It is never too early to discuss football, even when the season is just over four months away from starting. While all 32 teams’ rosters are not quite finalized, the free agency period has quieted down, the draft is completed, and the schedules are set, creating a sense of hope for every team: This could be their season. After all that has transpired this offseason, it is time to dig deep into the landscape of the NFL as to whom I perceive to be the top tier teams (the contenders with a real shot at a Super Bowl), the middle tier teams (teams who have a shot at contending, but are viewed more as just playoff teams), on-the-border teams (teams with an outside chance at the postseason), and lastly the bottom feeders (teams who are rebuilding with no real shot at the playoffs).
1. Philadelphia Eagles: The biggest blow to the Eagles this offseason was losing quarterback Nick Foles. Why? Because each of the last two seasons, starter Carson Wentz has finished on the sidelines instead of under center. Outside of Wentz’s durability concern, the roster is loaded. They added Jordan Howard via trade from Chicago — a puzzling decision by the Bears. On paper, the Eagles are loaded, which is why I see them as a top tier-team in 2019. Still, if Wentz can’t remain healthy, the Super Bowl will be nothing more than a pipe dream.
2. Dallas Cowboys: I am sure to get a lot of crazy looks from people, but yes, the Cowboys are very much a top tier team. For starters, their only real competition in the NFC East is the Eagles. A full season of Dak, Zeke, and Amari Cooper healthy, and bringing back star defensive end Demarcus Lawrence will help push the Cowboys over the hump in 2019. The Cowboys a year ago boasted the 6th-best scoring defense; if they can match or even improve that production and get more punch out of an offense that was just 22nd in the NFL in scoring, then this team has a chance to make a Super Bowl run.
3. New Orleans Saints: Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees is still going strong at 40 years old, but how much does he have left in the tank? The Saints have had their share of heartbreak the previous two postseason runs (2017; 2018), the question really is how they will respond in 2019. As long as Brees is healthy and continues to not slow down, Sean Payton’s coaching will give the Saints another shot to hoist the Lombardi trophy.
4. Los Angeles Rams: Outside of signing Clay Matthews and Eric Weddle, the Rams were not big spenders during free agency. Overall, the roster is very much intact; the fate of the Rams really hinges on the health of their playmakers. Wide receiver Cooper Kupp is coming back from a torn ACL, aiming to be ready by Week 1; the big health concern is running back Todd Gurley, who reportedly could be dealing with arthritis in his left knee. A lot depends on Gurley’s knee; his effectiveness in the run game is really what makes the Rams more potent. The Rams have a big bullseye on their back from winning the NFC, but they have a talented roster along with a great coach. Unless something disastrous happens, expect the Rams to make another Super Bowl run.
5. New England Patriots: Every year the same question gets asked: “Is the Patriots dynasty over?” New England usually starts slow then hits their stride in December, gets a top-two seed, then goes to the Super Bowl as they have done four times in the previous five seasons, winning three times. Though last year involved a whole lot of luck: the Texans coughed up the number two seed, and the Chiefs jumped offsides, giving New England a chance to send their playoff game to an overtime victory. For me to believe someone other than the Patriots can win the AFC, I have to see it happen. Of course there are a handful of teams capable of putting New England’s run to rest, but unless Belichick forgets how to coach or Father Time defeats Brady, New England is the heavy favorite once again in the AFC.
1. The Entire AFC South: On paper, the AFC South appears to be one of the more competitive divisions in the NFL. Thanks to healthy or relatively healthy seasons from quarterbacks Andrew Luck and Deshaun Watson, the Colts and Texans rebounded to finish first and second in the division; both qualified for the postseason, to the delight of the Colts, who beat the Texans in NRG.
While the Colts and Jaguars were relatively active in the offseason, the Texans and Titans were not. Indianapolis added another big receiver in Devin Funchess to go next to TY Hilton (as if Andrew Luck needed another weapon), as well as veteran linebacker Justin Houston. Houston will provide veteran leadership and will help in key defensive situations.
Jacksonville added Nick Foles to be their quarterback after Blake Bortles struggled so badly that Jacksonville cut ties with their 2014 first-round draft choice. The question mark with Foles is: How will he fare after leaving the Eagles a second time? In his first three seasons with the Eagles in 2012–14, Foles threw for 6,753 yards, 46 touchdowns, and 17 interceptions. When Foles left the Eagles for the Rams and Chiefs, the production was inconsistent enough that Foles contemplated retirement. Foles chose to return to the Eagles and became a Super Bowl MVP, but can he take that to Jacksonville? Houston and Indianapolis have the best quarterbacks in the division, which gives the edge over the Titans and Jags. However, if Foles can carry his recent productivity to the Jaguars, and if Mariota can stay healthy and be more consistent, this division easily has four playoff teams.
2. Kansas City Chiefs: The Chiefs were so close to knocking off the Patriots in the AFC title game. Three things make them a middle tier team and not a legit Super Bowl contender. First, Mahomes cannot possibly replicate his monster rookie season. After the Chiefs let go of Hunt following his domestic violence situation and now after the news regarding Tyreek Hill’s offseason behavior, a dip in Mahomes’ production should be expected. Even more so, now that his opponents have a full season of film to study.
The Chiefs defense is horrendous: Kansas City ranked 24th in scoring defense and 25th in third down defense, though they were first in quarterback sacks with 52. They’ve hired Steve Spagnuolo to correct what went wrong last season. Making matters worse, they let go of Eric Berry and Justin Houston, who may not have produced, but this costs them a lot of leadership in that locker room. Chiefs fans can gripe about Dee Ford lining up offsides in the AFC title game, but the man was second on the team in sacks with 13. They made an effort to replenish what they lost, adding safety Tyrann Mathieu and trading for Frank Clark, but the big question is whether they have enough talent on that side of the ball for Spagnuolo’s unit to complement their explosive offense.
The last hurdle the Chiefs have to overcome, besides the New England Patriots, is their division rival the Los Angeles Chargers. The AFC West, outside of Kansas City and Los Angeles, is a mess, thus intensifying the Chiefs–Chargers rivalry. Their head-to-head meetings will determine who wins the division and who has to settle for the Wild Card. Worst-case scenario for both is that their meetings could determine whether one misses the postseason entirely.
Other Middle-Tier Teams
Los Angeles Chargers: The Chargers are loaded, but are allergic to playoff prosperity, having not seen a conference title game since 2007, and have never been to the Super Bowl in Phillip Rivers’ illustrious career. Very much like the Texans, the Chargers do not deliver when it counts. Until they do, it is hard to count them as a legit contender.
Baltimore Ravens: Despite losing Terrell Suggs and safety Eric Weddle on defense, the Ravens added Earl Thomas to cushion the blow. Where the Ravens’ fate is ultimately determined is the growth of second-year Lamar Jackson. Jackson showed promise in his rookie season, and if he continues to grow and progress positively, the Ravens will be Super Bowl contenders in 2019. Another reason I rate the Ravens over the Browns, who had a better offseason on paper, is simply their winning culture. John Harbaugh is the all-time win leader in Ravens coaching history; the Ravens have won a Super Bowl and been to the postseason in 7 of Harbaugh’s 11 seasons. While the Browns had a busy offseason, they have a first-year head coach and a pedigree of losing. As long as Harbaugh is the coach, and if Lamar Jackson continues to make progress, Baltimore has better odds of contending in 2019.
Green Bay Packers: The Packers are a second-tier team because they have a first-year head coach in Matt LaFleur. They have the best quarterback in the league in Aaron Rodgers and have made every effort to improve defensively this offseason. Chemistry between a head coach and quarterback are vital to a team’s success (see Belichick and Brady as an example), and on game day they need to be on the same page. How quickly LaFleur and Rodgers get on the same page and develop will be the difference between getting the Packers back to the top, or experiencing a similar season to 2018’s 6-9-1 campaign.
Chicago Bears: Chicago fell from the second-tier to the list of teams who could make the playoffs but would not surprise me if they missed it. Why? Simply because the honeymoon phase with head coach Matt Nagy, who will be entering his second year, is over. The Bears feel primed to become Jacksonville 2.0: the Jaguars hired Doug Marrone prior to the 2017 season, then made it to the AFC Title game in his first year, only to bottom out in 2018, going 4-12 missing the playoffs. Trubisky is a better quarterback than Blake Bortles, and the Bears defense, headlined by Khalil Mack, should be just as good as they were last season. However, having lost Adrian Amos to rival Green Bay and traded away stud running back Jordan Howard, is it possible the Bears follow the same path as the Jaguars and bottom out? The Bears came out of nowhere in 2018; it will be interesting to see how they handle being the hunted in 2019.
Cleveland Browns: The Browns went big this offseason, acquiring Odell Beckham, pairing him with Jarvis Landry, as well as signing Kareem Hunt, who is on the commissioner’s exempt list until Week 10. The Browns’ offseason has created a new energy around Cleveland, with the expectation that just maybe the Browns can return to the playoffs. A couple of major reasons I see the Browns as an on-the-border team is that they have a first-year head coach in Freddie Kitchens, and quarterback Baker Mayfield will be entering only his second season. The Browns had a very solid season in 2018, going a respectable 7-8-1. If they are going to be more than a borderline playoff team, it is imperative Baker progresses and improves steadily. While the Browns have the talent and potential to make the playoffs for the first time since 2002, they are still the Browns and could find a way to break everyone’s hearts in Cleveland yet again.
Bottom Feeders and Final Word
The Miami Dolphins, Oakland Raiders, and, yes, the Pittsburgh Steelers are the lowest bottom feeders in 2019. That’s despite Miami, following the Josh Rosen trade, finally having a franchise quarterback. The Dolphins aren’t expected to do much in 2019, but if Rosen can show the franchise he’s worth building around, Miami’s rebuild will go a lot quicker, as they can zone in on other weaknesses.
The Raiders are simply rebuilding for Vegas, signing wide receiver Antonio Brown and left tackle Trent Brown as their big offseason acquisitions in free agency. Their draft was solid, but nobody really knows how well a team drafted until about two seasons later. The biggest question about the Raiders’ rebuild is whether Derek Carr is the right quarterback to build around. There were rumors throughout the offseason that Carr could be moved, but ultimately he was not. If the 28-year-old quarterback is not the one Jon Gruden wants to build his team around, who is? If Carr is available for a trade, what would the Raiders want in return?
The Steelers are indeed a bottom feeder. They have an aging quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger, traded their best receiver (even though he really forced himself out), refused to pay their best running back in Le’Veon Bell, and have a head coach in Mike Tomlin who has no real control over his locker room. Those factors do not exactly spell success in the NFL, and until they move on from Big Ben and Tomlin, don’t expect much from the Steelers in 2019.
All 32 teams have hopes to hoist the Lombardi trophy in 2019, but in the end only one will prevail. While nobody’s roster is complete, where teams fall in the pecking order is to be determined. With training camp on the horizon, let the climb to the top begin.