Today I’m engaging in the annual exercise of idiocy that has no official name. I call it “ranking the teams from 1 to 32 after the offseason,” aka “NFL Power Rankings.” Hemingway’s jealous today. I can really turn a phrase.
I do not account for the unprecedented offseason. Too many variables, and there’s really no way of knowing how seriously teams are taking the virtual learning. But I did get an interesting view of it from Peyton Manning the other day. I wondered what advice he’d have for players—quarterbacks in particular—in such a lonely offseason.
Manning had a good story about his brother, Eli, pertaining to this.
“I did a Zoom call with Eli for a buddy, an investment banker,” Peyton Manning said. “It was a Q&A. Someone asked your question—how would you handle this situation as a quarterback? Eli talked about during the NFL lockout—nobody makes any comparisons to what’s going on right now—but, the NFL lockout was somewhat similar in the fact that it was truly a lockdown. Couldn’t talk to the coaches. Couldn’t go into the facilities. Maybe even tougher because you couldn’t have communication with the coaches. Eli talked about organizing their own workouts and taking some ownership. Eli got practice scripts, like blitz walk-through drawings, diagrams, he got practice jerseys, he organized workouts at a high school. He was kind of the head coach/coordinator and they were doing full routes and doing 7 on 7 and blitzes at practice. He was really thorough.
“Sure enough, they were in the Super Bowl that year. They beat the Patriots.
“So I’ve done a few Zoom calls. I did the Buffalo Bills quarterback room meeting. Did the Los Angeles Rams full team meeting. Did the Bears quarterbacks. That was kinda my message, sort of, you know, follow Eli’s lead. Quarterbacks, take ownership. All these Zoom meetings, right now, the coaches are leading them. My message was to the quarterbacks. ‘Hey, organize your own Zoom meetings without the coaches, just get you and the tight ends, you and the receivers.’ It’s actually an opportunity to even have better communication. Because there’s nothing else to do, right? Hey, every Tuesday, 9 a.m., quarterbacks and the offensive line, Zoom, watching film. Instead of complaining about it, see it as an opportunity to really improve. There’s no reason you shouldn’t have every play from last year studied down to the T.
“I shared how I broke down film from the previous season. I always watched the interception tape first. Then the sack tape. All the bad things. You figure out why you’re throwing these interceptions. What drill do I need to incorporate into the offseason to fix that? Sean McVay said after I talked, he got a text from Jared Goff and from Jalen Ramsey. He said they’re going to organize their own meetings and workouts. To me, that’s what you have to do. The coaches shouldn’t lead everything. Josh Allen seemed real excited about that.
“I think the team that wins it all this year is gonna be the team that’s really getting an edge during this time—kind of like the Giants in 2011.”
For the record, last year I had two Super Bowl teams 1 and 7: winner Kansas City one, loser San Francisco seven. My other gems: Indianapolis three, Rams four, Chargers five, Bears nine . . . you get the drill. Win some, lose some. I lost a lot last year. This year’s NFL power rankings, with last year’s final record plus playoff result:
1. Kansas City (15-4, won Super Bowl 54 over San Francisco 31-20)
I hate picking teams to repeat. It’s happened once this century, and not for the past 15 years. Too much can happen. And the Chiefs absolutely are vulnerable on defense. It’s not a superior defense—31st overall in 2018, 17th last year—but defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo used Chris Jones in the front and Tyrann Mathieu in the back so well last season, all the way through the Super Bowl. All three return. I just love the offense too much to pick anyone else first.
One of the big factors this year is how teams come off the challenges of this unconventional offseason. And in the Chiefs’ case, whether they come back to training camp fat and happy. Those things are impossible to tell, but it certainly has happened to some champions. I don’t see it happening to Patrick Mahomes; he respects the game too much. I don’t see it happening to a leader like Mathieu on defense. I don’t see it happening with Andy Reid, the coaching lifer. But we’ll see. Otherwise, where are they challenged? The offensive speed is all back, led by Tyreek Hill. (And that’s good, because slight receivers like Hill and Mecole Hardman are vulnerable to injury.) The added offensive piece, LSU back Clyde Edwards-Helaire, could give Reid and offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy an added dimension. Last year, the Chiefs were 23rd in the league in rush yards per game, but the combo platter of Damien Williams and the versatile Edwards-Helaire could be lethal. Before the draft, GM Brett Veach told Reid to study Edwards-Helaire, saying he reminded him of longtime Reid favorite Brian Westbrook. When Reid watched, he concluded Edwards-Helaire might be better. Yikes. A poor man’s Marshall Faulk. Just what the rest of the AFC didn’t want to see in Kansas City.
2. Baltimore (14-3, lost AFC divisional game to Tennessee 28-12)
Thou shalt not overreact to two games. That’s the Eleventh Commandment in Maryland these days. Lamar Jackson has been an amalgam of John Elway and Michael Vick in the regular season, the justifiably unanimous MVP winner in 2019. In postseason home spirit-crushers the last two years, he’s a 51-percent passer with a 68.3 rating. There’s nothing he can do about that till January, and there’s nothing he should do, either. Two games do not make a rule. But it does hang over the Ravens.
Jackson could be better at 23 than he was at 22 if the Ravens can somewhat ably replace one of the best guards of this century, the retired Marshal Yanda; either of the last fourth-round picks, guards Ben Powers or Ben Bredeson, will likely win Yanda’s spot at left guard. In the draft, Ohio State running back J.K. Dobbins was a gift at 55 overall—it’s almost ridiculous to think a team that averaged 5.53 yards per rush last year could be improved—and wideout Devin Duvernay a good get at 92 overall. Both should be significant year-one contributors. Hollywood Brown, the wideout plagued by playing with a bum foot last year, should be the flyer the Ravens drafted first in 2019. Trade of the Offseason: Baltimore dealt the 157th pick in the draft for defensive end Calais Campbell, PFF’s top-rated DE against the run last year; Campbell should have two solid years left.
The AFC North is better with Ben Roethlisberger back and Joe Burrow in it, but I think the Ravens will be neck-and-neck with the Chiefs for best record in the conference—because the AFC West will be markedly improved, and because Baltimore has a favorable end of season: Dallas at home on a Thursday, at Cleveland on a Monday, Jacksonville and the Giants at home, and at Cincinnati. Five straight games to finish against teams that didn’t make the playoffs last year. Baltimore should be 13-3 or better.
3. New Orleans (13-4, lost NFC Wild Card game 26-20 to Minnesota)
Endings are not always pretty. Tom Brady’s finale last year, for instance, with the pick-six to Logan Ryan on the last play of his New England career. Brett Favre, on a snowy night in Minnesota, getting concussed in an ugly 40-14 loss to the Bears. And I’ve thought of what this season might be like for Drew Brees in New Orleans, particularly after three straight ignominious ends to Saints seasons. I don’t see another ugly finish from this team, and this coach. Brees is not exactly stumbling into the end, if indeed this is the end; I think it probably is, based on the fact that Brees was so close to walking away in January. In the last two years, he’s had the two most accurate seasons in NFL history, had a combined 59-9 TD-to-interception ratio, and had his best two passer ratings of a 19-year career.
This is mostly the same team that stalled in the Superdome against the Vikings in the wild-card game, except for Jameis Winston as an intriguing backup QB, Emmanuel Sanders as a proven alternative to Michael Thomas, and uber-leader Malcolm Jenkins returning to key the secondary in what could also be his last year. Jenkins is the player Sean Payton always regretted letting get away after spending his first five seasons in New Orleans. It’d be fitting for both Jenkins and Brees to go out on top.
To make it to Super Bowl 55, New Orleans will have to be better than up-and-coming San Francisco and the pesky Bucs. In its last 33 regular-season games, New Orleans is 23-5 against the rest of the league and 3-2 against the Bucs . . . and now Tampa will have Tom Brady playing quarterback. A fascinating January should be on tap, whatever happens.
4. San Francisco (15-4, lost Super Bowl to Kansas City 31-20)
There isn’t a team that responded to its problems better than the Niners this offseason. San Francisco needed a left tackle after Joe Staley’s April retirement; GM John Lynch went out and got Pro Bowl left tackle Trent Williams, cheap. Knowing that he couldn’t pay all his top defensive frontmen, Lynch dealt DeForest Buckner for the 13th pick in the draft—and used that pick on South Carolina DT Javon Kinlaw. And needing a long-term receiver threat, the Niners traded up in the first round for Arizona State wideout Brandon Aiyuk. The one long-term position Lynch needs to attack is the secondary—and not because of the late collapse against the Chiefs in the Super Bowl. Richard Sherman is 32, and greatness for a corner at 32 cannot be assumed. But a deep defensive front will help any issues defensive coordinator Robert Saleh has in the back end.
The 49ers have an excellent chance to stay atop the tough NFC West, though a Lombardi Trophy will come only with more consistency from Jimmy Garoppolo. His 75.9 rating in the playoffs, while not coming out of nowhere, was more noticeable because of how coach Kyle Shanahan play-called in January after Garoppolo threw an ugly interception against the Vikings. In the Niners’ last six quarters before the Super Bowl, Garoppolo threw 14 passes and the Niners ran it 72 times. That might have happened in the Bob Griese Miami days, but man, was it noticeable in today’s football. The 49ers belittled the media for making a big deal of it, and every Niner player has pit-bulled questions about Garoppolo since, but come on. His two picks and missed deep ball to Emmanuel Sanders in the fourth quarter only exacerbated the issue. The only one who can do anything about this is cool Jimmy G, and I think all the badgering will push him to be better. But we haven’t seen it yet. That’s why the Saints are 3 and Niners 4 in this totally scientific rating of the teams.
5. Tampa Bay (7-9)
Last year, my email bag got overstuffed with zingers after I picked the 49ers, coming off 6-10 and 4-12 seasons, number seven in my spring power rankings. You all turned out to be right about my misjudgment of the Niners, sort of. Actually, I underrated them. So I learned my lesson: I’ve inflated the Bucs. It’s part Tom Brady. The turnovers are one thing—last year, the Bucs threw 30 interceptions; in the last five years, Brady threw 29. And it stands to reason Brady will lift a franchise that hasn’t won a playoff games since Brady’s first season as a full-time starter, 2002. I do not believe he’s fallen off some cliff at 43; it’s a cliché. He’s not going to be the deep-ball thrower coach Brice Arians would most want at the position—but he will be the kind of player/leader this franchise has lacked at the position for a long time.
This is also about the team Brady inherits. Last year, the Bucs entered the final two weeks on a four-game win streak, 7-7, with winnable home games against Houston and Atlanta. Three Jameis Winston picks in the first 16 minutes doomed Tampa against Houston, and Winston’s overtime walkoff pick-six lost the Falcons game. So easily, with just a little ball-security, the Bucs could have been 9-7. Anyway, Tampa Bay was close to being the Next Big NFC Thing. Brady and maybe tight end Rob Gronkowski (assuming he’s still Gronk) should make an explosive offense more efficient. The defense needs to be a tick better. Keeping Shaq Barrett, Ndamukong Suh and Jason Pierre-Paul, and continuing to build around defensive keystone Devin White at middle linebacker, are smart moves. Developing a better secondary, the team’s Achilles heel, should be helped significantly by second-round safety Antoine Winfield Jr. Nothing’s guaranteed, particularly in a season with the tough AFC West on the schedule. But I think the Bucs have a good chance to be 2020’s breakthrough team.
6. Seattle (12-6, lost NFC divisional game at Green Bay 28-23)
You might prefer other quarterbacks if you had the first pick in an NFL QB draft. I might too. (Give me Mahomes.) But what Russell Wilson has done in his Seattle tenure is phenomenal. Since making Wilson the third-round pick in 2012, the Seahawks have played 143 games, 15 in the postseason. Wilson has started every one. He’s made the playoffs in seven of his eight seasons, and won at least one playoff game in six of those seven seasons. (In those eight seasons, a total of 400 NFL MVP votes have been cast. Wilson has never gotten one of those MVP votes.) Seattle doesn’t have the greatest offense, or the most explosive numbers, but over the past three seasons, Wilson has thrown 100 touchdown passes and 23 interceptions. He’s the reason, basically, that I have the Seahawks this high in my rankings. He’s been the deodorant for an oft-sketchy offensive line.
So the Seahawks will be in the top 10 or 12 in scoring, and they’ll need a few strong defensive efforts to win the Super Bowl, because the offense doesn’t have the weaponry to consistently score in the thirties. Fortunately for them, D.K. Metcalf played like the 10th pick in the 2019 draft, not the 64th, and gave Seattle a deep and physical weapon it really needed after the retirement of Doug Baldwin. On defense, Seattle GM John Schneider looks to be waiting for the price tag of a veteran edge rusher like Everson Griffen to go down, or for Jadeveon Clowney to be willing to play for 60 cents on the dollar (in his mind). Seattle needs the re-acquired Bruce Irvin or 2019 first-rounder L.J. Collier, invisible last year, to provide some threat around the edge and hope Griffen or Clowney is on the field opening day.
7. Tennessee (11-8, lost AFC Championship Game to Kansas City 35-24)
I don’t think we appreciate enough what the Titans did after the leaves changed last fall. In the last 10 games, including playoffs, Tennessee was 7-3, averaged 30.6 points per game, traveled to beat the Nos. 3 and 1 seeds in the playoffs, and were down four entering the fourth quarter to the eventual world champions in Kansas City. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill rescued the season in October and compiled the league’s best passer rating in seven years in the process. Derrick Henry was the perfect powerback, going into the wayback machine to run it 386 times in 19 games—for a 5.1-yard average.
What they can do for an encore is hold off Indianapolis (and maybe Houston) for the AFC South title, and maybe get off the 9-7 treadmill. (They’ve been 9-7 four straight years.) Defensively, Tennessee’s in good shape to do a bit better than the 21 points per game than it surrendered last year, even after trading perennial Pro Bowler Jurrell Casey to Denver. DaQuan Jones, 28, and Jeffery Simmons, 22, are two good interior players, and Tennessee got nine good years out of Casey.
Mike Vrabel’s done a good job with this team—he knew when to pull the plug with the ineffective Marcus Mariota—and with this coaching staff. He brought back Dean Pees to be his defensive coordinator for two needed seasons (Pees retired in January), and promoted the right man, Arthur Smith, to offensive coordinator when Matt LaFleur took the Packers head-coaching job last year. Smith was imaginative and superb in his first year running the offense. There’s no reason why it won’t continue.
8. Las Vegas Raiders (7-9)
This is going to be a fun floor show in the new Allegiant Stadium, in the first year ever for an NFL franchise in Nevada. A shame, really, that crowds may not be able to flock to see this team due to the pandemic. What fun it could be, with the speedy Henry Ruggs III paired with returning Tyrell Williams and Hunter Renfrow—and with twin third-round picks Lynn Bowden and Bryan Edwards fighting for receiver snaps too. Tight end Darren Waller is an emerging star and could get a few snaps stolen by in-the-twilight Jason Witten with a strange stop, at 38, on his late-career tour.
GM Mike Mayock paid so much attention to the offense because it was simply too inconsistent last year; the Raiders scored 24 points or less each week in the last six, going 1-5 down the stretch. That led to the Raiders kicking the tires on Tom Brady in March. Derek Carr knows, and doesn’t seem to care. I probably like the Raiders more than most because of the offensive improvement and because of four defensive additions: defensive end Carl Nassib, inside linebackers Cory Littleton and Nick Kwiatkowski, and cornerback Prince Amukamara (decent year in 2019 in Chicago, very good in 2018).
There’s a good chance that the significantly better AFC West will neuter the progress the Raiders, Chargers and Broncos have made, because they’ll all unmistakably improved. But this first edition of an NFL team in Vegas is a fascinating one.
9. Dallas (8-8)
So now we’ll find out how much Mike McCarthy really learned in that gap year in his luxury garage in Green Bay. [Trust me: I was there. Having a luxe office space upstairs and an indoor full-court basketball floor downstairs makes it pretty darn nice.] On his desk in that garage was a sign that said LESS VOLUME, MORE CREATIVITY. Which is a smart thing for a man who, with Aaron Rodgers as his quarterback, was 23-23-1 in his last three Green Bay coaching seasons. McCarthy didn’t like how in Green Bay he got away from the quarterback being under center; he’d rather play the QB under center 50 or 60 percent of the time to take advantage of stressers for the defense—play-action especially but also the relatively nouveau threat of the Jet Sweep. He’ll have much better weapons to use with the Cowboys, led by CeeDee Lamb, Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup at receiver and Ezekiel Elliott in the backfield.
I still feel like the Cowboys would have been wiser to go defense with the pick that nabbed Lamb—even better, a trade-down to get a corner and a safety in rounds one and two—after losing sack leader Robert Quinn and top cornerback Byron Jones in free agency. Dak Prescott certainly can win his share of 33-30 games; now, for the Cowboys to beat Philadelphia for the NFC East crown, he’ll have to. I think the Cowboys are the team to beat in the division, but one of the toughest November/December slates in football (Eagles twice, Steelers and Niners at home, Ravens and Vikings away) will make it very difficult.
10. Pittsburgh (8-8)
One day I’ll understand team-building. One big thing that I didn’t quite get this offseason is Pittsburgh GM Kevin Colbert, one of the best team architects in the NFL, not backstopping Ben Roethlisberger with a better backup. Made zero sense to me. The Steelers went 3-4 in the last seven weeks, fighting for the sixth playoff spot with Tennessee at the end of the season. In the four losses, with Devlin Hodges or Mason Rudolph playing, the offense sputtered consistently. Point totals: 7 at Cleveland, 10 versus Buffalo, 10 at the Jets, 10 at the Ravens (with the Ravens resting guys, playing for nothing). The Steelers enter this season with Rudolph or Hodges backing up the 38-year-old Roethlisberger, who has missed 5, 2, 1, 0 and 14 starts in the last five seasons.
If Roethlisberger can return as Roethlisberger (“I’m throwing without pain for the first time in years,” he said this spring) and play a full season, he’s got two significant weapons added to his arsenal: 238-pound rookie receiver Chase Claypool and free-agent tight end Eric Ebron. The defense, with ace safety Minkah Fitzpatrick likely better after being thrown into the starting lineup with the September trade from Miami, should be a top-five NFL D again. Pittsburgh led the NFL with 54 sacks and 38 takeaways in 2019 . . . and lost only defensive tackle Javon Hargrave (in free agency, to the Eagles) from its core. Healthy, this is a Super Bowl-contending team. Without Roethlisberger for any lengthy period, Pittsburgh will struggle to be the sixth or seventh seed in the AFC.
11. Minnesota (11-7, lost NFC divisional game to San Francisco 27-10)
I love the deal GM Rick Spielman made prior to the draft, sending 26-year-old Stefon Diggs and a seventh-rounder to Buffalo for first, fourth, fifth and sixth-round draft picks, then choosing LSU slot receiver Justin Jefferson (who turns 21 in two weeks) with the 22nd pick. Jefferson caught 111 balls from Joe Burrow last year and though there’s no guarantee he’ll be, say, a 65-catch guy in an offense that wants to be fairly even in the run-pass ratio, there’s the added benefit of the Vikings saving about $8.5-million a year on the cap over the next three years in Jefferson’s deal versus Diggs’ contract. Not to mention the subtraction of a player in Diggs, who didn’t seem totally all-in with the Viking ethos.
Dalvin Cook could win a rushing title with his ability and the Minnesota love of the run. I’d be more worried about the run defense than the run offense. Minnesota allowed 4.3 yards per attempt last year, leading to a swap of free-agent run-stoppers: Linval Joseph out, Michael Pierce in. The secondary is a bigger concern, actually. The Vikings let corners Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes and Mackenzie Alexander walk, and replaced them with first-rounder Jeff Gladney and third-rounder Cameron Dantzler; they’ll be counted on early, as will former first-rounder Mike Hughes, who’s played only 20 of 34 Viking games since being drafted due to injury.
It’ll be interesting to see how four men—coach Mike Zimmer, advisor Dom Capers and co-coordinators Adam Zimmer and Andre Patterson—meld running Mike Zimmer’s beloved D. By December, when the Vikings go on the road to play Tom Brady and Drew Brees in a 12-day span, they’d better have it all figured out. I like the Vikings, but this is a team with some defensive questions.
12. Green Bay (14-4, lost NFC Championship 34-20 to San Francisco)
Eyebrow-raising over/under bet of the 2020 NFL teams (to me): Green Bay came out of the chute at 8.5 wins, and is now, depending on the book, at 9 or 9.5. Interesting, after the Pack went 13-3 in Matt LaFleur’s first regular season. It’s probably because the Packers used many of the nine lives last year—nine of their 14 victories (including 28-23 over Seattle in the playoffs) were one-score games. But you could also say that a supremely motivated Aaron Rodgers (perhaps out to stick it to GM Brian Gutekunst for drafting his supposed heir, Jordan Love, in the first round this year) will be better in year two under LaFleur than the 62-percent passer he was in 2019.
The strangest thing of the Packers’ offseason, to me, wasn’t picking a young passer. It was ignoring the receiver position (other than picking up the marginal Devin Funchess). I think Green Bay will regret passing on Tee Higgins, Michael Pittman or a number of other wideouts from a rich crop late in round one, but we shall see. Gutekunst told me has great faith in the returning Alan Lazard, Marquez Valdez-Scantling and Equanimeous St. Brown to play alongside Davante Adams, but they haven’t proven to be stalwarts yet.
Gutekunst—give him credit—did hit two defensive home runs last season with linebackers Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith (25.5 combined sacks) in free agency. Those signings mean Rodgers doesn’t have to put up crazy numbers. I feel good about Green Bay being a playoff team, but we’ll see if they have enough firepower to compete with the explosive teams of the league.
13. Buffalo (10-7, lost AFC wild-card game 22-19 at Houston)
“We gotta score more points,” GM Brandon Beane said this offseason. One more TD in January would have helped. The Bills led Houston 16-0 with 20 minutes to play five months ago, but the NFL’s 23rd-ranked scoring offense managed zero touchdowns in the last 68 minutes of that game. That dictated a desperate move by GM Brandon Beane. He dealt first, fifth and sixth-round picks this year and a fourth next year for Stefon Diggs (three-year average: 76 catches, 1,000 yards, eight TDs) and a seven, which is a heavy price, particularly in a year with such strong receiving stock in the draft. Diggs will be judged on whether he can lift an offense in a slumber. But if any of the receivers available with the 22nd pick that Buffalo deal to the Vikes—Justin Jefferson, Brandon Aiyuk, Tee Higgins, Michael Pittman—turn into stars, Diggs had better be one in Buffalo. He’s a good fit for the strong-armed Josh Allen; Diggs had a league-best eight catches of 40-plus yards last year. Another good Beane add was Utah running back Zack Moss, the 86th pick in April, to team with Devin Singletary for what could be the best run game in the division.
I think Buffalo’s the best team in the division with one proviso: Allen must be better. Last year, of the 27 quarterbacks who started at least 12 games in the NFL, Allen was 27th in passing yards per game, with 193.1. That’s 40 yards worse than Gardner Minshew. So that’s a pretty big proviso. But I’m counting on the weaponry around Allen and what’s going to be a top five D to be the difference. There’s a reason the NFL made the Bills a prime-time team this year, with four night games—three coming in the last five weeks. The league thinks the Bills will be in the pennant race all season, as do I.
14. Indianapolis (7-9)
The noise in Indianapolis this offseason has centered around the acquisitions of one-year fix-it quarterback Philip Rivers (and for one season and $25 million, he’d better fix it), top-three-NFL defensive tackle DeForest Buckner in a trade from San Francisco and wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. with the Colts first choice in the draft. All good additions, to be sure. But the pickup that struck me was second-round running back Jonathan Taylor. When I spoke to him on draft weekend, he said, “I got picked by the perfect team for me.” Taylor’s the first player in major-college history to rush for more than 6,000 yards in a three-season span, and he did it behind a line traditionally built for the run at Wisconsin. Same thing in Indy, with a terrific run-blocking guard, Quenton Nelson, and pile-driving center Ryan Kelly. I will be very surprised if the Colts, fifth in the league with 471 rushes last year, don’t at least mirror that this year with Taylor and returning 1,000-yard back Marlon Mack teaming in the backfield.
I’m bullish on the Colts. I think they’re a playoff team, perhaps a division championship team if Rivers returns to form. By the way, I found it odd that, even with the Rivers and Buckner additions before the schedule was announced, the NFL didn’t give the Colts a Thursday or Sunday game; their lone primetime show is a Monday-nighter in Week 10 at Tennessee. I’ll bet that gets mentioned to the team 16 or 18 times by Frank Reich in the next few months.
15. Philadelphia (9-8, lost NFC wild-card game 17-9 to Seattle)
What a hard-to-read team. So many “yeah, buts.” The biggest: Eagles were 5-7 last year and needed to win four in a row to ensure a playoff spot—and did . . . but the beat-up offense scored 10, 9 and 9 points against playoff teams in the last eight games. Everything was a struggle last year. But quarterback Carson Wentz had a mostly redemptive season, playing all 17 games after missing the ends of the previous two years with injuries.
Wisely, GM Howie Roseman decided to stock up to help the offense, drafting wideout Jalen Reagor, who needs to be impactful from day one, and quarterback Jalen Hurts, who needs to be impactful in season one. For five years, the Eagles kept hoping Nelson Agholor would be something more than a complementary piece, but he never was. He’s gone, and now Reagor needs to show up from day one.
I’m amazed at the anti-Hurts sentiment out there. Dinosaur thinking, I believe. Baltimore loved Jalen Hurts, for instance. Not saying the Ravens would have taken him, particularly with J.K. Dobbins left on the board, but Baltimore wouldn’t have been afraid to insert him in the offense six or eight plays a game to scare the crap out of the defense. Same with Doug Pederson, who can handle the mental state of Wentz and be sure he knows that all Hurts can do is make Wentz better. With some teams, the backup quarterback is a top-10-important player on the team. When the franchise quarterback has missed 13 games due to injury in the last three years, that makes the backup QB much more important. Oh, and a sentence for the defense: Darius Slay is a heck of a pickup for the secondary, particularly with the non-division slate of quarterbacks on the way—Niners, Steelers, Ravens, Seahawks, Packers, Saints, Cardinals. I say Week 16, Eagles at Cowboys, is the championship game of the NFC East.
16. Los Angeles Rams (9-7)
I like them more than most. But in reality, it’s hard to know what to make of this team after the major makeover this year. Has there been a team in NFL history with a coaching braintrust this young—Sean McVay 34, offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell 35, defensive coordinator Brandon Staley 37? If the Rams return to the playoffs this year, Jared Goff will have to have a turnaround season, and that’s an iffy proposition. He was a confident mad bomber as the Rams marauded their way to Super Bowl contention in 2018 and has looked more tentative since. (First 11 games of 2018: 26 TDs, 6 interceptions. Twenty-four games since: 29-24.) Remember that Thursday night game against Minnesota early in 2018, when Goff threw high arcing bombs to Cooper Kupp and Brandin Cooks? Lovely. On-target. Bill Walsh used to have a saying (and he taught his scouts this), If I’ve seen a guy do it a few times on tape, it’s up to us as coaches to get him to do it that way all the time. That’s why the Niners drafted the inconsistent Charles Haley out of James Madison; Haley flashed a few times in college and Walsh thought they could get that out of him consistently.
Solidifying the middle of the line, which the Rams think they’ve done after last year’s interior mess on offense, should help Goff. And I think the addition of O’Connell, who can be the alter-ego of McVay and a hard teacher like him, gives Goff a good chance to reclaim what he had. We’ll see. All that’s riding on Goff is the near future of the new anchor tenant of SoFi Stadium, the first new NFL palace to be built in Los Angeles since forever.
17. Chicago (8-8)
Good on GM Ryan Pace and coach Matt Nagy to address the elephant in the room by trading for Nick Foles, who might have been the perfect veteran quarterback candidate for the Bears. Foles needs to be one of two things: a Josh McCown-type tutor/mentor for Mitchell Trubisky, or a 16-game starter who can lead the Bears to 10 wins and a playoff spot. Foles can be either—and he won’t be all mopey in any way if he has to sit and help Trubisky reclaim a foundering career. “We’re going to be very honest and open with them,” Nagy said of the QBs. That’s all Trubisky can ask in year four.
Regardless of the outcome of the QB competition—my money is on Foles—the Bears have to forget Trubisky’s head space and roar into a winnable, manageable season. Chicago doesn’t play a 2019 playoff team in its seven games before Halloween, and by the time a killer November (Saints, at Titans, Vikings, at Packers) rolls around, the quarterback dilemma should be solved. I’m more bullish on the Bears than many, in part, because the defensive front should be as good as it was in 2018, when Khalil Mack and Akiem Hicks led a marauding front; now Robert Quinn (11.5 sacks in 14 Dallas games last year) is a third force to offense to worry about. In 33 games of the Nagy Era, the Bears have allowed 18.1 points per game, and there’s no reason to expect that production to go away. If the quarterback’s a B-plus player, the Bears could ride a favorable schedule to the playoffs. That’s a big if.
18. Arizona (5-10-1)
In all the excitement about the offensively intriguing Cardinals—has there ever been the kind of national sis-boom-bah about a team coming off a five-win season?—it’s good to remember a couple of things. As compelling as the Kyler/Kliff Kards are entering year two of their marriage, they were 21st in total yards and 16th in points last year, and 29th in Red Zone efficiency. But I have them rising nonetheless. Kliff Kingsbury, though no one believed him, kept saying last year the key to his offense was the run game, and he proved it: Only one team had a better per-carry average than Arizona’s 5.03 yards. The underappreciated Kenyan Drake returns after 166, 137 and 110-yard rushing games in his eight weeks as a Card, and, of course, DeAndre Hopkins instantly becomes the NFL’s acquisition of the year. One of the best receivers in the NFL should be Kyler Murray’s best friend long after Larry Fitzgerald (37 in August) retires.
I’d have had the Cards higher if I trusted the defense (28th in points allowed, 32nd in yards allowed in ’19). Other than Joe Burrow, Isaiah Simmons is probably the rookie with the most juice in the NFL entering the season. Will he be an enforcer safety? A hybrid safety/linebacker who, in a pinch, lines up in the slot? Strictly linebacker? Defensive coordinator Vance Joseph seems inclined to make him a linebacker as a rookie, which, in this odd offseason without much onfield practice time to experiment, might make the most sense. Putting Simmons in the middle of the defense could still enable the Cards to play a bunch of imbalanced defenses, with Simmons still able to spy or cover or blitz. So many interesting teams to watch in 2020 . . . Arizona’s in the top five.
19. Miami (5-11)
Most Overused Peter King Stat of the Offseason . . . 2019 records (including playoffs) since Halloween: Miami 5-4, New England 4-5. And then the Dolphins added an electric quarterback, half the Patriots roster, and reinforcements for the offensive line. I look at the two coordinators Brian Flores let go with a mixture of suspicion and praise. Chad O’Shea’s offense may or may not have been too encyclopedic, and Patrick Graham may or may not have meshed with Flores’ defensive philosophy totally, but I like a coach who has the guts to open himself up for criticism for having two new coordinators (the offensively simplistic Chan Gailey and Josh Boyer) in year two.
As for who plays quarterback: Around the draft, I kept hearing Miami’s the perfect place for Tua Tagovailoa, because he can take a redshirt year to get his ankles and surgically repaired hip absolutely perfect for 2021. So Tua behind Ryan Fitzpatrick was the perfect scenario. It could be, but not because the Dolphins drafted him to take a rehab season. If we learned one thing from watching Flores last year, when half his roster got traded to get in position to have the first pick in the draft, he’s not coaching for next year. He could have played Josh Rosen and likely won less and been in the derby for Joe Burrow. But Flores showed last year he coaches for this week, this minute. If Tagovailoa’s better in August (assuming there’s a typical August in the NFL), he’ll play over Fitzpatrick. If he’s not better, he won’t.
20. Denver (7-9)
Denver’s gone 5-11, 6-10 and 7-9 in the last three years, and those three losing seasons match the total of the Broncos’ previous 22 years. Which is why the emergency button has been pressed in the office of franchise architect John Elway. The Broncos acquired some short-term adrenaline for the defense in trades—defensive tackle Jurrell Casey and cornerback A.J. Bouye, and Bradley Chubb comes back to try to fulfill the pass-rush promise that he flashed briefly as a rookie since he was the fifth overall pick two years ago. I trust Vic Fangio to put together a defense at least as solid as last year, when the Broncos held eight of their last 12 foes to 20 points or less. Fangio will be tested early: Denver opens with the resurgent Titans, Steelers and Bucs in the first three weeks. Derrick Henry, Big Ben and Tom Brady. Some tests.
Of course, Elway decided to try to match nuclear arsenals in Kansas City in the offseason, adding receivers Jerry Jeudy and speedy K.J. Hamler with the first two picks—Fangio’s a pretty magnanimous head coach to continue to see Elway building the offense and not jump on the table for prime defensive draft pieces—and plucking Melvin Gordon from the Chargers in free agency. Denver may have the best young skill group in the NFL, with Jeudy, Hamler, Courtland Sutton and DaeSean Hamilton at wideout, Noah Fant at tight end and Gordon to supplement two-time 1,000-yard rusher Phillip Lindsay in the backfield. Few quarterbacks have as much pressure entering this season as Drew Lock, the 2018 second-rounder with all of five NFL starts to his name.
This is going to be a fun team to watch. I could see the Broncos, in a rising division, anywhere between second and fourth, anywhere between six and 11 wins.
21. New England (12-5, lost AFC wild-card game to Tennessee 20-13)
Well, Bill Belichick and the Patriots are set up to answer the age-old question: Can Belichick win without Tom Brady? In regular-season games in his coaching career, Belichick’s teams are 219-64 with Brady starts, and 54-63 when he doesn’t. Without Brady, Belichick’s won at a .462 clip. With Brady, it’s .774.
This year reminds me of Belichick’s first year or two in New England, when he and Scott Pioli got the cap right by making do with lesser players and the highest-paid player in football, Drew Bledsoe. By 2002, it was Brady’s team, and he flourished. Now, after jettisoning Brady, Rob Gronkowski, center Ted Karras, kicker Stephen Gostkowski and keystone linebackers Kyle Van Noy, Elandon Roberts and Jamie Collins, Belichick and Nick Caserio can clean out the cap and rebuild.
The reviews on the 133rd pick in the 2019 draft, Jarrett Stidham, are good, but the shadow of the 199th pick in 2000 will always be a long one for anyone who plays quarterback in New England. There is no book on Stidham, a tough kid who will not be afraid of the hot seat, but his goal is to keep New England in games and leave the Patriots with a decision to make on a quarterback in the 2021 draft. Whatever happens, America will be watching: Four of their final nine games will be in prime time. I think this season breaks the Patriots’ 11-year stranglehold on the AFC East, but I’m pretty sure everyone in that building wants to rub our faces in such predictions, and that’s a great motivator.
22. Houston (11-7, lost AFC divisional game 51-31 at Kansas City)
Not much has gone right for the Texans in 2020. It started with getting totally embarrassed, outscored 51-7 in the last 40 minutes of the playoff debacle at Kansas City. It continued with the trade of a top-three NFL receiver, DeAndre Hopkins, to Arizona for 55 cents on the dollar. Left with one draft choice in the top 80, Houston used it to replace D.J. Reader, a defensive tackle lost in free agency to Cincinnati, with TCU’s Ross Blacklock. The Texans acquired a pair of vet receivers, Brandin Cooks (on his fourth team at 26) and Randall Cobb, for Deshaun Watson.
But the Texans’ path to the playoffs will depend on the defense, which sunk from 12th in 2018 to 28th last year, then gave up four touchdowns in 10 minutes in the collapse at Kansas City. New defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver takes over for Romeo Crennel, and he has to wonder which J.J. Watt will play this year—the three-time Defensive Player of the Year, or the one who’s missed 32 of the last 64 games with injuries. Without Watt, the cupboard is bare at pass-rusher; Whitney Mercilus (last 32 games: 11.5 sacks) seems the best hope. Actually, the best hope, even without Hopkins, is building a top-five offense that can outscore teams.
The Texans should know where they stand by the end of September. They open against the last two MVPs—at Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson at home—before traveling to play the rehabbed Ben Roethlisberger and one of the best defenses in football.
23. Los Angeles Chargers (5-11)
The NFL’s schedule release showed what it thinks of the Chargers: an October Monday night AT the Saints, a December Thursday night game AT the Raiders. In other words, the league thinks the Chargers will rebound from 5-11 with two new quarterbacks and a retooled defense, but skepticism of the home crowd at new SoFi Stadium, or lack thereof, put them on the road for the two prime-timers. The Chargers could be eighth in these rankings and they could be 24th . . . so much depends on how Tyrod Taylor (31 on opening day) plays early.
Let’s reflect on Taylor’s three-year run as Buffalo’s starter after backing up Joe Flacco in Baltimore for four years. A 63-percent passer, not a risk-taker, 51 touchdowns, 16 picks, 92.5 rating, rushed for between 420 and 580 yards each year, let go after leading the Bills to the playoffs in 2017 but scoring just three points in the postseason loss at Jacksonville. Always well-liked by his mates. “The players here respect the hell out of him,” Chargers coach Anthony Lynn said. But when you draft a quarterback (Justin Herbert) sixth overall, it’s pretty clear your team retains doubts about the incumbent.
As for Herbert, this is a perfect spot for him. He’s a West Coast kid, never lived anywhere but Oregon, and now his practice facility and agents and friends are in Orange County. Should be a good learning environment. The defense should keep the Chargers in games. The free-agent signing of cornerback Chris Harris Jr., who can fill at both slot and outside corner, is a good one, and first-round linebacker Kenneth Murray, should anchor the front seven from day one.
24. Cleveland (6-10)
Since the turn of the century, the Patriots have had one coach (obviously) and the Browns 12. Kevin Stefanski’s the 12th, and that has nothing to do with 2020. I just raise the issue because Bill Belichick been the coach of the Patriots that long, in large part, because he partnered with a quarterback he got the most out of. That’s precisely how Stefanski will be able to avoid being the typical Browns’ short-termer.
The Browns took Baker Mayfield first overall two years ago, and he’s had a few good games (in the back half of 2018) and a lot more shaky ones. Enter Stefanski, with the third offense for Mayfield in 25 months as a pro. Stefanski’s not coming in to say, My way or the highway, Baker. He’s coming in to mold the best possible offense around Mayfield, and if that takes a few throws out of his hands and a few more balls in the hands of a run game that steamrolled to a 4.8-yard average last year, so be it. Whatever it is, Mayfield will be well-schooled, and if he’s good enough, he’s going to have a long life with a successful team. “We going to put him in a scheme, we’re going to make sure he’s comfortable with it, we’re going to take our time to make sure we have the intricacies to everything we’re doing down,” Stefanski told me in a March podcast. “If we don’t have that precision, it’s just going to be too hard.”
This is where it’s going to be important for everyone on the offense to curb egos. What’s best for Mayfield is going to be best for the offense long-term. Jack Conklin and Jedrick Wills should give him more protection, and free-agent tight end Austin Hooper is a solid intermediate option. The tools are there for a very good offense. But I have Cleveland down in this nether region because I need to see Mayfield be a consistent player.
25. Atlanta (7-9)
The Falcons have started 4-9 and 1-7 in the last two years, so it’s easy to say, Just start faster. Opening with Seattle, Dallas, Chicago and Green Bay might make that tough. And another strong finish might be tough too, with Atlanta capping this season against Tom Brady, Patrick Mahomes and Tom Brady. (Strange schedule: Atlanta doesn’t see Brady till Christmas week, then faces him twice in 15 days.)
The Falcons have surrendered 25.7 points per game over the past two years, and the hope is that new defensive coordinator Raheem Morris—his last DC job was at Kansas State in 2007—will mix new pieces to overhaul a disappointing unit. Free-agent Dante Fowler is five years removed from being the third pick in the draft, and Atlanta’s desperate for he and Tak McKinley to form a bookend pass-rush to torment the slew of great quarterbacks on their schedule. Morris was installed as DB coach after the bye last year and did strong work there. He’ll have to get the 20th pick in this year’s draft, Clemson cornerback A.J. Terrell, up to speed to start opening day.
There was general surprise when owner Arthur Blank gave Dan Quinn a sixth season to get Atlanta back to prominence. Give the Falcons credit for not being knee-jerk after a 6-2 finish. But I doubt Blank will be as patient with another sub-.500 finish.
26. Detroit (3-12-1)
Big year for lots of people in Detroit. Matt Patricia, in his two seasons as coach, is 9-22-1 and has finished last in the division both years. This is Matthew Stafford’s 12th year in Detroit since being the first overall pick in the 2009 draft. The Lions haven’t won a playoff games since he arrived, and haven’t hosted one either. He was off to a good start before a back injury kayoed him after eight games last year, on pace for a 5,000-yard season. Now, Stafford is 32, and the Lions have done nothing with his prime. He’s got a strong receiver group—Kenny Golladay is one of the NFL’s untrumpeted gems—and should be primed for a strong year.
But what will it mean? Detroit basically treaded water in the offseason, trading ace cornerback Darius Slay to Philadelphia and using the third pick in the draft on his replacement, Ohio State cornerback Jeff Okudah. He’ll play opposite new cornerback Desmond Trufant, who comes from Atlanta after a disappointing end there. Patricia’s D needs to show progress after allowing a gaudy 24.5 points a game in his first two years, not the kind of performance the Lions expected when they hired the Belichick disciple two years ago. He’ll need strong performances from a couple of former Patriots who just arrived this year—instinctive safety Duron Harmon and roving linebacker Jamie Collins. I won’t be shocked if Detroit contends, because the Lions will score. The big question is the D.
27. Cincinnati (2-14)
When the Bengals released Andy Dalton in late April, it was one of the great shows of confidence in a draft choice in recent years. Think of it. The pandemic could force teams into scramble mode before the season; will training camp exist in any sort of normal way, and regardless, will Burrow be able to throw to any of his receivers before August? I’m probably too smitten with Burrow—coming off his 60-touchdown season last fall (which by the way was not an Arena League season) at LSU—but a confident and strong-willed quarterback can do a lot for a franchise. Burrow needs to form early bonds with A.J. Green, the underrated Tyler Boyd and rookie Tee Higgins (6-4, 6-1 and 6-4), and the burner John Ross, for whom 2020 is Last Chance Saloon; the former ninth pick in the draft will be a free agent after the season. But at least Burrow should get Ross’ best. That is potentially a heck of a receiver group if Green, who has missed 6, 0, 7, and 16 games the last four seasons, can stay on the field for any length of time.
The Bengals needed to get much better on defense and did okay in free agency, adding a rock in the middle of the line, tackle D.J. Reader, play-making safety Von Bell and Vikings corners Trae Waynes and Mackenzie Alexander—though, per PFF, Waynes and Alexander surrendered 71 percent completions combined last year. So many ifs in Cincinnati, and a single player can’t fix it all. But Burrow’s will should push the Cincinnati culture north.
28. New York Jets (7-9)
The Jets had one of the most deceiving years in the league, finishing 6-2 in their last eight games while facing only one premier team—Baltimore. Otherwise, they beat Daniel Jones, Dwayne Haskins, Derek Carr (in one of the great no-show East Coast games by a Raider team in history), Ryan Fitzpatrick, Mason Rudolph and Josh Allen, and got creamed by the Bengals. The Jets spent huge on Le’Veon Bell and then rushed for 78.6 yards a game as a team, 31st in the league; I don’t see a vast improvement.
Sam Darnold looked like a golden boy some weeks and Mitchell Trubisky in others. They should be better on the offensive line with four new starters, led by rookie tackle Mekhi Becton, the first pick of the Joe Douglas era. But the receiving corps is a weakness. I like Breshad Perriman, who shined in Tampa late last season, but rookie Denzel Mims and tight end Chris Herndon both need to hit the ground running for Darnold to have a chance. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams needs safety Jamal Adams to be all-in.
By the way, the Jets would be fools to trade Adams—at least now. Say some good team offers first and third-round picks for Adams, which would be a premium price for a safety. Answer this question, Jets fans: Would you get rid of your best player for the 26th and 90th picks in next year’s draft? I wouldn’t.
29. Carolina Panthers (5-11)
Nobody’s saying it loudly, but I’m pretty sure it’s on the minds of most Carolinians inside and outside the Panthers: Tank for Trevor. Except losing to get in draft position for Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence is not very easy, and I doubt it happens in this case. It’s true that Matt Rhule bottomed out at both Temple (2-10) and Baylor (1-11) in his first seasons in his two college jobs, but I don’t see how these Panthers can go 1-15 and fall into Lawrence. Christian McCaffery’s not going to purposely suck for the first time in his life; the third player in history to rush and catch for 1,000 yards in a season has played in all 49 games since being the eighth pick in the 2017 draft. Offensive coordinator Joe Brady and QB coach Jake Peetz, who are very good schemers, are not going to get Teddy Bridgewater ready to fail.
I’d worry a bit more about the defense, with Luke Kuechly retired and this prospective secondary having to face Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Matt Ryan, Kyler Murray, Patrick Mahomes, Aaron Rodgers and Kirk Cousins a total of 10 times. Donte Jackson and Eli Apple at corner, second-rounder Jeremy Chinn and Tre Boston at safety—not exactly the Legion of Boom. Carolina’s going to have to score an awful lot to win. Still, as smart as Rhule and his staff are, I doubt they’ll be a two or three-win team.
30. New York Giants (4-12)
Steelers, Niners, Rams, Cowboys in the first month, and Seattle, Baltimore and Dallas in the last month: Welcome to the new job, Joe Judge. The Giants are pretty far removed from being any sort of factor in the NFL. The last playoff win was the Super Bowl trimming of the Patriots nine seasons ago. The Giants appear to be in good shape at the most important position, with Daniel Jones coming off a good freshman season (despite 23 turnovers) as Eli Manning’s heir; Saquon Barkley’s obviously an impact running back. But questions abound everywhere else.
The pass-rush and secondary are both lacking, with or without 2019 first-round cornerback Deandre Baker, a suspect in an armed robbery in Florida. New York allowed the 30th-most points per game last year, gave up a passer rating of 101.4, and their leading returning pass-rusher, Oshane Ximines, had 4.5 sacks. New defensive coordinator Patrick Graham has a big job, figuring out where to get pressure and how to cover up holes in the secondary. The Giants need Nate Solder to play to his late New England level; he slipped last year. It’s likely GM Dave Gettleman drafted New York’s long-term tackles this year—Andrew Thomas and Matt Peart, in the first and third rounds. But if the Giants are this low in the NFL hierarchy come the new year, Gettleman might not be around to see the futures of Thomas and Peart. I trust the Giants to score. I don’t trust them to defend.
31. Washington (3-13)
Not many teams have the potential pass-rush juice of the Chase Young/Montez Sweat/Ryan Kerrigan trio. The defensive front is about the end of the good news here. Ron Rivera and new VP of Player Personnel Kyle Smith have a major rebuilding job to remake this roster. That starts at quarterback. This is a prove-it year for Dwayne Haskins. The quarterback job is his for at least this year and probably next, though he shouldn’t be too comfortable. Last year, Haskins was shaky in his seven starts and there were questions about his work ethic, but he did prove promising at late-game autograph-signing. I am not sure what to think of a quarterback who says (as Haskins did for the team website this spring): “A lot of times last year, I thought we were dragging. This year, I feel a new sense of urgency.” Part of a quarterback’s job is to make sure the offense doesn’t drag, it seems to me.
But Haskins deserves a strong chance, as do all first-round passers. He has a new coach and new teacher, offensive coordinator Scott Turner, who’s back at the same facility where his dad Norv coached from 1994 to 2000. The offense was held under 20 points in 11 games last year, so there’s nowhere to go but up. At least Haskins has one of the best young receivers in football, Terry McLaurin. If Rivera gets buy-in, Haskins plays at a top-15 QB level, and Young’s who they thought he was, this year’s will be what it’s meant to be—a building block.
32. Jacksonville (6-10)
I’m sure if Vegas has such a toteboard, it’d list Doug Marrone with the best odds of any NFL coach to be fired this season. It’s hard to blame him for the mass exodus of good players (Ramsey, Campbell, Bouye, Dareus, Foles) from the Jags. Still, Jacksonville is 11-22 since the day of the blown 10-point fourth-quarter lead in the 2017 AFC Championship Game at Foxboro, and at some point soon, the coach has to pull his team out of that to keep being the coach.
Marrone will need a good season from starter Gardner Minshew and a new coordinator (Jay Gruden) and QB coach (Ben McAdoo) for this team to have any chance to survive. There’s a good young nucleus on defense—pass-rushers Josh Allen and K’Lavon Chaisson, linebacker Myles Jack and cornerback C.J. Henderson, though it’s hard to predict that two rookies will hit the ground running the way Allen did as a rookie last year. I wonder which lucky GM and coach will get handed Trevor Lawrence if the Jags are truly awful this year.