The preseason is upon us, and barring a couple of more paint snafus, we’ll have actual football on Thursday night. Which teams are intriguing enough to deserve special attention through August and into the start of the regular season? Members of SI.com’s NFL staff tackle that question below:
Don Banks: Oakland Raiders, Los Angeles Rams
When it comes to anticipation for the NFL’s 2016 season, I’ve got an obvious Left Coast bias. I had the Rams and Raiders atop my most compelling rankings all off-season, and nothing about those two California-based story lines has changed as we stare down the start of the preseason.
One team has made a historic comeback, relocating to the market it left 21 years earlier for St. Louis, with the first overall pick in quarterback Jared Goff in tow. The other club finally seems ready for a long-awaited comeback of its own, poised for a return to relevance after 13 consecutive seasons without a winning record or a playoff berth.
Both the Rams and Raiders have reason for hope that the near future will be far brighter than the recent pasts. And both coaches, Los Angeles’s Jeff Fisher and Oakland’s Jack Del Rio, were raised California boys, and have a chance to make their hometown teams great again. These are two stories that should almost write themselves in the coming five months.
Sure, seeing the Rams and Raiders back in the headlines and creating some buzz is almost enough to make you think you’re California Dreamin’, but it’s not 1976 or some other season from their long-gone glory eras. It’s 2016. And perhaps a new era of success is about unfold in L.A. and Oakland.
Michael Beller: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Buccaneers may not be much better in year one of the Dirk Koetter era than they were in Lovie Smith’s last season, but they aren’t going to be boring—especially from a fantasy perspective. How many teams have a potential WR1, RB1 and RB2? How many of those teams also have a recent Heisman-winning quarterback entering his second season? Mike Evans and Doug Martin will be off the board in the first two rounds of nearly all fantasy drafts. Charles Sims is one of the most intriguing mid-round running backs in the league, perfectly capable of putting up RB2 numbers even if Martin plays 16 games and is a PPR monster. Jameis Winston has the pedigree to take a huge step forward in year two. Add in Vincent Jackson and a strangely entertaining tight end battle between Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Cameron Brate, and there’s no shortage of intrigue in Tampa this summer.
Chris Burke: Denver Broncos
Not to take the first exit off the highway here, but for my money it’s the Broncos. It goes without saying that the QB play was substandard in Denver last season, but we’re still talking about a defending Super Bowl champion trying to replace one of the all-time greats at quarterback. Coach Gary Kubiak continues to play up the Mark Sanchez-Trevor Siemian competition, but I don’t think we can rule out the possibility that Paxton Lynch outplays both in the preseason. While the Broncos may not be ready to hand their rookie the reins, this is more of a three-man race than Kubiak would have anyone believe.
Assuming the defense will be able to repeat last season’s remarkable performance is setting the bar awfully high, too. The personnel on that side of the ball remains of A-plus caliber, but losses like Malik Jackson and Danny Trevathan still could sting.
August won’t tell us all we need to know about the Broncos. It will, however, provide a little insight into how realistic a repeat is.
Jacob Feldman: Houston Texans
The math here is simple. Regardless of what happens in August, there are eight teams that could win a Super Bowl without shocking anyone: New England, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and Denver in the AFC; Carolina, Arizona, Seattle, and Green Bay in the NFC. Then there are eight teams that are already out of the running (you know who you are). So that leaves 16 teams in the NFL’s middle class, and none with more potential volatility than the Texans. There's that new, expensive face under center in Brock Osweiler, but there will also probably be new bodies in front of him (rookie center Nick Martin), behind him (free agent running back Lamar Miller) and out wide (first round pick Will Fuller) when he takes his first snap with his new team. After making the playoffs by crafting an offense out of toothpicks and marshmallows last year, what can Bill O'Brien do with all of those new pieces? Enough to prove that Bill Belichick's coaching tree does not only produce rotten apples? Hopefully, he has enough success to provide a national platform for the league's second most dominant offense-defense pairing (behind Carolina's Cam Newton and Luke Kuechly): receiver DeAndre Hopkins and backfield wrecker J.J. Watt. Ok, maybe the latter already has enough exposure.
Pat Fitzmaurice: Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens are coming off their first losing season since 2007, and it's hard to tell whether Baltimore is poised to reclaim its contender status or sink further into the muck. The defense was flammable at times but then gelled down the stretch, yielding only 291.1 yards per game over the second half of the season (the second-lowest total in the league). There's still ample defensive talent in Baltimore, but some of the Ravens' key contributors—Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil, Lardarius Webb and newcomer Eric Weddle—are oldsters.
The other side of the ball is where things get really compelling, particularly for fantasy owners. QB Joe Flacco is coming back from a November ACL tear. There's a positional donnybrook at running back, with Justin Forsett, Buck Allen, Terrance West and rookie Kenneth Dixon vying for carries. Wide receiver is a mishmash, with Steve Smith Sr. (like Suggs) trying to return from a torn Achilles, second-year man Breshad Perriman trying to put his knee issues behind him, newcomer Mike Wallace trying to rebound from the worst season of his career, and Kamar Aiken trying to prove that last year's strong showing wasn't a fluke.
Eric Single: New York Jets
At this point last year, Tom Brady was suspended for the first four games of the season and the AFC East looked as wide open as it had ever been during the Patriots’ current run of dominance, with the division’s other three teams each making very real plans to contend if it all broke right. Fast-forward to 2016: Tom Brady is actually suspended for the first four games of the season and the AFC East looks … much less crowded at the top. The Bills and Dolphins are emerging from their respective off-seasons with more questions than answers, which leaves the Jets, who are harboring some unseasonable optimism with a core of talented veterans and precious few glaring roster holes.
Getting Ryan Fitzpatrick signed and in camp with plenty of time to spare didn’t drain New York of its drama. The backup QBs behind him will play some of the preseason’s most scrutinized snaps, and the playmakers they get the ball to need to stay healthy (looking at you, Matt Forte) and happy (looking at you, Brandon Marshall). If Jimmy Garoppolo struggles in August, every move the Jets make to position themselves for honest-to-goodness contention will get an even brighter spotlight.