As I am starting to project how teams might do in 2019, where they improved and which areas are still question marks for me, I came up with a few squads, who I think are tough to judge and could go a few different ways. I chose three teams from each conference that I think have the biggest volatility, meaning the differential I could see in terms of their win-loss ratio. Some of these might be due to uncertainty at specific positions, while others are about explosive personalities or injury concerns. Therefore, I did not include up-and-coming teams like the Browns and 49ers, who I think very highly of, and no teams that I expect to bounce back after bad 2018 seasons – like the Jaguars and Falcons.
When you look at a team that has gone 7-8-1, 15-1, 6-10, 11-5 and 7-9 over the last five years, you already know you are in for a rollercoaster. When you see they were 6-2 before losing seven of their last eight games, that theory is only strengthened. While Cam Newton has not come anywhere close to that MVP season in 2015, when the Panthers met the Broncos in the Super Bowl, he is the biggest factor in their success. Usually it’s about his attitude, as you can see the team fluctuate depending on if he is dabbing and dancing around compared to if he plays with his head down and no energy. Now health plays a huge role, as you saw the Panthers QB fall off towards the end of the season with a banged-up shoulder. We have seen snippets of his modified throwing motion, coming more over the top, which could benefit him since I always thought being more of an arm-thrower hurt his ability to alter speed and rotation of the ball. Either way, Cam definitely has one of the best dual-threat running backs in the league lining up to him. When the organization drafted Christian McCaffrey a couple of years ago, they wanted to give their quarterback a quality option out of the backfield and I would argue Run CMC is the premiere receiving back in the game all-around. However, while there is definitely talent at the other skill-positions with D.J. Moore and Curtis Samuel, there aren’t a lot of proven playmakers out there and the offensive line still have some question marks, as they drafted more of a developmental tackle and have three guys best suited to play right tackle. Defensively, that team is loaded in the front seven with the additions of first-round pick Brian Burns and Gerald McCoy to go with what they already had, but they will be switching to a 3-4 base front, which nobody really played in on that roster, and Eric Reid is by far the most experienced guy in their secondary. This team could easily win double-digit games, but if Cam isn’t fully healthy and teams can take advantage of some of those secondary members, they could also finish below .500 once again.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Somehow I feel like this season will either go really well or really wrong for the new Bucs. Bruce Arians has come out of the retirement to work with Jameis Winston and he is looking for a quick turn-around just like he had in Arizona, when they were perennial playoff contenders and even made it to the NFC Championship game in 2016. A lot of people might not recognize this, but Tampa Bay had the league’s number one ranked passing offense and they were third overall in yards. However, a lot of those numbers came in garbage time or failed comeback attempts and they also ranked dead-last with 32 turnovers on the year. Defensively, they finished second-to-last in terms of points allowed and gave up 30+ in half their games. With that being said, there is definitely reason for optimism. Jameis is in a contract year and Bruce Arians could finally be the one to take away some of the BS plays, while still encouraging him to take shots down the field. Mike Evans probably is the most underrated receiver in football, O.J. Howard looks like a future star at tight-end and the O-line is the highest-paid in football. They also just got the key piece to their defense with middle linebacker Devin White at fifth overall out of LSU, they have become much bigger up front over the last two years, there are nine defensive backs on the roster that are still on their rookie deals with the Bucs and the head man got his guy back in Todd Bowles to coach that unit. So on paper and from what we have seen from Arians in terms of being able to turn a team around, Tampa Bay could make a playoff push this season – but there are just so many question marks. Jameis has yet to play at a consistent level for a full year, the Bucs’ running back situation might be the worst in the entire league, Jason Pierre-Paul’s status is still up in the air and while I just applauded the youth they have brought in to be part of that secondary, the reason they have drafted so many guys is because nobody has really established himself, outside of safety Justin Evans maybe. I wouldn’t be shocked to see the Bucs in the hunt for a Wild Card spot, but I just don’t trust them at this point.
When you look at a team that just had the number one overall draft pick after a 3-13 record, usually you are just looking for some type of improvement from the following year. I believe this situation is a little different, because you have a general manager that has been part of the organization for 20 years now and took the top spot in 2013. That guy just decided to hire a head coach, who was fired from a bottom-half Big XII school, and used the first pick in the draft on a 5’10” quarterback after selecting another QB in the top ten just a year earlier, which he ended up trading away for a late second. Those moves better pay off or Steve Keim might lose his job as well. While I still believe in Josh Rosen’s potential to become a franchise quarterback and the strategy at the top of the board can be questioned, I thought the Cardinals had an excellent all-around draft, especially at the wide receiver position, and they added needed veteran leadership on defense with guys like Terrell Suggs and D.J. Swearinger. Even though the defense ranked 26th in the league in points allowed last year and they will miss their best player in Patrick Peterson at corner during his six-game suspension, I think they could be pretty good on that side of the ball if some of their young guys take the next step. The real question mark is what Kliff Kingsbury can do with his new dynamic signal-caller and the rest of the offense. After a bunch of teams already used some of their concepts, Arizona will be first NFL team to fully commit to the Air Raid system. That means their skill players need to learn how routes need to transition and how they have to adapt on the fly. Larry Fitzgerald really is the only proven playmaker outside of David Johnson in the backfield and not even he has any experience playing in that type of offense. While Kingsbury’s system won’t require elite talent, quick adjustments and reading of defenses will be needed. And if the Cardinals do come out hot, defensive coordinator might still catch up to some of their passing concepts and give you different looks as the season progresses. I’m really interested to see if what they want to do will be sustainable.
This is the only playoff team on the list and the Ravens didn’t just sneak into the postseason, they won ten games and finished at the top of the AFC North. With all the drama surrounding Pittsburgh, a young Cleveland squad that was still finding their groove and Cincinnati completely falling off as the season went along, Baltimore took full advantage once they inserted rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson into the starting lineup. The former Heisman trophy winner immediately turned them into one of the top rushing offenses in the league and they had the type of complimentary defense and special teams to win six of their final games. However, when they hosted the Chargers in the Wildcard Round, it felt like the visitors exposed Lamar by putting extra defensive backs on the field to secure the edges and shut down a run game that was falsely labelled as an option offense. Not only was the play-calling predictable, but their QB failed to make easy reads and connect in the passing game. Soon after that the top-ranked Ravens defense saw major changes with stalwarts Terrell Suggs, Eric Weddle and C.J. Mosley all gone. In the meantime the Browns acquired one of the most dynamic offensive players in the NFL when they made a blockbuster deal for Odell Beckham Jr. in addition to some other key moves for a team that already looked like the favorite in that division. When free agency arrived, the Ravens made up for some of those losses when signing Earl Thomas and Mark Ingram to go with a draft that had a clear focus of helping out their 22-year old signal-caller. I like some of the signings in the later phases of free agency with Shane Ray and Pernell McPhee hungry to help out the pass rush and right now this looks like the top secondary in football. So defensively I think they could be dominant once again and it call comes back to Lamar’s development as a passer. Newly promoted offensive coordinator Greg Roman is implementing a new offensive system, which could once again feature multiple tight-end sets, rotate their backs and now has a true deep threat in first-round pick Marquise Brown. If Mr. Jackson becomes a true threat from the pocket, we could be looking at a real contender in the AFC, but if his passing remains a little wobbly, they will not be able to compete with Cleveland for the division and could even land behind a refocused Steelers team.
For such a long time now it feels like the Dolphins were expected to tank this upcoming season for the top pick in next year’s draft, in order to find their franchise signal-caller, and somehow everybody is still penciling them into for the number one pick in 2020, but I’m not so sure about that. When they traded a late second-round pick for Josh Rosen out of Arizona, they might have already found their guy. I had Rosen as my number two quarterback in last year’s draft, pretty much as 2A and 2B with Baker Mayfield, and while he definitely didn’t have the rookie season anybody would have liked him to have, I think the disregard for him is ridiculous. The numbers don’t look good at all and the Arizona offense was pretty anemic, but most of that was not on Rosen. The offensive play-calling under Mike McCoy to start the year was a joke and only saw marginal improvement after he was fired, the offensive line situation was a mess with all the shuffling around and Larry Fitzgerald really was his only dependable target in the passing game, with David Johnson not being able to shine either. Right now Rosen is competing with Ryan Fitzgerald for the starting job, but I would expect him to win that battle. Some of the questions arise from that situation however, because somehow everywhere Fitz goes, he finds a way to play some games and you never really know what you get from him. The Dolphins also lost key veterans in guard Josh Sitton and defensive end Robert Quinn, plus they were really quiet in free agency, which made fans suspicious about the idea of losing games on purpose. On the other hand, they also drafted another foundation player in Clemson D-lineman Christian Wilkins to go with who I think could be a culture changer in Minkah Fitzpatrick. We don’t really know yet what we are getting from the quarterback position and I don’t see the personnel to be a really dangerous offense, but the things I know I’m getting from a Brian Flores team are toughness, attention to detail in their preparation and a well-coached defense. They could still be in the hunt for the number one overall pick come next April, but I think they could also easily be a .500 ball club.
If there is one word to describe these Raiders it is “explosive” – not necessarily in a good however. Look at all the personalities on the team – a kind of crazy coach in Jon Gruden, a diva wide receiver in Antonio Brown who just forced a trade, a semi-sentenced offensive lineman in Richie Incognito, the most suspended player on a yearly basis in linebacker Vontaze Burfict, a move to Las Vegas looming and Hard Knocks ready to record their every single move. There is probably no team more capable of blowing up any moment than these Raiders. With that being said, they could also be pretty darn good if things go right. Quarterback Derek Carr was an MVP front-runner just two-and-a-half years ago and quietly threw nine touchdowns and no picks over a five-week stretch last season, no matter what you think of him as a person – AB is still easily a top five wide receiver, the O-line should definitely be much improved with the additions of Incognito and Trent Brown, they have added some quality veterans on defense and just made three first round selections, which they expect to be cornerstones of the franchise going forward. Offensively I think they have upgraded at every area outside of quarterback and I still think Carr can be an above-average quarterback. Defensively, they might not field the most dangerous pass rush, but there is no way they finish with just 13 sacks once again, I think Gareon Conley could be a breakout player at corner to go with whoever emerges from that group, newly signed Lamarcus Joyner is one of my favorite safeties in the league and I think Jonathan Abram will give them some attitude coming out Mississippi State. At this point it is looking more like chaos than actually putting together a program that is built for winning a lot games, but the roster is on a different level this year and some of those young guys they relied on last season now have a season in the books. While every team looks like a contender when the cameras of HBO are following them, we could learn a lot about the Raiders early on – especially if things go South.