Mid-May. Time to take stock of the offseason. There’s not much left for teams to do before training camp. Vets with something left (Ndamukong Suh, Muhammad Wilkerson, Jay Ajayi, maybe Chris Long) could land somewhere, but those guys aren’t going to shift the balance of power in pro football’s 100th season.
So here are my rankings of the teams with most of the chairs being taken, and the music about to stop. Instead of justifying my pick in many of the fat-graf explanations, I’ll take some space on a key point that could determine success or failure with the team.
I fully expect to be wildly incorrect, so react accordingly.
The 2018 playoff teams are marked with asterisks … The teams that finished under .500 in 2018 are marked with plus-signs.
1. *KANSAS CITY CHIEFS (2018: 13-5)
Seems a little crazy with the firing of the 2017 NFL rushing champ (Kareem Hunt) six months ago and the iffy status of the NFL’s most dangerous weapon because of a child-abuse investigation (Tyreek Hill). But this is an In-Mahomes-We-Trust pick, mostly. I wonder if you could ever say that a rookie picked as low as 56—that was the draft slot of the Chiefs’ top pick, Georgia receiver-returner Mecole Hardman—would enter a season as the rookie with the most pressure to produce at a high level from opening day. With Hill facing a possible suspension to start the season, or more significant banishment, Hardman’s a huge factor for the Chiefs. I went back and watched his highlights from the 2018 national title game against Alabama, and he made a couple of prime-time plays. He took a shotgun snap at quarterback from the ‘Bama 1-yard line, play-faked to Sony Michel, and beat three defenders around the left corner for a touchdown. Then he flashed his 4.33 speed down the right sideline, beating the Alabama corner for an 80-yard TD from Jake Fromm. But is Hardman as tough and competitive as Hill? Will he strike fear into defenses? We’ll see in a tough three-week open to the KC season: at Jacksonville, at Oakland, Baltimore at home.
2. *NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (2018: 14-5)
I just kept thinking as New England, round-by-round, let tight ends go by in the draft: Well, Bill Belichick knows he needs a tight end badly, and if he doesn’t take one, it must mean he didn’t love one, or he has plans beyond the draft. One of those plans, post-Gronk, was Ben Watson, who was highly peeved to not be active for the NFC title game as a Saint, and felt he had unfinished business as a player when he retired after the season. Watson, even at 38, is a useable player familiar with Patriot ways because he played for them for six years. I’m not sure Austin Seferian-Jenkins will be much of a factor either. And we’ll see who else comes available. Could Kyle Rudolph, for instance, in Minnesota, be a June cap casualty? That would be a golden piece for New England, though I have no idea if he’d sign with the Patriots if released. Looking at the Patriots this spring, I’m not going to sit here and kill them for not taking a Jace Sternberger in the draft. I, along with the rest of the media world, learned a lesson sometime around the fifth or sixth Super Bowl that Belichick and personnel czar Nick Caserio might know what they’re doing, and they usually figure out a better-than-competent roster to play with Tom Brady by November.
3. *INDIANAPOLIS COLTS (2018: 11-7)
My first surprise, having the Colts this high. I’m relying on Justin Houston an awful lot here. The Colts haven’t had a pass-rusher have a premier season since 2013, when Robert Mathis had his last great rush season with 19.5 sacks. Houston had an impact year at 29 last fall for Kansas City (14 games, 11 sacks, including playoffs), which is why the Colts outbid others for his services on the free market in March. But he missed 5, 12, 1 and 4 games (regular and postseason) in his last four Chief seasons, so this is a gamble. If the Colts get 12 effective games out of him—and if two or three or those are in the postseason—the investment will be worth it. Big if. You can tell I’m buying Houston being able to have one more strong year for a good team. I’m probably sold mostly by the fact I saw his last game for Kansas City—the overtime classic against New England in the AFC title game—and Houston played an astounding 95 of 97 snaps that cold Sunday at Arrowhead, frequently buzzing around Tom Brady.