We did it, friends. Football is finally here, and with it, the top tier of my 2018 NFL preseason power rankings (read parts one, two, and three here). These eight teams are bunched together so tightly that the order could have shaken out in nearly 200 different ways. Each of these squads has a chance to win the Super Bowl thanks to flawless rosters, a collection of superstars, or, just maybe, a fire-breathing dragon back at quarterback. When it comes down to it, though, it really feels like this NFL season will belong to one team, and one team only.
8. Atlanta Falcons
2017 Record: 10–6
2017 DVOA: ninth on offense; 22nd on defense
Best-Case Scenario: Atlanta’s offense became a soulless, yards-eating machine under former coordinator Kyle Shanahan in 2016. A year later, the Falcons’ attack coordinated by replacement Steve Sarkisian was … pretty good. Watching Atlanta’s offense last fall felt a little like watching Die Hard 2. Sure, John McClane is there. And yeah, he says, “Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker.” But the magic of the original had disappeared.
Atlanta still featured one of the league’s most efficient attacks in 2017. Matt Ryan and Co. moved the ball well between the 20s, finishing behind only the Patriots in yards (36.87) and plays (6.46) per drive. Ultimately, though, a few problem areas held the Falcons back. First was an uptick in turnovers. The offense finished 19th in interceptions per drive and was plagued by a rash of tipped passes that bounced the wrong way. This unit also struggled in the red zone, ranking 23rd in points and touchdowns per red zone trip.
The encouraging news is that the requisite parts remain in place, and a climb back to the top of the league seems well within reach. Sarkisian’s play calls should be sharper in the precision areas of the field during his second season in this role. Ryan will benefit from a playmaking arsenal that boasts wide receivers Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu and running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. Joining the mix will be 2018 first-round pick Calvin Ridley, who should make Atlanta’s three-receiver sets even more daunting than before. With a firmer grasp of the gig, Sarkisian should be able to help this group resemble what it was two years ago.
As Atlanta’s offense tries to rejoin the ranks of the NFL’s best, the defense will continue its quest to get there for the first time. We’ve been waiting for the Falcons’ defense to make good on its endless potential since the young core showed glimpses of what it could do during its run to Super Bowl LI. Head coach Dan Quinn’s crew on that side of the ball is the fastest in all of football, with rangy difference-makers at every level. Inside linebacker Deion Jones has blossomed into a star built to shut down the likes of Alvin Kamara and Christian McCaffrey. Super Bowl standout Grady Jarrett is a matchup nightmare at defensive tackle. And the list goes on. A full year as a starter could unlock second-year pass rusher Takkarist McKinley, who came on strong near the end of last season. He’ll pair with Vic Beasley, who’s looking to regain his 2016 form (15.5 sacks) with a move back to defensive end.
All the pieces are there for a jump, and this team gave the Rams and Eagles two of their toughest games of last season. Eventually, though, the pieces have to come together. Otherwise, young and promising could become unfulfilled and underwhelming.
Worst-Case Scenario: Scour the Falcons’ depth chart, and it’ll take a while to find a position group worth worrying about. Atlanta’s guards aren’t stars, but that’s been the case for a while. The only new offensive starter beyond Ridley is right guard Brandon Fusco, who beat out incumbent Wes Schweitzer for the gig. The Falcons have built up their defensive depth over the past two drafts, capped by the selections of cornerback Isaiah Oliver (no. 58 overall) and defensive tackle Deadrin Senat (no. 90) in 2018. Few teams in the league have a higher floor. The Falcons’ version of a worst-case scenario involves another season of failing to capitalize on their cheap, cost-controlled defense while shelling out a fortune on offense.
General manager Thomas Dimitroff has allocated $96.02 million to his offense, the third-highest figure in football. Coleman is the only major contributor playing on a rookie contract. That’s possible because the Falcons rank 29th in defensive spending at $59.97 million. But those bills will soon come due. Jarrett will be a free agent at season’s end. The deals for Deion Jones, Beasley, Campbell, and Keanu Neal will up after 2019. The Falcons’ window to take advantage of their stellar drafting won’t be open forever.
Stat of Note: 22 percent. That was Ryan’s play-action percentage in 2017, which ranked 13th in the NFL. Compare that to his final season with Shanahan, when Ryan led the league at 27 percent. If Sarkisian leans further into the play-action identity that powered the 2016 Falcons, it could go a long way in recreating this group’s offensive firepower.
Breakout Player: McKinley. Despite playing only 273 passing snaps last year, McKinley tallied six sacks. If he can keep up that impact while moving into a starting job, the Falcons’ pass rush will be an entirely different beast.
7. Green Bay Packers
2017 Record: 7–9
2017 DVOA: 15th on offense; 20th on defense
Best-Case Scenario: Each year, the gist of the Packers’ section is pretty straightforward. If Aaron Rodgers stays healthy for the entire season, the Packers will win double-digit games, likely take home the NFC North title, and leave Bears fans waiting to finish out our days, wondering how we were ever banished to this hellish dimension. Since 2009, Rodgers has played at least 10 games in seven seasons — Green Bay has won at least 10 games in each of those seasons.
All that’s changed about the Packers’ personnel on offense this season is that Jimmy Graham has replaced Jordy Nelson as the Former Superstar Who Can’t Run Anymore, Yet Still Catches 12 Touchdown Passes. Last year, Davante Adams was good enough to put up a 74/885/10 line with Brett Hundley under center for the majority of the season, showing that he’s reached new heights in his game. And two years after moving receiver Ty Montgomery to running back out of desperation, Green Bay will have a backfield surplus when Aaron Jones returns from his two-game substance-abuse suspension. Having Montgomery, Jones, and Jamaal Williams vying for carries is an enviable “problem.” David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga form the best pair of pass-blocking tackles in football, and the Packers will still be finding solid guards in unlikely places long after the rest of us have perished. In January, head coach Mike McCarthy claimed that the staff had rebuilt the playbook “the way you would if it was the first year on staff,” but there’s no reason to think the scheme will be any more imaginative or player-friendly than it’s been in recent years. And guess what? It probably won’t matter.
Baseline excellence from Green Bay’s offense is a relative certainty. The new features on this year’s team come on defense, where, after nine seasons, the status quo was finally obliterated in a million pieces. Dom Capers was put out to pasture in January, and in his place sits Mike Pettine, who spent two years in the football wilderness after a tough stint as the Browns head coach. The last time Pettine coordinated a defense was with the Bills in 2013, when Buffalo finished second in pass defense DVOA. Before that, he was involved with a Jets unit that produced some of the best pass defenses in modern NFL history. The gap between Pettine’s stints as a coordinator may worry some, but the payoff for Green Bay could be massive.
New defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson joins Pettine as another tarnished former Jets asset looking to rebuild his value in Green Bay. The $86 million extension New York gave Wilkerson in 2016 is maybe the worst contract ever handed out under the 2011 CBA — the Jets will still be eating $9 million in dead money this year from the deal. But on a one-year, $5 million deal, even the slight chance that Wilkerson can get in the time machine and go back to his 2015 level of play is worth the risk for Green Bay. On the back end, the Packers drafted a pair of rookie defensive backs who should contribute right away. Louisville cornerback Jaire Alexander (18th overall) and Iowa product Josh Jackson (45th) could emerge as the Packers’ two top cover men by the end of the season. At the very least, they’ll provide immediate depth behind Tramon Williams, Davon House, and Kevin King. Green Bay has never hesitated to find ways to get its top defensive backs on the field together, and now they’ve got the pieces to field a very talented unit.
Worst-Case Scenario: We covered this. If Rodgers misses a slew of games, Deshone Kizer will arm-punt the Packers to 5–11. If Rodgers plays, the Packers win. It’s simple stuff.
Stat of Note: 31.3 percent. That was Aaron Jones’s DVOA last season on 81 carries. He averaged 5.5 yards per rush during that stretch, and more than 2.9 yards after contact per carry. The Packers have a crowded backfield, but Jones showed in limited work that he might be the best of the lot when available.
Breakout Player: Jackson. For rookies, the preseason can be extremely telling. Jackson was brilliant in August and looked ready to take on a huge role.
6. New Orleans Saints
2017 Record: 11–5
2017 DVOA: second on offense; eighth on defense
Best-Case Scenario: The Saints had a steady stream of fortunate breaks last season — up until Stefon Diggs ripped out their hearts and gave us the Minneapolis Miracle. After years toiling as one of the worst defenses in the NFL, New Orleans’s unit experienced a renaissance in 2017. Cornerback Marshon Lattimore and safety Marcus Williams became immediate starters and transformed the secondary, making Williams’s role in Diggs’s dropkick to the soul feel particularly sad.
This year, for the first time in a long time, defensive end Cameron Jordan no longer has to do his best Jon Snow impersonation as the lone man taking on the horde. The Saints’ defense is lined with high-level talent across the board, and though regression often bears down on teams that improve this much this fast, the Saints have made an effort to stave off that wave. New Orleans traded its 2019 first-round pick to Green Bay to move up 13 spots in this year’s first-round and snag UTSA pass rusher Marcus Davenport. It was a win-now move, and Davenport is the type of edge presence who can give this defense a lift in the short term. The Saints also brought back slot corner Patrick Robinson after his career year as part of the Eagles’ Super Bowl run, and the trio of Robinson, Lattimore, and Ken Crawley form a fantastic group of cornerbacks who should keep this pass defense afloat.
On offense, regression is far less of a concern. During the Drew Brees era, New Orleans has been a top-10 unit seemingly every season; no matter the circumstances, Brees is able to facilitate a dominant passing game. But what made the Saints truly terrifying last season was the idea that they no longer needed a Herculean effort from Brees. The backfield combination of Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram, working behind one of the league’s best offensive lines, obliterated defenses, allowed Brees to maintain his absurd standard of play with considerably less volume. Being able to vacillate between a top-flight passing offense and a crushing running game gives the Saints a solution to any problem. If teams want to take away Brees and Michael Thomas by emptying boxes, New Orleans is happy to gash defenses on the ground with Kamara — only Giovani Bernard faced eight or more defenders in the box less often last season. If teams want to load up to stop the run, Brees will slice and dice his way to another 4,000-yard season. This unit will ruin plenty of weeks for defensive coordinators this year.
Worst-Case Scenario: For all the Saints’ attempts to fight off the regression monster on defense, it’s probably still coming in some form. Even with their additions, the likelihood of the team’s talent upgrades outpacing a slide is extremely small. Lattimore is a full-blown superstar, but replicating his debut season will be tough. The lingering effect of Williams’s blunder in Minneapolis is hard to predict. Rookie pass rushers often struggle to find their footing right away, and it may take some time for Davenport to have much of an impact. Don’t expect this unit to just walk to another top-10 finish.
The range of potential outcomes is far smaller on offense. Kamara could struggle with an increased workload as Ingram serves a four-game PED suspension, but doubt that guy at your own risk. Maybe this is the season that 39-year-old Drew Brees will start to decline, but again, show me the evidence. This team should be in the thick of the NFC playoff mix, but the quality of teams at the top of these rankings and concerns about the defense’s ability to repeat its 2017 performance are enough to keep New Orleans out of the top five.
Stat of Note: 57. That’s how many broken tackles Kamara forced on just 201 touches last season. Guys like this don’t come around very often.
Breakout Player: Wide receiver Tre’Quan Smith. The third-round pick out of UCF may be limited to the third-receiver role, but as Ted Ginn proved last season, multiple pass catchers can eat in this offense. With fewer positive game scripts, there will be more balls to go around, and Smith is a logical candidate to get a healthy amount of work.
5. Pittsburgh Steelers
2017 Record: 13–3
2017 DVOA: third on offense; ninth on defense
Best-Case Scenario: Pittsburgh’s brand is familiar at this point. If and when Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown get on the field together, the Steelers will have the best play-making duo in the NFL. Brown has reached that echelon of players whose unceasing excellence seems casual: He’s had at least 101 catches, 1,284 yards, and eight touchdowns in each of the past five seasons. He’s borderline unstoppable at every level of the defense. In Pittsburgh’s divisional-round matchup against the Jaguars last year, Brown stormed through the league’s best secondary to haul in seven catches for 132 yards with two touchdowns before Pittsburgh’s comeback bid fell short. He’s a transcendent, all-time talent who defies expectations, statistical norms, and the limits reserved for even the most elite receivers.
Pittsburgh’s offense features arguably the best active pass catcher and best active running back in the game, but its appeal goes beyond Bell and Brown. Wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster walked into the NFL at age 21 and quietly became one of the NFL’s most dynamic receiving threats. The line is one of football’s best, featuring high-end talent like David DeCastro and reliable pass blockers at both starting tackle spots.
The Steelers’ all-important leap last season, though, came on defense. Versatile defensive lineman Cameron Heyward turned in a career year while bouncing between the interior and the edge. He and Stephon Tuitt changed games by beating offensive linemen with power rather than speed. The Steelers led the NFL with 56 sacks last season, and it’s reasonable to expect T.J. Watt to take a step forward on the edge in his second go-around. Pittsburgh remains one of the NFL’s premier collections of talent, and if all breaks well, it should be considered a prime candidate to finish near the top of a watered-down AFC.
Worst-Case Scenario: Oh, boy. It doesn’t take much imagination to picture this year unraveling for the Steelers, and that starts with Bell’s continuing contract holdout. Pittsburgh’s reluctance to commit to Bell with a long-term deal has undoubtedly irked the team’s star. With the Steelers seemingly ready to ride Bell until the wheels off, it’s hard to blame him for not letting that happen without a fight.
In a not-so-shocking twist, the Steelers’ veterans aren’t pleased that Bell won’t be available for Week 1. The rhetoric coming out of Pittsburgh is pretty harsh, but it’s understandable why guys would be peeved; title windows in the NFL are short, and this team knows that it is dependent on Bell’s contributions. Backup running back James Conner has looked much better in the preseason than he did last year, but Bell isn’t some interchangeable part. Over the past two seasons, he’s caught a combined 160 passes in 27 games. His role within the Steelers’ offense is incredibly difficult to replicate. Combine the discord from the Bell fiasco with a shaky season from Ben Roethlisberger and a defense that struggles without the injured Ryan Shazier, and it could easily become a tough year in Pittsburgh.
Stat of Note: Plus-0.2. That was the difference between Roethlisberger’s yards per attempt average on passes with play action and those without. Big Ben is one of the rare quarterbacks who hasn’t been consistently efficient with a play fake, which is likely the reason why Pittsburgh uses it less often than any other team in the league (just 9.5 percent of dropbacks).
Breakout Player: Terrell Edmunds. The former Virginia Tech safety (and brother of Bills first-round pick Tremaine) obliterated the NFL combine this spring. His absurd numbers in the broad and vertical jumps align with the traits Pittsburgh has coveted in defenders in recent drafts. Without real competition in front of him, Edmunds will likely get a shot sooner rather than later.
4. Philadelphia Eagles
2017 Record: 13–3
2017 DVOA: eighth on offense; fifth on defense
Best-Case Scenario: The champs need no introduction. What the Eagles accomplished last season — winning a Super Bowl with a backup QB and left tackle and several other key contributors on injured reserve — has made them the model franchise for the modern NFL. Philadelphia squeezed every last drop of value out of its quarterback’s rookie contract as well as any organization since the 2013 Seahawks. The front office made the right short-term signings in free agency, bringing in the likes of wide receiver Alshon Jeffery and cornerback Patrick Robinson. General manager Howie Roseman aggressively supplemented the edges of his roster by dealing for players nearing the end of their rookie deals, such as defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan, cornerback Ronald Darby, and running back Jay Ajayi.
Schematically, the Eagles changed the game with their reliance on run-pass options, which helped turn Carson Wentz into the MVP favorite and later provided Nick Foles with QB-friendly throws in the playoffs. Along with masterminding Philly’s revolutionary approach, head coach Doug Pederson became a hero to analytics nerds everywhere, thanks to some of the most aggressive fourth-down and late-game decision-making the NFL has seen.
The Eagles were the most complete, talented team in football last season, and in many ways they look set to reprise that role this fall. Wentz and left tackle Jason Peters are both set to return. With Peters back in the fold, the entire offensive line is intact. Tight end Zach Ertz emerged as Philly’s most important pass catcher by the time it beat New England; in the second round of the draft, the Eagles took Ertz clone Dallas Goedert out of South Dakota State. Goedert will replace Trey Burton to give the offense another flexible tight end.
On defense, Philly acquired Michael Bennett — who will somehow carry just a $5.6 million cap hit this season — to maintain its ridiculous defensive line rotation and versatility. In passing situations, the Eagles could trot out Bennett and Fletcher Cox on the interior with Derek Barnett and Brandon Graham on the edge. That shouldn’t even be allowed. And Bennett has no guaranteed money remaining on his deal and can be released at any time after this season at no cost. A reminder: Roseman is very, very good at this. Rather than stand pat as the rest of the NFL engaged in an arms race, the Eagles did all they could to stay among the Super Bowl favorites.
Worst-Case Scenario: Wentz has practiced for much of training camp, but still hasn’t been cleared for contact. He’ll miss the team’s season opener against the Falcons. Ajayi is finally practicing after sitting out the majority of the preseason with a foot injury. Jeffery likely won’t play for at least the first few weeks as he recovers from a shoulder ailment, and Jernigan was placed on the non-football injury list and will miss at least the first six games after having surgery for a herniated disk. Rather than limping to the finish line this time around, the Eagles are limping to the starting line.
The Eagles understand what it takes to win the Super Bowl and could play this season like the NFL’s version of the 2000s Spurs: Don’t worry about sprinting out of the gate, and do just enough to ensure that the roster is ready to make a run at the right time. All signs point to Eagles finishing somewhere around 10–6, winning the NFC East, and rounding into the most dangerous team in football heading into the playoffs.
But there are very real causes for concern beyond the current injuries. Attrition for championship teams, both on the coaching staff and depth chart, is common. Philly is no exception. Pederson remains at the helm, but both his QBs coach (John DeFilippo, Vikings) and offensive coordinator (Frank Reich, Colts) left for bigger jobs in February. In Reich’s chair sits Mike Groh, the Eagles’ former receivers coach whose last stint as a coordinator came at the University of Virginia in 2008. The Eagles also lost slot corner Patrick Robinson to New Orleans and tight end Burton to Chicago in free agency. Replacements for both are set with cornerback Sidney Jones and Goedert, but their impact is merely projection. There are also questions about Peters staying healthy as he enters his age-36 season.
The easy response to that is, “OK, but the Eagles won it all it without him last season.” That’s true. But the degree of difficulty going into this season is higher than Eagles fans would like, and that’s on top of how damn hard it is to repeat in general. I fully expect Philly to be there again when the field narrows. Still, the road to another title could prove treacherous.
Stat of Note: 123.7. That was Wentz’s 2017 passer rating on third down, when he averaged 9.5 yards per attempt while completing 65.3 percent of his passes. Philly’s third-down success last season was the driving force behind its offense. Pederson’s play-calling could help the unit stay strong in this regard (as Nick Foles’s success throughout the playoffs suggests), but this is an area in which the Eagles could come back down to earth in 2018.
Breakout Player: Barnett. This may be a cheap one, as Barnett looked great while picking up five sacks as a rookie. But he’ll take on an even larger role in his second year. As a pass rusher, Barnett is sophisticated beyond his years, and it wouldn’t shock me to see him double his sack total this fall.
3. New England Patriots
2017 Record: 13–3
2017 DVOA: first on offense; 31st on defense
Best-Case Scenario: Stop me if you’ve heard this before: The Patriots are expected to win upward of 12 games this season while the Island of Misfit Toys that is the rest of the AFC East somehow continues finding new levels of incompetence. Even by the standards of that division, this offseason has been an inspired exercise in horrendous team-building. The Bills have the worst quarterback infrastructure in the NFL; the Dolphins are coming off a 6–10 season and got rid of their high-priced veterans … so they could go out and get more high-priced veterans; the Jets at least have a plan, but even if Sam Darnold turns out to be the franchise savior, it won’t be shocking if he throws 20 interceptions as a rookie.
Meanwhile, the Patriots are the Patriots. All the panic about their lack of receivers heading into the fall likely won’t matter. New England has built its offense on multiple personnel groupings and put a premium on spreading the ball around in the passing game. Rex Burkhead and James White will maintain huge roles in that area, and the Pats will feature heavy doses of two tight end looks with Rob Gronkowski and Jacob Hollister. Tom Brady should again carve up defenses until their remains aren’t recognizable, and rookie running back Sony Michel should give the ground game a jolt after he returns from a knee injury. Losing first-round pick Isaiah Wynn at left tackle is a blow, but New England traded a third-round pick this spring for a quality starter in Trent Brown. When Julian Edelman returns after a four-game suspension for violating the league’s performance-enhancing drug policy, he and Chris Hogan should be more than enough on the outside to sustain this offense.
Defensively, New England appears better positioned than it’s been in years. Losing Dont’a Hightower to a pectoral injury last season was devastating. The Pats were outmanned against Zach Ertz in the Super Bowl, and getting Hightower back and drafting Ja’Whaun Bentley in the fifth round has the linebacking corps in much better shape up the middle. Reinforcements also have come along the defensive line. Run-stuffer Danny Shelton arrived via trade from the Browns, and he’ll join newcomers Adrian Clayborn and Derek Rivers, who missed his entire rookie season with a torn ACL. To replace Malcolm Butler — and confuse the hell out of everyone — the Pats also dealt a sixth-round pick to Cleveland for cornerback Jason McCourty, officially completing the McCourty set.
Worst-Case Scenario: Just because the Pats can survive with a dearth of outside receiving talent doesn’t mean it will be easy. The burden on Gronk could be heavier than in years past, and that’s worrisome considering how difficult it is for him to stay on the field in the first place. If New England elects to keep its all-world tight end on ice during stretches of the season, it could struggle to get things rolling.
Also, there’s the possibility that the cracks in the Patriots’ foundation that were reported in the aftermath of last year’s Jimmy Garoppolo trade will get worse. If New England stumbles early while Jimmy G and the 49ers take the league by storm, rumors will start to fly. The most likely outcome for the 2018 Patriots is that Brady and Bill Belichick will go 11–5, coast to the AFC championship game, and secure a spot in another Super Bowl. But if you had to bet it all on the pair sticking together in New England beyond this season, I’m not sure you’d feel comfortable.
Stat of Note: 44 percent. That’s how often the Patriots lined up in 11 personnel last season, according to Warren Sharp. Only three offenses (Chicago, Baltimore, and Arizona) lined up with three receivers, one back, and one tight end less often, and only eight did it on fewer than half of their snaps. If any team can thrive without a deep receiving corps, it’s the Pats.
Breakout Player: Michel. Starting the season on the shelf is tough on rookies, but Michel should have a large role in this offense when he’s healthy. New England’s deep rotation of backs makes it easy to forget Dion Lewis’s volume last season. Lewis finished the season with 180 carries and 32 receptions, despite the presence of Burkhead and White. The touches will be there when Michel returns.
2. Minnesota Vikings
2017 Record: 13–3
2017 DVOA: fifth on offense; second on defense
Best-Case Scenario: The Vikings came into the offseason in the rare position of being a great team without a solid quarterback. For the most part, Super Bowl contenders are built through their passers, whether it’s a guy from the Rodgers-Brady-Brees tier or a rookie quarterback on a favorable deal. But as the Vikings hit the free-agency period, their situation was flipped: Nearly every other spot on the roster was filled with a quality starter, except quarterback.
Rather than stick with the status quo and bring back gunslinger Case Keenum for another crack at a Super Bowl, Minnesota opened the vault and signed Kirk Cousins to a three-year, fully guaranteed $84 million deal. No matter your reservations about how Cousins will perform this season, the Vikings’ discipline here deserves to be commended. Most teams that got as close to a championship as Minnesota did last year would have been content to let inertia take over and delude themselves into thinking the pieces in place — with a few small tweaks — could get them over the top. Instead, Minnesota understood how much of Keenum’s success came from a QB-friendly scheme and an offense that featured Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs. Aspects of the Minneapolis Miracle were outlandish, but the crux of the play — Diggs jumping and contorting to haul in a pass he had no business catching — was a hallmark of Minnesota’s offense last season. To some observers, the $9 million gap in average annual value between Keenum’s and Cousins’s contracts could be better spent on the rest of the roster. But make no mistake: The Vikings think Cousins is an elite quarterback, and they were willing to do what was necessary to land him.
The Vikings will also welcome back rusher Dalvin Cook this fall. Before tearing his ACL four games into his rookie season, Cook looked like an emerging star; he’d already carried the ball 74 times for 354 yards. Minnesota has all the pieces in place to be better on offense in 2018 than it was a season ago, and considering it also has the league’s most complete defense, that’s a formula for another memorable season in the Twin Cities.
Worst-Case Scenario: The Vikings were bitten by the offensive line injury bug late last season. This year, they haven’t had to wait nearly that long. Center Pat Elflein still hasn’t returned from the broken ankle he suffered in the NFC championship game, and guard Nick Easton is on injured reserve following neck surgery last month. A game of musical chairs along the offensive line is a quick way to spell doom for an otherwise flawless team, but luckily, general manager Rick Spielman understands that his team’s time is now. In late August, Spielman dealt a seventh-round pick to the Giants in exchange for interior lineman Brett Jones, who should provide the team some insurance until Elflein returns. Ideally, the Vikings would fill their hole at right tackle with second-rounder Brian O’Neill or have Jones slide to guard so Mike Remmers could reclaim his spot at tackle. But they’ll cross that bridge when they get there.
The other murky element of Minnesota’s offense is how the unit will look under first-year coordinator John DeFilippo. DeFilippo, who coached the Eagles quarterbacks last season, has brought the RPO page with him from Philly, but nearly every other aspect of the offense should be nearly identical to the system Pat Shurmur ran last year. Still, marriages between new quarterbacks and new coordinators are often rocky in their first season, and DeFilippo will be calling plays for the first time since a rough 2015 season in Cleveland. There could be growing pains.
On defense, the range of outcomes is much smaller. The Vikings still have the most complete collection of defensive talent in football. And for the Eagles fans out there crowing “38–7,” I was at the NFC championship. A hurricane wouldn’t have stopped the Eagles that night. They were the hurricane.
The only red flag is in regard to injuries. Like Jacksonville, the Vikings’ defensive starters missed only a handful of games last season, and that’s unlikely to happen again. Fortunately, Spielman has planned for the worst. After using the team’s first-round draft pick on cornerback Mike Hughes in April, the Vikings now have excellent depth at the defensive position where injuries have the biggest impact. They also scooped up Bengals safety George Iloka after he was inexplicably released by Cincinnati earlier this summer. Oh, and they casually signed Sheldon Richardson to a one-year deal this spring. This group is deep, loaded, and ready for another title chase.
Stat of Note: 30 percent. That’s how often Minnesota used play action last season, the highest rate in the league. Play-action throws were the foundation of the Vikings offense, and the team notched an NFL-best 69 percent DVOA on those throws.
Breakout Player: Cook. But only because this roster almost exclusively consists of established veterans.
1. Los Angeles Rams
2017 Record: 11–5
2017 DVOA: sixth on offense; sixth on defense
Best-Case Scenario: Sometimes, talent wins out. Coming off a miraculous turnaround in 2017, Sean McVay’s club looked like the classic team that would come crashing back down to earth in year two. Between 2016 and last season, the Rams offense underwent the single largest transformation (by DVOA) of any unit in modern history — and for all McVay’s genius, teams that experience that much turnover tend to slide back down the rankings the next year. But as GM Les Snead looked at last year’s Eagles roster and felt the regression monster breathing down his neck, he warded it off with some beasts of his own.
Snead spent the offseason acquiring a veritable who’s who of premium NFL talent. The Rams paired the best defensive player in football, Aaron Donald, with Ndamukong Freaking Suh. They traded for Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters to solidify their secondary. Lose Sammy Watkins in free agency? OK, we’ll just trade for Brandin Cooks. “All-star teams” can be overvalued in the NFL because the big names tend to mask the rotting roster areas around them. But that’s not a problem if everyone is an all-star.
The trade for Cooks allows McVay’s offense to operate with the same basic parts it did last season. Cooks will step into — and possibly improve upon — the role Watkins filled last year, drawing attention and torching defenses over the top while Todd Gurley, Robert Woods, and Cooper Kupp terrorize them underneath. The offensive line returns all five starters (although right guard Jamon Brown is suspended for two games for violating the league’s substance abuse policy). And most importantly, McVay is back calling the shots for Jared Goff. McVay’s ability as a play caller and designer will be crucial to maintaining the success this offense had last season.
On defense, Wade Phillips remains the best coordinator in football and the perfect candidate to tap into the wealth of potential the Rams now have on that side of the ball. Watching him concoct ways to move Donald and Suh around the formation will be a delight for anyone who loves destruction. On the back end, along with Peters and Talib, the Rams have underrated slot corner Nickell Robey-Coleman, standout free safety Lamarcus Joyner, and emerging strong safety John Johnson. Their edge players leave much to be desired as pass rushers, but Phillips will be free to play man coverage and regularly send five rushers at the QB the way he did when he was in Denver. With Donald in the mix, this unit should have no trouble getting to the quarterback.
Don’t overthink it, folks. The Rams are the best team in football.
Worst-Case Scenario: The Rams have assembled a team of mercenaries, and the concern this offseason was locker-room chemistry. This spring, as Donald held out, he watched Suh land a $14 million deal and Cooks get extended just months after arriving. It was easy to wonder whether those signings would lead to a lingering resentment among the Rams’ homegrown players. Let’s just say that no longer looks like a problem.
Last month, the Rams made Donald the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history with a six-year, $135 million contract that includes $86.8 million guaranteed. Gurley also has the richest running back deal of all time, thanks to the $57.5 million extension he signed in July. Even right tackle Rob Havenstein got in on the fun with a four-year, $32.5 million extension. The Rams took care of their own while assembling an absurd collection of outside talent. Financial complications will arise from these moves eventually, but in the short term, Snead threaded the needle.
If we’re nitpicking, the Rams do have issues at both edge rusher and linebacker. They’ll be leaning heavily on Matt Longacre on the outside, and there’s a chance that teams will find a way to relentlessly pick on Samson Ebukam or Cory Littleton at linebacker. But it’s far more likely that this unit will spend the season tormenting opposing quarterbacks.
Stat of Note: 81 percent. That’s how often the Rams lined up in 11 personnel (three receivers, one running back, one tight end) last season, by far the highest mark in the NFL. Stagnant personnel choices can often become a problem for offenses, but McVay was able to masterfully use that lineup to his advantage. By moving his three receivers all over the formation, and even using them as de facto tight ends in certain arrangements, the Rams were able to brilliantly mask their tendencies while consistently giving Gurley some of the lightest boxes in the NFL. Only Giovani Bernard and Alvin Kamara faced eight or more defenders on a smaller percentage of their carries.
Breakout Player: John Johnson. He enters this season as the most anonymous member of the Rams’ secondary, but that’ll change soon.