A season like no other
This is going to be a difficult year to predict, for obvious reasons. The coronavirus has created problems for teams, not least with voluntary opt-outs from the season which opened unexpected holes in some rosters.
More important overall was the limited amount of practice, couple with the cancellation of the preseason exhibition games, which makes it harder both to evaluate new players and to integrate them into your systems. This will help teams that are well-settled, and hurt those with important new additions (ie: quarterbacks) and those who rely on their ability to coach players up. It will also help the top defenses, which should be well ahead of offenses as the season starts.
Plus, there is no way to get ready to play football except to actually play it: adjusting to extra speed and intensity of the real thing. It's no coincidence we usually get a rash on injury early in normal training camps; I would not be surprised to see the same thing happen in week one of this year's season. And of course, there is no way to predict how the season itself will be hit by the virus: some teams might lose players to infection, and eventually the season itself might be impacted.
But for now, we will proceed as the NFL is proceeding: allowing for the short-coming but expecting teams to play as normal from here. This would be the time to point out that in last year's preview that I tipped the Kansas City Chiefs at 15/2 to win last year's Super Bowl. I hope you paid attention.
Kansas City Chiefs: The Chiefs not only won the Super Bowl, but before opt-outs they had one of the highest proportion of starters returning (by amount of snaps played).
They lost guard Dr. Laurent Duvernay-Tardif and Super Bowl star RB Damien Williams to opt-outs, but they managed to keep most of their stars, including a monster new contract for QB Patrick Mahomes, but also Chris Jones, one of their two key defenders (Tyrann Matthieu being the other). Andy Reid's drafting RB Clyde Edwards-Hilaire in round one, now looks prescient, but Reid has always liked drafting to positions of strength. CE-H has the ability to move into Williams' spot and possibly give them an even more explosive offense, already featuring Tyreek Hill, Mecole Hardman and Travis Kelce.
The Key: Last year it was whether Steve Spagnuolo could build a D which kept pace with the offense. He's the only defensive coordinator to win Super Bowls with two teams, but he won each in his first season; can they be as good this year. The offense, no problem.
Baltimore Ravens: It's a two horse race in the AFC. Last year KC came right toward season's end, and got a few breaks along the way, while the Ravens saved their misfire for the playoffs, when they were out-thought and out-played by the Titans. Like the Chiefs, the addition of a rookie runner, JK Dobbins, ought to help them; he will offer Lamar Jackson more receiving options as well. Rookie WR Devin Duvernay, may prove to be a fine complement to last year's Hollywood Brown. Like the Chiefs they need to replace a guard, the retired Marshall Yanda, and their defense suffered some losses, but even here the Ravens lucked out. Their trade for Michael Brockers fell through on the medical, but they added Calais Campbell, a better fit, and Derek Wolfe, while drafting two linebackers Patrick Queen and Malik Harrison, who in a normal year would be expected to start from week one. I think the Ravens had a great draft, good free agency, and ought to be even better. Like the Chiefs, their offense should be functioning early, and their D ought to be tough.
The Key: With any running QB, the key is keeping him healthy, but Jackson is very good at avoiding contact, and Greg Roman's system kept Colin Kaepernick (remember him?) healthy too. Teams will study Titan tape to see what works against them, but they will likely go as far as their D takes them.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Going 8-8 with Mason Rudolph and Duck Hodges at QB was maybe the best coaching of the Mike Tomlin era, and now Ben Roethlisberger is back to throw to JuJu Smith-Schuster and the fast-rising Dionte Johnson; if James Washington and rookie Chase Claypool play up to potential, the offense could be solid. RB continues to be a question mark: for the fourth-straight year they threw a mid-round draft pick at the problem, in Anthony McFarland, who could become the third-down answer for James Connor. The addition of Minkah Fitzpatrick by trade last year helped solidify their secondary, and last year's round one pick Devin Bush will become a star a linebacker. Replacing nose tackle Javon Hargrave is a challenge which ex-Raven Chris Wormley will try to solve. Stefan Wisnewski has to replace retired Ramon Foster at guard.
The Key: Is Big Ben rested and ready? Can his receivers step up? And will the D continue to improve? Their biggest challenge to elite status may be the annual duke-outs with the Ravens.
Buffalo Bills: The Bills retained more starter-snaps than any team in the league, and with the changes in New England they are likely favourites in the AFC East. Their defense is quietly one of the best in the league; last year they had few games where they wouldn't win if they could score three touchdowns. Sean McDermott keeps acquiring former Panther players (Mario Addison, Josh Norman lead this year's haul) so the D should continue to be good. Can their offense match up? Josh Allen's problem is accuracy, especially on downfield throws: they want to run the ball and throw deep, with new addition Stefon Diggs joining John Brown. Rookie Zach Moss could be the early-down workhorse back they need; rookie WR Garbriel Davis could be the guy who makes the shorter catches. The transition for runners is easy (provided they understand pass blocking), for receivers, it's usually harder.
The Key: It's an Allen Key all the way in Buffalo. He's a running/passing threat but can he take advantage of those deep openings and get enough points to ride their D to victory?
Tennessee Titans: The Titans are like Buffalo in this sense: are they a team on the rise or did they max out their potential last year? They came right late in the season, as they rode Derrick Henry's running and Ryan Tannehill was superbly effective off play action. But if you stop Henry, and force Tannehill to carry the action, will be they as good? (see the playoff loss to the Chiefs) They lost tackle Jack Conklin but first-round rookie Isaiah Wilson or journeymen Dennis Kelly or Ty Sambrailo will try to fill the gap. Coordinator Dean Pees was the biggest loss on D--Mike Vrabel will likely coordinate the D himself; they added Vic Beasley as a pass rusher, but are otherwise pretty much as last year, except Jurrell Casey may be a bigger loss than they thought.
The Key: Can Henry carry them for a whole season? Can Tannehill step up if he can't? Can Vrabel handle being a Belichick doing both jobs? Those are big questions.
Las Vegas Raiders: Now the bookies' home-town favourites, the Raiders improved themselves in the off-season as if they were John Gruden and Mike Mayock's fantasy team. Defensively they added linebackers who might help, but first round corner Damon Arnette was one of those picks where you ask what Messrs G and M see that you don't. Offensively, it was as if Gruden were channelling the ghost of Al Davis, drafting Henry Ruggs, whose speed will help open things up for Hunter Renfrow and Darren Waller, who might have breakout years underneath, but why sign Jason Witten? Third-round rookies Bryan Edwards, another underneath receiver, and Lynn Bowden, who will be their Mecole Hardman, could surprise, stranger things have happened. The massive O line remains intact for last year's number one, Josh Jacobs, last year's best offensive rookie, to thrive behind.
The Key: QB Derek Carr remains an enigma, at least in his relations with Gruden. He has all the ingredients to succeed, and many think all the ability too. As he is not the one with the ten-year contract, it will be a do-or-die year for him, and if the Raiders aren't successful, it won't be Gruden who gets blamed.
Cleveland Browns: On paper, Kevin Stefanski is a good choice to run this team. He is organised, and his preferred system of play seems to be an offense with multiple tight ends and two wide outs, which suits the Browns, with OBJ and Jarvis Landry plus a group of pass-catching tight ends, to the ground. With Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt they can also run power or two-back sets at will. Defensively, they have star power, and early in the season people like Myles Garrett may be ahead of offensive lines. There's a sense they have some underachievers up front on D, and they had losses at LB, but Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams ought to be a good pair of corners to build on. They need first-round pick Jedrick Willis to move in and start at LT, though, because protecting Baker Mayfield will be essential.
The Key: Is Stefanski ready to head-coach? He never really established himself as the full-time coordinator in Minnesota and he'll need to being doing both jobs here. Al Woods was a fine hire as defensive coordinator, and may be able to put those pieces together.
Denver Broncos: Vic Fangio has built a team with a smart tough defense, just as he did in Chicago, and having decided on Drew Lock as their QB of the future in last year's draft, the Broncos this year have added weapons for him on offense. Melvin Gordon, if healthy, could combine with Philip Lindsay to do what he and Austin Ekeler did once upon a time in San Diego or LA or wherever the Chargers were. Jerry Jeudy was the best, most NFL ready receiver in the draft, and KJ Hamler may well step right into the slot. Noah Fant had a promising rookie season at tight end. Adding Jurrell Casey as a rotation player on the D line is a positive, and a healthy Bryce Callahan and rookie Michael Ojemudia ought to strengthen the secondary.
The Key: The key is in Lock (geddit?) and in the O line which still has questions, although if third-round rookie Llyod Cushenberry can start at center that will help. Lock showed he can make good decisions and deliver the ball last year; he needs to be get some time to make big plays this year.
Indianapolis Colts: Philip Rivers played well when Frank Reich was his coordinator in San Diego, which is why it wasn't a huge surprise when he was brought in to lead the Colts. If he has a healthy T.Y. Hilton, and rookie Michael Pittman can fit in right-away he'll have the targets, and if rookie Jonathan Taylor doesn't turn out to be another over-hyped product of big numbers at Wisconsin, Marlon Mack may get some help. Defensively, coordinator Matt Eberflus is creative, and the addition of DeForest Buckner and the much-underrated Sheldon Day from the Niners will help address their chronic inability to stop the run (hello, Titans!). But I don't know if Xavier Rhodes is the answer in the secondary, and they still need pass rush if they are to succeed when, or if, Rivers puts more points on the board.
The Key: The Colts O line wasn't as exceptional last year as it was the year before, but it is still solid. It needs to be because Rivers is one of the least mobile passers in the league, and he will stay in the pocket trying to make plays.
New England Patriots: Face it, based on losses to free agency (Tom Brady, remember him? But also Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins, Danny Shelton and Duron Harmon) and to covid opt-outs (Dont'a Hightower, Patrick Chung, Marcus Cannon and Matt LaCosse) the Pats would be in the pretenders category, but because it's Bill Belichick and because of their stunning signing of Cam Newton, it is not unreasonable to consider them able to win the East yet again, and once you're in the playoffs anything can happen. That's literally half their starting defense gone, which would overcome most teams. They're expecting rookies to contribute at linebacker and tight end, which are key positions in the Pats' system, because that's where they establish mis-matches, and they still have an un-threatening group of wide receivers for Newton to throw to.
The Key: Coaching. The Pats are more dependent on coaching, week to week, than any team in the league, which is why rookies don't often make a huge contribution there. They will probably comb the waiver wire looking to upgrade their talent, but it may not be enough.
Houston Texans: The Texans are the inverse of the Patriots, yang to Belichick's yin. On paper they might be favourites for the South, but I list them here because, despite their talent they seem to me likely candidates to again underachieve. It's not just that DeAndre Hopkins is gone, and Randall Cobb and Brandin Cooks won't replace him. Nor that Bill O'Brien virtually ignored the deepest WR draft class in years. Is David Johnson ready to share RB with Duke Johnson? Is that enough? Is the O line good enough to open holes for them, or to keep DeShaun Watson healthy? Even with JJ Watt are they that strong in the front three? Have they improved in the secondary? I think they may be more aggressive on D, with Anthony Weaver taking over as coordinator, but will they take advantage of that. I would rather be game-planning against the Texans than most of the teams on this list.
The Key: Can Bill O'Brien's master-plan pay off? DeShaun Watson so far has rarely shown the full range of his talents under the assumed QB Whisperer. I don't see this being the year. The definition of pretenders.
Los Angeles Chargers: The Chargers drafted Josh Hebert right the Bengals took Burrow, but they have veteran Tyrod Taylor to take the snaps while Hebert learns. How that fits in with the Rivers-centric receiver pair of Keenan Allen and Mike Williams remains to be seen, and whether Austin Ekeler can combine with Justin Jackson and rookie Joshua Kelly to provide a run game remains a question. They added often injured Brian Bulaga to help the O line, but there are still questions, especially at left tackle. Defensively, they traded back into round one for LB Kenneth Murray, who will be a good one, and added Nick Vigil from the Bengals, but any team with Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram on the edges ought to present problems for offenses. The Chargers could be in the contenders category or just as easily the forget it category, but the possibility exists that their offense will be good enough to let their D keep them in games.
The Key: Can Tyrod Taylor take them to a season like he did with the Bills, and they squeeze past Denver and Vegas with a 9-7 mark into the playoffs? Probably not.
Miami Dolphins: I dismissed the idea of the Dolphins tanking for Tua last year, and they proved me right, improving as the season went on and getting Tua anyway. Ryan Fitzpatrick will start the season, which makes sense especially this year, while Tua sits and learns and Josh Rosen does whatever it is Josh Rosen does. They still lack offensive firepower, Jordan Howard and Matt Breida are now the runners, they have some promising but unproven receivers and the O line will depend on rookies and Ted Karras, one of 12 ex-Pats on their opening roster to succeed. Defensively more ex-Pats, Van Noy, Eric Rowe, Elandon Roberts, will be expected to come in knowing what Brian Flores wants to do.
The Key: They are still a year away from contending, but seem to be heading in the right direction. They could surprise a couple of teams.
Cincinnati Bengals: It's Joe Burrow's team now, and Tee Higgins, whose Clemson team lost to Burrow's LSU in last year's college final, ought to be able to step in quickly and contribute at WR. If AJ Green is back healthy, with Tyler Boyd and the enigmatic John Ross, they have the receivers. Joe Mixon is maybe the most-overlooked top back in the league. Jonah Williams, last year's top pick, missed the whole season injured, if he is back at 100% he could lock down left tackle and improve the O line. Adding Mike Daniels to the D line was a good move, and they have the makings of a decent secondary.
The Key: Keeping Green and Mixon healthy is one key, but the big one is whether wunderkind boy offensive guru Zac Taylor can bring Burrow along quickly. If Ryan Finley starts, they will be mired in a tough division. Burrow is the future, if Zac can take him there.
New York Jets: The Newark Airport Jest started the year with some optimism, but it has mostly disappeared. You could argue that they are 0-6 without San Darnold in the Syndrome Sam era, but fans point to a 6-2 finish (after a 1-7 start) last year as turning some sort of Adam Gase corner on an exit ramp of I-95 in the Meadowlands. They lost Jamal Adams in a forced trade, though Bradley McDougald ought to give them some good play he's not as good a fit in Gregg Williams' over-aggressive D. Watch third-round pick Ashtyn Davis, a good one by new GM Joe Douglass, whom I said on draft day gave them some flexibility in dealing with Adams' contract demand. They lost Robby Anderson in free agency; Breshad Perryman and rookie Denzel Mims replace him. Douglass moved to strengthen the O line, and Mekhi Becton was a fine first-round pick, but the enigma that is LeVeon Bell will be running, if he decides to run, behind an unproven mish-mash of journeymen. CJ Mosley opted-out, but Avery Williamson stands in for him. Assistant GM Rex Hogan, who came back to the Jest from Indy, filled the secondary with ex-Colts.
The Key: Like many teams, it's QB, or more importantly protecting Darnold. If TE Chris Herndon returns healthy that might help. Therapy might do Bell some good too.
Jacksonville Jaguars: If there were a forget it forget it catergory, that would be the Jags. From the moment they beat the Pats at home in September 2018 it has been a steep downhill slide, and though coach Doug Marrone is a dead man walking, and some of his coaching errors cannot be forgiven, GM David Caldwell has to bear the brunt of the blame. The talent they have misjudged, mishandled, and finally had to dump has left them in the position where even astute work in the draft and free agency can only leave them treading water. The one-two punch of finally trading Yannick Ngakoue for what seems like some recompense but is really far less than he's worth, and cutting Leonard Fournette, admitting a massive failure, is like the bow of a sinking ship finally disappearing under the water.
The Key: I don't know. Gardner Minshew Madness? He's going to be running for his life. This is a team who positive thinkers would say is in the first stage of a massive rebuild. But can Marrone actually build with it, or are the past couple of years a sign they need a totally fresh start?
San Francisco 49ers: The Niners were just a bit of bad clock management, a bad call, and three awful no calls in the fourth quarter away from a Super Bowl win, and they return most of their key pieces. They let DeForest Buckner go, and used the draft pick they got for him on Javon Kinslaw, which is, at best treading water, and loss of Sheldon Day back there will hurt. Emmanuel Sanders is gone and their second R1 pick, Brandon Aiyuk is a good fit, though not yet the multi-level guy Sanders was. Matt Breida is gone but Jerick Mc Kinnon may finally be back healthy after two years of 'knees'. Their sleep draft pick is TE Charlie Woerner, and they need to use multiple TEs. Jason Verrett would help their secondary depth, but he's never stayed healthy; they aren't deep there, nor at LB where Kwon Alexander's health means they are strong three across, and coordinator Robert Saleh is a future head coach.
The Key: No one game-plans offensively better than Kyle Shanahan, but as in Atlanta's Super Bowl loss to New England you could blame his clock management against the Chiefs. Can Jimmy Garoppolo raise his game this year beyond the system, and become a star?
New Orleans Saints: The Saints have stumbled in the playoffs three years in a row and the window of opportunity is running out for 40+ Drew Brees. Emmanuel Sanders joins them hoping for a second-straight Super Bowl trip; it's a good pickup to take pressure off Michael Thomas. Alvin Kamara and Latavius Murray are a good run pair. They had only four draft picks, but made them count, especially if Cesar Ruiz steps in to replace Larry Warford. They're strong up front on D, especially with Cameron Jordan, though I'd like to see Demario Davis maybe move Kiko Alonso from the middle. And the return of Malcolm Jenkins from Philly ought to help the secondary, where Marshaon Lattimore is one of the league's best corners.
The Key: Brees can still deliver, especially if their offense is better balanced. Their D needs to match the aggression of the Left Coast teams, and the clock is running out
Seattle Seahawks: Seattle split their season with the Niners last year, but I didn't elevate them into the elite group until they picked up Jamal Adams, the kind of strong safety Pete Carroll's D needs. I'm still not convinced, because they are a team whose offense depends on Russell Wilson making plays, rather than on orchestrated game plans. Ideally they want to be run-first, but they cannot keep RBs healthy; veteran Carlos Hyde is supposed to be the answer to that, but he's not explosive anymore like a healthy Chris Carson is and rookie Dee Jay Dallas might be. DK Metcalf was scary good at times last year, and Tyler Lockett is underrated; rookie Freddie Swain is intriguing because he's a pure slot receiver. Their receivers need to be alert to Wilson's movement, similarly, although their O line was much better with Mike Solari's coaching, it's in the break-down that things happen. Defensively, Adams and rookie LB Jordan Brooks aren't the Legion of Boom, but they are upgrades. Outside corner and pass rush might be stronger, but now Carroll can scheme again.
The Key: One, is their offense stays balanced, the other is they generate rush to take pressure off those outside corners. Both are possible. A third different NFC West team in the Super Bowl in three years? That's possible too.
Minnesota Vikings: The loss of Stefon Diggs attracted the most attention, but Minnesota will hope rookie Justin Jefferson and last year's surprise Bisi Johnson can help replace him. What's more important were the massive losses in the secondary, which they addressed with four draft picks, starting with R1 CB Jeff Gladney. He and R3 Cameron Dantzler really both need to make an impact immediately. They will be better with Yannick Ngakoue joining Danielle Hunter to pass rush--though Michael Pierce's opt-out means they haven't replaced Linval Joseph. The offense will be Gary Kubiak's play-action, which is ideal for Kirk Cousins, and also because the O line remains a question mark, but Dalvin Cook and Alexander Mattison are good backs, and Irv Smith was a great addition at TE, where Kubiak likes to throw.
The Key: The O line making life easier for Capt Kirk, and the secondary making it harder for Aaron Rodgers and Matt Stafford.
Dallas Cowboys: Everybody's choice as a rising team, the Boys added CeeDee Lamb in the draft to give them possibly the league's best trio with Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup. They have Zeke Elliott, the league's best running back behind a top O line. Dak Prescott ought to be able to flourish, especially with a couple of decent tight ends. Defensively, it's more of a question mark, but if R2 pick Trevon Diggs can replace Byron Jones as an outside corner that would help. R3 rookie Neville Gallimore could be just as important inside on the D line, where Gerald McCoy and Dontario Poe would've been an all-pro pair five years ago.
The Key: How does Dak play, with his contract status still up in the air. My feeling is if he plays out this year and wins something, his price sky-rockets to the point Jerry Jones gives up one ghost or another, which is not a bad thing.
Philadelphia Eagles: The East is a tossup between them and Dallas , which is why both are contenders. It's going to be more difficult for the Eagles this year, especially if Carson Wentz is again hurt, which he is now in preseason. Defensively with Darius Slay and Javon Hargrave they should be better, though the move of Jalen Mills to safety to replace Jenkins may be a stretch. Offensively, they brought Jason Peters back to play guard, now are moving him to tackle and he'd like more cash. They need first round WR Jalen Reagor to deliver more than any of their other recent high picks have, and they'd like R5 John Hightower to be their Tyreek Hill or at least Mecole Hardman. They's little depth behind Miles Sanders though.
They Key: Keeping Wentz on the field and not having to discover whether Jalen Hurts was worth a R2 pick, or whether Nate Sudfeld is actually ready to play.
Tampa Bay Bucs: There is huge hype with the addition of Tom Brady, and a rested and ready Gronk, and remember the Bucs might have been playoff contenders last year if Jameis had been able to cut down on turnovers while keeping his TD tosses. They are loaded at WR, but they still have questions at T which top pick Tristan Wirfs is expected to help. R3 pick Ke'Shawn Vaughn may be just as important at RB to give them a dimension Ronald Jones can't. Gronk, OJ Howard and Cameron Brate ought to be able to create TE mismatches. Todd Bowles has always coordinated defenses that give Arians' offenses opportunities to attack, and he's loaded with veteran talent up front, pass rush from Shaq Barrett and JPP and two great inside backers in Lavonte David and last year's rookie Devin White. Rookie Antoine Whitfield, Jr may get a chance at safety sooner rather than later.
The Key: Tom Brady specialises in precision passing, and long balls off play action; Arians' offenses often keep QBs in the pocket for slow developing patterns. Winston had mobility, TB12 doesn't have much. If Brady and Arians get on the same page, the Bucs could indeed go far.
Green Bay Packers: The Pack went 13-3 last year, but it was hard to see how, and this year the question is whether Aaron Rodgers runs a Matt LaFleur offense or whether the offense simply runs through Rodgers. Certainly passing on receivers to take a QB of the future was a sign of an unanswered question, because almost everything else about the Pack remains unchanged. Injury-prone Ricky Wagner replaces injury-prone Brian Bulaga at RT, there were some picks for future depth, Christian Kirksey is the new ILB. Not a big deal. Maybe AJ Dillon and Aaron Jones create a Pound It Out Pack? I like LaFleur better than some of the other offensive wunderkinds, but I can't see GB repeating last year's season.
The Key: As always, can Aaron Rodgers create enough big plays to Davante Adams to capitalise on the pass rush of the Smith Bros.
Atlanta Falcons: Like the Pack, the more things change in Atlanta the more they stay the same. AJ Terrell may help the secondary, Matt Hennessey could help the O line, Marlon Davidson may be the run-stuffer inside they need. Raheem Morris did a good job with the D last year, but switching Vic Beasley with Donte Fowler is the definition of treading in deep water and Todd Gurley may well be goods too damaged to contribute for a season. Were Gurley guaranteed 100% he might be the piece their offense needs, apart from upgrading the line to the point Matt Ryan can do business with Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley. Remember when Ridley was going to push them over the top? Keanu Neal has to stay healthy at SS, and Deonne Bucannon, whose name really says he should have gone to Tampa or Foye Oluokun really needs to provide a second linebacker option.
The Key: A classic 'if' team: if the line jells and Gurley is his old self and the D plays like they did late in the season. If, if, if...
Los Angeles Rams: Hey didn't you used to be the LA Rams? They rolled the dice on going all the way two years ago and held the Pats to 13 in the Super Bowl and lost. Since then it's been downhill fast. They had two second round picks, and RB Cam Akers and WR Von Jefferson really need to deliver to provide them with weapons. Third rounder LB Terrell Lewis would help the D a lot if he could as well. Their other Tyrell, Burgess, might be quicker to play because he could be a corner or safety in nickle packages and he plays smart. And they have to pay Jalen Ramsey next year. But there's no Gurley in backfield and the book is there to be red on robo-QN Jared Goff. I think they miss Wade as defensive coordinator too.
The Key: Giving Goff enough time to see things and finding guys he can make plays to.
Detroit Lions: The Lions could be pretenders, and if they, not the Vikes, had signed Ngakoue I might have had them as contenders. The thing is Matt Stafford was playing really well before he got hurt last year, and despite letting a ton of talent go, Matt Patricia has, like Brian Flores, assembled a dirty dozen of ex-Pats from which he can make a decent D that is really only a quality pass rusher from being really good. First round pick Jeff Okudah is another fine Ohio State corner, Justin Coleman one of the best slot corners, and Duron Harmon understands the slot/box safety role. They drafted Julian Okwara in R3, and he may be out his brother Romeo for the pass-rush DE job opposite Trey Flowers. Offensively, they must be worried about keeping Carry-On Johnson healthy, because they drafted De'Andre Swift in R2 and third-down type Jason Hundley in R5, while if Danny Amendola still can go in the slot, Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones are a good outstide pair. They gave Big V big $ signing him from the Eagles, and he's probably not the answer to improving the O line but R3 pick Jonah Jackson may step right in at RG.
The Key: If Stafford picks up where he left off last year and one Okwara or the other provides pass rush, this team could contend in a weakened North.
Arizona Cardinals: Kliff Kingsbury's stuff worked better in the NFL than it did in college partly because he had more talent, comparatively, than he did at Texas Tech. But teams will catch up, and the challenge will be to see how much Kyle Murray matures, if not grows (he's always going to be 5-10). Adding DeAndre Hopkins gives them a smart receiver who makes every catch and is always where a QB expects him to be, and down he doesn't have to be targeted 10 times every game. You might like to see more talent on the O line and at TE, but Kenyan Drake can run and catch from the backfield. Defensively they got the top player in the draft in Isaiah Simmons; the challenge will be how Vance Joseph chooses to use him, likely as a hybrid LB/S. Jordan Phillips helps the O line and DeVondre Campbell may be better suited for the 3-4 inside role than is was in Atlanta. They may be a year away from contention, but they could bother some teams this year.
The Key: The O line needs to let Kyler be Kyler.
Carolina Panthers: It's another new coach in former Temple and Baylor guru Matt Rhule, who like Kingsbury, is used to coaching teams overmanned by bigger college programmes bursting with talent. Like a lot of these forget-it teams, Carolina needs to put together a quality O line to make life easier for their QB, in this case Teddy Bridgewater, who has the tools to be top-flight, and showed his composure going 5-0 as a Saints starter. Joe Brady who was the coordinator at LSU last year with Joe Burrow, but worked two years with the Saints, is talented, and they trusted him to work with the materials they have, as all their draft went on D. They added Robbie Anderson as a deep threat, but really the offense will still depend on Christian McCaffery getting a ton of touches. Phil Snow was the DC at Baylor with Rhule; they'll move to 3-4 with rookie Derrick Brown pushing Kawaan Short to end, and R2 pick Yetur Gross-Matos fights with ex-Vike Stephen Weatherly at the other spot. Jeremy Chinn probably starts at safety, and additons like LB Tahir Whitehead and CB Eli Apple could help. I'd like to see Rhule do well, but like Kingsbury last year, they've moved in the right direction but are a year away.
The Key: Let Teddy be Teddy, and keep McCaffrey healthy.
Chicago Bears: Mitch Trubisky or Nick Foles? The Bears in five words. They didn't have a first-round pick, gone in the Khalil Mack deal, but their first pick in R2 was...a tight end. They had more tight ends on their roster than most teams have coaches, and aiming for rookie Cole Kmet, one of the NFL's few players whose name is a radio call sign, and senior citizen Jimmy Graham as your prime acquisitions is nuts. Robert Quinn replaces Leonard Floyd. Hooray. I like CFL corner Tre Robertson and R2 corner Jaylon Johnson, but really? Eddie Goldman opted out which makes the inside of their 3-4 a question mark, and Ted Ginn was signed to compare retirement investments with Graham.
The Key: Mitch or Nick?
New York Giants: New coach Joe Judge was a special teams coach in New England, but he's already shaken things up with his practices, which is good because as I said at the top of the article, practice is easy when you aren't hitting. They took tackles Andrew Thomas and Matt Peart in the draft; Thomas was expected to start right away and Peart will have to as Nate Solder opted out of the season. The O line won't be strong, which is bad news for Daniel Jones, the new model Eli, and for Saquon Barkley, who ought to be for them what Zeke is for Dallas. Darius Slayton was a surprise as a rookie, but they could still use another receiver, but they did bring in a number of TEs which may suggest in which direction Danny's 'dimes' are going to go. Defensively they get progressively weaker as you go back each level, though DeAndre Baker being back healthy ought to help the secondary. It may be a long trial for the Judge.
The Key: Protect Jones, let him make plays. Make a few on defense too. (This gets repetitive).
Washington FT: Analysing the Team With No Name, it's hard to keep the off-field stuff from messing up the on-field, but the on-field was messy enough. Ron Rivera was a perfect hire as a coach who could keep a team on an even keel while there is chaos all around. The less said about Dan Snyder the better, but at least he fired GM Bruce Allen. Being Snyder he didn't hire a new GM; even though he made Jason Wright the NFL's first black team president, Doug Williams didn't get a promotion from director of player personnel. They had a non-descript draft; despite adding Chase Young to their collection of four first-round D linemen; being Wash of course, their best lineman is R5 pick Matt Ioannidis. Rivera brought QB Kyle Allen with him from Carolina, Allen's shortcomings were apparent when the Panthers played in London last year, but he will compete with last year's R1 pick Dwayne Haskins, who's less mobile than Rivera's used to. Ageless Thomas Davis reunites with Rivera on D, and they will have a rebuilt secondary. WR Terry McLaurin was a bright spot last year, and combined with Haskins, his college teammate well. We will see how that goes, and Adrian Peterson is still the RB1.
The Key: Make some decisions at QB, keep everyone focused on the field, ignore everything else.