While it’s only August, a handful of NFL teams are showing us that their fans should already be waiting for next year.
The preseason is not a good time for assertions and conclusions. In fact, making a decision based on meaningless exhibition games is for fools, but occasionally, the obvious facts of a team facing a tough season are impossible to miss.
Everyone knows about the New York Jets. The Jets will be lucky to win two games, as they clearly field the worst roster in the NFL. But they aren’t alone in the category of dead team walking.
The Indianapolis Colts have a roster barely above New York’s when Andrew Luck isn’t healthy. Luck is recovering from offseason should surgery and could miss the first few weeks of the regular season, leaving Scott Tolzien as the starter. Tolzien is barely a suitable backup, and has little help around him. Center Ryan Kelly will miss the first month of the season, and other than T.Y. Hilton, that offense is punchless. Defensively, there is Vontae Davis and everybody else.
Chuck Pagano is likely staring down his final year in Indianapolis. If this team wins seven games, even with a talent like Luck, it would be a miracle.
The Colts would certainly be a last-place team in the improving AFC South if it wasn’t for the Jacksonville Jaguars. Doug Marrone is taking over a team that has a crisis at quarterback, with Blake Bortles looking horrid and Chad Henne being Chad Henne.
At 32 years old, Henne is a good backup. He knows the game, can start in a pinch and be moderately productive. Henne is certainly not a starter, though, something bared out by his 58 touchdowns and 63 interceptions over eight years with the Miami Dolphins and Jaguars.
Jacksonville is stuck. If Bortles plays and gets hurt, his injury guarantee for 2018 looms large. The Jaguars picked up his $19 million option, but it can be voided without penalty provided Bortles is healthy. Should Marrone go with Henne or even Brandon Allen, Bortles should be made inactive.
Staying in the AFC, the Buffalo Bills will be tacking another year onto their streak of postseason-less football. Buffalo is doing the right thing by rebuilding , but it won’t be without initial pain. After dealing Sammy Watkins to the Los Angeles Rams, the Bills are left with Zay Jones and Jordan Matthews after Anquan Boldin abruptly retired on Sunday night. Tyrod Taylor will struggle without Watkins or a quality offensive line, something that was evident on Thursday night against the Philadelphia Eagles.
Taylor was 8-of-18 for 53 yards while throwing two interceptions. First-year head coach Sean McDermott has a young team to mold in his image, but don’t expect positive returns until 2018, at the earliest.
In the NFC, there aren’t as many rudderless ships. The Chicago Bears have long-term hope with Mitchell Trubisky (who has looked very good in the preseason), but this season is about evaluation for who fits into the future.
Chicago will roll with Mike Glennon to start the season, but his weapons are limited. We haven’t seen much of Kevin White both this summer or his previous two years, and while Cam Meredith is a nice option, he’s most complimentary than bright lights. Jordan Howard is already a top-10 running back in this league, but bad offensive tackles and limited receivers make for a poor offense. Defensively, the front is solid with Leonard Floyd as a rising star and Willie Young off the edge, but the secondary is without talent. Look for a long season in the Windy City.
In San Francisco, the 49ers finally have a competent head coach in Kyle Shanahan, but the cupboard isn’t well-stocked. The defense has some talent in Solomon Thomas, Reuben Foster, Eric Reid and others, but the offense lacks playmakers. Shanahan’s schemes will help hide some of the deficiencies, but not enough to make this team more than a five or six-win outfit.
The 49ers will likely be in position to draft a quarterback come April, whether it be Josh Allen, Sam Darnold or Josh Rosen. Until then, San Francisco will be an arduous watch more often than not.
Nobody wants to be doom and gloom in August, but it’s important to keep perspective. None of these teams will compete for a title come January, even in the wildest of dreams. That’s alright, provided the front offices understand their plight and act accordingly.
Fans of those teams shouldn’t be discouraged, but they should ignore the scoreboard. Watch for development out of young players and analyze the position groups, seeing which need the most attention come March and April. The NFL is a quickly-changing world. A few good players and star at the right spot can turn a pretender into a contender overnight.
You’ll notice the Cleveland Browns and Los Angeles Rams, two of the five worst teams, weren’t mentioned above. This is because Cleveland, while not a playoff contender, has a chance to greatly improve. The offensive line should be high-quality with Joe Thomas, Joel Bitonio, JC Tretter and Kevin Zietler. Factor in a talented front seven and the potential of DeShone Kizer, and the Browns could have their best season in a decade.
The Rams are also likely to miss the postseason, but again, there’s hope. Los Angeles is seeing strides for Jared Goff, who lit up the Oakland Raiders on Saturday night for 160 yards and a touchdown on 16-of-20 passing. Goff dissected multiple levels of the defense and threw with pressure in his face. We’re already seeing the benefit of head coach Sean McVay.
Success is not measured on the same scale for all 32 teams. If the New England Patriots don’t win the Super Bowl, the year is a failure. For most, a trip to the playoffs and maybe a January win would be a banner campaign.
For teams like the Jets, Bills, Bears, Colts, Jaguars and 49ers, the road to respectability is long, but it is one that must be traveled from the beginning.
Top 10 sleepers for 2017
1. Carlos Hyde, RB, San Francisco 49ers
2. Hunter Henry, TE, Los Angeles Chargers
3. Timmy Jernigan, DT, Philadelphia Eagles
4. Cam Meredith, WR, Chicago Bears
5. Trey Flowers, DE, New England Patriots
6. James Bradberry, CB, Carolina Panthers
7. Ameer Abdullah, RB, Detroit Lions
8. Jamison Crowder, WR, Washington Redskins
9. Yannick Ngakoue, DE, Jacksonville Jaguars
10. J.J. Nelson, WR, Arizona Cardinals
"“I thought he did good. He got out of trouble a few times, he made a few throws. I think we’ll just keep working to build off that. He was under pressure more than we’d like early on and I thought he handled it well, didn’t make mistakes. He played good, solid football. We’re not totally together up front right now and I think he’s doing OK given the circumstances.”"
– Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh on Ryan Mallett’s performance
It’s nice to see an NFL head coach lying through his teeth in August. Look, Harbaugh can’t throw Mallett under the bus for one reason: he’s all the Ravens have. With Joe Flacco still nursing a back injury, Baltimore decided not to sign Colin Kaepernick and stuck it out with Mallett despite a temper tantrum during practice a few weeks ago.
Against the Redskins and Dolphins this preseason, he has consistently been late with throws, inaccurate and has an overall statline of 22-of-40 for 171 yards and two interceptions. If Flacco misses any significant time during the regular season, the Ravens will be fending off the Browns for third place in the AFC North.
Baltimore has a good defense, but the offense is bad with Flacco. It’s unwatchable without him.
In the latest episode, former NFL scout and current freelance writer Matt Williamson joined us to talk about the rookie quarterbacks, and why one of them didn’t pass the eye test. We also discussed why the Denver Broncos are in for a tough season, and how the Philadelphia Eagles are poised to make noise.
This week, we welcome Eric Edholm to the program as we break down what happened over the weekend. Plus, what to make of the Minnesota Vikings, and breaking the contenders into tiers.
Before realignment in 2002, the Atlanta falcons and New Orleans Saints played in the NFC West, while the Tampa Bay Buccaneers resided in the NFC Central (they actually played in the AFC West in 1976 as an expansion team before swapping spots with the Seattle Seahawks).
Prior to realignment into the NFC South, the trio totaled only seven division titles between them. Since 2002, they have 10 to celebrate. If any teams were buoyed from the eight-division setup, it was these three.
Info learned this week
1. Deshaun Watson struggles against Patriots
His time will come, but Deshaun Watson isn’t ready to play meaningful snaps for the Houston Texans just yet. On Saturday, Watson was 3-of-10 for 102 yards, with most of that yardage coming on a 63-yard dump-off to D’Onta Freeman.
Watson has athleticism and a great body frame, but the accuracy and ability to quickly go through reads is lacking. Both of those things should improve with time and repetition, something better suited for practice and not the regular season.
Look for Tom Savage to start the season under center. There’s a good chance he remains there throughout the campaign, unless Houston falls out of playoff contention.
2. Titans look terrific against Panthers
Few teams have the buzz of Tennessee this summer, and it looked justified in a victory over the Carolina Panthers on Saturday afternoon. The Titans exploded for 17 first-quarter points, with Marcus Mariota throwing for a touchdown and Derrick Henry rushing for another. All of this coming without the benefit of Eric Decker and Corey Davis, who missed the game due to minor injuries.
Carolina has one of the best defenses in the league, and Tennessee embarrassed it with ease. While the Titans still have obvious issues — no burners, average defensive talent — they should be a playoff team in 2017. Consider that this franchise was picking second-overall in 2015 and 2016, and that tells you plenty about the job general manager Jon Robinson has done in Nashville.
3. Packers should worry about Jason Spriggs
Last year, Green Bay hoped to bolster its offensive line with the second-round pick of left tackle Jason Spriggs. Spriggs, a standout at for the Indiana Hoosiers, projects to be the swing tackle behind David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga this season. If Saturday night against the Redskins was any indication, Packers fans better hope neither gets hurt.
Spriggs was routinely beaten by backups and lower-level pass-rushers, something that has been a theme throughout his young career. The 23-year-old isn’t in any danger of being released, but Green Bay needs better. After losing T.J. Lang and JC Tretter this offseason, the Packers are already thin up front. If Spriggs can’t provide quality depth, general manager Ted Thompson should be scouring the waiver wire for help.
4. Steelers loaded with pass rushers
The Pittsburgh Steelers are defined by their explosive offense, but this year, the defense should join the party. While the secondary remains a real concern, the front seven should be stacked, especially on the edges. Pittsburgh drafted T.J. Watt in the first round of this year’s draft, expecting to pair him with Bud Dupree and James Harrison, with the latter serving as a pinch-hitter.
The Steelers know that to beat the New England Patriots, they have to hit Tom Brady without blitzing. So far, Watt has been impressive while Dupree is poised to break out after 4.5 sacks in only seven games last year. If Dupree stays healthy and Watt comes as advertised, Pittsburgh should be much-improved in the pass-rush department.
5. Seahawks sign Tramaine Brock in controversial move
On Wednesday, Seattle inked corner Tramaine Brock to a one-year deal, only days after felony domestic violence charges were dismissed. Brock, 28, had been accused of punching his girlfriend in the face while in the presence of their 1-year-old child. They were arguing over which TV show to watch. The entire story is both graphic and repulsing.
Yet the Seahawks, with one of the best secondaries in football, took their chances. There is an argument to be made that Brock was not found guilty and therefore shouldn’t face consequences. I would remind those people that Colin Kaepernick has never been charged with any crime, while Ezekiel Elliott, who is facing a six-game ban, was also not found guilty of any wrongdoing.
Are the Seahawks in the right for picking up a player the San Francisco 49ers immediately released following charges? You be the judge.
When one thinks of NFL action in the 1970s, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Dallas Cowboys come to mind. The two combined for six Super Bowl wins and nine appearances, with more than a dozen Hall of Famers between the rosters.
Two teams that are somehow forgotten are the Miami Dolphins and Oakland Raiders. The Dolphins were the first to reach three straight Super Bowls, including their perfect 1972 campaign. From 1970-74, Miami went 32-8 in the AFC East and won four division titles.
Oakland advanced to six AFC Championship Games including five straight from 1973-77. The Raiders also win a half-dozen AFC West titles and recorded a winning season in every year of the decade. In 1976, Oakland finally got its Super Bowl victory, capping off a 13-1 season by beating the Minnesota Vikings.
Before this year, the Kansas City Chiefs had not drafted a first-round quarterback since Todd Blackledge in 1983. They decided to end that 34-year drought with Patrick Mahomes, the prototypical gunslinger out of Texas Tech.
The Chiefs moved up 17 spots to select the 21-year-old, and so far, the choice appears fantastic. Mahomes was vaulted to second-string last week and against the Cincinnati Bengals on Saturday, he showcased an array of talents. Mahomes went 10-of-14 for 88 yards and two touchdowns, while giving us the play of the preseason from the quarterback position.
There are still some rough edges to smooth out. Mahomes occasionally takes an extra beat to make a read and has to continue absorbing the playbook, but the talent is undeniable. Most experts believed Mahomes would be a project with high upside. To this juncture, the youngster has already shown vast improvements in footwork and decision-making. When added to his prodigious arm and ability to riff on the move, the Chiefs have a special player in the making.
Still, Mahomes won’t start this year. Alex Smith holds that job with an iron fist, in part due to his impressive showing this summer as well. Still, Kansas City knows its future wears No. 15. Early returns suggest the search for a franchise quarterback, one that has been ongoing since Len Dawson’s retirement in 1975, is over.