We’re about a week out from the start of the NFL season – when all the front office moves, pre-season injuries and flashy free agency spending sprees mean absolutely nothing for a brief moment. Everyone starts off on the exact same foot – at .500 – and the only thing we can be assured of is parity.
But it’s hard to remember such a turbulent off-season for so many reasons. Whether that be major holdouts, unexpected trades or the Oakland Raiders losing the plot and selecting Clelin Ferrell with the fourth overall pick, we’ve hardly had time to actually forget football.
That’s no bad thing, but we are now afforded a week to focus on exactly what we expect to happen now – hoping that Andrew Luck’s brave decision to retire is the last sock we have before kick-off.
Some markets look a little lopsided to me, and I think it’s time we took advantage before it all gets rolling next Thursday.
First things first – forget the wildcard. I’m not completely positive you won’t need 11 wins to grab that spot in the AFC, given the strength in the North and Carolina looking the best they’ve been since their Super Bowl appearance.
So, with that in hand, we need to evaluate the division because the Niners are not winning more than 10 games this season. But they very well may win 10.
The Rams’ entire offence is based around play-action and running the ball off-tackle, with some jet sweeps thrown in for misdirection. McVay is going to have to be extremely creative to concoct new disguises in a scheme that’s largely based on misdirection.
Todd Gurley is hurt and they haven’t done enough to prepare for the fact he may not even feature in half those games. Darrell Henderson is a rookie back and while that’s no slight by any stretch – that position in particular consistently sees breakout performances from first-year players – but to run in this system requires high-level IQ and they don’t have that now following the departure of CJ Anderson to Detroit.
Andrew Whitworth is 37 years of age; their big free agent signings are Eric Weddle (34) and Clay Matthews (33). They just got slower on defence. Taylor Rapp will feature a lot in dime packages but he’s a real work in progress. The oldest young team in football is starting to show their collective bald spot. They open up against Carolina while San Francisco have the Bucs and Bengals.
Seattle will be a non-issue as they’ve yet to sign an offensive line for Russell Wilson and DK Metcalf can only run a single route in the tree. Kliff Kingsbury is in the middle of implementing the air-raid in the desert, so we can write off the Kyler Murray show for another three years.
What we definitely won’t be doing, is counting out Kyle Shanahan’s offensive scheming. They’ve also got the best defensive line in football, pending Nick Bosa’s health.
The Niners are ready to be back among the elite as they’ve now got the best tight end in football to complement the best young signal-caller in the league. If he’s over his ACL tear, this team will win the West.
I have a real issue with the AFC North this year. It’s based primarily around the ‘newness’ of it all. Cleveland have a talented roster for the first time since the Romans invaded half the world, the Steelers may lean on their defence for once and Baltimore are going to run an offensive scheme that nobody in the league will be able to plan for.
That’s too many variables for me and because of that, I wouldn’t be surprised if the winner of that division finishes with eight wins. They’re all going to beat each other.
I guess it comes down to whether or not you believe Freddie Kitchens can keep this ship running in the same direction as there are egos falling out of the bandwagon at every bump. It takes a lot to weld things together in this league, let alone so many news parts all at once.
Mayfield was a standout in his debut season, no doubt. Odell Beckham is a top-tier receiver. They possess above average edge rush, offensive line blocking, secondary coverage and slightly below average linebacking.
But there’s nothing there miles above average as a unit. Just because they’ve moved on from the average tag does not mean they’re automatically about to finish above .500. The organisation will accept this is a project, so why can’t everyone else with one-way tickets for the hype train?
If you don’t have above-average strength at linebacker and/or safety, you’re susceptible to tight ends causing you problems everywhere. It also suggests that they’ll be weak enough against runs outside. Their front four can be chipped, but Greedy Williams is one of the worst corners against the run to come out of the first three rounds in a draft in over a decade, while there’s no assured tacklers in the second level.
They’re going to be schemed against because they’re not a complete roster yet. Until then, don’t expect miracles.
The logic for the line being 9.5 and not 10.5 is because the AFC West has gotten better than it was last year. But that’s only a theory.
Denver are en route to the top level in terms of defences again, while Oakland have more pieces. But two things remain: Joe Flacco and Jon Gruden. These two figures ensure neither of these teams wins seven games, and there’s easier games to be won outside their own division.
The Chargers were 4-2 in the West last year; splitting with Kansas City and a Philip Rivers brain fart that handed a W to Denver in Los Angeles. There’s nobody convincing me that they’re .500 in the division this year – if anything, they could win five games.
They may have lost Derwin James for the first half of the season, but he’s back for both Chiefs games, as well as the rocky end to the schedule. They’ve got a top-five defensive line, maybe the best secondary in the league, major linebacker depth and a quarterback who’s playing at an elite level.
It’s one of the best roster builds in the modern game, and Tom Telesco deserves a Super Bowl as much as anyone.
Oh, and they open up against an Indianapolis Colts team minus Andrew Luck in week one. Talk about a comfy start.
I understand this is the hottest division in football. I understand that even the Lions could be a .500 team this year, but I also understand that this team has superb blocking, excellent pass rush, top-level secondary and a linebacking corps that tight ends can’t win against.
Aaron Rodgers is making his way into a new system and Mitch Trubisky performed about as well as his pedigree suggested he would. Kirk Cousins needs to earn his contract this year, and if he plays to that level, the Vikings have a real shot at 11 wins. They were my Super Bowl pick two years ago, and they’ve had very little in the way high-profile player departures since then.
And that’s just a divisional boost for them, let alone the wildcard possibilities they can conjure up – and they’ve very much got the capacity to be an 11-win team to snag that spot.
No roster in this division is as complete as the Vikes’ – particularly at key positions – and if they had a Tarik Cohen type player that is all the rage in the league this year – then they might even edge the Bears as favourites this season.
And until the Bears can manage to kick a field goal when it matters, well – they’re the margins.
There is not a hope they’ll be winning any of their divisional games. Not a hope. Write that off right now as 0-6. So, they’ll have to go 6-4 for the remainder of their games to see this beaten.
For them to win even come close to this, they’ll have to win at least four of their remaining five home games. Let’s have a look at their opponents: 49ers; Cardinals; Jets; Patriots; Jaguars.
Well, we know they won’t be winning the Patriots game. So, do they turn over the air-raid, that Jags defence, Kyle Shanahan and Sam Darnold? Come on.
Last year, four of their six wins came at home: against first-year Lamar Jackson, the Dolphins, the Bucs and first-year Jon Gruden.
For too long now, this team have drafted poorly, not held onto their best talent, aimed to replace Andy Dalton or anything resembling a constructive front office move.
This has continued this year, and they’ve managed to get even worse. Even the drafting of top tackle prospect Jonah Williams seemed a reach.
Of all my selections, this is the one I’m most confident of.
*Odds subject to change