The wait is over. In just three short days, there will be an NFL game that matters, and that’s welcome news for all of us who’ve been counting down the hours until real professional football is back.
To cap off The Ringer’s 2017 NFL preview package, I’ll be ranking all 32 teams, in tiers of eight, from the worst to the best. My typical biases—in favor of terrific offensive line play and against awful quarterbacks—will almost certainly shine through. Yet this is my effort to determine how hopeful each fan base should feel heading into the regular season.
32. New York Jets
2016 finish: 5-11
2016 Football Outsiders DVOA finish: 31st on offense; 21st on defense
Best-case scenario: It’s no secret that the Jets are shopping their big contracts by trading defensive end Sheldon Richardson (who’s on the final year of his rookie deal) to the Seahawks and reportedly putting 31-year-old running back Matt Forte on the market. An ideal season would start with the front office unloading as many players who have no long-term value in exchange for draft assets as possible. On the field, getting promising returns from the last two draft classes and having Leonard Williams emerge as a full-blown superstar would be good—as long as neither does enough to take New York out of the catbird seat for next year’s draft. No Jets fan is going to mind a 3-13 season if it leads to the franchise getting its pick of incoming quarterbacks to open the 2018 campaign.
Worst-case scenario: Remember “Hardhome,” the Game of Thrones episode where Jon Snow meets the army of the dead? I’m picturing something along those lines. The only way this season could go truly terribly for the Jets is if a Patriots beatdown scars their young players so much that Jamal Adams starts muttering, “I’ve seen Tom Brady; I’ve looked into his eyes” without being able to concentrate on anything else.
As long as potential building blocks like Adams (a former LSU safety the Jets drafted sixth overall in April) and Marcus Maye (another safety, taken in the 2017 second round) don’t get Brad Lidged beyond repair, this season has limited downside. Without hope, there can be no despair. In Jets land, the actual worst-case scenario is more twisted.
There would be no more awful fate for the Jets than getting to six wins and falling to the no. 8 to no. 12 range in next year’s draft, a result of the team’s highly drafted prospects (Adams, Maye, and 2016 first-round pick Darron Lee) improving at an accelerated pace and its defensive headliners (like Muhammad Wilkerson) having bounce-back years. It’s time for the franchise to start over; everything has to come crashing down first.
Stat of note: 78. That’s how many more career catches recently acquired receiver Jermaine Kearse has than the rest of the Jets’ top seven wideouts combined. Kearse’s 153 catches more than doubles the total among the rest of his active teammates. Taking on a recently signed contract is never the smartest part of a rebuilding plan, but the Jets needed someone, anyone, to catch passes from their quarterback of choice, and they still managed to pry a conditional second-round pick (along with Kearse) from the Seahawks for Richardson.
Breakout player: Adams. He’s not only one of the few reasons for optimism on this roster, he can also do things like this.
31. Buffalo Bills
2016 record: 7-9
2016 DVOA finish: 10th on offense; 27th on defense
Best-case scenario: A rough year might be in Buffalo’s best interest if it gives new general manager Brandon Beane a chance to find the quarterback he wants moving forward. Nearly every move the Bills have made this offseason has served to undercut what Tyrod Taylor brings to the table.
Wide receiver Sammy Watkins and his deep-ball prowess were a perfect complement to Taylor, who excels when pushing the ball downfield. With Watkins’s August trade to the Rams, Taylor’s go-to receiver is gone, leaving him with a stable of pass catchers who act best as short and intermediate targets. Combine that with new coordinator Rick Dennison’s offense, which should keep Taylor under center for a majority of the time, and Buffalo has created a confluence of circumstances that set Taylor up to fail. This is all one year after former coordinator Anthony Lynn (now the Chargers head coach) built an offense that lined Taylor up in the shotgun, gashed opponents on the ground with LeSean McCoy, and finished the season 10th in DVOA.
The Bills can move on from Taylor before the start of the next league year with a limited dead money hit, and if their choices this summer are any indication, they intend to do so. If the franchise is going to search for a quarterback once again, it might as well do it from the top of the draft.
Worst-case scenario: Beane has made it clear that he has a plan. Buffalo has started stockpiling the draft capital to facilitate an on-the-fly rebuild, shipping Watkins to L.A. in a package for a 2018 second-round pick and moving cornerback Ronald Darby to the Eagles in a deal structured around a 2018 third-rounder. Like we’ve seen in Cleveland since the Sashi Brown-led brain trust took over in 2016, that approach requires conviction and patience. It also means that the Bills are in similar situation as the Jets; things can only go so badly in 2017.
Stat of note: 80. That’s the percentage of Buffalo’s offensive plays that started out of shotgun or pistol formations last season, the third-highest rate in the league, per Football Outsiders. The Dennison-coordinated Broncos finished last year at 43 percent for second lowest in the NFL.
Breakout player: Wide receiver Zay Jones. The NCAA’s all-time leader in receptions (399) is a dream for receiver nerds. The East Carolina product has excellent hands and superb body control and understands the nuances of the position. And with Watkins traded and Anquan Boldin now retired, the rookie is going to see a lot of work.
30. Jacksonville Jaguars
2016 record: 3-13
2016 DVOA finish: 27th on offense; 13th on defense
Best-case scenario: Blake Bortles has regained his hold on the starting quarterback job after getting the hook before Jacksonville’s third preseason game. The Jaguars’ company line is that he’s improved, and head coach Doug Marrone has even said that Bortles has looked “the best I’ve seen him” since being renamed the starter. Excuse me while I channel my inner Liz Lemon. Saying Bortles is the best you’ve ever seen him is like going to Olive Garden and saying the chicken parm there has never tasted so good.
For the sake of argument, though, let’s assume that Bortles’s flirtation with the bench did somehow short-circuit him to competency. If that’s the case, the rest of this roster is ready to make noise. Leonard Fournette, the fourth overall pick in the 2017 draft, is in the backfield and could serve as the basis of the offense. If Bortles can prevent things from totally falling apart, the combination of Fournette toting the rock and wide receiver Allen Robinson making plays on the outside is worth getting excited about.
No caveats are necessary to get my hopes up for this defense. With budding superstar cornerback Jalen Ramsey on one side, free-agent signing A.J. Bouye on the other, and a pair of solid safeties behind them, this secondary should makes life miserable for opposing passing games. And it’s not as if the front seven lacks talent. Pass rusher Yannick Ngakoue was a pleasant surprise as a third-round pick in 2016, and the Jags have Calais Campbell now playing across from him. This unit has a chance to hover around the top five in defensive DVOA; for the players’ sake, I hope it isn’t for naught.
Worst-case scenario: The first step toward another dismal season in Jacksonville was taken months ago. By choosing to move forward with only Bortles and Chad Henne as realistic quarterback options, the Jaguars’ front office may have torpedoed its chance to conjure 2017 excitement.
The Jags aren’t positioned like the Jets and Bills, either, where bottoming out is a tolerable (if hard to watch) outcome. They had a pricy offseason even by their standards, with new football czar Tom Coughlin handing a combined $68 million in guaranteed money to Campbell, Bouye, and safety Barry Church in an effort to put this defense over the top. Nothing that coordinator Todd Wash’s group does will matter, though, if Bortles (or Henne) plays as poorly as he has in the past.
Stat of note:
Blake Bortles needs 489 touchdown passes this season to become the NFL's all-time leader in passing touchdowns (Peyton Manning: 539).— Blake Bortles Facts (@BortlesFacts) August 23, 2017
Breakout player: Fournette. Both Ramsey and Ngakoue should be fun in their second NFL seasons, but c’mon—there’s only one option. Fournette was a top-five pick for a reason, and he’s long been considered the most talented back to come along in some time. He’s a 228-pound bullet train who treats would-be tacklers like inconveniences more than impediments. By taking Fournette and left tackle Cam Robinson in the first two rounds of the 2017 draft, Jacksonville has embraced physicality on offense. In picking Fournette, it may have also found an answer.
29. San Francisco 49ers
2016 record: 2-14
2016 DVOA finish: 23rd on offense; 28th on defense
Best-case scenario: San Francisco’s third preseason game against the Vikings showed what new head coach Kyle Shanahan’s offense can look like when it’s rolling, even with quarterback Brian Hoyer at the helm. On the heels of a masterful stint in Atlanta, the 37-year-old Shanahan has 49ers fans salivating at the thought of what he can do, despite the fact that the team spent all of its high-value draft capital on defense this spring.
Hoyer turned in the best stretch of his career under Shanahan when the pair worked together in Cleveland in 2014, and while Hoyer playing well as a stopgap quarterback solution all fall is a possibility, the ideal outcome for the Niners would involve third-round pick C.J. Beathard getting some run and proving to be a viable option. That might seem like a tall order for a guy drafted 104th overall and 17 spots behind Davis Webb, but it’s the sort of dice roll a team with time can make. And in the best-case hypothetical, the dice come up 7 every time.
While a Shanahan-led offense will be the biggest source of intrigue on this team, the more promising unit for the Niners is on the other side of the ball. San Francisco’s front four, which includes three consecutive first-round picks in Arik Armstead, DeForest Buckner, and Solomon Thomas (the no. 3 pick in 2017), has a chance to be a strength from day one as it makes a schematic shift to new coordinator Robert Saleh’s Seahawks-esque 4-3. Take that group and pair it with rookie linebacker Reuben Foster, who’s already blowing up offensive linemen, and this defense could become interesting much faster than many people think.
Worst-case scenario: The Niners are coming off a two-win season, and Vegas put their over/under for 2017 at 4.5 wins. This franchise has already reached its nadir; there’s nowhere to go but up. The reason that Shanahan and newly hired GM John Lynch were each given six-year contracts is that the Niners roster was almost entirely gutted. This is a ground-up project, and outside of first-round picks Thomas and Foster suddenly forgetting what football is, there isn’t a truly disheartening outcome for this bunch.
Stat of note: 27. That’s the percentage of offensive plays in which Shanahan used play action last season in Atlanta, according to Football Outsiders. That is comfortably the highest mark in the league. If running back Carlos Hyde can stay healthy, he has a chance to thrive in Shanahan’s system, and that could boost the effectiveness of play action.
Breakout player: Tight end George Kittle. A fifth-round pick in this year’s draft (146th overall), Kittle is penciled in as a starter following Vance McDonald’s trade to Pittsburgh. And full disclosure: I loved Kittle coming out of Iowa. At 6-foot-4 and 247 pounds, the guy ripped off a 4.52 40-yard dash and posted a broad jump that ranked in the 98th percentile at his position. He also has no qualms about mixing it up as a blocker.
The tight end is a huge part of what Shanahan wants to do offensively. He’ll have plenty of options with an athlete like Kittle.
28. Cleveland Browns
2016 record: 1-15
2016 DVOA finish: 29th on offense; 31st on defense
Best-case scenario: Based on the moves that Cleveland made this offseason, it appears the Browns’ rebuilding process is over. After spending his first year at the helm purging the roster of expensive veterans, executive vice president of football operations Sashi Brown used the team’s massive reserve of cap space to do some serious spending in 2017. In March, the Browns handed out $65 million in guaranteed money—on their offensive line alone. Cleveland locked up left guard Joel Bitonio with a six-year, $51 million extension to go along with big-time free agents Kevin Zeitler (guard) and J.C. Tretter (center).
In revamping its offensive line and handing wide receiver Kenny Britt $17 million guaranteed, Brown and head coach Hue Jackson have done their best to create a cushy environment for whoever plays quarterback. As of last month, the man tapped for that position is rookie DeShone Kizer. Many expected Cleveland to use its cache of draft picks to swing a deal for Jimmy Garoppolo or to make a play for someone like Deshaun Watson. Instead, the Browns used three first-round picks to address other needs before snatching Kizer at 52nd overall.
Kizer is an undeniable talent who boasts prototypical quarterback size and is still just 21 years old. His high points at Notre Dame last fall rivaled those of any passer in the draft, and if Jackson can get that version of him consistently through the next few years, this has a chance to go down as a transformative offseason for Cleveland. First overall pick Myles Garrett already looks like the generational talent many deemed him to be, and the Raiders have shown how quickly a game-wrecking pass rusher and a competent quarterback can alter the direction of a franchise. Brown came to town with a plan: Stockpile picks and line the team with stellar athletes. Even if the Browns aren’t ready to contend just yet, this year could mark a huge step in the right direction.
Worst-case scenario: The bar for Cleveland is still about a foot off the ground. This roster—especially on defense—is so young that there’s really no chance for 2017 to be smooth all the way through. Loading up on draft picks only matters if some of those picks hit. This means the only negative outcome for this Browns season would be a lack of development from guys like Kizer, receiver Corey Coleman (2016 first-round pick), defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah (2016 second round), safety Jabrill Peppers (2017 first round), and tight end David Njoku (2017 first round). Cleveland fans should feel considerably less discouraged than they have in years past.
Stat of note: 10.6 percent. That was the Browns’ adjusted sack rate last fall, dead last in the NFL. Throwing a small fortune at offensive linemen this offseason should make that problem a thing of the past.
Breakout player: Garrett. This almost feels like cheating, but then again, that’s how I feel watching Garrett play football. His spider chart is just a filled-in octagon. He’s among the best athletes to walk into the NFL … well, ever. Cleveland’s defense still has glaring weaknesses, but Garrett may soon make them hard to notice.
27. Denver Broncos
2016 record: 9-7
2016 DVOA finish: 28th on offense; 1st on defense
Best-case scenario: The saddest part about the Broncos’ 2017 outlook is that we’ve already seen the best-case scenario. That came last season, when they rode a devastating defense and dismal offense to a strikingly mediocre campaign. The team’s preferred outcome this offseason would have been for 2016 first-round pick Paxton Lynch to put it all together, take the reins from last year’s starting quarterback (Trevor Siemian), and provide this unit with another dimension. Instead, Siemian enters the fall as the man under center once again.
Beyond quarterback play, the Broncos offensive line was their biggest issue last year—a fact that GM John Elway clearly understood, considering some of his recent decisions. Denver gave former Cowboys guard Ronald Leary $24 million guaranteed this spring before drafting Utah offensive tackle Garett Bolles 20th overall. If searching for reasons why this offense can be better than 2016’s version, improvements to a unit that tied for 27th in adjusted sack rate and finished 29th in rushing DVOA is a good place to start.
If Siemian plays slightly better and a more dangerous running game lifts Denver’s offense out of the bottom third of the league, the defense should remain scary enough to make the Broncos a weekly pain in the ass.
Worst-case scenario: The problem with the rationale above is that any offensive stagnation will make it difficult for the Broncos to replicate their 2016 formula. Denver’s defense finished first in DVOA two years in a row and returns most of its core pieces. But the unit’s most important loss has nothing to do with the players on the field. The maestro of this group, defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, is now in Los Angeles filling the same role for the Rams.
Denver was excellent on defense before Phillips arrived, and it will likely stay excellent after he’s gone. But there’s an important distinction between being the league’s best unit and being one of the best in the league. Even if the Broncos defense slips to fifth or so in DVOA, that would be enough of a drop-off to take Denver from 9-7 to 6-10, especially if the offense fails to improve.
Maintaining a unit lined with expensive talent isn’t easy, and that reality is starting to show in Denver. With a new head coach, Vance Joseph, and defensive coordinator Al Woods taking over for Phillips, it’s unlikely that the Broncos return to last season’s form.
Stat of note: 44. That’s the number of Denver plays last season that went for 20 or more yards—tied for last in the league with a Houston team quarterbacked by Brock Osweiler. The Broncos offense is unlikely to be consistent with Siemian and Lynch running the show, but the hope is that stronger line play can open up some options down the field.
Breakout player: Bolles. I’m parodying myself by putting a left tackle in this spot, but most of the players worth getting enthused about on Denver’s roster are players who fans already know, like Von Miller. Bolles still has to iron out some issues on the blind side (he picked up four penalties in 37 snaps during Denver’s second preseason game), but he has the makings of a mainstay at left tackle.
26. Indianapolis Colts
2016 record: 8-8
2016 DVOA finish: 12th on offense; 29th on defense
Best-case scenario: The positive spin on the Colts’ campaign begins and ends with Andrew Luck. First-year GM Chris Ballard said last week that the team plans to take Luck, who is recovering from shoulder surgery, off the PUP list before the season begins. That’s encouraging, but all it means is that Indianapolis doesn’t believe the quarterback will miss six games. It does nothing to guarantee that he’ll be ready for Week 1.
It’s now September and Luck still isn’t practicing. Expecting him to be ready for Sunday’s opener seems foolish, even if ideally he’ll return soon after and give Indy a legitimate chance to contend in the AFC South. Luck played the best football of his career last season. He completed 63.5 percent of his throws for 4,240 yards with 31 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. The combination of him and T.Y. Hilton—who reached a new plane last fall while leading the league with 1,448 receiving yards—is lethal enough to make the Colts offense a frightening proposition.
The other side of the ball is where Ballard put in the majority of his work in year one. Former GM Ryan Grigson often eschewed signing stars in the middle of his defense in favor of picking up shiny new offensive toys, and it cost his team dearly. The 2016 Colts ranked dead last in run defense DVOA last season and allowed a miserable 4.7 yards per carry. Enter defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins, whom the team signed to a three-year, $27 million deal to bolster the interior of its line. By adding Hankins and first-round free safety Malik Hooker, the hope is that Indy’s defense can become strong in an area of the field where it is historically weak.
Worst-case scenario: Every indication from Ballard and the Colts so far is that they plan on being cautious with Luck, and who could blame them? Luck is the franchise at this point, and rushing him onto the field with a roster several steps shy of serious contention is in no one’s best interest. If Luck sits the first four or five games of the season, it’s possible that Indy finishes October without a win, regardless of whether Scott Tolzien or the newly acquired Jacoby Brissett take the majority of snaps.
The Colts’ injury concerns also extend far beyond their star quarterback. Center Ryan Kelly had foot surgery in mid-August and is expected to be out a few weeks. Top corner Vontae Davis is dealing with a significant groin injury that could sideline him for a while. There’s a version of this Colts season in which everything goes wrong: in which Kelly’s injury sabotages an already shaky offensive line and leads to even more hesitation about bringing Luck back, and in which the defense struggles to incorporate all of its new pieces. A team quarterbacked by Luck will always be relevant, but it’s possible Indy’s ceiling isn’t high enough to throw him back into action.
Stat of note: 32nd. That’s the Colts’ ranking in Early Down Success Rate, a defensive statistic invented by Warren Sharp. No team’s opponents faced more manageable third downs, on average, than Indy’s did last season. Adding a guy like Hankins should help alleviate that problem.
Breakout player: Running back Marlon Mack. The 2017 fourth-round pick enters the season a few rungs down the depth, but by all accounts he jumped off the screen during training camp. I love Frank Gore more than I knew was possible, but Indy could use some twitchiness in its backfield. Mack may just be the guy for the job.
25. Chicago Bears
2016 record: 3-13
2016 DVOA finish: 17th on offense; 23rd on defense
Best-case scenario: The particulars of this scenario likely depend on who you ask. Bears general manager Ryan Pace is adamant that Mike Glennon—the former Buccaneers backup whom the Bears handed $18.5 million guaranteed in March—will be the team’s starting quarterback. In Pace’s perfect world, Glennon would get a majority of the 2017 work and play well enough to recoup a draft pick in a subsequent offseason trade.
For every ravenous Bears fan hitting “add to cart” on that Mitchell Trubisky jersey, though, none of that matters. The second overall pick in this year’s draft showed enough flashes in the preseason to make patience difficult. If Trubisky comes in and performs well enough to give Chicago the homegrown stability under center it’s craved for nearly 30 years, it won’t matter if the Bears can’t salvage the Glennon signing with a future pick.
After losing wideout Cameron Meredith (who came out of nowhere to have a solid 2016 campaign) to a season-ending ACL injury, the Bears are paper-thin at receiver, but that doesn’t mean that Trubisky (or Glennon) is being thrown to the wolves. The interior of the offensive line—left guard Kyle Long, center Cody Whitehair, and right guard Josh Sitton—stacks up with any in the league, and along with running back Jordan Howard, it gives Chicago a potent ground game around which to base its offense. There’s hope to be found with this unit, especially if Trubisky breaks through.
On defense, finding reasons for optimism doesn’t even require digging. Chicago’s front seven is the strength of its roster. The Bears go deep at nearly every one of those spots, and 2016 first-rounder Leonard Floyd could emerge as a pass-rushing terror. Coordinator Vic Fangio absolutely has the talent to lead a unit that could rate in the top 12 in defensive DVOA.
Worst-case scenario: The only potential disaster scenario for the Bears would unfold if a slow start leads to the coaching staff growing impatient, thrusting Trubisky into the starting role, and creating such an untenable environment that the passer’s development is irreparably stunted. Chicago could stomach 5-11. As long as that clunker doesn’t involve Trubisky taking massive hits and sinking into bad habits, the long-term plan is in place.
Elsewhere on the roster, the Bears would love to see receiver Kevin White develop into a useful player. The first draft pick of the Pace era has played four games in two seasons and caught only 19 passes in his entire career. Chicago’s receiving corps isn’t the most exciting bunch; White needs to prevent it from looking like a total nightmare.
Stat of note: 71.1. That’s the number of adjusted games lost on Chicago’s defense in 2016, the highest in the league according to Football Outsiders’ Scott Kacsmar. The Bears were decimated on defense last season, especially after losing linebackers Danny Trevathan (to injury) Jerrell Freeman (to a performance-enhancing drug suspension). If that group can stay even remotely healthy this fall, it should be very solid.
Breakout player: Running back Tarik Cohen. At 5-foot-6 and 179 pounds, the fourth-round pick out of North Carolina A&T won’t get a steady diet of carries—particularly with Howard entrenched as the starter. But it’s already apparent what sort of shifty, pass-catching dynamic he’ll bring to Chicago’s offense. I can’t remember the last time the Bears had a change-of-pace back who could light up the field. Cohen should fill that void, and hopefully become one more reason why I finish the 2017 season by tattooing Trubisky’s face on my chest.
This piece was updated after publication.