The other day I got an email from one of our editors, the wonderful Bette Marston, reminding me that I needed to make my 2018 NFL season predictions. As I scrambled to pick this year’s playoff teams, I realized picking a Super Bowl LIII champion wasn’t going to be so easy.
Eagles? Patriots? Saints? Vikings? Rams? Jaguars? Steelers?
Going into the season most years, there’s a feeling that a select handful of teams can win it all. On Thursday, ahead of the 2018 NFL season opener between the Eagles and the Falcons, there certainly seems to be more teams than that. To simplify it, I asked myself, which team looked loaded this summer? And after visiting 22 camps and with 24 teams during the preseason, I didn’t have much trouble answering that one: the Vikings.
Minnesota is stacked, and the franchise knows it. When I texted Pro Bowl tight end Kyle Rudolph that I’d picked his team to win it all, he didn’t exactly shrink to the expectation.
“First off, thanks,” Rudolph responded. “Second, I’d say given that we got so close last year, we got a taste of success in January, and this team knows what it’s going to take to get back to that point, and further! Which all starts this week at home against a very talented 49ers team.”
“I don’t think outside pressure or expectations,” Rudolph answered, “will ever be greater than what we put on and have for ourselves.”
So there you have it, folks. Your Super Bowl LIII champions will be the Minnesota Vikings, beating the Pittsburgh Steelers to do it. And so you know, my prediction didn’t elicit the same reaction as Rudolph’s from everyone. One Vikings staffer’s response: “Sh-- LOL.
Welcome into the 2018 season of the GamePlan, our third season of the weekly column. Things have changed, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, and this column will too. The genesis of all this goes back to doing the Sunday Notes in Will McDonough’s old space in the Boston Globe. I carried that from there to NFL Network, then to The MMQB. Many of the notes that used to be here have moved to The MMQB column itself, so be sure to check back every Monday morning for that, but we’ll still be answering your questions every week here.
So how do we kick this off in Week 1? How about we empty the notebook, giving you a nugget on each of the 32 …
Arizona Cardinals: Three years ago, Arizona struck gold in the middle rounds of the NFL draft when they picked an FCS running back, and it looks like history may be repeating itself. The Cardinals love their fourth-round pick, Fordham product Chase Edmonds, and see him as a jack-of-all-trades, strong and versatile enough to play on all three downs. He’ll have a role right away, and Arizona’s coaches expect to be able to do some fun stuff with him and David Johnson on the field together.
Atlanta Falcons: The Falcons starting group in the secondary is pretty well set, but 2017 fifth-round pick Damontae Kazee has emerged as the versatile swing safety type that’s incredibly valuable in today’s NFL. Head coach Dan Quinn figures to use him up near the line and on the back, as well as at nickel, which will only add to a talented group. On offense, the Falcons had a serious problem with drops last year which carried over to the preseason—whether the team has made improvements will be something to watch starting Thursday night.
Baltimore Ravens: Much of the Ravens hopes for a revival rides on a crew of defensive draft picks selected from 2016-18. Coaches raved early about third-year LB Matt Judon, and they’ve been buzzing about sophomore rusher Tim Williams of late. Both look like the kind of explosive bookends they’ve been looking for opposite Terrell Suggs.
Buffalo Bills: The Bills are going into a bit of a rebuild, and with the offensive line and quarterback spots in flux, it’s a good bet they’ll lean on the run game. LeSean McCoy saw plenty of action last year (346 touches in his ninth season), so the emergence of former practice-squader Marcus Murphy has been a godsend. Buffalo’s coaches are carving out a role for him.
Carolina Panthers: The Panthers believe they have as diverse a group of receivers as Cam Newton’s ever been around—a combination of a big target (Devin Funchess), a downfield threat (Torrey Smith), a strong RAC type (DJ Moore), a speedy slot (Jairus Wright) and a hybrid (Curtis Samuel). If those guys can make Carolina harder to defense under new OC Norv Turner, things would be easier on Newton.
Chicago Bears: A lot of attention will be rightfully foisted on the edge rushers, with everyone watching Khalil Mack’s ability to acclimate and Leonard Floyd’s ability to stay healthy. But the new staff expects the team will have some help, with 28-year-old interior terror Akiem Hicks coming off a strong summer that has some forecasting an All-Pro type of year for him.
Cincinnati Bengals: You saw the Bengals get after Josh Allen, right? Some of the usual suspects (Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap) were in on that, but the player the staff has had its eye on is 23-year-old end Carl Lawson, who came back bigger and faster. His confidence is through the roof right now.
Cleveland Browns: Mychal Kendricks had a strong camp, and so parting with him after his indictment for insider trading hurt. But that was eased by the emergence of fifth-round pick Genard Avery, who the coaches have been buzzing about since the spring. He may still be behind Christian Kirksey, Joe Schobert and Jamie Collins, but more than one staffer said “he’s a bit--” for an offense to deal with; he can be a tone-setter down the line for Cleveland.
Dallas Cowboys: The impact of secondary coach Kris Richard should not be overlooked. The Cowboys expect better cohesion in the back 7, better technique in the secondary, better zone defense in general, and better takeaway numbers. Richard’s done enough to earn the right to call the defense on third down. Bottom line: You don’t have to ask around much hear about the impact he’s made.
Denver Broncos: The reason behind the Demaryius Thomas trade rumblings weeks ago? It seemed like Courtland Sutton was doing something big every day this summer. Sometimes, it’s hard for rookie receivers to make training camp success translate into games, but Sutton—seen by some as a potential Top-15 draft pick before a so-so final season at SMU—has a shot.
Detroit Lions: You may not have heard of Quandre Diggs before the Lions signed him to a three-year, $20.4 million extension a couple days ago, but he has the full attention of the new coaching staff in Detroit. When I was there, they were still trying to figure out the corner and safety spots, and Diggs’ versatility, I was told, allayed a lot of concerns because it put the coaches in better position to just play their best four (or five in nickel) in the secondary. And now you see how Matt Patricia valued that.
Green Bay Packers: When I visited Packers training camp, LB Blake Martinez was a crucial piece of the defense—and this was before Jake Ryan tore his ACL. Martinez is even more important now, with Ryan—a player who the staff feels has the head and athleticism to be at the center of the Green Bay defense for a long time to come—out for the season. (Bonus: Jimmy Graham, if healthy, is in for a big year, with the Packers’ depth at tight end allowing them to move Graham around. The team’s brass is convinced that strength at that position has been key to getting the best out of Aaron Rodgers in the past.)
Houston Texans: The offensive line is beyond key here, with franchise left tackle Duane Brown long gone. The benefits of the new synergy between scouting and coaching, with GM Brian Gaine and coach Bill O’Brien in the middle, will be put to the test with tackle Seantrel Henderson and guards Senio Kelemete and Zach Fulton entrusted to stabilize the group. Early returns were good, which the teams sees as a result of tightening up its prototypes for each position.
Indianapolis Colts: I’m not saying Darius Leonard is Roquan Smith, whom the Colts seriously considered taking sixth overall. I am saying that Indy thinks that, as far as instincts and athleticism go, he might not be as far off as people think. And if that’s true, then adding that to what the team knows it’s getting in first-round pick Quenton Nelson would make for the beginnings of a pretty good 2018 draft haul.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Yannick Ngakoue has given the staff every reason to believe that a monster year is coming, so be forewarned that an already scary defensive line might be getting another boost.
Kansas City Chiefs: The Chiefs went into the offseason worried about their defense’s toughness and ability to stop the run, and third-round pick Derrick Nnadi has the looks of a nose tackle who can quickly become a problem-solver there. He dominated the line of scrimmage in the first three preseason games and was the team’s only rookie held out of the fourth preseason game.
Los Angeles Chargers: The expectation is that first-round pick Derwin James will grow into the Kam Chancellor role in Gus Bradley’s defense. But for now, I’d expect Bradley to use him every which way, including as a blitzer, because of his length and athleticism. He should be fun to watch in a defense that already has Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram, Denzel Perryman and Casey Heyward as cornerstones.
Los Angeles Rams: It’s incredibly easy to see why second-year head coach Sean McVay has been able to turn around the Rams so quickly. The command he has over practice is impressive, and he allows a deep coaching staff to teach. It’s obvious when you see older players like Aqib Talib and Ndamukong Suh engaged during practice, which I did.
Miami Dolphins: The Dolphins have depth issues at corner, but there’s no question that a No. 1 has emerged in second-year pro Xavien Howard, which makes the problem more manageable.
Minnesota Vikings: If there are problems here, it’s with depth on the offensive and defensive lines—and two rookies could be a part of the solution. Second-round pick Brian O’Neil (a tackle from Pitt) and fourth-round pick Jalyn Holmes (a defensive lineman from Ohio State) have been given every chance to get in that mix, and both could wind up being important in the fall.
New England Patriots: I believe they’ll be able to get a little something more out of WR Cordarelle Patterson on offense than Oakland or Minnesota did. Given the state of the receiver position in Foxboro, the Patriots could use the help.
New Orleans Saints: It’s going to be tough to crack the rotation with Michael Thomas, Ted Ginn and Cameron Meredith all highly thought of in the Saints building, but third-round pick Tre’Quan Smith has done about everything he can to make lineup decisions more difficult on the coaches. At the very least, he has a real future in New Orleans, and it’s not impossible to see his present being pretty bright too.
New York Giants: The Giants new staff has worked hard to give some of those who went sideways in 2017 a new lease on NFL life, and third-year corner Eli Apple—who many thought was done in New York—has taken advantage. Apple won his starting spot opposite Janoris Jenkins back, and hope’s renewed that he’ll live up to the potential that made him the 10th overall pick in 2016.
New York Jets: Among the Jets rookies, Sam Darnold, rightfully, is eating up all the attention. But keep an eye on fourth-round tight end Chris Herndon—the Jets envision him, long-term, as a player that can be a force in the run game and pass game. For now, I’d expect offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates to move him around, and match him up, to give Darnold another athletic target.
Oakland Raiders: One thing that made the Mack trade a little easier was the emergence of a young defensive line. P.J. Hall, Maurice Hurst and Arden Key all have flashed the ability to play right away in Paul Guenther’s defense. Hurst and Key, in particular, should an impact on third down.
Philadelphia Eagles: The Eagles really liked De’Vante Bausby earlier in the offseason, but they cut him last week, which should tell you how much better they feel about their corner position than they did a year ago, with young guys like Sidney Jones, Avonte Maddox and Jalen Mills all at different stages but taking steps forward to the point where No. 1 corner Ronald Darby may be expendable after the season.
Pittsburgh Steelers: The Steelers have had an assembly line of non-first-round receivers over the last decade (Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, Juju Smith-Shuster, Martavis Bryant), and James Washington showed the ability this summer to be the next one. It may not be right away, but by the time we’re through the season I’d expect the second-rounder to make an impact.
San Francisco 49ers: Privately, the Niners will concede now that Solomon Thomas needed time to settle into his role as a pro. The plan is to take him inside as a 3-technique type on passing downs more often (think of how Seattle used Michael Bennett), and there’s a belief that he, Rueben Foster and Ahkello Witherspoon could make the 2017 draft class one that serves as the foundation for wherever coordinator Robert Saleh’s defense winds up going over the next few years.
• 32 Teams, 32 Postcards: The MMQB Staff Crosses the Country Visiting Every Team in Training Camp
Seattle Seahawks: Earl Thomas’s holdout is over—and maybe most interesting is what it means for Tedric Thompson, who was the one young defensive player that the staff couldn’t stop talking about during training camp. As it stood in August, he was manning Thomas’s old free safety spot, a vital one in Pete Carroll’s defense. And he’s been too good, you’d think, to just head for the bench now.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Chris Godwin had a modest rookie year—34 catches, 525 yards and a touchdown—after being the talk of camp last summer. This year, the coaches plan to give him more chances to realize his immense potential. He’s against shown his deceptive speed, strong hands and ability to track the ball downfield and make contested catches in camp. And even with Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson still going strong, chances are we’re going to see a lot more of him now.
Tennessee Titans: The Titans were coy about Harold Landry’s ankle injury the last couple weeks (he returned to practice Wednesday), and that might be because the team has big plans for him. The second-round pick got off to a strong preseason start, and if you talked to those in Nashville, it was just a continuation of what they’d seen in practice. Remember, if not for injuries and an inconsistent senior year at BC, Landry may have been a top-15 pick in the draft. And there’s still a good chance, based on what’s coming out of that building, he becomes that kind of player.
Washington Redskins: The Redskins really believe they’ve upgraded with Alex Smith, and a big piece of it is that Jay Gruden and the offensive staff feel like there aren’t any holes in his game, which should also them to open up the playbook and use the quarterback not just in the passing game but the running game, too.
Whew … That took a little longer than I thought it would. On to your mail …
From Jay (@RedskinsCult): Who is your pick for Defensive Rookie of the Year?
You can see picks for every award on The MMQB’s 2018 NFL predictions—and I’m sticking my neck out for one of my favorite college players to watch over the last few years: Chicago’s Roquan Smith, despite the holdout (rememeber, Odell Beckham was sidelined for most of camp before a big rookie year). I feel even stronger about his chances following the Mack trade.
Smith has the right coordinator in Vic Fangio (who got the best out of Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman in San Francisco) and the right infrastructure around him. Interestingly scouts compared him to Willis last fall when he was an absolute heat-seeking missile in the middle of a suffocating Georgia defense. And going one step further, among the guys in this year’s class, I think Smith is right up there with Colts G Quenton Nelson as least likely to be a bust.
From Tyler Schmidt (@tschmidt_31): What’s the end game for this chess match between [Le’Veon] Bell and the Steelers? Does he get traded? Paid?
By rule, the Steelers can’t extend him—and neither can anyone. So I’d be surprised if there’s a team willing to give Pittsburgh proper value for Bell and take on his $14.544 million, knowing that it’s not a guarantee that the team will have him past this year. Bell and the Steelers, who are clearly not in a good place in their relationship now, are kinda stuck with each other.
Each game that Bell misses means losing a $855,529 game check, so my guess is that Bell shows up before Week 1 against the Browns. The bigger question is how this goes from there. It’s exceedingly rare that you’ll see players criticize a teammate in a contract dispute, because one guy getting paid helps the rest. So seeing Pittsburgh’s offensive line open fire on Bell like it did should raise eyebrows.
From Matt Trigger (@BamBam31589): Do you see Joe Flacco having a career year with a relative healthy OL and a solid pass catching group?
Count me among those who think there’s a human-nature element to a quarterback seeing his potential replacement drafted, like Flacco did with Lamar Jackson in April. I don’t think it’s a coincidence he held his first passing camp with his receivers in seven years this July, nor do I think it’s happenstance that he came out firing when training camp started.
Now, like you said, Matt, having a healthy line (Ronnie Stanley, Marshal Yanda, etc.) will certainly help. So too should the overhaul of the tight end position, with rookies Hayden Hurst (who’s a little banged up) and Mark Andrews on board. Ravens coaches think Willie Snead is the type of easy-completion slot that Flacco’s never had, and that he could lead the team in catches.
So will Flacco have a career year? I won’t go that far, but I do think he’ll be better considering those environmental factors. (Also important to remember that, back in 2014, his last top-shelf season, he had Gary Kubiak as his OC.)
From Charles (@iamCharlesDavid): What is the latest with Earl Thomas and my Boyz? I know they were originally asking for a 2nd, and now that they’ve refused that, what gives? Do they want a 2nd + a player, or an outright 1st? Or have they no intention of trading him? Pete is all over the map on this.
Initially, Seattle was looking for a first and another pick for Thomas—who ended his six-week holdout on Wednesday—and that was never going to happen with a player only under contract for one more year. I actually think, based on where the Seahawks are, they should’ve considered taking Dallas’ second-rounder for Thomas. But I also understand where, as a matter of course, they wouldn’t want to acquiesce to a player’s desires during a holdout.
As for the Cowboys, I know they wanted to give Xavier Woods a legit shot at the centerfield spot that Thomas knows so well. And I think their continue pursuit of Thomas tells you how that’s gone. I don’t think this is necessarily over.
My sense is that one big reason for the Seahawks going through the purge they did after last season was due to the negative vibe in the building. And I know that during training camp, the team felt like it was gone. How can Seattle keep it that way with Thomas back in the building? By winning.
From John DeWispelaere (@JD_SportsLaw): In the age of ever increasing QB contracts, is Tom Brady’s contract one of the best assets in the NFL?
Absolutely. Let’s throw the cap numbers out, because those are fungible year-to-year, and look at the APY on the contracts of Brady and Rodgers. The gap between the two right now is $17.5 million. That less than the combined APYs of RT Marcus Cannon ($6.5 million), WR Julian Edelman ($5.5 million) and LB Kyle Van Noy ($5.375 million).
Perspective? That’s the team’s heart-and-soul slot, the signal-caller on defense and a long-term starter on the offensive line. All for the difference between what Brady’s making and the top of the quarterback market. It’s a little less flexibility than a rookie contract would give you—but remember, this all comes with the fact that your quarterback here in Tom Effing Brady.
All of that makes what comes next interesting. Brady will be going into a contract year next spring. Given everything that’s happened over the last year-plus, will he be willing to do another deal that’s so team friendly?
From Jeremy Savage (@Jeremy_SavageP): Play predictions for both the AFC and NFC?
I’ll point you (again) to our staff predictions—and wish all you guys a Happy New NFL Year. Enjoy the action tonight!
Question or comment? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.