A first in the 20 years that I’ve been doing Monday Morning Quarterback:a split column. Because I wanted to give you my rankings, one to 32, of NFL teams after free agency and the draft, and I wanted to put a little meat on the bone, I’ll give you half the league today and half in a special MMQB columnTuesday. Today: 17 through 32, and I believe my ratings will take me off Mike Maccagnan’s Christmas card list. Tuesday: 1 through 16.
First, three quick notes in advance of the league meeting in Chicago on Tuesday:
• Vernon Davis, you can shoot that jump shot again, without getting whacked. The NFL flagged and fined 26 players for excessive celebration last year; most of those celebrations this season will not be penalized or fined. Commissioner Roger Goodell and his staff met on at least two occasions this spring with a large group of players (one club official told me Goodell talked with more than 40 players about this issue) and came to his senses: It’s asinine to use the “ball as prop” reason to penalize players, and even more asinine to fine someone $12,000 for the simple act of expressing joy after scoring a touchdown. Most of those penalties will disappear Tuesday at the league meeting. For instance, this “foul” will be wiped off the books: Remember when Davis, the Washington tight end, caught a touchdown pass against the Eagles last October and then calmly shot the football over the crossbar, as if was shooting a basketball into the hoop? Last year that was a 15-yard penalty and a $12,154 fine. This year, if the league approves, it will be neither a penalty or a fine. (That has more than just sportsmanship aspects to it. Last year, the 15-yard flag against Davis caused Washington kicker Dustin Hopkins to make a short kickoff, and Eagles returner Wendell Smallwood brought it back for an 86-yard touchdown.) Thankfully, intelligent heads will prevail, and that silliness is very likely to be knocked off the books in 2017.
• It’s widely expected that the overtime period will be shaved from 15 minutes to 10. I hate ties. We all do. But I doubt more ties, by percentage, will result from this change, designed with an eye on player safety and reducing the number of plays in overtime. Coaches will adjust, and will play faster now in the extra period. This proposal may have passed by vote in the league’s March meeting, but the league didn’t want to jam it through before teams had time to deliberate. They have now, and it’s doubtful that at least nine will vote against it. (There must be a three-quarters majority to pass the rule; the league believes it has 24 yes votes.)
• The Los Angeles Super Bowl is in flux. Because of torrential rain in L.A. in the first four months of 2017, the projected opening for the new Rams/Chargers stadium got pushed from summer 2019 to summer 2020. That means the Super Bowl the league awarded to Los Angeles for February 2021 is now in doubt, because the NFL has an unofficial policy of waiting for a new stadium to work the kinks out in year one and before allowing it to host a Super Bowl in year two. The L.A. forces will argue that Minnesota and Atlanta will have 20 games played before their Super Bowls—the same number as the L.A. stadium will have. Why? Because the Rams and Chargers, with 10 games each in the new stadium (eight regular-season, two pre-season), will give the same 20-game experience as the other new palaces. It’s not a big deal anyway … because the league is going to play multiple Super Bowls in Los Angeles, and whether the first one is in 2021 or 2022 in the grand scheme of things isn’t very significant.
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NFL Power Rankings, Pt. 1
At The MMQBin June, we’ll have a full division-by-division preview of the season by eight writers. They will go in more depth than I am today. But here’s how I view teams 32 through 17, the second half of the NFL power structure entering training camps.
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32. NEW YORK JETS
Additions: QB Josh McCown, 37, joined his 10th NFL team … T Kelvin Beachum (Steelers, Jags, Jets) on his third team in 18 months … CB Morris Claiborne (Dallas) will replace Darrelle Revis … Rookie S Jamal Adams should start opening day.
Subtractions: WR Brandon Marshall, 33, takes his 2,290 receiving yards in the past two years to the Giants … CB Darrelle Revis sunk like a stone last year, got released, and is still unemployed … QB Ryan Fitzpatrick vanished, as did 40 percent of the OL: C Nick Mangold, T Breno Giacomini.
Key coaching/front-office moves: John Morton (Saints WR coach) replaces Chan Gailey as offensive coordinator … Hall of Famer Kevin Greene replaces Mark Collins as OLB coach.
Decisive schedule span: Weeks 3 through 5—vs. Miami, vs. Jacksonville, at Cleveland. The season’s over if the Jets can’t win at least two of those. Here’s why: Jets could open 0-2 (at Bills and Raiders). Then, starting in Week 6, New York has the Patriots, Dolphins and Falcons in succession.
Why I have the Jets 32nd: The Jets look like a team tanking for one of the top QB prospects in 2018. As valuable to a team as he is as a player/coach, Josh McCown’s at the end, and he will legitimately compete for playing time with Bryce Petty and the passer drafted to be the quarterback of the future in 2016, Christian Hackenberg. The ace rusher, Matt Forte, turns 32 this year and is coming off a 3.7-yards-per-rush season. Tight end is a wasteland. There’s a very good receiver being hatched, Quincy Enunwa, but will he be able to get the ball enough from the passers? Imagine being new offensive coordinator John Morton; you have to be aware you’ll be judged on the performance of this offense in the future, and you have to be aware that if the team goes 2-14, the whole staff could get wiped out. Tough assignment. On defense, two things disturb me: How can a team with this talent have given up the fifth-most points in football last year? And will a player as good as Muhammad Wilkerson (granted with ankle and knee problems for part of 2016) who played so poorly last year rebound? I’m skeptical the defense will turn back into the force it once was, even with the draft-weekend additions of Adams and Marcus Maye on the back end.
Most important factor to this team this year: Whether the Jets can get average quarterbacking out of the question-filled passing mélange they’ll field. Obviously, I have my doubts.
Jets prediction of 10 words or less: He won’t deserve it, but Bowles gets whacked in January.
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31. CLEVELAND BROWNS
Additions: The offensive line is 40 percent new—G Kevin Zeitler (Cincinnati) and center J.C. Tretter are upgrades. Zeitler, in particular, is a top-level guard with some fight to him … WR Kenny Britt will be a vertical threat, but he’s not a premier player … Brock Osweiler and DeShone Kizer bring weirdness to the QB depth chart … The draft delivered two players who should contribute on opening day: pass-rusher Myles Garrett and safety/linebacker/returner Jabrill Peppers.
Subtractions: Browns continued to lose valuable pieces in the off-season, when a contract tiff led to WR Terrelle Pryor signing with Washington … WR Andrew Hawkins, TE Gary Barnidge, QB Josh McCown and T Austin Pasztor all departed.
Key coaching/front-office moves: Ray Horton out as the coordinator of the 31st-ranked NFL defense, Gregg Williams in (yet another iteration of a strange but impactful career). “We want to see the Browns be different than they’ve ever been,” coach Hue Jackson said, and that will start with a chippier defense.
Decisive schedule span: First three weeks—vs. Pittsburgh, at Baltimore, at Indianapolis. With an 0-3 start, it’s time to play for Sam Darnold. If the Browns steal one or two, that’ll give this franchise hope for a six-win season, not two.
Why I have the Browns 31st: In 14 draft rounds over the past two years, the Browns have made a league-high 24 picks, and so it’s impossible to judge how those players, particularly with a new defensive look and a unsettled quarterback depth chart, will play. Progress for the Browns would be 5-11 and exiting this season having some idea if Kizer or Cody Kessler (who will get the long first shot to play quarterback) is good enough to prevent GM Sashi Brown from re-entering the quarterback market next year. Two things I see as reasons Cleveland will be at least slightly improved from the team with 18 double-digit losses in the past two years: The Zeitler-infused offensive line is improved—thank God the Browns haven’t traded franchise left tackle Joe Thomas—and Williams will help make the defense a difficult Sunday for foes all season. Progress is what this franchise needs.
Most important factor to this team this year: DeShone Kizer. Can he play? Will he get a chance to show Jackson and GM Sashi Brown they shouldn’t make a big play for Jimmy Garoppolo or the next great college quarterback next spring?
Browns prediction of 10 words or less: Thoughts of Garoppolo dance through Hue’s head after three wins.
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30. SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
Additions: A slew on either side of the ball: WRs Pierre Garçon (Washington) and Marquise Goodwin (Buffalo), C Jeremy Zuttah (Baltimore), QB Brian Hoyer (Chicago), FB Kyle Jusczyk (Baltimore) on offense … On defense, first-round picks Solomon Thomas (DL) and Reuben Foster (LB) arrived, as did DT Earl Mitchell (Miami) and OLB Malcolm Smith (Oakland).
Subtractions: WR Torrey Smith left for Philadelphia, QB Colin Kaepernick left for a New York City workout facility (he is unemployed as of today), and a trio of defenders (Glenn Dorsey, Tramaine Brock and Antoine Bethea) have departed.