We kicked things off Monday with the first batch of teams in my 2019 preseason power rankings, and Tuesday’s group is full of franchises at various points in their trajectories. We’ve got two teams at a potential crossroads with lame duck quarterbacks. We’ve got one that just lost its franchise quarterback two weeks before the season. And we’ve got another with a brain trust that might be out of time.
No matter where these teams are headed, though, it’s unlikely that any will make a significant splash in 2019. This tier is typically reserved for teams on the outside looking in, and that’s no exception this season.
24. Denver Broncos
2018 record: 6-10
2018 DVOA: 14th on offense; fifth on defense
Best-case scenario: I miss Vic Fangio so much it hurts sometimes. As a Bears fan, I’m familiar with the excellence the Broncos’ first-year head coach can craft on defense, and that side of the ball will be the most important factor in Denver’s success this season. Outside of New England, Fangio is easily the most inventive defensive mind in football. Through his use of mixed coverages and hard-to-decipher schemes, he’s tapped into the best way to disrupt these high-scoring modern offenses. With Von Miller and Bradley Chubb rushing the passer on the outside—along with Fangio’s penchant for finding one-on-one matchups up front—and solid players like Derek Wolfe and Adam Gotsis on the interior, this defense should give opposing offenses fits.
Denver’s main defensive upgrades this offseason came in the secondary. Fangio brought former Bears slot corner Bryce Callahan to town on a three-year, $21 million deal and also signed former Texans safety/cornerback Kareem Jackson to a three-year, $33 million contract. Jackson found a new niche last season in his move to safety, and he should slot into a starting role there next to Justin Simmons, who figures to have a bounceback year with more positional stability and better talent around him. Signing Callahan means that Chris Harris Jr.’s days as a slot corner are over, but he remains one of the best cover men in the league, regardless of where he lines up. As a whole, this group has more than enough talent to thrive.
It’s tougher to find optimism on the offensive side, but coaxing offensive line coach Mike Munchak—who interviewed to be Denver’s head coach this offseason—away from Pittsburgh was a definite coup for a team that’s struggled to develop players up front. Denver also signed former Dolphins right tackle Ja’Wuan James to a market-setting four-year, $51 million deal this spring and drafted guard Dalton Risner in the second round. Risner has already looked like a steal through the preseason, and with Munchak overseeing this group, the Broncos offensive line should be better than it’s been in years.
Fangio brought in former 49ers quarterbacks coach Rich Scangarello to coordinate the offense, which means Denver will be employing a similar play-action-heavy scheme to the one Kyle Shanahan runs in San Francisco. New Broncos quarterback Joe Flacco has had some success in an under-center, play-action offense in the past, and he’ll have plenty of receiving options. Emmanuel Sanders somehow looks explosive after tearing his Achilles last season. Second-year receiver Courtland Sutton is a downfield option that should take a step forward this season, and second-year slot receiver DaeSean Hamilton could make a jump this fall. Denver also spent the 20th overall pick on former Iowa tight end Noah Fant, who immediately steps into the league as one of the most athletically gifted players at his position. There’s a lot of projection here, but also a lot of potential.
Worst-case scenario: We’re not likely to see some sort of renaissance from Flacco at this point in his career. He’s been downright bad over the past few seasons, and no scheme change is likely to change that. Denver drafted Mizzou quarterback Drew Lock in the second round this spring, but he’s had a disastrous preseason that’s included several public floggings from Fangio. The Broncos have one of the worst quarterback situations in the NFL. That seems bad!
Even with Munchak coaching the line, there are still some questions up front. Left tackle Garett Bolles is a penalty machine—he led the league with seven holding flags last year—and at age 27, the technique issues that he displayed in college haven’t improved much in his two pro seasons. Denver also let quality center Matt Paradis walk in free agency, and 2016 fifth-round pick Connor McGovern will fill his spot in the middle of the line.
There’s also no guarantee that the Broncos’ skill position group will come together. Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman make for a quality running back duo, but Fant hasn’t lit the preseason on fire and Sutton had the second-worst drop rate in the league last season at 17.6 percent (according to Pro Football Focus). Combine all that uncertainty with a coach who’s calling plays for the first time in the NFL and this offense could be a serious problem.
Ideally, Fangio’s defense would be able to make up for any offensive shortcomings, but it may take a while for this group to acclimate to his complicated system. The Bears needed three seasons to fully find their footing, and the Broncos also have some personnel concerns that Chicago’s 2018 team didn’t. All of Fangio’s elite defenses over the past decade have had extremely athletic linebacker groups. This year, with Todd Davis and Josey Jewell on the inside, linebacker is the weakest area of Denver’s roster. And there’s also a question about how 2018 third-round pick Isaac Yiadom will fare as he steps into a starting outside cornerback role. Fangio will get the most out of this group, but it may not click right away.
Stat of note: 52.6. That was Flacco’s passer rating on throws of 20-plus yards last season, which was the second-lowest mark in the league, according to Pro Football Focus. His adjusted completion percentage of 30.8 was the worst in the league. Some still laud Flacco as a deep-ball master, but that just isn’t true anymore.
Breakout player: Risner. The Kansas State product played right tackle in college, but he should have no trouble making the transition to guard. Much like fellow K-State alum Cody Whitehair, Risner is a solid technician capable of playing all over the line. He was a home-run pick in the second round.
23. Buffalo Bills
2018 record: 6-10
2018 DVOA: 31st on offense; second on defense
Best-case scenario: With so much focus on Josh Allen’s (lack of) development and (surprising) fantasy relevance by the end of the season, it’s easy to forget just how good the Bills defense was in 2018. This unit has talent all over the place, but its strength is still the secondary. Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer make up one of the best safety duos in the league. Cornerback TreDavious White didn’t match his rookie-year production last season, but he’s still a solid building block. It sounds like 2018 undrafted free agent and pleasant surprise Levi Wallace will lock down the no. 2 cornerback spot, and free agent signee (and former first-round pick) Kevin Johnson will step in as the third corner—on a cheap deal, no less.
The secondary is also aided by a frightening four-man pass rush. Buffalo brought four rushers on 72.8 percent of snaps last season (13th highest in the league, according to Football Outsiders) and generated pressure at the sixth-highest rate (33.8 percent). Defensive end Jerry Hughes continues to be a consistent force into his 30s. Among qualified edge defenders, Hughes was the most productive pass rusher in the NFL on a per-snap basis last season, according to Pro Football Focus, and totaled 74 disrupted dropbacks (tied with J.J. Watt for the second-highest total in the league). Pass rusher Lorenzo Alexander—still going strong at age 36—led all linebackers in disrupted dropbacks with 38. Plus, Houston defensive tackle Ed Oliver fell into the Bills’ laps with the ninth overall pick in this year’s draft. He should provide the perfect interior complement to Hughes and Alexander.
Outside of Oliver, general manager Brandon Beane spent almost all the team’s resources this offseason trying to overhaul arguably the least talented offense in the NFL. John Brown, Cole Beasley, and Tyler Kroft were brought in to revamp the pass-catching group. The Bills signed center Mitch Morse to what was briefly the richest deal in NFL history for a center (four years, $44.5 million with $26.2 million guaranteed), handed former Redskins swing tackle Ty Nsekhe a two-year, $10 million deal to compete at right tackle, drafted Sooners mauler Cody Ford in the second round, and signed former Titans guard Quinton Spain to a $2 million deal. Beane also made several smaller signings along the offensive line, but we’ll likely see a starting five of incumbent left tackle Dion Dawkins, Spain, Morse, Ford, and Nsekhe.
Buffalo went from having arguably the league’s worst offensive line last season to an average one. The same can be said for the receiving corps. For a team trying to help a quarterback that drastically needs to improve, those kinds of upgrades can mean everything. Because when you break it all down, the Bills’ chances this season are still tied to Allen’s development. The rookie had plenty of horrendous misfires from last season, but he also inspired hope with some thrilling plays down the field. The additions of Brown, Beasley, and a revamped offensive line will give Allen the infrastructure he needs to get better in his second year.
Worst-case scenario: In theory, having Brown as a deep threat and Beasley as a middle-of-the-field option should help Allen, but there’s no evidence yet that he’ll be any good at utilizing them. Allen showed off his cannon a lot late last year on deep shots to undrafted gem Robert Foster, and he certainly isn’t afraid to let it fly (a league-leading 19.7 percent of his passes traveled 20-plus yards in the air, according to Pro Football Focus). But Allen ranked 20th among 24 qualified QBs in adjusted completion percentage on deep throws, and his passer rating of 62.9 ranked 22nd. He also continues to struggle with processing coverages and his short-range accuracy, which could hamper Beasley’s effectiveness. A lot has been made of Allen’s running prowess, but almost all of his rushing total came from scrambling rather than designed runs. There’s a limit to how much that can help an offense.
Even if Allen can take a step forward in his second season, this offense still has a defined ceiling. Brown, Beasley, and a couple pieces on this offensive line are short-term solutions as the Bills tinker with a largely overhauled roster. This team is building something the right way, but it may still take a year before the vision fully comes to light.
Stat of note: 3.22 seconds. That was Allen’s average time to throw in 2018, according to NFL Next Gen Stats—the highest in the league by 0.12 seconds. Along with his accuracy, Allen’s decision-making needs to improve considerably in year two.
Breakout player: Tremaine Edmunds. Wallace is another candidate here, but let’s go with the second-year linebacker who runs a 4.54 at 250 pounds. The Bills envisioned Edmunds as a guy who could erase plays in the middle of the field with his range and wingspan. If he can become that player this season, watch out.
22. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2018 record: 5-11
2018 DVOA: 12th on offense; 32nd on defense
Best-case scenario: Of the eight teams entering the season with new coaching staffs, the Bucs made the most significant upgrade. Tampa Bay’s offense was both efficient and explosive in 2018 with then-coordinator Todd Monken calling plays, but Bruce Arians has a track record of success as an offensive coach. For the first time in his head coaching career, Arians will cede play-calling duties to first-year coordinator Byron Leftwich, and if Leftwich can find his sea legs quickly, this unit has the talent to emerge as one of the league’s more high-flying passing games.
Arians’s aggressive, downfield scheme is also well-suited to quarterback Jameis Winston’s playing style. Winston has a tendency to make a few head-scratching throws per game, but he’s an undeniably talented passer who could help this group take off—if Leftwich and Arians can curtail some of his mistakes. Then there’s Mike Evans, who is too often overlooked in a league loaded with elite receivers. Evans is one of three players in NFL history with at least 395 receptions, 6,100 receiving yards, and 40 touchdowns in his first five seasons. The other two are Randy Moss and A.J. Green. That’s pretty good company! It might sound ambitious to say that Evans could have the best season of his career under Arians, considering he caught 86 passes for 1,524 yards last year. But he’s a prime candidate to lead the NFL in receiving yards and touchdowns in 2019.
The Winston-Evans connection would be enough to warrant excitement on its own, but the mammoth receiver is far from the Bucs’ only weapon on offense. Third-year receiver Chris Godwin is this year’s fantasy football darling. With DeSean Jackson gone to the Eagles, Godwin will step into the no. 2 receiver role and finally see time as a full-time starter. Former first-round pick O.J. Howard is one of the most athletic tight ends to come into the league in a long time, and he’ll be yet another big-play option. That trio (with no. 2 tight end Cameron Brate and deep threat Breshad Perriman mixed in) is arguably the NFL’s scariest collection of pass catchers.
The offensive potential has long been there in Tampa, but the most important difference between last year’s team and this year’s is the outlook on defense. The defensive staff under former head coach Dirk Koetter was horrible. Coordinator Mike Smith trotted out some of the most predictable, simplistic looks in the league. Smith got canned in October and was replaced by career position coach Mark Duffner, who was coordinating a defense for the first time since the early 2000s. Arians has handed the defensive reins to Todd Bowles, and though he may not be Vic Fangio, Bowles is an accomplished coach who represents a massive upgrade from what the Bucs have had during the past few years.
Tampa Bay should be stout against the run, with Ndamukong Suh and 2018 first-round pick Vita Vea on the interior, but for what seems like the 10th straight year, the Bucs lack the same level of pass rushing talent on the outside. That’s where Bowles comes in. Last season with the Jets, Bowles’s blitz-happy scheme used five rushers on 29.4 percent of passes, which ranked seventh in the league, according to Football Outsiders. The Jets also blitzed a defensive back on 16.4 percent of passes, the second-highest mark. This year, 2019 first-round pick Devin White will be a crucial piece of that puzzle. The LSU product is a classic sideline-to-sideline linebacker (with 4.42 40 speed), but more importantly he profiles as one of Tampa Bay’s best pass rushers in this scheme. With White and Lavonte David in the middle, this team has plenty of athleticism at linebacker at a time when that’s more important than ever.
The biggest potential issue for this defense is in the secondary, an area that’s plagued Tampa Bay for years. Constant blitzing will put a lot of pressure on a young group that includes seven top-100 picks from the past four drafts—including 2016 first-rounder Vernon Hargreaves III, who’ll be back this year after missing most of 2018 with a torn labrum. Hargreaves has struggled to break through so far in his career, but playing under Bowles could finally be the key to unlocking the potential that general manager Jason Licht saw when he took the corner 11th overall. With all the investments the Bucs have made in the secondary, the hope is that a coaching upgrade could provide this defense with a functional set of five DBs.
Worst-case scenario: Any optimism about the secondary is based on projections. There’s still not much evidence that young players like Hargreaves, Carlton Davis, Justin Evans, and a trio of 2019 rookies will be above-average players in the NFL. And this scheme will test them early and often by committing extra bodies to the pass rush. If this pass defense can’t come together, the Bucs will lose some shootouts in the same way that last year’s team did.
Meanwhile, there are two areas of the roster that could hold back the offense. The offensive line is one of the most expensive in football, but the quality of this group—outside of star left guard Ali Marpet—doesn’t match up with that investment. Donovan Smith is a talented but inconsistent left tackle with a $12.5 million cap hit. Demar Dotson is functional but aging at right tackle. Ryan Jensen has the fifth-highest cap hit in the league among centers ($10 million), but he didn’t play at that level in 2018. The Bucs’ running back situation is also a huge issue. With Peyton Barber and 2018 second-round misfire Ronald Jones II, there’s no one to get excited about in the backfield.
More than any position group, though, Tampa Bay’s biggest issue on offense remains Winston’s carelessness with the ball. His 3.0 interception rate is the second-highest mark since he came into the league in 2015, according to Football Outsiders. Tampa Bay led the league in both turnovers per drive and interceptions per drive last season. Pick-happy quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick didn’t help matters, but the Bucs also ranked 30th in turnovers per drive in 2017, when Winston started all but three games. If Leftwich and Arians can’t coach those awful throws out of their QB, the Bucs will stagnate once again.
Stat of note: 72.5 percent. That’s the completion percentage the Bucs defense surrendered last season, which was easily the highest mark in league history. This unit still has some question marks, but no matter what, it’ll be considerably better than it was in 2018.
Breakout player: White. The right inside linebacker can be a transformative star in the modern era (see: Wagner, Bobby), and White has all the makings of that type of player.
21. Jacksonville Jaguars
2018 record: 5-11
2018 DVOA: 30th on offense; sixth on defense
Best-case scenario: The Jaguars may finally have found some competence at quarterback. After jettisoning longtime starter Blake Bortles this offseason, Jacksonville handed Nick Foles a four-year, $88 million deal (with $50.1 million guaranteed). No one needs a refresher on what Foles did for the Eagles in recent years. His performance during Philadelphia’s Super Bowl run in 2017 and the playoffs last season are enough evidence to believe he’ll be an improvement over Bortles. And to get the most out of Foles, the Jaguars also hired his former quarterbacks coach, John DeFilippo, as their offensive coordinator. DeFilippo’s preference for a shotgun-based passing game should help make Foles’s transition as smooth as possible.
Just as important as signing Foles, though, is how much better the Jags could be up front in 2018. Jacksonville was decimated by injuries on offense last season—only the Redskins had more adjusted games lost (88.9) than Jacksonville (88.4), and most of those injuries came along the offensive line. Left tackle Cam Robinson tore his ACL in Week 2, center Brandon Linder missed the final seven games of the season with a knee injury, and high-priced free agent guard Andrew Norwell missed the final five games of the year with an ankle injury. All three look ready to go for Week 1, and the Jaguars also lucked into getting Florida tackle Jawaan Taylor—who many considered a top-10 talent—in the second round of this spring’s draft. He’ll start immediately at right tackle. An improved offensive line and more effective passing game should help running back Leonard Fournette, who averaged an absolutely brutal 3.3 yards per carry last season.
The fixation on the Jags’ offensive improvement is a product of how confident most still are about the defense. Jacksonville didn’t have the same game-wrecking unit in 2018 that it fielded the year before, but this is still an extremely talented group. The Jags added Kentucky pass rusher Josh Allen with the seventh overall pick this spring, which doesn’t seem particularly fair with Calais Campbell and Yannick Ngakoue already on the roster. Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye form one of the league’s best cornerback duos, and do-it-all linebacker Myles Jack was just rewarded with a four-year, $57 million deal. Jacksonville is hoping that if Foles and the offense can take a big step forward, the defense will be dominant enough to make this team a contender.
Worst-case scenario: The problem with that logic, though, is that there’s no reason to think the defense will be as good as it’s been the past couple years. Telvin Smith’s decision to take a year off from football creates a massive hole at linebacker, where rookie third-round pick Quincy Williams was supposed to step in before injuring his knee in early August. Safety, which was a strength when the Jags were at their best two seasons ago, is now a huge question mark, with former undrafted free agent Jarrod Wilson and 2018 third-round pick Ronnie Harrison slated to start. Adding Allen should help with a pass rush that fell off drastically in 2018, but the Jags also cut Malik Jackson this offseason to save money. This team has largely been built through free agency, and with so many large deals on the books, the window for Jacksonville’s defense to remain great was relatively small.
Better injury luck and even decent play from Foles should help the offense improve this year, but there’s cause for skepticism about this group too. Foles was downright bad at times with the Eagles during the regular season, and the Jaguars’ pass-catching group isn’t exactly stacked. Foles is at his best when targeting the middle of the field, and aside from slot receiver Dede Westbrook, Jacksonville doesn’t have many proven options in that area. There’s also the question of Foles’s health. The quarterback has never played a full season as a starter, and the Jags’ backup situation is rough. If Foles misses any time, Jacksonville is looking at life with sixth-round pick Gardner Minshew II as its starting quarterback. Overall this group should be better this year, but pull the wrong thread and things could unravel into a nightmare season.
Stat of note: 59 percent. That’s how often the Jags ran the ball directly behind the center with a second-half lead last season, according to Warren Sharp’s 2019 NFL preview. The league average was 30 percent. Jacksonville averaged 1.7 yards per carry on those plays. Bortles wasn’t the only problem with the Jaguars offense over the past couple seasons.
Breakout player: Taylor. The Florida product was a dominant presence for the Gators, and he could be considered the steal of the draft by the end of this season. Landing Allen in the first round and snagging Taylor in the second was a massive break for the Jags.
20. Tennessee Titans
2018 record: 9-7
2018 DVOA: 22nd on offense; 19th on defense
Best-case scenario: For the most part, the Titans have a similar roster to the one they fielded last season. The team’s two biggest offensive free agent additions were slot receiver Adam Humphries and former Rams guard Rodger Saffold. Longtime Dolphins pass rusher Cameron Wake joined the defensive front on a three-year, $23 million deal. But for the most part, Tennessee will be banking on continued improvement from its young core—which is why it’s difficult to find reasons this team could be better than it was in 2019. But let’s give it a whirl anyway.
Harold Landry showed flashes as a pass rusher during his rookie year, and he should only benefit from Wake’s arrival. Jurrell Casey is a bona fide star on the interior of the defensive line. The secondary has no real flaws, which is a good thing considering it’s the sixth-most-expensive defensive backfield in the NFL. And that’s before Pro Bowl safety Kevin Byard’s five-year, $70.5 million extension kicks in next season.
On offense, Derrick Henry’s late-season dominance is reason for hope, but this unit’s ceiling is all about the development of the passing game. Humphries gives this group a middle-of-the-field element it lacked last season. His presence, along with Delanie Walker’s return from injury, should be a big help for Marcus Mariota. The Titans also got some fresh backup for their starter by trading for Ryan Tannehill this offseason. It was a low-risk move that provides excellent insurance should Mariota go down with injury—something that’s been a problem over the past couple years. A better pass-catching corps and more games from a competent starting quarterback should mean a better season.
Worst-case scenario: But the question is how much better. Mariota is entering his fifth season, and now he has former tight ends coach Arthur Smith as his offensive coordinator. Even with a better group of pass catchers, expecting a different version of the quarterback to appear out of thin air isn’t reasonable. It also looks like fourth-year wideout Tajae Sharpe will start over second-round pick A.J. Brown in three-receiver sets with Humphries and Corey Davis. That can’t be what the Titans envisioned when they drafted Brown.
They also couldn’t have envisioned the offensive line going from this team’s greatest strength in 2016 to a weakness three years later. Left tackle Taylor Lewan is suspended for the first four games of the season after violating the league’s performance-enhancing drugs policy. That seems like a problem for a team whose quarterback can’t stay healthy. Jack Conklin has struggled since his great rookie season. Even with Saffold and underrated center Ben Jones, this group isn’t nearly what it was in recent years.
The defense has enough talent to again be solid, but that’s not really going to cut it. Wake is 37 years old and has been banged up a bit in recent years. Expecting more from Rashaan Evans and Landry is merely a projection. Tennessee used its first-round pick on Mississippi State defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons, who is slated to miss his entire rookie season after tearing his ACL this spring. Even if the defense does improve, the offense is still likely to languish just below average, and this team’s ceiling will be capped the same way it has been during Mariota’s first four seasons as a starter.
Stat of note: 27. That’s the percentage of Tennessee’s runs that went into light boxes last season, the lowest rate in the league, according to the Football Outsiders Almanac. The Titans absolutely loved running the ball with multiple tight ends on the field last season, which didn’t do their running backs many favors.
Breakout player: Landry. After playing behind incumbent starters Derrick Morgan and Brian Orakpo as a rookie, Landry will step into a full-time role in year two. Pass rushers tend to take a season or two to find their footing in the league, but Landry has the tools to become a consistent force for Tennessee off the edge.
19. San Francisco 49ers
2018 record: 4-12
2018 DVOA: 27th on offense; 23rd on defense
Best-case scenario: Injuries wreaked havoc on the Niners offense last year. That obviously starts with quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who missed the final 13 games of the season with a torn ACL. But running back Jerick McKinnon and virtually every decent receiver on the roster also missed time. Head coach Kyle Shanahan was still able to scheme up a palatable offense with lesser players, like third-string quarterback and former practice squad member Nick Mullens, who averaged 8.3 yards per attempt in eight starts. Now San Francisco’s path to a playoff bid starts with getting—and keeping—Garoppolo and the rest of the unit healthy. If that happens, Shanahan should be able to open the entire playbook in 2019.
The pass-catching group starts with Pro Bowl tight end George Kittle, who set the NFL record for receiving yards at the position last season with 1,377. Kittle is a bonafide star, the sort of blocking-and-receiving double threat that we don’t see much of anymore at the tight end position. And this year, he shouldn’t have to shoulder the load alone. Second-year receiver Dante Pettis is an excellent fit for Shanahan’s offense, and the Niners have a deep stable of options after drafting South Carolina’s Deebo Samuel in the second round and Baylor’s Jalen Hurd in the third. Former Falcons running back Tevin Coleman reunites with Shanahan after signing a two-year, $8.5 million deal this offseason. Part of Coleman’s appeal is his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield or split out as a receiver, which gives Garoppolo yet another tool in the passing game. If Garoppolo has this full unit around him all season and can tap into some of the magic he found during the final five games of 2017, this could be a top-10 unit.
There isn’t nearly as much potential on defense, but the arrow is pointing up in a few crucial areas. The Niners had just two interceptions last year. Two! That partially stems from a lack of talent in the secondary and pass rush, but it’s also just terrible luck. That number should almost assuredly rise this season, and that uptick will be aided by a revamped pass rush. General manager John Lynch’s biggest investments of the offseason were in his front four, first dealing a second-round pick to the Chiefs for Dee Ford and then drafting Ohio State product Nick Bosa second overall. Ford led the league with 78 disrupted dropbacks last season, and Bosa profiles as a similar prospect to his brother, Joey. If that edge duo comes together with star interior lineman DeForest Buckner, the Niners should crank up the pressure and see a massive increase in takeaways.
Worst-case scenario: Aside from the Bosa and Ford acquisitions, Lynch used his resources in curious ways this offseason. The Niners signed inside linebacker Kwon Alexander to a four-year, $54 million deal in March, and although only $14.3 million of that was guaranteed at signing, it’s still a sizable contract to hand a player coming off a torn ACL—especially when you take into account all the other holes remaining on coordinator Robert Saleh’s defense. Other than Richard Sherman, the Niners don’t have a proven, reliable cornerback on the roster. Lynch rolled the dice on oft-injured Chargers first-round pick Jason Verrett with a one-year, $1.5 million deal, but Verrett’s already missed nearly a month of practice with a sprained ankle he suffered in early August. San Francisco is also short on talent at safety. Even if Ford and Bosa (who also missed nearly a month of practice after severely spraining his ankle) bring some teeth to this pass rush, the Niners defense is still vulnerable in too many areas.
Given the team’s resources, the offense will have to carry most of the burden, and success on that side of the ball is not a guarantee. The Niners have a lot of wide receivers, but few proven ones. San Francisco fell short in the Odell Beckham Jr. sweepstakes this offseason, and they’re without a true no. 1 option on the outside. Ultimately, though, Garoppolo will determine whether this offense sinks or swims.
Garoppolo did not look comfortable in his three starts last season. He still struggles to process information quickly at times, and in this offense—where someone is usually open on every play—progressing to the right receiver on time is paramount. It may sound strange because he’s in his sixth season, will turn 28 in early November, and has $74 million guaranteed on his current contract, but Garoppolo is still an inexperienced QB. He’s started just 10 games in his career, and he should absolutely be better with another year of experience in Shanahan’s offense. But the Niners are running out of time. The clock started ticking the moment Lynch traded for the QB in 2017 and handed him a mega-extension. If the Niners miss the playoffs again this season, sweeping changes could be around the corner.
Stat of note: 41. That’s the percentage of snaps where the Niners used 21 personnel (two running backs, two receivers, one tight end) last season. They were the only team in the league to use two backs more often than they used three receivers. Shanahan is a master of using different personnel packages to dress up concepts and create chunk plays in the passing game. San Francisco averaged 8.3 yards per attempt out of 21 personnel.
Breakout player: Bosa. It seems reductive to compare Bosa to his brother, but their playing styles are nearly identical—down to their favorite pass-rush moves. Nick wasn’t a combine marvel and didn’t pile up huge stats even when healthy in college, but he has all the makings of a consistently productive NFL pass rusher.
18. Indianapolis Colts
2018 record: 10-6
2018 DVOA: 10th on offense; 10th on defense
Best-case scenario: The ideal outcome involves building a time machine and going back to convince Andrew Luck to stick around, but without some rapid scientific advancements over the next few days, that doesn’t seem feasible. There’s no way around this: Luck’s retirement is a devastating blow for a franchise that harbored Super Bowl aspirations heading into the season. But there’s still hope that the Colts can contend in the AFC South, even without their franchise quarterback.
Indy has built one of the best offensive infrastructures in the league. Head coach Frank Reich was a revelation in his first year as the Colts’ play-caller last season, and he showed he belongs in the conversation with Andy Reid, Sean Payton, Doug Pederson, and Sean McVay as an elite offensive mind. Players will be running open in this offense, which is a far cry from the situation Jacoby Brissett was in when he took over as the starter in 2017. The Colts also have plenty of pass-catching talent, with T.Y. Hilton headlining the receiver group and free agent signee Devin Funchess and gadget-play threat Parris Campbell likely to see plenty of work. Reich knows exactly how to find matchup advantages via formation, and Indy is likely going to lean on two-tight-end sets featuring Eric Ebron and Jack Doyle. And with a versatile stable of backs to choose from, this group has more than enough talent to get the most out of Brissett.
Offensive line became a strength for the Colts in 2018. Center Ryan Kelly had a career year, and general manager Chris Ballard drafted generational guard prospect Quenton Nelson sixth overall last spring while adding right tackle Braden Smith in the second round. The Colts gave up a league-low 18 sacks in 2018, and even if that number regresses a bit this fall, this should still be a quality pass-blocking group.
The defense is also one of the most promising young units in the NFL. Coordinator Matt Eberflus was fantastic in his first season filling that role at the NFL level (see: the Colts’ 21-7 wild-card win over the Texans). His group was led by All-Pro rookie linebacker Darius Leonard, and slot cornerback Kenny Moore, safety Malik Hooker, and defensive tackle Denico Autry also looked like important building blocks. Indy’s biggest need entering the offseason was pass rusher, and Ballard addressed it by signing longtime Chiefs star Justin Houston to a two-year, $24 million deal. Houston isn’t the 20-sack player he was in his prime, but he still tallied 48 pressures on just 339 pass rush snaps last year. He remains one of the most productive per-snap rushers in the league. Armed with a surplus of second-round picks thanks to last year’s draft-day trade with the Jets for Sam Darnold, Ballard also added cornerback Rock Ya-Sin and pass rusher (slash combine superstar) Ben Banogu for even more young defensive pieces.
Worst-case scenario: Houston is a notable addition, but despite having over $100 million in cap space, the Colts were cautious in free agency. Ballard re-signed starters Pierre Desir and Clayton Geathers in the secondary and largely decided to roll with last year’s unit. That won’t be a problem if all the individual pieces replicate their performance from a year ago, but if 2018 was a mirage rather than an indication of what’s to come, the defense could take a step back.
The Colts’ floor probably hovers around 6-10 or 7-9, even if Brissett struggles. That may not seem all that bad, but Ballard built a championship-caliber roster around an elite quarterback; only the latter has been removed from the equation. A .500 season and a chance to win the AFC South would be a disappointment, considering that the Colts seemed like a contender two weeks ago. But even a disaster scenario would be tolerable for a team that may be looking for its new quarterback next spring, even after signing Brissett to a two-year, $30 million extension on Monday.
Stat of note: 13 percent. That’s how much man coverage the Colts played through the first 14 games of the regular season last year, the second-lowest rate in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus. Eberflus has built a zone-heavy system that allows completions but limits big plays, and it was a hit in 2018.
Breakout player: Campbell. Most of the Colts’ young pieces have already broken out, and Campbell should be a fixture on the Red Zone Channel this season. The Ohio State product ran a 4.31 at the combine, and he was a terror with the ball in his hands in college. He’s the sort of fun chess piece that any play-caller would be thrilled to have in the fold.
17. Baltimore Ravens
2018 record: 10-6
2018 DVOA: 15th on offense; third on defense
Best-case scenario: Let the great experiment begin. The Ravens have now had a full offseason to build around second-year quarterback Lamar Jackson, and the result will probably be the strangest NFL offense we’ve seen in quite some time. Former run-game coordinator Greg Roman is now the team’s OC, and no coach in the league is better at devising quarterback runs. Roman regularly creates schemes that generate excellent angles for his linemen and put defenders in a bind. With Jackson’s rushing abilities often swinging the math in the Ravens’ favor, and free-agent signee Mark Ingram and speedy fourth-round pick Justice Hill now in the fold, Baltimore’s rushing attack should be devastating once again.
Rushing efficiency is a given with this group, but Baltimore’s offense could become truly terrifying if Jackson grows as a passer. The Ravens spent their first-round pick on Oklahoma burner Marquise Brown this spring and also added combine superstar Miles Boykin in the third round. Baltimore now has tons of speed to work with on the outside, and we’ll likely see some play-action shots down the field and plenty of gadget plays designed to get the ball in Brown’s hands. Even with the rookie receivers aboard, though, Baltimore’s passing game will often feature two tight ends and a steady diet of throws over the middle to take advantage of the space that play-action creates with linebackers flying toward the line of scrimmage.
The Ravens offense has garnered most of the attention this offseason, but the defense also added the best safety of his generation. Earl Thomas landing in Baltimore’s secondary is borderline unfair. He joins a group that already featured Tony Jefferson, Marlon Humphrey, Brandon Carr, and Jimmy Smith, which gives the Ravens arguably the league’s best secondary. Baltimore lost plenty of quality players in free agency this spring, but adding Thomas might be enough to overcome that exodus. The Ravens also feature one of the most creative defensive coordinators in football in Wink Martindale. No team brought the heat on blitzes as often as Baltimore did last season, and with so much talent in the secondary, Martindale’s unit is well equipped to follow the same blueprint this season.
Worst-case scenario: Jackson’s tough day against the Chargers in last year’s playoffs is still fresh in peoples’ minds. Los Angeles flooded the field with defensive backs and neutralized the Baltimore running game, which put the onus on Jackson to generate some offense through the air. He finished 14 of 29 on the day, and many started to question whether the Ravens’ revolutionary plan could actually work. Teams will almost certainly dare the Ravens to throw this season, and if Jackson can’t take advantage, it’s going to be a long, frustrating year for this offense.
More than any offensive system change, Baltimore’s defense was what led the team’s march to the playoffs last season, and the amount of talent they hemorrhaged this offseason might make that difficult to replicate. The unit’s top two pass rushers—Za’Darius Smith and Terrell Suggs—departed in free agency, and Baltimore didn’t do much to replace them. Linebacker C.J. Mosley is also gone, and the Ravens will be relying on the combination of Patrick Onwuasor and Kenny Young on the inside. This secondary can cure a lot of ills, but there are plenty of question marks about a defense that might be forced to carry this team if Jackson plateaus.
Stat of note: 42.9. That’s the percentage of dropbacks on which Jackson used play action last season, the highest mark in the league by 7.1 percentage points, according to Pro Football Focus. The emphasis on rushing earns a lot of the headlines with this offense, but the Ravens’ approach is a massive departure in more ways than that. Jackson was also significantly better on play-action throws last season. He averaged 2.9 yards per attempt more with play action than without, the fifth highest mark in the NFL.
Breakout player: Mark Andrews. The second-year tight end is a perfect fit for this system. He finished with 34 catches for 552 yards last season, which comes out to a ridiculous 16.2 yards per catch. He should develop into Jackson’s favorite target over the course of this season.