We did it, folks. After seven long months, the NFL offseason is finally over. There’s a real, meaningful game Thursday night, and to prep, it’s time to finish off the preseason power rankings series that we’ve been putting out over the past four days. Today’s group is pretty straightforward: These are the best teams in the NFL, the ones who’ve assembled the most complete rosters and positioned themselves to have the inside track to the Lombardi Trophy. Hurry up and dig in, because kickoff will be here before you know it.
8. Green Bay Packers
2018 record: 6-9-1
2018 DVOA: Seventh on offense; 29th on defense
Best-case scenario: It’s the dawn of a new era in Green Bay. Mike McCarthy was fired in December after 13 years as the Packers head coach and a second straight nightmare season. Many placed the blame for the team’s recent struggles on McCarthy’s spread-out, stagnant offense. Others have contended that Aaron Rodgers may not be a truly elite quarterback. We’re about to find out which side was right. First-year head coach Matt LaFleur’s scheme couldn’t be more different from McCarthy’s. As the coordinator in Tennessee last season, LaFleur used shotgun on just 51 percent of snaps—the sixth-lowest rate in the NFL. Green Bay clocked in at 71 percent in 2018, which was the seventh-highest mark. The Packers also ranked dead last in rushing rate at 33 percent; Tennessee, at 48 percent, finished second.
The most important disparity as it relates to Rodgers, though, may be LaFleur’s incorporation of play-action. Rodgers used play-action on just 20.1 percent of his dropbacks last season, the second-lowest mark in the NFL among qualified quarterbacks. Titans QB Marcus Mariota ranked fourth at 31.3 percent. A lot has been made about how much freedom Rodgers will have to change plays pre-snap, and how the QB will do with his back to the line of scrimmage more often in play-action. But this scheme aligns more with Rodgers’s strengths than people realize. He ran plenty of outside-zone play-action in his early years in Green Bay, and both his ability to play on the move and his tendency to look for chunk plays down the field fit this system well. Quarterbacks all over the NFL, most prominently Matt Ryan and Jared Goff, have shown what this kind of offense can do for QB production. Now, we’ll see what the most talented passer of his generation will do with his turn.
Part of the reason that Green Bay eschewed play-action concepts under McCarthy is that the offense had very few run concepts that were tied to corresponding play-action designs. This new scheme is built on that idea, which will mean an uptick in the running game. Aaron Jones has been excellent in limited work over the past two seasons, and LaFleur’s track record points to his being featured heavily as both a runner and a receiver. The offensive line—which includes the league’s best pass-protecting left tackle in David Bakhtiari and quality starters at three other positions—remains a strength. Davante Adams is a monster as Green Bay’s no. 1 receiver, and second-year wideout Marquez Valdes-Scantling—who clocked at 4.37 at last year’s combine—gives this offense a vertical dimension on the other side. Even with some growing pains, this will probably be a top-10 unit if Rodgers stays healthy.
Despite the addition of an offensive-minded head coach, building up this defense was the Packers’ central focus in free agency and the draft. Green Bay is notoriously frugal in the market, but general manager Brian Gutekunst threw plenty of cash around in March. The Packers brought in former Ravens pass rusher Za’Darius Smith on a four-year, $66 million deal and paired that contract with a four-year, $52 million deal for former Redskins edge rusher Preston Smith. Those two will join defensive tackle Kenny Clark to form a potentially formidable pass rush, which is an area where Green Bay struggled a year ago. Anything the Packers can get from ultra-athletic first-round pick Rashan Gary would be a welcome bonus.
Along with their spending spree up front, the Packers also signed former Bears safety Adrian Amos to a four-year, $36 million deal to help stabilize the back end of the secondary. Amos and first-round pick Darnell Savage give the Packers a new pair of safeties to open the season. Cornerback Jaire Alexander also seems ready to break into the upper echelon of defensive backs. The franchise smartly brought back coordinator Mike Pettine to oversee this unit for a second straight year, and under his tutelage this could be the best Packers defense in years.
Worst-case scenario: Transitioning to a new scheme can be rocky, no matter how talented the quarterback is. Even if McCarthy’s plan limited the Packers and their QB at times, it was still a system that Rodgers had spent a decade and a half mastering. There could be some frustrating fits and starts early in the season, which I’m sure the folks in Wisconsin will handle with a level head. We already saw how chill everyone was this offseason at just the slightest hint of disharmony.
Even if Rodgers figures out the scheme quickly, there isn’t much depth in Green Bay’s pass-catching group. Valdes-Scantling and Geronimo Allison have a combined 93 career catches, and neither is a particularly imposing no. 2 receiver. The Packers’ best solution would probably be to use more 12 personnel (two receivers, one back, two tight ends), but with rookie tight end Jace Sternberger landing on injured reserve last week, that would mean a heavy dose of Jimmy Graham and Marcedes Lewis, which isn’t encouraging. Depth concerns also exist up front. Rookie second-round pick Elgton Jenkins provides insurance on the interior, but if Bryan Bulaga—who’s missed 13 games over the past two seasons—goes down again, there isn’t an easy solution at tackle. Free-agent signee Billy Turner could potentially kick outside while Jenkins moves into the starting lineup, but games of offensive-line musical chairs rarely work out well.
Injuries have already started to affect the defense, and the season hasn’t even started. Linebacker Blake Martinez’s back issue motivated the Packers to trade for B.J. Goodson as insurance, but even when healthy, Green Bay’s linebacker corps is the weakness of this unit. The front four is projected to be a strength, but for that group to fully come together, Gary will have to give Green Bay some production off the edge. Za’Darius Smith is best as an interior pass rusher in nickel situations, which would require another body on the outside. And since Gary’s athleticism never matched his production at Michigan, there’s a chance he’ll take some time to get up to speed.
Stat of note: 5.89. That’s the average number of offensive players the Packers had in the box last season, which was the lowest in the league, according to the Football Outsiders Almanac. Rushing into those light boxes helped Green Bay finish third in rushing DVOA. LaFleur’s reliance on heavier personnel packages should change that dynamic significantly.
Breakout player: Alexander. The second-year corner has all the makings of a star. He challenged 36.7 percent of targets thrown his way as a rookie, the highest rate in the league, as measured by PFF.
7. Pittsburgh Steelers
2018 record: 9-6-1
2018 DVOA: Sixth on offense; 13th on defense
Best-case scenario: Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell may be gone, but the Steelers should keep chugging along anyway. We’ve already seen what Pittsburgh can do without Bell, and it’s pretty damn impressive. The Steelers finished fifth in yards per drive last season with James Conner at running back, and the former Pitt product should have another monster year behind one of the league’s top offensive lines. JuJu Smith-Schuster looks more than ready to assume the no. 1 receiver role. He’s already capable of roasting corners both in the slot and outside, and the guy is still only 22 years old. The rest of the Steelers’ WR depth chart is more unsettled, but if any franchise can conjure a no. 2 receiver out of thin air, it’s this one. Whether it’s free-agent signee Donte Moncrief or homegrown picks James Washington and Diontae Johnson, there’s enough talent on the depth chart.
It didn’t much matter who Ben Roethlisberger was throwing to last year, though. He had the most prolific season of his career while leading the NFL in passing yards. The 37-year-old future Hall of Famer has more autonomy than ever now that former quarterbacks coach Randy Fichtner has been elevated to offensive coordinator. Pittsburgh lined up in shotgun on 79 percent of its snaps last season (tied for the second-highest rate in the league) and only the Packers threw at a higher rate. That approach has Roethlisberger’s imprint all over it, and with the results it produced last season, who’s complaining?
The Steelers’ marquee acquisition this offseason was rookie linebacker Devin Bush. After losing Ryan Shazier, this unit has been held back by a lack of speed in the middle. Bush gives Pittsburgh everything it needs at the position. He’s excellent in coverage and a terrific blitzer. The potential he brings to this defense makes him the most important rookie defender in the NFL. Bush rounds out a front seven that led the league in sacks last season and returns all of its key components. T.J. Watt has developed into a star pass rusher, and the duo of Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt is an absolute nightmare for opposing offensive lines. The lone remaining question is the secondary, which has plagued the Steelers for years. By adding free agent Steven Nelson, Pittsburgh has hopefully solidified a cornerback trio that already included Joe Haden and underrated slot corner Mike Hilton. If 2018 first-round pick Terrell Edmunds can find his footing in year two, this could be a truly terrifying defense.
Worst-case scenario: There’s no way to know what this offense will look like without Brown. He’s the type of receiver who forces defenses to build entire game plans around him and shift both bodies and attention his way. With Smith-Schuster as the only proven receiver remaining, defenses could devote most of their resources to him and dare the Steelers’ other receivers to beat them. The offensive line is also shakier than it’s been in recent years. Offensive line coach Mike Munchak is now in Denver, and former undrafted free agent Matt Feiler steps in at right tackle for Marcus Gilbert, who was traded to Arizona in the offseason. The unit still projects as an area of strength for this team, but it’s not quite the certainty that many are used to.
There’s reason for optimism with the secondary, but there are no guarantee that Edmunds will get any better in his second season. The Steelers have bet big on athletically gifted projects in recent drafts and hoped that they could figure out the pro game with proper coaching, but Bud Dupree is a testament to how that plan can go awry. As long as the front four stays healthy, Pittsburgh will have no trouble getting after the QB, but the secondary may continue to be the group that holds this team back.
Stat of note: 2.38 seconds. That was Roethlisberger’s average time to throw last season, which was lowest in the league. That didn’t hamper his big-play ability, though, as 12.9 percent of his passes traveled 20-plus yards (which ranked ninth).. Finding the balance between getting rid of the ball quickly and pushing it downfield isn’t easy, but Roethlisberger has managed to figure it out.
Breakout player: Bush. This is my favorite player-fit combination of the 2019 draft. Bush is a perfect modern linebacker, with extra abilities as a blitzer tossed into the mix. He’s a superstar in the making.
6. Cleveland Browns
2018 record: 7-8-1
2018 DVOA: 17th on offense; 12th on defense
Best-case scenario: All aboard the Cleveland hype train. I’m more than willing to admit that I’ve gotten caught up in the excitement surrounding the Browns this offseason—but let’s just lean into it. Freddie Kitchens was promoted to head coach in large part because of how he developed Baker Mayfield during the second half of last season. The increased emphasis on downfield throws after Kitchens took over the offensive coordinator role helped unlock Cleveland’s rookie quarterback, and that connection should only continue in 2019. If Mayfield can join the upper tier of NFL quarterbacks in his second year, the potential for this offense is limitless.
Mayfield led the NFL in passing DVOA from Week 10 through the end of last season while throwing to Jarvis Landry and Rashard Higgins. Now, he’ll be throwing to Landry, Higgins, and Odell freaking Beckham. I’m not sure people properly appreciate how dynamic the Mayfield-Beckham pairing could be this season. When he’s healthy, Beckham is one of the most dominant players in the NFL, and he achieved that status while playing alongside Eli Manning’s skeleton. Outside of that connection, there are intriguing pieces all over this offense. Higgins has excellent chemistry with Mayfield and a nuanced route-running ability. He has the chance to develop into a really nice third option. Former first-round tight end David Njoku adds a vertical threat up the seam. And running back Nick Chubb is a constant big-play threat. The offensive line is a concern, but Mayfield’s game could mitigate pass-protection issues. He has special pocket awareness for a young player, getting the ball out quickly in some cases and subtly navigating traffic in others. Mayfield will be a full-blown superstar by the end of the season. Mark it down.
The defense has a budding superstar of its own with defensive end Myles Garrett. The third-year pass rusher is due for a monster year in coordinator Steve Wilks’s scheme, and the rest of the Browns’ front—Olivier Vernon, Sheldon Richardson, and Larry Ogunjobi—will fill out this four-man wrecking crew. This group can swing entire games on its own. The Browns should also blitz less often in 2019 now that former coordinator Gregg Williams is with the Jets. Instead, they’ll lean on their excellent front and keep sound coverage behind them. Pairing a fearsome pass rush with a group of opportunistic corners is a recipe for plenty of turnovers, and Cleveland will have just that when second-round pick Greedy Williams cracks a secondary that already includes Denzel Ward.
Worst-case scenario: Kitchens was fantastic as an offensive play-caller last season, but we’ve still never seen him as a head coach. It’s a different level of responsibility, especially with a locker room that has several outsize personalities and outspoken stars. His ability to handle the new job remains the great unknown about Cleveland’s season.
The Browns have a stacked group of skill-position players on offense, but even with Baker alleviating some of the pressure up front, the line is a major concern. Greg Robinson will start at left tackle, which Rams fans will tell you is a terrifying thought. The former no. 2 overall pick had a decent second half of 2018, but his track record suggests shaky times ahead. To secure Vernon from the Giants this offseason, the Browns had to trade starting right guard Kevin Zeitler. Journeyman Eric Kush beat out 2018 second-round pick Austin Corbett to replace him, which is troubling. If any area of this roster can torpedo Cleveland’s playoff chances in 2019, it’ll be this group.
Stat of note: 28. That’s the percentage of Cleveland’s throws that traveled at least 17 yards in the air last year, which led the NFL, according to the Football Outsiders Almanac. Mayfield’s willingness to push the envelope is one of his defining traits as a quarterback, and it only heightens the ceiling for this passing game.
Breakout player: Chubb. Putting him in this spot feels unfair, considering he rushed for 996 yards as a rookie. But I think we’ll talk about him as arguably the best running back in the NFL by season’s end. Chubb led the NFL in both Elusive Rating and yards after contact per rush (4.47) in 2018, according to Pro Football Focus. Broken tackles is a sticky stat that tends to stay consistent over time, and when you combine that with Chubb’s absurd physical gifts, the result is a home run threat every time the ball gets in his hands.
5. New Orleans Saints
2018 record: 13-3
2018 DVOA: Fourth on offense; 11th on defense
Best-case scenario: The Saints have made it to the doorstep of the Super Bowl in each of the past two seasons, and this roster might be even better in 2019. Superstars like Drew Brees, Michael Thomas, and Alvin Kamara still headline the offense. Free-agent signee Jared Cook had a standout year for the Raiders last season and could emerge as the Saints’ third option. The offensive line is still in the league’s top tier, with the best tackle duo in the NFL in Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk, and rookie center Erik McCoy stepping in to replace the retired Max Unger. As long as Brees and head coach Sean Payton are around, this will be one of the league’s most efficient units.
The defense finally started to keep pace during the past two seasons, and this will arguably be the best group that New Orleans has fielded since Payton and Brees arrived in 2006. With 2018 first-round pick Marcus Davenport stepping into a starting role and defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins returning from his torn Achilles, the Saints will finally have multiple complements to All-Pro pass rusher Cameron Jordan. Marshon Lattimore is a shutdown cornerback, and the safety duo of Marcus Williams and Vonn Bell is as reliable it comes.
What stands out most about this team, though, is the depth. Cornerback Patrick Robinson returns from a broken ankle to give the Saints even more security in the secondary. A.J. Klein and Alex Anzalone could start for nearly any team, but will be part of a linebacker logjam next to Demario Davis. With Malcolm Brown, Mario Edwards Jr., and David Onyemata joining Rankins on the interior, the Saints go four deep at defensive tackle. There are just very few doomsday scenarios for this season.
Worst-case scenario: The only one I can dream up involves a 40-year-old quarterback falling off an unfortunately placed cliff. For the majority of last season, Brees was playing the best football of his career. Through 11 games, he averaged 8.8 yards per attempt, completed an unfathomable 77 percent of his passes, and looked like a shoo-in for his first MVP award. Then the final month of the season happened. Brees was below average over his final six games, averaging just 6.7 yards per attempt with seven touchdowns and five interceptions. As ESPN’s Bill Barnwell wrote last month, there were plenty of factors that contributed to that decline. Brees has always performed worse on the road than he has in the Superdome, and the Saints played two games outdoors during his rough patch. Armstead also missed multiple games, which led to fewer clean pockets. Brees wasn’t nearly as bad as the numbers suggest, and it’s reasonable to expect just as many spectacular moments from him this season as disappointing ones. But when it comes to quarterbacks at this age, there’s just no telling when the decline—or end—will come. Teddy Bridgewater is a top-tier backup quarterback—another testament to this team’s depth—but the downgrade from Brees to Bridgewater is significant enough to knock New Orleans from the NFC elite.
Stat of note: 58.5. That’s Thomas’s contested catch percentage over the past three seasons, which is the second highest in the NFL during that span, according to Pro Football Focus. It shouldn’t be possible for a receiver to excel at finding voids in zone coverage and physically manhandle corners the way that Thomas does. He’s more than deserving of the market-setting five-year, $96.3 million contract he received this offseason.
Breakout player: Davenport. New Orleans has dealt away so many picks in recent years that there isn’t much homegrown talent on this roster. Now in a full-time role, he will get plenty of opportunities as a pass rusher with Jordan demanding so much attention.
4. Los Angeles Rams
2018 record: 13-3
2018 DVOA finish: Second on offense; 17th on defense
Best-case scenario: Sean McVay deserves the benefit of the doubt. The Rams’ stellar head coach orchestrated one of the most impressive turnarounds in NFL history in 2017, taking a team that had finished 4-12 the previous season to the playoffs. Then, in his second year, he led the Rams to the Super Bowl—where he was promptly manhandled by Bill Belichick and the Patriots. A poor offensive showing against the best defensive coach the sport has ever seen can be forgiven, but Jared Goff and the Rams’ passing game also had rough outings against the Bears, Lions, and Eagles in the second half of the season. This offense relies on misdirection and uncertainty to make up for a lack of personnel variety, but by the end of the year, it seemed like defenses had largely figured that system out.
For the Rams to reach their ceiling in 2019 and contend for another Super Bowl, they can’t rely on the same bag of tricks. And they won’t. When McVay took over two years ago, the plan wasn’t to use 11 personnel at a historic rate. That approach came about only after the coach studied the team’s roster and understood that using three-receiver sets was the best way to get Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp, and a third receiver (currently Brandin Cooks, but Sammy Watkins at the time) onto the field. He’s a brilliant, adaptable coach, and his next challenge will be continuing the Rams’ evolution. The bones of L.A.’s system will likely remain the same: one of—if not the—highest play-action rates in the NFL, efficient early-down passes, and plenty of pre-snap motion to get Goff extra information before the snap. But this season I’d expect significantly more two-tight-end sets than the Rams have used in the past, both as a way to mess with preconceptions and try to coax more base personnel defenses onto the field. McVay will also still use plenty of three-receiver sets because with this set of wideouts at his disposal, it’d be silly not to. The Rams missed Kupp dearly late in the season; he was Goff’s security blanket and the team’s best option in the quick passing game. Now that he’s back in the fold, there’s no reason to think Goff can’t replicate the success he’s had for most of the past two seasons.
It’s also worth mentioning that the Rams have the best football player on earth in the middle of their defense. There are no words to describe Aaron Donald’s dominance. He is unblockable—an all-time talent just hitting his prime while playing in a defensive scheme that turns him loose. The pass rush also gets a boost with Dante Fowler Jr. returning, and there’s a chance (albeit slim) that a switch back to a full-time linebacker role can rejuvenate Clay Matthews. Aqib Talib, John Johnson, nickel corner Nickell Robey-Coleman, and free-agent signee Eric Weddle also give coordinator Wade Phillips a well-rounded secondary. We’ve already seen the best-case scenario for this roster, and it ends with them being the best team in the NFC.
Worst-case scenario: McVay’s performance in the Super Bowl is easier to overlook than Goff’s. The Patriots dared the Rams to turn to their dropback passing game, and whenever Goff didn’t use a play fake, he struggled to quickly diagnose the defense. The Rams handed their QB a four-year deal with $110 million guaranteed earlier this week based on his success with McVay the past two seasons, but it’s possible we’ve already seen the pinnacle of his career. Goff is a good fit within the machine. The question is whether that machine can keep rolling in Year 3.
Then there are the concerns about Todd Gurley’s long-term health. The Rams have built an excellent running game no matter who’s carrying the ball, but without Gurley to throw to in the Super Bowl, they lost a crucial element of their attack. Third-round pick Darrell Henderson should help in that area, but this unit is still better with Gurley’s multifaceted skill set keeping defenses off balance. Two first-year starters will step in on the offensive line this season, with Brian Allen replacing John Sullivan at center and Joe Noteboom taking over the left guard spot from Rodger Saffold. Sullivan was exposed in pass protection late last season, but both he and Saffold brought a wealth of experience this group now lacks. Defensively, Marcus Peters is still prone to prolonged slumps at cornerback, and the pass rush outside of Donald is a bit uncertain. The Rams are still one of the most complete rosters in the league, but it’s fair to wonder whether last season was their best shot.
Stat of note: 2.6. That was the difference in Goff’s yards per attempt with play-action last season (10.0) compared to without (7.4). A huge part of his success within this system has come via play-action, and if more teams can force the Rams to use their dropback game, it could be a long year.
Breakout player: Henderson. Even if Gurley is healthy, Henderson should still have a role within the NFL’s most running-back-friendly offense. He averaged 8.9 yards per carry in his final season at Memphis with 22 touchdowns, and I expect plenty of big plays from him this fall.
3. New England Patriots
2018 record: 11-5
2018 DVOA: Fifth on offense; 16th on defense
Best-case scenario: The formula here is simple and familiar. New England is more than capable of coasting through the AFC East yet again, and when Bill Belichick gets to the playoffs, no one is better at contriving a trio of one-game plans that ends in a championship. Barring catastrophe, this team will hang around late into January once again. Even by New England’s lofty standards, this roster is stacked, especially on the offensive line where position coach Dante Scarnecchia has once again worked his sorcery. The Patriots lost left tackle Trent Brown in free agency and will start the season without center David Andrews as he gets treatment for blood clots—and they’ll still have the best pass-blocking line in football. Brown will be replaced by 2018 first-round pick Isaiah Wynn, who missed his rookie season with a torn Achilles. The Patriots watched their left tackle leave for the largest offensive lineman contract in NFL history, and they’ll replace him with a first-round pick. That’s how this team operates.
New England made a similar swap at defensive end, where Michael Bennett will assume Trey Flowers’s role for half the price. Belichick also stumbled into Michigan star Chase Winovich in the third round of the draft, and he should be a pass-rushing presence immediately. Playoff heroes Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy return at linebacker. Stephon Gilmore is the best cover corner in the NFL, and he’s flanked by a deep, adaptable secondary that can smoothly transform to fit any scenario. The Pats defense always shows up in specific game situations (namely, the red zone) and in the playoffs. But this has a chance to be their best regular-season group in years.
Did I mention that they also have the greatest quarterback of all time? Tom Brady is 42 years old and starting to show signs of decline, but that’s all relative. He’s still one of the most ruthlessly efficient quarterbacks in football, and he gets a huge lift with the surprise reinstatement of Josh Gordon. Losing Rob Gronkowski certainly hurts, but the Pats have more than enough skill position talent to make due. Julian Edelman and Gordon will hold down the top two receiver spots, and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will undoubtedly use bigger personnel packages to slice and dice defenses through the air on early downs. Then there’s the Pats’ shape-shifting backfield. Grind you to dust with Sony Michel? They can do that. Exploit a linebacker in man coverage with James White? They can do that, too. Keep a fullback on the field and motion to an empty formation repeatedly to extend a drive and win the Super Bowl? Yep. That too. It’s year 19 of the Brady-Belichick dynasty, and it’s not stopping quite yet.
Worst-case scenario: Assuming that Brady is human and not a replicant from Blade Runner—which isn’t a given—his aging body could break down at any time. To this point, the decline has been subtle and slow. He isn’t as sharp in stretches. New England’s deep passing game is no longer much of a factor. The fall has yet to come, but when it does, it’ll hit without warning.
Anything less than a calamitous string of injuries probably won’t be enough to sabotage this deep, well-rounded defense. But if the Patriots do have a weakness on that side of the ball, it’s that Belichick’s big, pass-rushing linebackers also have to drop back into coverage and match up against pass-catching running backs. But if teams are relying heavily on seven-yard angle routes to match a Tom Brady–led offense, they’ve already lost.
Gronk’s absence does make New England less flexible. His prowess as a blocker and ability to split out wide was a key to the Pats’ unpredictability on offense, and now, McDaniels and Belichick will be forced to use a combination of Matt LaCosse, Ryan Izzo, and Ben Watson (when he returns from his four-game suspension) to mimic that role. Even with those questions, New England’s outlook still comes down to the undeniable: The Patriots will be contenders as long as Brady can put on his pads and Belichick is roaming that sideline.
Stat of note: 69. That’s the percentage of post-incompletion second-and-10 plays where the Patriots threw last season, the fourth-highest rate in the league, according to Warren Sharp’s NFL preview. New England runs the ball more often than most teams, but that’s not their guiding compass. Whereas most teams focus on establishing the run regardless of situation, the Pats throw when they should and run when they should. That’s the difference.
Breakout player: Winovich. There’s just no reason that Winovich should have been available in the third round after the career he had at Michigan. He’ll be a star sooner rather than later.
2. Kansas City Chiefs
2018 record: 12-4
2018 DVOA: First on offense; 26th on defense
Best-case scenario: Witness the firepower of Andy Reid’s fully armed and operational battle station. Last season, Reid took the most innovative, quarterback-friendly scheme in the NFL and dropped in one of the most gifted passers who’s ever lived. It went about as well as you would have thought. Patrick Mahomes threw 50 touchdown passes en route to being crowned league MVP and emerging as the sport’s next great star. This year should bring more of the same. The Chiefs will return every key member of the offensive group that finished first in DVOA last season. Kansas City has a great tackle duo in Mitchell Schwartz and Eric Fisher, the NFL’s top receiving tight end in Travis Kelce, the league’s most valuable vertical option in Tyreek Hill, and a system that gets receiving production from its running backs, no matter who’s catching the ball. This should be a top-three offense, even if Mahomes does take a small step back in his second season as a starter. And I don’t think he will.
Kansas City’s problem last year was that this defense seemed to turn every opposing quarterback into Mahomes Lite. The Chiefs couldn’t stop a soul under former coordinator Bob Sutton, and their showing in last season’s AFC Championship game—where the Patriots put up 37 points in an overtime win—led to Sutton’s firing. Former Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo will assume that role, and he’ll have more talent to work with than his predecessor. Defensive tackle Chris Jones is the best interior pass rusher in the NFL not named Aaron Donald. The Chiefs sent a first-round pick to Seattle to acquire defensive end Frank Clark, who’s a definite upgrade over Dee Ford. Safety Tyrann Mathieu joins the secondary on a three-year, $42 million deal, and it’s likely that second-round pick Juan Thornhill will eventually assume the other starting safety spot. General manager Brett Veach also picked up speedy linebacker Darron Lee from the Jets for next to nothing. That may not seem like enough turnover to reshape one of the worst units in the NFL, but Spagnuolo doesn’t need to field a top-10 group. If Kansas City can finish above average, that should be enough to make this the best team in the AFC.
Worst-case scenario: Still, even getting to league average will be a challenge with the holes that still remain on this defense. Free agent cornerback Bashaud Breeland is on his third team in three seasons. Linebacker Anthony Hitchens has been a huge misfire. It’s not hard to imagine a scenario where this group continues to hemorrhage points, even with Clark and Mathieu in the fold.
Injuries are the only thing that could seriously derail this offense, but if there is one deficiency, it’s the interior of the offensive line. The Patriots barraged Kansas City’s guards and center with twists and stunts in the playoffs, and the Chiefs had no answer. With center Mitch Morse leaving for Buffalo in free agency, you could easily argue that the interior of the line is worse than it was last season. All it takes a single crack for an entire pass-protection unit to start falling apart, and that may be the case with Kansas City.
Stat of note: 11.2. That’s how many yards per play the Chiefs averaged on running back screens last season, the highest mark in the league by a lot, according to the Football Outsiders Almanac. Reid is a football genius, but the work he does in building his screen game is his masterwork.
Breakout player: Mecole Hardman. The rookie receiver may not see enough volume to have much of a fantasy impact in his first year, but with 4.33 speed, he’s just another big-play threat waiting to happen.
1. Philadelphia Eagles
2018 record: 9-7
2018 DVOA: 16th on offense; 15th on defense
Best-case scenario: The Eagles won the Super Bowl two seasons ago thanks to the NFL’s best roster. And guess what? This roster is better. As teams around the league struggle to find functional starters, Philly goes two deep at nearly every position on the depth chart. General manager Howie Roseman drafted offensive tackle Andre Dillard in the first round this April, which gives the Eagles a contingency plan should left tackle Jason Peters, 37, miss time. Second-round pick Miles Sanders should emerge as the team’s best running back, even through a crowded backfield that includes Jordan Howard, Corey Clement, and Darren Sproles. Rookie receiver JJ Arcega-Whiteside is an Alshon Jeffery clone—and Alshon Jefffery is still on the roster. Roseman also signed Malik Jackson and DeSean Jackson to relatively cheap deals this offseason to further elevate two crucial position groups. The amount of talent on this roster is absolutely ridiculous.
Lackluster coaching staffs squander great rosters all the time, but we’ve already seen what head coach Doug Pederson and defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz are capable of. Along with the influx of new pieces Philly got this spring, the team will also benefit from a boost in health in 2019. The Eagles ranked 31st in the NFL in adjusted games lost last season, and no position group was hit harder than the secondary. Philly’s defensive backfield was depleted by season’s end, but this year, it should be an area of strength.
The offense is similarly stacked across the board. Philly’s photogenic offensive line is the best unit in the league, and the skill-position group may match that level this year. The combination of Jeffery and Jackson with a tight end duo of Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert will make this group a nightmare to guard. No coach in the NFL is better than Pederson at designing pass plays out of two tight end sets, and that will likely be the Eagles’ primary approach.
Injuries are always a concern with Carson Wentz, but the last time he entered a season healthy, he was the presumptive MVP for most of the year. The same should be true in 2019, and the fourth-year QB could put together a career year with the best supporting cast he’s ever had.
Worst-case scenario: Any case against the Eagles begins with Wentz getting hurt, a situation which goes from unfortunate to devastating now that Nick Foles isn’t around to pick up the pieces. Outside of that, though, there just aren’t many areas to pick this team apart. The edge rusher depth isn’t what it used to be, but Derek Barnett and Brandon Graham are still an excellent duo. And with all-world defensive tackle Fletcher Cox and Malik Jackson inside, pass rush won’t be an issue. The Eagles’ glut of talent gives them the highest floor of any team, as long as their guy is under center.
Stat of note: 43 percent. That’s how often the Eagles used two tight ends or six offensive linemen last season, the highest rate in the league, according to the Football Outsiders Almanac. They also ranked first in single-back sets. This team knows exactly what it wants to be formationally, and that identity typically leads to plenty of mismatches.
Breakout player: Sanders. The Penn State product is already the most talented running back on the Eagles’ roster. He should give this unit a jolt both as a runner and in the passing game. Not that they needed one.