We have finally arrived. It seems like every year the countdown to the NFL season gets longer and longer. But fans, rest easy, because it all starts tonight with the last two NFC Champions facing off.
Every year is a fresh start for all 32 teams. Every team comes in with hopes to reach the postseason and win a Super Bowl. Of course, some of those hopes are much higher than others. The Los Angeles Rams are thinking Super Bowl, while the Cleveland Browns are looking to improve in the win column.
Also, a new year means new storylines. The biggest storyline is all of the stars returning from injury in 2018. Both Carson Wentz and Deshaun Watson are ready to come back and dominate for their teams. Odell Beckham is ready to carry that Giants offense. Don’t forget about the return of Aaron Rodgers.
Another storyline to watch is all the stars on the move. Everyone is still buzzing about the Raiders sending Khalil Mack to the Bears for multiple first round picks. It might not happen this year, but Le’Veon Bell’s situation could force Pittsburgh’s hand and they may move him.
Who isn’t excited for the rookie debuts also? Everyone is waiting to see what Saquon Barkley can do for the Giants this season. The Bears drafted a couple studs who could see the field right away. With five quarterbacks drafted in the first round back in April, the hype and debuts will be watched closely (especially Sam Darnold, who gets the start Monday night in Detroit).
There is so much excitement in the air, so let’s get to the predictions for the 2018 season! A quick note on these, I will probably get plenty wrong.
z – first round bye
y – division winner
x – wild card
y – Bengals 8-8
The AFC North will be hotly contested down the stretch this season, and could in fact see a .500 team make the postseason. A lot of analysts and fans see a year of struggle for the Steelers, especially dealing with the Le’Veon Bell situation. The offense is still very good without him, but he does so much for that team. Their defense isn’t what it’s been on championship teams, and their schedule (particularly against AFC division winners and the NFC South) concerns me.
Instead of the Ravens (a popular selection), the Bengals surge to become champs of the division. The offensive line gets a bit better with Cordy Glenn manning the blindside, and a bounce back year is in store for Andy Dalton with rising stars Joe Mixon and John Ross taking pressure off of A.J. Green. On defense, there aren’t many holes to discuss. The secondary should be fine with William Jackson leading the way, and the front seven is full of stars and has plenty of depth. Look for a jump in year two from Carl Lawson and contributions from rookies Sam Hubbard and Malik Jefferson.
As far as the Ravens go, adding Michael Crabtree and John Brown helps the receiving core a bit, as well as grabbing two tight ends in the draft. Here’s the issue though: Joe Flacco just isn’t that good. The defense and a solid running game will keep them in the thick of the division for a while, but they don’t have enough.
Moving to the Browns, this could be the start of something big for this franchise. With a quarterback room in place, things will run smoother. They have a solid backfield and plenty of weapons for Tyrod Taylor to throw to. The offensive line might shuffle a bit through the season though. On defense, Myles Garrett is primed to break out and become an All-Pro pass rusher. Don’t forget about their solid linebacking core and rookie Denzel Ward in the secondary. No division title this year, but finishing only two back is a start.
z – Texans 11-5
x – Jaguars 10-6
Get ready, cause Houston is back in a big way. We briefly discussed above that quarterback Deshaun Watson is back in a big way. He isn’t the only elite player returning from injury. Both J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus returning give the Texans a fierce front four, for sure one of the best in the league. The rest of the defense is well-equipped too, especially at linebacker, with relative unknowns Bernardrick McKinney and Zach Cunningham leading the way. A healthy Watson with DeAndre Hopkins, Will Fuller, and Keke Coutee should scare the league.
The Jags again return to the playoffs, thanks to a top defense and an offense that doesn’t make big mistakes. Jacksonville loaded up on defense again in the draft, snagging Taven Bryan in the first round and getting a steal late in safety Ronnie Harrison. Harrison joins an uber-talented secondary lead by Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye. On offense, this team goes as far as Blake Bortles can take them. They beefed up the offensive line in the offseason, and added some talent on the boundary. But can they repeat last season’s postseason success?
The Titans have a new head coach in Mike Vrabel, and there’s no doubt he will provide some fire in the locker room. The question is, in a very competitive division, does Tennessee have the horses? It’s tough to say. Marcus Mariota had an odd season last year, throwing more picks than touchdowns. The running game is still a question mark, as they are waiting on a Derrick Henry breakout season. A more dynamic offense would go a long way. Can the Titans get Corey Davis and company going? That’s another major question heading into 2018. I left them out of the playoffs, but I would not be shocked if they were playing in January.
The Colts just don’t have it right now. Yes, Andrew Luck is returning, but Chris Ballard has a long way to go with this roster. Ballard got help to protect Luck in Quenton Nelson and Braden Smith. What concerns me is the lack of playmakers on offense. The receiver room is desperate for playmakers that they are trying rookie Nyheim Hines as a slot receiver. On defense, there’s talent in the secondary, but they don’t have anyone elite on the front seven to make any noise.
z – Patriots 13-3
Oh I have to write things here? Fine. The Patriots are set up well for another route in the AFC East race. Even with Julian Edelman out, there are enough pieces on offense for the Patriots to hold up until he returns. There’s so much potential to be harnessed with Sony Michel, so it will be interesting to see how much he is used early on. On defense, the Pats have talent coming back from injury on the edge. Derek Rivers and Deatrich Wise both have shown potential to bring juice to their front. There’s enough elsewhere for this team to hold up just fine, especially with a resurgent Stephon Gilmore in the secondary.
The Dolphins have so many questions coming into the season. How will Ryan Tannehill hold up after yet another injury? Is this finally the year Devante Parker reaches his potential? Can the defensive line create enough pressure with no Ndamukong Suh? Who is replacing Jarvis Landry’s production in the slot? There are too many for this team to make noise, even in a wide open wild card race that is the AFC.
We will make the Jets and Bills short here. The Jets have a ton of potential, especially on defense and with their rookie quarterback Sam Darnold, but the schedule looks tough for them to make a playoff run. The Bills are lacking so much on the offensive side of the ball that ending up with the number one pick is likely for their future.
y – Chargers 10-6
x – Chiefs 10-6
It could once again be the wild west. It’s about time for a Chargers team to win the division, isn’t it? Bad luck and injuries seem to plague this team from the start. Still, things are setting up well for this Los Angeles team. Philip Rivers leads this team yet again, and he has plenty of weapons at his disposal, along with a healthier offensive line. It should be fun to watch second-year guys like Mike Williams, Forrest Lamp, and Dan Feeney work. On defense, they still have the best pass rushing duo in football in Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram. The secondary is also loaded and welcomes first round pick Derwin James.
A new era beckons in Kansas City. Patrick Mahomes is ready to start his first full season at quarterback. The Chiefs haven’t left him helpless, adding Sammy Watkins to an already explosive offense. In fact, this offense may be the most fun to watch all year. The main question for this team lies on defense and whether or not they have enough pass rush to hide the issues in the secondary. They will have to outscore opponents as much as possible.
Denver is a new look team with Case Keenum leading the way. The backfield will be led by rookie Royce Freeman, and the receiving core is loaded with talent. On defense, Bradley Chubb joins Von Miller to form an exciting duo. Bradley Roby and Chris Harris should suffocate opposing receivers. So why isn’t this a playoff team? I’m not sure I trust Keenum after a strong showing last season. I think it’s one-hit-wonder city and he’s driving that bus.
Oakland is destined for the bottom after an offseason of disastrous moves. It started with the draft, unloading a third rounder for Martavis Bryant, and drafting a fourth round tackle in round one. It didn’t end there, as Gruden offloaded Khalil Mack for future selections, and added A.J. McCarron for another pick. The offense might be alright with Derek Carr, Amari Cooper, Jordy Nelson, and an established offensive line. However, the defense is desperate for someone to step up. It could be a long year.
AFC Playoff Picture
y – Packers 10-6
x – Bears 10-6
ALL THE SHOCK VALUE RIGHT HERE. Nope, this isn’t for clickbait folks. I’ve just seen stuff like this before. A crushing loss in the NFC Championship game with pages turning to the next year with a crazy amount of hype. All I’ve heard is “division lock”, “easy 13 wins”, “safest bet around”. There are no safe bets.
The Packers take the division in 2018 behind the return of Aaron Rodgers and an offense that should look more creative. Having Jimmy Graham and Marcedes Lewis should give Green Bay some fun 12 personnel options, especially with Graham acting as a receiver. Davante Adams is primed for that elite season everyone has waited for, and the backfield might be better than some think. Speaking of more creative, get ready for Mike Pettine’s defense. It isn’t super complicated, but creating pressure will be the name of the game. Kenny Clark, Mike Daniels, and Muhammad Wilkerson will be a tough trio on the interior, and Clay Matthews and Nick Perry will be fine on the edge (depth is a concern though). The secondary is much younger and more talented, with Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson. Back to the playoffs for Green Bay.
The responses from non-Bears fans will be “oh Mack doesn’t do THAT much for them”. I mean, he is a top edge rusher in the league, but it isn’t just him getting the Bears to January. Head coach Matt Nagy brings a more electric offense to the windy city, and Mitchell Trubisky is ready to lead. A good offensive line plus plenty of weapons is a great formula for success. The defense will get a boost from Mack, but guys like rookie Roquan Smith and their safety duo make them much better on that side of the ball.
The mighty have fallen. The Vikings roster is insanely talented, there’s no denying that. But, expectations are sky high this season, and teams have cracked under pressure. Here’s the main issue: everyone believes so much in Kirk Cousins, even though he isn’t very good in a) the red zone or b) facing the blitz. The second reason is a problem with the Vikings offensive line. Cousins could face tons of pressure this season and fold into mediocrity. Also, people overrate Cousins quite a bit. Another issue is the schedule. Minnesota has to go to Green Bay, Los Angeles, and Philly in the first five weeks. That is tough. Also, this division is no pushover, so road games will be tough. I just have a funny feeling about this team.
The Lions, to me, didn’t get that much better in the offseason. Yes, they added running back help, something they’ve desperately needed, but they didn’t reload in the trenches. The offensive line could struggle, as could the defensive line. Controlling that area wins games, and the Lions won’t win much if they don’t win there. The back end of the defense is still solid, but there are major holes at linebacker. Detroit will produce fine fantasy seasons for owners, but this is a stacked division and they won’t be able to contend.
z – Falcons 11-5
The Atlanta Falcons continue a trend that it is hard to repeat in the NFC South. Atlanta boasts one of the best rosters in the league, and they just keep reloading like a well-oiled machine. Last year’s “struggles” with Steve Sarkisian were overstated, however, they have to get Julio Jones the ball more in the red zone, because three touchdowns isn’t a good look. Luckily, they added Calvin Ridley in the draft, so his presence could take some heat off of Jones. Their running game is again good with their two-headed monster. On defense, look for improvement from Takk McKinley and a resurgence from Vic Beasley. Deion Jones and Keanu Neal are continuously getting better too. This team is primed for another deep playoff run.
The Saints take a little tumble in 2018 and just miss out on a playoff spot. I think they could easily make the postseason and make this pick look dumb, but I’m looking at a tough schedule for the reigning NFC South champs. Playing Philly, Los Angeles, and Minnesota along with a tough NFC East makes a playoff run daunting. However, this team is built for another year of contending. The rookie class from last year is shaping up to be the best one in a long time, and all of them will be big contributors again this year. The offense should revolve again around a strong running game and timely conversions from one of the best quarterbacks to do it. The defense will be solid again, but the big question is if Marcus Davenport is ready to contribute from the jump.
The Panthers are a candidate for a significant regression in 2018. After a season largely dictated by the play of Cam Newton and breakout of Christian McCaffrey, the offense might struggle a bit more this season. The situation at tackle is particularly concerning, and we’ve seen what happens when Newton faces a ton of pressure. The offense also needs a big threat on the outside, and maybe rookie D.J. Moore will step up. The defense has plenty of concerns, especially rushing the passer and in the secondary. It just doesn’t feel like this is a playoff roster.
The Buccaneers are another team that should be looking forward to picking high in the 2019 draft. It isn’t just losing Jameis Winston for three games, but it’s another year of facing a talented division. Tampa Bay just isn’t ready to contend for a division title or a wild card spot at this point. The defense has talent, but the secondary is a huge question mark, as is a good edge presence. There’s talent on offense, but will this be the year Winston ascends? It doesn’t look like it.
y – Giants 10-6
x – Eagles 10-6
Another shocker in the NFC. The Giants come back from the dead to win the NFC East over the heavily favored reigning Super Bowl champs, and they hang on in a tough race. I wouldn’t say the Giants are a perfect team, especially along the right side of the offensive line and in the secondary (losing Sam Beal right away hurt). But, improvements were made adding Nate Solder and Will Hernandez. Also, drafting Saquon Barkley and getting Odell Beckham back don’t hurt either. I actually think the defense will be okay. There is talent there, especially on the interior and with Landon Collins at safety.
“HOW DARE YOU DISRESPECT THE REIGNING CHAMPS?” Listen, the Eagles are still a very good football team. In fact, they are a top three roster in the NFC, which also means in the league. However, Super Bowl hangover exists, especially with no Carson Wentz to start the season. Yes, Nick Foles ultimately played a huge part in winning the Super Bowl, but we’ve seen quarterbacks go on runs before and ultimately disappoint the next year. The schedule is tough this time around, and even though a good roster returns, they face tough teams in the AFC South and in the NFC as a whole. In fact, they open with Atlanta, which won’t be a picnic. The pressure is there now, and that affects teams. The good news is that the defensive line is even deeper and their offensive line is back as a unit. There might be issues with the receivers until Jeffery returns, but all in all, it’s a playoff team.
The Cowboys are a tough team to figure out overall. They have so much young talent on defense, and the offensive line is set to protect Dak Prescott and pave the way for Ezekiel Elliott on the ground. The problem is I haven’t seen this group put it together completely. I want to see more out of Dak as a pocket passer. I want to see a secondary live up to the billing. It’s a tough road being in the NFC. I expect Dallas to be right there at the end (and they can make the playoffs), but I have them falling just short like New Orleans.
I was very optimistic for this Redskins team, then Derrius Guice got hurt. I know it’s a terrible excuse, and one player does not a team make, but having Guice made Washington look that much more dangerous on paper. I think they have a better quarterback than last year (GASP!!) and a strong offensive and defensive line. My issues for this group exist in the secondary and in the projects they still have at wide receiver. Can Jamison Crowder finally step up and lead? Can Josh Doctson be the guy? They paid Paul Richardson how much? It will be tough for Washington to make the playoffs this year.
z – Rams 12-4
The Rams are locked and loaded to make a deep playoff run this time around. It’s not just getting to elite pairs in Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh along with Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib. It’s not just having a top running back in the league and plenty of weapons. It’s the fact that this coaching staff is one of the best in football. Sean McVay is electric and innovative. Wade Phillips’ resume speaks for itself. This team has plenty of pieces to win it all. Now they have to go and do it.
I was surprised to see where I had Seattle finishing, but 7-9 seems to fit right. Russell Wilson is a top quarterback in the league, but he continues to have less and less help each year. The offensive line isn’t any better, even with Duane Brown sticking around, and the running back room is full of inconsistencies (and a draft pick that went WAY higher than he should have). There isn’t much explosiveness outside of Doug Baldwin either. The defense is also being gutted, and it’s unclear how the Earl Thomas situation will play out. The good news for their fans is that they got their title.
I just don’t think it is the time for San Francisco just yet. Why? Well, for one, the offensive line isn’t where you want it to be. Yes, Jimmy Garoppolo looked good last season, but let’s see a full year of it. Their running back room is weak overall, especially with Jerick McKinnon going down. There is plenty of potential with their receivers, but time will tell. On defense, they have some nice pieces, but I want to see them gel a bit more. All in all, there are just a lot of better teams in the NFC right now.
I think Arizona is coming back soon, it just isn’t this year. The goal in 2018 should be to keep developing Josh Rosen and set pieces in place for the runs they will be able to make in coming seasons. They need to extend David Johnson and find an heir for Larry Fitzgerald. Arizona could definitely surprise people this season, but the things holding them back are the offensive line and lack of help next to Chandler Jones. It isn’t their time, but it soon will be.
NFC Playoff Picture
MVP – Aaron Rodgers
OPOY – DeShaun Watson
DPOY – Myles Garrett
CBOY – Odell Beckham
COY – Matt Nagy
OROY – Saquon Barkley
DROY – Harold Landry
Wild Card Weekend
(5) Chiefs 27, (4) Bengals 17
(4) Packers 31, (5) Eagles 24
(3) Chargers 24, (6) Jaguars 17
(6) Bears 23, (3) Giants 16
(3) Chargers 28, (2) Texans 27
(2) Falcons 34, (4) Packers 31
(1) Rams 30, (6) Bears 14
(1) Patriots 31, (5) Chiefs 23
(1) Patriots 21, (3) Chargers 17
(2) Falcons 27, (1) Rams 24
Falcons 35, Patriots 27
A rematch of Super Bowl 51, with a different outcome. This time, Atlanta, in their home stadium, finishes the deal and outscore the Patriots in a classic shootout.
What do you think? Comment here or find me on Twitter @JakeNFLDraft. Enjoy the season!