Tommy’s 2018 NFL Preview

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Sorry for the wait…

 

AFC WEST

Los Angeles Chargers (12-4) With the division weakened, this has to be the Chargers year. This is the best team they’ve had in the last ten years, behind an elite defense and an equally impressive offense, led by fifteen year vet Phillip Rivers, running back Melvin Gordon, and wideout Keenan Allen. Their offensive line, a weakness in the past, is revamped, adding veteran center Mike Pouncey and returning guard Forrest Lamp, one of the 2017 drafts best offensive lineman who lost his rookie season with a torn ACL. Their defense features an elite rushing tandem in Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram and standout play in the secondary with Casey Haywerd, Desmond King, and Trevor Williams.

X Factor: Derwin James SS; A first round pick in April, James is a physical safety who sets the tone in run support and has good cover skills and ball/football instincts to boot, can take this secondary over the edge.

Rookie to Watch: Uchenna Nwosu EDGE; A relentless pass rusher at USC, Nwosu has a high motor and is a true power rusher off the edge who will finish every play.

Kansas City Chiefs (8-8) – After initially having the Broncos and then Raiders here, I’ve settled on the Kansas City Chiefs. Alex Smith is gone and the redshirted Patrick Mahomes is in. A gunslinger in the true sense of the word, Mahomes might just have the strongest arm the league has seen. However he still is prone to errant decisions and I’m expecting this season to be a road of bumps and bruises. Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, Kareem Hunt, and new comer Sammy Watkins are all shiny toys at Mahomes’ disposal, but the real question all season will be can Mahomes consistently play winning football while retaining the natural improvisation of his game. Their defense has some nice pieces but is aging, and seems to be on the decline.

X Factor: Eric Berry FS; After tearing his achilles week one last year, Berry is back on the field and looks to get back to his all-pro self. If he is playing at a high level this will do wonders for this defense.

Rookie to Watch: Breeland Speaks EDGE; A second round pick from Ole Miss has some nice veterans to learn from in Justin Houston and Dee Ford. He is another high motor edge rusher, who will see meaningful snaps this year.

Denver Broncos (7-9) – After last years 5-11 campaign the Broncos are trending upwards. Case Keenum was brought in after leading the Vikings to the NFC championship game after the best year of his career. John Elway and Co used the fifth pick in the draft to pick Bradley Chubb, a game wrecking rusher who will be paired with Von Miller to create one of the leagues best pass rushing duos. The second and third round saw them double up on offense. First with wide receiver Cortland Sutton, a high-potential physical freak, who looks to fit in nicely at their WR3 spot. Secondly with running back Royce Freeman, a four year starter at Oregon, who amassed 5,621 yards and 60 touchdowns on the ground. Overall this team should be improved, their defense remains stout and they upgraded at QB. However I do see last year as a bit of a fluke in reference to Case Keenum and do not expect him to be the long term option.

X Factor: Royce Freeman RB; If Royce Freeman can bring Denver the elite rushing attack it so sorely has been missing, this offense and defense will be a tough out every week.

Rookie to Watch: DaSean Hamilton WR; While Sutton has WR1 potential, Hamilton is grinder at the receiver position with a high floor. He can play outside or in the slot, runs great routes and has steady hands, great value in the fourth round.

Oakland Raiders (5-11) – This is John Gruden’s “Oakland Raiders Rebuild” Madden franchise, we’re all just passengers. But seriously, what’s the agenda in Oakland? You just traded away your only playmaker on defense, actually, you just traded the best player to don the silver and black in the last 25 years. Your running back is over the hill, you’re expecting Jordy Nelson to be an elite complimentary piece to Amari Cooper. It just seams this team has no momentum going in their favor in a time where any negative momentum can be catastrophic leading up to the start of the season. A winning season in Oakland will have me bend the knee to Gruden for life.    

X Factor: Gareon Conley CB; Conley was a first round pick in 2017 and only played two games due to injury. If he can live up to his collegiate billing Oakland will be taking a step in the right direction in fixing their long struggling secondary.

Rookie to Watch: Kolton Miller LT; The Raiders took Miller higher than expected this past April at pick 15 and now he’s being thrown into the fire as a starting LT. His play, good or bad, will be crucial to their offense.

AFC SOUTH

Tennesse Titans (10-6) – The Mike Vrabel era begins. Vrabel takes over a playoff team in Nashville, fresh off an offseason make over. Marcus Mariota enters year 4 will still some left to be desired. Evolving out of his conservative game manager role should be easier than in years past, as the backfield features a dynamic duo in Derrick Henry and Dion Lewis, and a solid group of receivers in Corey Davis, Rishard Matthews, Tywaan Taylor, and Taaje Sharpe. This will all be under highly touted offensive coordinator Matt LeFleur’s tutelage, which should bear positive results. The defense is improved with rookie LB Raashan Evans and EDGE Harold Landry, and former pro bowl CB Malcom Butler joins an already rising secondary via free agency. Regression seems unlikely to me.

X Factor: Marcus Mariota QB; If Mariota can take that next step in his developmental, in a new offense this year, it’s hard to argue against the Titans being the best team in this division.

Rookie to Watch: Harold Landry EDGE; The most talented pass rusher in the past draft fell right into the Titans lap in round 2(How!?!) He should be an immediate impact player from day one and bring some much needed sacks to this defense.

Jacksonville Jaguars (10-6) – The Jaguars are entering this NFL season with expectations as high as I can ever remember them, and it’s hard to disagree. While this team boasts one of the NFL’s best rosters, their achilles heel remains the same. Blake Bortles. He has proven that he can not be trusted to win his team games. He’s apt enough to give the ball to Leonard Fournette, do his best to not turn the ball over, and watch his defense dominate the competition. This team has a winning formula and I find it hard to believe that they’re not going to be in every game due to that formula.

X Factor: Andrew Norwell G; The Jaguars awarded Norwell a 66.5 million dollar contract this offseason, making him the highest paid guard in the league. The undrafted All Pro will be a key cog in Jacksonville’s vital run game.

Rookie to Watch: DJ Chark WR; With Marquise Lee going down for the year in pre season, Chark has a great opportunity ahead of him to play some meaningful downs. He’s a lanky burner (4.3 40) who will fit right in with fellow deep threat Dede Westbrook.

Houston Texans (9-7) – Houston and Deshaun Watson took the league by storm last year before his unfortunate season ending injury. With Watson and JJ Watt back healthy this year the Texans are looking to complete their first full season of the Watson era. While I am a stern believer that Watson is the future of the NFL, I’m holding my horses with this team. They might just have the worst offensive line in the league and while their front seven is impressive, their secondary seems mediocre, even with the addition of Tyrann Mathieu. Houston might need to take a step back to go forward.

X Factor: JJ Watt DE; If JJ can return to his DPOY dominance we saw in 2012,2014, and 2015, the whole swagger and identity of this team will have changed and all bets are off.

Rookie to Watch: Justin Reid SS; The Stanford safety dropped to the third round where the Texans picked up a great football player. Reid has a high football IQ and is solid in both run support and pass coverage.

Indianapolis Colts (7-9) – Andrew Luck is back and apparently healthy, after missing all of last year with a shoulder injury. Frank Reich is in at coach and looks to improve upon the teams 4 wins last year. This team should be improved, with Luck’s offensive line looking to be the best it’s been in his career. Marlon Mack looks to be the lead back in year two, and the recievers are decent outside of TY Hilton. Despite adding some nice pieces the defense should be a concern and they will probably finish in the bottom five of the league.

X Factor: Malik Hooker FS; Hooker was off to an impressive start last year before tearing his ACL in october. If he continue to be the dominate ballhawking safety we saw in college and in brief action last year, the Colts secondary looks ever so better.

Rookie to Watch: Darrius Leonard OLB; Leonard, a second round pick, is slated to start in the Colts underwhelming linebacking core. He was a force to be reckoned with at division two South Carolina State and seems to have picked up where he left off, impressing right away in preseason.

AFC NORTH

Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5) – Le’Veon Bell is still not in the building, but were betting on him eventually being there. Big Ben Roethlisberger is a very old 36 and this defense has possibly gotten worse in a year. That being said, I still like Pittsburgh to win the north once again. The offensive line remains one of the leagues best and I have no doubts that Antonio Brown will remain elite despite hitting the dreaded age of 30.

X Factor: Vince Williams MLB; Williams takes over for Ryan Shazier full time this year as the Steelers starting MLB. If Williams can shoulder the burden left by Shazier the Steelers’ defense looks a bit better.

Rookie to Watch; James Washington WR; A prolific receiver at the collegiate level, Washington looks to replicate Juju Smith Schuster’s success as a rookie last year. He can do a bit of every thing at the position and think he’ll quickly become one of Big Ben’s favorite targets.

Baltimore Ravens (9-7) – Perhaps nothing will be better for Joe Flacco’s career than some fresh competition in 2016 Heisman winner Lamar Jackson. Flacco is due for a bounce back year, and in Ozzie Newsome’s last off-season, he gave his struggling QB some much need help on offense, with the signings of Michael Crabtree, John Brown, and Willie Snead. With the improvements on offense, this defense looks to pick off right where they left off last year, with top 10 play.

X Factor: Michael Crabtree WR; Baltimore hasn’t had an impact player on the outside since an aging Steve Smith Sr. joined the team back in 2014. Crabtree had 600 yards and 8 touchdowns last year in Oakland. It’s not unreasonable to expect 800-1,000 yards and 8-10 touchdowns as a WR1, that would be huge for Baltimore.

Rookie to Watch: Lamar Jackson? No. Third round pick, Orlando Brown Jr. Brown had great tape as a senior at Oklahoma in 2017, but poor combine performance shot him down draft boards. Brown is a mammoth at 6’8 345, and looks to be another impressive lineman in an already group.   

Cleveland Browns (6-10) – Cleveland wins 6 games! That still will probably not save Hue Jackson’s job. This team however is the best the city’s had in my lifetime, littered with young talent and some wiley veterans. Tyrod Taylor gives the team the best quarterback they’ve had since 07’ Derek Andersen. The defense improved, adding rookie Denzel Ward and former Packer Demarius Randle. Myles Garrett looks to be a DPOY frontrunner in year 2. Overall, theres defiantly things to be excited about Browns nation, but this year feels like a necessary stepping stone

X Factor: Joel Bitonio LT(or whomever the starter is); Bitonio looks to be replacing future HOF Joe Thomas. Bitonio has been one of the browns better players since coming into the league in 2014, at left guard though. If Bitonio can make the transition to left tackle and remain a high level of play, the Browns will have dodged a major bullet.

Rookie to Watch: Denzel Ward CB; The Browns have been lacking a CB1 since Joe Haden left the team. The Browns passed on Bradley Chubb, a better prospect, to draft Ward and they have high hopes for him. If he can live up to those expectations, passing on Chubb could look like the better move in the years to come.

Cincinnati Bengals (4-12) – Marvin Lewis enters year fifteen with an 0-7 record in the postseason and a 125–112–3 record overall. Unfortunately I think his tenure will end this coming season. While they re tooled their abysmal offensive line and really had a good draft this offseason, I still am not high on this team. Andy Dalton has seemingly been on a steady regress since 2016 and this team has the feeling of a failing franchise. Will Grier? Justin Herbert? or perhaps Drew Lock to Cincy? We’ll just have to see.

X Factor: Joe Mixon RB; after having a disappointing rookie season behind a meddling offensive line. The line has improved significantly and Mixon needs to start to tap into the boatload of potential we all know he has.

Rookie to Watch: Jessie Bates FS; Bates is a rangy safety with great instincts and impressed enough to make the Bengals comfortable with cutting George Iloka. Bates is yet another underrated player in an underrated secondary.

AFC EAST

New England Patriots (12-4) – The Brady-Belichick era is coming to an end, but not this year, the division is too weak for that. New England made some changes this offseason. The offensive losses of Solder, Cooks, and Amendola are less concerning than most people think. This team has always been a consistently successful embodiment of the “next man up” philosophy. I find it hard to believe that this is the year where their depth and coaching fails them.

X Factor: Trent Brown LT; After losing first round pick Isiah Wynn for the season this preseason, the ever so valuable left tackle spot will be anchored by Trent Brown. Brown who spent the first three years of his career in San Fransisco, will look to protect Brady’s blindside. Curbing the effects for Nate Solder’s departure will be monumental for this offense.

Rookie to Watch: Sony Michel RB; Michel was one of college football’s most dynamic running backs last year at Georgia. Michel is the most talented back the patriots have had in some time. With a skill set similar to Alvin Kamara, Michel seems tailor made for potential stardom in this offense.

New York Jets (7-9) – The Sam Darnold era begins in New York. The Backjudge’s consensus best quarterback coming into April’s draft, Darnold looks to start for a very exciting Jets team. This defense always seems to over perform under Todd Bowels, and they got better this offseason, adding corner back Trumaine Johnson and linebacker Avery Williamson. The biggest problem for this team will be their offensive line, which has been decimated over the last three years, and will struggle to protect Darnold. That aside this team has a nice stable of wide recievers and running backs. This team has the foundation to take over for New England in the years to come.

X-Factor: Trumaine Johnson CB; The jets haven’t had an alpha cornerback since the days of Revis island. Johnson is coming off a 68 tackle, 2 interception year with the Rams. While he’s not quite Darrelle Revis, If Johnson can continue his good play, this Jets defense gets even scarier.

Rookie to Watch: Christopher Herndon IV TE; Herndon, The University of Miami’s latest athletic tight end export, is the most skilled player in the Jets underwhelming tight end group. With every quarterback needing a good tight end, Herndon has a chance to make an immediate impact.

Miami Dolphins (6-10) – Adam Gase enters year 3 with much still left to be desired. He gets Ryan Tannehill back after he missed all of last year, and they will try to replicate the success they saw in 2016 resulting in a playoff berth. I would hold my horses. This team does have talent, and a nice draft to boot, but I’m not sold on Tannehill being a competitive quarterback. The mix of veterans and rookies they’ve added to their defense is a plus but the overall feel of this team seems to be regressive. They will need to over perform this year to save Gase and probably Tannehill’s job.

X Factor: Jordan Phillips DT; Replacing Ndamukong Suh is no easy task, but Phillips will have to do his best impression this year. The second round pick back in 2015 is entering a contract year and will be looked at as the “guy” in the middle of this defensive line. Another mediocre season for Phillips could add insult to injury to this uninspiring defense.

Rookie to Watch: Mike Gesicki TE; The perfect embodiment of the modern tight end, Gesicki could be the NFL’s next star tight end. A freak athlete at 6’6 245 pounds, he is a matchup nightmare who seems to be a perfect fit for Adam Gase’s creative football mind.

Buffalo Bills (3-13) – After stumbling into the playoffs last year the Bills are in for a rough year. Nathan Peterman is the starting quarterback for now, for how long we do not know, but I’d be shocked if Josh Allen isn’t the starter by week 4. They lost their two best offensive lineman from last year and we don’t know if LeSean McCoy will randomly be suspended for the season. While all hell has broken loose on offense, their defense is impressive and will keep them in every game they find themselves in. Tredavious White looks to build upon his great rookie season and rookie linebacker Truman Edmunds is a dark horse for defensive rookie of the year. Overall there doesn’t seem to be any glaring holes on the defensive side of the ball, a bright spot on this underwhelming team.

X Factor: Dion Dawkins LT; Dawkins is being moved to the left side after a good rookie season at right tackle. The Bills obviously feel comfortable about this move, as they traded longtime left tackle Cordy Glenn to Cincinnati for a first round pick. If in hindsight the Bills made the wrong move, Josh Allen’s season could be even tougher than its looking.

Rookie to Watch: Trumaine Edmunds LB; Edmunds is the Bills starting middle linebacker at just 20 years old. He’s an athlete at the position with great instincts and size. If defensive minded head coach Sean McDermott can get all he can out of Edmunds, the bills could have a top 5 defense in the NFL.

NFC WEST

San Fransisco 49rs (11-5) – The hottest team to finish the year in 2017, the 49rs are primed for a break out season. Their 137 million dollar man, Jimmy Garoppolo, has huge expectations this year and I expect this offense to soar despite recently losing starting running back Jerrick McKinnon for the year. This trust is all invested in Kyle Shanahan’s play calling ability and the elite infrastructure I believe is being built in the bay area.  While this team doesn’t nearly have the talent level of division foe, the Los Angeles Rams, they have enough on both sides of the ball, that when combined with superior coaching can be a great recipe for success.

X Factor: Richard Sherman CB; The secondary was a glaring weakness for the 49rs all of last season. Bringing in a veteran All-Pro like Sherman should do wonders for this young secondary. If Sherman can regain form after his season ending achilles injury, ook for the secondary to vastly over perform.

Rookie to Watch: Dante Pettis WR; While first round pick Mike McGlinchey will be instrumental to helping improve the offensive line play, second round pick Dante Pettis looks to bring a game breaking ability to San Francisco’s passing attack. Pettis was personally a bit of a head scratcher to me as the 44th pick, as he went before Christian Kirk, Anthony Miller, and James Washington, all receivers I liked more. However if Pettis can be a game changer in the slot and in the return game, this offense can be elite.

Los Angeles Rams (10-6) – After taking the league by storm last year behind coach of the year, Sean McVay, the Rams are playing the role of conteder for the first time in 20 years. And after an offseason that saw them acquire Aquib Talib, Marcus Peters, and Ndamukong Suh, no team in the NFL could be better on paper. However as no season is ever the same in the NFL, I’m expecting a one game recession, as a year of tape and a first place schedule is on tap for the Rams. Ultimately this team has too good of an overall unit to miss the playoffs, even in the stacked NFC.

X Factor: Jared Goff QB; If Jared Goff can manage to continue playing well and furthering his development, the Rams offense will continue to be elite. If Goff however sees regression in year 3, the Rams will be in for dissappoining year.

Rookie to Watch: John Kelly RB; A sixth round pick from Tennesse, Kelly could be another weapon for McVay and his offense after being on the stars of the preseason. Besides being great insurance for Todd Gurley, he is dynamic football player who can be used effectively all kinds of ways in this Rams offense.

Arizona Cardinals (7-9) – The Cardinals come into the season with shockingly low expectations. All most everyone has pegged this team for if not a bottom 5 finish, a definite bottom 10 finish. While that is understandable, Arizona could be one of the more underrated tough outs in the NFL. David Johnson is back and is fully healthy and their defense has an impact player at every level. If Sam Bradford can stay relatively healthy, the cardinals could surprise some.

X Factor: Mason Cole C; The rookie third round pick from Michigan will be thrown into the fire week 1 after starting center AQ Shipley tore his ACL. This offensive line is one the weaker units in the NFL. If Cole is a turn style and struggles in year one, this whole offense could fall apart.

Rookie to Watch: Christian Kirk WR; Kirk was an absolute stud as a three year starter at Texas A&M. Kirk’s floor should be as an impact WR2/WR3 in the slot. He’ll have a great opportunity  to learn from one of the best to do it in Larry Fitzgerald.

Seattle Seahawks (6-10) – The “new look” Seattle Seahawks enter 2018 with a mostly unproven roster. Their offensive line still is worrisome, despite making the trade for starting left tackle Duane Brown last year. Surprise 1st round pick Rashaad Penny is out for at least week one, leaving behind an average running back corps. Outside of Doug Baldwin, there is a lot left to be desired in the group of wideouts. And for the first time in recent memory the defense is a question mark. If any guy could lead this team to the playoffs it’d be Russell Wilson, I just have some serious doubts.

X Factor: Doug Baldwin WR; Baldwin is a proven talent in the NFL, however he enters 2018 with lingering knee injury that might not get better. If he struggles, this offense will struggle as well.

Rookie to Watch: Michael Dickson P; Why would anyone watch a punter some may ask, but Michael Dickson is the real deal. The fifth round pick was close to flawless in the preseason punting the ball and could be one of the best punters in the league.

NFC SOUTH

Atlanta Falcons (12-4) – The Falcons entered last season with high expectations coming off their super bowl loss. And while their offense struggled to regain the prolific form in showed the season prior, they still managed to make the playoffs and were one play away from beating the Eagles in the divisional round. This team got stronger this offseason with a strong draft and still is returning the majority of their team from last year. Look for Matt Ryan and this offense to have a comeback year and be a contender in the NFC.

X Factor: Vic Beasley DE; After struggling in a move to linebacker last year, Beasley is back at defensive end, where he lead the league in sacks in 2016. The Falcons are counting on him to recapture that form.

Rookie to Watch: Isiah Oliver CB; A first round talent taken by Atlanta at the end of Round 2, Oliver’s fall surprised me. He is a lanky, man coverage corner, who had great tape at Colorado and enters a stacked Atlanta secondary. Look for Oliver to give Atlanta one of the NFL’s more impressive corner back groups.

New Orleans Saints (10-6) – The Saints were one play away from getting their chance at playing the Eagles in the NFC championship game. They come into this year looking for redemption as Drew Brees’ illustrious career comes to end. New Orleans high flying offense added Cameron Meredith and on defense they added promising defensive end Marcus Davenport and corner back Patrick Robinson, who just won a Super Bowl, and fits in nicely alongside Marshon Lattimore and Ken Crawley.  Overall this team should not really miss a beat, as they go into this season with one of the most complete teams in the league. 

X Factor: Alvin Kamara RB; The reigning rookie of the year looks to take on a bigger role this year with Mark Ingram being suspended for the first 4 games. If Kamara has a sophomore slump this offense could follow suit.

Rookie to Watch: Tre’Quan Smith WR; With Willie Snead and Brandon Coleman being gone, it’s time for the next man up. That very well could be third round pick Tre’Quan Smith, a versatile deep threat that will fit in perfectly with this offense.

Carolina Panthers (7-9) – The Panthers were the third team from the NFC south to make this playoffs last year and I think this year we’ll see a bit of regression. The offensive line struggled last year and lost their best player in Andrew Norwell this offseason. Cam Newton will continue to be a power thrower, whose wildly inconsistent accuracy will impede the offense overall. The front seven is one of the leagues best but I still have serious questions about the secondary. Like many teams in the NFC, if Carolina was in the AFC they would be a conference contender, but sadly they are not.

X Factor: CJ Anderson RB; After loosing Jonathan Stewart in the offseason, the Panthers picked up CJ Anderson from Denver. With Christian McCaffrey locked in as the main and 3rd down back, Anderson will need to succeed in the Stewart power back role.

Rookie to Watch: Ian Thomas TE; While Thomas will take a backseat to Greg Olsen, he’s an athlete at the position who isn’t an awful blocker. Look for Thomas to sneak up on a lot of teams this year.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-12) –  Funny how things can change. A year ago the Buccaneers where mine, and many other’s sleeper pick for the season. Now I’ve got them as one of the NFL’s cellar teams. Jameis is suspended for the first three games and who knows if this is his last year in Tampa. Ronald Jones struggled in the preseason and while their awful defensive line from last year improved, their awful secondary did not. Hello Ed Oliver? Greedy Williams? Nick Bosa?

X Factor: Vernon Hargraves CB; Hargraves has been a disappointment to this point in his 2 year career. If he wants to see his 5th year option exercised he’ll have to have a breakout season.

Rookie to Watch: Vita Vea DT; Vea a physical freak at 6’4 350, has a combination of size and speed that league hasn’t seen since Haloti Ngata back in 2006. Vea will have plenty of favorable matchups with Gerald McCoy, Vinnie Curry, and Jason Pierre Paul commanding most of the oppositions attention.

NFC NORTH

Green Bay Packers (12-4) – Aaron Rodgers is back and that means the Packers are back. Like he’s done throughout his whole career, he will carry this team no matter the supporting cast. This year could be the best his defense has been since they won the super bowl in 2011, with an impressive young linebacker and secondary core. I expect the Packers to be back in the conversation this year.

X Factor: Jimmy Graham TE; Graham gives Aaron Rodgers his best tight end since Jermichael Finley and will look to replace the red zone production lost in Jordy Nelson’s release. At 6’6 260 Graham will continue to be a nightmare for NFL defensive coordinators.

Rookie to Watch: Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson CB; I’ll cheat here and put two rookies for Green Bay. The first two picks for the Packers will have huge roles in the secondary and will play early and often. If they can play up to their billing, the Packers will have one of the best young secondary’s in the NFL.

Minnesota Vikings (10-6) – After making the NFC championship, the Vikings went out and signed the prize of free agency Kirk Cousins. They now enter the season with one of the NFL’s most complete rosters. Running back Dalvin Cook re-enters the fold after tearing his ACL in week 4, and Stefon Diggs and Adam Theilen could be the NFL’s best duo at wideout. Their offensive line is a bit concerning, but I had the same concern going into last year. Minnesota boasts another defense that is elite at every level, I believe they will once again make a super bowl push.

X Factor: Kirk Cousins QB; After a contentious five years in Washington, Cousins is finally in the situation he wants to be in. Now all of the pressure is on him to succeed on this great Vikings roster.

Rookie to Watch: Mike Hughes CB; The Vikings 1st round pick at corner looks to replace their last 1st round pick at corner, the underwhelming Trae Waynes. Hughes is a ballhawk out there on the football field and plays with the “dawg” mentality that coach Mike Zimmer loves.

3. Chicago Bears (8-8) – The acquisition of Khalil Mack has put this team over the top. With the exception of Mitch Trubisky at quarterback, this team is filled with proven talent at every position. Vic Fangio, one of the NFL’s best defensive coordinators, always has this defense over performing and now they finally have some serious talent. In the end it will all come down to the aforementioned Trubisky. But with Matt Nagy now at the helm this offense should be exotic and makes things much easier on Trubisky. The Bears are on the rise, playoff bound? Perhaps. It’s much more realistic to peg this team at .500.

X Factor: Mitch Trubsiky QB; The success and failure of this team will all rest on the second year signal caller’s shoulders. His passing attack is replete with new toys in Allen Robinson, Trey Burton, Taylor Gabriel, and rookie Anthony Miller. His rushing attack features a jitterbug in Tarik Cohen and a bruiser in Jordan Howard. The ball is in your court Mitch.

Rookie to Watch: Roquan Smith LB; While the Bears had an impressive draft class, is there really any other option than Roquan Smith? The top 10 pick and All-American at Georgia, Smith has legitimate Defensive Rookie of the Year expectations. Even though he’s a bit undersized, Smith has elite speed and instincts. If he can avoid getting eaten up by opposing offensive lines, he’ll wreck havoc on every opposing offense.

4. Detroit Lions (6-10)- Despite having an elite quarterback in Matthew Stafford, the Lions are littered with holes. Their offensive line looks very good on paper but they struggled mightily last year, mostly due to injury. They do have a nice receiver trio in Tate, Jones and Golladay, and will look to have a committee at running back, with rookie Kerryon Johnson fronting the load. The majority of my concern lands on the defense where the Lions front seven has to be one of the leagues worst units. Their secondary was one of the best units last year and will look to repeat that success.

X Factor: Jaraad Davis LB; The Lions 2017 first round pick struggled in pass coverage last year and returns this year needing to improve. Davis is very good in run defense but will need to improve in the pass if he wants to be a staring middle linebacker. If he can do that, this front seven will elevate.

Rookie to Watch: DaShawn Hand DL; Hand was the class of 2014’s top overall high school recruit, and looks to capitalize on that skill set after a disappointing individual career at Alabama. The fourth round pick will get plenty of playing time in a defensive line unit that lacks depth.

NFC EAST        

Philadelphia Eagles (11-5) – The defending super bowl champs enter this year arguably even more loaded. The already vaunted defensive line added two veteran former pro bowlers in Michael Bennett and Haloti Ngata. The majority of the starting linebackers and secondary are returning, with second year players Nathan Gerry and Sydney Jones looking to take on bigger roles. On offense this unit shouldn’t miss a beat despite Carson Wentz’s uncertain return. The offensive line is elite and their tight ends and receivers are deep and star studded.

X Factor: Sidney Jones CB; Jones was a bonafide first round pick before tearing his achilles at his pro day. The Eagles selected him in the second round and he starts this season as the eagles third cornerback, taking over for Patrick Robinson. Jones should be everything and more that a very good Robinson was a year ago. This eagles defense is scary.

Rookie to Watch: Dallas Goedert TE; Highly touted out of division II South Dakota State, Goedert, like many other young tight ends I’ve mentioned, has great size (6’5,255) and athleticism which should make him a perfect fit to replace Trey Burton in this offense.

Dallas Cowboys (9-7) – The Cowboys enter this year with a multitude of questions and expectations. Jason Witten and Dez Bryant are gone, now, the real Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliot era begins. Their vaunted offensive line, which have anchored this offense for the better part of a decade, have some new faces and some ill timed heath concerns. Their defense however, is on the rise, led by All Pro Sean Lee and Demarcus Lawrence who is coming off a 14.5 sack season. Their young secondary is underrated, impressing after being thrown into the fire early in their careers. While there is optimism in Dallas, they still have a long way to go in order to compete with the elite of the NFL, let alone their own conference.

X Factor: Sean Lee LB; The perennial X-Factor for this team every year, Lee is one of the best at his position. This whole defense revolves around Sean Lee’s ability to stay healthy, which is concerning.

Rookie to Watch: Michael Gallup WR; The third round pick enters the league after a productive two year career at Colorado State. With this wide receiver core decimated, Gallup has a huge opportunity to be an impact player.

New York Giants (8-8) – After the utter disaster experienced by the Giants in 2017, they enter this season with a new sense of swagger. Odell Beckham Jr. has been paid and is fully healthy. Saquon Barkley is their staring running back, arguably the best prospect we’ve ever seen at the position. However the same concerns from years past still remain. Eli Manning has been declining at a steady rate since their super Bowl win in 2011. Their offensive line still seems to be just average at best. Their defense is solid but doesn’t have the pizazz that the 2016 had. This team seems meddling despite some awesome talent.

X Factor: Eli Manning QB; What Eli are we going to see this year? His skill positions are as good as they ever have been or will be. His play will dictate this teams success.

Rookie to Watch: Will Hernandez G; The second round pick from UTEP, is a throwback, a mauler, in the true sense of the word. He should automatically upgrade this run game as he will hone his skills as a pass protector.

Washington Redskins (7-9) – Alex Smith is the new man in Washington. This team enters the season looking to improve, after 3 disappointing seasons since winning the division in 2015. I like the core of this team and I think they will be a tough out every week. In the end however I think they lack high end talent on both sides of the ball and that will limit their ceiling this year.    

X Factor: Jordan Reed TE; Reed is one of the NFL’s best tight end when healthy. The only problem is he’s missed significant time for the last three seasons. Alex Smith’s success has always been accompanied by great tight ends like Travis Kelce and Vernon Davis.

Rookie to Watch: Da’Ron Payne DT; Payne is the latest product of Alabama’s infamous defensive line. He will be a huge piece in repairing their atrocious run defense. He also can rush the passer and will get better as he progresses.

2018 NFL PLAYOFF PREVIEW

WILD CARD ROUND

Jaguars @ Titans

Ravens @ Steelers

Saints @ Eagles

Rams @ 49rs

DIVISIONAL ROUND

Jaguars @ Patriots

Steelers @ Chargers

Eagles @ Packers

Rams @ Falcons

CONFERENCE CHAMPIONSHIP

Chargers @ Patriots

Packers @ Falcons

SUPER BOWL

Chargers @ Packers

SUPERBOWL LIII CHAMPION

Green Bay Packers

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