NFL Preview: Team-by-Team Scouting Reports
- Our expert scrutinized the tape on all 32 NFL teams, and breaks down the strengths and weaknesses of each.
The film that NFL coaches circulate—the so-called All-22 tape—is silent. There are no on-screen graphics, no close-ups between snaps. One camera captures the field from a sideline, the other from behind the line of scrimmage. Football is presented as a geometric exercise. And it's riveting.
That film is how I watch 90% of NFL games. Through that, I've come to learn that the difference between good teams and bad ones is as subtle as the difference between white and eggshell white. Any outfit I project for even six wins could very well make a Super Bowl run. Truly. I had to choose 20 teams to miss the playoffs, and 15 of those left me uneasy.
At least I feel great about the teams I did project to make the postseason. The Giants have a star-studded D and a markedly improved offense. The Bucs, too, bolstered an already rising O. The Vikings have the NFC's best defense ... unless the Seahawks do ... or maybe it's the young Falcons.
The final obstacle on Atlanta's path to Super Bowl LI, Green Bay, appears even more dangerous than before. Aaron Rodgers's weapons have matured, and his arsenal has expanded. And it's hard to imagine that the Packers' D, after some secondary tweaks, won't be stronger. Is it an exceptional unit? No. But can it hold foes under 30 points? You bet. That's all Rodgers needs to take Green Bay to its first Super Bowl since 2010.
In the AFC you could do worse in your fantasy draft than to choose Steelers exclusively—Roethlisberger, Bell, Brown ... and now receiver Martavis Bryant is back. All of that, plus a top three O-line and an improving young defense? Sheesh. Meanwhile, the D in Baltimore got stingier, inching toward classic Ravens status. The Chiefs are the best-schemed team in their division, the Raiders the most talented. The Titans are an intriguing mix of both.
Of course, none of these teams compares with the Patriots, that franchise you either outright love or outright hate. I searched for the courage to pick against New England, but common sense kept getting in the way. A team that went 17--2 one year ago has gotten better on both sides of the ball, even if you consider Julian Edelman's ACL tear. Rob Gronkowski appears to be healthy; electrifying receiver Brandin Cooks arrived from the Saints; and with the additions of Rex Burkhead (Bengals) and Mike Gillislee (Bills), there are now more capable runners on this roster than in the entire central time zone. Then there's the D, which gave up a league-low 15.6 points per game last year, then added a stud corner, Stephon Gilmore. (Have we even mentioned Messrs. Brady and Belichick?) I'll go with the Pats over the Pack, who, while talented, run too hot and cold.
Below are my team-by-team scouting reports, in order of how I think each team will finish in the division.
New England Patriots
Projected 2017 Record: 14–2, No. 1 in AFC East
2016 Record: 14–2
Part of what is so impressive about Tom Brady is that he's succeeded in a variety of systems. In 2016, over the course of 19 games, the Patriots transitioned from an almost strictly horizontal passing attack to one that was a little more vertical. Wide receiver Chris Hogan, picked up last offseason, played a big role here. Second-year receiver Malcolm Mitchell did too, on the perimeter. It looks as if New England will continue going in this direction, with Rob Gronkowski back healthy and speedy receiver Brandin Cooks added from the Saints.
• The beauty of the offense is that it doesn't have to be vertical. The receiving skills of pass-game running back JAMES WHITE (and maybe in his place, at some point, former Bengal Rex Burkhead) help create a potent "spread empty formation" package, with five pass catchers flanked out wide. From this you see the underneath routes that Brady uses to dink and dunk defenses to death. (That's what happened in Super Bowl LI; Brady's longest completion was 28 yards.) Cooks has the quickness to prosper in their underneath passing game.
• Losing Julian Edelman for the year with an ACL injury hurts. But the Patriots have the depth to replace him, starting with Danny Amendola, who made three huge catches in Super Bowl LI that were essential to New England's comeback.
• This is a bend-but-don't break defense. The Patriots don't usually blitz until their opponent gets inside field goal range, and many of their coverages have two safeties back. That allows them to disguise and, more important, to double-team No. 1 receivers, which they almost always do.
• Their only real weakness is the pass rush. Maybe that improves this year with the continued development of defensive end Trey Flowers, a masterly technician entering his third season. But even then, they're still thin here. New England has no threatening edge benders. It's unusual for a team to play a conservative, coverage-based scheme, get little from its four-man rush and still finish with the No. 1 scoring defense. But that's what the Patriots did last year.
Projected 2017 Record: 7–9, No. 2 in AFC East
2016 Record: 10–6
The Dolphins will be just fine with Jay Cutler taking over for Ryan Tannehill, who is out for the year with a knee injury. The best season of Cutler's career came in Chicago in 2015—his only one playing for Adam Gase, who was the Bears' coordinator. Historically, Cutler's poor decisions and mechanic deficiencies tend to come late in downs; Gase's system will require that Cutler get the ball out early.
• No NFL coach loves any formation more than Gase loves an unbalanced three-by-one (three wide receivers to one side and a tight end alone on the other). The unusual distribution forces a defense to reveal if it is in man or zone coverage. It also creates opportunities to flood one side of the field or set up downfield crossing patterns. The problem with the Dolphins' three-by-one sets in '16 was that they had no tight end threat, which meant that Tannehill almost never threw to the weak side. That's why Miami essentially traded left tackle Branden Albert to the Jaguars for Julius Thomas, whom Gase used so effectively as the coordinator in Denver.
• Miami felt comfortable dealing Albert because of last year's first-round pick, Laremy Tunsil. His athleticism is unbelievable. The Dolphins should now be even better in their staple wide receiver screen game—at least on passes to the left, where Tunsil can get out in front on the perimeter.
• Miami has a zone-based rushing attack, which you wouldn't think would suit 6-foot, 223-pound Jay Ajayi. Speed, which Ajayi lacks, may seem important in a zone scheme, but it's less so than the ability to plant a foot and cut downhill. Here, Ajayi thrives. And once he gets rolling, he's difficult to tackle.
• First-time defensive coordinator Matt Burke, replacing the departed Vance Joseph, has two disruptive tackles for his straightforward 4--3 zone scheme. One we all know: four-time All-Pro Ndamukong Suh. His less renowned counterpart is third-year man Jordan Phillips. At 6' 6" and 333 pounds, Phillips has the size to play nose shade (the gap between the guard and center) and the quickness to cross over a blocker and penetrate.
Projected 2017 Record: 5–11, No. 3 in AFC East
2016 Record: 7–9
TYROD TAYLOR throws one of the best deep balls in the NFL, but that and mobility are all you'll find in his "strengths" column. The quarterback's weaknesses include accuracy at the intermediate levels, an inability to anticipate open receivers (he's a see-it-and-then-throw-it type) and discomfort in the pocket when his early reads aren't there. But Taylor's biggest flaw is that many times, even when his early reads are open, he doesn't get the ball out.
• When a QB is antsy in the pocket and doesn't anticipate throws, his coach must design plays with simple either/or reads. What will help the Bills' offense, though, is the outside-zone run schemes of new offensive coordinator RICK DENNISON, which will complement those pass designs. Play-action will be huge for Buffalo.
• How will LESEAN MCCOY fit Dennison's scheme? The 29-year-old running back is gifted enough to thrive in any system, but he's at his best dancing around to set up blocks. He's done that well in his two seasons in Buffalo, when the rushing plays often featured pull blockers (usually Pro Bowl left guard RICHIE INCOGNITO). An outside zone scheme, however, doesn't use pullers. Instead, the O-line moves in unison, and the back must wait for a hole to develop. This is not McCoy's natural style, but with his speed and agility on the perimeter, he'll still produce.
• The book on new coach SEAN MCDERMOTT: He prefers a 4--3 zone and, like his mentor, longtime Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson, he selectively employs designer blitzes. Also like Johnson, McDermott will adjust his zone coverages to create subtle disguises or gain favorable matchups.
• Three significant concerns about the Bills' defense: 1) It lacks edge rushers. JERRY HUGHES has the speed and fluidity to turn the corner, but second-year man SHAQ LAWSON must rely on technique and has room to grow; 2) the secondary is thin, especially at safety; and 3) cornerback is a question, too. First-round pick TRE'DAVIOUS WHITE is a rookie, and with Ronald Darby traded to Philadelphia, they will now work in newcomer E.J. GAINES from the Rams. If the new group doesn't work, Buffalo will have problems.
New York Jets
Projected 2017 Record: 3–13, No. 4 in AFC East
2016 Record: 5–11
This offseason the Jets hired JOHN MORTON, the Saints' receivers coach in 2015 and '16, to be their offensive coordinator. This will be the first time Morton, 47, has directed an NFL offense, and it's imperative that he incorporate New York's running backs into the passing game. Not only are the Jets bereft of quality wide receivers, but they're also playing with the same tight end group that last season combined for 18 receptions and 173 yards, by far the worst totals in the league at that position.
• When you lack dangerous receivers, your passing game must rely on play design. The effective designs exploit mismatches, but with the Jets' roster, running back versus linebacker is the only chance for a favorable one—and that's if MATT FORTE, 31, can still get the job done. He caught 102 balls for the Bears in '14 but just 30 last year. Forte might be reaching the point where his receiving contributions are restricted to routes coming out of the backfield, which means he's not offering much more in that regard than 28-year-old backup BILAL POWELL.
• With the right players, coach TODD BOWLES schemes aggressively with matchup coverages and designer pressures—preferably those that attack up the middle, in the quarterback's sight lines. Bowles knew he couldn't run his full scheme last year, perhaps as early as Week 1. That's when the Bengals' A.J. Green toasted Darrelle Revis and Bowles realized he no longer had a corner who could shut down top receivers one-on-one. This offseason New York replaced Revis with free-agent signee MORRIS CLAIBORNE. The ex-Cowboy is intriguing, but not the kind of stopper who travels with No. 1 wideouts. And opposite Claiborne the Jets have penalty-prone veteran BUSTER SKRINE.
• Safeties can create disguised pressures and coverages; the more versatility you have there, the more multifaceted your D can be. In Bowles's matchup zone, the safeties must cover tight ends man-to-man and be able to stay with wide receivers who enter their zone and then go vertical. Given these demands, it's no surprise New York used the draft to shore up the position, picking JAMAL ADAMS from LSU in the first round and MARCUS MAYE from Florida in the second.
Projected 2017 Record: 11–5, No. 1 in AFC North
2016 Record: 11–5
Meet the most dangerous offense in football. It can terrify defenses through the air with its four-receiver sets, utilizing the unprecedented collective speed of Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, Sammie Coates and Darrius Heyward-Bey. (Oh, and the fifth eligible receiver in that grouping would be Le'Veon Bell.) Or, the Steelers can be a ground juggernaut, pounding the rock behind six offensive linemen or with extra H-backs and tight ends. That's what they did last season when Bell rushed for 835 yards in Weeks 11 through 16.
• Ben Roethlisberger and the front five are the constants in the offensive packages. Roethlisberger has evolved into a field general, both before and after the snap. And at 35 he can still extend plays—in fact, he can do so even more easily than in years past, considering that his line, somewhat quietly, has become one of the NFL's two or three best.
• Bell is the most patient runner the game has ever seen. He can afford to be patient because his acceleration and lateral quickness allow him to burst ahead the instant he sees daylight.
• Defensive coordinator Keith Butler talked this offseason about the importance of playing more basic coverages and rushing only four. Presumably, he'd like to employ a little more man-to-man. In the AFC championship game against New England, Butler used strictly zone, and Tom Brady picked it apart.
• The departure of inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons, who signed with the Dolphins, is critical when you consider that no replacement was brought in. Instead, Pittsburgh is promoting fifth-year man Vince Williams. He's a classic first- and second-down run-thumper, but he may have some trouble teaming with the electrifying Ryan Shazier in nickel coverage. Don't be surprised if the Steelers do what they did four years ago and become a dime sub-package defense, with third safety Robert Golden essentially playing linebacker.
• The defensive line has a chance to be terrific. Cameron Heyward is a shrewd technician at end. Stephon Tuitt plays with effort and athleticism from the other end. Jason Hargave has equally impressive athleticism—which is rare in a 305-pound nosetackle.
Projected 2017 Record: 9–7, No. 2 in AFC North
2016 Record: 8–8
Joe Flacco needs to be more consistent than he was last year. His rifle arm will yield a handful of Wow! throws each week, some of which will result in big plays. But the Ravens can't subsist on that; they want a quick, rhythmic passing attack. Flacco must rediscover his disciplined mechanics and decision making. He simply had too many incomplete passes, unrecognized open receivers and inexcusable interceptions in 2016.
• Baltimore needs to be much more run-oriented than it was a year ago. Yes, losing top zone runner Kenneth Dixon for '17 with a left-knee injury hurts. But Terrance West, while less disciplined, is still capable of making defenders miss. Danny Woodhead has been signed from San Diego as a passing-down weapon—he can line up anywhere as a receiver, plus he's great on check-downs—but he is also capable of running out of three-receiver sets, which fits Baltimore's zone ground game. A run-oriented offense would give a boost to the receivers, who would face more basic coverages.
• Former Cardinals safety Tony Jefferson was a great free-agent pickup this offseason. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees played a lot of zone coverage in '16, but with Jefferson, who can match up with tight ends anywhere on the field, Pees can use more man-to-man—and then deploy the expansive blitz packages that he loves.
• Baltimore's was far and away the best run defense in football before it wore down after Week 13. Tackles Brandon Williams and Michael Pierce were the main reasons. Both can anchor against double teams, and Williams can move shockingly well for a 6'1" 340-pounder.
• Terrell Suggs is a Hall of Famer. He doesn't just rush the passer. His edge-setting and ball-chasing in run defense are superb. And there isn't a stat for this, but Suggs is adept at jamming tight ends as they come off the line, which compromises an offense's spacing and timing. Also, teams are reluctant to run read-option against Suggs because, dating to the Super Bowl XLVII win over the 49ers, he has shown an eagerness to drill the quarterback whether he keeps the ball or hands it off.
Projected 2017 Record: 5–11, No. 3 in AFC North
2016 Record: 6–9
Andy Dalton's career has been full of highs and lows. Never was that truer than last season. When Dalton had room in the pocket he exhibited decent arm strength and savvy decision making. When he didn't, he floundered. The problem: Dalton doesn't have a great feel for nuanced pocket movement. He lacks Tom Brady's sense for sidestepping defenders and giving himself space. This is why he ends up mired in muddy pockets more than he should.
• The O-line didn't help Dalton much. Last year the interior group struggled to pick up pass-blocking assignments on the fly—and that was before it lost its top talent, right guard Kevin Zeitler, to the Browns this offseason. On the edges, young right tackle Cedric Ogbuehi simply couldn't handle the bull rush. Now he's being asked to replace one of the league's steadiest left tackles, Andrew Whitworth. (Yikes.) That means the new right tackle will be 2015 second-round pick Jake Fisher, who didn't get on the field regularly last season despite the struggles of Ogbuehi and washed-up veteran Eric Winston. (Double yikes.)
• The Bengals drafted running back Joe Mixon in the second round from Oklahoma, and his arrival may mean the end of Jeremy Hill's days as a lead back. Besides being more decisive on runs, Mixon, a gifted receiver, can give the offense more options on first and second down.
• Tyler Eifert, returning from a back injury, is an important piece in the passing game, particularly in the red zone. Mismatch-making tight ends like Eifert are valuable because where they line up often forces a defense to reveal its coverage.
• Paul Guenther is one of NFL's best blitz designers, and yet he blitzed the least of any defensive coordinator last year. Coach Marvin Lewis is comfortable playing straightforward zone, but it would behoove the Bengals to return to the pressure concepts they ran under previous coordinator Mike Zimmer. This defense doesn't have consistent edge rushers. Left end Carlos Dunlap is long and talented but, inexplicably, he disappears for stretches. At right end Michael Johnson, 30, disappears for weeks. It's surprising that the Bengals didn't do more to upgrade at that position.
Projected 2017 Record: 4–12, No. 4 in AFC North
2016 Record: 1–15
This year's Browns are better than last year's, but their passing game may not improve much, and in today's NFL, that's enough to keep a team in the gutter. Obviously much hinges on second-round rookie Deshone Kizer, who is likely their starting quarterback. He flashed athleticism and throwing prowess at Notre Dame, but he can be inconsistent with his accuracy—which could be a problem as he adjusts to the pro game.
• Another passing-game problem: Cleveland has no proven targets. Last year's top pick, Corey Coleman, had to learn the position from the ground up after coming from the spread offense at Baylor, where receivers don't develop in that unconventional scheme. Starting opposite Coleman is free agent Kenny Britt, 28, whose drops and route-running glitches have kept him from becoming a consistent threat. And coach Hue Jackson's system asks much of its tight ends, which means he'll be leaning heavily on a first-round rookie, David Njoku from Miami.
• Drafting Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett with the No. 1 pick was a no-brainer. Cleveland's biggest deficiency on D last season was its pass rush. Every other passing-down lineman on the roster is better equipped to rush the quarterback from inside, rather than off the edge, where Garrett can excel. But if the rookie doesn't produce right away, this defense is in trouble.
• The Browns' second-biggest issue on D in 2016 was their safeties, who were out of position against the run and often missed tackles, especially out of looks such as Cover 2, where they began the play back deep. So it was no surprise that Cleveland selected hybrid thumper Jabrill Peppers out of Michigan with the 25th pick, then acquired '14 first-round safety Calvin Pryor from the Jets. Once new coordinator Gregg Williams is able to trust his safeties, his play-calling will be more aggressive.
• If Williams feels his corners can match up, expect the Browns to blitz often. With athletes such as Peppers and former Patriots linebacker Jamie Collins in the middle of the field and a weak pass rush (except, potentially, from Garrett), manufacturing more pressure makes sense.
Projected 2017 Record: 10–6, No. 1 in AFC South
2016 Record: 9–7
Quietly, the Titans had an impressive offense last year, with an eight-game stretch in which they averaged 30.8 points. What stood out was their schematic diversity. They mostly went with an old-school, smashmouth approach that regularly included extra running backs and tight ends. But late in halves, when they were great, they used a spread with three or four receivers.
• They've added talent at WR, drafting Corey Davis of Western Michigan with the fifth pick and signing Eric Decker from the Jets, but it's still not a fast group. Tennessee will have to continue manufacturing deep shots through play design. That means a first-down play-action passing game—something the Titans developed well last season.
• Marcus Mariota has the makeup to be a star, especially if he's a complementary QB in a run-first offense. That said, he must be more consistent. His accuracy wavers, which is unusual for a passer with such a compact delivery. Early last season he also made too many poor, improvised decisions late in the down.
• Twelfth-year tight end Delanie Walker is invaluable. The Titans can line up in "13" personnel (one-back, three tight ends) and not sacrifice many of their offensive concepts because Walker can act as the second wide receiver. Last season the Titans played 87 snaps of 13 personnel, second to only the Chiefs (101). Their QB rating on 26 passes from this package was 125.8. Being able to play in 13 is a huge advantage for a run-based offense, because having three tight ends creates additional gaps for the backs.
• Coordinator Dick LeBeau's defense is defined by amoeba fronts (in which most box defenders stand up), and complex five-man blitzes on passing downs. In the secondary LeBeau now prefers man coverage—which is shocking for one of the founders of the zone blitz. That's a gargantuan change for the 79-year-old.
• A name to remember: safety Kevin Byard. The 2016 third-round pick thrives as a blitzer (especially versus the run) and has shown hints of man coverage ability. The Titans like to play with three safeties, and it will be interesting to see how Byard meshes with free-agent pickup Jonathan Cyprien (Jaguars), who has a similar skill set.
Projected 2017 Record: 9–7, No. 2 in AFC South
2016 Record: 9–7
No one would be surprised if Deshaun Watson got on the field as a first-round rookie coming off a national title at Clemson—but we shouldn't expect it. Bill O'Brien's offense is not easy to learn. The quarterback is responsible for multiple checks at the line of scrimmage, and many of his reads postsnap are highly contingent on the coverage. The Texans like to run routes, both underneath and downfield, in which the receiver reacts to the position of the safeties. It takes both field-reading acumen and confidence to make those throws. Brock Osweiler couldn't manage it last season. But let's remember that Tom Savage has been in Houston for four years and has a bona fide NFL arm. He has a good shot at starting for all of 2017.
• Savage will attempt throws into tight windows, which is important when your top receiver is DeAndre Hopkins. The five-year pro lacks the speed, quickness and twitch to consistently separate from defensive backs. But Hopkins compensates with strong hands and body control that make him the best contested-catch artist in football.
• The Texans had one of the best defenses in football last season, and now they get back arguably the best defensive player of all time in J.J. Watt. Assistant head coach Romeo Crennel and coordinator Mike Vrabel are great at using presnap alignments to create favorable matchups for pass rushers. They have three linemen who can't be blocked one-on-one: Watt, Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus.
• Clowney is a great physical specimen who, at 24, is developing as a player. This will be the year he fully carves out his NFL niche. He's explosive going north-south and east-west, but the catch is, he can only go in one direction at a time. He doesn't have the flexibility to turn his body low and bend around the edge. That's why, in obvious pass-rushing situations, he's better inside than outside.
• There may not be a more cohesive secondary than Houston's. Cornerbacks Kevin Johnson, Kareem Jackson, and Johnathan Joseph are all proficient in matchup schemes, and safety Andre Hal is a converted corner with great coverage prowess in the middle of the field.
Projected 2017 Record: 8–8, No. 3 in AFC South
2016 Record: 8–8
No one in the NFL believes Andrew Luck is anything less than elite. Luck made more expert-level plays than any quarterback last year, extending plays and finding receivers late. But he also made too many negative plays. Luck can curtail these and help his developing offensive line (plus ward off the injuries that are starting to clutter his "work history") by getting rid of the ball more quickly.
• Here's the conundrum for the Colts, though: Luck is at his best when he extends plays. Most quarterbacks go sandlot when they prolong the action, but Luck understands which routes beat which coverages late, and he consistently spots receivers coming open by keeping his eyes downfield and moving within the pocket. His accuracy on tough throws is exceptional. You take these virtues away when you ask him to get rid of the ball sooner. Play-caller Rob Chudzinski must take care to build a quicker passing game that doesn't rob Luck of his greatest strengths.
• It will help if Indianapolis's young O-line gets better at protecting Luck. Starters Ryan Kelly (center), Joe Haeg (right guard) and Le'Raven Clark (right tackle) have just 16, 14 and three career starts, respectively, and they showed signs of growth last season: In the second half of the season, the Colts allowed an average of 2.25 fewer sacks per game than in the first.
• There are two basic schools of thought on defense. One is to run a simple scheme and allow your guys to play fast. The other is to run a complex scheme and overwhelm opponents mentally. The Colts prefer the former, but it requires an effective four-man pass rush, which they don't have—in fact, they're not even close. Indy's two best edge players, free-agent signees Jabaal Sheard (Patriots) and John Simon (Texans), wouldn't even be on the field in passing situations for some teams. But coach Chuck Pagano and coordinator Ted Monachino know how to compensate: Their scheme is heavy in pressure packages and disguises. To play it you need rangy, versatile safeties and corners who can win one-on-one. That's why the Colts drafted Ohio State safety Malik Hooker in the first round and Florida corner Quincy Wilson in the second.
Projected 2017 Record: 5–11, No. 4 in AFC South
2016 Record: 3–13
There's no nice way to say it: Blake Bortles was awful last year. His mechanics and decision-making regressed. It was hard to believe he was the same quarterback who in 2014 and '15 inspired some to call him a young Ben Roethlisberger. If Bortles struggles again this year he will be on the bench by Halloween. His biggest problem is his throwing motion: It's gotten longer. The longer the motion, the greater the chance of a mechanical glitch. Also, it simply takes more time for the ball to come out—often making what looked like a good decision turn into a bad one.
• Even if Bortles reworks his motion, he'll never have the compact delivery of an Aaron Rodgers or a Matthew Stafford. So Jacksonville must run an offense with slower-developing pass routes. (The Buccaneers do this with Jameis Winston.) Naturally, downfield play-action is a heavy component of that kind of offense. Bortles and the Jags were spectacular with that in 2015. They must get back to it.
• The selection of LSU running back Leonard Fournette with the No. 4 pick suggests that Doug Marrone, in his first full season as the Jaguars' coach, and new front-office czar Tom Coughlin want an old-school, run-first offense. A lack of athleticism along the interior O-line means Jacksonville's ground game will feature more inside zone than outside zone plays.
• With the additions of marquee free agents A.J. Bouye (cornerback) and Calais Campbell (defensive lineman), plus the expected development of second-year men Yannick Ngakoue (defensive end), Myles Jack (middle linebacker) and Jalen Ramsey (corner), the Jaguars' D could be stacked. The more talent you have, the simpler your scheme can be, and the faster your defenders can play. Defensive coordinator Todd Wash is expected to stick with their Seahawks-style Cover 3, which is about as simple as it gets.
• Ramsey is a superstar in the making. At 6' 2" and 208 pounds, he has the best physique of any corner to enter the league recently, and his build is ideal for a Cover 3 boundary cornerback—the Richard Sherman role. Bouye is another rangy corner, and he has great route recognition. It will be difficult to beat Jacksonville on the perimeter.
Projected 2017 Record: 10–6, No. 1 in AFC West
2016 Record: 12–4
Raiders fans, don't get apoplectic when you read this, but Derek Carr is not the savior of the NFL. He's just an extremely talented 26-year-old quarterback who can run a wide-ranging offense and flick strong, tight-window throws anywhere on the field. MVP-caliber stuff? You bet. But understand: Carr did not play like an MVP last year until Week 8. Before that, he had been inconsistent in his mechanics and decision-making. This is actually good news for the faithful, because it suggests that Carr is in the early stages of his growth, and he could have an even better season in 2017.
• What first-time offensive coordinator Todd Downing wanted most this offseason was to acquire a tight end who was a true weapon in the passing game. (Incumbent Clive Walford is a backup.) Downing got that in former Packer Jared Cook.
• Remember: Marshawn Lynch last produced like a star running back in 2014. It will be interesting to see how he comes back after a season off. The Raiders have two excellent backups in DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard. Most likely the 31-year-old Lynch will lead the rotation as a first- and second-down back.
• Overall, the Cowboys have the NFL's best offensive line—by far. The argument is whether Oakland has the best interior offensive line in football. Guards Gabe Jackson and especially Kelechi Osemele can displace defensive linemen in the ground game. Center Rodney Hudson is alert and technically sound blocking on the move.
• The Raiders have perhaps the least appealing group of linebackers in the NFL, so the defense must continue to be aggressive schematically. Raiders DC Ken Norton Jr. would presumably prefer the straightforward zone tactics that he learned as an assistant in Seattle. But that defense is about reading and reacting. Oakland's linebackers would get exposed playing that kind of football.
• Instead of significantly addressing their linebacking corps in the offseason Oakland drafted cornerback Gareon Conley of Ohio State in the first round and safety Obi Melifonwu of Connecticut in the second. The better your defensive backfield, the more creative your scheme can be.
Kansas City Chiefs
Projected 2017 Record: 10–6, No. 2 in AFC West
2016 Record: 12–4
The plan is for Tyreek Hill to be an every-down player in 2017. This could fundamentally change the makeup of the Chiefs' offense. The 5'10", 185-pound Hill can be deployed anywhere as a wide receiver—including on the line by himself on the weak side, a la Dez Bryant or A.J. Green. He's also dangerous in the backfield and even more so on gadget plays, which are a big part of coach Andy Reid's brilliantly schemed, misdirection-based offense.
• Kansas City's passing game is unique because it doesn't depend on wide receivers winning one-on-one battles outside. (That's why they released the expensive Jeremy Maclin this offseason.) The scheme relies on route combinations creating opportunities for tight ends and running backs. This means the throws are more about timing than velocity, making caretaker quarterback Alex Smith—call him a "point guard QB" if you feel that's more respectful—a fine fit.
• The NFL's two best three-tight end packages belong to the Redskins and the Chiefs. What do they have in common? An athletic, refined route runner who can line up anywhere (Washington's Jordan Reed and KC's Travis Kelce), and a No. 2 tight end who can also line up anywhere (Vernon Davis and Demetrius Harris). (The third TE tends to stay near the line.) Remove Kelce and the Chiefs' attack is significantly less potent.
• No defense that has ever allowed fewer than 20 points a game has given up more yards than the 2016 Chiefs. This speaks to their D's dependency on big plays. Kansas City's 18 interceptions were tied with the Ravens and the Chargers for the league lead. What's incredible is that the Chiefs did this in a matchup-based scheme. When they aren't playing man coverage, they play an assertive matchup zone that often ends up resembling man coverage in its execution. Man-to-man defenders typically don't get many picks because their eyes are on their receiver, not the quarterback or the ball.
• Second-year defensive end Chris Jones has a chance to be special. His initial quickness and raw strength are tremendous.
Los Angeles Chargers
Projected 2017 Record: 7–9, No. 3 in AFC West
2016 Record: 5–11
Philip Rivers threw a league-high 21 interceptions last season, but an unusually large number of those were due to wide receiver mistakes. That won't be the case this year with the addition of Clemson first-rounder Mike Williams (if healthy) and the return of Keenan Allen from a torn right ACL. Speedy Travis Benjamin is back as a movable No. 3 receiver and big-play weapon; fourth-year pro Dontrelle Inman is one of the league's best route runners and could blossom into a quality starter; and 6'4", 205-pound Tyrell Williams, while needing refinement, has the size and speed to be a No. 1.
• It's clear Melvin Gordon is most comfortable running out of a two-back formation: He settled down in his second season after the Chargers drafted his former Wisconsin fullback, Derek Watt. But over the course of 2016, Gordon also got tougher running out of one-back formations. That's crucial, especially in San Diego's offense.
• If the Chargers aren't playing three receivers, they'll use two tight ends—and look good doing it. They have a developing star in second-year pro Hunter Henry and the savviest of veterans in Antonio Gates, who is still one of the best at getting open over the middle.
• Presumably, new coach Anthony Lynn wouldn't have hired Gus Bradley as his defensive coordinator unless he wanted to run a Seahawks-style Cover 3 zone. But you have to wonder about the wisdom of adopting such a relatively basic scheme, given Los Angeles's talent. The Chargers have what every defense covets: a pair of top-flight man-to-man corners in Jason Verrett and Casey Hayward, who should enable you to expand—not contract—your blitz packages.
• Joey Bosa, with only a dozen games under his belt, is already the third-best edge rusher in the NFL, behind Von Miller and Khalil Mack. (J.J. Watt is more a pure defensive lineman than an edge guy.) Bosa's lateral quickness is incredible. So is his hand strength. And body control. And ability to transition from speed to power. It'll be interesting to see where he lines up. Conventional wisdom says he'll play defensive end. But those in the know suggest that Bosa might see snaps inside as a passing down 3-technique.
Projected 2017 Record: 6–10, No. 4 in AFC West
2016 Record: 9–7
First-time head coach Vance Joseph should follow Mike Tomlin's example. Before he took the Steelers' job, Tomlin had been an assistant on teams that ran classic 4--3 zone schemes. But the Pittsburgh defense he inherited was coordinated by the legendary Dick LeBeau and stocked with players who fit the franchise's hallmark 3--4 disguised-blitzing attack. So, instead of trying to put his 4--3 stamp on his new club, Tomlin humbly let the D be—and rode it to two Super Bowl appearances in his first four years. Joseph, who most recently coached 4--3 zone-based schemes in Miami and Cincinnati, inherits a Broncos defense that has dominated with man coverage and blitzing. He should let it be.
• What stands out about Denver's secondary is how well cornerbacks Chris Harris, Aqib Talib and Bradley Roby handle picks and rub routes out of man coverage. That's what carried them to victory in the 2015 AFC championship game, when their tight coverage forced Tom Brady to hold the ball and allowed the pass rush to take over.
• It won't matter who won the QB job—Trevor Siemian, for now—if the Broncos don't run the ball better; they ranked 27th in 2016. Expect more inside rushes under offensive coordinator Mike McCoy and new O-line coach Jeff Davidson, as opposed to the outside zone runs preferred by former coach Gary Kubiak.
• Like most young quarterbacks, Siemian struggles to process information quickly after the snap. But his upside is that he's tough in the pocket. He keeps his eyes downfield with hits looming and willingly steps into throws. That's a foundation he can build on.
• Paxton Lynch played only 10 quarters last season—not long enough to render a meaningful judgment on the 2016 first-round pick. But this much is clear: His physical traits are excellent. He has size (6'7", 244 pounds), mobility and arm strength. He needs to tighten his throwing motion; poor lower-body mechanics caused his throws to lose power and velocity. Addressing this—which won't be easy—would also improve his accuracy. Also, Lynch hasn't shown Siemian's comfort in the pocket, but that's not uncommon for a raw prospect seeing his first NFL action.
New York Giants
Projected 2017 Record: 10–6, No. 1 in NFC East
2016 Record: 11–5
The first thing you look for every time you put on Giants film: How is their opponent defending Odell Beckham Jr.? Or, perhaps more accurately, how is it doubling Beckham? That won't change this season, even with the signing of six-time Pro Bowl receiver Brandon Marshall. Beckham will remain enemy No. 1 for defenses because there isn't a greater big-play threat in football. But the big-bodied Marshall should also thrive in an offense that features slant routes.
• New York's ground game, ranked 29th a year ago, must improve, but that won't be easy in its three-receiver offense. Because the Giants have only six run blockers (the O-line and a tight end), they can create fewer gaps and deploy far fewer formations, restricting their rush designs. (On the bright side, they often face fewer defenders in the box.) Really, New York's ground attack consists of two basic plays, run primarily out of shotgun: inside zone, with double teams right up the gut, and "power," with a pulling guard.
• Eli Manning has always made the occasional boneheaded turnover, but he has more than compensated with his overall play. That said, he had far too many interceptions last year against underneath zone defenders in basic coverages, especially for a quarterback with his experience.
• The defense carried this team in 2016. Expect coordinator Steve Spagnuolo to be an even more creative, aggressive play-caller now that he has a better grasp of his personnel. Last season he was learning on the fly about CB Janors Jenkins, CB Eli Apple, DT Damon Harrison and DE Olivier Vernon (not a bad quartet of newcomers, by the way). Spagnuolo loves to blitz.
• One featured blitzer is third-year strong safety Landon Collins, who made first-team All-Pro last year. Collins is not good when he's reacting; he struggles when forced to backpedal, which is why teams go after him in man coverage. But when he's in attack mode, he's as dangerous as almost any defender in football. Spagnuolo has been shrewd in figuring out how to use Collins, who last season responded with five interceptions, four sacks and consistently strong tackling against the run.
Projected 2017 Record: 10–6, No. 2 in NFC East
2016 Record: 13–3
The hype about the Dallas offensive line is entirely justified. In fact, not only do the Cowboys have the NFL's best tackle (Tyron Smith), guard (Zack Martin) and center (Travis Frederick), but those men are the league's three best offensive linemen, period. Smith is a superior athlete, and it shows in both pass protection and outside zone blocking. Martin is peerless at blocking while on the move. Frederick's mechanics and initial quickness allow him to beat defensive tackles to a spot, sealing them inside—which is the key to much of Dallas's ground game.
• It's possible that the Cowboys will have a fourth elite O-lineman this season: third-year man La'el Collins, who is moving from left guard to right tackle after the retirement of Doug Free. Collins is a natural at working his run blocks up to the second level.
• Dak Prescott had a tremendous rookie campaign, but he played under perfect conditions. He had an O-line that provided clean pockets, a true No. 1 receiver to influence coverages (Dez Bryant), two effective underneath possession targets (Cole Beasley and Jason Witten) and the league's leading rusher (Ezekiel Elliott). Prescott will have all of that again in 2017—except when Elliott misses games for his conduct suspension. At some point Dallas will have to lean on Prescott to make full-field progression reads and throws under duress. We'll really find out about him when they do.
• Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli diversifies his coverages just enough to avoid being predictable. The Cowboys don't blitz often, but when they do, it usually involves some sort of gap exchange, with defenders starting in one gap but attacking another. Such maneuvers are also a big part of their regular four-man rush.
• When you run as many D-line slants as the Cowboys do, it's imperative that your linebackers have the speed, awareness and technique to scrape outside and cover the area away from the slant. Sean Lee is great at that. Damien Wilson and Jaylon Smith are capable as well.
• Dallas will be counting on first-round rookie Taco Charlton of Michigan. They badly need his speed off the edge.
Projected 2017 Record: 8–8, No. 3 in NFC East
2016 Record: 7–9
Carson Wentz has that rare, Roethlisberger-ian ability to extend a play without breaking down its structure. We'll see him do that even more in 2017. Last year the Eagles just wanted their rookie QB to make completions, so they called a lot of quick-strike throws, which Wentz, when he was comfortable, executed well. With an expanded understanding of the NFL game and of Doug Pederson's offense, an improved receiving corps and more trust in his line, Wentz will approach top 10 QB status before long.
• There's no need to be concerned about how Alshon Jeffery, signed from the Bears, will fit in in an offense that is structured around misdirection concepts, quick underneath throws and the occasional downfield route combination. Last season the Eagles asked Dorial Green-Beckham to fill the role that they are now handing to Jeffery. Both receivers have the same rare combination of size and speed, but Jeffery actually knows how to use it. Defenses should be on high alert for dig routes from Jeffery while speedy free-agent pickup Torrey Smith runs go routes.
• Three things to know about Philadelphia's O-line: 1) Right tackle Lane Johnson is critical. When he's in—he missed 10 games last year for a performance-enhancing drug suspension—Wentz is much more comfortable; 2) Left tackle Jason Peters is declining athletically, but the team believes the 35-year-old, three-time All-Pro can gut out at least one more quality season; and 3) Center Jason Kelce is great on the move, but lacks the strength to battle in traffic. Defenses will exploit this by deploying a nosetackle against him.
• Philly's defensive line depth and versatility are fantastic. Veteran free-agent pickup Chris Long can be a first- and second-down end, allowing first-round rookie Derek Barnett from Tennessee to focus solely on situational pass rushing. Former Raven Timmy Jernigan provides a second interior gap-shooting presence alongside Fletcher Cox. And Cox can actually line up at end sometimes, while Brandon Graham and Vinny Curry (both excellent pass rushers) slide inside. The only negative is the loss of tackle Bennie Logan, who signed with the Chiefs. He'll be missed in run defense.
Projected 2017 Record: 7–9, No. 4 in NFC East
2016 Record: 8–7–1
Kirk Cousins's performance was up-and-down both early and late in 2016. He didn't always play with great vision and discipline. That's troubling because he doesn't have outstanding arm strength or athleticism, so he can't consistently conjure big plays on his own. What Cousins does have is an understanding of coach Jay Gruden's system—which might be the best-crafted in the NFL—as well as a willingness to make tough throws, even when defenders are bearing down. When he plays smartly, that's enough to make Washington's offense go.
• DeSean Jackson, who signed with Tampa Bay, was sometimes a headache, and keeping Pierre Garçon would have been expensive, but both receivers will likely be missed in Washington. Josh Doctson, last year's first-round pick, and former Brown Terrelle Pryor might be bigger and more talented than Jackson and Garçon, but how do their skill sets fit? Jackson's speed and Garçon's fortitude on in-breaking routes complemented each other, and that factored heavily into how Washington constructed its route combinations.
• It's a myth that you must run the ball well in order to execute play-action. It helps, but it's not essential. Last season the Redskins ranked 21st in run offense, and yet their play-action game was once again among the best: According to Football Outsiders, they led the league with 10.4 yards per play-action pass play. Successful play-action starts with cohesive offensive line movement. If you display that, the defense will react accordingly.
• Defensive coordinator Greg Manusky ultimately wants to run a zone-based scheme, but he needs a much stronger pass rush. That's why the Redskins spent a first-round pick on defensive tackle Jonathan Allen and a second-rounder on outside linebacker Ryan Anderson, both from Alabama.
• Josh Norman is a superb corner. He's as physical as they come. He has fantastic awareness against receivers at the top of their routes. The concern is speed. Norman's is not lacking, but it may not be quite enough for him to succeed consistently on an island against No. 1 receivers. That's partly why he's better in zone than in man.
Projected 2017 Record: 11–5, No. 1 in NFC North
2016 Record: 8–8
Everyone in the Vikings organization adores Teddy Bridgewater. And before his horrific left-knee injury last summer, they believed he was their future at quarterback. But here's the cold, hard truth: Sam Bradford is markedly better than Bridgewater. Bradford has superior arm strength, accuracy and drop-back timing, and he—not Bridgewater—is the one Minnesota should worry about re-signing after this season.
• Did the Vikings overspend for Lions left tackle Riley Reiff (five years, $26.3 million guaranteed)? Probably. How about Panthers right tackle Mike Remmers (five years, $10.5 million guaranteed)? Probably, again. But anyone who watched this team in the second half of last year can't blame them. After three offensive tackles went down and T.J. Clemmings—whose NFL future (if he has one) is as a backup guard—was put back in at left tackle, the passing game was reduced to screens and hasty three-step drop-backs. Bradford & Co. never had a chance.
• This will be a three-receiver offense. Minnesota is solid at wideout and, beyond seven-year veteran Kyle Rudolph, it has no proven tight ends or fullbacks. Rudolph is a flawed run blocker but a steady inside-aligned receiver who can get open with the right play design.
• The Vikings are predominantly a two-high-safety defense. The reason more teams don't use this structure is that it leaves one less body in the box, which hurts against the run. Minnesota, however, has a trio of stingy run stoppers inside: oversized linebacker Anthony Barr, athletic linebacker Eric Kendricks and massively underrated nosetackle Linval Joseph. Defensive ends Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter aren't great edge-setters, but in a two-high scheme they don't need to be. That job falls to either the cornerbacks or the safeties (depending on if it's Cover 2 or Cover 4). Their DBs, especially free safety Harrison Smith, are sure tacklers.
• Kendricks is a key component of coach Mike Zimmer's staple double-A-gap package. It's imperative that the linebackers, who will walk up in the area between guard and center, have the ability to retreat into landmark zone coverage when the blitz is merely a bluff. Kendricks is tremendous here.
Green Bay Packers
Projected 2017 Record: 11–5, No. 2 in NFC North
2016 Record: 10–6
Aaron Rodgers is a paradox. At times he simply won't look at his primary receiver. He'll also hold the ball unnecessarily. And yet when he goes against these quarterbacking fundamentals, Rodgers doesn't just avoid turnovers—he often makes spectacular plays. Still, the Packers' offense operates better when Rodgers is playing on time and with discipline. He did that down the stretch last season and lit the world on fire.
• Jordy Nelson is the perfect receiver for Rodgers. Besides running Green Bay's staple routes—such as slants and posts outside, and deep "over" routes from the slot—Nelson is tremendous on the back-shoulder throws that Rodgers loves, and he has a feel for how to get open when a play breaks down late. This is a big reason that 11 of Nelson's league-leading 14 touchdown receptions last year came in the red zone.
• Let's not forget: Rodgers and Nelson can come up with magic late in the play because of their offensive line. No front five was better at sustaining pass protection in 2016—not even Dallas's. The Pack's O-line does have some built-in advantages, though. Instead of blitzing Rodgers, defenses like to drop eight into coverage, which means there are only three defenders to block. Also, Green Bay sees fewer designer pass rush tactics such as stunts and twists; defenses are so concerned with keeping Rodgers in the pocket that they tend to have rushers simply charge straight up the field.
• When the Packers drafted cornerback Kevin King and safety Josh Jones in the second round this spring, defensive coordinator Dom Capers beamed. That's because Capers, the team's nine-year defensive coordinator, can only run his preferred system when he has cover men he trusts. (Last year he had to play safe, two-high-safety schemes to aid his floundering cornerbacks.)
• Capers loves to play "big nickel," even against running formations. He basically replaces a linebacker with a smaller, but more athletic, box safety. Former Packers great Charles Woodson and Micah Hyde (who signed with the Bills this offseason) both prospered in this role. In '17 eight-year veteran Morgan Brunett should ably succeed them.
Projected 2017 Record: 6–10, No. 3 in NFC North
2016 Record: 3–13
It has been nearly three years since Mike Glennon started an NFL game, but when last seen with the Buccaneers he had improved at playing with defenders in his face. That's a critical trait for an NFL quarterback, especially a pocket passer who is not particularly mobile. Glennon, who signed a three-year, $45 million deal in March, surely didn't love it when the Bears traded up to draft Mitchell Trubisky of North Carolina. But the 27-year-old will have his opportunities, and if he plays well he'll be a starting QB (somewhere) in 2018.
• Who will be the targets for Glennon (or Trubisky)? With Alshon Jeffery gone to Philadelphia, Chicago has no No. 1 receiver. Kevin White, a '15 first-rounder who was seen as a project out of West Virginia, where he always lined up on the right side, has played just four games in two seasons because of left leg injuries. And when White has been on the field he has looked slow and stiff, though that could be because he wasn't fully healthy.
• Second-year back Jordan Howard is the best all-around zone runner in football. He can be a sustaining, defender-dragging ballcarrier on inside zone runs, working behind double teams. And he has a superb feel for turning the corner on outside zone runs, which make up the bulk of the Bears' rushing attack. To play to this, the Bears like to feed Howard on pitches and sweeps.
• Eighteen-year NFL defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, in his third season with Chicago, prefers subtly disguised zone coverages, usually with two safeties deep. That means he can't blitz often, which is why it's important that the Bears have an effective four-man pass rush. Leonard Floyd, their first-round pick in '16, has the length and athleticism to become a 15-sack-a-year guy.
• If you're a two-high-safety zone defense with decent edge rushers, your defenders naturally have eyes on the quarterback and the ball, making it easier to generate turnovers by jumping routes and going for strip-fumbles after the catch. But the Bears, despite being zone-based, forced 11 turnovers last season, tied for the least in NFL history. If that doesn't improve, Chicago will draft in the top five again in '18.
Projected 2017 Record: 5–11, No. 4 in NFC North
2016 Record: 9–7
Fans like the idea that a physically limited quarterback can succeed with brains and accuracy. He can, but to a much lesser extent than they realize. In the NFL, the stronger a QB's arm, the more throws that are available to him. If you don't believe it, take a close look at the Lions. You'll see an offense that's defined by its quarterback's cannon arm. Matthew Stafford continues to make the big-time, tight-window passes that he has always made—he's especially deft throwing deep outside against Cover 2—but in coordinator Jim Bob Cooter's system, we've seen the 29-year-old QB play with more maturity. His bold throws are now also good decisions. Cooter has helped Stafford by using straightforward, static formations. The presnap stillness gives Stafford a clearer picture of the defense.
• Here's hoping third-year running back Ameer Abdullah stays healthy—he went on injured reserve after Week 2 last year with a left Lisfranc injury. With Abdullah and Theo Riddick (the best inside receiving back in football), Detroit has two dynamic backfield weapons who can create their own space. Their shifty style of running fits Cooter's single-back spread formations.
• Taylor Decker tore his right labrum in June, sidelining him for four to six months, and that hurts. The injury to one of the league's best young left tackles—Decker has steady feet and strong hands—leaves the Lions with unappetizing options: reserves Corey Robinson and Cornelius Lucas and former Rams bust Greg Robinson.
• Last year opposing offenses completed 72.7% of their passes against Detroit, the highest rate in the NFL's modern era. Surprisingly, the secondary never looked that bad on film. The corners, led by Darius Slay, were solid, and there was depth and versatility at safety. The real problem was that this D rarely made big plays, and that almost always stems from an ineffective pass rush. Indeed, the Lions ranked 30th in sacks.
• Defensive end Ziggy Ansah is worlds better than his two sacks in 2016 suggest. The fifth-year pro, long and athletic, thrives on stunts and twists. Ansah could play at the same level as last season and wind up with 12 sacks.
Projected 2017 Record: 12–4, No. 1 in NFC South
2016 Record: 11–5
The biggest question facing the Falcons is, What will the offense look like under new coordinator Steve Sarkisian? In spring there was talk of adding new wrinkles, but doing so is a dangerous game. On the one hand, the fastest way to fall behind in the NFL is to not evolve. On the other, how much do you want to change an offense that last year was one of the greatest in NFL history?
• Under OC Kyle Shanahan (now the 49ers' head coach), the Falcons' ground game and aerial attack were in perfect sync. The outside zone run blocking naturally helped sell the play-action game, which Atlanta used a league-high 27% of the time, according to Football Outsiders. This helped turn shrewd field surveyor Matt Ryan into the MVP.
• Expect to see Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman on the field together more often. Both are top 10 NFL ballcarriers, and both can split out wide and win as receivers. With both backs out there, defenses will struggle to identify which players to put on the field, let alone what coverage to call.
• The Falcons made Super Bowl LI because their young defense improved drastically. After allowing 28.3 points a game before their Week 11 bye, they gave up just 22.0 (including playoffs). The improvements were most apparent in the middle. Rookie linebackers Deion Jones and De'Vondre Campbell and rookie strong safety Keanu Neal were much sharper mentally. Offenses had been attacking them with deep routes by inside receivers; once they figured out how to recognize those plays, the whole D stepped up.
• Amazingly, Atlanta's secondary performed better after Desmond Trufant, a top five all-around corner, went down with a torn left pectoral in Week 9. Jalen Collins performed well outside, and Robert Alford traveled with No. 1 receivers all over, including into the slot. In fact, he outplayed Julian Edelman in Super Bowl LI. Collins has been suspended 10 games for a PED violation, but the Falcons still have quality depth with Brian Poole and Deji Olatoye. Expect Quinn to call on multiple backups. Last season he increasingly played man coverage and used a four-cornerback dime package.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Projected 2017 Record: 10–6, No. 2 in NFC South
2016 Record: 9–7
This may not be the year Jameis Winston becomes a top 10 quarterback, but expect a quantum leap. The Buccaneers understand exactly what Winston is: a smart (potentially brilliant) gunslinger whose release is a bit methodical. He doesn't fit the quick-strike schemes that define so many of today's offenses; he's suited for the slower-developing plays that stem from five- and seven-step dropbacks. Coach Dirk Koetter's shrewd downfield concepts will bring out Winston's best.
• Winston needs to cut down on his interceptions. He threw 15 as a rookie and 18 last year (second only to Philip Rivers for the NFL high). Winston has the talent to compensate with big plays—as Eli Manning does, and Brett Favre did—and he's not simply "mistake-prone" like his backup, Ryan Fitzpatrick. And Winston's turnovers should decline with experience. Many of them are the result of overly aggressive decisions on reads that most young quarterbacks wouldn't even know enough to consider.
• Tampa Bay has the three kinds of receivers that teams want in a downfield passing offense: a big wideout who can run corner and post patterns and win with the ball in the air (Mike Evans); a speedster who can attack safeties, opening up the intermediate levels (Desean Jackson); and a tight end who can work the seams and run the 5-to-15-yard routes (both first-round rookie O.J. Howard of Alabama and incumbent starter Cameron Brate).
• In the first half of last season the Bucs' defense allowed 29.0 points and 398.9 yards per game. In the second half it surrendered 17.1 points and 337.0 yards. What changed? The players' comfort with coordinator Mike Smith's zone concepts. The back seven played with much better spacing and awareness, and Smith, in turn, became more comfortable dialing up coverage disguises. Expect more improvement in 2017.
• An effective zone-based D requires a strong four-man pass rush. Aside from signing former Redskins tackle Chris Baker in the offseason, GM Jason Licht did not address this unit. So he is counting on Noah Spence to make even better use of the edge-quickness and second-effort burst that he flashed as a rookie.
Projected 2017 Record: 5–11, No. 3 in NFC South
2016 Record: 9–7
Carolina selected shifty, underneath weapons in the first two rounds of this year's draft: Christian McCaffrey of Stanford and Curtis Samuel of Ohio State. This suggests that coordinator Mike Shula will introduce more quick-strike concepts into their offense—which is like McDonald's deciding to add pizza to its menu. The change is both radical and unnecessary. The Panthers have a run-first offense built for a deep-drop-back passing game; their wide receivers are all big-bodied plodders, not twitchy space-creators; and their offensive line needs the help of additional blockers for those deep drop-backs.
• Most important, quick-strike passing is not what Cam Newton does. He's not a timing or anticipation passer. Accuracy has never been his strength, and it likely never will be, given how unrefined his mechanics are six years into his career. Newton is a power thrower, which fits best in a deep-drop-back offense.
• It would be foolish for the Panthers to limit Newton's rushing attempts, which coach Ron Rivera has said he'd like to do. At 6'5" and 245 pounds, the mere threat of Newton's running is valuable because it gives the offense a numbers advantage in the box. The running dimension made Newton the league's MVP in 2015. Take that away and you're left with a below-average QB.
• Carolina's defense is only as good as its four-man pass rush. When it's clicking, it allows their soft zone coverages to work. When the rush doesn't get to the quarterback, the voids in their coverages become too large. Last season the Panthers averaged 3.8 sacks in wins and 2.4 in losses.
• Julius Peppers is a Hall of Fame defensive end, but entering his 16th season, he's a better interior pass rusher. That's why the Packers played him at nickel defensive tackle last season.
• This will be Shaq Thompson's third season, and it's time for him to see more snaps. He's as fast as any linebacker in football, and his coverage abilities are sensational. But he hasn't been able to get on the field much, because Luke Kuechly is too great to take out and 34-year-old Thomas Davis isn't slowing down. The plan is for Thompson to assume some of Davis's reps in the nickel package. We'll see.
New Orleans Saints
Projected 2017 Record: 6–10, No. 4 in NFC South
2016 Record: 7–9
One of the things that makes Drew Brees great is his ability to manipulate pass defenders with body language. He does this not only with pump fakes but also with shoulder rolls and misleading glances to one side of the field. This is quarterbacking at its highest level, and it is vital for a New Orleans offense that focuses its passing game almost exclusively inside the numbers.
• Left tackle Terron Armstead will miss part of the season as he recovers from offseason surgery for a torn left labrum. But the Saints can survive, because their scheme naturally helps blockers. For one, no NFC coach last year used formations with six offensive linemen more than Sean Payton, who loves to throw from that personnel grouping. Also, its tight ends and running backs often help with chip blocks. This slows those players as they're getting into their routes, but that's fine because they can serve as check-down options, and Brees's eyes don't reach them until late in the play.
• Don't be surprised when Adrian Peterson supplants Mark Ingram in the running back pecking order. The free-agent pickup is a great fit for New Orleans's north-south ground game, which stylistically resembles the one Peterson thrived in as a Viking.
• The defense has been bad for a while, even though the front office has been trying. Every year since 2011 the Saints have spent two of their top three draft picks on defense. The wet-noodle-to-wall approach has left them with a ton of depth—if we're defining depth as highly drafted players who could carve out significant roles but also might provide nothing. Only five starters are proven and locked in: end Cameron Jordan, tackle Sheldon Rankins, cornerback Delvin Breaux (if healthy), and safeties Kenny Vaccaro and Vonn Bell. That's not to say New Orleans is in dire straits at every other position; it's just that those spots are unsettled.
• Defensive coordinator Dennis Allen plays with a ton of personnel groupings, front seven alignments and coverage rotations. It's no surprise the Saints drafted cornerback Marshon Lattimore of Ohio State in the first round. The better Allen's corners are in solo coverage, the more creative he can be.
Projected 2017 Record: 11–5, No. 1 in NFC West
2016 Record: 10–5–1
Russell Wilson is difficult to analyze. He doesn't always play on time in the pocket, which leads to missed opportunities and plays that break down. But when those breakdowns occur, Wilson can produce results that most quarterbacks couldn't. He's a great touch thrower, particularly on the move, including when he's going left. That said, it's hard to be a consistent team with a sandlot-style QB, and indeed the Seahawks have always been a week-to-week offense. To gain more consistency in the last couple seasons they've emphasized spread formations that demand Wilson get the ball out almost immediately. Wilson, to his immense credit, has responded well. He'll never be a classic drop-back passer, but he's become a much-improved quick-pocket passer.
• Seattle's offensive line is as putrid as everyone says it is. Last season the front five struggled mightily against athletic D-lines—a real problem for a team that shares a division with the Rams and the Cardinals. Expect musical chairs up front again this season. The only sure thing is on-the-rise center Justin Britt.
• This defense has changed in the last two seasons under coordinator Kris Richard. It is no longer just a straight Cover 3 zone unit. Richard is a big believer in man-to-man. He'll have Richard Sherman travel with top receivers, and he plays free safety Earl Thomas all over, not just in centerfield. It's a fundamentally different D from the ones under Dan Quinn and Gus Bradley.
• There isn't a better safety duo than Thomas and Kam Chancellor. They played only seven games together last season because of injury, and in those games the Seahawks allowed an average of 14.3 points and 202.3 passing yards. In the other games Seattle gave up 21.3 points and 244.0 passing yards. The Cover 3, which remains this defense's foundation even if it's used less frequently, works because of those two.
• Defensive lineman Frank Clark will be a superstar by season's end. The third-year player's initial quickness, change-of-direction agility and closing burst are just too dynamic to ignore.
Projected 2017 Record: 8–8, No. 2 in NFC West
2016 Record: 7–8–1
We can talk Carson Palmer all we want, but if the Cardinals' offensive line doesn't improve markedly, this team has no chance. Bruce Arians's system features five-step timing drop-backs and often sends out all five eligible receivers, leaving the O-line without any blocking help. Last year Arizona allowed 127 quarterback hits, third most in the league. They've reshuffled their personnel but serious questions remain, including at left tackle, where 2015 first-rounder D.J. Humphries is taking over.
• Given that David Johnson is, along with Le'Veon Bell, one of the best receiving backs in football (and all-around running backs period), the Cards can really pressure defenses when they go to a four-receiver, one-back set—which they did more often than all but two teams last season. In that formation they have Johnson dictating matchups out wide or in the slot, top-notch possession target Larry Fitzgerald as a security blanket inside and three sheer speedsters (Jaron Brown, a healthy John Brown and J.J. Nelson) threatening deep. Few defenses have an answer for all of that.
• It's so impressive that Fitzgerald, 34, has cemented his Hall of Fame credentials by becoming the league's best blocking receiver late in his career. Arizona's top running play involves Fitzgerald motioning down behind two line-of-scrimmage tight ends and blocking a second-level defender at the point of attack.
• No one noticed because the Cardinals weren't winning last year, but their defense ranked third in net yards allowed per pass attempt (5.7) and also per rush attempt (3.6). It also recorded a league-high 48 sacks. But it will be difficult for Arizona to maintain that level in 2017. Five starters are gone, including emerging star safety Tony Jefferson (Ravens) and domineering defensive lineman Calais Campbell (Jaguars). To restock, the Cardinals brought in a mix of veterans (LB Karlos Dansby, SS Antione Bethea) and rookies (first-round ILB Hasson Reddick from Temple and FS Budda Baker, a second-rounder from Washington). Incorporating so many new starters into coordinator James Bettcher's complex scheme could be challenging early on.
Los Angeles Rams
Projected 2017 Record: 7–9, No. 3 in NFC West
2016 Record: 4–12
Jared Goff needs to throw better, plain and simple. As a rookie he was inaccurate on too many routine plays. On passes 11 to 20 yards downfield, his QB rating was 27.9. But here's the positive: Despite getting little help from his offensive line and receivers, Goff showed that he can be tough in the pocket. Early on he tended to take his eyes off his receivers to look at the pass rush, one of the ultimate no-nos, but he grew past that. He knew hits were coming, and he stood firm. That is a critical, encouraging sign.
• Running behind a revamped O-line that includes former Bengal Andrew Whitworth at left tackle, Todd Gurley should be better this year. But his poor showing in 2016 wasn't all because of his blocking: Gurley didn't see the field with the same clarity he did as a rookie.
• Acquiring Sammy Watkins from Buffalo addressed a major need. Before that trade, new coach Sean McVay, the former Redskins offensive coordinator, didn't have a single mismatch-making weapon to build his pass designs around. Some might see Tavon Austin as one, but there's a reason the '13 first-round pick has gained only 410.5 receiving yards a year. Austin can get lazy on deep routes, and as a slot man he hasn't shown the necessary nuance and patience to win underneath. At this point he's a gadget player.
• Wade Phillips is as respected as any defensive coordinator in football today (maybe ever), but one quiet criticism you'll hear is that he can be predictable in coverage against untraditional two-receiver formations. In Denver, Phillips's linebackers would get in unfavorable matchups against running backs and tight ends. But Rams linebackers Alec Ogletree and Mark Barron are both ex-college safeties who can run, which means they're better suited for pass coverage than Phillips's Broncos 'backers.
• Don't worry about Aaron Donald transitioning to a new position in Phillips's 3--4. The scheme still features 4--3-style, one-gap assignments for most linemen. It will be interesting to see how often Donald aligns at three-technique versus five-technique (the position J.J. Watt played for Phillips in Houston). But Donald's initial burst is too explosive for O-linemen no matter where he sets up.
San Francisco 49ers
Projected 2017 Record: 4–12, No. 4 in NFC West
2016 Record: 2–14
When he was the Falcons' offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, the 49ers' new coach, brilliantly used his formations to create mismatches, often unbalancing the field by having receivers to one side and backs and tight ends to the other. He also excelled at concocting routes for each side of the field that gave Matt Ryan different answers for different coverages. As long as Shanahan has a QB who knows where the ball should go—and Brian Hoyer, his placeholder starter, usually does—the Niners can field a competitive offense. It won't be as pretty as Atlanta's because they don't have the talent at the skill positions, but it will be more consistent than Chip Kelly's Colin Kaepernick--led attack of a year ago.
• What made Shanahan's play designs so potent was the receiving abilities of Falcons tailbacks Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, which allowed them to line up in one formation and shift to another. The shifts forced the defense to tip its hand; also, most D's don't have linebackers who could cover those backs. Carlos Hyde is a solid inside runner who can occasionally turn the corner, but he had only 163 yards receiving last year. If fourth-round rookie Joe Williams can become a threat out of the backfield, he'll earn playing time quickly.
• Even though he would be among the lightest defensive tackles in the NFL at 273 pounds, that's where No. 3 pick Solomon Thomas should play in passing situations. The 6'3" Thomas can kick over to end on first and second down, but he lined up at tackle an estimated 85% of his snaps at Stanford. The 49ers' other tackle is 2016 first-rounder—DeForest Buckner, who showed better leverage in the second half of his rookie season.
• New defensive coordinator Robert Saleh is a former Seattle assistant, and his Seahawks-style Cover 3 is a single-high safety zone coverage that has interior defenders drop to landmarks on the field. But it's worth noting that last year the teams that used this scheme—Atlanta, Jacksonville and, of course, Seattle—all increased their man-to-man coverage late in the season, perhaps because offenses found ways to exploit the zone. That could signal a problem for the Niners, whose corners may not be good enough to play man regularly.