By now, you are probably up to your neck in 2018 NFL previews and predictions of things to come. It takes a special type of endurance to get ready for a new NFL season for player and fan alike. Between the blitz of fantasy drafts, ticket scrambles, getting caught up on the offseason's long reach of activity and preparing to get those weekly bets placed, it is an exhausting time. Whether the weekend's action lands you in a stadium seat, a local watering hole or tuning in with the knowledge that you can watch football anywhere with a VPN, the annual ritual that is an NFL Sunday is upon us once again.
Although there are plenty of different ways to get your pre-week one full slate fix, take ride here at a quick hit glance around the upcoming NFL carousel with a morsel/prediction/wild guess at what could be the defining parts of the 2018 season, already (barely) in progress.
Time to live up to the billing
1.Philadelphia Eagles: The title defense season for the champs got off to an exciting, albeit dramatically successful start on Thursday night. The defense was more bend, don’t break than outright dominant, but they stayed in Matt Ryan’s chest most of the night. While Nick Foles continues to hold the fort down, the certainty of repeat run deep into the playoffs still needs the confidence that the return of a healthy Carson Wentz and Alshon Jeffrey can bring.
2. Los Angeles Rams: Sean McVay’s team was the surprise breakout of the year in 2017, but now the bar has been raised yet again. The additions of Ndamukong Suh, Aqib Talib and Brandon Cooks make it abundantly clear that ‘win now’ is the mode the Rams are in.
3. Minnesota Vikings: Although Case Keenum did a virtuoso act of helping to carry the Vikes along last year, the club doubled down on the progress of 2017 in handing the keys to Kirk Cousins as the club’s QB of the future. With a returning Dalvin Cook for year two, the hopes are that the duo can keep the Vikes' O where their defense lived for much of last year and keep them atop an NFC North that is much improved over the offseason.
4. Jacksonville Jaguars: After putting on a defensive clinic and pushing the Patriots to the brink in the AFC Championship Game, the Jaguars won’t catch anybody slipping this year. The expectations are for that same defense to continue to mature into an even more imposing force and keep the Jags on the short list for top dogs in the AFC picture.
Teams That Could Disappoint
5. Jacksonville Jaguars (Again): By the same token that the Jacksonville defense is expected to lead the way, to truly install confidence in the club’s potential, the offense has to be more consistent. While he will never be a year in, year out Pro Bowler, Blake Bortles must cut down on the turnover and make defenses respect him more. There are the tools in the receiving corps to do so, even without Marquis Lee and Leonard Fournette can carry much of the load to allow Bortles to not be solely relied upon.
6. San Francisco 49ers: The late season breakout of Jimmy Garoppolo created a buzz in San Francisco, a team that was very active after the offseason to pull together a better foundation around their new franchise QB. But hoisting too high of expectations on a signal caller in his first year, who has an indeterminate picture in the backfield following preseason season-ending loss of Jerick McKinnon and a young defense who still has work to do could be a jump to conclusions.
7. Cleveland Browns: All the hype around the additions that the Browns made created a buzz around a team that has won once in the last three years that is nearly unobtainable. Yes, the Browns will be better, and perhaps than in more than just a ‘nowhere to go but up’ type of fashion. But a leap into the playoffs would require at least an eight-to-nine game improvement and that seems highly unlikely.
8. Kansas City Chiefs: Patrick Mahomes II was drafted to be the QB of the future from day one and after yet another playoff collapse, the franchise decided the future is now. With an exciting cast of proven offensive tools around him, Mahomes could very well have a breakout year ahead. But there are also obvious dangers that lie ahead for first-year starting QBs and if he stumbles, it could bring all of KC’s expectations down with him.
It’s all on your shoulders
9. Tom Brady, Patriots: Ho-hum, when isn’t it? Regardless of their curious offensive construction and lack of clear cut options in the passing game aside from Chris Hogan, Rob Gronkowski and (eventually) Julian Edelman, the Pats will be just fine as long as #12 is calling the shots.
10. Aaron Rodgers, Packers: The return of Rodgers under center couldn’t come fast enough for the Pack, who limped to a 7-9 finish without him last year. With Rodgers back however, the value of the entire Green Bay offense shoots up and instantly makes them a Super Bowl contender again.
11. Todd Gurley: Yes, Jared Goff was better than expected and they have an impressive collection of receivers, but the straw that stirs the drink is Gurley. No running back in the game makes more of a difference on the potential of their team than he does and another push to become the first non-QB MVP since Adrian Peterson in 2012 is set to resume.
12. Cam Newton: As Cam goes, so do the Panthers. No team is more constructed around the skill set of one player than the Panthers are for Newton. Currently on WonderPunter, the Panthers are the slight favorites to win the NFC South. However, if Newton plays at his highest level...the Panthers could be back on the Super Bowl stage.
13. Russell Wilson: Amid a time of serious transition in Seattle, Wilson is the constant amid the storm. Expect to see him still laying it on the line to make the most out of the least talented roster he has ever lead.
Storylines that could shift the narrative
14. What’s going on with Le’Veon Bell and the Steelers? After a winter of seeing seemingly all of his other superstar peers that were due for paydays get taken care of, Bell has had enough. After holding out through the preseason for a second consecutive year, Bell seems to have dug his heels in deeper than ever in his intent to not suit up until a long-term deal is worked out. The main question that remains now is who blinks first?
15. How will the new tackling rules impact play? The league’s new rule on defenders leading with their helmet into tackles was huge source of consternation throughout the preseason. How long will it take for defenders to acclimate themselves in-game and how much could penalties that occur amid the learning curve impact the outcomes?
16. How much does Khalil Mack mean to the Bears? After it became clear that there would be no resolution between Mack and the Raiders, Oakland made the stunning decision to move on from Mack last weekend, netting two first round picks in return for the All-Pro pass rusher. The Bears quickly inked him to the biggest contract in NFL history for a defensive player (six years, $141 million) and inserted him into the heart of a defense that already finished among the top 10 in league a year ago. Could the upgrade that Mack represents pull the Bears neck to neck with the Packers and Vikings atop the NFC North?
17. Will Earl Thomas play out the year in Seattle? Thomas finally reported to the Seahawks after demanding either a long-term deal or trade since the end of last season. However, if Seattle struggles early, could he finally get his wish to be sent elsewhere midseason?
Show & Prove
18. Andrew Luck: Luck hasn’t suited up since 2016 and although he is set to return to action this fall, there are still major concerns about what he is bringing back with him.
19. Jimmy Garoppolo: Garoppolo was 5-0 after being tossed into action last year and earned a $137.5 million payday on the other side of it. The expectations that come with this type of start need no explanation; the job of turning around the Niners fall squarely on his shoulders.
20. DeShaun Watson: One of the more universally upsetting moments of 2017 was Watson tearing his ACL, cutting short one of the most dynamic rookie years in history. How he performs on the other side of surgery –and with a league that has seen what he brings now— will be worth noting.
21. Saquon Barkley: Barkley has been one of the most visible faces in the league, before even suiting up for his first game. The spotlight will be bright on the Giants' rookie runner, who was the highest drafted running back since Reggie Bush in 2006.
22. Jon Gruden: The return of Gruden to the sidelines brings the expectation of a quick turnaround in Oakland, a year after they were one of the most underwhelming teams in the game. After a 10-year hiatus to ESPN, the pressure to put the money where his mouth has been is immense, immediate and somewhat self-made.
23. Dak Prescott: Who is Dak Prescott really? Is he closer to the brilliant executor he was during his rookie year or the passer who often struggled to make the big play during his sophomore season? The pressure will be up for him to make the difference as the Cowboys receiving corps looks to find a new identity with both Jason Witten and Dez Bryant gone.
This could be ugly
24. Buffalo Bills: Their biggest weapon (LeSean McCoy) could be looking serious legal action and the QB that will take the ball first (Nate Peterman) tossed five picks in one half last year.
25. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Even if QB1 James Winston wasn’t serving a three-game suspension (he is), things aren’t looking up in Tampa. Dirk Koetter could be the first coach sent packing if they start out flat.
26. Miami Dolphins: Usually the return of your starting quarterback is something to get excited about. But the return of Ryan Tannehill to center does little to offset the crippling losses of Jarvis Landry and Ndamukong Suh.
Sneaky Good Units
27. Cincinnati Bengals' defense: The best defensive line in football may very well be in Cincy. Geno Atkins, Andrew Billings, Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson are a relentless group that sets the tone for a team with playmakers at every level.
28. Baltimore Ravens' defense: While the Ravens are known for their defensive prowess, that has not annually been the case in recent years. 2018 could be a return to tradition for a unit that allowed the sixth fewest points per game (18.9) and allowed only 213 yards through the air per week, 10th fewest in the league.
29. Atlanta Falcons' receivers: Of course, Julio Jones is the main attraction here, as he reminded everyone by turning 20 targets into 169 yards in Thursday’s opener, but there is more to the Falcons attack than just him. An overemphasis on Julio will let Matt Ryan lock in on Mohamed Sanu (703 yards, 5 TDs in 2017) and tight end Austin Hooper (49 catches, 526 yards in ’17), as well as first round pick Calvin Ridley.
30. Los Angeles Chargers' pass rush: Joey Bosa is a beast, running up 23 sacks and five forced fumbles over his first two seasons. Joining him in the Charger blitz is Melvin Ingram (10.5 sacks in ’17) and newly acquired DT Brandon Mebrane for an L.A. defense that is returning remarkably intact.
25 & Under Difference Maker
31. Alvin Kamara, Saints: Kamara was the breakout rookie of the year in NOLA, totaling 1,554 offensive yards between 120 carries and 81 targets. And that was while splitting carries with Mark Ingram, who is suspended for the first four games of 2018. The breakout could still go to another level this year.
32. Kenny Golladay, Lions: Golden Tate and Marvin Jones Jr. are steady, but Golladay is the downfield threat the team has needed since the departure of Megatron. The development of chemistry with Matthew Stafford could be a huge differentiator for the Lions this fall.
33. Marcus Mariota, Titans: It is year four for Mariota as the franchise QB in Nashville and the time is now for him to have that breakthrough season. Still blessed with a buffet of physical tools, the Titans desperately need for him to become a difference-maker capable of lifting their downfield game to a new level this year.
34. Bradley Chubb, Broncos: John Elway couldn’t get the card with Chubb’s name on it to the podium quick enough when the North Carolina State pass rusher was still on the board at number five in April’s Draft. Chubb has the tools to be an elite edge rusher immediately, while also forcing attention off Von Miller in the process. Chubb could be the key to the Broncos' defense going up an entire level this fall.
35. Sam Darnold, Jets: HC Todd Bowles opted against the kid gloves approach with the third overall pick in the Draft and gave Darnold the keys right away. The would-be senior QB at USC will be called upon to breathe immediate life into a Jets offense that needs it.
36. Jamison Crowder, Redskins: Crowder took a step back some last fall after a breakout in 2016. But with savvy veteran Alex Smith in the fold and the options parred down in the Redskins passing attack, the hopes are that Crowder can take the next step to genuine #1 receiver territory.
37. Josh Rosen, Cardinals: Sam Bradford will start the season under center in the desert, but we all know how that story usually ends. Rosen will be waiting in the wings and with the sizable chip on his shoulder after ‘falling’ (in his well-stated opinion) to ninth in the Draft.
And finally.....the most fun Madden 19 franchise teams:
38. For the 'ready to win rock right now' type: The Los Angeles Rams.
39. For the 'franchise-build it from the ground up' type: The Miami Dolphins (you get to draft a quarterback, and everybody loves that).
40. For the middle ground, but I see the upside type: The New York Giants (OBJ and Saquon is going to be at the very least fun as hell to open it up with... even if its only for 8-to-9 wins the first few years).
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