This year more than any year previous I found myself looking at team records and thinking they didn’t reflect how I really felt about the quality of the team. It really emphasized just how important it is to get a schedule that appears favorable. If the big teams are beating each other and the bad teams are beating each other, you come away with some peculiar results.
These are all pointless anyway.
1. AFC East
- New England Patriots, 11-5: The Patriots scrape to a 2-2 record with Jimmy Garoppolo before Tom Brady returns and they can sweep past the easier opponents on their schedule. Despite a few tough matchups, the Patriots should still win the AFC East unless the Dolphins’ flaws prove to be less severe than they were last year.
- Miami Dolphins, 7-9: Competent coaching could do a lot for the Dolphins. Coaching was the team’s biggest issue last year and while there are still major question marks in different areas of the roster, the Dolphins have a lot of quality at the top of their roster. Cracking .500 would be an impressive first year for Adam Gase so 7-9 can’t be considered too big a disappointment.
- Buffalo Bills, 6-10: The Bills schedule plays to their favor. This team’s record will be better than the team actually is. Defensively the Bills have a lot of questions and offensively Karlos Williams’ sudden demise and consequent departure will hurt the running game as LeSean McCoy wears down. Tyrod Taylor and Sammy Watkins will keep them competitive each week and push them past the lower rung teams of the league. The more Rex Ryan molds this team the worse the outlook appears.
- New York Jets, 6-10: Ryan Fitzpatrick is only getting worse at this stage of his career and he wasn’t very good last year. The Jets should have competed for a Super Bowl last year but Fitzpatrick prevented them from getting there. A tougher schedule and a roster that doesn’t look like it has improved much, if at all from last year results in disappointment. The age of the Jets roster and the age of its key players really stands out.
2. MVP Finalists
Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, Von Miller, Cam Newton, Tom Brady, Ezekiel Elliott.
3. MVP Runner-Up
Jimmy Garoppolo’s presence alone will mean that Brady doesn’t need to be spectacular to underline his value. If the Patriots lose two games or more without Garoppolo and still make the playoffs, Brady will be a big contender for the award. Ezekiel Elliott’s production combined with the Cowboys surviving Romo’s absence will create a narrative for the rookie runner. Brady will be the runner-up if he doesn’t win outright. – Tom Brady.
4. MVP Winner
Russell Wilson could be about to hit that sweet spot in his career where his confidence and athleticism are closer to their peak than they will be at any other point. Wilson has a plethora of weapons around him and the Seahawks project to win a lot of games. So long as he can stay aggressive for 16 games, he should put up huge numbers. – Russell Wilson.
5. Defensive Player of the Year Finalists
Aaron Donald, Richard Sherman, Luke Kuehly, Von Miller, Khalil Mack.
6. Defensive Player of the Year
If the Broncos succeed without a stellar quarterback for the second successive season, Von Miller’s name will become more prominent. The Rams won’t win enough games for Donald to win the award while Kuechly won it last year. Miller makes the most sense. – Von Miller.
7. AFC North
- Cincinnati Bengals, 12-4: Although the Bengals offense looks set to take a big hit from the losses of Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu, the roster as a whole is still stacked. Coupling that with the limitations of the Baltimore Ravens and the Cleveland Browns should allow the Bengals to breeze into the playoffs once again. What they do from there is another matter altogether.
- Pittsburgh Steelers, 12-4: Keeping Ben Roethlisberger healthy for a full season will be huge for the Steelers. He wasn’t fully healthy last year and although they survived, they couldn’t prosper. Martavis Bryant’s absence will hurt in the playoffs more than it will in the regular season while the defense as a whole looks to be moving in the right direction.
- Cleveland Browns, 5-11: The Browns offense is going to be a lot of fun with Robert Griffin III, Hue Jackson and those athletic receivers. The defense on the other hand…
- Baltimore Ravens, 5-11: Joe Flacco has returned in time for the start of the new season but he needs to play better than he has over the past two years. Flacco’s footwork and decision-making threatens to derail his career. Defensively, the signing of Eric Weddle won’t mask the variety of talent question marks the Ravens have.
8. General Manager of the Year
He won’t win the award because his team won’t be good but Sashi Brown should be the General Manager of the Year. Instead John Elway will receive the award for keeping the Broncos on track despite their quarterback situation. – John Elway.
9. NFC Rookie of the Year
It’s between Carson Wentz and Ezekiel Elliott. Wentz will be graded on a curve as a rookie starting at quarterback whereas Elliott has to live up to outrageous expectations behind the best offensive line in the NFL. – Ezekiel Elliott.
10. AFC Rookie of the Year
Jalen Ramsey would make a lot of sense but he is a cornerback who isn’t expected to get a lot of interceptions so his upside is limited in this sense. Laremy Tunsil would also make a lot of sense but he obviously won’t win. In a defense-heavy draft class without a standout receiver in the AFC, Derrick Henry’s chances should be good even if he doesn’t start ahead of DeMarco Murray. – Derrick Henry.
11. AFC South
- Indianapolis Colts, 9-7: The Colts roster is really bad. It’s so bad that the franchise appeared scared to play Andrew Luck during the preseason for fear that he would get hit too much. Philosophically this team was poorly built and is poorly coached. The only real positive they have is Luck. Fortunately for them, Luck is so good that he could drag them to a winning season again. If he’s healthy that is.
- Houston Texans, 7-9: Back injuries shouldn’t be taken lightly, especially for defensive linemen. J.J. Watt may not miss a beat in his return from injury but it’s hard to imagine him playing with the same explosiveness coming off of back surgery. The Texans will need him to be at his best even though they have theoretically improved on offense. Brock Osweiler has flashed some quality in the preseason so he may prove doubters wrong, but it’s hard to value preseason snaps over what we saw last year during the regular season.
- Jacksonville Jaguars, 6-10: The Jaguars have a roster that is headed in the right direction overall but offensive line issues, pass rush question marks and a quarterback with a penchant for throwing to the wrong team makes it hard to be overly optimistic about their chances this year. This could be an ideal roster for the next coach who takes over in 2017.
- Tennessee Titans, 4-12: The Titans are rebuilding. The roster has too many holes and Mike Mularkey doesn’t figure to be someone who can coach around those holes. Marcus Mariota could give them a chance to threaten .500 but this feels like a team that needs everything to break right for them to even get close to that point.
12. With the first overall pick in the 2017 NFL draft…
…the San Francisco 49ers select DeShaun Watson, quarterback, Clemson.
13. First Coach Fired Candidates
Gus Bradley can’t afford to suffer another losing season. If they aren’t .500 or above by the time midseason comes around, he should be fired. Dan Quinn and Jim Caldwell will be hard to defend if their teams play to expectations, while Mike McCoy was lucky to survive the offseason. Rex Ryan’s typical bluster during the offseason won’t help him if his team struggles.
14. First Coach Fired
Gus Bradley. The Jaguars have big expectations and major problems to overcome on their roster. Those are tough things to overcome.
15. AFC West
- Kansas City Chiefs, 10-6: The Chiefs were one of those teams who kept racking up wins because of a favorable schedule. The AFC West plays the AFC South and the NFC South this year, so all of these teams have bloated records. If the Chiefs make the playoffs in this fashion they will be an intriguing dark horse in the AFC bracket. Jamaal Charles and Justin Houston should be back to 100 percent by then. The Chiefs were a couple of dropped interceptions away from making the AFC Championship game last year.
- Denver Broncos, 10-6: Trevor Siemian is an interim starting quarterback for the Denver Broncos. He should be relieved by Paxton Lynch by midseason. Regardless, the Broncos are built to win regular season games without a quality starting quarterback. C.J. Anderson should have a big year while the defense remains one of the best units in the NFL. Gary Kubiak will get just enough from his passing game to win 10 games with a favorable schedule.
- Oakland Raiders, 8-8: Winning the offseason, at least in the eyes of the wider NFL audience, doesn’t always result in a net gain. The Raiders have added a lot of free agents to a roster that had young talent in place as its foundation. They should take a step in the right direction but consistency at quarterback and the overall quality of their defense remains a question mark that must be answered.
- San Diego Chargers, 8-8: Philip Rivers is still great. The Chargers will probably be less bad around him this year than last year. They won’t be good, so less bad is a better term. Their pass defense will be good and their offensive line will be improved by health alone, but the defensive front seven will remain a huge problem unless Brandon Mebane is dominant against the run.
16. BreakOUT Candidates
P.J. Williams, cornerback, New Orleans Saints. A long athlete who has impressed in the preseason.
Frank Clark, defensive line, Seattle Seahawks. A versatile defensive lineman who can impact the offense from different spots.
Ameer Abdullah, running back, Detroit Lions. An explosive runner who should thrive in space if the Lions can find him some.
Duke Johnson, running back, Cleveland Browns. A great receiving back and underrated runner who Hue Jackson will get the most out of.
Tyler Lockett, wide receiver, Seattle Seahawks. A diminutive receiver who will stretch the field for one of the most talented passers in the NFL.
Maxx Williams, tight end, Baltimore Ravens: A mismatch receiving option who could be a great redzone threat.
17. BreakDOWN Candidates
Terrell Suggs, outside linebacker, Baltimore Ravens. Coming off an Achilles tear at his age isn’t easy.
Steve Smith, wide receiver, Baltimore Ravens. See above.
Matt Ryan, quarterback, Atlanta Falcons. Ryan’s arm looks like it’s dying and his decision-making last year was atrocious.
18. Comeback Player of the Year Candidates
Jamaal Charles, Andrew Luck, Jordy Nelson, Robert Griffin III, Le’Veon Bell, Tyrann Mathieu.
19. Comeback Player of the Year
Robert Griffin III would make a lot of sense but I’m not sure voters will view ‘being benched’ as something to come back from as much as coming back from an injury. Le’Veon Bell is suspended to start the season but figures to have a huge year once he hits the field. He makes the most sense. – Le’Veon Bell.
20. NFC East
- Dallas Cowboys, 11-5: Dak and a favorable schedule will allow the Cowboys to survive without Tony Romo for the first month or two of the season. Prescott’s play during the preseason suggests he can keep the passing game complementary instead of disastrous as they rely on running the ball to beat teams. Once Romo returns, the offense should be the best in the NFL.
- New York Giants, 9-7: The Giants have a lot of problems on their roster still but the health of Jason Pierre-Paul and the addition of Olivier Vernon should really help the defense. Eli Manning has more help on the offensive side with the arrival of Sterling Shepard and departure of Andre Williams. Even with a bad offensive line, the offense should still be extremely efficient.
- Washington, 7-9: Maybe Kirk Cousins’ production in 2015 is a sign of things to come. Maybe he’s the next coming of Joe Montana. His own team don’t think he is and the GM specifically talked about it being okay for him to be average during the offseason. The Washington roster is stacked around the quarterback but that won’t be enough if he can’t improve his accuracy and learn to take care of the football against the better defenses in the NFL.
- Philadelphia Eagles, 3-13: Paying for Sam Bradford to play for another team was the ultimate ‘We’re punting the season’ statement. The Eagles have questions at cornerback, quarterback and wide receiver. It’s a year to evaluate and develop Carson Wentz.
21. Coach of the Year Candidates
Mike Zimmer, Pete Carroll, Jason Garrett, Bill Belichick, Gary Kubiak, Bruce Arians.
22. Coach of the Year
If the Vikings make the playoffs without Teddy Bridgewater, Zimmer will be the winner. Gary Kubiak will have a similar claim to make, as will Jason Garrett, but Zimmer’s team isn’t expected to make it at this point. – Mike Zimmer.
23. NFC North
- Green Bay Packers, 12-4: Ted Thompson is so fortunate to have Aaron Rodgers. Thompson not only didn’t add to the team’s receiving corps this year, he also didn’t add another running back before releasing starting left guard Josh Sitton. Jared Cook was his only addition besides the returning Jordy Nelson. Rodgers is good enough to make the offense work but he shouldn’t be asked to.
- Minnesota Vikings, 10-6: Sam Bradford is a better quarterback than his reputation suggests he is. He’s also leaps and bounds ahead of Shaun Hill. With Hill this team would struggle to compete on a weekly basis. With Bradford they have someone who is a drop-off from Teddy Bridgewater but not a huge one. So long as they remain a run-first offense that relies on one of the better defenses in the NFL, the Vikings should make the playoffs again this year.
- Detroit Lions, 6-10: The Lions are in limbo. They don’t project to be terrible but they don’t project to contend either. It feels inevitable that Jim Caldwell will be fired and the franchise will begin a full-on or partial rebuild next offseason.
- Chicago Bears, 6-10: The Bears had a great offseason and are heading in the right direction. They need to continue to build on the defensive side to push for a playoff spot though.
24. NFC Team Most Likely to Surprise
The New Orleans Saints defense has taken too many hits, but if the young talent on that side of the ball takes a step forward they have an offense in place to contend. – New Orleans Saints.
25. NFC Team Most Likely to Disappoint
Everyone expects the Arizona Cardinals to be great this year. They have aggressively pursued greatness with bold offseason moves. The concern here is Carson Palmer’s age and how he finished last season. He was hurt last year. In Bruce Arians’ scheme, he’s not going to be protected much this year either. – Arizona Cardinals.
26. NFC Team Most Likely to go from First to Worst
It’s between Washington and Minnesota. Washington have the Eagles in their division so that leaves Minnesota. A Sam Bradford injury would do it. – Minnesota Vikings.
27. NFC Team Most Likely to go from Worst to First
The Cowboys are better suited to deal with a Tony Romo injury this year. – Dallas Cowboys.
28. NFC South
- Carolina Panthers, 12-4: Cam Newton, Kawann Short, Luke Kuechly, Trai Turner, Thomas Davis, Star Lotulelei. The Panthers retain their key pieces from last year despite the loss of Josh Norman. They still have major weaknesses at specific spots but the top-level talent should carry them through the season once again.
- New Orleans Saints, 8-8: The Saints have the potential to win the NFC South. They just need to get average to below-average play from their defense so the offense won’t need to score 45 points each week.
- Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 7-9: Jameis Winston could drag this team towards playoff contention if he cuts down on his bad decisions and improves his accuracy. Winston doesn’t figure to get a whole lot of help from the Buccaneers as the roster largely looks as limited this year as it was last year. Vernon Hargreaves will be an excellent addition as a cornerback who could thrive in a zone-heavy scheme from the start of his rookie season.
- Atlanta Falcons, 6-10: It’s hard to find too many impact players on the Atlanta Falcons roster. Desmond Trufant is arguably the best cornerback in the NFL, Julio Jones is a star at receiver. That’s pretty much it. Vic Beasley needs to play much better than he has in preseason, Matt Ryan needs to play much better than he did last year. Devonta Freeman sustaining his play from last year will be huge but won’t matter unless the rest of the offense elevates its level of play. That’s without even talking about their pass-rush problems.
29. AFC Team Most Likely to Surprise
If it all clicks on offense for the Houston Texans, the franchise could run away with the AFC South. The Texans have the best combination of talent and experience in the division outside of the quarterback position. – Houston Texans.
30. AFC Team Most Likely to Disappoint
Starting Jimmy Garoppolo for four games is going to prove to be majorly problematic for the Patriots. If they go 0-4, that will derail their whole season. Expecting Tom Brady to go undefeated with the teams on their schedule is unrealistic. – New England Patriots.
31. AFC Team Most Likely to go from First to Worst
There isn’t a good candidate in the AFC so the Denver Broncos and their questionable quarterback situation make the most sense. – Denver Broncos.
32. AFC Team Most Likely to go from Worst to First
Who knows, Mularkey ball might work. The Tennessee Titans have a high-quality quarterback, so if the running game works as designed and the pass rush can improve over last season, the Titans could contend in a week division. – Tennessee Titans.
33. NFC West
- Seattle Seahawks, 13-3: The Seattle Seahawks defense will still be ahead of the offense in 2016, but it’s never been closer under Pete Carroll. The Seahawks will remain a run-heavy team but Russell Wilson will carry more of the offense than ever before. Even Jimmy Graham’s health can’t take away from the overwhelming about of explosiveness that the Seahawks now possess.
- Arizona Cardinals, 12-4: Adding Chandler Jones and Robert Nkemdiche to the Cardinals defensive front addresses their greatest concern from last year. The question now focuses on the secondary where Tyrann Mathieu is coming off his second ACL tear and the second cornerback spot remains a problem. Brandon Williams, a rookie, looks set to start as Justin Bethel is a liability. Meanwhile, on the offensive side, John Brown’s concussion appears set to linger into the regular season and has reached the point where it is scary rather than just concerning.
- Los Angeles Rams, 5-11: Jeff Fisher keeps rolling out teams that look like they could be great running the ball, have a great defensive line with no quarterback and question marks at safety. Jared Goff being the third-string quarterback curtails their potential for success this year.
- San Francisco 49ers, 3-13: They are starting Blaine Gabbert on a roster that has holes everywhere. Anthony Davis looks like he’s going to be a good right guard at least.
34. Team Most Likely to Go Undefeated
The Seahawks have the most talent and the best combination of quarterback-coaching staff and pass rush. – Seattle Seahawks.
35. Team Most Likely to Go Winless
If Robert Griffin III doesn’t live up to expectations, the Browns won’t have anywhere to go. Josh McCown isn’t good despite the long list of people who will try to convince you otherwise. The Browns defense lacks talent and the running game wouldn’t be enough to overcome an incompetent passing game. – Cleveland Browns.
36. AFC Championship Game
Pittsburgh Steelers – New England Patriots
37. AFC Winner
38. NFC Championship Game
Seattle Seahawks – Dallas Cowboys
39. NFC Winner
40. Super Bowl Winner