2018 NFC East preview
Following the stunning release of all-time leading touchdown receptions leader Dez Bryant, and the retirement of 11-time All Pro Bowl TE Jason Witten, the Cowboys are about to begin a critical period in QB Dak Prescott’s career. It was one thing having both of them in the huddle in Prescott’s rookie season. But now that he is off a steep sophomore regression, the question is can he find the same magic that earned him league Rookie of the Year honors two seasons ago sans the services of the aforementioned record-setting targets? [Editor’s Note: Bryant’s numbers (69/838/6) did not match his $16.5 million salary]. For openers, they will be banking on having star RB Ezekiel Elliott operating out of the backfield for a full season after serving a 6-game suspension for domestic violence charges in 2017. Like Prescott and Bryant, Elliott’s numbers also took a hit last season. With defenses now loading up against the run, Prescott will need to make better decisions this year. Selecting LB Leighton Vander Esch with its top pick in the first round was a calculated move as the Cowboys have learned that winning games without LB Sean Lee on the field is problematic.
New York Giants
The last time Giants captured a division title was in 2011. If they wish to find a similar magic elixir anytime soon, they’ll need 1st-round CB bust Eli Apple, whose character both on and off the field were highly questionable last season, to prove himself. Things were so bad last year that the secondary allowed a league-high 32 passing touchdowns, not to mention a rush unit that registered just 27 sacks – and then lost Jason Pierre-Paul to boot. Strangely, it was not addressed in the draft or in free agency. Instead, the selection of Penn State RB Saquon Barkley with the 2nd pick of the draft was met with elation in the Big Apple. He’ll add better balance between a soon-to-be-retiring Eli Manning and eclectic WR Odell Beckham Jr. – provided Big Blue wraps their arms around the dynamic receiver (read: makes him the NFL’s highest paid receiver). Getting back to the postseason under new head coach Pat Shurmur will be no easy task, not taking on what projects to be the 3rd most difficult slate in the league this season based on opponents’ 2018 season win totals.
A tip of the hat to Doug Pederson for a job well done. After losing MVP-caliber QB Carson Wentz to a knee injury in mid-December for the balance of the season, he elevated backup QB Nick Foles to prominence en route to winning Philadelphia’s first Super Bowl since QB Norm Van Brocklin beat Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers in 1960. In the process, the Eagles became the first team since the 2009 New Orleans Saints to win a Super Bowl after finishing in last place in their division the previous season. Is it any coincidence that under Pederson the Eagles have led the NFL in ‘Time Of Possession’ in each of his two years with Philly? InsideThePylon.com reports that 7 of the top 10 teams in ‘Time Of Possession’ made the playoffs last season, while also ranking in the top 10 in plays-per-game. In addition 7 of the top 10 teams in ‘Time Of Possession’ also ranked in the top 10 in overall total defense last season. Defending the title is never easy, though. And it won’t be this season with the birds taking on the 4th toughest agenda in the league.
Don’t look now but the Redskins have quietly been loading up on Alabama players in the NFL draft. Through the years, they’ve selected more Crimson Tide personnel than any team in the league and now find 4 players from the Tide’s suffocating defenses the last two years dotting their roster. The big news this year, though, is QB Alex Smith will fill Kirk Cousins’ shoes for the Skins. Unlike Cousins, Smith actually sports a winning record in this league (90-67-1) and it’s our belief he is an upgrade. Paired with TE Jordan Reid and young WRs Josh Doctson and Jamison Crowder, plus free agent WR Paul Richardson (Seattle), the Washington offense looks to be in good hands. The hope is 2nd round RB Derrius Guice (LSU) and 2nd year RB Samaje Perrine (Oklahoma) can prove to be a solid compliment. The Redskins were scalped in all four meetings against Dallas and Philadelphia last season. If they take care of business in those paybacks, as well as continue their shining play in non-division frays (11-7-1 SU and 12-7 ATS of late, after going 7-15 SUATS against the same earlier with Gruden), this team can make a playoff run
2018 NFC North preview
Justifiably, after suffering through five straight non-winning seasons, the Bears will operate against the cushiest non-division schedule this season, according to our NFL Strength of Schedule chart on page 22. With John Fox now the only coach in Chicago history to lose 10 or more games in three successive seasons, and only Abe Gibron with a worse career record in Bears history, new boss 40-year old Matt Nagy assumes the reins. Nagy cut his teeth under Andy Reid dating back to his days with Philadelphia, and was the OC at Kansas City the past two seasons. He inherits a team that concluded last season with 16 players on the Injured Reserve, including former No. 1 pick WR Kevin White, who has played in a total of 5 games in three seasons. Nagy’s main undertaking will be elevating QB Mitchell Trubisky’s level of play. He went to work immediately and selected Anthony Miller, a stud wideout from Memphis with unlimited potential. The Bears also inked WR Allen Robinson to a free agent contract. With RB’s Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen forming a talented tandem of tailbacks, a new-look culture is underway in the Windy City.
One of the great mysteries in the NFL is how a team that perpetually ranks dead last rushing the ball, while also allowing more than 100 rushing yards per contest, has managed to win an average of 9 games a season the last four years. Compounding the issue this year was the fact that the Lions had only 6 selections in this year’s draft. Where to turn? Rebuild the ground attack or shore up the stop-unit? The answer was… shore up the ground game. New head coach Mike Patricia, former DC with New England, opted to draft a pair of RBs – including smash-mouth runner Kerryon Johnson (Auburn) – while also signing former Patriot bulldozer LeGarrette Blount. More important, the choice of Arkansas C Frank Ragnow in the first round of the draft could be the key to the rush attack. CBS lauded Ragnow in its list of underrated rookies, saying, “Part of the reason the Lions haven’t had a 100-yard rusher… has been the lack of consistency in the middle of their offensive line. Ragnow is a no-nonsense brick wall in pass protection.”
So what happens when future Hall of Fame quarterback Aaron Rodgers lands on the injured list for an extended period of time? For openers, the Packers end the season with a losing record for the first time since 2008, snapping an 8-straight playoff appearance streak. And you can toss in Green Bay’s first shutout home loss since 2006… not to mention also dressing up as an underdog against lowly Chicago for the first time in 17 series meetings. And on and on it goes. You get the gist. So, aside from getting Rodgers back from last season’s broken collarbone – and dressing up as a ‘mission team’ in 2018 – what have the Packers done in the offseason to get back to the playoffs? The hire of Mike Pettine, former Cleveland Browns head coach and NY Jets defensive coordinator is a strong start. As is new offensive coordinator Joe Philbin, former Miami Dolphins mentor. At Pettine’s request, the Packers landed CB’s Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson with their first two picks in the draft. Along with free agents DE Muhammad Wilkerson and CB Tramon Williams on board, the defense also looks to be in solid hands.
After falling one-game shy of becoming the first team in NFL history to host a Super Bowl last year, and despite a blockbuster offseason, the Vikings may find the hurdles a bit taller this season. Not only do several rough road patches await them – consecutive road trips at the Rams and the Eagles, and at the Patriots and the Seahawks – they must also take on five playoff foes in 2018, not to mention tackling Sam Bradford after taking on Philadelphia – with ex-Viking QB Teddy Bridgewater waiting on deck following the Bradford exchange. And we didn’t even mention facing an angry Green Bay Packers squad with a double-revenge chip on its shoulder. Sheesh. Nonetheless, the fact remains head coach Mike Zimmer remains a moneymaking machine and stepping in front of him is akin to trading your Apple stock in for bitcoin. You just know it’s not going to be a good outcome. What usually is, though, is Minny’s 19-6-1 ATS mark in their last 26 games in December. If newly acquired QB Kirk Cousins can learn to step up against quality teams (9-18 SU career versus .500-plus opposition), they just may clear the final hurdle this season.
2018 NFC South preview
When Detroit Lions QB Matthew Stafford signed a $135 million contract prior to the start of the 2017 season, it made him the highest paid player in the league. The Lions then proceeded to watch the playoffs at home in their Lazy Boys. Atlanta QB Matt Ryan, who has guided the Falcons to the playoffs two of the three previous seasons as well, raised the ante when he inked a $150 million contract this offseason. So where does this leave the Falcons? For openers, Atlanta has the opportunity this season to do what Minnesota failed to accomplish last season – namely becoming the first team to play a Super Bowl on its home field. The addition of WR Calvin Ridley with the 26th pick in the first-round was an absolute steal. He’ll pair with Julio Jones to form one of the league’s best receiving combo. Meanwhile, head coach Dan Quinn went with defense in Rounds 2, 3, and 4 in the draft. Atlanta’s defense last year moved into the Top 10 in scoring and total defense for the first time at the end of the regular season since 1998. Now it’s up to Matty Ice to earn his keep.
After falling prey to the Super Bowl loser-hex in 2016, the Panthers picked themselves up and made their fourth playoff appearance in the past five seasons last year. While it was a short-lived experience, it put the black cats back in a proper frame of mind. To continue on that path, though, Carolina will need more from its controversial, albeit multi-talented, QB Cam Newton. A quick glance at Newton’s production lately shows a quarterback in regression. According to USA TODAY SPORTS WEEKLY, after winning the league MVP award during the 2015 season, Newton has posted his two lowest passer ratings of his career (80.7 last year and 75.8 in 2016). It’s also been five years since he completed over 60% of his passes (the one-and-only season in his NFL career). Enter Norv Turner, a three-time former NFL head coach, five-time NFL offensive coordinator, two-time Super Bowl winner… and quarterback-fixer. The Panthers also added weapons for Newton when they signed WR Torrey Smith and drafted Maryland WR D.J. Moore in the first round. With the return of a healthy TE Greg Olsen and second-year RB Christian McCaffrey operating out of the backfield, Superman could be soaring again in 2018.
What sort of an impact did RB Alvin Kamara and DB Marshon Lattimore have on the Saints last season? According to PRO FOOTBALL WEEKLY, New Orleans was the first team in the league to have the NFL’s two most outstanding rookies voted Rookie of the Year in the same season since the 1967 Detroit Lions. Kamara, the 67th overall pick, totaled 13 touchdowns and 1,554 yards while Lattimore, the 11th overall pick, was the key addition to a vastly improved Saints ‘D’ that finished 10th in points allowed. In the process, the Saints snapped a skein of three straight 7-9 seasons and barged their way into the playoffs before falling one game short of the NFC title game due to the ‘Minnesota Miracle.’ With it the Saints hope for another Super Bowl run in 2018. They know that at age 39, future Hall of Fame QB Drew Brees does not have many miles left in the tank and that the time to strike is now. As a result, they moved up 13 spots in the draft to nab DE Marcus Davenport to add pressure on opposing quarterbacks. If he’s anything like Kamara or Lattimore, it will be a wise move.
After savoring a winning season in Dirk Koetter’s first year with the Tampa Bay in 2016, the Bucs fell prey to sloppy play and a defense that became the worst in the league after surrendering season-high yardage to six different foes in 2017. The selection of U-Dub redwood Vita Vea (6-4, 347-lb DT) as their first round draft pick is the first step toward repairing the damage. Offensively, Tampa Bay was nearly as bad. The hope is that USC RB Ronald Jones can fill the void of RB Doug Martin, who was released in the offseason. According to ESPN, in a scheduling quirk, there is no Thursday game on the Buccaneers schedule this season for the first time since 2011. In addition, all of their Sunday games are scheduled for 1:00 PM ET kickoffs, unless they are flexed. Given the slow starters that they are – just 2-10 SUATS at home during the first four games of the season dating back to 2012 – any measure of normalcy figures to benefit the Bucs, who were the featured team on HARD KNOCKS last season and will be taking on the 2nd toughest itinerary in the loop this season.
2018 NFC West preview
To get a proper gauge on what Vegas feels about the Cardinals this season, all one needs to do is peruse their road schedule. Based on the lines posted by CT Technologies for every team in every game the first 16 weeks of the season, Arizona will be an underdog of more than 6 points in each contest. For comparative purposes, the Redbirds were underdogs of more than 6 points a total of seven times in five years under coach Bruce Arians. What it means is Arizona’s strength-of-schedule this season is the toughest in the league when weighed against opponents’ projected season win-totals. With newly acquired QBs Sam Bradford and first-round choice Josh Rosen on board for first-year head coach Steve Wilks, along with Pro Bowl RB David Johnson anchoring the ground game, the offense looks closer to 2016’s 6th-ranked unit than last year’s 25th ranked corps. The Cardinal defense held up its end of the bargain last season as only five other teams allowed more total yards. That being said, our best calculated conclusion is that under-the-radar ‘Zona cashes more tickets than they do not in 2018.
Los Angeles Rams
As Mike Mains called out in his 2018 NFL Preview on these pages, the 2017 Rams became only the second team in NFL history to go from last in scoring to first the following season. It was their first division title – and winning season – since 2003. A lot of that can be attributed to the fact that Los Angeles had 8 starters last season that were either first-or-second round picks in the NFL draft the previous two years. Call them the Jacksonville Jaguars of the NFC, if you will. Coming off another solid draft that not only included 11 selections, with nary a first-or-second choice, they also landed WR Brandin Crooks for a first-rounder with the Patriots. GM Les Snead didn’t stop there, though, as he also inked Pro Bowl free agents in DT Ndamukong Suh, and CBs Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib. To clear cap space, though, they were forced to gut their linebacking corps with three of the four starters moving on. It remains to be seen whether or not the massive hole can be filled. You know the saying… what goes up must come down.
After opening the 2017 season 0-8 for the first time in franchise history, the Niners appeared dead-in-the-water. But like a gift from the gods, the most impactful swing in the NFL occurred last year when the Niners acquired QB Jimmy Garoppolo from New England. Not only did hapless Frisco win all five of its season-ending games behind the G-man, they also refortified their roster with key free agent acquisitions (read: Seattle CB Richard Sherman and Minnesota RB Jerick McKinnon – although out for the season with a knee injury). As a result, San Francisco was awarded whopping five prime-time games this season. Talk about going from the outhouse to the penthouse! The question is whether or not they can live up to the hype. History says it will be difficult, especially for a team whose season win-total this year is more than they won the previous two seasons combined. One thing we’ll watch is head coach Kyle Shanahan’s home-road dichotomy. In his rookie season last year, he was 6-2 ATS away but only 3-5 SUATS at home. Being priced like a playoff team this year, we’ll keep a strong pulse on how the anointed one fares now that the league has game film on him.
Somewhat amazingly, when CG Technologies in Vegas set lines on every NFL game for the 2018 season, the Seahawks were installed as favorites in only three matchups through Week 16. That’s meaningful this season considering Seattle has been favored in 80 of its last 100 contests. They will also travel the 2nd most miles (29,088) of all teams in the league this season, trailing only the Raiders (30,797). This is in stark contrast to the Panthers, Falcons, Jets, and Bengals who each log less than 10,000 miles in total travel. After staying home for the holidays last season for only the second time under head coach Pete Carroll, despite a 9-win effort, Seattle will be frothing to make amends this year (see 2012 when they went 12-6 SU and 13-5 ATS after missing the postseason the prior year). And while it’s suddenly en vogue to poke holes at Carroll’s crew these days, all one needs for a sniff of reality is to check out the play of QB Russell Wilson, who put up MVP numbers last year. With no back-to-back road games after Week Three, the alert has been sounded.