After talking about the biggest remaining needs for each team in the NFL at this stage of the offseason, I decided to look at the squads that I believe could make a serious improvement and surprise some people in 2018. With that I mean they should exceed expectations despite not being looked at as contenders right now. Therefore I didn’t mention the obvious candidates such as the Packers, who get their franchise QB back, or the Texans, who are everybody’s offseason darling right now. All but one of the upcoming teams missed the postseason by multiple games, with the final one not really being looked at as a playoff team for some reason.
Watching Mitch Trubisky early on last season, it felt like the Bears were trying to keep him in chains and simply didn’t want him to make a mistake, to give the feeling that he was thrown into the fire too early. Mike Glennon, who he took over for, was treated similarly and still turned the ball over. While I think it helped Trubisky ease into the offense, with the way the organization has surrounded their young franchise quarterback during this offseason and the creative Matt Nagy as their new head coach, they will let Mitch loose. A lot of what they did was built off the zone run game featuring Jordan Howard, with bootlegs off of that, and those two elements fit their personnel very well, but they will definitely use the modern RPOs to keep defenses off balance, like Nagy did with Alex Smith in Kansas City. The addition of Trey Burton will be key as a move tight-end, which will help them identify if opponents play man- or zone-coverage, by seeing if a safety/linebacker moves outside with him or the cornerback stays on the perimeter. With Burton and second-year man Adam Shaheen, the Bears have an excellent duo of young pass-catching tight-ends to go with Allen Robinson, who I expect to have a big year, Taylor Gabriel and hopefully (finally) Kevin White. Tarik Cohen should be an all-purpose weapon for them as well. If you want to read about Chicago’s O-line, you can check out my most recent article. The Bears defense on the other hand was a top-ten unit in terms of yards and points allowed already last year, but they have become even faster and more aggressive on that side of the ball with Georgia’s Roquan Smith being drafted eighth overall next to Danny Trevathan. This front-seven looks scary, with Akiem Hicks becoming a disruptive force up front along with Eddie Goldman, Leonard Floyd coming into him own as an edge rusher and Aaron Lynch hoping to recreate some of the early success he had in San Francisco. Eddie Jackson and Adrian Amos might be the most underrated safety tandem in the league, as Jackson’s range at free safety allows their corners to be aggressive and Amos bringing a downhill style of play. I’ve always been a fan of Kyle Fuller at corner and Prince Amukamara looked like a very good number two last year. I know the NFC North is a very tough division with Aaron Rodgers back, the Vikings just coming off an NFC Championship game appearance and even the Lions having playoff hopes, but I believe Chicago could surprise some people this upcoming season.
I listed my top ten combinations of offensive and defensive lines a couple of weeks ago and to the surprise of some, I wrapped things up with the Redskins at number ten. At their best however, I believe the ‘Skins are a physical, punch-you-in-the-mouth football team. They are built to win in the trenches and last year they were decimated by injuries on both the offensive and defensive front. The O-line was in constant flux and last year’s first-round pick Jonathan Allen was lost for the season five games into his rookie campaign, after imposing his will early on. The big change for this team is under center, letting Kirk Cousins walk after acquiring 14-year veteran Alex Smith from Kansas City. Overall I don’t think they improved that much at the position, but Smith is coming off his best season as a pro and he seems to handle late-game situations a little better. His receiving corp might not look as impressive on paper right now without guys like Terrelle Pryor, Pierre Garcon or DeSean Jackson, but Josh Doctson was a justified first-round pick two years ago, Jamison Crowder might have made some mistakes last year but also showed a lot of potential, Paul Richardson was a big-play machine for Seattle and if Jordan Reed could ever stay healthy, he could take over some games. I thought Derrius Guice was the number two running backs available in the draft and he slid to them in the second round. I could easily see him leading all rookies in rushing yards behind this offensive line, with his extremely physical running style. On defense, I already mentioned J. Allen and he will be reunited with his buddy from Alabama in Da’Ron Payne. Overall, Washington’s front-seven looks very impressive with the likes of the steadily underrated Ryan Kerrigan, another double-digit sack threat in Preston Smith and 2016 second-team All-Pro Zach Brown. Those guys could set the tone in a lot of contests. On the backend, they bring an interesting combination of experience, leadership, play-making and most of all attitude. Their undisputed leader is D.J. Swearinger, who stepped into that role in his first year with the Redskins. He brings that swagger, that Josh Norman can write a book about. The trash-talking cornerback might have taken a step back last season, but he still is a constant threat to undercut routes and knock balls loose. Orlando Scandrick is coming over from division-rival Dallas and gives them another guy with veteran leadership, plus I expect second-year man Fabian Moreau to look like a steal, given that he fell to the third round due to an injury a year ago. The Super Bowl champs look very strong once again and both the Cowboys and Giants should improve, but don’t overlook the nation’s capital.
Nobody talks about the Cardinals right now. However, this team went 8-8 with their starting quarterback, their star running back, left tackle and second-best pass rusher out for the majority of the season. It will be interesting to see what happens with the quarterback situation in the desert, as both Sam Bradford and now tenth overall pick Josh Rosen have very high potential, but both carrying some injury risk. No matter which of the two opens the season, I could easily see both of them getting a lot of playing time and they will have some guys to work with around. The offensive line is better than it was last year, with D.J. Humphries back healthy and Justin Pugh coming over in free agency. At wide receiver, Arizona gave up John and Jaron Brown, but I still believe they improved with the additions of Brice Butler and the dynamic Christian Kirk through the draft. Newly hired offensive coordinator Mike McCoy comes from a West Coast system originally, but he has influences from the Air Coryell vertical passing game and worked under Josh McDaniels. He has shown over the years that he adjusts his offense to the talents at his disposal and I expect him to incorporate a variety of schemes. Butler and J.J. Nelson will be downfield weapons on the perimeter, with Kirk and Larry Legend working underneath routes. With the statements of head coach Steve Wilks about his star running back, expect a lot of touches for David Johnson in both the running and passing game. Defensively, the Cardinals have moved on from the aggressive James Bettcher, as Wilks brought over former linebackers coach Al Holcomb from Carolina with him. That signals a conversion to a 4-3 front, with reigning sack-leader Chandler Jones and Markus Golden being more hand-in-the-dirt rushers anyway. Haason Reddick is coming into year two, after a forgettable rookie campaign in which he was kind of looking for his role. I thought bringing Tramon Williams in last year to go along with Patrick Peterson was a very important move, as teams shy away from P2 from the most part and test that second guy a lot. The release of Tyrann Mathieu was a surprise, but the team clearly wants to put last year’s second-round selection Budda Baker out on the field, as he was a special teams demon in 2017 and showed the kind of don’t-give-a-damn approach we saw from a young Honeybadger. With all the moves the Rams made this offseason coming off an NFC West title, they certainly look like the cream of the division, but the Cardinals could be one of the surprise teams vying for a wildcard spot.
Man, I’m so high on these Titans. When I talked about the biggest remaining needs for each AFC team and I got to Tennessee’s roster, I simply didn’t know which position I could mention. Rather, I discussed the necessity of creating a gameplan, that suits Marcus Mariota’s strengths and I think they are on their way of building an offense around him that can move the ball up and down the field. I cringed every time when I saw the coaching staff ask Derrick Henry to run gap-schemes and go through defenders on his way. While the 250-pounder is a load to bring down, he fits a zone-rushing attack much better, where he has the speed to stress the edges and a mean stiff-arms once he gets around that corner. He is not the guy who manipulates double-teams and jumps gaps once the linebacker peaks too much to one side, but rather he needs to build up momentum and wants to use his off-arm to keep defenders from even putting hands on him. With Matt LaFleur coming from that Shanahanian play-calling style, I expect the Titans to build their offensive attack around that zone-run game. I expect a lot of bootlegs, sweep fakes, etc. to give Mariota easy high-low reads, where he can tuck and run when he doesn’t like what he sees. I expect a big year from the QB going into his fourth season as well as the fellow Heisman trophy winner, who lines up in the backfield with in and the young receivers on this roster, most notably Corey Davis. Defensively, they have yet to really live up to their potential, but there are multiple reasons to believe in them making the jump in 2018. First and foremost, I am a big fan of new defensive coordinator Dean Pees. This will be a much more aggressive and versatile unit with the hybrid schemes he brings over from Baltimore. They will present multiple fronts, a variety of zone blitzes and a lot of safety movement before the snap. The key pieces of Jurrell Casey and Kevin Byard are still in place and as good as ever, but despite a minimum of four draft picks, I thought they added exactly what they needed with Alabama’s Rashaan Evans as a thumping inside-linebacker and BC’s Harold Landry as a burst-and-bend edge rusher. Add former Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler to the mix and this team might field one of the better offenses and defenses in the league. This AFC South seems to be loaded, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Titans are the last team standing from this division.
Alright, let’s look at the Broncos team, that hoisted the Super Bowl trophy in 2016. They won with a dominant defense, a downhill rushing attack and timely quarterback play with two very good receivers. Well, I think Denver could have exactly those things once again this upcoming season. Defensively, things started with Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware wreaking havoc off the edges. Miller has steadily been one of the elite players in the game since earning that MVP trophy in the big game and the Broncos just drafted the premiere defensive prospect in N.C. State’s Bradley Chubb to go alongside him. While they don’t have an interior rusher like Malik Jackson, Derek Wolfe is still demanding attention and with Shane Ray and Shaq Barrett in the rotation, they can move guys around the line. I think Todd Davis has been solid next to Brandon Marshall, replacing Danny Trevathan and having Bradley Roby as their third corner was an immense luxury. Tremaine Brock could turn out to be an excellent addition and already advocated last January that the Broncos need to find a way to bring Justin Simmons onto the field, who I really liked coming out of college due to his high football IQ and range. Whoever wants to argue that the Super Bowl team had Peyton Manning at the helm, I would strongly advise to go back and watch the five-time NFL MVP during that season. He had the worst stretch of his career with nine touchdowns compared to 17 INTs thrown, when his body started to break down before he was benched and was out with an injury. Even though he played very well in a few games, it was Brock Osweiler who won quite a few games for them. When Manning returned, he came through when the team really needed him, but they didn’t depend on him airing it out. Instead it was the bruising running style of C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman changing up the pace. With their current set of backs and a much-improved offensive line, I see them reproducing that ground success and I certainly believe Case Keenum can come up big for them in those crucial moments after what I saw from him last year. Even though they might have declined a little, Demaryius Thomas Emmanuel Sanders are still there and Denver drafted two receivers I really like. SMU’s Courtland Sutton should a beast in the red-zone and DeSean Hamilton understands how to create separation with his route-running. I really like the Chargers and the Raiders should bounce back from a disappointing 2017 campaign, but I can’t count the Broncos out right now.