So let’s get down to the meat of things. The 10 teams below look to me to be the legit 10+ win teams who are going to deserve to head to the NFL Play-Offs come January 2018. The way injuries are mounting after less than two weeks of Training Camp makes me more than a bit uneasy however. Oh well… nothing ventured, nothing gained!
10) NEW YORK GIANTS. The team had a very good 2016 season improving to an 11-5 record and going to the Play-Offs. The goal this season is to snatch the NFC East crown away from the Cowboys. I don’t know that I’d bet on that, but they have a chance given all the chaos in the Cowboys locker room. Expect ELI to have a better year in 2017 based in good part on the arrival of some better targets to throw to with the addition on BRANDON MARSHALL/VFA and EVAN ENGRAM/R. I don’t see a clear No.1 RB on the roster, but if healthy they have a solid group that goes 3-4 deep. The biggest issue is likely to be their OL… again, especially out at the OT slots. LT/ERECK FLOWERS has been a bit slow in developing despite his athleticism, and BOBBY HART gets the nod at RT despite seeming to lack good enough feet to hold up on the perimeter. The team seems to have a blind eye when looking at their OL. The D had a very solid year in 2016 with a rebuilt secondary that looks very talented but not very deep if the injury bug strikes. They continue to emphasize their DL, but ignore the LB corps, which looks pedestrian at best. Adding Rookies DALVIN TOMLINSON and AVERY MOSS, as well as VFA DEVIN TAYLOR/DE provides solid depth along that DL. There is a 50/50 chance the team will open the season with URFA K/ALDRICK ROSAS who had Training Camp coffee with the TITANS last year. MILE NUGENT was just added to the mix, but I wouldn’t label kicking as a strength right now. There needs to be a sense of urgency in the Big Apple, with ELI not a kid any more at age 36 and entering year 13 of his pro career.
9) TAMPA BAY BUCS Clearly the biggest plus for this franchise is JAMEIS WINSTON, who clearly appears to be a rising star at the NFL’s most important position on the field. GM JASON LICHT continues to add pieces to the roster to help WINSTON develop. VFA DESEAN JACKSON brings a proven deep threat into the equation, and the team drafted the best all-around TE coming into the pro ranks in OJ HOWARD from ‘Bama. If the team can “run-by-committee” until DOUG MARTIN comes off suspension this could be a very balanced attack in Cigar City, USA. WINSTON had 5 games in 2016 when his QBR was over 100. Look for that to increase in 2017. DC MIKE SMITH was also given some new toys to play with this upcoming season for a defense that ranked 15th in scoring Defense last season. The goal is to be in the Top 10 of that important category. Some very talented newcomers should help SMITH reach for that goal. DL/CHRIS BAKER, LB/KENDELL BECKWITH/R, S/JUSTIN EVANS/R, DT/STEVIE TU’IKOLOVATU/R, S/JJ WILCOX have all been added to a relatively young base defensive unit. In an attempt to step up the secondary play a bit, last years R4 Draftee RYAN SMITH is being moved from S to CB, with eyes on his as a potential starter. LICHT just admitted his mistake of wasting a trade-up Draft Pick in 2016 to grab FSU K/ROBERTO AGUAYO as a local boy roster addition. He was cut after the first pre-season game. I still see this as a team on the rise, but chasing the FALCONS could be frustrating in the near term.
8) KANSAS CITY CHIEFS. Over the long haul I still think the firing of GM JOHN DORSEY will haunt this team. I’m not that sold on ANDY REID being a one-man franchise savior as some seem to be. But for right now this team still looks too solid not to give the RAIDERS. a good battle for the AFC West crown. To some degree, the current roster just needs to have key vets like JUSTIN HOUSTON/ER, DERRICK JOHNSON/ILB, TAMBA HALI/ER healthy enough to provide the pass rush pressure on a weekly basis, that sets up CD BOB SUTTON’s unit as a night mare for opposing QB to face. Man-Mountain NT/DONTARI POE left via VFA, but the team added (read DORSEY) more versatile BENNIE LOGAN/VFA/Eagles to help replace him. On. Offense one of the real questions seems to be finding more ways for TYREK HILL to touch the ball, further downfield than their normal dink and dunk O style. PATRICK MAHOMES/R/QB is a big story, but for another year. Expect at least one, if not 2, more seasons with ALEX SMITH at the helm, before REID must deal with the reality of the next BRETT FAVRE as his main man. Watch for R/KAREEM HUNT to get an increased work load in the RB group. He’s too versatile and talented to ignore. Also watch for JEHU CHESSON/WR/R to evolve into the teams top possession receiver as the season wears on.
7) DALLAS COWBOYS I’m looking for this team to take a step back this year, in great part because of the poor character throughout their locker room. The team will set a record for starting the season most players on suspension of some kind, even if JERRY JONES twists enough arms around the league to get EZEKIEL ELLIOTT off that suspended list. DAK PRESCOTT has the weapons and OL to prove that his amazing Rookie performance was not an aberration last season. His poise and athleticism are legit and his receiving group has a good balance of size, speed and athleticism. As the season wears on watch for R/RYAN SWITZER to emerge as a play-making WR/RS. Despite the loss of G/RON LEARY and RT/DOUG FREE the OL is deep enough to carry on as the key to the 5th best scoring O in the NFL last season. A big target for ROD MARINELLI’s Defense in 2017 is to increase his unit’s Take-Away production from a paltry 20. Thus the massive turnover number of 4 players from their top 6 DB group. The team signed VFA ROBERT BLANTON/S and NOLAN CARROLL/CB, as well as drafting 4 DB. The team also drafted 3 DL in an attempt to provide MARINELLI with more talent to work with. Despite mu projection that the Cowboys will take a step back in 2017, please note that they are still in my Top 10, and the highest ranked NFC East team.
6) SEATTLE SEAHAWKS Despite another Play-Off appearance by their team and another 10-Win season both PETE CARROLL and GM JOHN SCHNEIDER were on the same page in regards to flipping their roster this past off-season. At last look that shake up meant that 35 of their Training Camp 90-man roster was new for 2017. A quick look at their roster clearly indicates that CARROLL’s mantra of competition every day/every practice is in full force for 2017. Despite trading out of the First Round of the Draft again this year the team added a solid, volume group of draftees with 11 players selected. A very interesting spect of their Draft class is the selection of 4 DB to compete with the position group known as the heart of their D. Keep a close watch on the Legion of Boom this year in what might the last before a break-up of their start studded, but now very expensive, trio of SHERMAN-THOMAS-CHANCELLOR. If Rookies McDOWELL and JONES come through their DL group could be frighteningly deep and talented. The RB position still needs to be sorted out on O, but talent is not the issue. Can VFA/EDDIE LACY be the next version of Beast-Mode for them? Can he stay in-shape and healthy, which he failed to do for the Packers? THOMAS RAWLS is also hoping to stay healthy, not to mention CJ PROSISE. If you see a pattern here in the RB group so do I. Lots of competition on the OL, but the actual talent level is questionable again. OL Coach TOM CABLE will be asked to make steak out of hamburg again with this group. The team has quietly assembled a very deep and talented receiving group for QB /RUSSELL WILSON. If that OL can protect him WILSON. might be able to put up some big offensive numbers in 2017. Maybe that O can actually carry the team for a change this season. If so look for a deep Play-Off run.
5) PITTSBURGH STEELERS. I look for this team to be all-in for the 2017 season and Play-Offs because it’s beginning to feel like BIG BEN may be getting ready to call it quits over concerns of long term affects of brain trauma in the NFL. And this team is nowhere near ready to win a whole lot without ROETHLISBERGER, IMO. The team is embroiled in a contract dispute with LEVEON BELL, who on the one hand is elite as an NFL runner/receiver, but by the same token he has missed serious playing time with injuries and suspensions already in his young career. How much do you pay a guy, especially one who fails to be available all the time, to earn all the guaranteed money he wants? Without him the STEELERS Offense is mediocre at best. R/JAMES CONNER showed early flashes, but has also already been nicked up in training Camp. The return of MARTAVIS BRYANT from suspension should only add to ANTONIO BROWNS stats, as teams try to figure how to cover them both. If all the parts are present and accounted for the STEELERS could be downright scary on both sides of the ball. Their secondary looks much improved with the emergence of young players like ARTIE BURNS/CB and SEAN DAVIS/SS, who both earned starting jobs as Rookies last season. JAMES HARRISON is back for one more season at OLB and will have star Rookie T.J. WATT watching his every move. WATT already looks like the real deal as a pass rushing OLB. VINCE WILLIAMS looks ready to replace TIMMONS at ILB, at least against the run game. Count this team in as a serious Super Bowl contender if all the pieces fall into place.
4) GREEN BAY PACKERS. On a relative scale TED THOMPSON blew up his roster this past off-season.THOMPSON is a huge believer in building his roster from within. Draft and sign Rookies, then develop them and keep the good ones. When Training Camp opened the team had a a record 39 newcomers on the roster of 90. That number is almost unheard of on a team that made the Play-Offs the pervious seasons with 10 Wins. The vast bulk of these new players are Rookies (32), but THOMPSON also brought in 7 vet Free Agents. The message is clear, with a star QB like AARON RODGERS (now 33) it is time to shake up the roster a bit in an attempt to be all-in for a serious Super Bowl run, sooner rather than later. The biggest rebuild is at the RB position where not one player from last years RB corps, when Training Camp opened, is currently on the roster. Of the 6 RB in Camp, 5 of them are Rookies (3 draftees) and TY MONTGOMERY was listed as a WR a year ago. It’s a bold move and only time will tell if it works out. But keep in mind that the PACK was 20th in the League in rushing last season, and AARON RODGERS ran for almost 400 yards himself. TE/JARED COOK might have been the biggest weapon lost by RODGERS, but he only totaled 30 catches last season because of continued lost time to injuries. And the biggest VFA addition was MARTELLUS BENNETT, who replaces COOK. BENNETT caught 55 balls from a guy named BRADY last season. The team also signed LANCE KENDRICKS/TE from the RAMS, who caught 50 balls with team last season. Mark TE as a big net gain for the PACK Offense. The big question is how much help has the team given their D, under creative DC DOM CAPERS. That D ranked 21st in points allowed last season. But the D did rank 11th in Takeaways, which they expect to improve upon in 2017. Key additions for the D include DAVON HOUSE/CB, RICKY JEAN-FRANCOIS/DL, R/KEVIN KING/CB, R/JOSH JONES/S/LB, R/MONTRAVIUS ADAMS/DT, R/VINCE BEIGEL/LB. Time will tell if it all adds up to a couple more wins in the post-season or not, but if the injury bug stays away watch out.
3) OAKLAND RAIDERS. There was some serious buzz about the RAIDERS going into 2016 and they lived up to it, until they were were down to their 3rd strong QB (Rookie CONNOR COOK) in the Play-Offs. CARR is back and EJ MANUEL is in the house as his back-up. The biggest addition to the team is likely to be MARSHAWN LYNCH/RB who is coming out of retirement to play for his home town team. LYNCH may not gain a 1000+-yards this season, but it’s his work in the locker room and in short yardage/red zone situations that excites people. JARED COOK, from the PACKERS, adds quality depth to their TE group and WR/RS/CORDARELLE PATTERSON, a VFA from the Vikings, bolsters the return units and receiving depth. On D better health and a few high profile Rookies could move the unit up into the top half of the League in points allowed. Some key Special Teams players were lost in VFA, so the team will be looking for some of their Rookies to step up early in that regard. Watch for GAREON CONLEY/CB, OBI MEILIFONWU/S, EDDIE VANDERDOES/DT, MARQUEL LEE/LB are the biggest names to watch for. They lack depth in places, but CARR is evolving into an elite QB, and that can carry a good team a long way.
2) ATLANTA FALCONS. I feel like a major cop-out artist ranking the FALCONS right where they finished last season, but until they slip the team has the overall talent, most of it young, to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl again. The biggest question for the team might be whether STEVE SARKISIAN will be a top notch play caller to replace KYLE SHANAHAN as the new OC. Almost the entire Offense returns from the NFL’s highest scoring unit in 2016. The FALCONS averaged 33.8 points per game last regular season. The bad news for the rest of the NFC in their attempt to overtake the Falcons is that they look to have really bolstered their defense of a year ago. With teams putting the pedal to the metal to keep up with the high scoring FALCONS Offense the D surrendered 25.4 ppg, ranking 27th in the League. HC DAN QUINN, who earned his coaching spurs as a DC wants to improve that performance, and so GM THOMAS DIMITROFF spent a lot of time and money adding defensive talent to the team. DONTARI POE/DT has arrived from KC and will team with GRADY JARRETT inside while R/TAKK McKINLEY/DE and his non-stop motor will be counted on to help create even more edge pressure on opposing QB. Rookie DUKE RILEY is expected to boost depth in the young LB corps as well as excel on Special Teams. DAMONTAE KAZEE/CB was drafted in Round 5, and specialized as an INT machine in college. The big picture says this team has been held together and reinforced for another run at the Lombardi Trophy. The odds say no way, but I would not be surprised at all to see a Super Bowl rematch next year.
1) NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS. Let me first say that I am not handing another Super Bowl ring to BRADY/BELICHICK like some. But I will also add that the organization seems to be all in about 2017, in backing up their super star QB who is basically 40-years old. In the NFL that age can mean at last one foot in the grave. But it is impressive that the team went all out to add even more vet talent to the roster. Expect about 25-33% of their roster to be fresh faces come September. The most telling aspect of their 2017 roster composition to me is that they held on to young potential stars like Malcolm Butler and Jimmy Garoppolo rather than trading them away for draft picks, just because. Yes a significant number of key players like NINKOVICH, LONG, BOUNT and BENNETT are gone. But so many new faces are in Camp who have proven their worth as pros, that none of their losses seem overwhelming. In fact, assuming good health for GRONNK (RISKY BUSINESS HERE), JULIAN EDELMAN, BRANDIN COOKS, CHRIS HOGAN, DION LEWIS, JAMES WHITE, MIKE GILLISLEE, DWAYNE ALLEN, et all, BRADY might find himself with more weapons than he knows what to do with. But trust me he’ll figure that puzzle out. The D has more new faces than the O this year, and DC MATT PATRICIA will blend them into a jigsaw puzzle of matched pieces. The train can always come off the tracks for a myriad of reasons, but overall I would say the mantra for the PATRIOTS should probably be, ‘the beat goes on.’
There you be folks. Some surprises and some expected rankings. Now on with the pre-season warmups for the real season.