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NFL Preseason Power Rankings, Part 3: The Seahawks’ Stock Is Up, and the Texans’ … We’ll See

Can a new coordinator unlock the Cowboys offense? How will Chicago handle the pressure at the top of the NFC North? And can the Chargers defense hold things together without Derwin James?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

One more day. That’s all that stands between us and the start of the NFL regular season. I spent the past two days breaking down the initial two tiers of my preseason power rankings, but this is when things really get interesting. Part 3 is full of promising yet flawed rosters that have a chance to win it all with the right breaks. So with that, let’s get to our Super Bowl hopefuls.

16. Atlanta Falcons

2018 record: 7-9
2018 DVOA: Eighth on offense; 31st on defense

Best-case scenario: After a disappointing finish last season, the Falcons found several scapegoats, including former offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian. But the thing is—Atlanta’s offense was really good! Matt Ryan’s 69.4 completion percentage and 8.1 yards per attempt were both the second-highest figures of his career, trailing only his MVP campaign in 2016. The Falcons finished seventh in passing DVOA. Julio Jones led the league in yards per route run for the fourth straight season, according to Pro Football Focus, and first-round pick Calvin Ridley scored a ridiculous 10 touchdowns as teams focused on Jones in the red zone.

But that wasn’t enough to save Sarkisian’s job. The Falcons hired former Buccaneers head coach Dirk Koetter as their offensive coordinator this offseason, his second stint in the role he also held from 2012 to 2014. Koetter is familiar with Ryan and Jones, and if he sticks to a similar strategy to the ones used in 2016 and 2018, including a heavy dose of play-action, the offense should be on decent footing.

General manager Thomas Dimitroff also spent this offseason using most of Atlanta’s available resources to fix the Falcons’ most glaring personnel weakness on that side of the ball: the offensive line. Atlanta signed guards James Carpenter and Jamon Brown in free agency, drafted Boston College guard Chris Lindstrom with the 14th overall pick, and then traded back into the first round to take Washington tackle Kaleb McGary 31st overall. McGary missed most of the preseason after undergoing a heart procedure in late July, but he looked excellent in his debut last week. If he can secure the starting right tackle spot and both he and Lindstrom hit, this group could be a strength with a surprising amount of depth.

The story on defense is all about health. The Falcons ranked 25th in adjusted games lost on defense last season, and that’s before you take into account who they lost. Linebacker Deion Jones, the team’s best defender, broke his foot in the season opener and missed 10 games. Strong safety and 2016 first-round pick Keanu Neal also went down in the first game of the year with a torn ACL. The lonely “2” figure in the tackles column of his 2018 stat line is a sad sight. Free safety Ricardo Allen also missed 13 games. Atlanta head coach Dan Quinn is taking over as the team’s defensive play caller this season after coordinator Marquand Manuel was fired in December, but with all the Falcons’ best players back in the mix, anyone with a heart beat could be calling the defense this year and things would improve.

Worst-case scenario: The defense may be better, but this group still hasn’t ever been really good during Quinn’s tenure—and Dimitroff hasn’t retooled it enough to see significant results in 2019. Even with defensive tackle Grady Jarrett—fresh off a four-year, $68 million extension this offseason—in the fold, the Falcons have one of the weakest pass rushes in the NFL. Tak McKinley is only 23 years old and could take a leap in his third season, but there’s no reason to expect much from Vic Beasley, who carries a $12.8 million cap hit on his fifth-year option. Cornerback is also an unsettled position, where former safety Damontae Kazee—who filled in for the injured Neal last year—steps into the slot. The trio of Kazee, Isaiah Oliver, and Desmond Trufant could eventually become a strength, but we still haven’t seen enough of Oliver and Kazee to pencil that in quite yet. Atlanta’s choice to heavily invest in the offensive line this spring meant the holes on defense went largely unaddressed, and that figures to be a problem even if Quinn excels as a play-caller.

Stat of note: Third. That’s where Atlanta’s minus-10.8 percent defensive DVOA in the six games with Deion Jones would have ranked last season, according to the Football Outsiders Almanac. It’s an admittedly small sample, but the Falcons’ DVOA in the 10 games Jones missed was a horrendous 42.1 percent. He’s one of the most important players in the NFL, and Atlanta admitted as much this offseason by signing him to a four-year, $57 million contract.

Breakout player: John Cominsky. The fourth-round, small-school product from Charleston may seem like a deep cut, but even after re-signing Adrian Clayborn, Atlanta needs pass rushers. The 286-pound defensive end wrecked the combine with 3-cone drill and 40-yard dash times in the 89th and 90th percentile, respectively. He’s the type of twitchy athlete the Falcons love, and he should have some opportunities to get after the quarterback.

15. Seattle Seahawks

2018 record: 10-6
2018 DVOA: ninth on offense; 14th on defense

Best-case scenario: I hope John Schneider rolled into work Monday wearing that championship belt. He deserves it. The Seahawks’ general manager fleeced the Texans and their nonexistent GM this weekend by dealing a third-round pick and two pairs of socks for Jadeveon Clowney. Oh, and Schneider also convinced the Texans to pay half of Clowney’s salary for 2019. So, to recap the Seahawks’ offseason: After franchise-tagging one pass rusher and flipping him for a first-round pick, they turned around and dealt a third-rounder for another team’s franchise-tagged pass rusher. And Seattle will pay Clowney less than half of what they would have paid Frank Clark on the tag. Schneider might know what he’s doing.

No one is mistaking Clowney’s impact for Aaron Donald’s, but he’s still a movable piece that could help unlock the rest of this Seahawks front. Having Clowney in the mix will create more opportunities for Ziggy Ansah. Jarran Reed will see more single blocks when he returns from his six-game suspension for violating the league’s personal conduct policy. All-world linebacker Bobby Wagner is also one of the best blitzers in the NFL and will get chances to do damage rushing the passer. This front six will be a full-blown strength when Reed returns, and it might be stout enough to cover for an inexperienced secondary.

Seattle’s offense isn’t nearly as complete, but a truly great quarterback tends to make you forget about that. Russell Wilson is worth every cent of the record-setting four-year, $140 million deal he got this offseason. Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer (likely doing Pete Carroll’s bidding) limited Wilson’s impact last year with a run-heavy approach—Seattle threw on less than 52 percent of its plays, the lowest rate in the league. But when Schottenheimer did dial up passes, they were the right kind of throws. Wilson threw deep (20-plus yards) on 15.9 percent of his passes, the third-highest rate in the league, and his connection with Tyler Lockett helped him finish with the second-best passer rating on such throws (128.1). Wilson also used play action on 30.8 percent of his drop backs—the fifth-highest rate in the NFL—and he completed 7.3 percent more of his throws when using a play fake, which was good for the sixth best mark among qualified passers.

The Seahawks have all the makings of a great passing game; they just need to throw the ball more often. Thanks to a gargantuan offensive line, an excellent back in Chris Carson, and a scheme that spreads teams out to run the ball, Seattle already has one of the more effective rushing attacks in the league. If Schottenheimer is willing to unleash Wilson this year, Seattle could easily be one of the NFL’s most efficient offenses.

Worst-case scenario: The problem is that committing to the run seems to be hardwired into Carroll’s football DNA. Remember the Seahawks’ maddening strategy in their playoff loss to the Cowboys last season? If Seattle’s coaching staff remains hell-bent on slamming Carson into the line on first and second down, they won’t just be hampering how good this team can be offensively. They’ll be turning Wilson’s contract into an anchor. Paying an elite quarterback $35 million isn’t a problem—unless a team’s scheme doesn’t allow that quarterback to be elite.

There’s also the issue of Wilson’s receivers. Lockett had a breakout season in 2018, and he should only continue his ascension as he moves into Doug Baldwin’s slot role—and Baldwin’s former title as the Seahawks’ no. 1 receiver. But Baldwin’s departure leaves Lockett as the team’s only reliable option, and that’s more glaring now that David Moore and second-round pick D.K. Metcalf are dealing with injuries.

This unit can’t afford to falter, because Seattle’s success will be riding on the offense more than in recent years. Swindling the Texans for Clowney was a stroke of genius, but he’s not an upgrade over Clark as a pass rusher. Even with Clowney (and the promise of a healthy Ansah), Seattle’s defense looks a lot like the average unit that finished last season—only without Reed for six games and without slot corner Justin Coleman, who signed a four-year, $36 million deal with Detroit this offseason. Aside from safety Bradley McDougald, there is very little established talent in the Seahawks’ secondary.

Stat of note: 40. That’s the percentage of first-half early downs where the Seahawks threw the ball last season, according to Warren Sharp’s 2019 NFL Preview. They were the only team to throw the ball less than 45 percent of the time in those situations. Someone needs to take the keys away from Schottenheimer and give them to Wilson.

Oakland Raiders v Seattle Seahawks
Marquise Blair
Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images

Breakout player: Marquise Blair. Seattle doesn’t have a ton of high-end young talent on its roster. First-round pick L.J. Collier is a high-floor prospect but won’t wow anyone with his athleticism. Seattle grabbed Blair, a hard-hitting safety prospect from Utah, in the second round, and even though a nagging back injury has kept him out of the starting lineup for now, the lack of competition on the back end of this defense means he could become their starting box safety later this season.

14. Houston Texans

2018 record: 11-5
2018 DVOA: 21st on offense; seventh on defense

Best-case scenario: Examining the long-term impact of the Texans’ wild decision to trade two first-rounders and a second-round pick for Laremy Tunsil and Kenny Stills is an exercise for another time and platform. Houston is better in the short term, and it’s filled the biggest hole on the roster. With Tunsil at left tackle and first-round pick Tytus Howard at left guard, the offensive line will be better than it was in 2018, when quarterback Deshaun Watson was sacked a league-high 62 times. Houston ranked 13th in passing DVOA last season with Watson running for his life. If the pass protection can go from historically terrible to even just bad, the Texans could easily be a top-10 passing unit.

Head coach and de facto general manager Bill O’Brien was willing to pay whatever it took to protect Watson, because he understood that the Texans’ hopes are tied to their quarterback. Watson wasn’t the touchdown-throwing machine last year that he was as a rookie, when he threw a TD on an unsustainable 9.3 percent of his passes. But he was just as productive in nearly every other area (his adjusted yards per attempt actually improved, going from 8.4 to 8.5). Houston has surrounded Watson with a group of pass catchers that all have complementary skill sets. DeAndre Hopkins is the best receiver in football. Full stop. Will Fuller is an excellent vertical threat to pair with a chains-mover like Hopkins, and Stills gives the Texans an insurance plan if Fuller misses time like he has the past two seasons. Second-year slot man Keke Coutee caught 28 passes and showed a penchant for exploiting the middle of the field in just six games as a rookie. O’Brien also traded for former Browns back Duke Johnson, which should give Watson a pass-catching option out of the backfield and help ease the blow now that Lamar Miller is out for the season with a torn ACL.

Hopkins and Watson are bona fide stars on offense, and J.J. Watt fills that role on defense. Watt was fully back last season after dealing with various injuries over the past two years. According to Pro Football Focus, only Dee Ford (78) had more disrupted dropbacks last year than Watt (74), and only Calais Campbell had more run stops (43 to Watt’s 32). Pass-rushing linebacker Whitney Mercilus struggled with a nagging hamstring issue early in the season, but tallied 27 disrupted dropbacks from Week 9 on. Starting linebackers Benardrick McKinney and Zach Cunningham both fit Houston’s scheme well. And if free-agent acquisitions Bradley Roby and Tashaun Gipson can mimic the production of Kareem Jackson and Tyrann Mathieu, this unit could replicate it’s production from last season, when it finished seventh in DVOA.

Los Angeles Rams v Houston Texans
Deshaun Watson
Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Worst-case scenario: Let’s talk about Tunsil for a moment. The 25-year-old tackle is an ascending player, and—after he signs a massive extension—should give Houston a steady presence on the left side for a large chunk of Watson’s career. But Tunsil isn’t David Bakhtiari. He isn’t prime Tyron Smith. Plus, it takes more than a good left tackle to solve a team’s pass-protection issues. Both guards remain question marks, with the rookie Howard on the left side and backup-quality Zach Fulton on the right. Seantrel Henderson still leaves plenty to be desired at right tackle. Ideally, second-round pick Max Scharping would have cracked this lineup, but that hasn’t happened yet. Even with Tunsil, this is one of the five weakest offensive lines in the league, and that’s before considering Watson’s role in Houston’s protection issues. Watson spent an average of 3.12 seconds in the pocket last season, the second-highest rate in the league, according to Pro Football Focus. Only 38.7 percent of his throws came in less than 2.5 seconds, the third-lowest rate, and his average sack time of 3.56 seconds was the sixth longest in the NFL. The Texans’ weak line may have contributed to the beating their quarterback took last season, but Watson didn’t do himself any favors.

Houston’s unsettled line also contributed to a plodding ground game that finished 26th in rushing DVOA. That just shouldn’t be possible with a quarterback who’s also a threat to run. Part of the blame lies on O’Brien for not using enough read plays (likely in an effort to keep Watson from taking more hits), but the issues were certainly larger than that. This season, the Texans will lean on a combination of Johnson and Carlos Hyde in place of the injured Miller, and unless they make some significant schematic tweaks, they’ll struggle on the ground again.

If the principle pieces of the offense stay healthy, the Texans’ passing game should still be above average. The same can’t be said about their pass defense. Trading Jadeveon Clowney to Seattle puts a massive burden on Watt and Mercilus to get after the quarterback because there are real questions about this secondary. Roby had to sign a one-year, prove-it deal in Houston after a mediocre season in Denver last year. Cornerback Johnathan Joseph is 35 years old. Slot corner Aaron Colvin couldn’t even get on the field last year after signing a four-year, $34 million deal. McKinney and Cunningham can be exploited in coverage. The Texans’ pass defense finished 19th in DVOA last season, and it could fall even further in 2019. Houston also enjoyed a plus-13 turnover differential—including 29 takeaways—en route to the playoffs in 2018, and that number should come back to earth a bit.

Stat of note: 32nd. That’s where the Texans would have finished in rushing DVOA without Watson’s carries, according to the Football Outsiders Almanac.

Breakout player: Justin Reid. This one feels a bit cheap, because Reid had a solid rookie season in 2018. But the safety also gave up his share of big plays. If Reid can limit the massive gains and keep the highlight plays in coverage, he has a chance to develop into a star.

13. Dallas Cowboys

2018 record: 10-6
2018 DVOA: 24th on offense; ninth on defense

Best-case scenario: The Cowboys ran one of the stalest, least inventive offenses in football last season. As teams around the league embraced a variety of formations and increased pre-snap motion, offensive coordinator Scott Linehan was content with being predictable. The fundamentals of the Dallas offense will remain the same in 2019 under first-year coordinator Kellen Moore, but expect the Cowboys to dress up and disguise their intentions more than they have in years past. Differences in formations, motions to empty sets, and tweaks in receiver splits and alignments could help Dak Prescott have a stellar season—and quiet those who don’t think Prescott is worth the market-setting payday that he’s looking for.

The entire offense is stocked with talent, which is part of the reason last season was so frustrating. The offensive line—headlined by All-Pros Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, and Zack Martin—has ranked among the league’s best for years, and Frederick’s return after missing the entire 2018 season should boost the group back to that level. Frederick has the ability to make blocks in the running game that few other centers can pull off, which results in consistently easier assignments for the Cowboys’ guards. Getting him back is more than just a talent upgrade. It could be transformational for this group.

It’s starting to sound like Ezekiel Elliott’s contract holdout will end before the season begins. Wide receiver Amari Cooper was fantastic after arriving last October via trade, and second-year receiver Michael Gallup was a standout throughout training camp. Rookie running back Tony Pollard should give the Cowboys a dynamic they’ve lacked in recent years, even with Elliott back in the fold. If Moore can modernize this offense and create an infrastructure that helps his quarterback, the Cowboys have a chance to jump from a below-average to a top-12 unit.

Last season, first-year defensive backs coach (and de facto defensive coordinator) Kris Richard transformed the Cowboys’ young, talented defense into one of the league’s best. Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith—who just received a six-year, $68 million extension—form the most explosive linebacker duo in the NFL, and with players like Demarcus Lawrence, Byron Jones, and the recently acquired Robert Quinn filling out the rest of the unit, last season might have been just the beginning of a long run of defensive excellence. If the Cowboys’ young stable of corners—namely, safety Xavier Woods—can take steps forward this season, this could be one of the best defenses in the entire NFL. A string of excellent draft picks will require the Cowboys to do plenty of financial maneuvering in the next year, but it’s also given Dallas one of the most stacked rosters in football.

Worst-case scenario: Moore has said all the right things about updating the Cowboys’ scheme this season, but head coach Jason Garrett will still have plenty of say in how the offense is run. If Garrett’s influence causes the Cowboys to revert back to Linehan’s approach, it could make for another disappointing showing. That scheme contributed to Prescott’s forgettable season, and he deserves the benefit of the doubt until we see him in a better system. But it’s also possible that his standout rookie year was mainly a product of his great supporting cast.

That version of the Cowboys’ offensive line was one of the best groups the NFL has seen in years, and even though most of those pieces are back, that level of dominance is probably a thing of the past. Smith has been dealing with back issues for years, which is a major concern for a 320-pound tackle. Frederick may never reach the level he did before Guillain-Barré syndrome cost him the 2018 season. And recently extended right tackle La’el Collins still has lapses in his pass protection. In the receiving corps, Cooper is the only reliable piece that Cowboys have right now. Jason Witten is back, but at age 37, he won’t offer much. Slot receiver Randall Cobb hasn’t eclipsed 653 receiving yards since 2015.

It’s tempting to think that the defense’s performance last season was an indication of what’s to come, but defensive success is often hard to predict from year to year. Outside of Lawrence, there are concerns about the pass rush. Quinn will miss the first two games of the season and hasn’t been dominant for years, and the Cowboys interior defensive line isn’t going to scare anyone. Strong safety Jeff Heath is a liability at times, and looming paydays for their stars prevented the Cowboys from addressing that position during free agency. If Moore can’t jumpstart the offense and the unsung members of the defense can’t improve enough to stave off regression, last year’s playoff berth could prove to be a fluke.

Stat of note: 24.7. That was the Cowboys’ snap-weighted age on defense last season, which made them the youngest unit in the league, according to Football Outsiders. Three key members of the secondary — Woods, Jourdan Lewis, and Chidobe Awuzie — are all entering their third seasons. If that group can continue to improve, it’ll go a long way toward keeping Dallas in the top tier of NFL defenses.

Breakout player: Gallup. The second-year receiver has the tools to develop into a deep-ball specialist, and his skills there could help unlock an underrated aspect of Prescott’s game. Last season, Prescott’s 115.7 QB rating on throws of 20-plus yards ranked fourth in the NFL behind Drew Brees, Russell Wilson, and Aaron Rodgers, according to Pro Football Focus. The problem is that Prescott threw deep on only 10.8 percent of passes, which ranked 20th out of 24 qualified QBs.

12. Minnesota Vikings

2018 record: 8-7-1
2018 DVOA: 18th on offense; fourth on defense

Best-case scenario: Minnesota’s first season with Kirk Cousins was a disappointment, but it’s hard to lay all the blame on the $84 million quarterback. The Vikings’ offensive line was a mess all season, the running game was a disaster, and offensive coordinator John DeFilippo was fired after 14 games. Cousins played fairly well last season, given the circumstances, and this year, he steps into an offense perfectly suited to his talents. Minnesota retained interim coordinator Kevin Stefanski and hired long-time NFL coach Gary Kubiak as a senior offensive assistant. The Vikings will shape their attack around a zone running game and use play-action passing as a complement to that. Cousins is consistently one of the best play-action passers in the NFL; he completed 8.9 percent more of his passes last year when using a play fake, tied for the third-highest rate in the league, according to Pro Football Focus, and he’s ranked near the top of the NFL in that metric virtually every season he’s been a starter.

The Vikings’ scheme change should bring out the best in their quarterback, as should the additions Minnesota made to its personnel. New starting center and 2019 first-round pick Garrett Bradbury has the ideal movement skills to fit this offense; Minnesota signed starting-caliber guard Josh Kline to a deal with only a $3.1 million cap hit in 2019; and starting right tackle Brian O’Neill should be better in his second season. Along with improved health from tackle Riley Reiff and guard Pat Elflein on the left side, the Vikings’ line should be considerably better in 2019.

That’s good news for Dalvin Cook, who had a rough year coming back from a torn ACL and playing behind a piecemeal line. Kubiak’s system has a history of churning out prolific seasons from its running backs, and Cook may be next in line. This offense also features arguably the league’s top wide receiver duo in Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen, and the passing game should benefit from more two-tight-end sets featuring Kyle Rudolph and Irv Smith Jr. All signs point to a considerable jump for this unit in 2019.

A better year from the offense would be enough to put Minnesota in playoff contention if the defense remains steady. Head coach Mike Zimmer belongs in any discussion about the top defensive minds in football, and after coaxing linebacker Anthony Barr back to the team following a brief free-agent dalliance with the Jets, the Vikings are returning virtually every key piece from the group that finished in the top four by defensive DVOA in each of the past two seasons. With Barr, defensive end Danielle Hunter, and safety Harrison Smith, this defense features stars at every level, and there are no glaring weaknesses to be found.

Worst-case scenario: A commitment to a run-zone running approach is fine if the end game is an offense built on play action; the concern is that Zimmer may tip the scales in the other direction. The company line in the Twin Cities is that the Vikings will be a physical, run-first team. That’s worrisome no matter how effective a team’s running game is, and even with its improvements, no one is confusing this offensive line with the 2016 Cowboys. If Zimmer keeps his thumb on his 37-year-old coordinator and the Vikings lean too heavily on the run, this offense won’t have a chance to reach its ceiling.

Concerns also remain about some of the personnel on that side of the ball. Rudolph will turn 30 in November, and he’s been in decline for the past couple of seasons (especially as a blocker). Smith has promise as a receiver, but rookie tight ends typically face a steep learning curve. Outside of Thielen and Diggs, there’s no reliable third receiver on this offense. (Josh Doctson probably isn’t going to cut it, either.) During his best years in Washington, Cousins was surrounded by a stable of excellent pass catchers, and the fringes of that group just don’t compare.

Defensive success is assumed with this unit, but even if the names are the same, this group isn’t of the same caliber as it was two or three years ago. Cornerback Xavier Rhodes fell off precipitously last season. That could be attributable to nagging injuries, but at $13.3 million, he’ll carry the eighth largest cap hit among cornerbacks in 2019, and if he can’t rebound, it’ll be a significant problem. Cornerback depth has long been a strength of this team, but with 2018 first-round pick Mike Hughes returning from a torn ACL and some wondering whether slot corner Mackensie Alexander’s late-season run last year was a mirage, that group is more uncertain than ever. Barr and fellow linebacker Eric Kendricks also had their share of problems in coverage last season, which could be an even bigger issue if the cornerback group slips. In years past, this group was two deep at nearly every position. That depth is no longer a reality, and no area of this defense can afford to sustain long-term injuries.

Stat of note: 52.4. That’s the percentage of plays in which the Vikings created pressure when blitzing last season—the third-highest rate in the league, according to Football Outsiders. Zimmer doesn’t blitz as much as some other teams around the league, but when he does, it usually comes at the right time. Minnesota also had the third best-DVOA when sending extra pass rushers.

Minnesota Vikings v New Orleans Saints
Garrett Bradbury
Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

Breakout player: Bradbury. It’s not easy for most people to get excited about drafting an offensive lineman in the first round. I am not most people. Bradbury’s skill set could not fit this system any better. He has a chance to make an immediate impact that trickles down to the entire offensive line.

11. Los Angeles Chargers

2018 record: 12-4
2018 DVOA: Third on offense; eighth on defense

Best-case scenario: The Chargers were one of the best teams in football last season on both sides of the ball, and they’re returning most of their core. Even with safety Derwin James starting the season on injured reserve, this defense is absolutely loaded. Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram are arguably the top edge duo in the NFL, and the addition of first-round pick Jerry Tillery gives this front an interior pass-rushing presence that it’s lacked in recent years. The Chargers also have a stacked cornerback group that features Casey Hayward, Michael Davis, and excellent slot man Desmond King. If rookie free safety Nasir Adderley can find his way into the lineup relatively early after missing most of the preseason with a hamstring injury, this could be a suffocating coverage unit.

Philip Rivers is virtually indestructible at this point, and he’s got a nice collection of receivers at his disposal. Keenan Allen is a perennial member of the Always Open Club, and third-year wideout Mike Williams has a chance to break out in a big way now that Tyrell Williams has gone to the Raiders. Tight end Hunter Henry is back healthy after missing nearly the entire 2018 season with a torn ACL, and even if the team is without Melvin Gordon while he sorts out his contract dispute, Austin Ekeler is among the most effective pass-catching running backs in the entire league.

Worst-case scenario: The Chargers Curse has set in earlier than normal this season. James is on IR, left tackle Russell Okung is out indefinitely after suffering blood clots this offseason, and there’s no telling how the situation with Gordon will play out. Among that group, James is easily the biggest loss. There’s no way coordinator Gus Bradley can replicate everything the safety brings to this defense, even with a combination of multiple guys. James can just as easily function 20 yards down the field in coverage as he can near the line of scrimmage, and losing him will limit how Bradley game plans.

Okung’s absence is a problem for the offensive line, but the issues up front go much deeper. With 2018 undrafted free agent Trent Scott filling in on the left side and Sam Tevi manning the right tackle spot, the Chargers might have the weakest tackle duo in the league outside of Miami. Things aren’t much better at guard, where 2017 second-round pick Forrest Lamp failed to beat out incumbent starters Dan Feeney and Michael Schofield. It would be difficult for any offense to function with a line like this—let alone one that’s trying to compete with teams like the Patriots and Chiefs in the AFC. And a reminder: Injuries up front have a snowball effect, and this is how the Chargers are starting the season. If Rivers is constantly playing from a crumbling pocket, this passing game has little chance to succeed.

Stat of note: 80.3. That’s the percentage of plays where the Chargers sent four rushers last season, the second-highest mark in the league, according to Pro Football Focus. Having Bosa and Ingram allows Bradley to drop seven into coverage and still generate pressure—and the Chargers finished eighth in DVOA on such plays.

Breakout player: Tillery. Interior pass rushers have never been more valuable in the NFL, and getting after the quarterback is what the Notre Dame product does best. He’ll see plenty of single blocks in packages with Bosa and Ingram, and he should be able to roast guards alive from Day 1.

10. Chicago Bears

2018 Record: 12-4
2018 DVOA: 20th on offense; first on defense

Best-case scenario: As a Chicago resident and Bears fan, I can tell you that the attitude around this city is Super Bowl or bust. This roster has no noticeable weaknesses. The Bears had the best defense in football last season, and they’ll return nine starters on that side of the ball. The other two—slot corner Bryce Callahan and safety Adrian Amos—were lost in free agency and replaced by Buster Skrine and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. Khalil Mack still leads the way up front, with quality pieces like Akiem Hicks and Eddie Goldman pushing the interior of the pocket. Free safety Eddie Jackson is arguably the best play-making defensive back in the NFL, and the Bears’ cornerback pairing of Kyle Fuller and Prince Amukamara was lights out in 2018. Last year’s first-round pick, Roquan Smith, is likely going to take a significant step forward in his second season, and that type of boost could help this group fight off the regression that many believe is on its way.

On offense, the Bears return 10 of their 11 starters, and some would say the one new face—running back David Montgomery—is actually an upgrade over last year’s starter, Jordan Howard. Chicago dealt Howard to the Eagles this offseason in large part because they felt like his skillset made the offense too predictable. That won’t be a problem with Montgomery, who has shown great balance and tackle-breaking ability in some exciting preseason performances, and also doubles as a capable receiver. Along with Tarik Cohen, this duo gives the Bears two pass-catching backs who will keep defenses guessing. The rest of the pass-catching corps also returns. Allen Robinson is a year removed from the ACL injury he suffered at the beginning of the 2017 season, and if his performance against the Eagles in last year’s playoffs is any indication, he’s ready to take off. Taylor Gabriel is a solid field-stretching option, and slot receiver Anthony Miller should be a bigger factor if he can stay healthy in his second season. The offensive line remains one of the more complete groups in the NFL, with second-year man James Daniels stepping in at center and recently extended Cody Whitehair shifting to guard.

That type of swap may seem insignificant, but opportunities for marginal improvement like that exist all over the offense. Daniels has a chance to be a star at center after getting time at guard early last season. Miller and Montgomery should give this group a different dynamic. Former Patriots gadget player Cordarrelle Patterson could be another explosive option. Even with most of the same supporting cast returning, a small boost here or there could transform the feel of this offense.

But all the incremental improvements in the world don’t compare to what could happen if Mitchell Trubisky takes a leap in his second season with head coach Matt Nagy. Nagy’s offense, which borrows heavily from Andy Reid’s scheme in Kansas City, is a dense study that would take a long time for any quarterback to master. Patrick Mahomes got to spend his first year in the system studying with Reid and Alex Smith rather than learning in front of a national audience. Trubisky has all the tools to be an above-average NFL quarterback. The one area where he’s struggled most is his ability to process information post-snap, and with a full season—and a second offseason—under his belt, he could absolutely improve in that area. Nagy and general manager Ryan Pace have built one of the most friendly environments in the NFL for their 25-year-old quarterback. If he can take full advantage, there’s no reason this team can’t compete for a championship.

Chicago Bears v Indianapolis Colts
Mitchell Trubisky
Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Worst-case scenario: But that’s a big “if.” Trubisky’s decision-making last season, both in how he deciphered coverages and distributed his throws, was erratic. His lack of confidence often causes sloppy mechanics that lead to air-mailed throws and errant deep balls. Even with more time in the system, it’s possible that this is just who Trubisky is as a quarterback. And if that’s the case, it’s going to be difficult for the Bears to replicate the 12-4 finish they had in 2018.

That’s because Chicago is almost certainly going to need an offensive improvement to make up for the coming dropoff on defense. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that defenses that heavily rely on turnovers (Chicago had a league-leading 36 takeaways in 2018) and injury luck (third lowest adjusted games lost in the NFL) will regress the following year. Chicago’s starting lineup stacks up to any defense in the league, but the Bears are a capped-out team with very little depth. Multiple injuries to any position group would be difficult to overcome.

There’s also the matter of losing the NFL’s best defensive play caller. Former coordinator Vic Fangio, who left to take the Broncos’ head coaching job this offseason, is the most creative defensive mind in the league. He’ll be replaced by Chuck Pagano, who hasn’t called defensive plays since 2011 when he was the coordinator in Baltimore. Even if Pagano finds his footing again, he still isn’t Fangio. Chicago’s defense could remain great this season, but if it falls from the league’s best to somewhere in the bottom half of the top 10 and Trubisky’s offense doesn’t improve, a lot of Bears fans are going to have a soul-crushing winter.

Stat of note: 7.7. Going back 10 years, that’s an average of how many spots the no. 1 team in defensive DVOA has fallen the following season, according to the Football Outsiders Almanac. Pessimism about the Bears defense has nothing to do with not believing in the personnel or Pagano. It’s about believing in math.

Breakout player: Montgomery. During his final two seasons at Iowa State, Montgomery forced 185 missed tackles, the highest total in FBS, according to Pro Football Focus. No skill is more translatable from college to the NFL. Chicago moved up 14 spots in the third round to snag Montgomery in this year’s draft, and so far, it looks like that could be a steal.

9. Carolina Panthers

2018 record: 7-9
2018 DVOA: 11th on offense; 22nd on defense

Best-case scenario: I roundly criticized the Panthers’ decision to hire 60-something offensive coordinator Norv Turner last offseason and I couldn’t have been more wrong. For the first half of last season, Carolina deployed one of the most creative, difficult-to-defend offenses, replete with tons of motion, RPOs, and one of the best designed running games. Cam Newton was playing some of the most efficient football of his career during the Panthers’ 6-2 start—before it all came crashing down. Newton’s injured throwing shoulder sabotaged Carolina’s offense during the second half of the year, and the Panthers’ season went down in flames.

Newton’s health is easily the most important question surrounding the 2019 Panthers, but if he’s right, this offense could be even better than it was last season. Running back Christian McCaffrey was brilliant in his second season, and he once again figures to be the focal point of Carolina’s scheme as both a runner and receiver. D.J. Moore and Curtis Samuel might be the fastest starting receiver duo in the NFL, and Carolina does an excellent job getting them the ball down the field. Tight end Greg Olsen had surgery on his injured foot and looks noticeably healthier than he did last year. The main area of improvement, though, was on the offensive line. A healthy Daryl Williams will be added to the mix this year after re-signing to a one-year deal and stepping in at left tackle. The Panthers brought in former Broncos center Matt Paradis to fortify the middle of the line in one of the best free-agent moves of the offseason. With a right side consisting of tackle Taylor Moton and guard Trai Turner, this has a chance to be the best offensive line Newton has had in years. Carolina finished second in the NFL in rushing DVOA last season, and a combination of scheme and talent up front should keep that rolling this fall.

Another big question heading into the offseason, though, concerned the Panthers’ personnel on defense. Carolina was in serious need of a talent upgrade in its front four, and it certainly got one. The Panthers spent their first-round pick on Florida State pass rusher Brian Burns, who could immediately be the team’s best edge presence. Linebacker Bruce Irvin is also in the mix outside, along with tackle Gerald McCoy, whom the Panthers scooped up shortly after he was released by the Bucs. With McCoy, Kawann Short, and Dontari Poe inside and a rotation of Burns, Irvin, and Mario Addison on the edge, the Panthers should have a relatively versatile group that allows head coach Ron Rivera and coordinator Eric Washington to play a variety of fronts.

Luke Kuechly remains one of the best players in the NFL, and he’ll be joined in the back seven by an intriguing mix of players. Second-year cornerback Donte Jackson has the tools to be a star if he can put it all together this season. The Panthers brought in safety Tre Boston on a one-year deal to help solidify the back end. The challenge with any secondary is creating enough flexibility to keep the unit functioning even if injuries occur. With guys like Boston, Eric Reid, Ross Cockrell, and Rashaan Gaulden in the defensive backfield, the Panthers have exactly that. This is one of the soundest rosters in the entire NFL.

Worst-Case Scenario: Health is the no. 1 factor with the Panthers. If Newton’s shoulder holds him back, then it’ll be another lost season. He doesn’t have to show off the rocket arm he had earlier in his career, but if he’s unable to make even simple throws in this offense, Carolina has no chance to keep up in the NFC.

The offensive personnel has a few noticeable holes. It would have been nice to see second-round pick Greg Little make it into the mix somewhere along the offensive line, but Greg Van Roten will hold onto the job at left guard for now. Beyond Moore and Samuel, there’s no one to get excited about in this pass-catching group. The Panthers signed former Patriots receiver Chris Hogan this offseason, but this team’s best personnel grouping will likely be two tight end sets with their top pair of receivers, Olsen, and 2018 fourth-round pick Ian Thomas.

Burns has all the makings of a star, but if he can’t give some teeth to this pass rush immediately, that could spell trouble for Carolina. The Panthers learned firsthand last season just how much their defense can struggle when they can’t get after the quarterback. Carolina finished 29th in defensive DVOA last season when sending four rushers and was forced to blitz more than Rivera’s teams have in years past. The secondary is solid, but it’s not a strength. The Panthers will need a lot more consistent pressure for this defense to get back to how it was in 2017.

Stat of Note: 1.77. That was McCaffrey’s average yards per route run last season, which ranked sixth among running backs. McCaffrey’s massive receiving totals last year weren’t just a product of volume. He’s the perfect modern running back.

Breakout Player: Burns. At nearly 6-foot-5, he just shouldn’t be able to have the movement skills he does. And he’s already more refined as a pass rusher than many players coming out of college. He has a chance to be one of the steals of this draft.


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