After two days spent trudging through the bottom half of the NFL, we’ve finally reached the teams that should make Sundays exciting this fall. The third tier of my NFL preseason power rankings (here are parts one, two, and four) features a few teams with intriguing quarterback situations, a couple units that should benefit from scheme changes, and some loaded defensive rosters that will likely give offensive coordinators fits. Each team has lingering questions that could prevent it from joining the league’s truly elite, but with a couple fortunate breaks, all eight could be playing into January.
16. Cleveland Browns
2017 Record: 0-16
2017 DVOA: 32nd on offense; 16th on defense
Best-Case Scenario: OK, hear me out: A winless team somehow jumping into the top half of the league might seem impossible, but the Browns’ improvements this offseason go far beyond the typical free-agent spending sprees that seem great in the moment but wind up being overrated. Cleveland’s passing game was inconceivably bad in 2017, as the team averaged .213 turnovers and .153 interceptions per drive, both the highest marks in the league by a comfortable margin. Enter Tyrod Taylor, the starting quarterback Cleveland traded for this spring, who avoided picks better than almost any passer in football during his time in Buffalo and who gives the Browns their first guaranteed quarterback competence in this decade. Any team with Taylor at quarterback may have a defined ceiling, but it’s also not going to bottom out. And if the Browns do end up going to no. 1 overall pick Baker Mayfield because of injury or some other motivation, he’ll still represent a considerable upgrade over the DeShone Kizer–Kevin Hogan–Cody Kessler circus Cleveland fielded last season.
If Taylor and Mayfield were the only additions to this offense, it’d be reason enough to believe the Browns could take a drastic step forward this year. But this team also adds Jarvis Landry at wide receiver (no matter the concerns about Landry’s limitations, he’s a real-life NFL receiver) and can potentially pair him with Josh Gordon whenever Gordon gets back on the field. All signs point to the Browns’ aerial attack—which will be overseen by former Steelers coordinator Todd Haley—being the most improved unit the NFL.
Outside of the passing game, this could finally be the year in which the slew of high draft picks the Browns have had over the years begin to make an impact. A massive leap from Myles Garrett feels more likely than not. Acquiring Damarious Randall to play free safety allows Jabrill Peppers to move back to his natural position in the box, which weirdly is not located 20 yards off the line of scrimmage. Second-year tight end David Njoku might be in line for a huge season with Taylor, who loves throwing to tight ends. Rookie running back Nick Chubb should give the ground game juice when he’s given opportunities. And fourth-overall pick Denzel Ward could give Cleveland’s secondary a similar boost to what New Orleans enjoyed from Marshon Lattimore as a rookie. This wasn’t a roster devoid of talent—it just needed to get better in a few key spots, and the team has solidified many of those this offseason.
Worst-Case Scenario: One of the key spots that still needs to be addressed is head coach. Over the past year, the Browns hired a new general manager and drafted a new QB first overall, and that setup would seem like an ideal situation to insert a new head coach, too. Instead, Hue Jackson, he of the 1-31 record, is back for one last-ditch effort to save his job. Even those of us who are optimistic about this Browns season are willing to admit that any success they have will require them to overcome Jackson’s shortcomings. With Haley and Taylor in place on offense, that seems possible, but defensive coordinator Gregg Williams is as uninspiring as Jackson. Williams claimed on Hard Knocks that he turned down seven jobs to coach in Cleveland. I’m not sure where those jobs would have been; I wouldn’t hire Williams to coordinate defense for a rec flag football team. With Jackson and his staff in place, it’s a very real possibility that we’ll spend all season counting down the minutes until another staff gets to coach this promising collection of talent.
Stat of Note: Six. That’s how many red zone interceptions Kizer threw last season as he completed just 31.8 percent of his passes inside the 20-yard line. That is unfathomably bad, and it’s yet another area where the Browns are almost guaranteed to improve in 2018.
Breakout Player: Njoku. He has all the makings of guy who can take a huge leap in his second season. He’s the Browns best receiving threat in the middle of the field, with Landry set to spend more of his time on the outside than in years past; plus, Taylor historically has an affinity for throwing to tight ends—during their three seasons together in Buffalo, Charles Clay never caught fewer than 39 passes from Taylor. Give that target share to a player with Njoku’s ceiling, and let the show begin.
15. Carolina Panthers
2017 Record: 11-5
2017 DVOA: 17th on offense; seventh on defense
Best-Case Scenario: Carolina’s collection of receiving talent may be the best Cam Newton has played with since he was drafted in 2011. For much of his tenure, Newton heavily relied on tight end Greg Olsen as his top pass-catching option while the Panthers struggled to fill out the corps around him. But over the past two offseasons, Carolina has incorporated pass-catching machine Christian McCaffrey at running back, added 2018 first-round pick D.J. Moore at receiver, and seen Devin Funchess truly blossom as an outside option. Funchess and Kelvin Benjamin—whom the Panthers traded to Buffalo last fall—are both big-body receivers who would’ve been redundant on the same roster; McCaffrey, Moore, Funchess, and a healthy Curtis Samuel, though, could give Newton a truly varied collection of pass catchers who threaten defenses all over the field.
If the Panthers can find some consistency with their passing game, they’ll pair an improved offense with a defense that has been great year in and year out. With Luke Kuechly running the show, the unit has regularly hovered in or near the top 10 in DVOA, and this year’s squad combines a couple of stars (Kuechly and Kawann Short) with many reliable veterans (Julius Peppers, Mike Adams, Dontari Poe, and Thomas Davis, who’s suspended for the first four games of the season for violating the league’s PED policy). Former defensive line coach Eric Washington is taking over at coordinator after Steve Wilks was hired as the head coach in Arizona, but head coach Ron Rivera has a track record of fostering smooth transitions between coordinators and should help mitigate that loss. At this point, you can set your watch by Carolina’s defense, and if the offense can find a new gear, this team should compete for a wild-card spot, even in a loaded NFC.
Worst-Case Scenario: About that new receiving corps: Banking on early contributions from rookies is always a dicey proposition, and Moore may take some time to become a weapon Newton can consistently rely on. And while Carolina’s pass-catching options look great together on paper, it may be a while before the team can reap the benefits—and first-year coordinator Norv Turner won’t do much to speed up the process. Carolina moved on from Mike Shula this offseason after five years as OC, and the team decided that the person to helm its modern, intriguing collection of receivers was … a 66-year-old coordinator who’s been out of the league for a year. Excitement about this passing game may turn out to be misplaced.
Plus, the Panthers are already dealing with offensive-line injuries. Starting left tackle Matt Kalil was placed on injured reserve over the weekend after undergoing right knee surgery—fortunately, 2017 second-round pick Taylor Moton may be able to take his place without Carolina seeing much of a downgrade. Then there’s right tackle Daryl Williams, who tore his MCL in late July. He’s been cleared to play and may be available as early as this weekend, but that’s a quick road back for a 330-pound man coming off knee surgery. These issues would matter less if the Panthers hadn’t just let left guard Andrew Norwell walk out the door in free agency, and if center Ryan Kalil wasn’t 33 years old with a checkered injury history of his own. The line could be serious trouble for Newton with any more shuffling.
The defense has its own problem area at cornerback, where the Panthers will rely on rookie second-rounder Donte Jackson opposite third-year starter James Bradberry. Carolina has long valued other defensive positions over cornerback (see: the decision to rescind Josh Norman’s franchise tag in 2016), and Rivera has shown that he can put together a quality unit without top-tier talent on the outside. But the early part of the 2016 season provided a window into the effect terrible cornerback play can have on this defense overall, and if Jackson stumbles early, we may see those same effects again.
Stat of Note: 4.9. That’s how many yards the Panthers’ defense allowed on average against play-action passes last season, according to the Football Outsiders Almanac. Typically, play-action throws are among the most efficient plays in football, but Carolina was excellent at sniffing them out.
Breakout Player: Moore. At 5-foot-11 and 215 pounds, Moore is a departure from the human Redwood trees Carolina once favored at receiver. He has speed to threaten defenses vertically, but his best trait at Maryland was what he could do with the ball already in his hands. He and McCaffrey represent two options that can do serious damage on short, easy completions.
14. Tennessee Titans
2017 Record: 9-7
2017 DVOA: 18th on offense; 21st on defense
Best-Case Scenario: In most scenarios, the Titans would be prime candidates for a step back this year. Tennessee limped into the playoffs last season with an overinflated record—thanks to regular-season wins over the likes of Tom Savage and Jacoby Brissett—that didn’t properly portray a below-average year. After the team knocked the Chiefs off in the wild-card round, it felt all but certain that head coach Mike Mularkey’s job was secure and that the Titans’ front office would choose to run it back in 2018 and try to build on their mirage of a season.
Instead, Mularkey and the Titans parted ways in January, and the team brought in Mike Vrabel as his replacement. Much of Vrabel’s appeal is that he comes with two new coordinators that should make Tennessee much more interesting on both sides of the ball. Gone are the days of Mularkey’s not-so-exotic smashmouth offense, and in its place will be first-year coordinator Matt LaFleur’s system, which he created after spending time on the staffs of both Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay. LaFleur has a history of working on offenses that relied on many different personnel packages and play-action-heavy schemes, which makes him an ideal fit for this Titans team. Marcus Mariota saw the biggest improvement among quarterbacks in yards per attempt (+5.2 percentage points) last season and the second-biggest improvement in completion percentage (+7.7) when using play-action, yet among QBs with at least 350 dropbacks, he ranked 10th in percentage of dropbacks that featured play-action. No. 1 on that list was none other than Jared Goff, who, under LaFleur’s tutelage, used play-action on 29.1 percent of his dropbacks.
Beyond the schematic tweaks, the Titans also have a talented group of skill-position players they can deploy in a variety of ways. The odd couple of tiny Dion Lewis and behemoth Derrick Henry gives Tennessee two very different but very effective running back options, and 2017 first-round pick Corey Davis could take a huge step this season if he can stay healthy.
And though the scheme change on defense may not be as noticeable, first-year coordinator Dean Pees is a good defensive play caller who oversaw one of the league’s top pass defenses in 2017. Pees lost strong safety Johnathan Cyprien to a torn ACL in early August, but this is still a talented secondary paced by two former Patriots (Logan Ryan and Malcolm Butler) at cornerback and 2017 interception king Kevin Byard at free safety. Throw in a defensive front seven that already featured Jurrell Casey and Brian Orakpo before adding edge rusher Harold Landry and linebacker Rashaan Evans early in the draft, and this group could significantly improve right along with the offense.
Worst-Case Scenario: The overall plan in Tennessee is promising, but at this point it’s all projection based on a group of coaches who’ve never worked together and players we haven’t seen in this system. LaFleur can have all the familiarity in the world with Shanahan’s and McVay’s schemes, but that doesn’t ensure he’ll be able to turn a playbook into on-field success. The pieces are all there, but it may be a while before it takes hold. There’s also a chance that Mariota still looks like a midtier passer this season, even with the change in scheme. If LaFleur can’t coax out a better version of Mariota, then all the tantalizing skill-position talent on the roster won’t make a difference.
Stat of Note: 33 percent. That was the percentage of early-down snaps in which Tennessee targeted its tight ends, according to Warren Sharp’s 2018 Football Preview. That’s 12 percentage points more than the league average, and it shows that Delanie Walker will likely still have a major role in the offense this year, even with the scheme change.
Breakout Player: Davis. He may have caught only 34 passes as a rookie, but he showed glimpses of the type of receiver he can be in the NFL. He displayed a flair for the spectacular, turning several poorly thrown balls into physics-defying receptions. If he’s healthy, he could take a giant leap in year two.
13. San Francisco 49ers
2017 Record: 6-10
2017 DVOA: 19th on offense; 26th on defense
Best-Case Scenario: We already saw a glimpse of it down the stretch last season. With Jimmy Garoppolo at the helm for the final five games of the 2017 campaign, San Francisco led the league in scoring and tallied five consecutive wins. That stretch included victories over two eventual playoff teams—the Titans and Jaguars—who both could have used victories as they jockeyed for postseason positioning.
Garoppolo was excellent in head coach Kyle Shanahan’s offense and earned a mammoth five-year, $137.5 million deal earlier this year to become the long-term starter in San Francisco. Garoppolo’s play helped unlock the rest of the offense and produced a career year for speedster Marquise Goodwin. After four seasons in Buffalo where he was used as little more than a field-stretching option, Goodwin proved to be a complete receiver for the Niners and landed a three-year, $19 million extension this offseason. Now, with Goodwin entrenched as their no. 1 guy, the Niners also welcome back Pierre Garcon as an overqualified second receiver; the team expects a second-year jump from 2017 fifth-round pick George Kittle; and coaches already like what they have in 2018 second-rounder Dante Pettis. Even with free-agent signee Jerick McKinnon now on injured reserve after tearing his ACL over the weekend, the team’s pass-catching group has a chance to be a strength this fall.
The most improved position group on the offense, though, may be the line. San Francisco shelled out big money this spring to bring in former Giants center Weston Richburg, and his arrival could provide a diet version of what Alex Mack gave the Falcons and Shanahan’s offense in 2016. The Niners also spent the ninth overall pick on right tackle Mike McGlinchey, who should eventually give them a reliable option opposite stalwart left tackle Joe Staley.
The partnership between Shanahan and Garoppolo will define the Niners for years to come, but it already looks as if the team is ready to take the NFC by storm. Count me among the prognosticators who don’t consider last season’s late surge to be an aberration.
Worst-Case Scenario: For all the hype surrounding the Niners heading into this season, their coronation may still be at least a year away. To contend in a stacked NFC as early as this fall, San Francisco’s offense would have to be among the best in the league, because the defense still needs time. The team lacks a true pass-rushing threat on the edge and talent at linebacker beyond Reuben Foster (who will be suspended for the first two games of the season for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy). It will also rely on second-year cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon to man one side of the field while a 30-year-old Richard Sherman—coming off a torn Achilles—holds down the other. Even positive spins about the San Francisco defense probably have this group finishing somewhere around the middle of the pack. If Garoppolo and friends hit a slight snag on their way to becoming one of the league’s elite offenses, the Niners’ road to a wild-card spot may get pretty bumpy.
Stat of Note: 37.5 percent. That was Garoppolo’s completion percentage on throws inside the 10-yard line last season. It’s a tiny sample size (just 16 attempts), but the Niners finished 27th in touchdowns per red zone trip last year. That may be a blip, but it’s also something to keep an eye on.
Breakout Player: Pettis. Some receivers just understand how to get open, no matter their physical limitations. Pettis is firmly in that camp. At 6 feet, 186 pounds, Pettis is neither a big-body receiver nor a burner, but he has an excellent feel for leverage and route running that’s hard to teach. He may not finish the year with eye-popping numbers as he works behind Garcon and Goodwin on the depth chart, but expect him to play a role in this offense while providing some value in the return game.
12. Jacksonville Jaguars
2017 record: 10-6
2017 DVOA: 16th on offense; first on defense
Best-Case Scenario: Last season’s Jaguars were in striking distance of knocking off the Patriots and advancing to the Super Bowl, and this year’s team returns nearly every key piece of what got them there. Jacksonville lost only two regular contributors from a defense that terrorized the NFL in 2017. The Jags’ defense is a thrill to watch: a collection of swaggering talent that finds joy in creating chaos. The pass rush is the scariest in football, led by do-it-all linemen who wreck plays from both the interior and the edge. Look no further than Yannick Ngakoue, who unleashes havoc off the right side and strip-sacks quarterbacks into oblivion. In the secondary, Jalen Ramsey has emerged as the preeminent shit talker of his generation and pairs with A.J. Bouye to form the league’s most suffocating cornerback duo. As a pass defense, this group has no weaknesses. Each spot is filled with players well suited to the demands of the modern NFL.
On offense, the Jags doubled down on their effort to build the most physically imposing running game in football. Jacksonville made a shocking play for high-price guard Andrew Norwell in free agency, handing him a five-year, $66.5 million deal with $30 million guaranteed. With mauling left tackle Cam Robinson in his second season and exceptional center Brandon Linder already in place, the left side of the line has a chance to grind defenses into dust while paving the way for running back Leonard Fournette. The Jags have concerns at wide receiver, especially given that Marqise Lee was placed on injured reserve last week. But the offense also had to survive without the majority of its top pass catchers in 2017, and it made do. Jacksonville has consistently spotted receiving talent in unlikely places over the past several years. That could carry over: Undrafted free agent Keelan Cole was a surprise hit last year, 2017 fourth-round pick Dede Westbrook enters the fall healthy, and 2018 second-rounder D.J. Chark could provide a jolt. The team also signed Donte Moncrief to a one-year deal. Even without Lee, this unit could give Blake Bortles the cushy surroundings that helped him play like a convincing NFL quarterback for stretches last season.
Worst-Case Scenario: Many of the aspects that made Jacksonville’s defense so exciting last season are difficult to replicate from year to year. Even the most carnage-inducing defenses have a hard time sustaining the type of sack numbers and turnover rates the Jags posted. Only Baltimore and Detroit finished a higher percentage of their defensive possessions last fall with a turnover, and only Pittsburgh tallied more sacks. Tempting as it may be to imagine another year’s worth of Ngakoue jarring balls loose for linebacker Telvin Smith to scoop up and carry into the end zone, the Jags would be lucky to approach even half of their defensive touchdown total (seven) from 2017.
Jacksonville also stayed remarkably healthy last season, losing only three starts from primary contributors. Smith was sidelined for two games with a concussion, and defensive tackle Abry Jones missed the regular-season finale against the Titans with a back issue. The Jags aren’t likely to have such profound injury luck for a second consecutive campaign.
This team still boasts the best collection of defensive talent in the league, but all signs point to it taking a slight step back in 2018. And even if that means slipping from its league-best, game-wrecking status to being the fourth- or fifth-best defense in football, that drop-off might be enough to push the Jags to the fringes of the playoff picture, particularly considering the concerns about the offense. For all the talk about Bortles and Co. taking a step forward last year, that group was still league average. Jacksonville’s clip of 26.1 points per game was a facade, boosted by defensive scores and excellent field position. This remains a unit that struggles to move the ball in obvious passing situations and suffers from woefully predictable play calls. The Jags’ idea of creative game planning was running the ball out of shotgun on every first-and-10 snap in the second half of the AFC title game against New England. There’s a reason they were stonewalled. If Jacksonville’s offensive staff can’t find methods of getting chunk yards early in series that don’t involve handing the ball to Fournette, the LSU product could see another league-high rate of eight-man boxes.
Stat of Note: 45 percent. The Jags ran the ball on 57 percent of their first-down plays last season, per Warren Sharp’s 2018 Football Preview. Fournette had a success rate of 45 percent on those runs. Both situationally and via personnel, the offense simply has to be less predictable this fall.
Breakout Player: Corey Grant. The running back gave the passing game a spark in January’s AFC championship game. He was retained as a restricted free agent this spring, and an uptick in easy throws to Grant and Fournette could be one way for Jacksonville to offset a depleted receiving corps.
11. Kansas City Chiefs
2017 Record: 10-6
2017 DVOA: fourth on offense; 30th on defense
Best-Case Scenario: My god, the Chiefs’ offense could be exciting this fall. After bringing in Sammy Watkins this spring on a sizable free-agent deal and pairing him with Tyreek Hill, Kansas City has arguably the fastest wide receiver duo in the league; tight end Travis Kelce is back, hurdling dudes and ripping off touchdowns; Kareem Hunt, who’s coming off an incredible rookie campaign, is already one of the better backs in the game; and leading it all is second-year quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who has the type of arm and “Eh, fuck it” attitude to casually drop 70-yard dimes whenever he feels like it.
Alex Smith was fantastic for Kansas City last season, but there’s a reason the Chiefs were comfortable handing the reins to Mahomes after his solid Week 17 showing. The offense’s upside with Mahomes in control is limitless, and his appeal goes beyond GIFable throws and tall tales. He has all the requisite physical and mental tools to master head coach Andy Reid’s offense, and while it’ll take time for him to reach Smith levels of understanding, Mahomes’s ability to manufacture plays late in downs should make up for the quick shots he misses early in his career. If Mahomes lives up to expectations, this group—and its underrated offensive line—has no noticeable weaknesses. The team could lead the NFL in scoring, and Mahomes could turn into the best show on TV every Sunday.
Worst-Case Scenario: The bad news is that the depth chart on the opposite side of the ball leaves a lot to be desired. Interior pass rusher Chris Jones is a force, Justin Houston is still an effective presence on the edge when healthy, and Eric Berry is Eric Berry. Plus, the Chiefs managed to steal stellar slot corner Kendall Fuller from Washington in the Alex Smith trade. That’s a solid foundation, but it’s not good enough when the rest of the building is made from wet cornmeal.
Outside of Fuller, the Chiefs’ cornerback depth chart is concerning. And there isn’t much reason to believe this team can rediscover the dominant pass rush that defined the great defenses of the Reid era. It’s always possible that teams with great offenses stumble into defenses that feast on enough turnovers and fortunate breaks to collectively make them threats in January, but that’s not a plan. Year-to-year surges like the one the Saints experienced in 2017 typically include a few new difference makers, and as good as Fuller may be, I’m not sure he and linebacker Anthony Hitchens, who signed with the Chiefs in free agency, will be enough.
If the Chiefs lose anybody in the secondary, their only hope to compete in the AFC will be winning 40-35 shootouts that require the offense to be nearly flawless. That’s a lot to ask of a first-year starter, no matter how tantalizing that player might be.
Stat of Note: 166. That’s how many tackles the Chiefs broke as a team last season, making them the league leaders in that statistic, according to the Football Outsiders Almanac. Individually, Hunt finished first in the league with 89, Kelce led all tight ends with 19, and Hill added another 19. This a group of pass catchers that makes big plays happen in every conceivable way.
Breakout Player: Mahomes. I mean, c’mon.
10. Houston Texans
2017 Record: 4-12
2017 DVOA: 25th on offense; 23rd on defense
Best-Case Scenario: Losing Deshaun Watson was a cruel twist in a 2017 Texans season that was full of them. In six starts after taking over for Tom Savage at halftime of Week 1, Watson was a revelation. Houston scored at least 30 points in five of those games, including 57 in an offensive explosion against Tennessee in Week 4 and 38 at Seattle during a thrilling Week 8 shootout. That game—which featured 988 yards of total offense—was like the third act of any Marvel movie. Watson and Russell Wilson were two intergalactic heroes battling it out while a planet crumbled around them.
Over that month and a half, Watson made his way into the hearts of NFL fans everywhere. Then suddenly he was stolen away, as he tore his ACL in the days leading up to Houston’s Week 9 matchup against Indianapolis. The Texans won just a single game for the rest of the season. They couldn’t even enjoy the fourth overall pick in the draft, which went to Cleveland as part of the 2017 draft-day trade for the pick that brought Watson to Houston.
The impact of Watson’s injury was compounded by the wave of ailments that hit the Texans’ defense. J.J. Watt broke his leg on a fluke play against Kansas City in Week 5. Pass rusher Whitney Mercilus tore his pectoral muscle the same week. Defensive tackle Christian Covington missed the final nine games of the year with a bicep injury. Without the pass rush that fueled Houston’s playoff run in 2016, the defense cratered. The Texans gave up an NFL-worst 27.3 points per game.
Houston’s case for being a contender in 2018 is twofold. If Watson resembles the player he was last season and the defense can stay mostly healthy, this team should be right in the thick of a diluted AFC. Factor in the low-risk signing of safety Tyrann Mathieu and the free-agent acquisition of slot cornerback Aaron Colvin, and this team could look dangerous in a hurry.
Worst-Case Scenario: When a single-position group struggles as much as the 2017 Texans offensive line did, a common refrain entering the next season is: Well, can it get any worse? Allow this year’s Houston front to take a crack. The Texans reportedly made a push for left tackle Nate Solder in free agency but came up empty. Given the franchise’s lack of picks in the first two rounds of the draft, it had little recourse to improve. The offense’s starting tackles as of now are 2017 fourth-round pick Julie’n Davenport and lifetime Bills backup Seantrel Henderson. That’s troubling, to say the least. Watson showed an amazing knack for mitigating poor pass protection last season as he routinely darted around the pocket to extend plays and find DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller. Of course, Watson is also less than a year removed from knee surgery.
Expecting the same heroics from Watson this season, in multiple facets, is probably misguided. His numbers from last year just aren’t sustainable in areas like touchdown rate, no matter how enthusiastic you are about his prospects. Even if Watson is destined for superstardom, the 2018 Houston offense will likely experience some growing pains this fall. That’s why a bounce-back year on defense is so vital to the Texans’ playoff chances.
Stat of Note: 47.7 percent. That’s the percentage of dropbacks on which Watson was pressured last year, the highest in the league, according to Pro Football Focus. Somehow, Watson was sacked on merely 16.5 percent of dropbacks, 24th in the NFL. Truly great QBs transcend their circumstances. Watson has already proved capable of elevating Houston’s entire offense.
Breakout Player: Jordan Akins. The Texans don’t have much in the way of young assets, but their third-round pick out of Central Florida should see plenty of opportunities to contribute as a receiver in the middle of the field. The tight end could help bolster the one area in which Houston could use a more consistent presence through the air.
9. Los Angeles Chargers
2017 Record: 9-7
2017 DVOA: seventh on offense; 12th on defense
Best-Case Scenario: Last season, after a brutal 0-4 start and a gut-wrenching Week 10 overtime loss to Jacksonville, the Chargers went on a tear down the stretch and nearly climbed all the way back into the playoff picture. A Week 15 loss to the Chiefs eventually derailed their chances, but the Chargers team that was on display for most of the season’s second half showed what this unit can be at its best.
This year, with 2017 first-round pick Mike Williams back in the fold after missing most of his rookie season with a back injury, the Chargers have one of the deepest groups of receivers in the NFL. Based on preseason usage, it seems Keenan Allen may spend even more time in the slot (as a way to help combat the loss of tight end Hunter Henry, who’s out for the season with a torn ACL), and the offense could feature plenty of three-receiver sets with Allen inside and both Williams and Tyrell Williams flanking him outside the numbers. Philip Rivers is still a ruthlessly efficient quarterback, even heading into his age-37 season. Those sets should give opposing defenses a host of problems.
Elsewhere on the offense, 2017 second-round pick Forrest Lamp is finally back after missing his rookie season with an ACL tear. Lamp wasn’t taken off the PUP list until mid-August this year and didn’t see his first game action until the Chargers’ preseason finale, but the best version of this offense features Lamp’s physicality at right guard, even if it takes a couple weeks for him to break into the starting lineup. If second-year guard Dan Feeney, center Mike Pouncey, and Lamp can coalesce on the interior, this could be the best run-blocking group Melvin Gordon has played with in Southern California.
On defense, the Chargers feature one of the more loaded rosters in football. Even after losing cornerback Jason Verrett to yet another season-ending injury (this time a torn Achilles), coordinator Gus Bradley’s group features a stacked crew of cornerbacks: shutdown cover guy Casey Hayward and a pair of surprising young talents in Desmond King and Trevor Williams. Up front, the pass-rush combination of Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa is the best edge duo in football, and the way Bradley moves them around the formation makes them threats to getting to the quarterback on nearly every play. Those groups alone would be enough to generate excitement—now add safety Derwin James, the Florida State superstar the Chargers landed in the first round.
Worst-Case Scenario: Buy Chargers stock at your own peril. The team’s annual injury problems have already affected the 2018 roster. Losing Henry is a significant blow, and the Chargers will once again rely on 38-year-old Antonio Gates to fill the void. Plus, Bosa is dealing with a lingering foot injury. And in the run game, if Lamp is slow to return to form, the Chargers could once again fail to find much consistency on the ground. Gordon’s volume over the past couple years has helped mask the fact that he’s managed just 3.9 yards per carry each of the past two seasons and that he finished 41st in Football Outsiders’ success rate last year, one spot behind Giovani Bernard and one ahead of Adrian Peterson. If a few more injuries pile up, this could be yet another disappointing season for the Chargers.
Stat of Note: 31 percent. That was Gordon’s success rate on first-down runs with 8 to 10 yards to go, according to Warren Sharp’s 2018 Football Preview. That was the the worst mark in the league, yet the Chargers elected to try it 127 times. Head coach Anthony Lynn and his staff have done little in the way of opening up this running game.
Breakout Player: James. He’s an absurd athlete with testing numbers that defy explanation, and he’s going to be a versatile weapon for this team. The Chargers like to deploy both their safeties in a variety of ways, and James should have no problem with that from the start. The first round of the draft could not have broken any better for this team.