Now we’re getting somewhere. After two days spent trudging through the bottom half of the league, the third part of these preseason rankings finally has us wading into a group of NFL playoff hopefuls and teams with outside Super Bowl chances.
The defending champs are down there somewhere, squeezed into a group filled with franchises that feature star-riddled rosters but questions at quarterback. In that regard, the Colts are the exception; they’re, well, the opposite of that.
This is the third entry in a four-part preview series. Part I focused on the eight teams I expect to toil near the bottom of the league. Part II spotlighted eight teams that should be just good enough to fail.
To open Part III, let’s start with the NFL’s version of Lucy to my Charlie Brown.
16. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2015 record: 6–10
2015 Football Outsiders DVOA finish: 18th on offense; 18th on defense
By now, you’d think I would know better. Having too much faith in the Buccaneers has become an annual tradition for me. The only reason I’m confident that I haven’t lost my mind is because this time I’m doing it for a different reason.
Picking the Bucs to finish in the top half of the league amounts to placing a big bet on Jameis Winston and the offense taking a significant step forward. By rookie quarterback standards, Winston was great in his debut season. Only seven QBs since the merger had a higher adjusted yards per attempt than Winston’s 7.1 last year, and that list includes names like Ben Roethlisberger, Russell Wilson, Dan Marino, and Cam Newton. For a unit that ranked dead last in offensive DVOA the season before Winston arrived, the Bucs’ offense took huge strides in 2015. Tampa Bay finished third in yards per play and fifth in yards per drive. But the Bucs couldn’t get out of their own way.
Tampa led the league in offensive penalties. Winston threw 15 interceptions, and among quarterbacks with at least 30 passes in the red zone, only Nick Foles, Colin Kaepernick, and Johnny Manziel had worse completion percentages. That may seem depressing, but I choose to look at it the other way: All of it points to a far better showing in 2016, and that starts with Winston displaying more high-level anticipation and less of the sketchy decision-making he showed as a rookie.
What They Should Do Well: Tampa’s run defense finished ninth in DVOA last year, but the Bucs’ collection of skill-position players is what will truly make this team worth watching. Mike Evans dropped too many balls in 2015, but we’ve already seen what he can do. As Winston continues to get better, the third-year receiver’s numbers should skyrocket. The Bucs also boast one of the NFL’s best backfield tandems in Doug Martin and third-down option Charles Sims. Martin led the NFL in yards after contact, per Pro Football Focus, while Sims is the perfect complementary do-it-all back in today’s game.
Where They Will Struggle: The Bucs’ offensive line was brutal for much of last year, which played a part in Winston being hit a league-high 96 times. Getting right tackle Demar Dotson back from a knee injury should help matters, but assuming left tackle Donovan Smith, a 2015 second-round pick, will be considerably better in his second season is a mistake that we (read: I) too often make with young players. The 6-foot-6, 338-pounder was out of his depth as a rookie; only two tackles finished last season with more penalties. And one happened to play for the Bucs.
On the other side of the ball, Tampa still has a shaky secondary, even if first-round pick Vernon Hargreaves III should be a stud from the start. General manager Jason Licht made moves this offseason to bolster his pass rush — signing Robert Ayers and taking Noah Spence in the second round — but neither of those additions, even when coupled with the likelihood of a resurgent campaign from Gerald McCoy, will be enough to mask the lack of high-level talent on the back end.
Potential Breakout Star: Hargreaves. I am forever wary of the preseason, but this guy looks like the real deal. Watching him lurk in shallow zones while working in the slot and picking off passes all over the place should be fun.
Stat of Note: Five. That’s how many players have put together a season with at least 68 receptions, 1,051 yards, and 12 touchdowns by age 22, like Evans did as a rookie in 2014. He’s going to be just fine.
15. Indianapolis Colts
2015 record: 8–8
2015 DVOA finish: 30th on offense; 13th on defense
This was supposed to be the year when everything went back to normal. After losing Andrew Luck for nine games last season and dealing with a bizarro version of him in the other seven, the Colts were hoping that his return, coupled with some better injury luck and the continued development of their best young players, would put them back atop the AFC South. Yeah … about that.
Luck is back, and if he plays at the level he did in 2014, he’s capable of transcending some of the trouble spots on this roster. But man, it’d sure be nice if he didn’t always have to. Indy spent its 2016 first-round pick on Alabama center Ryan Kelly after years of shuffling at the position in a post–Jeff Saturday world. Having Kelly in the middle was a means of providing stability to the line, but that hope might already be out the window. Left guard Jack Mewhort, the Colts’ best offensive linemen, will miss at least one game with a knee injury suffered in late August; his estimated date of return is unknown. On the other side, the offense will rely on 2015 seventh-round pick Denzelle Good at right guard and Joe Reitz at right tackle. Indy was banking on Kelly and continuity trumping talent up front, and it’s already lost the latter.
On defense, the Colts are missing three of their most important pieces. Cornerback Vontae Davis, who was among the league’s best in 2014 before some nagging ailments led to a downturn last year, is out until at least October with a sprained ankle. Defensive end Henry Anderson, the Stanford product who looked like an amazing third-round find as a rookie in 2015, has yet to return from a torn ACL in his right knee that cost him the final seven games of the season. And fellow lineman Arthur Jones will miss the first four games this fall while serving a PED suspension.
All of this leads back to well-tread territory for the Colts: They’ll need Luck to carry them, and they’re going to be in for a long year if he can’t.
What They Should Do Well: When Luck is right, he gives the Colts a downfield passing game that matches any in the league. In 2014, he finished with 73 completions of at least 20 yards, seven more than any other QB. T.Y. Hilton’s speed and Luck’s arm remain Indy’s best plan on offense; the question — again — will be whether the line gives them time to work.
Where They Will Struggle: Two areas stick out. First, outside of Kelly, the Colts did little to retool a running game that finished 30th in DVOA last season. I guess there’s a chance that, by some combination of science and magic, Frank Gore can turn 25 again, but that seems unlikely at best.
The pass defense also has cause for concern. To compensate for a lack of pass-rushing talent, head coach Chuck Pagano continues to use one of the more blitz-happy schemes in the league. Indy ranked in the top eight in both five- and six-man rushes last year, putting a lot of stress on its secondary. That’s fine when Davis is playing like a shutdown corner; it’s less so when he’s being replaced by Antonio Cromartie and the Colts are forced to start 2016 second-round pick T.J. Green — who many believed needed some time to develop — at safety.
Potential Breakout Star: Anderson. A lack of ascending players is part of Indy’s problem, but if Anderson can return to the field sooner rather than later and play at the level he did as a rookie, he could quickly become the best player in this front seven as Robert Mathis nears the end of his career.
Stat of Note: 53.1 percent. Courtesy of Football Outsiders, that’s how often the Colts rushed four players on defense last year. Only four teams in the league did so less often. Pagano loves his blitzing.
14. New York Jets
2015 record: 10–6
2015 DVOA finish: 14th on offense; 5th on defense
The contract stalemate between Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Jets came to a predictable end this summer when Fitzpatrick signed a one-year, $12 million deal. As it was happening, though, the thinking on both sides made it a fascinating affair.
The Jets know that Fitzpatrick is a 33-year-old quarterback whose numbers last season were largely the product of a friendly system and a receiving duo, Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker, that rivals any in the league. But that still didn’t make the team comfortable enough to trust the rest of the roster and roll with one of the three young QBs New York has drafted in recent years. For Fitzpatrick’s part, he was able to sit back and stroke that majestic beard of his. Even if offers weren’t rolling in from other organizations, he had to know that the Jets were in a self-created bind. Their ceiling with him is limited, but so is their floor. Given how the rest of this roster is constructed, any plan that doesn’t involve wasting a year as a young passer takes his lumps is attractive.
New York was the oldest team in the league last season by snap-weighted age (27.6 years), yet an expanded role for second-year pass rusher Lorenzo Mauldin and the introduction of rookie linebackers Jordan Jenkins and Darron Lee should lower that number on defense. Meanwhile, on offense, the Jets swapped the 28-year-old Chris Ivory for 30-year-old Matt Forte at tailback and replaced the retired D’Brickashaw Ferguson with Ryan Clady at tackle. With Marshall, Darrelle Revis, and Nick Mangold all on the roster, what’s a couple of more big-name veterans firmly entrenched in the waning years of their careers?
The Jets reaped the benefits of GM Mike Maccagnan’s 2015 spending spree by leaping from 21st in defensive DVOA to fifth in their debut season under head coach Todd Bowles. But the restrictions that come with an aggressive approach like that have already surfaced. Right now, New York is slated to have less than $600,000 in cap room next season. Money could be saved by cutting some of the more high-priced veterans on the roster, but one reason this team was on the brink of a postseason berth last winter was because of those high-priced vets. If the Jets have a window, it’s fading. That’s why the move with Fitzpatrick was all but a foregone conclusion.
What They Should Do Well: By re-signing Muhammad Wilkerson this offseason, the Jets kept together a defensive line trio that should make any team in football jealous. Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson, and 2015 first-round pick Leonard Williams are versatile agents of destruction. Even without departed nose tackle Damon Harrison, who signed with the crosstown Giants, this group will beat people up at the line of scrimmage and vie for the league’s top run defense for the second season in a row.
Where They Will Struggle: For a team this old, the Jets stayed remarkably healthy last year, and the pricey, veteran flavor of the roster means they better hope that’s the case again. New York’s offensive starters missed a combined three games in 2015, a total that seems almost inconceivable. With right tackle Breno Giacomini on the PUP list to begin the season, that number will already double in the first six weeks of this fall, and Clady has spent two of the past three seasons on injured reserve. If Marshall or Decker were to miss extended time, things could get dark in a hurry.
Potential Breakout Star: Williams. As a Bears fan, I was heartbroken when the former USC star went one spot before Chicago’s pick in the 2015 draft. He was excellent as a rookie, to the point where no one would have blinked had the Jets elected not to bring Wilkerson back. Williams finished last year with 17 hits and just three sacks, a sign that his sack total should take a big jump this fall.
Stat of Note: 21 percent. That’s how often Bowles’s defense blitzed six or more rushers on plays last year, according to Football Outsiders. No other NFL defense was above 13 percent. Related: I love Todd Bowles.
13. Washington Redskins
2015 record: 9–7
2015 DVOA finish: 12th on offense; 21st on defense
Considering how often decisions involving quarterbacks make other GMs go insane, the restraint that Scot McCloughan showed this offseason by not breaking the bank for Kirk Cousins is admirable. Among quarterbacks with at least 400 attempts from 2012 to ’14 (Cousins’s first three years in the NFL), only a few even came close to his league-leading 4.7 percent interception rate. It’s a truly heinous list of names, too.
Cousins’s history of throwing the ball to the opposing team was the main source of outside skepticism when Washington handed him the starting job last year. By his standards, Cousins was better in the first half of 2015 (throwing interceptions on only 2.9 percent of his attempts), but if he continued at his per-game pace, he would have finished the season tied for the NFL lead in picks with 18.
And that’s what made his final two months so strange. During Washington’s last eight regular-season games, Cousins threw 19 touchdowns against only two interceptions. In the first half of the campaign, Washington posted the league’s 22nd ranked offensive DVOA; over those final eight weeks, it ranked fifth. The team rode that wave to a 6–2 record and an NFC East title, and just like that, it looked like the franchise had found its QB of the future.
It’s not out of the question that Cousins’s sudden improvement could be the product of maturation. At the midway point of last fall, he had 17 professional starts to his name, the equivalent of about one full season. But looking at some numbers and considering what Cousins had around him, the more plausible explanation is that one of the best support systems in football lifted a talented-but-flawed QB. In hitting Cousins with the franchise tag this offseason, McCloughan betrayed that his thinking involves a healthy dose of that second line of reasoning. Now, he’ll have another season’s worth of games to decide whether to re-sign Cousins, while the quarterback will have another chance to show his GM and everyone else that he’s more than a beneficiary of his surroundings.
What They Should Do Well: Cousins still struggles with accuracy, especially on throws down the field, but that doesn’t matter with this receiving corps. DeSean Jackson is too fast, Pierre Garcon is too adept at adjusting to the ball, and tight end Jordan Reed is just too fucking good. With Pittsburgh wideout Martavis Bryant out for the season, it’s a two-horse race between Washington and Arizona for the league’s best receiving group. Oh, and Washington took former TCU star and aerial artist Josh Doctson in the first round of the 2016 draft. It barely makes sense how good these dudes are.
Where They Will Struggle: Offensive line coach Bill Callahan is damn good at what he does, and that was on display again in 2015. Still, improvement from first-round guard Brandon Scherff and cohesive line play wasn’t enough to ignite the ground game. Washington was dead last in rushing DVOA last season, even as its passing offense morphed into a machine down the stretch. If anything can hold this team back (aside from injuries to Reed and Jackson), that’s it.
Potential Breakout Star: Preston Smith. The 2015 second-round pick had eight sacks in only 508 snaps last year, and he provides some pass-rushing pop across the line from Ryan Kerrigan. Washington has done a great job of retooling its defensive personnel (including assembling some solid depth at cornerback, even if that meant handing Josh Norman all of the money), but outside of the big names we already know, Smith may have the best chance to make a major impact this fall.
Stat of Note: 13.8. That’s Cousins’s average yards per attempt on play-action throws from the second half of last season, according to Cian Fahey. Head coach Jay Gruden is great at putting Cousins into favorable positions, and Washington’s continued use of play-action — even with a DOA running game — is a prime example.
12. Houston Texans
2015 Record: 9–7
2015 DVOA finish: 24th on offense; 8th on defense
For 31 other teams, the arrival of — and expectations facing — a 25-year-old, $72 million quarterback would be the story of the offseason. But 31 other teams don’t have J.J. Watt. It’s been less than two months since the Texans announced that their star defensive end required back surgery and would have to miss training camp, but earlier this week head coach Bill O’Brien confirmed that Watt will play in the 2016 opener against Chicago. As a Bears fan and Watt stan, I’m torn but ultimately pleased about this.
No defensive player in the league does more for his team than Watt, and since Houston’s case for making another playoff push begins with its defense, Watt starting this campaign (relatively) healthy is great news. The Texans finished last season fourth in weighted defensive DVOA, thanks to a dominant second half during which they gave up 17 points or fewer in six of the final eight regular-season games. Watt — who in 2015 managed to capture his third Defensive Player of the Year award despite playing hurt for the majority of the year — is the headliner of this group, but the Texans have a very talented collection of guys who should be able to build on their late-season success. On offense, though, Houston’s offseason was about anything but continuity.
Along with signing QB Brock Osweiler, the Texans went big in both the draft and free agency to provide All-Pro wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins with a little help. It’s not asking much for Osweiler to play better than Brian Hoyer did last year, but there’s also no guarantee that he will. At the very least, Osweiler brings upside amid the uncertainty, which couldn’t have been said entering the past few years of Houston quarterbacking. To ensure they get the most out of Osweiler, the Texans threw every major asset they had at bolstering the offense: They added two rookie receivers (first-rounder Will Fuller and third-rounder Braxton Miller), a guard to replace the departed Brandon Brooks (Jeff Allen), and a pricey new running back to step in for Arian Foster (Lamar Miller).
With all that turnover, Houston has more possible outcomes this season than almost any team in the NFL. If Osweiler plays well and the offense jumps to a league-average level or better, the Texans should have the inside track to win the AFC South. If Osweiler struggles, they are probably looking at another season of hovering around .500 and praying that the Colts face a similar fate to the one that befell them last year.
What They Should Do Well: Houston’s pass defense finished seventh in DVOA last season and has all the makings of a unit that should be able to replicate that success. Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus give the Texans pass-rush options outside of Watt, and along with 2015 first-round pick Kevin Johnson — who was among the best rookies from last year’s class — Johnathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson make up one of the top cornerback groups in football.
Where They Will Struggle: Osweiler is the biggest question mark on offense, but Houston will also start this year with a banged-up offensive line. Left tackle Duane Brown, who just turned 31, still hasn’t returned from offseason quad surgery, and 2016 second-round pick Nick Martin, whom the Texans had penciled in at center, is out for the season with an ankle injury. For a unit looking to take an offensive leap, that’s not ideal.
Potential Breakout Star: Clowney. He hasn’t emerged as the generational talent many expected he would be when Texans took him first overall in 2014, but coming off of microfracture surgery, Clowney played well enough last year to inspire optimism. He had only 1.5 fewer hurries than Mercilus, who exploded for 12 sacks in 2015, in 179 fewer snaps. A significant step forward in 2016 is not only possible, it’s likely.
Stat of Note: Six. That’s the number of statistical categories in which Watt finished first in the league. According to the Football Outsiders Almanac, Watt led the NFL in run tackles for loss, quarterback hits, sacks, defeats, hurries, and fewest average yards gained on run tackles. He is not human.
11. Denver Broncos
2015 record: 12–4
2015 DVOA finish: 25th on offense; 1st on defense
It still seems strange that a team replacing Peyton Manning with a 2015 seventh-round pick who said even he didn’t expect to be drafted isn’t worried about suffering a drop-off at quarterback, but here we are. New Broncos starter Trevor Siemian played his college football at Northwestern, about 12 miles from where I live. Until this spring, I had never heard of him. Now, he’s the starting QB for the defending Super Bowl champions.
Denver’s offseason moves — combined with Manning crumbling into pieces last year — make it such that an argument for the Broncos improving on offense in 2016 isn’t totally nuts. They’ve brought in two new offensive tackles, and although right tackle Donald Stephenson has never played up to his skill set and left tackle Russell Okung has trouble staying on the field, a revamped line has the potential be better than Denver’s 2015 group as a whole. Receivers Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders are still on the roster, too; even if last season was a sign that neither is quarterback-proof, they should help a young QB.
By snagging Paxton Lynch at the end of this spring’s first round, Denver made its future quarterback plans clear. For now, though, it makes sense why head coach Gary Kubiak would choose to mitigate his chances for offensive disaster and avoid rolling with the rookie. The Broncos defense is (probably) still the Broncos defense, and if Siemian can clear a relatively low bar, that might be enough to carry this team to the playoffs.
What They Should Do Well: Von Miller is back. Let’s start there. Miller was already the best player on the league’s best defense, but during last season’s playoffs he turned into a scorching fireball that incinerated everything in its path. Expecting Miller to play at the level he did in the AFC championship game and Super Bowl on a weekly basis isn’t realistic, but figuring out how Denver can overcome the losses of guys like Malik Jackson and Danny Trevathan begins with Miller maintaining his status as a demigod.
According to Football Outsiders, Denver’s 2015 defense had the eighth-best DVOA since 1989. There are plenty of reasons teams coming off historically great campaigns fall off the following year, but one of them is the talent drain that befalls units like this one. Having standout players on cheap rookie deals is a necessity in constructing a dominant roster, and the 2015 Broncos were no exception. Now, guys like Jackson and Trevathan are gone, and since the Broncos used most of their resources both making this defense great in the first place (signing DeMarcus Ware, T.J. Ward, and Aqib Talib and retaining Chris Harris) and ensuring it remains that way (re-signing Miller this offseason), they’ll look to inexpensive or in-house options to replace them.
That means a combination of Jared Crick and second-round pick Adam Gotsis replacing Jackson, and former undrafted free agent Todd Davis stepping in for Trevathan. And this is where Denver’s worst-case scenario comes into focus. The defense is still stacked with talent, but not quite to the level it was a season ago. If the offense is a nightmare under Siemian, versions of this Broncos defense might not be enough to save them.
Where They Will Struggle: This team just won the Super Bowl, so it’s not surprising that nothing really jumps out. Siemian is the most likely option here, especially because Denver has just enough depth to survive a couple of injuries along the offensive line.
Potential Breakout Star: Running back Devontae Booker. The fourth-round pick’s preseason made Ronnie Hillman expendable, and considering that incumbent starter C.J. Anderson is guaranteed only $1.7 million after this season, Denver would have no qualms about handing Booker the job if he emerges as the better option.
Stat of Note: Eight. Since Football Outsiders started keeping track of adjusted sack rate, Wade Phillips has coordinated 11 defenses. He’s finished in the top six of that stat eight different times. His ability to scheme pressure independent of personnel is another good sign for the Denver defense’s ability to stay at or near the top of the league.
10. Oakland Raiders
2015 record: 7–9
2015 DVOA finish: 18th on offense; 15th on defense
I’m ready for this. Are you ready for this? After years of toiling in the NFL depths, the Raiders are finally going to be good.
Brighter days for Oakland began with second-year quarterback Derek Carr’s stellar first half of last season, as he completed 63.7 percent of his attempts and had 19 touchdowns to just four interceptions from Week 1 through Week 9. That’s the good news. The bad news is that Carr looked more like the player he was as a rookie down the stretch. Not once in the Raiders’ final five games did Carr crack an average of 6 yards per attempt. Oakland failed to score more than 20 points in any contest and went 2–3 during that span, which included an overtime win over the lowly Chargers.
There’s a chance that Carr’s future ends up resembling the latter portion of last season, but with the roster Oakland has put around him, I don’t see it happening. The Raiders’ excellent offensive line, the presence of Amari Cooper, and the offense’s shotgun-based approach (which was installed last year and provides Carr some of the spread-offense comforts he enjoyed at Fresno State) have given the QB an ideal environment in which to thrive. This passing game should be fine, and when combined with the moves GM Reggie McKenzie made on defense, it may help this team contend in the AFC West.
Oakland was drastically improved on defense a year ago (it jumped from 26th to 15th in DVOA), and the signings it made this offseason should only speed up the development. Footage of what Khalil Mack did to QBs last season could run as a feature-length horror film, and all McKenzie did this spring was add pieces to complement his terror-inducing pass rusher. By acquiring corner Sean Smith and safety Reggie Nelson in free agency and taking West Virginia interception machine Karl Joseph in the first round of the draft, the Raiders’ secondary has a chance to go from its weakest defensive link to its strongest in a single year. Count me in.
What They Should Do Well: With stalwart center Rodney Hudson, ascending guard Gabe Jackson, and a pair of dependable tackles, Oakland might have had the premier offensive line in the AFC last year. By adding human wrecking ball Kelechi Osemele at left guard this offseason, that debate is over. Carr was pressured on just 20.5 percent of dropbacks in 2015, good for 32nd out of 37 qualified QBs. If this offensive line stays healthy, he should have similar time to operate this season.
Where They Will Struggle: Part of the onus for the Raiders adding Osemele is that their running game was often a mess in 2015. Oakland was 24th in rushing DVOA, and incumbent starter Latavius Murray had five games in which he averaged 3.0 yards per carry or less. If there’s a criticism of the franchise’s offseason, it’s that McKenzie added no real weapons at the skill positions. I could see fifth-round pick DeAndre Washington stealing work if Murray lags early, but Carr’s pass-catching options will look nearly identical to what they were a year ago.
Potential Breakout Star: Cooper. As a rookie he was slowed by 10 drops, tied for the most in the league, and a foot problem. But there were plenty of moments when he showed off every part of the skill set that made him the fourth overall pick in 2015.
Stat of Note: 32. That’s how many defeats (the total number of plays that stop the offense from gaining first-down yardage on third or fourth down, stop the offense behind the line of scrimmage, or result in a fumble or interception) Mack had last season, per Football Outsiders. Only three guys (J.J. Watt, Mark Barron, and Lavonte David) had more. Mack became a star because of his sack surplus, but his ability to defend the run has put him among the most impactful players in football.
9. Minnesota Vikings
2015 record: 11–5
2015 DVOA finish: 16th on offense; 14th on defense
Out of everything in the aftermath of Teddy Bridgewater’s gruesome knee injury last week, this image of Vikings GM Rick Spielman sticks with me. Spielman is listening to head coach Mike Zimmer address the media shortly after Bridgewater went down. He’s sitting down, off to the side, his elbows on his knees and his chin resting on his folded hands. He looks contemplative, but more than anything, he just looks bummed.
The injury to Bridgewater was a cruel turn for a team with Super Bowl aspirations, which makes it understandable why Spielman would give up so much to get Sam Bradford. I wrote about the Bradford trade the day that it happened, but the short version is this: With its current roster, Minnesota clearly thinks it can win right now. Despite Bradford’s failings in St. Louis and Philadelphia, he gives the Vikings a better chance than Shaun Hill.
Bridgewater’s development figured to be crucial in Minnesota taking another step on offense, but it was far from the only path to improvement. The franchise made several moves this offseason that should provide Bradford (when he eventually starts) with more support than Bridgewater got last year. That starts along the offensive line, where the Vikings added left guard Alex Boone and right tackle Andre Smith in free agency. No QB in the league was pressured more often than Bridgewater last fall, and even though the checkdown-happy Bradford isn’t the best option to ignite a downfield passing game, having more time to throw theoretically makes that an option.
What They Should Do Well: Even if Bridgewater were healthy, the bulk of Minnesota’s playoff hopes would reside with its defense. The Vikings finished a middle-of-the-pack 14th in defensive DVOA last season, but no team in the league is poised to make more strides on that side of the ball in 2016. Minnesota has established superstars in Harrison Smith and Anthony Barr, players near the top of their position in Linval Joseph and Everson Griffen, and a slew of highly drafted young guys who have already shown plenty of promise. In its third year under Zimmer, this group could challenge units like Carolina and Denver as the best defense in football.
Where They Will Struggle: Only the Rams had fewer completions of at least 20 yards last season. Outside of improving its pass protection, none of Minnesota’s moves this offseason were designed to change that. Like Bridgwater, Bradford’s best trait is his accuracy (completion percentage be damned; look at the receivers he has played with). With big-bodied rookie Laquon Treadwell at wideout, Adrian Peterson at running back, and Bradford under center, this figures to be an offense built around the running game and short, quick passes.
Potential Breakout Star: Danielle Hunter. The 2015 third-round pick was excellent during the second half of last season, picking up six sacks in Minnesota’s final 12 games. He should see more snaps this year as he edges out Brian Robison, and that increased role means a likely spike in sack production. Football Outsiders credited Hunter with a sack every 65 snaps last season.
Stat of Note: Seven. That’s how many times since 2007 that Peterson has piled up at least 1,250 rushing yards and double-digit touchdowns in a season. No other running back has reached those totals more than three times over the same span. Peterson’s $18 million cap hit next year would make it difficult for the Vikings to keep him without restructuring the deal. If this is the last hurrah for Peterson in Minnesota, it’s been one hell of a stretch.