Well, it’s here. The Chiefs and Patriots will meet on Thursday night to kick off the 2017 regular season, and our lives with actual NFL games will finally resume as normal.
This week, I’ve been ranking all 32 teams, starting with the dregs of the league, moving to the flawed groups I expect to miss the playoffs, and hitting the squads I think will make a push for the postseason. In Part IV, we get to the game’s best—the eight teams I believe can make a run at the Super Bowl. Think of this as a way to convince yourself that the Patriots can be beat. We all need to keep that hope alive.
As a reminder, my typical biases for great offensive line play and against awful quarterbacks will almost certainly shine through in these rankings, but this is my best effort at trying to sort out how hopeful each franchise should be heading into the year. And with that, let’s get to it.
8. Dallas Cowboys
2016 record: 13-3
2016 Football Outsiders DVOA finish: 3rd on offense; 17th on defense
Best-case scenario: Now that Ezekiel Elliott’s six-game suspension has been upheld (although he’ll be allowed to play Week 1, which … sure), we have a clearer picture of just how important quarterback Dak Prescott will be to the Cowboys’ offensive success this season. The Dallas running game was a machine in 2016, with Elliott thriving behind a dominant offensive line. The rookie rushed for an NFL-best 1,631 yards on a unit that finished second in rushing DVOA.
As Prescott prepares to play nearly 40 percent of this season without Elliott, the discussion about the 24-year-old quarterback has been two-pronged. Those high on Dallas will note that Prescott is already an excellent player who put together the best statistical campaign (67.8 percent completion rate; 23 passing touchdowns to four interceptions; and an average of 8.0 yards per attempt) of any rookie passer in league history. Those with doubts about the Cowboys will suggest that he benefited from what might have been the most quarterback-friendly offense in the NFL.
Both arguments hold merit. Prescott’s penchant for sifting through coverages and progressions to consistently make the right choices was advanced quarterbacking-type stuff. Yet he also played with a back who averaged 5.5 yards per carry on first down (on a league-leading 204 first-down carries) and piloted an offense that used play-action on 24 percent of its snaps, third highest in the league. Only Tom Brady and Russell Wilson had a better passer rating than Prescott on those throws. For Prescott, the notion of facing third-and-long must have seemed like a ghost story that other quarterbacks tell themselves around the campfire.
Still, not every quarterback (honestly, not many quarterbacks) could have exploited the Cowboys’ advantageous settings to the degree that Prescott did as a rookie. He’s the most precious gem in the NFL—an upper-echelon passer who’s set to take home an average of about $600,000 in each of the coming two seasons. The Dallas offensive line should pave the way for a top-five running game no matter who totes the rock. If Prescott can be the quarterback he was last fall (in terms of efficiency), the Cowboys should be able to withstand the temporary absence of Elliott and remain one of the most potent offenses we see on Sundays.
Worst-case scenario: If Prescott suffers a sophomore slump, the rest of this roster could prove unable to pick up the slack. While part of Elliott’s prolific rookie success came thanks to an offensive line that featured three All-Pros and a guard who just got $24 million guaranteed in free agency, part of it came from the unique talents of the Ohio State product. Elliott averaged 2.9 yards after contact (11th among running backs) and flashed the type of vision that actively makes a group up front better. With the personnel Dallas had, that bordered on unfair.
What made the Cowboys’ consistency on the ground so impressive was that it was rarely a product of deception. Great passing teams occasionally put up stellar DVOA rushing numbers because opponents focus on containing them through the air. Defenses knew the 2016 version of Dallas was going to pound the ball and still couldn’t stop it. The rushing attack slipping back to a reasonable level—rather than existing as a sentient, ground-churning network—would be the first step in Dallas dropping off this fall. If Prescott hits a snag when presented with tougher circumstances, the Cowboys could fall from the NFL’s upper tier of offenses.
Given the uncertainty Dallas faces on defense, that could be enough to boot the Cowboys out of the league’s elite. Dallas drafted a few cornerbacks this spring, but there’s a reason the team traded for former Bengals corner Bene Benwikere last week: Injuries and inexperience have rendered that position a shrouded and terrifying unknown. That’d be less of an issue if coordinator Rod Marinelli’s pass rush was dominant, but it isn’t. The Dallas front four is thin, and David Irving is suspended four games for violating the league’s substance abuse policy.
Stat of note: 75. That’s how many third-down plays of 8 yards or more Dallas faced last season; only Washington had fewer (67). Prescott’s passer rating on those plays was 81.9 percent, good for 13th among QBs who had at least 25 attempts.
Breakout player: Right tackle La’el Collins. The third-year offensive lineman missed most of last season with a toe injury, and he returns with a new position and a new contract. By sliding to right tackle, he could make the Cowboys’ line even better, despite the group losing Ronald Leary and Doug Free during the offseason. Collins is an upgrade over Free on paper, but continuity matters along the offensive line. The Cowboys are sacrificing in one area for a boost in another.
7. Tennessee Titans
2016 record: 9-7
2016 DVOA finish: 9th on offense; 24th on defense
Best-case scenario: General manager Jon Robinson’s plan to load up on offensive linemen and running backs and fit his Heisman Trophy–winning quarterback into a smashmouth system was met with plenty of ridicule last summer. As it turned out, the joke was on us. Tennessee jumped from dead last in offensive DVOA to ninth in a single season. The ground game averaged 4.6 yards per carry and piled up 2,187 rushing yards.
The group responsible for that production returns entirely intact this fall. This offensive line deserves mention alongside the Cowboys and Raiders as one of the best in the league, and it’ll once again pave the way for starter DeMarco Murray and overqualified backup Derrick Henry. The changes on Tennessee’s offense come in its receiving corps, which now features three new threats: no. 5 overall pick Corey Davis, third-rounder Taywan Taylor, and veteran slot man Eric Decker. They represent a complete overhaul of Marcus Mariota’s pass catchers.
For the Titans to take the final step toward contention, head coach Mike Mularkey needs to open the throttle on his ground-and-pound approach and let Mariota flourish. While the instinct to protect the team's top asset is understandable (Mariota was sacked on a league-high 9.3 percent of his dropbacks in 2015), the quarterback is also talented enough to elevate this offense from good to great, and now he has the weapons to do it. If the defense experiences a similar surge—and the secondary should improve with the additions of cornerback Logan Ryan and safety Johnathan Cyprien—this team could contend for much more than just the AFC South crown.
Worst-case scenario: Watching Tennessee make a play for all those receivers only for Mularkey to dial up tight end–heavy formations and run Murray until he’s out of gas would be depressing as hell. The Titans can make the ground game the basis of what they do without relying on it to the point of detriment. Look no further than the 2016 Falcons as an example. Unlike his 2015 draft counterpart Jameis Winston, Mariota doesn’t need a nudge toward greatness. He just needs the scheme to get out of his way.
On the other side of the ball, Ryan and Cyprien represent upgrades at their positions, but they might not be enough to lift the rest of the secondary. First-round pick Adoree’ Jackson is in line to start alongside Ryan, and rookie cornerbacks are always a dicey proposition. The high-end talent on this unit—coordinator Dick LeBeau’s ranked sixth in the NFL with 40 sacks in 2016—represents cause for optimism. Still, there’s a chance that the supporting cast lags enough to hinder this group’s upside.
Stat of note: 43 percent. That’s how often the Titans offense lined up with two tight ends or six linemen, per the Football Outsiders Almanac 2017, the highest mark in the league. Now that Tennessee has completely revamped its receiving corps, we’ll see if Mularkey’s plan changes.
Breakout player: Davis. The 2017 first-round pick will be a good test case in evaluating the scouting eye of Robinson and his front office. The Western Michigan star declined an invite to the Senior Bowl and didn’t work out at the combine after undergoing ankle surgery in February. All that Robinson and Co. had to go on was the tape of Davis beasting defensive backs from MAC schools en route to finishing his senior season with 97 receptions, 1,500 yards, and 19 freaking touchdowns. Everything about Davis’s size (6-foot-3, 210 pounds) and ability (excellent understanding of leverage and spacing, expert ball-tracking sense, and a sommelier’s nose for the end zone) says that he’s a potential NFL star. At this point, though, he remains an enigma.
6. Oakland Raiders
2016 record: 12-4
2016 DVOA finish: 8th on offense; 22nd on defense
Best-case scenario: The Raiders were the public’s sleeper team du jour going into last season, and boy, did they ever live up to the billing. After 13 straight seasons of finishing .500 or worse, Oakland rattled off 12 victories and cruised to a playoff berth. But a fairly tale season met its grisly demise when quarterback Derek Carr was lost to a broken leg near the end of a Week 16 beatdown of the Colts.
With Carr healthy, reigning Defensive Player of the Year Khalil Mack back in full force, and a host of other young pieces now in the fold, Oakland looks like one of the few teams that could give New England and Pittsburgh a run in the AFC. The offense boasts the conference’s best line, which returns four starters and figures to be dominant yet again. Only Brian Hoyer and Ben Roethlisberger were pressured less often than Carr was in 2016, and this year Oakland’s prodigal son, Marshawn Lynch, will provide some punch in the Raiders backfield.
Even more encouraging, while Carr played well enough in his first three NFL seasons to earn a contract that (temporarily) made him the league’s highest-paid player, he still has plenty of room to improve. The Fresno State product finished last fall averaging 7.03 yards per attempt, good for 18th among qualified quarterbacks. His 63.8 completion percentage was 15th in the same group. Oakland’s hope this season is that the promotion of quarterbacks coach Todd Downing to offensive coordinator will remove the limitations from Carr’s game and let the Raiders take one last step toward the elite. There’s an unstoppable version of an offense starring Carr, Lynch, and excellent receivers Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree somewhere in the ether; Oakland stumbling upon it could bring ruin to AFC defenses.
Worst-case scenario: Carr is one of those quarterbacks who makes it easy to get riled up. His skill set is tantalizing. Few guys make “holy shit” throws look easier. But even if Carr learns to be more aggressive under a new coordinator, he still has holes left in his game. His accuracy wavers, and his lack of patience in the pocket can sabotage plays. You have the best line in the game, dude. Use it.
The ground game should be better with Latavius Murray off in Minnesota (where he’s already been displaced by rookie Dalvin Cook), and there isn’t a person alive who isn’t clamoring to see Beast Mode return to form behind the maulers Oakland has up front. But we’re talking about a 31-year-old running back who hasn’t played football in a year and a half—and a guy who was injured when he hung up his lime-green cleats. I want this. I really do. But collectively we may be expecting more from Lynch than we should.
With the offense, though, those are nitpicks. The floor on that side of the ball is high. The same can’t be said for the defense. Oakland’s unit was a trainwreck last season, finishing 25th in pass defense DVOA. And while it’s hard to imagine cornerback Sean Smith being worse than he was a year ago, the Raiders have major question marks even if he bounces back, and several rookies will have to play significant roles. Of all the individual groups on contenders, Oakland’s defense could be the weakest link.
Stat of note: +31. That was Oakland’s point differential last season, a total that equates to an 8.7-win team, per the Football Outsiders Pythagorean projection for team wins. For a group that went 12-4, the 2016 Raiders had just three wins by double digits—and two came against the Jaguars and Bills. I think Oakland is in for a fight in AFC West.
Breakout player: Safety Karl Joseph. The 2016 first-round pick entered his rookie campaign fresh off surgery to repair a torn ACL, and it was clear that it hampered his development. Joseph is a missile in the secondary who also has a knack for forcing turnovers. He could go a long way toward improving the Raiders secondary in a hurry.
5. Atlanta Falcons
2016 record: 11-5
2016 DVOA finish: 1st on offense; 26th on defense
Best-case scenario: Atlanta’s offense took a flamethrower to the rest of the NFL last season. It led the league in offensive DVOA, with MVP Matt Ryan averaging an absolutely ridiculous 9.3 yards per attempt. The Kyle Shanahan–coordinated bunch did pretty much whatever the hell it wanted, whenever the hell it wanted—until the final 20 minutes of Super Bowl LI.
Shanahan is now the head coach in San Francisco, but the blueprint—and personnel—from that historically efficient group is still in place. It’s now up to new coordinator Steve Sarkisian to get the most out of it. A slight fall back to earth is to be expected for a unit that was historically good, but if Sarkisian can find ways to utilize the array of talent at his disposal—an arsenal that starts with receiver Julio Jones and includes burner Taylor Gabriel, lethal running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, and emerging tight end Austin Hooper—Atlanta should remain a top-five unit.
A small drop-off from the offense would be easier to stomach if the Falcons’ promising young defensive pieces can keep progressing at the rate they did in 2016. This defense came into its own over the second half of last season as rookies like Deion Jones and Keanu Neal combined with second-year contributors Vic Beasley and Grady Jarrett to comprise a speedy corps of playmakers. We’ve seen only flashes of what those guys can be, and this year they’ll be joined by proven reinforcements.
Cornerback Desmond Trufant, Atlanta’s best player on defense, missed the second half of last fall with a shoulder injury. He’s back, as are underrated linemen Adrian Clayborn and Derrick Shelby. And while all the returning in-house talent will be a key difference between this group and last year’s, the two biggest swings GM Thomas Dimitroff took this offseason could put head coach Dan Quinn’s group over the top. Pro Bowl nose tackle Dontari Poe signed a one-year, prove-it deal for $8 million and fills a massive hole in Atlanta’s run defense; 2017 first-round pick Takkarist McKinley could become the secondary pass rusher the Falcons have craved since finding Beasley. Quinn’s unit finished 11th in pass defense DVOA from Week 10 onward last season. I don’t think that was a fluke.
Worst-case scenario: As a card-carrying member of the Shanahan Is a Mastermind club, I’m obligated to point out just how much better Ryan was in 2016 than he was in any previous year of his career. Before recording his 9.3 yards-per-attempt mark last season, the 32-year-old quarterback had never cracked 8.0 in the same metric. Shanahan can stake a claim as the best play-caller and designer in the league; even if Sarkisian does well, the offense’s downgrade at coordinator is undeniable.
Aside from having the perfect guy to pull the strings in 2016, Atlanta also benefited from staying remarkably healthy. Only the Rams offense lost fewer games to injury, and no team in the league had a healthier offensive line by adjusted games lost. If the Falcons do get banged up up front, the results could be disastrous. Atlanta’s depth at those spots is problematic enough that the team dealt a fifth-round pick to Denver this spring to acquire flameout Ty Sambrailo. That is never a good look.
If the Falcons’ young defenders don’t develop as planned, a step back on offense could cause a significant 2017 regression.
Stat of note: 27 percent. That’s how often the Falcons offense used play-action last season, the highest mark in the league. It averaged 10.3 yards per play on those snaps. Even with Shanahan’s exit, expect play fakes and boots to remain central to Atlanta’s approach.
Breakout player: Neal. If you could build a strong safety from scratch to play in Quinn’s scheme, he’d probably look a lot like the 17th overall pick from the 2016 draft. Neal is a hammer who not only delivers massive shots all over the field, but who also provides the Falcons with run support and has the range to eat plays up near the line of scrimmage. Atlanta has crushed its recent drafts, and Neal is the most recent first-round find.
4. Green Bay Packers
2016 record: 10-6
2016 DVOA finish: 4th on offense; 20th on defense
Best-case scenario: You’ve seen Aaron Rodgers play before, right? After there was a hilarious amount of debate surrounding whether Rodgers was on the decline at the start of last season, the Packers quarterback responded by laying waste to the NFL over the second half of the 2016 campaign. A fun bit of trivia: Since Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are now out of source material, they’ve agreed to use footage of Rodgers’s divisional-round playoff masterpiece against the Cowboys in the place of any future scene featuring a dragon.
So long as Rodgers’s play borders on supernatural, the Green Bay offense should be among the best in the NFL. And to complement a receiving corps that returns all of its principal pieces, this group added former Patriots and Bears tight end Martellus Bennett in free agency. Bennett turned 30 years old in March, yet he might be the most dangerous weapon Rodgers has at his disposal. With Bennett flying down the seam or creating mismatches around the goal line, this offense should boast even more wattage than it did a year ago.
The issue with Green Bay’s 2016 roster came on defense, where a host of injuries and ineffectiveness in the secondary lampooned its ability to stop the pass. Along with losing starter Sam Shields for 15 games, the Packers missed a combined nine starts from second-year corners Quinten Rollins and Damarious Randall. Based on his decisions this offseason, GM Ted Thompson doesn’t intend to let that happen again. Thompson brought Davon House back from Jacksonville on a one-year deal before drafting cornerback Kevin King and safety Josh Jones in the 2017 second round. Green Bay’s solution in the secondary has often been to throw a bunch of bodies at the problem and hope the rotation works out. If the collection of talent in the defensive backfield—led by safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix—is calibrated the right way, this unit should be able to do enough to prop up the world-destroying work of the offense.
Worst-case scenario: At a certain point, the Packers have to pay for letting so many quality offensive linemen walk. After cutting All-Pro guard Josh Sitton on the eve of the 2016 season, Green Bay allowed both T.J. Lang and J.C. Tretter to leave for big deals in free agency this March. The blow of losing Tretter is lessened by the return of former starting center Corey Linsley from injury, but the Packers’ guards could end up being a serious problem. Lane Taylor has been serviceable when given the opportunity, yet he’s far from a sure thing. And right guard Jahri Evans is 34; he’s bounced around the league over the past couple of years for a reason.
Rodgers can mitigate subpar pass protection with his elusiveness, but there’s a chance that all of the Packers’ changes up front will have an adverse effect on the ground game. Last season’s experiment with Ty Montgomery at running back somehow worked. The former receiver caused a missed tackle every 4.42 touches, the fourth-highest rate among running backs, according to Pro Football Focus. That led to Montgomery averaging 5.14 yards per carry after contact, comfortably the highest mark in the league. Even with a quarterback who’s a dragon, the front office’s choice to roll with talent deficiencies along the line still amounts to playing with fire.
On defense, the departure of Julius Peppers is significant, though the hope is that better health at inside linebacker will allow Clay Matthews to slide back to his natural position as a pass rusher. Overall, the front four is thin (it has to be for a team carrying 11 defensive backs); if defensive tackle Mike Daniels does down, the Packers could be in real trouble.
Stat of note: 29 percent. That’s how often Green Bay used six defensive backs last season, the second-highest percentage in the league, per Football Outsiders. The Packers love to load the secondary with bodies; if they want to do that this year, they’ll have to rely on two first-year players in a big way.
Breakout player: Defensive tackle Kenny Clark. The 2016 first-round pick played sparingly as a rookie, but the Packers need him to come along in a hurry following the exits of Letroy Guion and Datone Jones.
3. Seattle Seahawks
2016 record: 10-5-1
2016 DVOA finish: 16th on offense; 5th on defense
Best-case scenario: I have a sinking feeling that we’re going to look back on this season and wonder how the hell Seattle was allowed to steal Sheldon Richardson in a deal with the Jets. The Seahawks pried the 2013 first-round pick from New York for the low price of Jermaine Kearse and a 2018 second-rounder. In the process, head coach Pete Carroll’s front four added a great white shark to a tank already stocked with hammerheads.
Seattle’s defensive line should be a menace with Richardson sliding into his natural spot as a penetrating 3-technique tackle. Just thinking about the possibilities is enough to make your head spin. Will Frank Clark line up next to Richardson in the nickel? Or will Michael Bennett continue to bump inside? I’m not sure, but I bet that defensive coordinator Kris Richard is giggling somewhere mulling over the answer.
Richardson joins a ferocious group that brings back all its familiar faces. The Seahawks have been able to enjoy sustained success on defense because every season a new player has emerged as a star. In the past, that guy has been Bennett, Richard Sherman, Bobby Wagner, K.J. Wright, Kam Chancellor, and Earl Thomas. What we learned last year, though, is that Thomas is the engine that makes this crew go. Seattle’s defense fell into a pit of despair when the All-Pro went down with a broken leg in Week 13. Before losing Thomas for the season, Seattle allowed an opposing passer rating of nine on passes targeting the deep middle; after he went down, that number jumped to 135. While Richardson is the flashy new add, the 2017 defense will dominate because Thomas wrecks opposing passing games.
How the Seahawks almost fielded a league-average offense last year given their line woes is beyond me. Russell Wilson has always been able to pull off Houdini-esque nonsense, but even he had trouble doing much behind Seattle’s front in 2016. That issue came to a head in the playoff game in Atlanta, when an injury to Germain Ifedi was enough to sink the offense. The line remains a potential nightmare, but with Wilson, an underrated receiving corps, and a backfield with a healthy C.J. Prosise and Thomas Rawls, this offense should do enough to make Seattle the class of the NFC.
Worst-case scenario: Then again, when a team losing George Fant—an undrafted free agent who played a single year of college football—to a torn ACL is treated like a tragedy, it’s clear that Seattle isn’t fully in a good spot. Fant was slated to start at left tackle; he’ll be replaced by Rees Odhiambo, which … yeesh. And this team’s problems up front don’t stop there. The Seahawks signed Luke Joeckel, the former no. 2 overall pick who crashed and burned in Jacksonville, to an $8 million contract this offseason to play guard. Joeckel hasn’t provided much evidence that he deserves that type of opportunity.
We’ve seen what can happen when Seattle’s offensive line falls apart. Wilson injured his ankle in last September’s Week 1 game against the Dolphins, and it had a lingering effect on half of the Seahawks’ campaign. Wilson is too integral to Seattle’s success to play at less than full health. Elsewhere in the backfield, it feels like Rawls and Prosise have never been 100 percent healthy. Rawls missed half of the 2016 season with an ankle issue; Prosise looked ready to break out early last season until a scapula injury cost him the final 10 weeks of his rookie campaign. No matter how well the defense plays, Seattle has a ceiling if its offensive line falters.
Stat of note: 117. That’s the number of knockdowns (combined sacks and hits) that Wilson took last year, the fourth-highest mark in the league. The three quarterbacks with more (Carson Palmer, Andrew Luck, and Jameis Winston) all play in schemes designed to push the ball downfield.
Breakout player: Wide receiver Paul Richardson. Like many of his brethren on the Seahawks offense, Richardson couldn’t stay healthy for the early part of his career. When he was consistently on the field late last fall, though, he made absurd catches every week. The fourth-year wideout will get his share of targets with Kearse on the Jets. I hope the internet is ready.
2. Pittsburgh Steelers
2016 record: 11-5
2016 DVOA finish: 7th on offense; 11th on defense
Best-case scenario: It’s been more than two full seasons since the four B’s of Pittsburgh’s offense—Ben, Bell, Brown, and Bryant—started in the same game. That’s a damn shame for football fans, and it’s robbed the Steelers of the chance to become the sport’s most explosive offense. Pittsburgh was still a pain in the ass for opponents last season, with Le’Veon Bell taking on an increased receiving load and emerging as the team’s secondary pass catcher behind Antonio Brown. He averaged 7.8 targets over 12 games last year; extrapolate that over 16 games, and Bell would’ve tied for 21st in the league in the statistic, regardless of position.
Bell’s injury early in January’s AFC championship game essentially crushed the Steelers’ hopes of knocking off the Patriots. But Pittsburgh was in a hole even before it took the field. The Patriots left lesser receiving options like Cobi Hamilton and Sammie Coates in single coverage opposite Brown the entire game; they dared the Pittsburgh no. 2 receiver to beat them, and no one was up to the task. That’s because Martavis Bryant’s suspension for all of 2016 drastically changed the complexion of this roster. Bryant alters the way defenses have to consider the Steelers; he’s also an athletic marvel who can take a pass from the line of scrimmage to paydirt in a blink.
Beyond Pittsburgh’s offense keeping all of its headliners on the field, this team’s 2017 chances rely on the defense showing signs of improvement. The Steelers were 11th in defensive DVOA last season and have young players poised to take on larger roles at every level, from cornerback Artie Burns to safety Sean Davis to nose tackle Javon Hargrave to pass rusher Bud Dupree (who missed nine games to injury last fall). If some guys make the leap, the upside for head coach Mike Tomlin’s squad is massive.
Worst-case scenario: For all of the optimism in Pittsburgh, this defense still faces question marks at a few key spots. Lawrence Timmons was clearly on the downside of his career last season, but at least he was experienced. With the longtime starter now in Miami, the Steelers have a lack of proven talent next to Ryan Shazier at inside linebacker. A lot more will be asked of Burns as he steps into a starting role, and on the other side, it’s reasonable to wonder how much cornerback Joe Haden (who was recently acquired after being cut by the Browns) has left in the tank after suffering a steady stream of injuries over the past few years.
The offense should be scary no matter what, but it’s not as if Bell and Bryant have been immune to injury, either. Bell returned to practice this week after holding out for most of training camp; as comfortable as he is in this offense, that’d leave me walking on eggshells if I were a Steelers fan.
Stat of note: 90.4. That’s the percentage of Pittsburgh’s offensive snaps that Bell was on the field for last season, the highest mark of any back in the league by 6.7 percentage points, according to Pro Football Focus. In an era of specialization, no stat showcases how complete he is quite like that one.
Breakout player: Outside linebacker T.J. Watt. The Steelers announced this week that the youngest Watt brother—and the 30th overall pick in the 2017 draft—would be listed as a starter in his rookie season. T.J., like J.J., has an athletic profile that barely makes sense. The Steelers’ best method for limiting a young secondary’s mistakes this fall is to rattle opposing quarterbacks. Watt will have plenty of say there.
1. New England Patriots
2016 record: 14-2
2016 DVOA finish: 2nd on offense; 16th on defense
Best-case scenario: C’mon … we know how this ends. The Patriots went 14-2 last season, won Super Bowl LI, and then added Rob Gronkowski, Brandin Cooks, Mike Gillislee, and Stephon Gilmore to their roster that played against the Falcons. This shit should be illegal. The circumstances necessary for an NFL team to go undefeated are so unlikely that picturing the Pats going 16-0—no matter how talented they are—is tough. But the fact that the possibility is worth mentioning tells you all that you need to know about New England’s 2017 prospects.
Losing receiver Julian Edelman to a torn ACL this preseason is a bigger blow than many have made it out to be, although it’s not as if this offense is lacking for playmakers. Cooks and Chris Hogan might comprise the best combination of deep targets that Tom Brady has ever had (unless you consider the power of Randy Moss to be equal to the impact of two men, which is fair), while Gronk, James White, Dion Lewis, and the newly acquired Rex Burkhead give the Pats an arsenal of pass-catching options that can terrorize defensive personnel packages from any point on the field. The formations and concepts available to the Pats with the guys they now have are endless; for a coaching staff featuring Josh McDaniels and Bill Belichick, that could lead to destruction of biblical proportions.
New England’s defense may not have the Death Star potential that Brady’s bunch possesses, but it’s still a talented crew that should more than hold its own. Pairing Gilmore (who inked a five-year deal that included a whopping $40 million guaranteed) with Malcolm Butler gives the Patriots a ridiculous pair of cornerbacks. And retaining linebacker Dont’a Hightower, who runs this defense, was a big win. There’s really no way around it: The Patriots are the clear and deserved Super Bowl favorites.
Worst-case scenario: How far can I go in this section before it seems like a stretch? The edge spots are probably the weakest part of the Patriots’ roster, especially after the season-ending injury to third-round pick Derek Rivers, and New England had to trade for Seahawks backup Cassius Marsh last week. But the importance of superstar pass rushers has always been marginalized in Belichick’s defense. The Patriots’ scheme is predicated on controlling the line of scrimmage, even with defensive ends. If there’s one area where this group doesn’t need top-flight talent, this is it.
It’s even harder to come up with problems on the other side of the ball. There was a time when New England’s offensive line was the worst part of its roster. Those days are long gone. The right side of the line, made up of stellar young pieces Shaq Mason (at guard) and Marcus Cannon (at tackle), is rock solid. And even if the unthinkable were to happen and Brady got injured, backup Jimmy Garoppolo could likely lead the Pats to a top-four seed in the AFC. This roster is one of Belichick’s masterpieces.
Stat of Note:
This chart comes from the invaluable Football Outsiders Almanac 2017, which I cited frequently in these rankings because it’s my favorite source of numbers-based information coming into a season. Look at that distribution of formations. It’s amazing. The Pats used a single back less often than all but one team in 2016, and also went empty on nearly 10 percent of their snaps. They went with three or more receivers less often than all but a handful of teams, and went with heavy sets at a notably high rate. Formation diversity is the mark of the best schemers alive. The Patriots set the bar in that area.
Breakout player: Gillislee. The former Bills running back came to New England as a restricted free agent for the affordable price of a fifth-round pick and his two-year, $6.4 million contract. For as crowded as the Pats backfield is, I don’t think it’ll take long to find out just how devastating he can be in this offense. While part of what allowed Gillislee to average an absurd 5.7 yards per carry and lead the league in DVOA last season was the running-back-friendly design of Buffalo’s offense, there’s no ignoring what he brings as a runner. This New England offense has layers we don’t even understand yet. With Gillislee, we shouldn’t have to wait too long to find out.