In the midst of NBA free agency and the MLB All-Star game passing by, it means the NFL season is nearly upon us. Less than two months until the Eagles host the Falcons to open the season, teams are already claiming their right to post-season glory, while others are languishing in limbo with question marks scattered amongst their camps. Here’s a look and who could impress, who could disappoint and who could turn some heads.
New York Giants – 7-9
The Giants made important additions to their team in positions that needed it, so they are likely to be stronger in 2018.
The biggest positive for the Giants is Pat Shurmur coming in from Minnesota as the new head coach. Shurmur notably made Case Keenum an MVP candidate last season, which bodes well for Eli Manning who will be looking for a little revitalisation this year. The offensive line will happily welcome Nate Soldier from New England who is a reliable tackle, along with guard Will Hernandez who was drafted from UTEP. Those additions plug a leaky line, which will in turn also improve their running game with rookie Saquon Barkely coming in.
Defensively the Giants should feel comfortable, as they feature the majority of their group which was ranked 10th overall in 2016. Jason Pierre-Paul and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie are gone, but linebackers Alec Ogletree from the Rams and rookie Lorenzo Carter from Georgia come in.
Their opening seven games feature five playoff teams from 2017 along with the Cowboys and Texans on the road, making for a brutal start. But their final nine games sees six to seven winnable games making for an easier finish, and a chance to gain momentum if a playoff berth is achieved.
New York Jets – 8-8
This is more based on roster than record, as the Jets finally have themselves a quarterback to rely on for the future.
Sam Darnold is easily the best quarterback out of this year’s draft, with plenty already developed form an intangible point of view as well as his skill level. It’s important to note that a new receiving core and questionable coaching, along with returning from an injury were huge factors in Darnold’s 2017 season for USC, and yet he still led the Trojans to the Cotton Bowl with an MVP performance against Stanford in the Pac-12 Championship game.
What is also important to notes is six of the Jets 11 losses in 2017 were all one possession games, with Josh McCown as their quarterback and arguably the worst roster in the entire league. The skill of Todd Bowles as a coach showed through, the spirit of the team followed suit, so with other key additions such as Terrelle Pryor at receiver and Trumaine Johnson and J.J. Wilcox in the secondary, it only makes sense they improve.
The final six weeks could see the Jets fall out of playoff contention with two matchups against the Patriots, facing the Titans away and the Texans and Packers in consecutive home games.
Houston Texans – 9-7
The Texans will be confident with the return of DeShaun Watson, who in his rookie year took over the quarterback position from Tom Savage and gained a 103 passer rating and a 3-3 record as the starter. There’s a deep threat in DeAndre Hopkins and a decent running back in Lamar Miller, but statistically they had the worst offensive line in the league a season ago which leaves a big question mark over how the offensive unit will perform.
The defence on the other hand has the potential to be the best in the league. Safety Tyrann Mathieu joins the secondary, as well as a range of front seven players returning from injury including All-Pro J.J. Watt returning who will make a lethal pass-rush pairing with Jadeveon Clowney. On top of that, defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, who led the defensive unit to number one in the league two years ago, returns after serving as assistant coach to Bill O’Brien.
Their schedule is tough on both ends, with the Patriots, Titans and Colts on the road and the Cowboys and Giants at home to open. The final three weeks consists of the Jets, Eagles and Jaguars, that final one likely to determine the division winner.
Other notable improvers: Chicago Bears, Cleveland Browns, Los Angeles Chargers
Buffalo Bills – 4-12
Buffalo will have a massive slide, which is a real shame considering the strides they made a year ago with a new coach. But it is not hard to see why they will.
At the quarterback position they effectively swapped out a B-, mostly mistake-free quarterback in Tyrod Taylor for a big project in the draft selection of Josh Allen. Coming out of Wyoming, Allen’s ceiling is as high as Sam Darnold’s according to some and higher than Josh Rosen’s, but that level of production is a few years away. With the losses of guard Richie Incognito and wide out Jordan Matthews, that has left the offensive production lying solely on running back LeSean McCoy, who may not even suit up this season due to legal issues.
Defensively though they remain relatively sound, and are a top 10 caliber unit this year. Linebacker Preston Brown is gone, but a host of additions including Pro-Bowler linebacker Vontae Davis and defensive end Trent Murphy, as well as rookie Tremaine Edmunds out of Virginia Tech. Safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer return after breakout seasons in 2017.
Their schedule is very tough early on, with road games against the Ravens, Vikings, Packers and Texans in the opening six weeks, which could set a losing tone for the rest of the year.
Jacksonville Jaguars – 9-7
The AFC South is the toughest division to dissect; where two teams in the Colts and Texans have high-level quarterbacks returning form injury while the other two on the Jaguars and Titans aren’t sure bets to return to the playoffs.
Last season the Jaguars went 4-0 against the Colts and Texans who both featured backup quarterbacks at the time (week one against the Texans saw Tom Savage star before being replaced late by DeShaun Watson in the second half), and that won’t happen again. Their receiving core has depleted with Allen Robison and Allen Hurns departing, leaving Marqise Lee alone out wide effectively. They do feature one of the fiercest runners in the game in Leonard Fournette, which will again be the focus of the Nathaniel Hackett’s offence.
They remain elite on the defensive side of the ball, with the likelihood of being on top overall this season. The drafting of defensive tackle Taven Bryan from Florida is a great pickup that will strengthen the front seven.
Their schedule is workable, with three of their opening six games against tougher opponent at home. A game in London against the Eagles will be a tough hurdle, but the underdogs in the England-based games tend to rise up to the challenge.
Seattle Seahawks – 6-10
The Seahawks all of a sudden look like a lost team, which is odd and upsetting as they were Super Bowl contenders just a year or two ago.
The defence took major hits this offseason, highlighted by with All-Pro Richard Sherman and Pro-Bowlers Sheldon Richardson and Cliff Avril departing. As well as that the unrest around safeties Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas III takes away any hope of retaining the remnants of the Legion of Boom for a little longer.
Duane Brown is a solid left tackle who, if healthy, is one of the best in the game. But another quality offensive lineman is needed for Russell Wilson to have the security and comfort he needs. With Brandon Marshall replacing Paul Richardson and joining Doug Baldwin and Tyler Lockett, along with rookie tail back Rashaad Penny who is one of the two best running backs out of the draft, Seattle have themselves a nice looking offensive group. That however all means nothing unless they can fix that awful line.
Schedule wise, the middle chunk is where the Seahawks may fall over for good, with the Chargers, Rams, Packers, Panthers, 49ers and Vikings in six straight weeks, with at least four losses likely.
Other notable sliders: Detroit Lions, Kansas City Chiefs
Teams to watch out for:
This could be the year the Ravens finally realise they need a change. Since their Super Bowl 47 win nothing has progressed on the offensive side of the ball, which has remained stagnant. They need to take advantage of Coach John Hardbaugh in his prime, and however long he is willing to stay there (unless he gets sacked first of course). On the defensive side, the same can be said for Terrell Suggs and Eric Weddle who both could be heading into retirement in the next few years, which will take the ‘elite’ factor away from the defence.
However, the drafting of Lamar Jackson could inject competition into the quarterback position, meaning Flacco may lift himself more than he ever has. Whether that helps ignite the offence enough remains to be seen.
Andrew Luck is back, for good this time (well hopefully). His health has been a real concern for three years now, and taking a long time in ensuring his return to full health could be a huge concern in itself for the Colts. The offensive line is all of a sudden looking strong; with rookie guards Quenton Nelson and Baden Smith joining the squad, and Ryan Kelly returning from injury.
Former Eagles’ offensive coordinator Frank Reich has taken over Chuck Pagano’s role as head coach, and with the way Carson Wentz played last year it is likely there will be plenty of movement and variation in the offence. This will more than likely see the Colts win high scoring affairs and play some entertaining football.
AFC North – Pittsburgh Steelers = The Steelers remain the best team in the AFC North, but will be pushed with a bit more competition from the Browns and Ravens.
AFC East – New England Patriots = They will slide to 10 or 11 wins, but Belichick and Brady are still too good to surrender their division just yet.
AFC South – Houston Texans = All four teams have a right to believe they can win, possibly making way for a new division champion – with Watson back, Houston are that team.
AFC West – Los Angeles Chargers = The Chiefs will be breaking in a new quarterback. Given their end of season form in 2017, the Chargers are primed to take the division with 11 wins.
NFC North – Green Bay Packers = Aaron Rodgers returning, a more promising defence and easier schedule to the Vikings will see the Packers return to the top of the NFC North.
NFC East – Philadelphia Eagles = This division will be far more competitive with smart moves from the three other sides, but the Eagles are still the best team in it.
NFC South – Atlanta Falcons = The Falcons have a slightly easier schedule than the Saints, that’s what separates them.
NFC West – Los Angeles Rams = The Rams defence is far too stacked not to win the division, with three other teams either rebuilding or somewhat lost.