It’s an unavoidable trap of the tediously long NFL offseason.
By mid-June, all 32 teams have been over-analyzed to death. Picked to pieces. Kicked around like so many dead horses.
We casually throw a bunch of clubs into the “doomed” category based on free agency losses or a perceived bad draft. On the flip side, a handful of rosters are fawned over for adding a bundle of high-priced veterans. Then the games begin, and most of what we predicted with utter surety in the summer gets tossed in the blender.
This article comes packed with all those inherent dangers, but I needed something to do today, so here’s my pitch: I’m calling out a trio of buzzy, hyped-up teams bound to disappoint — while also naming three franchises set to exceed expectations.
Let’s get started, shall we?
ENOUGH WITH THE BUZZ
Yes, the defense has a chance to make waves. Second-year cornerback Jalen Ramsey is a star in the making, and the line looks stout, with Calais Campbell paired next to Malik Jackson. Cover man A.J. Bouye was another solid free-agent addition for a unit hoping to see young edge rushers Dante Fowler and Yannick Ngakoue continue to grow. The pieces are there, but many of these same pieces utterly failed to mesh under previous coach Gus Bradley. Is Doug Marrone the guy to flip the switch?
I struggle to believe in Jacksonville’s rise to power until we see major changes at the quarterback position. After such a hopeful start to his career, Blake Bortles was a mechanical disaster in 2016, leading to another predictable round of trope-oozing offseason reports about the 25-year-old passer “pretty much correcting” his faulty throwing motion. Those words came from newly installed football czar Tom Coughlin, but I need to see it on the field before buying into the Jaguars. It’s just as likely that Jacksonville heads into next offseason looking for new answers under center.
The concept of a Cowboys swoon has come up plenty on the “Around the NFL Podcast.” History is on the side of my colleague Dan Hanzus, who points to a recent track record of Dallas following double-digit-win seasons with crash-and-burn campaigns. How could it happen this autumn? Let’s start with a defense that lost cover men Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne, Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox in free agency, stripping the team of a combined 2,645 regular-season snaps from 2016. A potential DWI-related ban for cornerback Nolan Carroll would only further deplete one of the league’s thinnest secondaries. It’s a rough dynamic for a club set to face Odell Beckham, Alshon Jeffery, Jamison Crowder and Terrelle Pryor twice next season, along with the likes of Julio Jones, Amari Cooper, Demaryius Thomas, Keenan Allen and Jordy Nelson.
The hope in Dallas is that last year’s formula — unleashing Ezekiel Elliott behind the NFC’s best O-line — continues to work wonders. Even so, second-year quarterback Dak Prescott could find himself under pressure to score points in bundles to keep up. There’s a lot of talent on this team, but expecting another 13-win juggernaut is suspect when Dallas has serious depth issues on defense.
New Orleans Saints
Fun Fact: NFL.com had published roughly 827 stories about Adrian Peterson this offseason.
We get it, employer. Adding Peterson and rookie Alvin Kamara to a backfield already laced with Mark Ingram makes this a must-watch team. The Saints also have a bona fide star at receiver in Michael Thomas, while 38-year-old quarterback Drew Brees shows no sign of slowing down. New Orleans has finished in the top 12 in points scored and among the top six in total offense every year since coach Sean Payton arrived in 2006. All of this only adds to the frustration around a poorly constructed roster with just one winning season over the past five years.
During that stretch, the Saints have refused to build a competent defense, finishing 28th or worse in points allowed four times since 2012. Adding rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore helps, but New Orleans has just one defensive starter — edge rusher Cameron Jordan — who received a grade of 80.0 or more (out of 100) from Pro Football Focus last season. Larry Holder of The Times-Picayune wrote during OTAs that “every job is up for grabs” for a defense that has “run out of second and third chances” to fix itself. For all the offseason buzz about Peterson and this offense, the defense could — once again — sink this ship.
READY TO OVERACHIEVE
San Francisco 49ers
I’m not ticketing the Niners for a winning season, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see San Francisco dial up six-plus victories. The roster includes a wealth of talent along the defensive line with mountainous pass rushers Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner sandwiched around versatile first-round tackle Solomon Thomas. This will be a better unit in 2017, while the offense finds itself in good hands under Kyle Shanahan.
It’s easy — and fair — to dismiss Brian Hoyer, but remember that the journeyman quarterback has worked well with Shanahan before. The duo helped the Browns to a surprising 7-4 start in 2014 before the wheels fell off, with the coach making the most of Hoyer in a play-action-heavy attack that leaned hard on a young backfield. Rookie runner Joe Williams could see major carries if Carlos Hyde isn’t a fit for the team’s outside-zone scheme. Shanahan has worked wonders with first-year backs before, and Williams was hand-picked by the coach, who “desperately wanted” the Utah star, per CSN Bay Area. With free-agent pickup Pierre Garcon upgrading last year’s ugly cast of receivers, the Niners are set to show signs of growth under Shanahan, arguably the best in-game play caller in the NFL today.
Los Angeles Chargers
Would anyone be surprised to see the Bolts completely flip their 5-11 record from a season ago? Eleven wins is possible with Philip Rivers at the wheel, if the Chargers can avoid the plague of injuries that sunk this team in 2016. First-year coach Anthony Lynn brings a proven history of maximizing the ground game, hinting at a monster year for Melvin Gordon. The third-year back will work behind a revamped O-line that added tackle Russell Okung and drafted two interior uglies in Forrest Lamp and Dan Feeney. Meanwhile, Rivers has a laundry list of talented pass catchers in tight end Hunter Henry, rookie receiver Mike Williams and fellow wideouts Keenan Allen, Tyrell Williams, Dontrelle Inman and Travis Benjamin.
The defense isn’t perfect, but the Chargers have valuable starters in Melvin Ingram, Casey Hayward, Jason Verrett and Denzel Perryman, plus an All-Pro in the making in edge rusher Joey Bosa. Gus Bradley and Ken Whisenhunt give the Bolts a pair of experienced coordinators, and the team’s move from San Diego — still tough to support, emotionally — has been mostly drama-free. They’re stuck in a nasty division, but something just feels right about this Chargers team winning games at the super-intimate, 30,000-seat StubHub Center.
Laugh all you want. The Browns poured resources into an offensive line that looks like one of the AFC’s finest after adding guard Kevin Zeitler and center JC Tretter. That’s the foundation for an attack that could challenge for the AFC lead in rushing attempts under coach Hue Jackson. On defense, No. 1 overall pick Myles Garrett adds star power to a front line that saw fellow edge rusher Emmanuel Ogbah surge down the stretch alongside improved nose tackle Danny Shelton. (Of course, we’ll need to keep an eye on Garrett’s foot issue — hopefully that’s nothing serious.) If Jamie Collins and Christian Kirksey can hold down the fort at linebacker, this Gregg Williams-led group has a chance to help Cleveland not be a disaster on defense for the first time in essentially 20 years.
The key here is exceeding expectations, and the Browns will need a quarterback to emerge from the pile for that to happen. That’s no small request, but if Jackson can squeeze adequate play out of Cody Kessler, Brock Osweiler and/or rookie DeShone Kizer, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Browns win six games and show true growth when most have Cleveland pegged for another 1-15 hell ride.
I should also note, however, that I woke from a bizarre dream last weekend about Kessler throwing five interceptions in the season opener. In the dream, Kessler had grown a long, flowing mane of brown hair on one side of his head, with the other side of his scalp having been shaved like that of an angry punk-rock girl.
None of this bodes well.