It’s finally here. The wait for meaningful NFL football is over. The Super Bowl champion Eagles will kick off the 2018 season against the Falcons in a few short days, and the annual overreaction fest that is Week 1 will begin.
To celebrate, I’m capping off The Ringer’s NFL preview coverage with my annual 32-team preseason power rankings. Never has this exercise been more difficult. Somehow, the league finds itself with a staggering number of franchises that feature legitimate team-building plans. Gone are the days when the Browns, 49ers, and Jets were content to languish around 2-14 while planning for the future. Nearly every team has its quarterback of the future in place, and no one appears to be actively punting on the season. Incompetence is scarce, the NFC is loaded, and many of the supposedly quiet contenders aren’t so quiet. Still, there’s a job to do.
Over the next four days, I’ll be breaking down every team in the league in tiers of eight, from worst to first (here are parts two, three, and four). The strength of each roster was a major factor in my order (see: last year’s Eagles), and in some cases I projected how coaching and scheme changes could matter. The 2017 Rams are still fresh in my mind. The hope is that by week’s end, these four-part rankings will offer a complete look at the league landscape heading into this season.
To start things off, here are the eight teams I’m least excited about this fall.
32. Buffalo Bills
2017 Record: 9-7
2017 Football Outsiders’ DVOA: 26th on offense; 15th on defense
Best-Case Scenario: Let the Josh Allen era commence. The Bills’ brain trust made painfully clear last season that it didn’t see Tyrod Taylor as the franchise’s future at quarterback. Now, that future comes in the form of Allen, the Wyoming star (?) who completed 56.2 percent of his passes and went 16-11 over the past two seasons in the Mountain West. Buffalo had to give up a healthy sum of draft capital to get him, sending Tampa Bay two second-round picks to move up to no. 7 overall and take the big-armed, baby-faced QB who fans hope can develop into the long-awaited answer in the team’s post–Jim Kelly era.
For a moment, let’s put the laundry list of concerns about Allen aside and imagine how this could break right for the Bills. Before making its move for Allen, Buffalo signed AJ McCarron to a two-year placeholder contract that seemed to say, “Well, we have to do something.” McCarron has since been traded to the Raiders, though, and Allen will be given every chance to start. The early returns could be much worse. During the preseason, he showed off the Howitzer that made scouts swoon; while accuracy issues remain, his first few showings in an NFL uniform weren’t the smoldering wreckage that some probably imagined.
Still, the best conceivable version of Allen won’t be enough to make Buffalo league average on offense. The Bills’ offensive infrastructure has a cracked foundation, crumbling walls, and a snake infestation. That means any chance of this team rising above the dregs of the NFL rests squarely on head coach Sean McDermott’s defense.
Buffalo’s secondary is excellent. Cornerback Tre’Davious White was a revelation as a rookie; further growth in his second year would put him in an elite echelon of cover guys around the league. On the back end, Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde form an impactful safety pairing that combined to tally 10 interceptions and 26 passes defensed in their first season together. If Vontae Davis can successfully round out this unit, the opportunistic, high-variance group could make up for other holes on the roster.
Worst-Case Scenario: About that snake-ridden shambles of an offense. The Bills may have bet big on Allen, but they’ve done him zero favors with the pieces they’ve placed around him. Buffalo’s receiving corps is devoid of high-end talent. Just a few years after trotting out Sammy Watkins, Robert Woods, Marquise Goodwin, and Chris Hogan, new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll has Kelvin Benjamin, Zay Jones, and Andre Holmes at his disposal. That is a stunningly unremarkable collection of receivers, incapable of both creating separation and reliably catching footballs—two skills that tend to be fairly important.
If the pass-catching arsenal were the only problem on this offense, the Bills might be fine. We’ve seen teams overcome that with quality offensive line play and a solid running game. This year’s Bills just won’t be one of them. Buffalo still has LeSean McCoy, who has long manufactured offense in difficult circumstances, but he’s on the eve of his age-30 season and is coming off a campaign in which he averaged 4.0 yards per carry. Plus, this offseason, Buffalo swapped out two of its most effective interior linemen (center Eric Wood and guard Richie Incognito) for a guy who spent the past few seasons torpedoing the Bengals offense (new center Russell Bodine) and a lifetime replacement-level guard (Vlad Ducasse). The Bills also traded former starting left tackle Cordy Glenn to Cincinnati as part of its plan to load up for a QB. The result is a line without a single above-average starter.
The problems with the offense would be less troubling if the Bills defense had a chance to carry them, but that simply isn’t realistic. Gone are the days when Buffalo’s front four terrorized quarterbacks. The Bills’ two main acquisitions up front were former Carolina defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, who commanded $18.5 million guaranteed, and former Washington second fiddle Trent Murphy. As solid as both players are, neither raises the profile of this group. First-round 2018 draft pick Tremaine Edmunds is an athletic buzzsaw who could give the Bills a new middle-of-the-field dynamic, but the rest of the front seven is uninspiring.
Stat of Note: 44 percent. On first-and-long (where long represents 8 to 10 yards), the Bills’ offense handed the ball to McCoy on 121 of 316 snaps last season. It registered a success rate of 44 percent on those plays. Buffalo’s 2017 attack finished dead last in Warren Sharp’s Early Down Success Rate (EDSR), a stat that measures the percentage of a team’s first downs that come before reaching third down. EDSR is a measure of overall offensive efficiency, and the Bills’ woes in that area mirror their struggles to dictate the tone.
Breakout Player: Tremaine Edmunds. The Virginia Tech product proved he could do it all at the college level. He’s built like a pass-rushing outside linebacker at 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds, yet he runs the 40-yard dash in 4.54 seconds and boasts terrific change-of-direction ability. Edmunds could have some adventures in coverage as his instincts develop, but those should be coupled with plenty of wow moments. He’s a premier talent who projects as a game-changer.
31. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2017 Record: 5-11
2017 DVOA: 11th on offense; 32nd on defense
Best-Case Scenario: Even as a hypothetical, this yarn isn’t easy to spin. But here goes: There’s almost no way this year’s defense can be worse than last year’s. By virtually every measure, coordinator Mike Smith’s group was horrendous in 2017. The Bucs finished last in defensive DVOA, 31st in yards per drive allowed, and 30th in points per drive allowed. They looked inept and ill prepared, lacking even a single defined strength.
General manager Jason Licht spent this offseason stockpiling players to shore up Tampa Bay’s most deficient position groups. The deal that sent the Bills the pick that became Allen netted the Bucs second-round cornerbacks Carlton Davis and M.J. Stewart. For now, incumbents Vernon Hargreaves III and Brent Grimes seem to have grasps on the starting jobs outside, but Tampa wouldn’t mind seeing its rookies push them for playing time. To go along with the talent influx at corner, Licht made another attempt to find competent edge rushers. He made a low-risk move by trading for Jason Pierre-Paul, who comes with just a $12.5 million cap hit in 2018 and has no guaranteed money on his deal beyond this season. JPP will pair with former Eagles rotation end Vinny Curry (and interior linemen Gerald McCoy and Vita Vea) to give the Bucs defense more teeth than it’s had in years past.
The free-agent splurge on the other side of the ball came via the signing of center Ryan Jensen. He was a pleasant surprise for a devastated Baltimore offensive line in 2017, but watching him become the highest-paid center in the league was certainly a surprise. Adding Jensen allows the Bucs to move Ali Marpet back to guard to solidify the interior of a line that failed to pave the way for an effective ground game. The Bucs averaged 3.7 yards per carry last fall. Jettisoning Doug Martin and his sub-3.0 average should also help.
If the Buccaneers can avoid going 0-3 during Jameis Winston’s three-game suspension, and if second-round pick Ronald Jones and third-year pro Peyton Barber can find room to work behind a retooled line, this offense should be competent—if regularly frustrating.
Worst-Case Scenario: Man, was that hard to do with a straight face. Almost all the signs in Tampa Bay point to a Titanic-level disaster in 2018. That starts with Winston, who’s all but run out of chances. His suspension stems from a March 2016 incident that happened in Scottsdale, Arizona, in which an Uber driver said that Winston groped her. Nearly every aspect of Winston’s NFL career has required the team’s decision-makers to explain away his transgressions without any real rationale. Winston’s fifth-year option will cost the Bucs $20.9 million, but that figure is guaranteed only against injury. Licht could move on from Winston without penalty, allowing the franchise to start anew at QB and finally admit the mistake it made drafting him first overall in 2015. Or it could continue kicking the can down the road and pretend this plan is working when every possible indication suggests otherwise.
Winston’s uncertain future and three-game suspension and the Bucs’ brutal schedule over that stretch (at New Orleans, vs. Philadelphia, vs. Pittsburgh) point to a DEFCON 1 scenario. Head coach Dirk Koetter’s hold on his job is anything but ironclad, and if Tampa Bay stumbles, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him ousted. Smith may have more talent to work with on his defense this time around, but the Bucs’ issues a season ago went beyond their lack of a pass rush. And for all the young pieces challenging for playing time at corner, this team will trot out a woefully outmanned safety pairing in 2018.
If the Bucs’ season hasn’t unraveled by the time Winston returns in Week 4, Tampa Bay’s passing game should prove to be capable, fueled by Mike Evans’s downfield acrobatics and Chris Godwin’s big-play capability. For the most part, though, this is the same maddening unit that’s been underwhelming, led by the same lukewarm coach and the same turnover-prone QB.
Stat of Note: 26 percent. That was the Bucs’ pressure rate last season, per Sports Info Solutions, the worst in the league. Tampa Bay’s inability to find a reliable edge rusher is one of the NFL’s most perplexing trends.
Breakout Player: Chris Godwin. Coming out of Penn State in 2017, Godwin looked like a home-run threat who’d fit smoothly into the Bucs’ air-it-out offense. Nothing about his rookie season contradicted that. Over his final two games, he reeled in 10 catches for 209 yards with a touchdown. In Year 2, the biggest factor holding him back will be whether he can get on the field in Tampa’s three-receiver sets. Koetter favored Adam Humphries as the slot option to go with Evans and DeSean Jackson last season.
30. Miami Dolphins
2017 Record: 6-10
2017 DVOA: 27th on offense; 28th on defense
Best-Case Scenario: The Dolphins’ starting quarterback is no longer Jay Cutler, and that seems like a good place to start. Remember, it wasn’t too long ago that Miami’s 2016 season offered plenty of reasons for excitement. In his first season as the team’s head coach, Adam Gase shepherded Ryan Tannehill to the best season of the QB’s career. Tannehill completed 67.1 percent of his passes and averaged 7.7 yards per attempt in 13 starts that fall—both personal bests. Beyond the numbers, Tannehill looked like a viable long-term starter for the first time since coming into the league. It felt as if Gase was the influence he’d been waiting for all along.
Then Tannehill tore his ACL during a December win over the Cardinals. Then Tannehill tore it again in training camp last August. Enter Cutler, off the couch with his $10 million salary. Suddenly, the Dolphins’ rosy outlook became clouded by apathy and cigarette smoke.
For Miami to have relevance this season, Tannehill will need to return to 2016 form. The passing game may have lost Jarvis Landry and his annual 100-plus receptions to Cleveland, but the pairing of Danny Amendola and Albert Wilson should feasibly allow Miami to recreate that production. Add in full seasons from 2017 small-sample-size hero Kenyan Drake at running back and 2018 second-rounder Mike Gesicki at tight end, and Miami could showcase more big-play ability than it did while going 6-10.
Worst-Case Scenario: Over the past 12 months, the Dolphins have lost Landry, Ndamukong Suh, and Jay Ajayi. The motivation behind each of those departures isn’t a secret. Ajayi was dealt to Philadelphia in an effort to change the culture in Miami; Landry was traded to Cleveland because his free-agency price tag would have been too rich for the Dolphins; and Suh was released because his $26.1 million cap hit was untenable. Even if those moves all make sense, though, they deprive Miami of talent. The Dolphins are arguably without their best player on each side of the ball in 2017.
If the Landry and Suh decisions were part of a broader plan to start saving cash and savvily shaping the roster under the salary cap, that’d be fine. But that’s just not what’s happening. Shortly after cutting Suh, the Dolphins traded the Rams for pass rusher Robert Quinn, who’s been in decline for two years and comes with an $11.4 million cap hit in 2018. This team is a year removed from handing Andre Branch a contract worth more than $10 million per season. Combined, Wilson and Amendola will make nearly $11 million in 2018 ... not all that different from Landry’s price tag.
The Dolphins seem to have no discernible plan for who they want to be or why. As a result, they have a clearly defined ceiling this season. Even if Tannehill recaptures the form he showed during his first go-around with Gase, Miami will likely reprise its role as a quintessential middling team.
Stat of Note: 26 percent. That’s the percentage of passes that Dolphins’ opponents threw to tight ends in 2017, the highest in the league, according to Football Outsiders Almanac. Miami’s lack of athleticism at linebacker is a concern, and teams have exploited that via their distribution of the ball.
Breakout Player: Minkah Fitzpatrick. The Dolphins’ first-round pick was primarily a slot cornerback during his tenure at Alabama. That was framed as a negative throughout the draft process, because high picks are typically reserved for cover men who can match the league’s best receivers outside the numbers. If Fitzpatrick was going to be limited to inside duties upon reaching the NFL, the thinking went, he didn’t warrant early consideration, even if he was overwhelmingly productive while playing under Nick Saban.
But let’s spin that a different way. As more offenses come to value the flexibility afforded by three-receiver sets, and as an increasing number of the league’s best teams seek to exploit the middle of the field, a versatile defender like Fitzpatrick could drift between positions and negate matchup problems. The Dolphins plan to use him a ton of different ways this season, and as such he should emerge as a critical modern cog in this defense.
29. Arizona Cardinals
2017 Record: 8-8
2017 DVOA: 30th on offense; 4th on defense
Best-Case Scenario: Before we get to this year’s Cardinals, an ode to the Bruce Arians era is in order. The Arians–Carson Palmer tandem finally ran out of gas in 2017, but not before providing Arizona with plenty of thrills over the years. At its best, that passing game was the most exhilarating in the NFL, a beautiful marriage of swashbuckling football lifers milking all they could from their last go-around. Incredible things happened when Palmer found his calling in Arians’s “fuck it, let’s go deep” mentality.
A good portion of the problems for last year’s Cardinals resulted from running back David Johnson breaking his wrist in Week 1, an injury that forced him to miss the rest of the season. Johnson racked up 373 touches for 2,118 total yards in 2016. No back in the league, including Le’Veon Bell, shouldered that kind of a burden for his offense that year. Entering 2018 the Cardinals are almost certain to lean on Johnson in a similar way.
Johnson and the ground game will be the focal point of this offense in large part because of its uncertainty elsewhere. Larry Fitzgerald is back, and he’ll catch 90 passes per year until he decides to hang it up or the world ends. Whatever comes first. But the rest of the receiving corps is unproven (like second-round pick Christian Kirk) or uninspiring (like J.J. Nelson). New coordinator Mike McCoy will presumably wind Johnson up and let him run behind a revamped offensive line. The Cards gave former Giants guard/tackle Justin Pugh a five-year, $44.8 million deal in free agency to take over at right guard, and if Mike Iupati can return to health, Arizona could have a solid pair of run-blocking guards to create space for Johnson.
The defense doesn’t include any big-money additions, but it still has talent at every level. Chandler Jones has been worth every penny of the extension he received from Arizona, and Budda Baker looks like a play-making force who can complement Patrick Peterson in the Cardinals’ secondary. This group isn’t the game-wrecking crew it’s been in recent years, but its floor under first-year head coach Steve Wilks is high.
Worst-Case Scenario: Not long after the Carson Palmer era ended in Arizona, the Josh Rosen era began. Arizona dealt third- and fifth-round picks to the Raiders to move up from 15th to 10th in the 2018 draft and snag the former UCLA star. Considering Rosen’s pedigree, landing him as the fourth quarterback off the board was a clear win for Arizona. So far this preseason, Rosen has showcased why some evaluators considered him the most ready-made starter in this year’s draft class.
Still, all indications point to the Cardinals being patient with their future franchise quarterback. The front office gave Sam Bradford a $20 million contract this offseason to keep Rosen’s seat warm, and Wilks hasn’t backed off his intention to keep the rookie QB on ice. The snakebitten Bradford was impressive when healthy during his time with the Vikings, but that’s a huge caveat. Bradford’s papier-mâché knees are a threat to decompose at any moment, and it’s possible that for all their plans, the Cardinals will have to thrust Rosen into action before they would like. No matter who’s under center in 2018, this group is likely to hover around average, and that’s concerning given all of the uncertainty on defense.
Arizona has plenty of talent on coordinator Al Holcomb’s depth chart, but it’s transitioning from a proven commodity in James Bettcher to a first-year play-caller who’s getting used to the role and his personnel. It’s possible that the Cardinals find their stride the quality of the players wins out. But expecting this to be the same, stifling Cardinals defense is misguided.
Stat of Note: 77. That’s the number of combined career NFL catches for Kirk, Nelson, and Chad Williams—players nos. 2-4 on Arizona’s wide-receiver depth chart. Fitzgerald caught 109 passes last season.
Breakout Player: Budda Baker. At 5-foot-10 and 195 pounds, Baker is a walking contradiction of an NFL defensive back. Despite his frame, most of his value as a rookie came from his willingness to mix it up against the run. In seven starts in 2017, he consistently contributed to a unit that finished first in rush defense DVOA. And while he had some coverage problems, he showed enough to suggest he’ll take a step forward in that regard this fall. Baker is exactly the kind of hellraiser Holcomb needs on the back end of this defense.
28. Indianapolis Colts
2017 Record: 4-12
2017 DVOA: 29th on offense; 27th on defense
Best-Case Scenario: Slotting the Colts this low could make me look like a moron come December. After a year’s worth of mysterious trips to Europe, weighted footballs, and alternating dread and optimism, it sure seems like quarterback Andrew Luck is officially healthy and good to go. When superstars miss extended amounts of time, it’s easy to forget just how great they actually are, Luck included. If he returns this season as the Andrew Luck of old, the Colts should field a potent passing game immediately. Indy’s wide receiver depth chart is … spotty after T.Y. Hilton, but when has that ever mattered? The Luck-Hilton connection, paired with valuable tight end Jack Doyle, is more than enough to keep defensive coordinators up at night.
In a fortunate plot twist, Luck may also be returning to the first QB-friendly offensive system of his career. During Luck’s first six years in the league, the Colts have employed a rotating cast of coordinators, all of whom used Luck’s arm and ability to withstand punishment and Hilton’s speed to devise offenses hellbent on slinging balls down the field. That approach, combined with consistently shoddy offensive lines, put added stress on Luck that eventually accelerated his physical deterioration and caused him to miss an entire season with shoulder issues.
Enter first-year head coach Frank Reich, one of the masterminds behind the 2017 Eagles offense that armed its quarterbacks with low-risk throws and shredded defenses in the intermediate areas of the field in the process. Lions flameout Eric Ebron will join Doyle in the sort of two tight-end sets that Philadelphia favored last year, and maybe—just maybe—this scheme and quarterback combination will help tease out the underlying ability that made Ebron a top-10 pick in the 2014 draft. General manager Chris Ballard has gone out of his way to bring some muscle to the Colts’ offensive line. Top-10 guard Quenton Nelson is a rare prospect, the sort of interior lineman who jumps off the screen with his pairing of brutal physical dominance and technical proficiency, and he has a chance to transform the feel of the Colts’ entire offense with his style of play. Overall, Indy’s offense is sure to be a vast departure from years past—and that will be to Luck’s benefit.
The defense has also undergone a facelift in the second year of Ballard’s full-scale overhaul. Ballard picked up three second-round picks by moving down from the third overall pick to no. 6, and that surplus capital was used to build up the defense. Second-rounders Darius Leonard and Kemoko Turay are both slated to play starter snaps as rookies, just the latest in a line of young players who’ve been given early opportunities in the Colts’ system. Last year, first-round pick Malik Hooker was afforded a similar chance and, before he tore his ACL in October, looked just like the secondary-stalking interception machine he was at Ohio State. If Hooker can pick up where he left off and the Colts’ rookies can provide an immediate jolt, this group could have an entirely new feel.
Worst-Case Scenario: Each element in that cheery picture requires some projection. It’s been 20 months since Luck took an NFL snap; it’s reasonable to expect some early stumbles, and if they do happen, the offense will suffer. The Colts’ infrastructure may no longer require Luck to do it all, but the team still needs him to elevate the middling talent around him.
Similar uncertainty hangs over the defense. Ballard did all he could do this offseason to infuse some new blood into that side of the ball, but this team will rely on a disconcerting number of young players. That includes the secondary, which looks to be a groan-inducing unit—aside from Hooker, every player on the back end of Indy’s defense is either unproven or proven in all the wrong ways. Even if the rookies in the front seven get up to speed quickly, the cornerbacks could sabotage the entire defense.
This stable of raw prospects would present a challenge for even the most seasoned coaches—and in defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus, the Colts get the opposite. After spending years as Rod Marinelli’s right-hand man in Dallas, the former linebackers coach gets his own defense for the first time in his career. Reich is in a similar situation, assuming his first head coaching job after working in Philly under Doug Pederson. There’s reason to believe in the Colts’ plan, but that belief demands a healthy amount of skepticism early on.
Stat of Note: 1.4. That’s the difference in the yards-per-carry average the Colts allowed when facing multi-back sets (3.0) versus one-back sets (4.4) in 2017. The gap in Indy’s DVOA against such sets was one of the largest in the NFL for the fourth straight year, according to the Football Outsiders Almanac. Former coach Chuck Pagano’s Colts were able to hold up when opponents ran at them in predictable rushing situations but were regularly gashed when teams ran at them from lighter personnel groupings.
Breakout Player: Darius Leonard. Every facet of the South Carolina product’s profile points to him being an ideal modern linebacker. His range is excellent, his movements are fluid, and he seems to have a feel in coverage that goes beyond just athleticism. In the Colts’ new 4-3 defense, he’ll become a prototype linebacker that will be asked to handle both tight ends and backs in man coverage, and he seems well-suited to do just that.
27. New York Jets
2017 Record: 5-11
2017 DVOA: 25th on offense; 18th on defense
Best-Case Scenario: No one came blame Jets fans for how hard they’ve leaned into the Sam Darnold hysteria. The Jets’ quarterback nightmare is decades long, and Darnold appears well-poised to help exorcise the Mark Sanchez and Christian Hackenberg-shaped demons that still lurk among the Gang Green faithful. Darnold looked so good during the preseason that the Jets had no qualms about shipping Teddy Bridgewater to New Orleans for a third-round pick, and he’s already shown a propensity for creating plays out of nothing and understanding when to look for his chunk shots down the field. Any sign that Darnold is the Prince the Jets Were Promised would make this season a success in the eyes of Gang Green fans, and it looks like they may not have to wait long for their man to look like a real-life NFL quarterback.
With Darnold in the fold, the talent level of this Jets’ receiving corps may finally get some attention, too. The combination of Robby Anderson, Jermaine Kearse, Quincy Enunwa, and Terrelle Pryor can stretch opposing defenses. Anderson, in particular, has proved his value as a downfield option and will continue to haul in catches outside the numbers as long as he’s on the field.
Darnold will define this Jets season—and potentially many to come—but general manager Mike Maccagnan also threw some money around this offseason to help bolster the rest of the roster. Trumaine Johnson is a solid, if overpriced, addition at cornerback; Avery Williamson provides some stability at linebacker; and last year’s first-round pick, Jamal Adams, looks well on his way to becoming a star at safety. Head coach Todd Bowles has shown a knack for building competent units out of lacking talent, but this year, he may not need quite as much sorcery to turn the Jets into a respectable team.
Worst-Case Scenario: Even the best rookie quarterbacks typically hit a wall at some point, and no matter how well Darnold plays relative to other first-year passers, the Jets’ upside on offense will be limited in 2018. The receiving corps may be underrated, but the line comes with little hidden value. Across the board, the Jets don’t feature a single high-end starter, and with a forgettable stable of backs handling the rushing workload, don’t expect Darnold to get much support from the ground game. No matter how badly fantasy wonks and fans want to will Bilal Powell, feature back, into existence, the Jets seem intent to keep it from happening—free-agent signee Isaiah Crowell looks like the early candidate to handle much of the rushing workload, despite his forgettable run in Cleveland.
And concerns about ceiling height don’t just plague the offense. At $14.5 million over five years, Johnson’s contract comes with the second-highest average annual value for cornerbacks—that’s an overpay any way you spin it. Both he and Williamson should make this defense more reliable, but neither moves the needle in the long term. Darnold may drive interest in the Jets unlike any they’ve seen in recent seasons, but the team’s relevance is more tied into his development than anything else.
Stat of Note: 107.2. That was Darnold’s passer rating last season on throws inside the numbers between 0 and 9 yards down the field, according to Pro Football Focus. The NCAA average was just 88.2. As the Jets fully embrace the importance of attacking defenses inside, Darnold’s skill set should take on added significance.
Breakout Player: Sam Darnold. That Sammy is the answer here, seemingly by default, speaks to the overall problem with this roster. There just aren’t many young players on this team who figure to take a noticeable step forward this year, which places even more attention on how Darnold performs.
26. Oakland Raiders
2017 Record: 6-10
2017 DVOA: 13th on offense; 29th on defense
Best-Case Scenario: At a training camp in early August, reporters asked Derek Carr about the frequency of his daily interactions with new head coach Jon Gruden. The schedule that Carr described made it sound as though he and Gruden spend every waking moment together—and in some cases, the ones when Carr isn’t awake. Gruden is so ingrained in Carr’s thoughts by this point that he hears Chucky’s voice in his sleep. And if the Raiders hope to turn things around in 2018, that relationship will be the team’s foundation. Last season, first-year offensive coordinator Todd Downing was out of his depth; the Raiders’ offense was equal parts bland, predictable, and stagnant, and Carr turned in his worst season since his rookie campaign. Fresh off signing a $125 million extension with $70 million guaranteed, Carr averaged just 6.8 yards per attempt for an offense that finished 23rd in points per game.
Even after a decade out of the league, Gruden and his scheme’s West Coast principles could represent an improvement over the offense Downing deployed last season. It’s fair to question how prudent it was to sign 33-year-old Jordy Nelson to a two-year, $14.2 million contract in free agency, but if it all breaks right, this receiving corps could feature a complementary cast of players who threaten defenses at every level. Carr’s rehabilitation will ultimately define Gruden’s tenure, but Amari Cooper is a similarly distressed asset in need of saving. That seems more likely under Gruden’s stead than it did under the previous regime.
Plus, the Raiders’ greatest strength from the Jack Del Rio days—its interior offensive line combination of Kelechi Osemele, Rodney Hudson, and Gabe Jackson—will carry over to this season. This group remains the best unit on the roster, and even with the shuffling at tackle (first-round pick Kolton Miller will take over on the left side while incumbent Donald Penn swaps to the right), the investment this franchise has made up front should be on display once again.
Worst-Case Scenario: I’d say trading the 2016 Defensive Player of the Year on the eve of the season is a reasonable start to a doomsday scenario. Sure, Gruden secured two future first-round picks by dealing Khalil Mack to Chicago, but Oakland also gave up a 2020 second-rounder that might land in the top 35 based on the rebuilding message that’s currently being sent. The problem with rebuilding at this stage of the Raiders’ progression is that their quarterback has a $25 million cap hit, their roster is the oldest in football, and their offseason acquisitions of Nelson, running back Doug Martin, and a slew of replacement-level defenders bely an antiquated approach to the market that doesn’t bode well for the franchise’s outlook.
The Raiders gave a 10-year, $100 million contract to a coach who hasn’t run a team in a decade. A disturbing portion of said coach’s initial comments upon taking the job conveyed his desire to turn Oakland’s organization into a throwback that eschews modern thinking. Virtually all of Gruden’s assistant hires were NFL mainstays with shrug-emoji track records at their positions. That includes noted Seahawks saboteur Tom Cable, who was hired to lead a pricey offensive line with an incoming high draft pick.
For all the benefits that Gruden the head coach may bring for Carr, the pitfalls of Gruden the GM have already made themselves abundantly clear in Oakland. And the Raiders had maybe worst defensive depth chart in the NFL before trading Mack. So yeah, what could possibly go wrong?
Stat of Note: 39. That’s the gap between the number of pressures Mack (79) and the next closest Raiders defender (Bruce Irvin, with 40) tallied last season. I’m sure Oakland’s defense will be just fine without him.
Breakout Player: Arden Key. By all accounts, Key was one of the stars of Raiders’ training camp. The 2018 third-round pick was widely considered a first-round prospect when it came to his talent, but questions about his work ethic and mindset sent him tumbling down the draft board. At 6-foot-5, 238 pounds, Key is the type of long, twitchy athlete who can turn into a terror on the edge. There’s a very good chance he’ll become a steal for the Raiders.
25. Dallas Cowboys
2017 Record: 9-7
2017 DVOA: 10th on offense; 25th on defense
Best-Case Scenario: It’s tough to pinpoint exactly what the Dallas Cowboys are in 2018. With the departures of Dez Bryant and Jason Witten this offseason, the previous era of Cowboys football officially came to a close. The players who long defined the franchise are either in the broadcasting booth or interviewing for jobs on Hard Knocks. What remains is the foundation that propelled Dallas to a 13-3 finish in 2016.
The Cowboys have built their roster around the team’s offensive line. First, Dallas spent three first-round picks from 2011 to 2014 on Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, and Zack Martin. Then, the team gave those three top-of-the-market extensions (along with a two-year, $15.4 million deal for right tackle La’el Collins). In 2018, Dallas will pay its offensive line a combined $41 million, a figure that represents a whopping 23.9 percent of the team’s salary cap. Even with Frederick out indefinitely after being diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome two weeks ago, the line still has a chance to be the strength of this entire roster, especially if Smith and Martin can stay healthy and propel the ground game.
With Ezekiel Elliott running amok and an offensive line that can grind defenses into dust, Dallas should once again have one of the more efficient rushing attacks in the league. But the Cowboys’ issue last season was their inability to get much going through the air. After his stunning rookie season in 2016, quarterback Dak Prescott took a massive step backward in 2017, completing just 62.9 percent of his passes while averaging 6.8 yards per attempt. And some of the team’s passing issues stemmed by the decline of Bryant on the outside—he hauled in just 52.3 percent of his targets and was a below-average receiver in every way. Dallas hasn’t gone out and gotten a big-name replacement for Dez, but if the team spreads out the 132 targets Bryant got last season to a combination of Allen Hurns, Cole Beasley, and rookie Michael Gallup, it’s possible the passing game will open up and become far less stagnant. The Cowboys also plan to give Elliott a much heavier receiving workload this season, which will involve him taking snaps in the slot and as a wide receiver. So in some ways, Bryant leaving could make for a classic case of addition by subtraction.
Worst-Case Scenario: Frederick’s value to this offense can’t be overstated. The Cowboys lean heavily on zone-blocking concepts that require Frederick to handle nose tackles on his own, freeing both guards to attack linebackers and creating space for Elliott at the second level. The running game starts with Frederick—he’s the linchpin to this unit, and without him, the offense rests on a shaky foundation. Plus, there are health questions about the rest of the line, too: Martin has been nursing a knee injury all preseason, and although Smith has looked like his old self through training camp, his lingering back issues are a concern for anyone tipping the scale at 320 pounds. If Smith misses time or experiences bouts of ineffectiveness, the Cowboys’ greatest strength could be wiped out.
And anything short of ground-game dominance could create serious problems for the rest of this offense. The positive slant to replacing Bryant with a larger cast of receivers is that Prescott may feel less of a need to force throws into small windows on the outside. But this is still a receiving corps without any proven, high-end talent. The Cowboys have no pass catchers, at any position, who are reliable creators or threats to haul in contested balls. Witten may have been eligible for AARP benefits by the time he finished his career, but Geoff Swaim isn’t exactly a tantalizing replacement.
The Cowboys need their offense to fuel this team’s playoff chances because, yet again, there just isn’t much to be excited about on the defensive depth chart. Sean Lee is fantastic when healthy, and this may be the year we see why Dallas risked a second-round pick on linebacker Jaylon Smith in 2016 when he was coming off a devastating knee injury. Smith has reportedly look great during camp and is moving without a knee brace or restrictions. But outside of the linebacking corps and stellar edge rusher Demarcus Lawrence, the Cowboys return a lot of uninspiring pieces on defense.
Dallas elected to give Lawrence the franchise tag this offseason, which will pay him about $17.1 million. It was a curious choice, given the Cowboys’ short-term outlook. Prescott is making close to $800,000 this fall, a bargain even with the concerns that emerged about his game last season. The window to take advantage of that deal is short, and rather than negotiate a long-term deal for Lawrence to push his cap number down this season and allow the Cowboys to chase some quality players in free agency, Jerry Jones and his crew were once again content to kick the financial can down the road.
Nothing about this Cowboys team feels any more promising than the ones that have come before it, and therein lies the problem. Jason Garrett will once again deploy a staid offense with little formational diversity, predictable tendencies, and outdated notions. And with Frederick’s absence, Smith’s history, and the lack of quality pass catchers, it feels like this will be the year the Cowboys’ formula finally falls apart.
Stat of Note: Nine. That’s the number of first-down passes Elliott caught last season. Compare that to the 26 first-down receptions corralled by Todd Gurley or the 38 caught by Le’Veon Bell. Dallas threw passes to backs on just 15 percent of its early-down situations last year, per Warren Sharp, the third-lowest rate in the NFL. The Cowboys have the type of back who can make their offense unpredictable. They don’t use him that way.
Breakout player: Jaylon Smith. I don’t usually get excited over players in training camp, but I’m willing to let Smith be an exception. He was a special player when healthy at Notre Dame, and it appears as though he’s back to full strength. With Lee in the middle and first-round pick Leighton Vander Esch also in the mix, Dallas could have the most athletic, rangy group of linebackers in the league.