- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.