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Predicting playoff teams following 2018 NFL Draft

Now that the 2018 NFL Draft is complete, we have a much better understanding of how the coming season will play out. Rosters are almost nearly set. The schedule itself has been released. And as teams get going with their offseason activities, an aura of confidence is making its presence around the NFL.

Soon, said confidence will give in to reality for non-contending squads. Meanwhile, others will see their solid offseasons extend into the 2018 campaign. From a team in New England that has controlled the AFC East over the past two decades to a few up-and-coming squads in California, here are our post-draft predictions for the 12 playoff teams next season.

AFC East: New England Patriots

As has been the case during their near two-decade run of domination, the two-time defending AFC champs did their part to continue that during the draft. They added Georgia teammates, offensive lineman Isaiah Wynn and running back Sony Michel, in the first round. New England also picked up a solid right tackle, Trent Brown, from San Francisco in a trade prior to Day 2. That’s three immediate contributors in areas the Patriots had to address after losing running back Dion Lewis as well as offensive tackles Nate Solder and Cameron Fleming in free agency.

New England still lost some solid contributors in the offseason, wide receiver Brandin Cooks and cornerback Malcolm Butler among them. In no way does this mean that any team in the AFC East is anywhere near competing against this squad in 2018. The draft magnified that to a T.

AFC South: Jacksonville Jaguars

Losing Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns during free agency somewhat hurt the defending champs. But like clockwork, the Jags were able to replace them with Donte Moncrief and 2018 second-round pick D.J. Chark. In reality, both of these receivers offer much more upside than what Jacksonville had with the duo that departed back in March. That’s important to note given Blake Bortles will remain under center in 2018.

Having largely avoided free agency, Jacksonville decided that it would utilize what has been a plus-level draft strategy to add more core talent moving forward. That’s exactly what GM Dave Caldwell and Co. did. It included a physical freak in defensive tackle Taven Bryan in the first round. We mentioned Chark above, but that shouldn’t be ignored. At 6-foot-3, he offers Bortles an immediate big target on the outside. As is the draft wasn’t unfair enough, Jacksonville picked up Alabama safety and reigning All-SEC performer Ronnie Harrison in the third round. Considered by some a first-round pick, that’s a steal. These Jags are obviously now primed to earn a second consecutive division title. It won’t be close.

AFC North: Pittsburgh Steelers

In and of itself, the draft didn’t do a whole lot to change the balance of power in this division. Maybe Lamar Jackson turns in a full 16-game stretch for the Ravens that we saw during Deshaun Watson’s small sample size last season. It’s also possible Carrie Underwood drops Mike Fisher for me. Not happening.

Pittsburgh’s draft included adding a reach in Terrell Edmunds in the first round. Yeah, not a great selection. However, it did pick up a future heir apparent to Ben Roethlisberger with Mason Rudolph in Round 3. That’s nice. But this isn’t about what the Steelers did or didn’t do. Instead, the other three teams in this division simply didn’t close the gap between themselves and Mike Tomlin’s crew. That’s the reality of the situation here. Pittsburgh will almost certainly repeat as champs in 2018. And not a single person outside of Baltimore, Cincinnati or Cleveland will be surprised.

AFC West: Denver Broncos

From worst to first doesn’t seem like a major stretch here. Oakland seems to be struggling with team building under first-year head coach Jon Gruden following a disastrous 2018 NFL Draft. Meanwhile, We have no real idea how Kansas City is going to perform with an inexperienced Patrick Mahomes under center moving forward. That’s not a problem for this Broncos team.

Prior to the draft, Denver addressed its most-pressing need in the form of quarterback Case Keenum. Even if Keenum doesn’t duplicate what we saw in Minnesota last season, he’s still a major upgrade over what the Broncos threw out there in 2017. Adding consensus top defensive player, EDGE rusher Bradley Chubb, with the fifth pick in this year’s draft was an absolute coup. He’ll now team up with Von Miller to form the best pass-rushing tandem in the NFL. Also lost in the mix here was the selection of Oregon running back Royce Freeman in the third round. The seventh-leading career rusher in FBS history, Freeman could very well be this year’s Kareem Hunt for a Broncos squad that doesn’t return a running back that put up as much as 300 yards last season.

AFC Wildcard: Los Angeles Chargers

Philip Rivers, MVP candidate?

What’s not to like about the Chargers’ offseason thus far? Adding a Pro Bowl center in Mike Pouncey legitimizes what is already a solid offensive line. Then, in addressing both need and value in the draft, Los Angeles nabbed safety Derwin James from Florida State in the first round. Considered a likely top-10 pick, James will be an immediate starter at strong safety for the Chargers.

After starting last season with an 0-4 record, Los Angeles finished the campaign by winning nine of its final 12. Philip Rivers is still playing at an elite level. He has a whole plethora of weapons on offense. Meanwhile, the likes of Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram head a Chargers defense that yielded the third-fewest points in the NFL last season. Yeah, Los Angeles is as legit as they come.

AFC Wildcard: Houston Texans

This isn’t about what Houston did or didn’t do in free agency or the draft. Having yielded its first and second-round picks in separate trades last offseason, everyone knew that the draft would be rather uninteresting for the Texans. They also didn’t have a whole lot of cash to spend in free agency. Instead, it’s all about the return of stars, Deshaun Watson and J.J. Watt, from injury.

With those two in the mix, these Texans are a darn good football team. Watson proved that by posting a 3-3 record in six starts. After all, Houston was 1-9 in games he didn’t start. Think about that for a second. It’s a while lot of crazy given that Watson was a wide-eyed rookie last season. With an entire summer to work on his craft, we’re expecting Watson to perform even better than his history-breaking initial campaign. That should be enough for Houston to grab a playoff spot.

NFC East: Philadelphia Eagles

It’s not even fair to opposing NFC East teams at this point. Without any real cap room to work with, Philadelphia was able to add Pro Bowler Michael Bennett and former 1,000-yard receiver Mike Wallace during free agency, the former of which came via a lopsided trade with Seattle.

The draft itself didn’t move the needle much for the defending champs, but adding high-upside tight end Dallas Goedert to team up with Zach Ertz for Carson Wentz is all sorts of sexy. Given their talented roster, the Eagles were also able to take a chance on a first-round talent in EDGE Josh Sweat on Day 3. All of this leads us to believe Philadelphia isn’t only division favorites, but favorites to repeat as Super Bowl champs.

NFC South: New Orleans Saints

There is a nice amount to question regarding New Orleans’ offseason. Obviously, it starts with the team yielding a first-round pick to Green Bay in a Day 1 trade up for small-school EDGE rusher Marcus Davenport. At 6-foot-6 and 264 pounds, he’s an absolute freak of nature. It’s still a hefty price to pay for a Saints team with other needs. With that said, the bounty New Orleans paid for Davenport will have no bearing on the 2018 season. That’s important to keep in mind when making predictions.

The Saints did upgrade at wide receiver with Cameron Meredith replacing Willie Snead. They were also able to pick up cornerback Patrick Robinson after he impressed a great deal with Philadelphia last season. Without a ton of improvement from Atlanta or Carolina in the division, we still fully expect New Orleans to repeat in the NFC South.

NFC North: Minnesota Vikings

Kirk Cousins is a vast upgrade over Case Keenum. This really isn’t even in question. That’s why Minnesota gave Cousins the richest contract in NFL history. An addition of sorts, the Vikings will also be getting 2017 second-round pick Dalvin Cook back from injury after the running back missed all but four games of his rookie campaign. Remember, Cook was on pace for nearly 1,800 total yards when he went down to injury.

On defense, Minnesota simply added even more talent to what was an NFC-best unit last season. Sheldon Richardson teaming up with Everson Griffen, Danielle Hunter and Linval Joseph along the defensive line is just unfair. Picking up talented but troubled cornerback Mike Hughes in the first-round of April’s draft adds even more depth to what is the best secondary in football. Minnesota’s status as the king of this division isn’t changing any time soon.

NFC West: Los Angeles Rams

Fresh off a surprising division title, Los Angeles is going all in for the 2018 season. GM Les Snead and Co. absolutely sold the farm when it comes to draft picks by adding Pro Bowlers Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib to the secondary as well as 1,000-yard receiver Brandin Cooks to replace Sammy Watkins on offense. Add in the pick up of Ndamukong Suh to team up with Aaron Donald on the defensive line, and this team is absolutely stacked.

Should the Rams see progression from Jared Goff after a stellar sophomore campaign, there’s no reason to believe this team can’t hoist the Lombardi when February comes calling. It’s now all about how Goff and fellow backfield mate Todd Gurley handle expectations in Southern California. But there’s not a team in the NFC West that can reasonably compete with Sean McVay’s squad.

NFC Wildcard: Green Bay Packers

We have to give first-year GM Brian Gutekunst credit for how he navigated his initial offseason in that role. The longtime Ted Thompson assistant noted off the bat that his Packers would be more active in free agency. By adding the likes of tight end Jimmy Graham and defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson to the mix, this didn’t prove to be a false promise. Graham is an upgrade over the recently departed Jordy Nelson as a red-zone target for Aaron Rodgers. Meanwhile, Wilkerson’s presence will open up more lanes for a Packers EDGE rush group that’s been stagnant.

But it’s what Green Bay did in the draft that has this team thinking it can contend with Minnesota in the North. After missing out on cornerbacks in free agency, the Packers double dipped at that position with their first two picks. That included a talented and confident Jaire Alexander in Round 1 and a player in Josh Jackson who many had pegged as a top-15 pick in the second round. These additions lead us to believe Green Bay will be playing January football after a one-year hiatus. Oh, and it doesn’t hurt that Aaron Rodgers is now completely healthy after missing nine games to injury last season. He’s only a perennial MVP candidate playing the game’s most-important position.

NFC Wildcard: San Francisco 49ers

Outside of adding an upgrade at right tackle in the form of Mike McGlinchey and another offensive weapon, wide receiver Dante Pettis, the 49ers’ draft is going to be all about taking a wait-and-see approach. Their status as a likely playoff team goes far beyond that. San Francisco upgraded big time along the offensive line by adding center Weston Richburg and guard Jonathan Cooper in free agency. It also upgraded at running back, where Jerick McKinnon should challenge for the 1,500-yard plateau in Kyle Shanahan’s system.

With all that said, San Francisco’s emergence from the bottom rung of NFC teams is all about two players. Jimmy Garoppolo and Richard Sherman. Should the quarterback continue to ascend among the game’s best, this squad will be taken to a whole new level. On the back end of the defense, Sherman — provided he’s healthy — gives the team a top-three corner. Five of the 49ers’ first six loses last season came by three points or fewer. Once Garoppolo took over, the team went undefeated and averaged nearly 30 points per game. This team is much closer than we might think.