, while not spectacular, are good enough.

The Saints have emerged as one of the elite teams in the NFC, and not only can they be a Super Bowl contender, Brees is definitely ready and deserving to get another ring … with his last (and only) Super Bowl win being in 2010 (coupled with a big game Most Valuable Player Award).

11-5 … Atlanta Falcons: Almost and close only applies to horseshoes and hand grenades.  In the case of the Atlanta Falcons, after jumping out ahead in Super Bowl LI, and then allowing the Patriots to come from behind and beat them during the fourth quarter, it was like having Rocky Balboa down for an eight-count, and then getting busted in the chops and knocked out during the final seconds of the final round.  They were almost champions in 2016.  Last year they were almost division champs, losing the division by one game.  The Falcons' hunger is unlike any other teams', fueled by the taste of blood on their busted lip, and the smell of turf ground into their facemasks.

The roster is sound.  Matt Ryan is an elite quarterback.  The running backs, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, can pound the ball down the throat of pretty much any defense.  Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu are exceptional targets, and are being joined by Alabama wide receiver Calvin Ridley.  The offensive line is adequate, and Matt Ryan does a fine job with the personnel he has on that line trying to protect him. 

The defensive squad is not as solid.  Personnel changes on the defensive line is a concern.  Vic Beasley, the 2016 NFL sack leader, will patrol the edge.  Pro Bowl linebacker Deion Jones caps a decent linebacker squad, with budding youngsters all around him.  The secondary could be better, but it is adequate.

Special teams has its high and lows, but does the job overall.

The Falcons are a quiet winner.  Nothing flashy.  Nothing glaring.  Yet, they win.  If it wasn’t for New Orleans, they’d win the division.

8-8 … Carolina Panthers: The Panthers have competed well in their tough division.  They pulled off eleven wins last year.  Cam Newton is talented, and has matured as an NFL quarterback.

Unfortunately, in a division with elite teams in Atlanta and New Orleans, the Panthers were only able to manage having a middle of the road offense in 2017.  While the receiving corps is notable, the backfield is in disarray with the departure of Running Back Jonathan Stewart.  The offensive line is weaker, too, with the loss of Pro Bowl Guard Andrew Norwell who is now with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

In other words, the success of Carolina lies on the shoulders of Cam Newton, who will tell you he is capable of such a thing.  The season will reveal if his shoulders are wide enough.

The defensive line is one of the league’s best.  The linebackers are steady, with two youngsters in the mix, and Thomas Davis who will miss the first four games due to a suspension.  Luke Kuechly rounds out the linebacker corps, serving as one of the better middle linebackers in the game.
If there is a weakness in the defense, it’s the secondary.  The play has been mediocre at best, and Rookie Cornerback Donte Jackson is too new to be expected to carry any weight.  In short, the secondary of Carolina is one that Brees of the Saints, and Matt Ryan of the Falcons will have no problem picking apart.

Special teams is good enough, but nothing to write home about.

On paper the Panthers look good enough to win some divisions, but not the NFC South.  There are too many holes and question marks to expect the Panthers to keep pace with the elite teams they will be facing. 

3-13 … Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Quarterback Jameis Winston is a good quarterback, but he competes in a division loaded with Drew Brees, Cam Newton and Matt Ryan.  Good is not good enough.  He couldn’t seem to get the ball deep last year.  That all said, in his three years in the NFL he has been steadily improving.  Each year his completion percentage gets a little better, and his quarterback rating has been on the rise.  He’ll eventually get where he wants to be, but despite his ego longing for greatness now, the fact is, he’s not there, yet.

Winston also has off-field troubles affecting his on-field play.  He will be suspended during the first three games due to an allegation that he groped a female Uber driver.  Veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick, in his second year with the Bucs after two years as a capable starter with the Jets, will fill in.

DeSean Jackson, Adam Humphries, and Mike Evans are the main receivers, with sound tight ends Brate and Howard.  They are all capable.

The shortcoming has been the running game, but rookie Ronald Jones II gives Tampa Bay a running back capable of pounding out long yards.  The offensive line is workable, but it's not going to turn any heads.

The defense has been inadequate, and finished last in the NFL in 2017.  An overhaul has been enacted, but it’s a work in progress that won’t do much for the Bucs in 2018.  Special teams has been just about as paltry, but the acquisition of kicker Chandler Catanzaro may change some of that.

NFC WEST

12-4 … Los Angeles Rams: The Rams have emerged as the kings of Los Angeles, and the rulers of the NFC West.  Under Head Coach McVay the Rams have gone from the cellar to the top of the league.  The Rams are not only playoff hopefuls, they are serious Super Bowl contenders.  The free agency and the draft has been good for the Rams, and now this is the year everyone expects them to emerge as champions.

Jared Goff has emerged as a young quarterback on a fast track to joining the ranks of the elite.  Todd Gurley’s flashes of greatness led the running back to finish second in voting for NFL MVP last year.  While target Sammy Watkins has left for different pastures, Brandin Cooks is the perfect kind of deep threat to give Goff in 2018 in the absence of Watkins.  The offensive line is older, but reliable, as long as they stay healthy.

An already solid defense is stronger with the addition of All-Pro Cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib, and All-Pro Defensive Tackle Ndamukong Suh who during the pre-season has already shown his worth.  Aaron Donald with Suh is proving to be an effective weapon against the rush.  While the Rams are thin on the edge with their defense, the linebacker corps is adequate enough that the Rams have not sought any more linebackers in the draft, or through free agency.

If Kicker Zuerlein can return the way he hopes to from a back injury, he’ll be glad to chase another scoring record as he was on pace to in 2017.  While not used much last year, Punter Johnny Hekker is one of the best.  Returner Pharoh Cooper ranks among the best in the NFL.

The Rams were already stacked, and in the off-season they aggressively improved upon both their offense and defense.  The Rams pose as a major contender, locked and loaded, and ready for a Super Bowl run.  Goff, however, will be facing veteran greats, if they play as expected, and are able to play with the big boys again in the playoffs.  I believe the youngsters in L.A. are ready for it.

9-7 … Seattle Seahawks: Stability has gone out the window.  The coaching staff has been changed, as has many of the players.  Gone are Richard Sherman, Michael Bennett and Jimmy Graham.  Kam Chancellor has retired, due to being physically incapable of continuing on thanks to a neck injury.  Defensive End Cliff Avril was released due to failing his physical while being hammered by injuries.

The Seahawks have worked to improve their rushing attack, starting with their number one draft pick, Rashaad Penny out of San Diego State.  Free agency was used to work on the offensive line.  

Quarterback Russell Wilson’s passing attack will primary be centered around Receiver Doug Baldwin. 

The defense that once filled offenses with fear has been dismantled, and only Earl Thomas remains in the secondary.  Other pieces are in place, but this group will not be as aggressive as the unit that played in the Super Bowl half of a decade ago.

The powerful leg of Sebastian Janikowski joins the Seahawks' special teams unit.  If he remains healthy, it could help an otherwise struggling special teams body of players.

The loss of talent has been too great for Seattle, and as good as Russell Wilson is, the truth is a rebuild is in place.  The Seahawks will compete, but they will not be consistent enough to go deep into the playoffs.

7-9 … San Francisco 49ers: All eyes are on Jimmy Garoppolo.  San Francisco faithful have painted him the savior of a failing franchise due to the fact that he ticked off five quick wins when he joined the 49ers last season.  While I believe Garoppolo is a capable quarterback, I don’t believe he’s the great savior of the team that once was lead by Joe Montana and Steve Young.

The number one receiver of the team by the bay is Marquise Goodwin, who is among the fastest in the NFL.  Pierre Garcon will be returning, as well, but his neck injury that was repaired through surgery may be a factor in slowing him down.  The running game is above average, and the offensive line is capable, but not great.

Defensively, they are still a mess.  Though the San Francisco defense no longer ranks last, they are far from being a top ten squad.  Richard Sherman joins the team, but his skills are no longer as big as his mouth.  The draft as been the choosing ground for linemen, and while it is improving, the D-Line is still short of where it should be.  Even if Garoppolo turns out to be everything the Niners hope him to be, a great quarterback can't win if his defense is allowing the other side to score big week after week.

The bright spot in San Francisco is Kicker Robbie Gould.  In 2017 he went 39 for 41 in field goal attempts, four of which were from 50 yards or longer.  Bradley Pinion is a good enough return man.
The hype is on Garoppolo.  I believe it is hype.  But, the 49ers won’t be as bad as they were before Jimmy showed up.  Greatness, however, won't be achieved until they give their QB better weapons, and supply a defense that can keep the opposing scores down to a reasonable level.

4-12 … Arizona Cardinals: The Carson Palmer era has ended in Arizona with the rocket arm retiring after 15 seasons in the NFL. Sam Bradford, the former Rams quarterback who also tried his hand in Philly and Minnesota, is now the main guy.  David Johnson leads the rushing attack, receiving great Larry Fitzgerald will be Bradford’s favorite target.  After 15 years, however, as great as Fitzgerald is, one wonders if his final days are on the near horizon.

Defense has been the strength of the Cardinals, but with a switch from a 3-4 formation to a 4-3 scheme, can they maintain their dominance?  Tyrann Mathieu and Tyvon Branch are gone.  Other veterans have followed them out the door.  However, seven-time All-Pro Patrick Peterson remains at cornerback, and Defensive End Chandler Jones (who had a franchise best 17 sacks in 2017) remain.

Special teams is elderly when it comes to football careers, but remains stable.

Bradford does not have the kind of arm that Palmer had, but he’s a capable quarterback.  Unfortunately, the best the Cardinals will pull off in 2018 is hanging out in the basement and looking up at the rest of the teams in their division, and the league.

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2018 NFL Season Final Standings Predictions

AFC EAST

13-3 … New England Patriots
8-8 … New York Jets
7-9 … Buffalo Bills
2-14 … Miami Dolphins

AFC NORTH

13-3 … Pittsburgh Steelers
8-8 … Baltimore Ravens
8-8 … Cincinnati Bengals
2-14 … Cleveland Browns

AFC SOUTH

12-4 … Jacksonville Jaguars
9-7 … Indianapolis Colts
8-8 … Tennessee Titans
2-14 … Houston Texans

AFC WEST

9-7 … Oakland Raiders
8-8 … San Diego Los Angeles Chargers
7-9 … Kansas City Chiefs
5-11 … Denver Broncos

AFC Championship Game:

New England Patriots vs. Oakland Raiders

AFC Champion:
New England Patriots

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NFC EAST

11-5 … Philadelphia Eagles
9-7 … Dallas Cowboys
8-8 … New York Giants
4-12 … Washington Redskins

NFC NORTH

12-4 … Minnesota Vikings
11-5 … Green Bay Packers
9-7 … Detroit Lions
5-11 … Chicago Bears

NFC SOUTH

12-4 … New Orleans Saints
11-5 … Atlanta Falcons
8-8 … Carolina Panthers
3-13 … Tampa Bay Buccaneers

NFC WEST

12-4 … Los Angeles Rams
9-7 … Seattle Seahawks
7-9 … San Francisco 49ers
4-12 … Arizona Cardinals

NFC Championship Game:

Los Angeles Rams vs. New Orleans Saints

NFC Champion:

Los Angeles Rams

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Super Bowl LIII Champion:


Los Angeles Rams