Time to take a look at the top half of the NFL teams. These are the Top 16, from which should come almost all of your Play-Off participants.
16) LA CHARGERS: We have a tendency to fall in luv with some of the star power on this team and overlook their lack of depth almost every year, which almost always plays out over the long haul of a full NFL season. The biggest question for this team is whether or not HC LYNN and his staff really have justified confidence that TYROD TAYLOR can be the starting QB to lead the team to the play-offs. If he turns out not to be, or gets injured by mid-season, then the JUSTIN HERBERT era will begin a bit early. The biggest plus for the team this year would appear to be an upgraded OL group. They might even have some depth with this current group, on both lines. I project them to be flirting with the over and under of an 8-8 campaign.
15) CLEVELAND BROWNS: This team’s roster seems to look better than 2019, but I am not jumping on the hype bandwagon like I did last season. I do get the feeling that the biggest improvement from then to now is in the coaching staff. KEVIN STEFANSKI and his staff look to be an upgrade from the FREDDIE KITCHENS group. We shall see. I am also guessing that more play, and less talking, from MAYFIELD, BECKHAM, LANDRY, etc. will also be a positive. However, they play in what has become one of the strongest divisions out there. They could go 9-7 and still finish third.
14) MINNESOTA VIKINGS: Despite some pretty brave talk from MIKE ZIMMER, this roster in Minnesota is going to be very young and thin on the experience side. Their secondary needed an overhaul, and boy did they get one. The CB group was totally turned over. There may be a dozen plus rookies on this roster and many of them will see considerable playing time. A disgruntled DALVIN COOK could be a big loss from a performance standpoint, and a locker room distraction. We shall see, but I think they struggle to stay above .500 for the season.
13) BUFFALO BILLS: A lot of folks have the BILLS ranked higher than I do, and see them taking the AFC East crown away from the PATS. I agree with that projection, in a soft AFC East, but I still see a few holes and the need for JOSH ALLEN to make a big progression in year 3 of his tenure. Look for STEFON DIGGS to really help ALLEN take another step forward. I see 9 or 10 wins, which will get them their Division title. However, can they chock up enough W’s to force some Winter home games early in the Play-Offs? That feat could enhance some Play-Off success.
12) DALLAS COWBOYS: Every year is Super Bowl or bust in JERRY JONES’ mind. And I continue to refuse to drink the COWBOYS Kool-Aid. They appear loaded on Offense, although that OL is not what it was about 3 years ago. My biggest question is whether or not MIKE McCARTHY can spread one football around enough to keep all of his weapons happy. DC MIKE NOLAN is in for a ton of work, with a lot of new players on his side of the ball. And the new guys may not equal the gone-guys. Shutdown CB BYRON JONES will be missed, and VFA GERALD McCOY is already lost for the season to injury. They added a carload of talented Rookies, but those guys aren’t what JERRY is looking for in his quest for this season’s Super Bowl.
11) PHILADELPHIA EAGLES: I like this roster a lot, when everyone is healthy. However, availability seems to be an annual challenge for this team, in general, and CARSON WENTZ in particular. They looked to have seriously upgraded their receiver group and secondary with the trade additions of WR MARQUISE GOODWIN and CB DARIUS SLADE. They also drafted WR JALEN REAGOR and S K’VON WALLACE to help in both areas. Goodwin, however, took a Covid-19 opt out. Ouch! EAGLES fans better also be working their prayer beads when it comes to the health of RB MILES SANDERS. Behind him is…
10) INDIANAPOLIS COLTS: This is one of my surprise picks to be much improved over their 7-9 record from last season. For the short term, they appear to have their QB position patched up with PHILIP RIVERS. He and Head Coach FRANK REICH go back a few years when they were both with the CHARGERS. His 23/20, TD/INT ratio from last season was terrible, but the hope is that REICH can convince RIVERS to throw the ball out of bounds more often, instead of trying to squeeze completions out of throws into coverage. I liked their Draft a lot. They added quality, and at positions where they needed such an infusion. The addition of DL DeFOREST BUCKNER from the 49’ers should be a big boost to their Front-7. This division is ripe for the taking with the COLTS knocking on the door to the TITANS throne room.
9) GREEN BAY PACKERS: After all the talk about RODGERS/LeFLEUR getting on the same page last season, some things went right for them to compile a 13-3 regular season rank. This year, the talk was how RODGERS would respond to the drafting of JORDAN LOVE in Round One, and no wideout selections at all in the Draft. I confess, I was caught by surprise at much of their drafting, but they have some solid young talent on their roster and RODGERS is still RODGERS. They are likely to fall quickly once the Play-Offs start, but I certainly see them as the favorite to capture the NFC North… again.
8) BALTIMORE RAVENS: The question in 2019 was, “Can anyone stop/control LAMAR JACKSON?” Did the bruising TITANS present the answer to harnessing the Muti-talented JACKSON? The RAVENS had a very large roster turnover this off-season. In OZZIE fashion, they drafted 10 Rookies to retool their roster and replace some jettisoned vets. But are they too young and inexperienced now? For a guy who loved to throw short to his TE group, only ANDREWS and BOYLE are back. Is LAMAR ready to throw downfield more often, and is that young group of wideouts ready to pick up the slack. Lots of questions for such a highly ranked team.
7) TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS: NO, it’s not just landing TOM BRADY. But he’s a big boost, perhaps more so psychologically and in the locker room at this stage of his career. They also did a very nice job adding people around their new QB, like GRONK, SHADY, and Rookies WIRFS and WINFIELD. There is some serious talent on this team, and it’s up to BRADY to reduce the 30-plus turnover number that JAMEIS betrayed his Defense with. Even a 43-year old version of TOM BRADY should be able to handle that assignment.
6) TENNESSEE TITANS: Want to talk about a team rising above their natural level of talent? Just look at the Play-Off run this team made last season. I think a lot of their success is attributable to the charisma and cache’ that MIKE VRABEL brings to his head coaching job. He’s a tough guy who has the playing resume’ to get players’ attention. He also uses what talent he has very effectively. Two seasons ago, DERRICK HENRY was sharing time at the RB spot. In 2019, he was a one man army by the second half of the season. RYAN TANNEHILL had a rebirth of his pro QB status after flaming out with the woeful DOLPHINS the past few seasons. A big part of that was the tutelage of Offensive Coordinator ARTHUR SMITH, who many feel is a budding coaching guru. They are replacing vets like JACK CONKLIN/OT, LOGAN RYAN/DB and JERRELL CASEY/DL, but that is an annual rite of passage as the team keeps its Salary Cap dollars under control. They look solid again to my eyes, with VRABEL providing that extra boost.
5) SEATTLE SEAHAWKS: Sometimes I feel like PETE CARROLL carries his “competition” mantra a bit too far for the long NFL season and age of veteran players, but his success cannot be questioned overall. And one of the most under-appreciated players in the League may be their QB RUSSELL WILSON. When you take a hard look at the weapons he has to work with, and the constant flux of his OL, WILSON generates an awful lot of the team’s Offense with his own skills and attitude. A healthy GREG OLSEN should upgrade the TE position, and the tough and steady B.J. FINNEY (VFA Pittsburgh) should be an upgrade at OC. Look for LSU Rookie DAMIEN LEWIS to be a younger, stronger FLUKER. JAMAL ADAMS should make their secondary almost as dangerous as it was with EARL THOMAS at his peak a few seasons ago. If at least some of last year’s Rookie class steps up in their second season as pros, this team could be near the top of the NFC when the season ends.
4) PITTSBURGH STEELERS: A healthy BIG BEN is the biggest key for this team. His arm looks good (elbow surgery) and he’s lost some baby fat. And won’t he be delighted to work with last year’s Rookie find DIONTAE JOHNSON, who can do a lot of the things A.B. used to with BEN. I can guarantee you that JUJU will really be glad that BEN is back to throw his way. They appear strong in almost all position groups on their roster, with the Defense looking the best it has in a long while. HEYWARD, MINKAH, T.J. WATT, BUSH, and DUPREE are all Pro Bowl caliber defenders.
3) SAN FRANCISCO 49ers: Their 2019 season may have been stronger and sooner than most expected. And they rode momentum all to the way to a Super Bowl appearance. LYNCH and SHANAHAN seem to have a good partner relationship in place. I was impressed that they did not sit still with their roster during the off-season. They had a few holes to fill and salary cap adjustments to make, and it appears that LYNCH made some solid additions. BUCKNER, STALEY, and SANDERS were the big three subtractions, but they did bring in KINLAW, Trent WILLIAMS and AIYUK to fill their shoes. SANDERS is the one I’m still not convinced they have truly replaced.
2) NEW ORLEANS SAINTS: Once again the SAINTS, except maybe for KAMARA, are all in to win another Super Bowl before BREES retires. Without ALVIN carrying the rock, it would put most of the weight back on DREW’s old shoulders. It’s time for DENNIS ALLEN’s Defense to carry a bigger load, and if guys stay healthy they may have the juice to do so. They have been knocking on the door in recent years. And I have to think some time soon they will get a break or two from the refs in Play-Off action.
1) KANSAS CITY CHIEFS: It’s not just ANDY REID and PATRICK MAHOMES, although those two are part of the big advantage this team currently has every game day. They kept pretty much all of their star supporting cast, except for a couple of Covid Opt-outs. A couple of OL back-ups will have to step up and keep MAHOMES reasonably clean. Their Defense is not stellar, but may be just good enough to end the 2020 season in Tampa. And they did pony up the cash to keep DL standout CHRIS JONES in a Chiefs uniform. Don’t overlook the fact that their top two Draft Picks, RB/EDWARDS-HELAIRE and LB/WILLIE GAY look like perfect fits for their systems.