The Daily Briefing Monday, June 11, 2018
AROUND THE NFL
RB CHRIS JOHNSON, whose career is just about over, has a battery charge in Tampa hanging over his head. The incident happened back in April, surfacing now. The charge is “only” a misdemeanor, but it doesn’t look good punching a parking valet. WFTS.com:
A former National Football League Pro-Bowl running back is facing misdemeanor battery charges stemming from an incident that occurred at a Tampa nightclub in April.
Chris Johnson, 32, entered a plea of not guilty through his attorney in a Hillsborough County courtroom on Thursday.
According to a Tampa Police Department report Johnson – who played four games with the Arizona Cardinals in 2017 – assaulted a valet at ‘The Lodge,’ on South Howard Ave in Tampa’s Hyde Park.
The altercation, which started as a dispute over some keys, took place just before 1 am on April 9th.
The victim, Matthew McNeel, suffered a bloody nose and a cut lip. Surveillance cameras in the parking lot of the eatery captured the alleged crime.
Johnson was identified by the owner of the club, who is a friend of the athlete. The victim also picked him out of a photo lineup.
Darin Gantt of ProFootballTalk.com on the big spending Vikings:
The Vikings have spent plenty of money already this offseason, most of it going to quarterback Kirk Cousins.
There’s more money to spend, with deals for more young stars on the horizon.
That had General Manager Rick Spielman laughing with attendees at the team’s charity golf tournament.
“Fifty percent of the proceeds today will go to the contracts of Anthony Barr, Stefon Diggs and Danielle Hunter,’’ Spielman joked, via Chris Tomasson of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
Of course, the charitable arm of the team and the football side dip out of separate pots, but Spielman knows he’s about to have to write some big checks, and soon.
“It’s a good problem to have, but we have a very high-priced roster right now,’’ Spielman said. “And eventually some of those guys are going to get aged out, just like we had some of our other Pro Bowlers, . . . and you have to replace them.’’
They already have six players with cap numbers over $10 million a year, and two more topping $8 million. That’s going to cause them to adjust elsewhere on the roster.
“The hardest thing right now is the economic structure on our team where we have all these high-priced guys now because they all deserve to get paid the way they’ve been playing,’’ Spielman said. “But economically, we’re not going to go out there, you can’t play fantasy football and have $3 (million), $4 (million) or $5 million backup guys. Those are going to be the young guys that we’ve drafted or we’ve developed.’’
Spending big on Cousins was an all-in proposition for a team that was very good, and very close a year ago. But those economic realities Spielman mentioned will naturally shorten the window for a veteran team, and creates pressure to hit on draft picks so they have cost-controlled contributors on the roster as well.
LOS ANGELES RAMS
Coach Sean McVay is a man possessed says QB JARED GOFF. Chris Wesseling of NFL.com:
Sean McVay captured NFL Coach of the Year honors while leading one of the most dramatic franchise renaissances in NFL history, wrestling control of the NFC West away from Seattle in his debut season with the Rams.
What does the league’s latest offensive mastermind have in store for an encore?
Left unsatisfied with his team’s playoff loss to the Falcons, McVay is determined to push a star-studded roster to new heights in 2018.
“First of all, he’s super smart,” quarterback Jared Goff told NFL Network analyst Willie McGinest on Wednesday’s edition of NFL Total Access. “He knows what he’s doing. At the same time, though, I think he’s got absolutely no ego and is just trying to help us win.
“Obviously he’s done a tremendous job so far, and so far this offseason you’ve seen his want to push it even further. And we’re right there with him. It’s an exciting time.”
It’s no secret that McVay is exceptionally bright. When Dan Orlovsky arrived at Rams training camp last summer, the former Lions backup quarterback recently relayed on Good Morning Football, he turned to Goff and said, “Bud, you have no idea how lucky you are. This guy’s brilliant.”
The key that unlocks the Holy Grail of championship-level football is a quarterback possessed of coach-like powers of perception at the line of scrimmage. Going back nearly a full century to the golden days of Notre Dame’s fabled Four Horsemen backfield, legendary coach Knute Rockne had established the platonic ideal of offense with quarterback Joe Stuhldreher functioning as the head coach’s “alter ego” out on the gridiron.
The Rams took that concept to new heights last season, rushing Goff to the line of scrimmage with enough time for McVay to survey the defensive alignment and provide his quarterback with an audible before the headset shuts off with 15 seconds remaining on the play clock.
To be clear, it’s not the methodology that is revolutionary. Play-callers have been whispering in their quarterback’s ears ever since the prototype radio receiver installed in former Browns quarterback George Ratterman’s helmet went haywire in 1956, picking up outside interference from a local taxi company fielding cab calls.
Goff’s field-tilting advantage lies in the beautiful mind guiding him at the line of the scrimmage. Similar to former Bengals mad scientist Sam Wyche’s no-huddle attack in the 1980s, McVay has done deep studies on substitution patterns, seeking the exact moment on the play clock when defenses adjust to his personnel.
When the Around The NFL Podcast sat down with Les Snead in late March, the Rams general manager provided a telling response to the question of McVay’s influence on Goff’s pre-snap acumen.
“Like anything there’s 32 different head coaches, 32 different offensive coordinators,” Snead explained, “and how they utilize their time with the QB before the snap is probably where the differences occur, where edges are gained or not. And really, really good coaches take advantage of that.”
Edge is the key word here. It’s no coincidence that legendary coaches Bill Walsh and Don Shula each penned memoirs with edge in the title. The most advanced NFL minds have always pushed the boundaries in search of their fair advantage.
Now that the word is out on McVay’s machinations, defensive coaches are sure to strike back with their own tricks. Might they align in a vague Cover 2 shell, for example, only to change the look once the play clock strikes 15 seconds?
As former Cardinals coach Bruce Arians has pointed out, however, that approach has its limits.
“When they just go up there and then don’t snap it right away, you say, well, we’ll hold our disguise,” Arians explained last November, via Philly.com. “And then they snap it [quickly], and you’d better be able to play defense out of your disguise. I think it’s really smart coaching.”
While defenses search in vain for counter-strategies, McVay is back in the lab concocting innovations to push his team toward the promised land in his second season.
“[McVay] is like Greg Maddux,” Orlovsky attested, “where he doesn’t necessarily overpower you, but you have no idea what’s coming and he’ll make you look silly.”
S EARL THOMAS will not be attending the mandatory mini-camp. Lakisha Jackson of NFL.com:
Seahawks coach Pete Carroll has his answer now. Earl Thomas will not be participating in any team activities.
The All-Pro safety addressed his frustrations with his contract situation on his official Twitter account Sunday morning.
“I will not be attending the upcoming minicamp or any team activities until my contract situation is resolved,” Thomas said. “I want everyone, especially the 12s, to know that I want to remain a Seahawk for the rest of my career but also believe that based on my production over the last 8 years that I’ve earned the right to have this taken care of as soon as possible.
“I want to have certainty in regards to the upcoming years of my career. I’m going to continue to work my craft and put in work so that I can add to the team and give us the best chance to win. I hope my teammates understand where I’m coming from I believe this is the right thing to do.”
After the Seahawks wrapped up organized team activities last week, Carroll stated that he expects everyone to show up for the three-day minicamp, which starts on Tuesday.
“Yeah, it’s mandatory. So we expect everybody to show up,” Carroll said during a press conference when asked about Thomas’ status.
The 29-year-old Thomas enters the final year of his contract, which pays a base salary of $8.5 million. NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero reported on May 21 there had been no contract discussions and none were currently planned.
Seattle’s organized team activities were voluntary, but Thomas is now subject to fines should he miss the mandatory minicamp and potentially any time in training camp.
A snarky tweet from Mike Sando of ESPN.com who usually isn’t prone to snark:
It’s very difficult for an #NFL player to win the PR battle vs a team during a contract dispute even without issuing a statement whose five sentences begin with I, I, I, I’m and I.
ESPN.com has a deeper look at the Thomas situation:
So, now what for Thomas and the Seahawks? We asked our panel of ESPN NFL Insiders to weigh in what Schneider & Co. should do next, which teams make sense for Thomas, and more:
Should the Seahawks trade Thomas or give him an extension?
Brady Henderson, Seahawks reporter: I doubt that Thomas would take much less than the $13 million that Eric Berry makes a year as the league’s highest-paid safety, so I would try to extend him with a similar average but structure it in a way that minimizes the financial commitment in later seasons. The Seahawks would be much better off keeping Thomas in the fold given all the key pieces their defense has lost, but they also have to protect themselves in the long term after getting burned on big-money extensions for Kam Chancellor and Michael Bennett. Accomplishing both might be easier said than done.
Mina Kimes, senior writer: I would extend him at $13 million a year, which is how much Eric Berry is making. If the Seahawks really aren’t in full rebuild mode (they’ve claimed it’s more of a “little reset”), they need Thomas on the field to contend. He’s an all-world talent who showed no signs of decline last season.
Field Yates, NFL Insider: I’d extend Thomas and not overthink the financial ballpark too significantly — he’s going to be among the highest-paid safeties in the league. Thomas is the game’s most instinctive and versatile free safety. Seattle’s window might have a different outlook in 2018 compared to previous seasons, but Thomas is a homegrown elite player.
Mike Sando, senior NFL writer: I’d extend his contract for $12-13 million a year. Thomas will want more than that, and it’s looking like other teams aren’t offering a ton in a trade, so it’s not as simple as just saying extend him or trade him.
Matt Bowen, NFL writer: I would extend Thomas. He’s still a blue-chip talent and a key to the Seahawks’ core defensive system. Given his range, ball skills and high-level awareness as a deep-middle player, Thomas’ salary should be on par with the highest-paid safeties in the league.
Dan Graziano, national NFL writer: I’d extend him, personally. I understand the Seahawks are rebuilding their secondary, but that means they’re not paying anyone else in the unit top-of-market money (unless Chancellor actually does play again). Thomas is still under 30 and probably could help make the rebuild work. Assuming Chancellor is off the books, why wouldn’t they be able to give him a deal in that ($12 million/year) range?
Aaron Schatz, editor-in-chief of Football Outsiders: The best result would be to extend Thomas on a short-term deal. He’s likely to still be one of the top free safeties in football for the next two or three years. But will he take $13 million, and will he take it for only three years? Throw more than that on the contract and you risk carrying dead weight in a couple years.
If the Seahawks trade Thomas, which team makes the most sense to target him?
Henderson: Dallas Cowboys. They are the obvious choice given that they’re the only team known to have had serious interest in Thomas. He has serious interest in playing for them, which could matter for this reason, among others: Any team that trades for Thomas would want to have an extension in place first, and that would be facilitated if Thomas was willing to take a little less money in exchange for the chance to play for his hometown team.
Kimes: Dallas Cowboys. Dallas, which hired former Seahawks defensive coordinator Kris Richard as its defensive backs coach, is the obvious choice. I think Seattle would rather stomach a brief holdout than cough up Thomas for a mid-round pick, though.
Yates: Los Angeles Chargers. Yes, they used a first-round pick on Derwin James, but top-tier defenses don’t overthink talent. Former Seahawks coordinator Gus Bradley holds the same spot in Los Angeles. The New England Patriots are an example of a team that relied on three-safety looks on two thirds of their snaps last season. It’s a valuable position, and there is no such thing as having too many talented defensive backs.
Sando: Dallas Cowboys. Because of their system and Thomas’ apparent desire to play there.
Bowen: Dallas Cowboys.They make the most sense because of the need at the position and Thomas’ immediate fit in their scheme. This would be a seamless transition for Thomas, and his presence would upgrade the entire Dallas defense.
Graziano: Dallas Cowboys. They have been the team most closely connected with Thomas, and they still have a need at the position. The Cowboys wouldn’t part with their second-round pick in the draft without knowing for sure whether they could sign him long-term, and maybe now that Thomas is exerting some leverage on the Seahawks, their patience could end up paying off, and they can get him for less.
Schatz: Dallas Cowboys. I wish I could be creative and suggest a team other than Dallas, but you end up with teams in the division (San Francisco, a trade that will never happen) or teams with cap space that have a clear hole at strong safety but not free safety (Indianapolis). The Houston Texans might make an interesting landing spot, though, especially with the recent announcement about Andre Hal’s health.
Is Thomas a Hall of Famer right now?
Henderson: If the question is whether Thomas should be a Hall of Famer if he retired now, my answer is yes. He has been arguably the most impactful player on a historically great defense. If the question is would he, I’d say probably. Looking at recent precedent, former Seahawks safety Kenny Easley — who had a similar career to Thomas’ — had to wait 25 years before he was elected last year.
Kimes: Yes, especially if he plays at a high level for two more years. Darrelle Revis once said this to me about Thomas: “That guy has Hall of Fame written all over him.”
Yates: Yes. Part of a player’s candidacy extends beyond his numbers, though Thomas’ statistical production is already Canton-esque. It’s about how that player impacts the league as a whole. Since early in his career, teams have often coveted a safety akin to Thomas, conceding that they rarely are available. That speaks to his unique ability.
Sando: Yes. Kenny Easley just made it. Thomas has had comparable impact for an all-time great defense that won a championship.
Bowen: Based on Thomas’ production through eight seasons and his unique impact on opposing offensive game plans, his résumé points to Canton. The safety position is tricky with Hall of Fame voters, however, as we have seen with players such as Packers legend LeRoy Butler.
Graziano: The Pro Football Hall of Fame voting process is a total mystery to me, so I try very hard to stay out of the predictions business when it comes to that.
Schatz: Yes, there’s a good argument that Thomas has been the best defensive player in the game over the past couple years. He certainly has been the best defensive player in the back seven.
The horse Gronkowski was second in the Belmont. Jeremy Bergman of NFL.com:
For the second time in five months, Gronkowski came up just short.
Gronkowski the horse, partially owned by New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, finished second behind Triple Crown winner Justify in the Belmont Stakes on Saturday.
Gronkowski (No. 6) was very slow out of the gate, fixed at the back of the pack for half of the race, but roared back to finish just behind the wire-to-wire champion.
The second-place result was a pleasant surprise for the tight end and his team, given that Gronkowski missed both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes due to illness and that the No. 6 horse finished with 24-1 odds to win.
This is the second significant defeat for a Gronkowski-led team in 2018. The tight end’s Patriots lost to the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl LII in February.
Gronkowski the tight end purchased a stake in Gronkowski the horse on April 18 and was in attendance at Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y., on Saturday.
How the horse’s finish affects the Patriot’s contract talks remains to be seen
THIS AND THAT
Kellin Winslow, Jr. was arrested for felony burglary. His story is, he was just house hunting for his mother-in-law. Ari Ginsberg in the New York Post:
Former Jets tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. says he wasn’t burglarizing any residence, he was simply trying to get a steal on a home for his mother-in-law.
In an email to NBC News, Winslow’s representatives say the former tight end was house hunting for his mother-in-law when he was arrested on a felony burglary charge Thursday afternoon in Encinitas, California.
A resident called police at around 2:40 p.m. saying he confronted a man who had entered a neighbor’s home because he didn’t recognize him, the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department announced. The man left the residence in a black SUV and was later tracked down by police and identified as Winslow.
Winslow, 33, says the home belonged to friends who attend church with his wife. He says he was the victim of “an over reactive neighbor” and never even went inside the household, spokeswoman Denise White of EAG Sport Management told NBC News via email.
Winslow was released from jail early Friday morning on $50,000 bail and will appear in court on Thursday, police told the Daily News.
His attorney, Harvey A. Steinberg, said in a statement provided to NBC News that the former Pro Bowler “emphatically denies committing any burglary. He would have no need to burglarize or steal anything from anyone at a trailer park.”
Winslow, a San Diego native and son of Hall of Famer Kellen Winslow, caught 31 passes for 388 yards and two touchdowns in his lone season with the Jets in 2013.
We shall see if the church friends show up at the hearing. And did he go inside or just look around the outside?
This from Deadspin:
Winslow’s spokesperson reportedly said the owner of the home confirmed that Winslow never entered the house, and that nothing was taken.
Whatever it is, it sure doesn’t sound like the “felony” that he was arrested on and that was broadcast over the airwaves.
Here are some recent odds to win Super Bowl 53:
Detroit Lions 50-1
Some thoughts: If the Patriots are still 5-1, then the Steelers are too low at 8-1…The Jaguars who crushed Pittsburgh in the playoffs are still a good value at 18-1…Look how far the Seahawks have fallen, all the way down to the Buccaneers and Bears…And look how high the 49ers have risen, all the way to the team with the 7th-lowest payout…Why on earth would you bet on the Colts at 40-1 instead of the Panthers or Titans?…The NFC South teams, New Orleans at 18-1 and Atlanta at 25-1, as well as the Panthers seem like good values…What originally got us going on this was our stories above on the Rams who are at 10-1.
We’re sure to have a bunch of these between now and September. Here is Jonathan Jones at SI.com (somewhat edited). We will give him plenty of credit for predicting a tie between the Redskins and Buccaneers when they meet on Novembe 11, should that happen.
With about three months until the official start of the NFL season, everyone—from players and coaches to the fans—is feeling good about their teams. Each team got a crop of great young players in the draft. The aging vets are about to come out of the offseason slumber in the “best shape” of their lives. The new coordinators promise their units will be fast, smart and physical. Get excited.
Except… next season’s playoffs will probably look a lot like last season’s. For the second consecutive year I’ve predicted the winners of each of the 256 regular-season contests, and I’ve come out with a very similar group of top teams compared those playing in January last season. A year after just four teams made consecutive appearances in the playoffs (tying a league low since playoff expansion following the 1990 season), I believe we’re looking at an all-time league-high nine teams returning to the postseason this year.
It’s difficult to look at the NFC last year and view any of those playoff teams as flukes or one-offs. In fact, you could argue that each of those team’s rosters today are better than they were in the postseason. The same could said more or less about the AFC—with the exception of Buffalo—going into this season.
First thing’s first: The NFC is the dominant conference. Not only does it have several contenders to the Eagles’ throne (the Saints, Vikings, Rams and Packers with a healthy Aaron Rodgers), but it also has a solid second tier of teams that would likely make the playoffs in the AFC. That’s why, in these predictions, you’ll see more NFC teams with records closer to .500 than in the AFC, and the two NFC wild-card teams boast 12–4 records. Meanwhile, it’s tough not to go ahead and pencil in a Steelers-Patriots AFC title game.
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS: 13–3*
The Patriots have had at least 13 wins in four of the past nine seasons, so there is no reason to believe they won’t win the AFC East for the 10th straight year.
NEW YORK JETS: 6–10
The Jets and the other teams filling out the AFC East have the unenviable task of facing the AFC South and NFC North this season. Because of that, it’s tough to find many wins on the schedule for the final three teams in this division.
MIAMI DOLPHINS: 3–13
Quarterback Ryan Tannehill has missed the past 20 games for the Dolphins, and if he misses another, either Brock Osweiler or David Fales will start in his place. That’s the main reason for giving Miami its worst record since 2007.
BUFFALO BILLS: 2–14
The 2017 Bills team depended on LeSean McCoy racking up yards, low-risk quarterback play and an opportunistic defense. It’s tough to see two of those three happening in 2018. Buffalo’s receiving group shouldn’t be feared, so that means defenses will keep focusing on the run. The Bills lost Eric Wood to retirement, Richie Incognito to… something and traded away Cordy Glenn, so good luck running the ball. A stacked box means the quarterback will look to take chances down the field, and that’s a problem with first-rounder Josh Allen. He was the least-accurate and most turnover-prone top quarterback in the draft. It all spells a big step back for the surprise playoff team from 2017.
PITTSBURGH STEELERS: 11–5*
As long as the Steelers have the Killer B’s they’re going to win this division. Antonio Brown is a top-two (or the top?) receiver in the league, Le’Veon Bell is the best running back in the NFL, and Ben Roethlisberger is the second-best quarterback in the conference
BALTIMORE RAVENS: 6–10
After going to the playoffs in six of John Harbaugh’s first seven years, the Ravens have missed out the past three seasons, and any questions regarding Joe Flacco and “elite” have thus been answered.
CINCINNATI BENGALS: 6–10
This designation is more about feel than what I see on paper. Yet again, the Bengals have a solid roster with very few holes (they’ll need to figure out Vontaze Burfict’s spot for the first four games). You have to like their running game, pass catchers and, if rookie center Billy Price is healthy as expected, their offensive line, too. But the Bengals have undersold with solid offenses the past two seasons, finishing in the bottom-third of the league in points in 2016 and ’17. Using the same logic as with the Ravens, the Bengals went 1-5 against playoff teams last season but a paltry 6-4 against the others. It’s fair to wonder if the Bengals, helmed by Marvin Lewis and Andy Dalton, have reached their peak without winning a playoff game together.
CLEVELAND BROWNS: 4–12
In the last three seasons the Browns have been the worst, second-worst and third-worst scoring offense in the NFL, and the team has tallied four total wins. Enter Baker Mayfield. Forget whatever Hue Jackson said in May about Tyrod Taylor being the guy. I can’t see a situation in which Mayfield isn’t the starter by October—if not Week 1—as the No. 1 pick.
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS: 11–5*
The Chiefs have made it to the playoffs the past three years playing in what has been, over that span, the most competitive division in football. The steadiness of Alex Smith, the coaching of Andy Reid and a stout defense have been the reason. Now Smith has gone to Washington, and it’s The Pat Mahomes Show. The sample size from last season is too small to extrapolate from, but clearly Reid—who has had just one losing season since 2006 and eight top-10 scoring offenses in that time—knows what he’s doing.
LOS ANGELES CHARGERS: 11–5*
Clearly the Chargers had a quiet offseason, because they feel good about what they’ve built. After two down years, this team crawled out of the AFC West cellar to finish second last year with little contribution from their 2017 rookies
OAKLAND RAIDERS: 6–10
Everyone is talking about the Raiders this offseason because of Jon Gruden, but that’s the reason I don’t feel great about this team in 2018. I think it’s foolish to think Gruden can just hop back on the coaching bike after a 10-year break
DENVER BRONCOS: 4–12
The Broncos never figured out their quarterback situation last year, and even the third-ranked scoring defense couldn’t help them muster more than five wins and a dead-last finish in the AFC West. What was telling in Vance Joseph’s first season was the eight-game losing streak in the middle of the season after starting 3-1. (Also telling was Denver getting just one road win, against the hapless Colts in Week 15.) Case Keenum is coming off a season no one saw coming, and I’m not sure I anticipate it happening again for the 30-year-old quarterback.
JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS: 11–5*
The Jaguars defense is not to be trifled with. Jacksonville’s back seven might be my favorite in the NFL, with Telvin Smith holding down the linebackers group and Jalen Ramsey playing his way into being the top cornerback in the league. On offense, Jacksonville signed guard Andrew Norwell at the start of free agency to bolster an already strong line. It’s an old-school football philosophy for Tom Coughlin, who understands that Blake Bortles doesn’t have to win the game as long as he doesn’t lose the game.
HOUSTON TEXANS: 10–6*
The Texans have won nine games in three of Bill O’Brien’s four seasons as coach with Ryan Fitzpatrick, Brock Osweiler and Brian Hoyer as the leading passers in those respective seasons. Deshaun Watson is better than those three combined
TENNESSEE TITANS: 7–9
Every year there’s a team you expect will be as good as, if not better than, the previous year but ultimately disappoints. That’s how I feel about the Titans.
INDIANAPOLIS COLTS: 4–12
This prediction, which mirrors the 2017 results for Indianapolis, is solely rooted in the uncertainty around Andrew Luck.
PHILADELPHIA EAGLES: 12–4*
No team—not the Packers or the Patriots or the Saints—has a better quarterback situation than Philadelphia.
DALLAS COWBOYS: 9–7
I’d feel much better about the Cowboys if they’d done more at receiver this offseason. Yes, Dak Prescott took a small step back in his sophomore campaign, but he still put together four game-winning drives last season.
NEW YORK GIANTS: 7–9
Like the Cowboys, the Giants have one glaring hole. In New York, it’s a missing pass rush
Kirk Cousins pulled off a miracle last year that is rarely discussed. His banged-up offensive line got him sacked 41 times. His best pass-catcher missed most of the season with a hamstring injury. The defense was 27th in scoring was the worst in the league against the run. And somehow Cousins led Washington to a 7-9 record. Washington has its health, added to the defensive line with Da’Ron Payne and picked up a solid long-term quarterback in Alex Smith to replace Cousins. The concern is that Smith’s talents could be unlocked only by Andy Reid, and he may slip into the mediocre quarterback of yesteryear. Washington needs more than that.
MINNESOTA VIKINGS: 13–3*
The Vikings are about as well-built as any team in the league. Their top-ranked defense from a year ago got even better in the offseason with the addition of Sheldon Richardson and rookie corner Mike Hughes. Following a career year from Case Keenum, the offense got a quarterback in Kirk Cousins who could get them over the hump, and Minnesota returns running back Dalvin Cook from an early-season ACL tear after he dazzled in his debut. The interior of the offensive line may be the only question in Minnesota, which is looking for its third NFC North crown in four years.
GREEN BAY PACKERS: 12–4*
As long as Aaron Rodgers is healthy, the Packers will reach the playoffs. The eight-year streak was snapped last season when Rodgers’ collarbone broke under Anthony Barr.
DETROIT LIONS: 8–8
A forecasted .500 record in 2018 for the Lions has far less to do with the job I believe Matt Patricia will do as head coach and far more to do with having the Vikings and Packers make up a fourth of their schedule.
CHICAGO BEARS: 4–12
The Bears got better at crucial positions they had to get better at this offseason. Chicago brought in Taylor Gabriel, Allen Robinson and Trey Burton to help their second-year quarterback Mitch Trubisky. The offensive line took a big hit losing guard Josh Sitton and the defense, while improved with Roquan Smith at linebacker, still needs to find a pass rush. It may take one more year for this group to gel.
LOS ANGELES RAMS: 12–4*
The rich got richer this offseason, and the Rams look to be completely unfair. Ndamukong Suh is now on a defensive line beside Aaron Donald. Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib are in the same secondary. Brandin Cooks adds speed to the offense. The Rams are building a monster, and their youthful wild-card exit last year will only fuel this 2018 campaign.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS: 10–6
No team that missed the playoffs last year should feel as good about its odds in 2018 as the 49ers. They went 5-0 with Jimmy G, with three wins against playoff-bound teams. They added Richard Sherman, Weston Richburg, Jerrick McKinnon and Mike McGlinchey after losing Carlos Hyde and Aaron Lynch. I’d say the 49ers got better there. A 10-win season would be San Francisco’s best since 2013, but I don’t see 10 wins (or even 11) getting you a playoff spot in this year’s NFC.
SEATTLE SEAHAWKS: 7–9
The Seahawks as we knew them are no more, and we should all mourn that.
ARIZONA CARDINALS: 4–12
The Cardinals are going to have to find themselves in the desert this year. I believe first-year head coach Steve Wilks will soon have success in Arizona, but not this season. The quarterback situation with veteran Sam Bradford and future-of-the-franchise Josh Rosen will be a difficult one to navigate for the defensive-minded first-time head coach. There was a great deal of roster turnover this offseason for a team looking for a new identity.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS: 12–4*
Give Drew Brees a defense that isn’t miserable and the Saints will usually get to the playoffs. At least, that’s been the case in the six times New Orleans has gone to the playoffs under Sean Payton. When the Saints have a scoring defense in the top 20, the team will reach the postseason. Cam Jordan gets to rush the passer with rookie Marcus Davenport. New Orleans has depth at linebacker, and the secondary boasts reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year Marshon Lattimore. No one should have any doubts about the offense doing its job.
ATLANTA FALCONS: 12–4*
When the Falcons go into 11 personnel, there may be no more lethal offense in 2018. Former NFL MVP Matt Ryan has running back Devonta Freeman, tight end Austin Hooper and receivers Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu and Calvin Ridley all at his disposal.
CAROLINA PANTHERS: 11–5
I have no clue how well the Norv Turner-Cam Newton arranged marriage is going to work. But I believe this Panthers team has enough talent at starting positions that it won’t be that big a deal, especially after some inconsistent years with Mike Shula as offensive coordinator. Carolina upgraded its receiving group with D.J. Moore and Torrey Smith but never really took care of the guard position vacated by Andrew Norwell.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS: 2-13-1
The Bucs were one of the most disappointing teams last season after a solid offseason and plenty of hype (some of it by yours truly). Dirk Koetter got to keep his job even though his team took a gigantic step back in 2017 on both offense and defense. Tampa Bay desperately needed pass rush help and got it in Vita Vea and Jason Pierre-Paul. But the offense had no reason to struggle like it did in Jameis Winston’s third season. Tampa Bay has finished last in the division seven of the past nine seasons, and it looks to happen again in 2018.