Did anyone really see the Atlanta Falcons putting up an historically good offense en route to earning the NFC title last season? What about the performances rookies Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott put up for the Dallas Cowboys?
Every single season around the NFL, there are absolutely shocking developments. Whether it is a young running back in Arizona set to make history or a hapless Jets squad set to become infamous, we can expect more surprises this season.
Here is one bold prediction for each NFL team heading into the 2017 regular season.
Arizona Cardinals: David Johnson breaks NFL rushing mark
It’s one of the longstanding NFL records. Eric Dickerson, then of the Los Angeles Rams, rushed for a league record 2,105 yards back in 1984. Since then, only five players have topped the 2,000-yard plateau. To put this into perspective, Johnson was eight years from being born when Dickerson broke said record.
But we fully expect the third-year running back to break the mark in 2017. Johnson put up just 1,239 rushing yards last season. So it’s definitely bold to proclaim that he will top 2,105 yards. Then again, the dynamic running back also added 879 receiving yards on 80 catches. Look for him to take on more of a three-down role on the ground with the Cardinals having moved on from Chris Johnson. If so, the opportunities will be there for him to break Dickerson’s 30-plus year old record.
Atlanta Falcons: Offense falls from the top 10
How much of an impact did former coordinator Kyle Shanahan have on the Falcons’ offense last season? We’re definitely going to find that out early in the 2017 campaign. The current San Francisco 49ers head coach has been replaced by Steve Sarkisian as Atlanta’s offensive coordinator. Here’s a guy that has exactly one year of NFL coaching experience. That came as the Oakland Raiders’ quarterback coach back in 2004.
Atlanta’s offense finished No. 2 in total yards and No. 1 in points scored last season. Matt Ryan earned the league MVP award. Needless to say, this unit is absolutely stacked. But it’s still important to note that the Falcons’ offense finished outside of the top 10 in the two seasons prior to Shanahan’s arrival. We fully expect some regression to the mean here.
Though, it might not impact the Falcons’ team as a whole, especially with a defense that should improve off last season’s mid-tier performance.
Baltimore Ravens: Team signs Colin Kaepernick
Now, that’s bold. Baltimore had flirted with the idea of signing this embattled free agent quarterback when Joe Flacco went down to a back injury during the summer. Ultimately, Flacco’s injury wasn’t as severe as it first seemed. This led to the Ravens deciding to stick it out with Ryan Mallett as the primary backup to Flacco.
That won’t be the case throughout the course of the 2017 season. Simply put, the Ravens can’t rely on Mallett to perform should Flacco go down to injury once again. And with an offensive line that has lost three core starters from last season, it’s a risk the Ravens won’t want to take. Having received glowing reviews from brother Jim Harbaugh, who coached Kaepernick in San Francisco, John Harbaugh will ultimately decide that Kaepernick is worth the PR hit it would take by signing him.
Buffalo Bills: Nathan Peterman will start half the season
Tyrod Taylor has been cleared to play Week 1 against the New York Jets. In no way does this mean he will be the Bills’ starting quarterback throughout the season. Taylor was absolutely abysmal during the preseason, completing less than 50 percent of the passes he attempted. Meanwhile, neither first-year head coach Sean McDermott or rookie GM Brandon Beane have a history with Taylor. It makes the situation much easier when it comes to Buffalo benching the struggling quarterback.
On the same note, it’s relatively safe to say Buffalo is in full-scale rebuilding mode. The team has six picks in the first three rounds of next year’s draft. It has traded multiple important contributors and is surely in need for a quarterback of the future. More so than seeing what they have in Peterman as a rookie, the Bills might simply decide to tank. If so, Taylor will be the odd-man out here.
Carolina Panthers: Christian McCaffrey puts up over 1,500 yards
How much do we expect the Panthers to use this rookie top-10 pick? McCaffrey legitimately has his own playbook to work with. Think about that for a second. Carolina is planning on utilizing the Stanford product so much that he’s studying his own darn playbook. That’s simply amazing.
Based on what we saw during the preseason, there’s no real reason to believe McCaffrey won’t play a huge role in both the running game and through the air. And based on his dominating performance with the Stanford Cardinal, there’s no reason to believe he won’t be equally productive in the NFL. After all, there’s a reason franchise quarterback Cam Newton preferred McCaffrey over consensus No. 1 running back Leonard Fournette in the 2017 draft. Look for a 1,500-plus total yard performance from McAffrey as a rookie.
Chicago Bears: Worst record in the NFC
The Bears may be taking it easy with rookie No. 2 pick Mitch Trubisky, but that’s going to lead to an historically bad record for the suddenly downtrodden franchise. As we saw multiple times throughout the preseason, Mike Glennon is among the worst starting quarterbacks in the NFL. The team lost Alshon Jeffery to free agency, released veteran Victor Cruz this summer and saw Cameron Meredith go down with a season-ending injury. Add in a questionable offensive line, and this offense is going to be a hot mess in 2017.
Defensively, it’s not going to be much better. Former first-round pick Kyle Fuller has proven to be an injury-plagued bust since entering the league in 2014. Big-name free agent signing Pernell McPhee has tallied 10 sacks in two seasons with the team. Meanwhile, Chicago moved on from Lamarr Houston with an injury settlement two years after signing him to a $35 million contract. Looking at the Bears’ schedule this season, we expect two or three wins. That puts the team on track for a high first-round pick in 2018. Guess that’s one saving grace for fans in the Windy City.
Cincinnati Bengals: Joe Mixon takes starting job
A rookie second-round pick from Oklahoma, Mixon’s history is by now well known. Taking off multiple team’s draft boards following a domestic violence incident, Cincinnati made the shocking decision to select him in the second round of April’s draft. And while Mixon enters the regular season as the Bengals’ No. 3 running back, we’re expecting him to jump both Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard before the calendar strikes December.
If it weren’t for Mixon’s off-field transgressions, he likely would have challenged Christian McCaffrey to be the second running back off the board in this year’s draft. That’s just how talented the former Sooner is. Add in the fact that Hill has averaged 3.7 yards per rush over the past two seasons and Bernard is coming off a torn ACL, and it wouldn’t be a shock to see Mixon become Cincinnati’s top running back here soon.
Cleveland Browns: DeShone Kizer puts up Pro Bowl season
Before we lose our minds over this prediction, consider the following. Dak Prescott earned a Pro Bowl trip for the Dallas Cowboys mere months after being selected in the fourth round of the 2016 NFL Draft. Back in 2015, both Tyrod Taylor and Teddy Bridgewater earned trips to the Pro Bowl. None of this was expected. Even as a wide-eyed rookie, the Browns have given the keys to their offense to the Notre Dame product.
At this point, head coach Hue Jackson seems to be all in with the former Golden Domer. And for good reason Kizer was electric during the preseason, continually showing that he has the ability to make the big play. More than anything, the Pro Bowl has become more of a popularity contest. And with multiple top-end quarterbacks deciding to sit out the annual event in the past, it gives second-tier players opportunities to play in the All-Star game. This upcoming January, it will be all about Kizer in the AFC. Just watch.
Dallas Cowboys: Ezekiel Elliott will not miss a game
There’s a lot going on with Elliott right now. The NFL upheld his six-game suspension stemming from an alleged domestic violence situation. Though, Elliott will play Week 1 as a motion filed on his behalf by the NFLPA to overturn said suspension is heard in Texas. Long story short, there’s a lot of moving parts here.
If the NFLPA’s motion is granted, Elliott will likely play the entire 2017 season as the legal process plays out. Based on what we’re seeing from the federal court in Texas, it’s looking more and more like this will happen. That’s definitely music to the ears of a Cowboys team that’s expected to vie for a trip to the Super Bowl in 2017. It will also lead to a long-term court battle between the union and the NFL.
Denver Broncos: Last-place finish in AFC West
There’s a lot that goes into thinking Denver will finish in the AFC West cellar two years after earning the Lombardi. It pretty much starts with general manager John Elway’s failure at the quarterback position. After losing Peyton Manning to retirement, Denver failed to re-sign Brock Osweiler prior to last season. It then traded up for Paxton Lynch in the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft. At this point, Lynch looks like nothing less than an absolute bust.
Now, heading into the 2017 regular season, Denver is forced to throw Trevor Siemian out there in an extremely competitive AFC West that includes two playoff teams from a season ago. It also has two injury-plagued veterans in Jamaal Charles and C.J. Anderson set to share duties at running back. What could possibly go wrong there? Meanwhile, star edge rusher Shane Ray is currently on injured reserve and the Broncos made the surprising decision to cut former All Pro safety T.J. Ward — leading to scathing comments from the veteran.
The Broncos’ defense might very well be top five again this season. But there’s very little reason to believe that it can mask what promises to be one of the most anemic offenses in the entire NFL. If that’s the case, look for a last-place finish in Vance Joseph’s first season as the head coach.
Detroit Lions: Matthew Stafford, NFL MVP
Fresh off becoming the highest-paid player in NFL history, Stafford is set to prove himself all over again. He’s already shown himself to be a franchise-caliber signal caller who can lead his team to the playoffs. It’s now all about taking that next step to elite status. And under offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter, that’s pretty much what this former No. 1 overall pick has done. In fact, Stafford has thrown 45 touchdowns compared to 14 interceptions in 25 games since Detroit promoted Cooter to offensive coordinator back in October of 2015.
Much like what we saw last season in terms of Matt Ryan’s relationship with then Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, it seems that the same thing is taking hold between Stafford and Cooter in Detroit. Should that continue into the 2017 season, look for Stafford to follow in Ryan’s footsteps to become yet another surprise winner of the NFL MVP award.
Green Bay Packers: Finish under .500
The Packers are sitting back here and wasting Aaron Rodgers’ prime years. It’s an absolute shame in every sense of the word. The team’s inability to find any real talent in the secondary led to a No. 31 overall ranking against the pass last season. The team also did absolutely nothing to fix this issue in the offseason. Sure it exhausted its first two picks in April’s draft on defensive backs, but even that has not panned out yet.
More to the point. Signing Ahmad Brooks might help a previously dormant pass rush, but relying on a 33-year-old who was just released by a two-win team seems to be a bit foolish. If Brooks isn’t able to provide a consistent pass rush, the regressing Clay Matthews will continue to struggle. Heck, Matthews may once again be forced inside due to the Packers’ lack of starter-caliber middle linebackers.
Even the offense has questions here. Is Ty Montgomery really the solution as a three-down running back after just recently making the full-time transition from wide receiver? Will Randall Cobb and Davante Adams improve after lackluster 2016 seasons? With Detroit already looking like a division title contender and the Vikings set to flourish with one of the best defenses in the NFL, Green Bay is looking at a losing season in 2017.
Houston Texans: Home-field advantage in playoffs
There’s a reason why Houston liked Tom Savage. Sure he hasn’t impressed in limited action during the regular season. But Savage has looked great this summer and during the preseason. It might not mean a whole lot. It does, however, mean that he could very well act as a game manager the Texans desperately need after the Brock Osweiler disaster of last season.
Here’s a team that boasts the best defense in the NFL. It also returns three-time NFL Defenisve Player of the Year J.J. Watt from injury and has two up-and-coming edge rushers in the form of Jadeveon Clowney as well as Whitney Mercilus. All the Texans need at quarterback in order to win the AFC South once again is someone that will limit his turnovers. Savage could be that guy.
It also doesn’t hurt that Houston has the second-easiest schedule among playoff teams from a season ago. It gets to take on Indianapolis and Jacksonville a combined four times with games also against the Rams, 49ers and Browns. Meanwhile, two teams likely battling for home field (Kansas City and Oakland) have two of the toughest schedules in the NFL this season.
Indianapolis Colts: Andrew Luck misses half the season
Indianapolis did take Luck off the physically unable to perform (PUP) list, meaning that he’s not guaranteed to miss the first six games of the season. Unfortunately, there’s not even a timeline for Luck to return from off-season shoulder surgery. At this point, the short-term prognosis doesn’t look good here.
First-year Colts general manager Chris Ballard also sent former first-round pick Phillip Dorsett to the New England Patriots recently for young quarterback Jacoby Brissett. That could also be a sign Indianapolis thinks Luck is going to sit for a while.
With no real hope of contention in the AFC without Luck in the mix, the Colts could even make the obvious decision to sit him throughout the 2017 season. At this point, tanking for a higher pick in the 2018 NFL Draft makes more sense than rushing their franchise quarterback back on to the field.
Jacksonville Jaguars: First winning record since 2007
We’re going there. Yes, we are. We can talk about Blake Bortles’ struggles until we’re blue in the face. They are well documented. They could also lead to further regression on offense in Jacksonville. That’s until we realize the Jags exhausted the No. 4 overall pick in this year’s draft on a generational running back talent in the form of Leonard Fournette.
He absolutely dominated SEC competition in three years with LSU. And if healthy, we can expect a repeat of what Ezekiel Elliott did as a rookie for the Cowboys last season. Just look at how much that helped then rookie Dak Prescott in Big D.
Speaking of D, Jacksonville might boast the most-talented young defense in the entire AFC. Second-year player Jalen Ramsey teams up with free agent signing A.J. Bouye to form one of the best corner tandems in the NFL. Veterans Calais Campbell and Malik Jackson act as veteran anchors in a front seven that includes young studs Dante Fowler and Myles Jack.
If this all comes together, it would not be a surprise to see the Jags put up nine wins in 2017. It likely won’t lead to a playoff spot, but it would be a nice start for the previously fledgling franchise.
Kansas City Chiefs: Pat Mahomes starts multiple games
Whether it’s to injury or Alex Smith struggling, we’re going to predict that this rookie first-round pick from Texas Tech starts multiple game for the Chiefs in 2017. Mahomes absolutely lit it up during the preseason, ultimately showing that his dynamic presence under center brings something different to the table for Kansas City’s offense following a division title last season.
The interesting thing here is that Smith could very well face the same exact situation he saw with the San Francisco 49ers back in 2012. Remember, a then young Colin Kaepernick took over for Smith in the second half of the season, ultimately leading San Francisco to the Super Bowl. With a tremendous supporting cast behind him on both sides of the ball, we could easily envision Mahomes being able to do the same thing in 2017. Despite what the Chiefs want us to believe, that could put Smith’s starting job in jeopardy should the team’s offense falter under his watch.
Los Angeles Chargers: Philip Rivers’ final season with Chargers
We already know that Rivers was somewhat bent out of shape after the Chargers decided to relocate from San Diego to Los Angeles. It’s now at the point where he is legitimately commuting from L.A. to his home in California’s southernmost city on a daily basis. A family man with seven children and a wife, Rivers could very well decide that this is it for his Chargers career. After all, these players have lives and families of their own. San Diego is all that Rivers’ children have known.
Coming off a disastrous last-place finish in 2016, the Chargers are also a rung below both Kansas City and Oakland in the AFC West. Should their struggles continue this season, the team might very well decide to go into full-scale rebuild mode. At 35 years old, Rivers doesn’t fit into this strategy. If he decides to continue his career beyond the 2017 season, it could very well be in a more child-friendly home than Los Angeles. It’s just the logistics that come with being responsible for seven children, which Rivers himself has made clear to note are his priorities over football itself.
Los Angeles Rams: Jared Goff puts up Pro Bowl performance
Goff’s first two preseason games this summer were aces. He looked much more comfortable in Sean McVay’s offensive system than what we saw under then head coach Jeff Fisher last season. The former No. 1 pick was making all the right throws, showing plus-level pocket awareness and reading the field at a rate we never saw during his rookie season. Then, this all came crashing to a halt in the team’s biggest preseason tune-up against the Los Angeles Chargers. Goff looked completely out of sync, leading many to believe that he’s still not ready for prime time.
In reality, what we should expect from Goff is something in between. He has a much more talented receiver group to work with compared to last season. That includes veterans Sammy Watkins and Robert Woods as well as a potentially dynamic slot receiver in rookie Cooper Kupp. Some are already concluding that Goff is a bust. After just two handfuls of starts in the NFL, that would be a ridiculous overreaction. We’re looking for massive improvement from the young signal caller — improvement that could lead directly to his first Pro Bowl nod in 2017.
Miami Dolphins: Jay Cutler performs better than Ryan Tannehill
The whole idea that Tannehill is somehow an invaluable member of the Dolphins is somewhat ridiculous. The team has not yet even committed to him as a franchise-type signal caller from a monetary standpoint. Heck, Tannehill’s career high in touchdown passes (27) and quarterback rating (93.5) are nothing to write home about.
What Cutler brings to the table is an ability to throw the ball down field. We saw this during the preseason, and it will likely continue into the regular year. In fact, his average of 13.1 yards per completion last season trumps anything Tannehill has done in his career by over 1.5 yards. This will open up the offense for Jay Ajayi and likely lead to a repeat playoff appearance for the Dolphins. Place bets in Vegas on this right now.
Minnesota Vikings: Dalvin Cook gains 1,500 rushing yards
Cook promises to be a focal point on offense as a rookie this season. We saw first-hand how the Vikings plan to use him during the preseason, with the second-round pick from Florida State seeing 23 touches in three games. Considering he’s already the team’s starter, that’s a whole heck of a lot of action.
Projected to be a first-round pick in April’s draft, Cook inexplicably fell to Day 2. That came after he gained 2,253 total yards and 20 touchdowns as a junior for the Seminoles last season. There’s very little question about what he brings to the table.
Now that Minnesota has upgraded from a run-blocking standpoint with Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers at tackle, the expectation here has to be that Cook will dominate. Look for a performance similar to what we saw from Ezekiel Elliott last season. That is to say, 1,500-plus rushing yards and All-Pro considerations.
New England Patriots: Jimmy Garoppolo is traded
The Patriots are the best-run organization in sports. This was magnified a great deal during an offseason in which the team added Brandin Cooks in a trade with New Orleans and a Pro Bowler caliber corner in Stephon Gilmore in a rare foray into free agency. Already likely better than last year’s championship squad, the Patriots could even build up more future assets. That would come in form of trading valuable backup Jimmy Garoppolo.
New England did make it relatively clear that it was unwilling to move the impending free agent. In fact, it reportedly turned down an offer of a first-round pick from the Cleveland Browns. Short of franchising Garoppolo next March, New England faces the real possibility of losing him for free.
That’s where a potential trade comes into play here. Let’s say a team like San Francisco or Jacksonville shows itself to be surprise playoff contenders with the young talent they have. Why wouldn’t one offer up next year’s first-round pick for Garoppolo? It would be for a long-term solution, not simply for the 2017 season. And in that case, the Patriots simply might have to bite the bullet. It just makes too much sense.
New Orleans Saints: Adrian Peterson regains Pro Bowl form
Peterson will definitely face tough competition for touches in his first season with the Saints. Here’s a team that boasts a quarterback in Drew Brees that has thrown for 5,000-plus yards in four of the past six seasons. It also returns leading rusher Mark Ingram and traded up for Alvin Kamara in the third round of April’s draft.
Considering Peterson is 32 years old and coming off another serious knee injury, not many are expecting much from him in his first season after moving on from the Vikings. That would be utterly foolish. The best running back of the NFL’s modern era, Peterson has proven over and over again that he can come back from both injuries and off-field issues to shine.
Back in 2012, he led the NFL with 2,097 yards. In fact, it was the second-best single-season performance for a running back in NFL history. It also came mere months after he tore his ACL. It’s one of the greatest comebacks in league history. Then, in 2015, Peterson once again led the NFL with 1,485 yards a season after sitting out all but one game due to his child abuse case. If we’ve learned anything from Peterson’s 10-year career, it’s to never doubt him. Expect the same end result in 2017.
New York Giants: Odell Beckham Jr. doesn’t lead team in touchdowns
Beckham Jr. has put up 35 touchdowns in three NFL seasons. This has him pretty much on pace to break Jerry Rice’s career touchdown mark. Sure it’s too premature to talk about that in length, but it just goes to show us how dominating he’s been.
With that said, we’re going to go away from the grain here and suggest another Giants player on a potentially dominant offense leads the teams in touchdowns this season. It could come in the form of a second-year receiver in Sterling Shepard who scored eight touchdowns as a rookie last season. Then again, veteran acquisition Brandon Marshall has proven he has a knack for the end zone. Marshall has put up 10-plus touchdowns four times in his career. He also led the league with 14 touchdown catches back in 2015.
Though, our true wildcard here is rookie first-round pick Evan Engram. The 6-foot-3, 234-pound tight end is a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses. He’s too athletic for linebackers to cover in on one-on-one situations and he’s too strong for defensive backs to handle him. A likely top-end red-zone target for Eli Manning, it would not be a shocker to see Engram lead the team in touchdowns as a rookie.
New York Jets: Winless winter is coming in Jersey
For just the second time in NFL history, a team will go winless during a 16-game regular season. And unlike the Detroit Lions of 2008, we are not expecting five one-score games. Instead, this Jets squad should get trampled on a consistent basis throughout the season.
Josh McCown starts under center after having won two of his past 22 starts. With both Eric Decker and Brandon Marshall gone, the Jets were set to rely on Quincy Enunwa to be the team’s top receiver. He then promptly suffered a season-ending neck injury during the summer. Now, the Jets are left relying on holdover Robby Anderson as well as recent acquisitions Jermaine Kearse and Jeremy Kerley. Ouch.
This doesn’t even take into account a defense that yielded the fifth-most points in the NFL last season and lost a plethora of talent during the offseason. That list includes Sheldon Richardson, David Harris, Darrelle Revis and Calvin Pryor. New York’s best shot at a win might come on the road against the hapless Bills on Sunday. Should that not happen, a 0-16 performance is likely here.
Oakland Raiders: AFC champions
We can’t discount the fact that Oakland’s defense looks to be a complete mess right now. Sure it boasts reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Khalil Mack, but there’s not a whole bunch of anything else here. Oakland will simply have to outscore its opponents in order to dethrone New England in the AFC. And in reality, that’s looking more and more like a realistic possibility.
It starts with the newly extended Derek Carr under center. He’s put up one of the best three-year stretches to start an NFL career in the history of the game. We’re talking about a quarterback that’s tallied 50 more touchdowns than interceptions thus far in his career. That’s just outstanding stuff. He also has one of the best wide receiver tandems in the game in the form of Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree. The two combined for 2,115 yards and a 62 percent catch rate last season. Add in the AFC’s best offensive line and a newly signed Marshawn Lynch at running back, and this offense will be dominant in 2017.
The better news here for fans in Oakland is that the Raiders boast the fourth-most difficult schedule in the NFL. This means that when the team ultimately earns a playoff spot, it will definitely be tested. And even if the Raiders don’t nab home-field advantage or a first-round bye, they did boast an absurd 7-2 record away from Oakland Coliseum last season. Watch out Pats, the Raiders are coming for you.
Philadelphia Eagles: Last place finish in NFC East
While expectations are definitely high in Philadelphia, there are a lot of question marks surrounding this young team. The primary question here is whether Carson Wentz can improve off last season’s uneven performance. He finished his rookie campaign having put up nine touchdowns compared to 13 interceptions in his final 11 starts. It’s not a coincidence that the Eagles tallied a 4-7 record during that span. Adding Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith to the mix here will help, but the onus is on Wentz to prove he can actually lead an NFL-caliber offense. Up to this point, he has not proven that.
Unfortunately for the former No. 2 overall pick, Wentz doesn’t have that one running back to rely on. LeGarrette Blount struggled with conditioning and performance during the summer. Meanwhile, neither Wendell Smallwood nor Darren Sproles seem to be three-down backs in this league. This is going to be an issue for an Eagles squad that will face two dynamic offenses in the NFC East this upcoming season. Regardless of how the team’s defense plays, we’re just not sold on Philadelphia’s offense to hold up its end of the bargain. That leads us to believe this squad will finish in last for the second consecutive season.
Pittsburgh Steelers: T.J. Watt wins Defensive Rookie of the Year
After bombing out with the selections of Jarvis Jones and Bud Dupree as edge pass rushers over the past few years, Pittsburgh might have finally got it right with Watt. His tape spoke for itself at Wisconsin prior to the Steelers making the younger Watt a first-round pick in April. Then, during the preseason, Watt absolutely dominated right out of the gate. It led to Pittsburgh naming him the team’s starting right outside linebacker over James Harrison heading into Week 1.
Sure the likes of Reuben Foster and Myles Garrett might have something to say about this. But we’re going to go out on a limb and predict Watt to earn Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. He has more help upfront than Garrett has with the hapless Browns. Meanwhile, sacks always take precedence over other stats in the front seven. That places Foster behind the proverbial eight-ball here. Look for Watt to rack up 12-plus sacks en route to earning these top honors.
San Francisco 49ers: Top-10 defense in Santa Clara
It seems to be absolutely ridiculous to believe the 49ers will somehow field one of the top defenses in the league this season. After all, here’s a unit that ranked dead last in points allowed, total defense and rushing yards allowed last season. So what kind of crazy pills are we taking here? Well, first-year general manager John Lynch did an absolutely tremendous job adding elite-level talent to this defense in the offseason.
It started with the selections of defensive lineman Solomon Thomas and linebacker Reuben Foster in the first round of April’s draft. Both already look like Pro Bowl-caliber players in a front seven that still includes former first-round picks Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner as well as former All-Pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman. Add in the presence of free agent acquisitions Earl Mitchell and Elvis Dumervil, and this front seven is stacked.
We can also point to the team’s secondary — one that has untapped potential. No. 1 corner Rashard Robinson seemingly has shutdown ability written all over him. He’s joined by a Pro Bowl safety in Eric Reid and up-and-coming defensive back Jimmie Ward to form what could be a top-end secondary. And while the 49ers’ offense will struggle under first-year head coach Kyle Shanahan, their defense should make this team much more competitive than most think.
Seattle Seahawks: Miss the playoffs altogether
The major issue here is on the offensive side of the ball where GM John Schneider and Co. have failed to give Russell Wilson the necessary pass protection to take that next step. In reality, it’s been a lack of effort on the front office’s part. That took a major hit when left tackle George Fant went down to a season-ending injury back in August.
Seattle’s starting offensive line now includes three players in Rees Odhiambo, Germain Ifedi and Mark Glowinski who have started a combined 29 games in their careers. That includes only a handful at their current positions. Meanwhile, former Jaguars first-round bust Luke Joeckel is slated to start at left guard. Ouch.
We hate to look at one unit and draw a conclusion based off that. Seattle has talent across the board everywhere else. But this offensive line is going to be a major problem in an NFC West that boasts three elite-level defensive front sevens. Hopefully it doesn’t cause an injury to Wilson, but it could very well force Seattle from the playoffs for the first time since 2011.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: NFC South champions
This is all about Jameis Winston being able to overcome the turnover proneness that defined his first two seasons in the NFL. When Winston is on, the Buccaneers are legitimate playoff contenders. Last season was a prime example. In games that he threw one interception or fewer, Tampa Bay boasted a 9-3 record. The team was 0-4 in games where Winston had multiple picks.
For their part, the Bucs did everything possible to give Winston an ability to improve in 2017. The team added a Pro Bowl deep threat in DeSean Jackson to go with Mike Evans at wide receiver. It also exhausted a first-round pick on tight end O.J Howard. Simply put, the Tampa Bay offense should be dynamic in 2017.
But what could separate this unit from the pack in the NFC South is what promises to be at much-improved defense. We already know Gerald McCoy, Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander are among the best at their positions in the NFL. Though, look for second-year corner Vernon Hargreaves and Pro Bowl safety T.J. Ward to take this unit to the next level. If so, the Bucs will dethrone Atlanta in the division.
Tennessee Titans: Double-digit wins
Right up there with Oakland as the best young team in the AFC, the Titans should take that next step in 2017. Marcus Mariota, who did not finish either of his first two NFL seasons in full health, will have to prove that won’t be the case this year. But everything else is definitely in place for a double-digit win season.
DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry represent the best one-two punch at running back in the conference. They are aided by an improved receiving group that includes veteran addition Eric Decker and rookie top-five pick Corey Davis. Add in one of the most-underrated tight ends in the game in the form of Delanie Walker and a potentially elite offensive line, and the sky is the limit on offense.
Defensively, it’s all about the pressure Derrick Morgan and Brian Orakpo put up opposing quarterbacks. The two combined for 19.5 sacks last season. After adding veteran Logan Ryan and rookie first-round pick Adoree’ Jackson at corner, that area of the defense should be vastly improved. It might not be enough to win a suddenly competitive AFC South, but the Titans will definitely flirt with a wild card spot.
Washington Redskins: Jay Gruden is fired
To say that things didn’t go well for the Redskins in the offseason would be an understatement. The team publicly disgraced its former general manager by firing him on the first day of free agency. The Kirk Cousins situation doesn’t seem to be nearly settled.
And for his part, Cousins seems to have an issue with president Bruce Allen. Add in an enigmatic owner in Daniel Snyder, and we have to wonder exactly how stable this organization is.
Should the Redskins start out slow this season, it would not be a shock to see the team move on from Gruden completely. Their first half of the season includes games against Oakland, Kansas City, Seattle and Dallas. That could lead to a slow start, which might force Snyder’s hand. After all, we already know he’s had a contentious relationship with previous Redskins head coaches.