A version of this story appears in the special Fantasy Football 2018 issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. To subscribe, click here.
You want the truth? Can you handle the truth? If so, then plunge ahead and pay close attention as an NFL insider offers his unfiltered opinions on the skill players and schemes of every offense in the league.
You’ll see a whole different offense in Arizona this year. Their former coach, Bruce Arians, wanted to throw the ball, and he used a lot of empty sets that demanded a not-so-good offensive line pass protect. It was a tough go. All that will change under new coordinator Mike McCoy. You’ll see more two-tight-end sets and more of a focus on the run game, with run formations and personnel.
Ideally they would like Sam Bradford to be their starting quarterback. When Bradford is healthy, he is an efficient player. He doesn’t turn the ball over, and he keeps your offense moving. But they need to protect him. They are not going to ask him to drop back 40 times a game.
David Johnson missed most of last year with a dislocated left wrist, but there’s nothing wrong with his legs. He should be the starting point for this offense.
If Chad Williams, their third-round pick a year ago, can take a step up and become a quality wideout, that would be really critical. They signed Brice Butler, who had some moments with the Cowboys. I will be curious to see how they use Christian Kirk, their second-round pick. I assume Larry Fitzgerald will be the slot receiver, and every one of Kirk’s pass targets at Texas A&M last year came from the slot.
They still have Jermaine Gresham, who is a combination tight end. Ricky Seals-Jones showed up at the end of last year. Seals-Jones went to college as a wide receiver. Now he’s an athletic tight end, but the question is, How much can he be used? Can he block?
I expect this offense to be better in its second year under Steve Sarkisian. They went through growing pains in 2017 after Kyle Shanahan left to coach the 49ers. I view Shanahan as the best offensive coordinator in the NFL, but even in his first year with the Falcons, the team struggled at times. The next year they went to the Super Bowl with record-setting numbers.
Matt Ryan is one of the best quarterbacks in the league. He’s reached a point where you are just expecting him to be good all the time. He has improved his game and become a little more mobile over the last couple years.
With the duo of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, their running back situation is as good as any in the NFL. Freeman is a hard-nosed velocity runner with great quickness. Both are very good receivers and can line up detached from the formation in the pass game.
I guarantee you that the Falcons did not go into this draft expecting Calvin Ridley to be there when they picked at No. 26. They probably had him rated fairly high on their board, and when they saw he was available, they said, “You know what, that’s who we’re taking.” I think Ridley is plug-and-play. At Alabama he was as refined and accomplished a route runner as any receiver in the nation. Ridley, Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu are going to be a very good trio.
Austin Hooper will be their No. 1 tight end. Because of their run game, their use of the backs in the passing game and their quality at wide receiver, they don’t need Hooper to catch 80 balls.
Joe Flacco didn’t have a good year. He was sloppy with his mechanics. They need to go back to the basics with him and get him back to being precise and disciplined. They didn’t draft Lamar Jackson [the No. 32 pick out of Louisville] to be the starter in Week 1. They’ll put some packages in for him. But drafting Jackson puts Flacco on alert. He needs to play better.
They have an interesting group of wideouts. They added Michael Crabtree, John Brown and Willie Snead in free agency. They also have Breshad Perriman, who I liked coming out of college, but it clearly hasn’t happened for him. They drafted two fascinating prospects in Jaleel Scott [out of New Mexico State in the fourth round] and Jordan Lasley [UCLA in the fifth]. You have to expect that Brown and Crabtree will be starters. Brown can run. That gives Flacco the vertical dimension he likes. It will be hard to get all these new guys on the same page.
At tight end they drafted Hayden Hurst [South Carolina, first round] and Mark Andrews [Oklahoma, third]. When you draft a tight end in the first round, you expect him to play. Hurst has tremendous hands and is a good blocker. He’s 25, so he’s mature. Andrews is going to need a lot of work.
I like Alex Collins. He’s a tough, physical runner. The question is if he can do it over a full season. He showed it in stretches last year. The interesting guy is Kenneth Dixon. He’s been hurt, but he’s a good runner and a very good receiver. When they drafted him in 2016, they expected him to emerge as the guy.
Josh Allen has tremendous arm strength. He can throw with power and velocity, and he’s very mobile. He needs refinement as far as pace, touch and accuracy are concerned. But they see a big-play quarterback and one who can make outside-of-structure plays, which seems to be taking on increasing importance in the league. He fits what they want to do, which is start with the run game and use play-action with their quarterback under center. Allen showed that ability last year at Wyoming, but it’s impossible to say when he’ll be ready. History strongly suggests when you draft QBs high and you don’t have an established starter on your roster, the rookie quarterback plays sooner rather than later.
The running game will be fine. They have LeSean McCoy and they signed Chris Ivory, who’s a very good second back. But they didn’t really address the wide receiver position this offseason.
They need Kelvin Benjamin to return to form and be the guy who catches 70 balls, like he did when he was with Carolina. Benjamin is big, strong and, at his best, physical. He doesn’t run by people, but he has long strides. They’re counting on Zay Jones, in his second season, to be a solid complement. After that they have a bunch of guys who, ideally, will be pieces. Jeremy Kerley is clearly a slot receiver. It’s the only place he can play. Andre Holmes, at times, looks like he can be a quality NFL wideout, but not a star.
Charles Clay is solid. They’ll have a two-tight-end package with Nick O’Leary, too. But for Buffalo, it all starts with the run game.
Norv Turner, their new offensive coordinator, has never coached a running quarterback like Cam Newton. If you look at Turner’s career, his offenses start with a conventional, foundational run game, and then the passing game works off that. With Newton he has a quarterback who has been a key part of a multidimensional run game. It will be interesting to see how they mix. Newton can give you a great run game. As a passer he can be inconsistent, but he is also capable of wow throws.
In his offenses Norv normally has a guy he views as a feature back. With the signing of C.J. Anderson, the Panthers told us they don’t see Christian McCaffrey as a player who could fill that role. This offense starts with the run game. Anderson is the piece Norv was missing to make his offense function effectively.
They drafted DJ Moore from Maryland in the first round, the first receiver off the board. Norv has always liked that X receiver, that single receiver to the boundary as his main guy. He had Michael Irvin in Dallas, and he had Michael Westbrook when he was in Washington. Moore fits that role. Devin Funchess is not a No. 1 receiver. Funchess is a complement, which is why they needed to add someone like Moore.
Greg Olsen we know about. He is an outstanding tight end, and he and Newton have a good chemistry. Cam wants to throw him the ball and looks to him in critical situations. I love their fourth-round pick, Ian Thomas, from Indiana. He’s a really athletic player, and as a second tight end he could probably play a good amount as a rookie.
Because new coach Matt Nagy is there, and because Nagy’s offense is really well-designed, I expect quarterback Mitchell Trubisky to take a meaningful step up in his second year. I really like what Nagy does because it comes from the Andy Reid school of coaching and makes use of different route designs and concepts. The Bears will be difficult to prepare for and to defend, and that will make Trubisky and their skill position players even better. To me, they will be one of the most fascinating teams offensively in 2018.
My guess is that Jordan Howard will still be the No. 1 back, but I don’t believe that the offense will run through him, as it did the last couple of years under coach John Fox. I think you will see Tarik Cohen involved in multiple spots, at running back and at receiver. Cohen could become Chicago’s version of what Tyreek Hill is in Kansas City.
The Bears’ top three receivers will end up being Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel and their second-round pick, Anthony Miller. Robinson is a really good short-to-intermediate target who can get long at times. Gabriel is certainly a vertical threat, and I think Miller is capable of doing both.
Tight end is probably the one position that they’d like to upgrade even more, but you can’t address everything in one offseason. Trey Burton fits what they want to do because he is the most athletic of their tight ends. They will run a lot of multiple-tight-end sets. Chicago doesn’t have a Travis Kelce, like Nagy did in Kansas City, but Burton is the closest among the players on their roster.
Andy Dalton is a solid, professional quarterback. If you have a decent run game, good weapons and you protect him, he can be efficient. In some ways he’s similar to Kirk Cousins.
Joe Mixon is clearly their No. 1 guy. He’s a terrific running back. He’ll start, with Giovani Bernard playing in passing downs and in relief. I like Mark Walton, their fourth-round pick from Miami. I’m not sure how he fits in, but if Mixon gets hurt, Walton will have the opportunity to be the No. 1 back.
They believe that their line has improved. They traded with the Bills for Cordy Glenn, who is a quality left tackle. Billy Price, their first-round pick out of Ohio State, was good on tape, and the feeling is he’s a plug-and-play guy at center. If these upgrades to the line work, then so will the offense.
A.J. Green is great, obviously. And there are two receivers behind him to focus on. They drafted John Ross ninth last year. He’s explosive, and he will be an important piece of what they do. The other guy is Josh Malone, their fourth-round pick last year. He’s fascinating—supertalented and big. If you watch his tape at Tennessee, on his good plays he looks like Julio Jones. The traits are there. If Malone can become reliable, that changes the receiving corps.
When Tyler Eifert is healthy he’s a top five tight end. They have a great two-tight-end set with Tyler Kroft, who’s pretty athletic. The tight end situation is among the best in the league, but people don’t think about it that way because Eifert hasn’t played since the Eisenhower Administration.
The Browns can say whatever they want, but they’re starting Baker Mayfield. Whether they do it in Week 1, I don’t know. But Tyrod Taylor has so many limitations. You can play with Taylor—Buffalo did and won games. He’s not terrible. But Cleveland drafted a quarterback No. 1. Why do you think they did that? The biggest misconception about Mayfield is that he just runs around and makes plays. It’s true that he’s capable of making those outside-of-structure plays, but he also plays within structure really well. I went through all of his college completions of 15 yards or longer. He had 125 of them. Only six or seven came when he was out of the pocket.
I love Nick Chubb out of Georgia. I thought that was an inspired pick in the second round. He can be a foundation back in this league, and he’ll end up winning the job. Carlos Hyde is very talented too. They’re somewhat similar. It will be a heated competition. Hyde has lost weight and looks very good. Duke Johnson is overlooked, but he’s a really solid player. They’re in good shape with the run game.
With their receivers, Josh Gordon is the key. If he’s on the field, he can be a top three target in the league. Jarvis Landry is a tough slot guy who gets first downs. But they also need Corey Coleman. He was a first-round pick in 2016. He’s fast, but he hasn’t shown anything. If Gordon and Coleman can deliver, they have a really good receiving corps.
David Njoku was up-and-down as a rookie, but he’s very talented. I expect him to be much better. He can be an important part of the offense.
In an ideal world they would like their offense to run through Ezekiel Elliott and for Dak Prescott to be a complementary piece. I think that’s why they drafted Connor Williams of Texas in the second round. I believe he will end up playing left guard, which means La’el Collins will stay at right tackle. This is a team that wants to establish control of games and set the pace and tempo by running the ball. We don’t have to say much about Elliott. He is a great back, a true foundation back who can be the starting point of their offense this year, just as he was as a rookie, in 2016.
They have no alpha-dog, dominant No. 1 receiver. This will be one of the most competitive battles in any training camp. Terrance Williams is still there, and they signed Allen Hurns from Jacksonville and Deonte Thompson from Buffalo. They drafted Michael Gallup out of Colorado State in the third round, and Cedrick Wilson from Boise State in the sixth. I liked both of them on tape. They also have Noah Brown, a 2017 seventh-round pick and an intriguing prospect coming out of Ohio State.
With Jason Witten retired, they don’t have a tight end with any real experience. Geoff Swaim has been there for a number of years. They have Blake Jarwin, a second-year free agent, and Dalton Schultz, their fourth-round pick. Schultz has receiving ability but was used far more as an in-line blocker at Stanford. The wild card is Rico Gathers, the former college basketball player who has been there two years and hasn’t seen the field but is an impressive athlete.
I think everyone was surprised by how well Case Keenum played last year in Minnesota. You could argue he was a top 12 QB. The Broncos didn’t draft a quarterback in the first round, after everybody said they would. So it’s going to be Keenum. And he’s a quality starting quarterback.
But can they run the football with consistency? I guess it will start with Devontae Booker, though they drafted Royce Freeman out of Oregon in the third. The Broncos believe in him more than I do. Booker and Freeman are similar: They’re grinders inside. And that’s O.K. You don’t usually see backs run for 60-yard touchdowns in the NFL. If those two can help sustain drives, Keenum can be very effective.
Demaryius Thomas and their second-round pick from SMU, Courtland Sutton, are big and kind of similar. Thomas can’t run like he used to. With Keenum, this offense will be about timing and rhythm throws, though he can also make second-reaction plays. Emmanuel Sanders gives you a little more juice. We’ll see what their fourth-round pick, DaeSean Hamilton, brings at the NFL level. At Penn State he lined up in the slot on every play, and he knows how to run routes and get open. And I like Carlos Henderson, their third-round pick from last year. To me he’s a wild card. He showed some explosiveness and run-after-catch ability.
They’re hoping Jake Butt comes back from his right-knee injury and is their starting tight end. I like their fifth-round pick, Troy Fumagalli out of Wisconsin, a lot, way more than most people.
They have a new coach in Matt Patricia, but I would not expect much different from Matthew Stafford. Returning offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter has really channeled Stafford from being a cliché gunslinger to a more disciplined, precise player. People may not think of him this way because he hasn’t played in a Super Bowl yet, but Stafford is a really high-level quarterback.
Everything Detroit did in the offseason suggests that they are making a strong commitment to running the ball with physicality and power. They brought in LeGarrette Blount, and they drafted Kerryon Johnson in the second round. You don’t draft a running back that early as an afterthought. They drafted a center, Frank Ragnow, in the first round. All this suggests that they want the kind of power run game that they have not had for years.
They have a good receiving group. I’m sure they would like Kenny Golladay in his second year to continue his development as a vertical threat. Marvin Jones has evolved into a really solid receiver, and Golden Tate is just a good player. You know exactly what you are going to get from Tate. He’s tough, he’s physical, and he brings an attitude.
At tight end the Lions have made some significant changes after moving on from Eric Ebron. They signed Luke Willson and Levine Toilolo, and they still have their fourth-round pick from a year ago, Michael Roberts. Those players will have a competition that goes through OTAs and training camp before it shakes out.
Green Bay Packers
They’re a really interesting team because even though Aaron Rodgers is a great player, their offense doesn’t have a lot of rhythm to it. Rodgers is a jazz musician more than a classical pianist. He plays the game off beat, and there are times where not throwing the football with timing and structure can bog down their offense.
I am curious to see how they approach their ground game this year. They need to focus on running the ball as a foundational piece of their offense, rather than a once-in-a-while thing. Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams showed promise last year as rookies. In an ideal world, Ty Montgomery is not being used as a foundation back. But he is a very interesting chess piece.
Their draft shows that they’ve decided they need bigger wide receivers. Davante Adams is very good and at 6'1" he’s good-sized, but they drafted three receivers in the fourth, fifth and sixth rounds [J’mon Moore, Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Equanimeous St. Brown] who are all 6'3" to 6'5". Rodgers has always been outstanding at back-shoulder throws and tight-window throws, and big receivers are more likely to make those kinds of contested catches. Randall Cobb [at 5'10"] could end up in a smaller and more tightly defined role.
They signed Jimmy Graham, who will be critical to this offense. He is called a tight end, but he is really a receiver who you use detached from the formation. When you include Graham, this is a big receiving corps that will present a lot of matchup issues.
Deshaun Watson and Bill O’Brien are a perfect fit. O’Brien understands what Watson is, and he made a number of adjustments in terms of his approach. Bill did such a good job with Deshaun by putting him in the shotgun, creating backfield action, doing all the things that help a quarterback. All those moves create stress for second-level defenders and help define reads for the quarterback. This year we just have to see if Watson is healthy and how he comes back from that torn right ACL.
They’re hoping that Lamar Miller is the starter and D’Onta Foreman is the backup in the run game. That’s the setup, same as last year.
They’ve got some juice at receiver. DeAndre Hopkins is great, we know that. With Will Fuller and now Keke Coutee, that’s a lot of speed. Coutee, from Texas Tech, will challenge for the slot spot with Bruce Ellington and Braxton Miller. Coutee is a fourth-round pick, and I don’t think they’ll be able to just plug him in. But he’s a juice guy. They’ve got Sammie Coates too. They’ll stretch defenses. Not everyone is going to make the cut, but the speed is there.
They still have Ryan Griffin and Stephen Anderson at tight end, and they drafted Jordan Akins of Central Florida in the third round. Akins is athletic, and he’ll get an opportunity. Anderson, in his third year, is athletic too, and he can detach from the formation. But I don’t think we’ll automatically see a changing of the guard. Every year people try to replace Griffin, and he’s been in the league now for five years.
We’ll have to see with Andrew Luck. If his shoulder is healed, you hope he picks up where he left off. If not, it’s going to be Jacoby Brisset. I like Brisset, and the old coaching staff did too. He had no offensive line last year but still played well.
They made moves to upgrade their line. Quenton Nelson, the guard from Notre Dame who they took in the first round, is great. I loved Braden Smith out of Auburn, and I was not surprised when they picked him in the second round. When you take a guard in the second round, you have to think he’s going to compete for a starting job.
They have questions in the run game. Is Marlon Mack a foundation back? They drafted Nyheim Hines, who I like, in the fourth round out of N.C. State, but he’s not a foundation back. New coach Frank Reich came from the Eagles, and they didn’t have a foundation back, but they still were third in the NFL in rushing. I think Reich will figure it out. Mack strikes me as the guy who gets the majority of rushes, but he won’t carry it 300 times.
T.Y. Hilton is great. Every other receiver is a question mark. I’m not sure what Ryan Grant is. Deon Cain has more talent than the sixth round, where they picked him, but he didn’t play to that level at Clemson.
They could end up using two or three tight ends. Jack Doyle is very good, and Erik Swoope is so athletic he could be a wide receiver for them. And the team signed Eric Ebron. Philadelphia liked to play with two or three tight ends, so that could become a foundational personnel package for Indy.
Blake Bortles is up and down. I don’t think there’s any mystery to him. He has played enough snaps that you can say this is what he is. He’s not all of the sudden going to be Tom Brady, but you can line up with him, as long as your team can run the ball and has a good defense. They happen to have the perfect team around him.
As a rookie last year Leonard Fournette lived up to the hype at times, but he still has room for growth. As the season progressed he had runs where he stopped moving his feet and missed out on some yards. But he’s very talented. He gave them what they needed, because they were able to control the ball. T.J. Yeldon will spell Fournette, and Corey Grant, a fourth-year back, is someone to keep an eye on. He’s explosive and can line up in a number of places.
Marqise Lee is solid. I always liked Donte Moncrief. He showed major flashes with the Colts, and he’s big, talented and fast, but it never came together there, and I’m not sure why. Maybe the change of scenery will help. They drafted DJ Chark from LSU in the second round. He can really go, and he’s a little better route runner than people think. Dede Westbrook is a wild card. He’s thin, but he has some verticality to his game. This is a team that starts with the run and uses play action to set up deep-shot passes. They’re counting on Moncrief, Chark and Westbrook to make plays downfield.
They signed Austin Seferian-Jenkins, who is talented, at tight end. They brought in Niles Paul, too, but in an ideal world, it will be Jenkins.
Kansas City Chiefs
It’s the Pat Mahomes show. Whether or not he’s ready in his second season, he’s going to play. I think he’ll do well because Andy Reid knows how to help his quarterbacks with scheme and design. He did it for years with Alex Smith, and with Donovan McNabb back in Philadelphia.
This is a team that’s filled with very good skill players. They have a run game with Kareem Hunt, who’s also a very good receiver. They have the most athletic receiving tight end in the league in Travis Kelce, who can line up anywhere on the field. They have Tyreek Hill, who’s a receiver, but with the way they move him around the formation, he’s so much more than that. They have Sammy Watkins, too, and Chris Conley at wideout. They have all the pieces in place for Mahomes to be successful.
Reid adjusts his scheme and offense from week to week depending on the opponent, but the running game will be the starting point, because he will want to help Mahomes out. But Mahomes can make special throws on the move. You’ll protect him with the structure and design of the offense, and you know that the on-the-move plays will happen. You just hope he can avoid the plays that are negative and foolish.
I really like Demarcus Robinson as yet another potential target for Mahomes. He lasted until the fourth round of the 2016 draft because he was suspended a bunch of times at Florida, but he’s a very good receiver. If he stays on the straight and narrow, he can be a real contributor. There’s so much talent all over the roster. They are loaded everywhere.
Los Angeles Chargers
Philip Rivers is good at quarterback, nothing changes there, and on this offense he is surrounded with talent (though the loss of tight end Hunter Henry to a torn ACL does hurt this squad). Mike Williams was hurt last year, so it’s tough to know for sure, but he was the seventh pick in 2017, so the ability is there. Their top receivers are tall and can run; Keenan Allen is the shortest guy at 6'2". Tyrell Williams can run—I really like him. If those guys are your top three, then you still have Travis Benjamin as the fourth guy, and he’s fast too. Los Angeles has a boatload of weapons for Rivers to play with.
Melvin Gordon is great, and he’ll be the main guy at running back. They could use their seventh-round pick, Justin Jackson, to spell him for six or seven carries a game. At 5'11" and 190 pounds, he’s not big enough to be a feature guy, but he runs inside and does the same things Gordon does. I love what the Chargers got out of Austin Ekeler last season. Ekeler can line up outside the formation and be a weapon in the passing game.
Antonio Gates is gone, and Henry had replaced him anyway. But they don’t have another receiver like Gates. Virgil Green, who they picked up from Denver, is nice, but he’s not Gates.
The offensive line should be better. They signed center Mike Pouncey from Miami. Forrest Lamp will be back at right guard and left guard Dan Feeny played well down the stretch. The interior of the line is key for Rivers to function properly, and this year it has a chance to be really good.
Los Angeles Rams
This team is all about their coach, Sean McVay. He’s the reason that Jared Goff is playing well. This is as well-designed an offense as there is in the league. Last year McVay tried to replicate what Goff did when he was at Cal. They went no-huddle to force the defense to set up early, and then McVay could see the defense and talk to Goff. Between that and McVay’s pass-game schemes and design, this is a beautifully constructed offense.
Todd Gurley is a really good back. He’s multi-dimensional. He’s outstanding in the inside zone run game, and he’s a terrific receiver. He was a major part of what they did in the pass game.
The Rams have everything you want at receiver. Cooper Kupp was terrific in the slot as a rookie last year. Robert Woods is a good possession-type receiver, and now they have Brandin Cooks, who replaced Sammy Watkins. Cooks adds that explosive element on the outside.
They have two young tight ends, Tyler Higbee and Gerald Everett. Everett is almost like a wide receiver, and we’ll see if his role expands in his second season. He can line up outside and be a factor in their pass game. Higbee is also pretty athletic, and they can line him up as an in-line tight end.
They have a good offensive line, too. They really have all the pieces. Last year they were first in the NFL in scoring, averaging about 30 points a game. There is no reason to believe that in their second season under McVay, and with Goff having more experience, this offense won’t be very, very good.
Ryan Tannehill always looks like he can improve and be better, but then he plays inconsistently. The injuries have set him back, and he missed all of last season. We haven’t had a chance to see Tannehill grow in Adam Gase’s offense, so that’s a bit of an unknown. He has the talent to be a quality starter.
I love Frank Gore. I’m not going to tell you he’s the same back as eight years ago, but with the Colts he was a solid runner. Last year Kenyan Drake showed far more than I thought he had, and Miami has a nice two-headed monster in the backfield. Gore will be the grinder, and Drake has big-play ability. Kalen Ballage, their fourth-round pick out of Arizona State, looks the part, but he doesn’t run the part.
DeVante Parker has been a disappointment. He was the 14th pick in the 2015 draft, and people looked at his body type and thought A.J. Green. He has the skill set, but they’re still waiting for him to emerge as a No. 1. Kenny Stills is very consistent and a good pro. The other guy who will be a factor is Albert Wilson, who they signed from Kansas City. I think he’ll get meaningful snaps. Danny Amendola is a true slot receiver, and he’s very good at it. In this offense they throw to the slot receiver—we saw what Jarvis Landry did here—and Amendola could end up with more catches than he had in New England.
Gase likes sets with an athletic tight end who is detached from the formation, and that’s why they drafted Mike Gesicki out of Penn State in the second round. Gesicki is not a blocker, but that’s irrelevant. He fits what Gase wants to do.
They signed Kirk Cousins, who is a very solid quarterback, but the key here is their new coordinator John DeFilippo, who is one of the best offensive minds in the NFL. DeFilippo is so detail-oriented. I think that Cousins will continue to improve and really deliver week in and week out.
The critical piece to their offense is the return of Dalvin Cook. Assuming he has recovered from his left-ACL injury in Week 4 last year, they will have a very legitimate ground game. Their offense may actually start with the run because Cook looked like he was that kind of back as a rookie.
Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs are really good receivers. Thielen is multidimensional. People used to think he was just a short-to-intermediate receiver, but in 2017 he proved that he could win on the outside by running past corners, and not solely because of his speed but by how he ran routes. Every team needs three receivers, and the Vikings are still waiting on Laquon Treadwell, their 2016 first-round pick. I think Treadwell becomes a real wild card in this offense because they don’t necessarily have another No. 3. They signed Kendall Wright, who can certainly play in the slot.
Minnesota has never focused on the tight end enough for Kyle Rudolph to get big numbers, but Cousins certainly liked to throw to his tight ends in Washington. This year we might see Rudolph reemerge. He is a very nice combination tight end who can catch and block, and there aren’t many guys in the league who do both.
New England Patriots
I don’t see anything to suggest that Tom Brady is on the way down.
New England has gone through stretches without big-time wideouts, and they’ve still been successful. Julian Edelman is coming off a torn right ACL, but he’s very good at what he does. He’s not just a slot receiver, either. Malcolm Mitchell is reliable. They just won’t have three guys who catch 80 balls. Theoretically, Jordan Matthews is the replacement for Danny Amendola. In some ways he’s like David Givens back in the day. But there are a lot of receivers on the roster. Who makes the team is the question.
I thought Isaiah Wynn out of Georgia was the best left tackle in the draft. So he could replace Nate Solder, though many people see Wynn as a guard. But Brady knows how to compensate for offensive line weakness, anyway.
If I knew what the Patriots were going to do with their running backs, I could be lying on a beach somewhere. Two years ago LeGarrette Blount had 299 carries. But other years their top guy has 170 carries. I love Georgia’s Sony Michel, and I thought he was a really good second-round pick. They signed Jeremy Hill, who three years ago looked like he was going to be a 10-year player in Cincinnati. James White will be active in the pass game. But when they run the ball, I assume that they will be relying on Hill and Michel.
Rob Gronkowski changes everything if he’s healthy. If he isn’t, Troy Niklas could be a factor. He has talent, and he could be a sleeper.
New Orleans Saints
Drew Brees is in many ways still underrated. People don’t spend a lot of time talking about him, and he is so good. It’s his efficiency and his preparation. He does everything at the highest level.
Last year the Saints evolved into more of a running team. Mark Ingram is a very good back. Alvin Kamara is just terrific. We all know about the receiving, but I think he showed last year what a powerful runner he is inside, because his lower body is really strong. The combination of these two backs is ideal for New Orleans.
Michael Thomas is outstanding. In the design of this offense he is not a vertical receiver, but he is super tough, competitive and consistent, and he is playing with a quarterback who knows how to get him the ball. Ted Ginn Jr., no matter how old he gets, still runs by defenses. They drafted Tre’Quan Smith out of Central Florida in the third round; he’s a deep threat, and we’ll see if they can get him involved. They also signed Cameron Meredith, coming off a left ACL/MCL tear. Meredith and Brandon Coleman are both big receivers who can work inside and attack linebackers and safeties. Receivers like that have always been critical to Sean Payton’s offense and Brees has always been effective throwing to them.
At tight end they might not have a guy who is going to catch 80 or 90 balls, the way Jimmy Graham used to, but they play a lot of two-tight-end sets and the position is still important to this offense. It’s just that the receptions will be a bit spread out among Josh Hill, Ben Watson and Michael Hoomanawanui.
New York Giants
What the Giants did in the draft tells you who they want to be on offense. By taking Saquon Barkley with the No. 2 pick and then adding Will Hernandez, who will step right in and start at left guard, in the second round, they have decided that they want to be a power-running team. This is not going to be a throw-the-ball offense. Eli Manning is going to be a complementary player, which is what he should be at this point in his career. Barkley is a very talented runner. At times he looks like Barry Sanders. Given that they also signed veteran Jonathan Stewart, the Giants will absolutely be a run-first team.
A healthy Odell Beckham Jr. is a top three receiver in this league. Sterling Shepard can roll out of bed and be a really good slot receiver. But the second wide receiver position is a question. Last year, after Brandon Marshall [who is no longer with the team] was hurt, they had to play street free agents. This offseason they signed Cody Latimer, a 2014 second-round pick. He didn’t work out with the Broncos, but he’ll get the first shot at that second-receiver spot. He’s big and he moves well, so there’s no reason why he shouldn’t be productive, particularly in an offense that already has Beckham and Shepard.
It will be interesting to see what they do at tight end. They will work all offseason with Evan Engram on his blocking. As a receiver, Engram is outstanding. He’s not a bad blocker, but with the offense focussing more on the run, they need a tight end who can in-line block. I think that’s why they signed Rhett Ellison from Minnesota in ’17.
New York Jets
I keep hearing that their new offensive coordinator, Jeremy Bates, is the next Kyle Shanahan or Sean McVay. If that’s the case, then Sam Darnold is in a good spot. But he has a ton of work to do. He’s a loose, reckless, undisciplined quarterback. And he’ll start. You’re going to have to control him with play-calling.
They have two good backs in Isaiah Crowell and Bilal Powell, and this offense will start with the run game. Powell has been very good when he’s played. You won’t give him the ball 30 times a game, but he’s a good receiver, too. I don’t know if Thomas Rawls has anything left, and I didn’t love him in Seattle.
At receiver they have interesting players. They need time to see how it shakes out, but they’re not lacking in talent. Robby Anderson is a vertical receiver—he can run by people. Jermaine Kearse and Quincy Enunwa are short and intermediate targets. They’re anxious to see something from Devin Smith, who can really run but hasn’t developed. ArDarius Stewart, a 2017 third-round pick, can be a Golden Tate--type receiver. Who knows what happened with Terrelle Pryor last year in Washington, but his old coaches in Cleveland wanted him back. He’s big, he can run and he catches the ball.
Someone has to emerge at tight end. Chris Herndon is coming off an injury, but I liked his tape in Miami. He’s a good athlete, and they don’t have receiving athleticism at the position. I would imagine that Clive Walford, just because of his experience, will be the starter. But Jordan Leggett, a 2017 fifth-round pick, is the one they would like to emerge.
The offense went south last year, but there’s no issue with Derek Carr, who is talented. Jon Gruden is bringing in a brand-new offense, and the question is how quickly it will all come together.
The status of Donald Penn could cloud things because if he isn’t available, they’ll need a left tackle. [Penn is returning from right Lisfranc surgery, and he was investigated for domestic violence. The police said on May 9 that they will not charge Penn, but the NFL can suspend players without charges.] Can their first-round pick, Kolton Miller, play left? He did at UCLA, but he’s been penciled in at right tackle.
Marshawn Lynch looked like himself at times last year after coming out of retirement. But they didn’t run the ball with him the way you would have thought. This offseason they signed Doug Martin, which means they now have two backs who can run the ball inside. They also have two guards, Kelechi Osemele and Gabe Jackson, who are maulers. If Gruden wants to establish a power run game, he can.
We don’t know what Jordy Nelson will do. He is 33 years old and has had significant injuries. But this offense will be similar to what Nelson knew in Green Bay, because Mike McCarthy comes from the West Coast school. We’ll see. Martavis Bryant, at his best, is pretty impressive. Amari Cooper is very talented, but he had too many drops last season.
Jared Cook is athletic, big and can run. You can line him up all over the formation. Tight ends have always been important to Gruden, and he’ll find ways to use Cook.
They are as set as any team in the NFL at the quarterback position. In Carson Wentz they have arguably the best young quarterback in the NFL, and he is only going to get better. In Nick Foles they have one of the best backups in the NFL. He understands their offense and has run it at a high, high level.
The potential question is their run game. Last year the Eagles were third in the NFL in rushing, but can they duplicate that? Jay Ajayi is a solid player who performed well last year, but he has injury history. Corey Clement, a 2017 undrafted free agent, turned out to be a very nice player for them. Can he have an expanded role? The disappointment is Wendell Smallwood, who once looked like he would come on but has been a forgotten man. They just re-signed Darren Sproles, who I expect to be a situational player they use in the pass game.
Their receivers work in this offense, which is very well-designed. Alshon Jeffery is not an explosive guy, but he’s very effective the way they use him. Nelson Agholor moved into the slot last year and had a very good season. They replaced Torrey Smith with Mike Wallace, and Wallace still can run. He’ll give them a vertical dimension. Their wild card is second-year player Mack Hollins. He’s 6'4", and I think they see him as an ascending talent.
They are really good at tight end with Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert, their second-round pick. They also signed Richard Rodgers from Green Bay. Lining up with two- and three-tight-end sets is a critical piece of coach Doug Pederson’s puzzle.
They’re set in the backfield with Le’Veon Bell and James Conner. Bell is the guy, and Conner will spell him. They drafted Jaylen Samuels in the fifth round out of North Carolina State, but when I was studying his tape I couldn’t really figure out what he does.
The Steelers are also set at receiver with Antonio Brown and Juju Smith-Schuster, but they need a third guy after trading Martavis Bryant. The question is, Can it be James Washington, their second-round pick? Is he ready? Or will they go with Darrius Heyward-Bey, who always gets a lot of snaps. Brown and Smith-Schuster can line up anywhere. Washington, who can be physical, would offer a different look from the two speed guys, but he has to learn how to move around in the formation. At Oklahoma State he played on the right side the entire time. If he can learn that, he may be the perfect complement to their two stars out wide.
They have two different types of tight ends. Vance McDonald is athletic, but Jesse James is the starter because he’s a better blocker. He’s a short-to-intermediate receiver. McDonald does have some juice to him. He can run deep routes and get vertical.
They have a new coordinator in Randy Fichtner. He’s been on the staff for 12 years. But every coordinator has his own ideas, and it’s hard to know what he’ll do. He was their QB coach, and one reason they hired him is because of his relationship with Ben Roethlisberger. If those two are on the same page, we could see some tweaks. But overall, we should expect the same explosive offense.
San Francisco 49ers
The combination of Jimmy Garoppolo and coach Kyle Shanahan is going to be terrific. This is the NFL’s best offensive coordinator and a quarterback who is skilled and a fast decision-maker. He can eliminate and isolate quickly. This mix of coach and quarterback is as strong as any in the league.
A lot of people would say they don’t have that one running back. Jerick McKinnon was a good signing, and I think he is a talented guy. The question is, How will they mix and match the carries? They throw the ball well, but a Shanahan offense starts with the outside zone run game. Matt Breida got some snaps late last year. Joe Williams, their 2017 fourth-round pick, will be off injured reserve. Shanahan really likes him. The offseason, through training camp, will determine how the carries get divvied up.
Their receivers are an interesting group. At this point in his career, Pierre Garçon is an efficient intermediate receiver. Marquise Goodwin can run, but he showed he can be an intermediate target too; he really started putting up numbers with Garoppolo. At slot they have Trent Taylor. I see Dante Pettis, their second-round pick from Washington, as more of a slot guy too, but they may have other ideas. Shanahan does think outside the box.
I really like George Kittle, who played very well last year for a rookie. I think he will only get better with Garoppolo. They still have Garrett Celek, who is a really good second tight end. This is an offense that has a lot of pieces and as good an architect of those pieces as there is in the league.
I don’t know what to make of this team. If you’ve listened to Pete Carroll this offseason, they want to go back to the future and run the football. They drafted a running back in the first round, Rashaad Penny out of San Diego State, who they really like. Based on my tape study, I don’t like him as much, but they believe that Penny will be their guy. They also get Chris Carson back from a broken left leg, and he had his moments a year ago.
Seattle has all these offensive linemen who never played to their pedigree, so they got rid of Tom Cable and brought in Mike Solari, who is one of the most respected offensive line coaches in the league. They want the run game to be the foundation. Everything they did this offseason has been geared to that. As much as they love Russell Wilson, it is hard to be consistent when your quarterback is an improvisational player. That’s why they have had so many stretches in the last two years in which their offense seemed like it stopped.
I love Doug Baldwin, who has proven he can play both on the outside and in the slot. Tyler Lockett is a nice receiver. They got Marcus Johnson from Philadelphia in the Michael Bennett trade, and he’s big, he can run and he’s physical. He will block too.
Nick Vannett is a dual tight end in that Kyle Rudolph mold. They signed Ed Dickson, who is more of a receiver. In the fourth round they drafted Will Dissly from Washington, who is essentially a big offensive tackle. You can tell from their tight ends for the most part how they want to play.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Jameis Winston is still an enigma. He is talented, but last year he was very up and down. He can still be a little bit reckless and undisciplined, and that needs to be cleaned up. He needs more consistency and more subtle skill. They are counting on him to add that this year.
Dirk Koetter would like the offense to start with the ground game. They were unable to run the ball at all last year, and that’s why they drafted Ronald Jones II of USC in the second round. Jones is a fascinating prospect because he is not big in terms of weight, but he runs hard inside, so you wonder how he will hold up. He doesn’t have to be Ezekiel Elliott for them, but how heavy of a workload can he carry, given that he weighs about 205 pounds?
Their receiving corps is very good and gives you every dimension you could want. They’ve got the vertical, explosive dimension with DeSean Jackson. Then there’s Mike Evans, who can do it all. Adam Humphries is an overlooked slot receiver, and Chris Godwin, their third-round pick last year, is a big player who can run. If Winston can take that next step and play with more consistency, this receiving corps will really shine.
They have two great tight ends. Cameron Brate is sensational in the red zone. O.J. Howard showed flashes last year as a rookie, but he is another guy who is very athletic, has good size and can in-line block. When you look at all their weapons, this should be one of the league’s better offenses, but again it comes down to the consistency of Winston.
You can throw out everything you know about Marcus Mariota. Matt LaFleur, a Kyle Shanahan guy, is the Titans’ new offensive coordinator, and they’ll start from scratch with him. They’re going to retool Mariota. Last year his footwork was poor, and his upper and lower body were never in sync. He had the same problems that Jared Goff did with the Rams in his rookie season. They started over with Goff, and you saw the results last year. That’s what they’re attempting with Mariota. He’s a talented kid. His accuracy should improve, and Marcus has to be precise because he doesn’t have a gun.
I don’t think Derrick Henry is a true foundation running back. That’s why they signed Dion Lewis from New England. I’m not sure how the carries will be split up, but they’ll both get the football.
They’re counting on Corey Davis and Taywan Taylor to develop. Davis was the fifth pick in the 2017 draft, and he has a ton of talent. I’ve spoken to people who thought he looked like Jerry Rice. He’s not Jerry Rice, but the Titans are counting on him. Last year he had to figure things out and understand that he needed to run his routes with more quickness. Same with Taylor, who was a third-round pick. Their development this year is critical. Rishard Matthews is a really solid pro. If LaFleur is able to install the type of passing game that the Rams had last year, then Matthews will be their Robert Woods.
Tennessee has two good tight ends in Delanie Walker and Jonnu Smith. Both are athletic, both can attack the vertical seams and block.
Smart, reasonable people disagree on the move they made at quarterback this offseason, but I think Alex Smith is a downgrade from Kirk Cousins. Smith is a solid quarterback so he isn’t a significant downgrade, but Cousins is better. Smith is a scheme quarterback, and coach Jay Gruden has outstanding schemes, so Smith will fit what they do.
Drafting running back Derrius Guice out of LSU in Round 2 says a lot about how they feel about Samaje Perine, who they drafted last year. Guice has had some off-the-field issues, but he is hands-down the best back on their roster. I think they would really like to run the ball, which they haven’t been able to do consistently over the last couple of years. If all goes well, Guice will give them that.
At receiver they signed Paul Richardson from Seattle to give them a vertical dimension. They are waiting to see what Josh Doctson, their first-round pick from 2016, can do with a full, healthy season. He’s a supertalented player who showed flashes last year, and they are counting on him to put it together now. Jamison Crowder is very good. He’s overlooked when people talk about NFL slot receivers.
Vernon Davis still can run at age 34, and if Jordan Reed can stay on the field, they’re very good at tight end. Gruden likes to play two-tight-end sets, and both are difficult matchups. Their third tight end, Jeremy Sprinkle, is going into his second year, and he is a very nice dual tight end. If he had to play more because of injuries, they would be fine.