As I start to detail the middle of the pack for the 2017 NFL season I do want to make note that I feel like there is very little separation right now between the next 12 teams coming up in my rankings list. Indeed every one of them could end up with 8-8 records. But history indicates that between injuries and other factors, some of these teams will rise up to fight for the final Play-Off spots, while others fall toward 10-Loss seasons. So with the preverbal roll of the dice here are my next 8 teams, some of which may surprise some of you.
24) Baltimore RAVENS The team slumped to 8-8 last season, and has a good chance to fall even further. GM OZZIE NEWSOME was hot as a pistol early this century when he grabbed star players like RAY LEWIS, JONATHAN OGDEN, TODD HEAP, JAMAL LEWIS, HALOTI NGATA and more. But he hasn’t had the volume of high picks in recent years nor has he hit a lot of home runs with the picks he has had nearly as often. The result is that if you take a good hard look at the RAVENS roster it is pretty mediocre. Now JOE FLACCO/QB has back issues, with no certain return date on the calendar. RB/KENNETH DIXON who had a nice rookie season last year with 382 rushing yards is lost already to knee surgery. STEVE SMITH, and his 70 catches, has retired, DENNIS PITTA/TE who led the team with 86 catches hurt his hip again in OTAs and this could be the end of the line for him. KAMAR AIKEN/WR left town as a VFA, and now CROCKETT GILMORE/TE was hurt in Week 1 of Training Camp. The team traded away OC/JEREMY ZUTTAH and TIMMY JERNIGAN/DT with no apparent starter-ready players to replace them. In fact projected OC/JOHN URSCHEL announced his retirement to pursue his math/science career opportunities. TERRELL SUGGS, their sack specialist will turn 35 in early October, and though he led the team in sacks in 2016 it was with a paltry total of 8. Despite being in a clear rebuild process the team still clings to a dozen-plus players over the age of 30. Unless a dozen, or more, young players really step up 2017 could be a very disappointing year in Baltimore on the football field. A 10-Loss season is not out of the question for this team, IMO.
23) Washington REDSKINS In this man’s opinion no one scenario may have a more negative effect on this team than the continued lack of harmony between KIRK COUSINS and the team’s management. For those who question his value to the team my quickest response is to ask what this team looks like without COUSINS at the helm?! The team has turned over the top of it’s WR group and count me as being skeptical if VFA/TERRELLE PRYOR and injured 2016 Rookie JOSH DOCTSON, are going to be an immediate upgrade over departed VFA’s DESEAN JACKSON AND PIERRE GARCON. TE/JORDAN REED is dynamic receiving option when he is healthy, but he’s hard to count on as being healthy, as he visits a toe/foot specialist as I write this piece. The OL is very solid with Pro-Bowler TRENT WILLIAMS/LT leading the way, but there is very little dynamism at the RB spot. The hope is that Rookie SAMAJE PERINE can provide a big boost wth his power and explosion between the tackles as demonstrated at Oklahoma. The team is hoping that new DC GREG MANUSKY can infuse some creativity and energy into their Defense. But for that to happen it looks like Rookies JONATHAN ALLEN/DL, RYAN ANDERSON/ER and FABIAN MOREAU/CB will all have to step in immediately as impact starters. VFA ZACH BROWN/LB may be the only significant newcomer for the defense beyond the Rookies. This looks like a team that I could see sliding below the .500 mark without using a lot of imagination. And then they will lose COUSINS in 2018 and start over at the QB slot.
22) Philadelphia EAGLES The Eagles struggled through a 6-10 season in 2016 as the team broke in new coaches and most importantly a Rookie QB in CARSON WENTZ. But look for the team to improve considerably this season after a very active off-season during which the team had a good draft effort as well as adding some meaningful vets to their roster. The biggest help to WENTZ, who showed very positive signs as a raw rookie starter, should come from the WR editions to the team; ALSHON JEFFERY and TORRY SMITH. The team also brought back NICK FOLES to back up WENTZ. Even though it is likely a short term situation, the addition of LaGARRETTE BLOUNT/RB from the PATS should provide a significant boost to the running attack especially in short yardage and red zone situations. The team looks to have also given their secondary a huge boost, though it may not be in September. Rookie draftees SIDNEY JONES and RASUL DOUGLAS both have starting potential, but JONES will miss early action as he recovers from an Achilles tear incurred during his Pro Day workout. VFA PATRICK ROBINSON/CB could be an upgrade over last season until JONES hits the field. DC JIM SCHWARTZ should have plenty of weapons with which to play with in rushing opposing QB off the edge. Vet CHRIS LONG joins the team from New England, as does first rounder DEREK BARNETT/DE/R. Even tho NT/BENNIE LOGAN is now in KC, the team has added beef to man the two DT slots in R/ELIJAH QUALLS and former Ravens TIM JERNIGAN. Also keep an eye on R/DONNEL HUMPHREY who will be groomed to take over multiple roles from Swedish Army Knife DARREN SPROLES, who is in his final NFL season. Depth will still be a concern at multiple spots on the roster, but progress is being made. I look for a likely .500 record from them this season.
21) Indianapolis COLTS. HC CHUCK PAGANO has outlasted GM RYAN GRIGSON, and the new GM CHRIS BALLARD has been very aggressive in turning over a mediocre roster. The biggest question here remains to be the health of ANDREW LUCK’s valuable right shoulder. He’s still rehabbing as Camp begins. Without a healthy LUCK at the helm this team is dead in the water. If LUCK comes back healthy he should find he’s working behind the best overall OL since he’s been a pro. BALLARD spent a lot of time and money trying to upgrade the defensive personnel and looks to have gained some ground with both the Draft and VFA. 3 Rookies may earn serous playing time in the secondary in MALIK HOOKER/S, QUINCY WILSON/CB and NATE HAIRSTON/CB. Vet help in the front-7 features DT/JON HANKINS, DE/MARGUS HUNT, JABAAL SHEARD/ER, JOHN SIMON/OB. ROOKIE ER/TARELL BASHAM could line up as an OLB or DE, but either way he may evolve into an elite pass rusher in short order. Also watch for R/MARLON MACK to have an early impact in the running game. The talent has been upgraded overall, but the health and productivity from ANDREW LUCK will determine whether the team fights to play .500 ball, or is a serious play-off contender. My vote says BALLARD will need another Draft to get the roster where it needs to be to take back the AFC South.
20) Carolina PANTHERS The PANTHERS pretty much fell off the cliff in 2016, going from a 15-1 2015 season to a 6-10 flop that ended the year with their Franchise QB struggling to overcome a throwing shoulder issue that ended with surgery in March. This situation looks a lot like that of the team above. Without a healthy NEWTON leading the Offense this team will be in dry dock just like the COLTS. Before being fired in July, GM DAVID GETTLEMAN used the Draft to add some serious speed and quickness to the offense with the selection of CHRISTIAN McCAFFREY and CURTIS SAMUEL. Expect them to play RB and WR respectively, but count on both to be primary targets for CAM, when he’s healthy. These guys represent speed that has been lacking in Carolina in recent years. Then throw in GREG OLSEN/TE, KELVIN BENJAMIN/WR, DEVIN FUNCHESS/WR and JAMES STEWART/RB and the Offense should be greatly improved this season. If LUKE KUECHLY is healthy from his late season concussion the D side of the ball should still be solid. Ex-Panthers defenders JULIUS PEPPERS/DE and CB/CAPTAIN MUNNERLYN return to bolster the Defense. Draftees CORN ELDER/CB and DAESHON HALL/DE should add speedy talent to bolster defensive depth. The PANTHERS are another team, that could go in either direction based greatly on the health of their Franchise QB.
19) Houston TEXANS BILL O’BRIEN and his staff, along with GM RICK SMITH, have done a solid job in recent seasons in getting this team into the Play-Offs. But my gut tells me that they might take a fairly big step back this year. But their past success, in the face of a conservative personnel acquisition philosophy (one that makes TED THOMPSON look like a VFA binger) may be catching up to them. SMITH prefers to find his own players coming out of college, and require the coaches to develop them. Not a terrible approach, but it can lead to a very thin roster at times. It looks like the team had a good Draft again this year, with DESHAUN WATSON/QB being the real wild card. It is possible that WATSON could do this year, what DAK did last year in Dallas, but that cannot be counted on. Both of the teams starting OT are missing as Camp begins. DEREK NEWTON is out for at least the entire 2017 season, and DUANE BROWN is a holdout, looking for one more contract extension with as much guaranteed money in it as possible. Rookie RB/D’ONTA FOREMAN is in legal limbo already, and they were counting on him to compliment LAMAR MILLER as a big, between the tackles running component. The best news for the Texans is that J.J. WATT says he is fully recovered from back surgery and ready to be his Defensive MVP, old self again. The roster is thin because of SMITH’s roster building inflexibility, and the COLTS could be returning to their old wining ways if LUCK comes back healthy. Texans fans need to be hoping for big things early from WATSON at the QB slot.
18) Detroit LIONS. When I take time to really analyze the LIONS, it occurs to me that HC JIM CALDWELL may be one of the more underrated head men in the NFL right now. A big part of his success can be attributed to his having one of the best group of assistants in the League. Both of his Coordinators, COOTER on O and AUSTIN on D, are head coaching candidates and their work with their respective units allows CALDWELL to serve as a calming, disciplined father-figure/leader overall. MATTHEW STAFFORD/QB appeared to step up big time shouldering the absence of CALVIN JOHNSON at WR. STAFFORD spread the ball around, with GOLDEN TATE emerging as a very productive No. 1 receiver with 91 catches for over 1,000 yards. GM BOB QUINN, from the Patriots tree, works the personnel side with creativity, hard work and a willingness to use any/all tools at his disposal to build a roster. When RILEY REIFF became too expensive at OT and left for Minnesota, QUINN signed VFA RICKY WAGNER, traded a late pick to the RAMS for disappointing former Top 10 draftee GREG ROBINSON, and signed VFA T.J. LANG to handle an OG slot. If TAYLOR DECKER comes back from an OTA shoulder injury to repeat his Rookie season that OL could be a team strength. QUINN/CALDWELL recognized that the D was sadly lacking at the LB slots so QUINN drafted 2 LB (including 1st Rounder JARRAD DAVIS) and signed two VFA to attempt to address the weakness. STAFFORD needs more help from his running game, and the big key there is whether AMEER ABDULLAH can come back from an ankle injury and avoid further injuries. If he can lead the RB group, they are deep in backups. LIONS fans may have to wait until the 2018 Draft for QUINN to find a big, bell-cow to solve that problem. This is still about a .500 club, unless STAFFORD reaches elite QB status, which means with a little luck they could repeat their 9-7 Wild Card season. Only time will tell.
17) New Orleans SAINTS. The SAINTS seem to be stuck on a very unsatisfying 7-9 streak. SEAN PAYTON is working very hard to create a reversal of fortune on his team. DREW BREES is still the leader in uniform and had another excellent season in 2016. BREES will be minus BRANDIN COOKS in 2017, but MICHAEL THOMAS really stepped up as a Rookie last season and looks like a clear No.1 wideout. The team also brought in TED GINN, who has his flaws, but also still has world class speed to stretch the field. WILLIE SNEAD and BRANDON COLEMAN are both more than just back-ups. The team really concentrated on beefing up their OL, although TERRON ARMSTEAD/OT will be missing for a while. But adding LARRY WARFORD/OG, KHALIF BARNES/OT and Rookie OT/RYAN RAMCZYK/T should provide a big boost along the offensive front. The running game could be strong, but who knows how the ADRIAN PETERSON signing will actually affect the RB group. DENNIS ALLEN/DC is still trying to reorganize the disastrous situation he inherited from ROB RYAN last year. The front-four is young overall, with good promise, but NICK FAIRLEY needing to sit out the season because of a heart condition hurts. Don’t be surprised if the LB group looks totally different as the season progresses. New additions A.J. KLEIN/VFA, ALEX ANZALONE/R, MANTI TE’O/VFA will all battle to replace the returning starters. And don’t forget pass-rusher HAU’OLI KIKAHA, who was basically injured all of 2016. If first rounder MARSHON LATTIMORE/CB can step up and win a starting CB job the SAINTS secondary could be the strength of the Defense, not to mention Rookie S/MARCUS WILLIAMS who may have to settle for sub-package situations behind starters BELL and VACCARO. The NFC South has become a really tough, quality division, but the SAINTS could have a chance to have a winning record and capture a Wild Card spot, especially if CAM NEWTON is not fully recovered from his shoulder injury in Carolina. If it’s another 7-9, or worse, season be prepared for the organization to hit the reset button, and for both PAYTON and BREES to look for greener pastures elsewhere. Sounds unthinkable at first, but change is inevitable in today’s NFL.