FF-Winners.com’s 2017-8 AFC East Preview

The story of the AFC East in 2017 remains the same as it has for 14 of the past 16 NFL seasons: this division belongs to the New England Patriots, and everyone else is just competing for second place.

To use a line made famous by legendary professional wrestler Ric Flair: “to be the man, you gotta beat the man.” And right now, there’s simply no two ways about it: there doesn’t appear to be a single team in the NFL that can go toe-to-toe with the New England Patriots, and beat them on a neutral field. Let’s start off with the fact that the Patriots are returning 17 of their 22 starters from the team that won the Super Bowl. Now, add in the fact that they might have actually gotten better at four of those five positions that will feature new players, like wide receiver Brandin Cooks, running back Mike Gillislee, cornerback Stephon Gillmore, and defensive end Kony Ealy. This was already a team that lost a grand total of one game after Tom Brady returned from suspension last year. What team, across the entire NFL, is capable of beating these guys?

You can make an argument that no team has been ravaged by injury before the preseason even started than the Miami Dolphins. Pretty much every single NFL fan is well aware of the season-ending knee injury to Ryan Tannehill, which led head coach to call up old friend Jay Cutler and convince him to take over as the starting quarterback of the Dolphins (after Cutler had decided to retire this past offseason).  But that was far from the only blow the team was dealt by the injury bug. Linebacker Raekwon McMillan, the team’s second round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, looked like he was set to take over the starting middle linebacker spot for the Dolphins, but then suffered a season-ending ACL injury. Cornerback Tony Lippett, who started in 13 games for Miami last season, was lost for the year after tearing his Achilles tendon. Offensive guard Ted Larsen, who was both an opening-day starter and their insurance policy at center in case Mike Pouncey got hurt, tore his biceps muscle in training camp, and will miss a significant portion of this season. It’s going to take a borderline miraculous coaching job for Gase to help Miami move out from underneath the dark cloud they’re currently under.

No head coach will ever admit that they’re willing to lose more games in the short run if it means the team will improve in the long run. That’s why you’ll never hear head coach Sean McDermott of the Buffalo Bills say anything other than the fact that he’s positioning his team to compete in the AFC East immediately. But after spending much of the offseason waffling on whether to bring back quarterback Tyrod Taylor (whom they brought back on a deal that allows them to easily part ways after just one year), and then opening training camp by trading players like wide receiver Sammy Watkins, cornerback Ronald Darby, and quarterback Cardale Jones, the message is clear:  they’re willing to take one step back with the roster, if it means they can take two steps forward in their rebuild. McDermott is going to try and win games the same way the Carolina Panthers — his former employer — have in recent years: run the ball down the throats of the opponents, and use their stout defensive line to keep opponents from scoring.

As far as the New York Jets, you may have heard many NFL analysts around the league say the same thing over-and-over again, because it’s the truth: there isn’t a NFL roster with less talent across the entire league than the one the Jets have currently constructed. Frankly, it’s a miracle that head coach Todd Bowles and General Manager Mike Maccagnan weren’t fired by the notoriously fickle owner of the Jets, Woody Johnson. Bowles and Maccagnan are gambling on Christian Hackenberg as the starting quarterback of the Jets this season, and so far, the early word out of New York is that Hackenberg still looks as broken and as hopeless as many people believed he was after his star-crossed career at Penn State.  But even aside from Hackenberg, the Jets starting offensive line, wide receivers, and cornerbacks are all easily among the three worst units in the entire league, and two of the team’s former building blocks — defensive linemen Sheldon Richardson and Muhammad Wilkerson — have been malcontents that have spent time on the team’s trade block. Things are looking very, very bleak in Gotham, with Bowles and Maccagnan likely to be the first ones without jobs by Black Monday of 2018.

FF-Winners.Com’s 2017-8 AFC North Preview

The AFC North is another one of those divisions which, theoretically, could be up for grabs for (almost) anyone… except the poor Cleveland Browns, of course. After all, the division hasn’t had a back-to-back champion since 2011 and 2012, when the Ravens won the title both years and ended up winning the Super Bowl after the second division crown), and Pittsburgh and Cincinnati have spent the past four seasons handing the division crown back and forth each year since.

This year, the Steelers head into the season as the favorites to win the division, and make their fourth straight appearance in the postseason. After briefly (but legitimately) contemplating retirement during the offseason, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will be back to orchestrate an offense that finished seventh in the NFL in yards per game last year, and fifth in passing yards per game. Plus, with Le’Veon Bell primed to be available right from the regular season get-go (for the first time in his career), and with the return of wide receiver Martavis Bryant from a season-long suspension (after violating the league’s substance abuse policy), there’s a very good chance that Pittsburgh’s offense could be even more prolific this year. True to the franchise’s long-time modus operandi, they spent their top pick in the draft on a defensive player — outside linebacker T.J. Watt from the University of Wisconsin — for the fifth straight year, as they continually rebuild a defense that was very “un-Pittsburgh-like” in it’s 2016 performance, ranking in the bottom half of the NFL in rushing yards (20th), passing yards (17th), and points allowed (23rd) per game. For a team with a history of totally stifling opposing offenses, time is running out for defensive coordinator Keith Butler — and head coach Mike Tomlin, who installed Butler in place of the venerated Dick LeBeau — to stop this group from being the hindrance from being a real contender in the AFC.

Despite finishing the 2016 with only six total wins, the Cincinnati Bengals still lurk as a team with the potential to steal back the division crown from Pittsburgh. He doesn’t quite have the same supporting cast as Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh, but the Bengals have quietly assembled a very talented group of pass catchers around quarterback Andy Dalton, including superstar wide receiver AJ Green, second year receiver Tyler Boyd (Cincinnati’s second round pick in 2016), veteran Brandon LaFell, newcomer John Ross (the ninth overall selection in the 2017 NFL Draft), and tight end Tyler Eifert (who has the most touchdown receptions of any tight end in the NFL over the last two seasons). Cincinnati’s rushing offense was already in the top half of the league last year (13th in rushing yards per game and tied for 6th in rushing touchdowns), and with the addition of second round pick Joe Mixon, it should be even better.  On defense, Cincinnati will rely on (young) quantity versus quality, largely built on their recent years of good drafting. Edge rushers Jordan Willis (their 3rd round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft) and Carl Lawson (their 4th round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft) will come in on passing downs opposite of ace edge rusher Carlos Dunlap. In the secondary, cornerbacks Dre Kirkpatrick, William Jackson III, and Darqueze  Dennard — all first round selections in the five drafts prior to 2017 — gives the Bengals as deep a group of cornerbacks as any in the NFL.

Five years removed from a Super Bowl victory, the Baltimore Ravens find themselves at a bit of a crossroads. Despite year after year of savvy drafting by General Manager Ozzie Newsome, this team perpetually seems to running in place, never able to take that next step towards being in the mix among contenders in the AFC.  Things have not fared well for the Ravens heading into the 2017 season. Quarterback Joe Flacco hasn’t been able to practice at all during training camp, thanks to back soreness that has been lingering since July. Starting inside linebacker Zachary Orr retired right after the 2016 season due to a spinal condition. John Urschel, who was slated to be the team’s starting Center this year, abruptly retired in the offseason amidst concerns around CTE. Running back Kenneth Dixon, who was supposed to work in tandem with Terrance West in the backfield this year, was first suspended for four games to start the year, and then declared out for the year after undergoing knee surgery. Wide receiver Breshad Perriman, the team’s top pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, continues to struggle to stay healthy. Baltimore’s defense has some interesting pieces, including stud middle linebacker CJ Mosley, pass-rushing stalwart Terrell Suggs, the immovable Brandon Williams (one of the best defensive linemen in the NFL that nobody talks about), and free agent signees Eric Weddle and Tony Jefferson. But that might not be enough for the perennially heralded Baltimore defense, if the offense continues to struggle to put points on the board.

And then, as always on the bottom of the AFC North, there’s Cleveland. In fairness, this is only year two of the total renovations this team undertook starting last offseason. Unfortunately, the product on the field last year reflected that, culminating in their 1-15 record (and questions as to whether head coach Hue Jackson should be fired after just one year on the job). Their league-low win total did secure them the right to draft defensive end Myles Garrett from Texas A&M University with the #1 overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, and make him one of the central cornerstones of their rebuild. There are interesting players on this roster. Joe Thomas and Joel Bitonio might be the best left guard and tackle combination in the NFL. Running back Isaiah Crowell finished just shy of 1,000 yards rushing last year, and Duke Johnson Jr. finished 7th in the NFL in most catches by a running back. Linebacker Jamie Collins, acquired from the New England Patriots during the 2016 season in exchange for one of the bevy of draft picks the Browns have, is one of the most talented linebackers in the NFL. Edge rusher Emmanuel Ogbah, the team’s second round pick in 2016, led the team in sacks last year and will rush the quarterback opposite of Garrett. Wide receiver Kenny Britt and guard Kevin Zeitler, acquired in free agency, will come in and contribute right away. But this team still has so many holes to fill, with none more glaring than their long-term solution at quarterback (although they might have found an answer in second round pick DeShone Kizer).

FF-Winners.Com’s 2017-8 NFC South Preview


Among all the divisions in the National Football Conference, the NFC East might be the one with the most parity, the NFC West might be the one with the best team overall, and the NFC North might host the best quarterback in the conference (if not the entire league). But it could very well be the case that the NFC South might feature the most entertaining race to the division crown this year.

How does a team recover from blowing a 25-point lead in the third quarter of the franchise’s first-ever Super Bowl appearance? That’s the question that’s going to hound the Atlanta Falcons all year long. It’s already been talked about ad nauseum, and if the team has any stumbles along the way this year, it’s certainly going to be brought up repeatedly. History is not on the Falcons side, either; nine of the last 20 teams to lose the Super Bowl failed to make the playoffs last season. Atlanta’s defense will be better this year, thanks to the addition of defensive tackle Dontari Poe, the selection of edge rusher Takkarist McKinley in the 2017 NFL Draft, and the return of cornerback Desmond Trufant from injury. But what type of drop off will Atlanta’s ultra-prolific offense see from last year’s performance, with the loss of offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan? New offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian has enormous shoes to fill, considering Shanahan guided the Falcons offense to the eighth-highest point total in NFL history, and helped quarterback Matt Ryan to an MVP award along the way; to make matters even more challenging, Sarkisian has never been an offensive coordinator in the NFL. In a division in which the Falcons top competitors certainly look to take a big step forward this year, the idea that Atlanta is a lock to repeat as the champions of the NFC South is far from a given.

The Carolina Panthers can provide first-hand attestation to the “hangover” that comes after losing the Super Bowl. After finishing the 2015 season with an NFL-best 15-1 record, the Panthers endured a season filled with all sorts of bumps and bruises, headlined by injuries to arguably the team’s two best players: quarterback Cam Newton, and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly. Newton played in 15 of 16 games las tyear, but as a result of the merciless beating he endured all season long, he put up the lowest completion percentage and yards per attempt of his career, his second lowest passing touchdown total, and his second highest interception total. Newton is unquestionably the team’s franchise player, so Carolina went out and signed tackle Matt Kalil from the Vikings to protect Newton’s blindside as the left tackle, and drafted tackle Taylor Moton from the University of Wisconsin with the intention of him coming over and manning the right tackle spot. And to add to Newton’s oft-maligned group of pass catchers, the Panthers used draft pick on “hybrid” run-pass options like Christian McCaffrey (their first round pick) and Curtis Samuel (the first of their two second round picks). With nine of 11 starters returning from last year’s defense, the Panthers are banking on the continuity of their group to keep opponents out of the endzone, and the young secondary to make a big leap forward from last year’s campaign that saw the team finish with the fourth-worst passing defense in the NFL.

There might not be a more intriguing team in the NFL heading into this season than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The league made a brilliant decision featuring them on HBO’s Hard Knocks television show, because they have the star power to absolutely compel audiences. After finishing among the top 10 quarterbacks in touchdown passes last year, Jameis Winston looks primed to make a big leap forward in year three of his young career. To facilitate that, his front office has given him a repertoire of weapons that would make any quarterback envious: wide receiver DeSean Jackson (brought in via free agency), tight end O.J. Howard (the team’s first round pick in the draft), and wide receiver Chris Godwin (the team’s third round selection), to join incumbent tight end Cameron Brate (who led the league in touchdown catches among tight ends last year) and superstud receiver Mike Evans. If the defense can improve on its performance from last year (they were ranked 22nd in most yards allowed last season), this team could make serious noise in the NFC.

The question for the New Orleans Saints (and its fans) for this year is pretty simple: can the team break free from the treadmill of 7-9 finishes they’ve had in each of the past three seasons? In each of those three years, the storyline seemed to be the same: a top three offense in the NFL (in yards per game), and a bottom five defense (in points allowed per game). There was a point in time where the idea of a quarterback throwing for 5,000 yards in a season was a mind-boggling feat, and yet the incomparable Drew Brees is coming off a year in which he exceeded the 5,000 yard mark for the fourth time in six years. That’s a big reason why the Saints were the only team in the NFL with two receivers to finish among the top 10 in yards receiving. One of those two receivers was rookie Michael Thomas, whose 92 catches last year was the second highest total in NFL history for a rookie. With Brandin Cooks (the other thousand-yard receiver) now gone, Thomas becomes the focal point of the passing offense, and seems more than capable of handling those responsibilities. Of course, with such a prolific passing maestro like Brees orchestrating the offense, it certainly won’t all be on him to make things go. Meanwhile, New Orleans’ annually porous defense went through yet another overhaul, resulting in as many as six new starters for the group this year. The headline addition would likely be cornerback Marshon Lattimore, the team’s top draft selection this year, who could turn out to be a steal of a pick. Still, the question is the same in the Big Easy: can the Saints’ defense stop anyone from moving the ball up and down the field at will, in order to let the offense do its magic?

FF-Winners.Com’s 2017-8 NFC North Preview

Over the past decade, the Green Bay Packers or the Minnesota Vikings have won the NFC North division nine times in 10 years. Given the way the division looks heading into the 2017 season, it would be very surprising if that trend didn’t extend to 10 times in 11 years.

Green Bay Packers

During the 2016 NFL season, the Green Packers not only went undefeated between the Monday after Thanksgiving weekend through the third week in January of 2017, but they beat opponents by an average of more than 12 points per game. But it all came to an end with a resounding thud, when the Atlanta Falcons ambushed the Packers in the NFC Championship game, storming out to a 31-0 lead at one point, and handing Green Bay a 44-21 defeat. But during that second-half-of-the-season run, Green Bay re-established themselves as one of the top contenders in the NFC, and they’ll look to build on that momentum during the 2017 season. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers is one of the early favorites for the Most Valuable Player award, and rightfully so. After leading the league in touchdown passes (40) and touchdown-to-interception ratio (almost 6-to-1), and finished 4th in total passing yards (4,428), he’ll get to throw to an even-better group of receivers this year, with Jordy Nelson another year removed from his season-ending ACL injury (in 2015), Randall Cobb coming into camp healthy after dealing with nagging injuries all of last year, and Davante Adams coming off a breakout season and looking as sharp as ever. On top of that, the Packers went out and acquired tight end Martellus Bennett, who could turn out to be one of the steals of free agency.

The question for the Packers will be if the defense can keep up its end of the bargain, having finished 22nd in total yards allowed last season, and a dismal 31st in passing yards allowed. Green Bay devoted their top two picks in the 2017 NFL Draft to the secondary, taking cornerback Kevin King and safety Josh Jones, and brought back cornerback Davon House to play the nickel spot. But losing safety Micah Hyde, one of the real leaders in the secondary, may prove to be a very difficult endeavor.

The Packers offense can score on nearly anyone in the NFL, but the question will be whether they can stop anyone from scoring on them.

Minnesota Vikings

This year’s Minnesota Vikings will feature the same storyline as last year’s Vikings — a game-managing quarterback, a dynamic running back, a patchwork offensive line, and a ridiculously stout defense — but with different characters filling many of those roles.

Sam Bradford will be back for the second year in a row as the Vikings quarterback, having taken over the role on the heels of the catastrophic knee injury to Teddy Bridgewater. In the backfield, he’ll spend much of this year handing off the football to rookie running back Dalvin Cook, the team’s second round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft (it’s just a matter of time before he takes over the job from free agent acquisition Latavius Murray). And the line that’ll be blocking for Bradford and Cook will feature as many as four new starters from last year’s group, as Minnesota continually looks to fix the beleaguered unit.

But the same “beleaguered unit” description simply cannot be used for the defense, which will return nine of 11 starters from last year’s group, and should be as good as any defense in the NFL. Minnesota ranked third in the NFL in fewest yards allowed per game overall, and fewest passing yards allowed per game as well. They were fifth in the NFL in quarterback sacks, with three different edge rushers racking up seven or more sacks last season (and that’s even with star linebacker Anthony Barr suffering a big slump for much of last year).

The Vikings are essentially the mirror opposite of their division rivals in Green Bay: their defense will be good enough to limit any opponent from putting a lot of points on the board, but will the offense do enough to actually score enough points to squeak out a win?

Detroit Lions

In a conference that’s filled with a good number of teams that will be vying for the six available postseason berths, the Detroit Lions find themselves in a place that most professional sports teams dread: sprinting on proverbial “treadmill of mediocrity.” They’re interesting enough to be relevant, but not relevant enough to be interesting.

Quarterback Matthew Stafford had a fantastic year in offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter’s offense, finishing with his second highest completion percentage, second highest yards per attempt, and second highest passer rating of his career last season, along with the fewest number of interceptions thrown. And even with that, the Lions still ranked outside the top 10 passing offenses last year (they were 11th) and didn’t have a single receiver finish in the top 10 in receiving yards (Golden Tate was 14th). For all the yards they could put up in a game, it didn’t translate to much, considering Detroit finished 20th in the NFL in total points per game.

Things weren’t better for Detroit’s defense, overseen by highly-esteemed coordinator Teryl Austin. The Lions defense was in the bottom half of the league in total yards allowed per game (18th in the NFL), rushing yards allowed (18th), passing yards allowed (19th), and quarterback sacks (tied for 30th).

So, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that Detroit spent much of the offseason fixing the defensive side of the ball, as almost half the unit will have new starters next season. But in an already loaded conference, and a division with two teams that have postseason aspirations themselves, have the Lions really done enough to make a return trip to the playoffs?

Chicago Bears

For sports fans in the greater Chicagoland area, the mantra this Fall likely won’t be all that much different than it was in the Fall of 2016: “well, at least the Cubs are doing well.”

It was another offseason of offensive upheaval for the Chicago Bears, marked by the team pushing it’s longtime starting quarterback, trading for a quarterback to presumably be the starter, and subsequently drafting a quarterback to also presumably be the starter. And that’s not even mentioning the fact that four of Chicago’s top five wide receivers will be different than the depth chart from last year, after watching their best wide receiver (Alshon Jeffrey) leave town as well.

So now, quarterback Mitchell Trubisky (at some point this season anyway), running back Jordan Howard (who finished second in the NFL in rushing yards last season), and wide receiver Cameron Meredith (the team leader in virtually every receiving category last year) will form the foundation of the rebuilt Bears offense.

Ironically enough, the Bears defense will return all 11 starters from last year’s group. Take what you will from that fact, considering Chicago had the sixth-worst rushing defense in the NFL last year, ranked in the bottom 10 of the NFL in most points allowed per game, and featured exactly zero players with more than eight sacks recorded last year.

Winter is Coming, Chicago fans. And if you root for these Monsters of the Midway, don’t say we didn’t warn you.

FF-Winners.Com 2017-8 NFC West Preview

The story of the NFC West for the 2017-2018 season doesn’t really appear to be any different than the story we’ve seen in recent years: there are two teams in the division with legitimate aspirations of a deep playoff run, and then two teams that are still mired in a prolonged rebuilding process.

At the start of the season, it’s really hard to see anyone other than the Seattle Seahawks being the favorite to win the division crown. While the team sputtered to a 6-4-1 record over its last 11 games last year, they were decimated by injuries to so many key players. Even from a purely mathematical standpoint, it’s difficult for a team to endure that level of injury issues for yet another season. In doing his part to stay healthy through the course of the season, Russell Wilson came into training camp this year in the best shape of his life, working with celebrity nutritionist Dr. Philip Goglia in the offseason, losing 10lbs of weight and dropping his body fat by 6%. With no real superstud at running back — the team will cobble together a ground game featuring Green Bay Packers castoff Eddie Lacy, incumbent Thomas Rawls, and 2016 draft picks C.J. Prosise and Alex Collins — this offense really belongs to Wilson now. It’s much more about him running the show, throwing the football to Doug Baldwin, Tyler Lockett, Jermaine Kearse, Paul Richardson, and tight end Jimmy Graham. If the patchwork offensive line can simply give him any time to actually get the football out, he could be poised for an MVP-caliber season. And, of course, you can’t talk about the Seahawks without mentioning the defense. The unit will return nine of 11 starters, including defensive backbone Earl Thomas, meaning it should once again be as stout as we’ve come to know it in recent years.

Enduring an injury-riddled season in 2016 themselves, the Arizona Cardinals are looking to rebound closer to the form which saw them win an NFL-high 13 games in 2015. The biggest question for the Cardinals — along the lines of staying healthy — will be whether Carson Palmer’s arm can hold up for all 16 games, especially in an offense that demands a lot of vertical throws. Palmer has shown a penchant in recent years for starting out the season hot, but demonstrating arm fatigue as the year goes on. Of course, the latter the could be mitigated as the team begins to rely more on superstar running back David Johnson, whose combined 2,118 yards from scrimmage last year was second most in the NFL. Johnson’s ability as a running back and pass catcher make him one of the most dangerous weapons in the NFL, and will likely make him the focal point of a somewhat aging Cardinals offense. Arizona’s defense faces questions of their own around health and personnel, especially as they’re looking for the return of a healthy Tyrann Mathieu — who finished last season on injured reserve for the third time in four years — and to overcome the loss of defensive lineman Calais Campbell. However, Arizona has done an excellent job in “restocking the cupboard” on defense with young talent, starting with defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche (their top pick in the 2016 NFL Draft), linebacker Haason Reddick (taken with their first round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft) and safety Budda Baker (their second round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft). There are still plenty of core players left on this team to lead them to one last deep playoff run, if things can finally break right for them.

During an episode of HBO’s Hard Knocks, (now former) head coach Jeff Fisher of the Los Angeles Rams chastised his team for resembling a football team destined for a 7-9 record. Little did Fisher realize that his team would be so lucky as to finish with a 7-9 record. The Rams finished a 4-12 record at season’s end, and Fisher didn’t even make it through the season before he was dismissed from his position (which many saw as long-overdue move). As his replacement, the Rams went in the total opposite direction, hiring offensive wunderkind Sean McVay — the former offensive coordinator of the Washington Redskins — and making him the youngest head coach in NFL history (he was officially hired just days before his 31st birthday). McVay’s primary responsibility will be to rectify all the damage that Fisher and his staff did to quarterback Jared Goff, the first overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. Meanwhile, McVay smartly hired defensive guru Wade Phillips, the latter of whom is only two years away from overseeing a defense that led its team to a Super Bowl victory (in Denver). Supposedly, the early whispers from the new regime are filled with glowing optimism, and everything you hear out of Los Angeles is that the player recognize what a difference in experience, leadership, and intellectual horsepower the new coaching staff has already brought. However, this roster still has major holes to fill — mostly on offense — before it can consider itself a contender in this division.

Rounding out the NFC West is the San Francisco 49ers, who underwent a much-needed housecleaning of their own last season, dismissing long time General Manager Trent Baalke and embattled head coach Chip Kelly. In their place will be new head coach Kyle Shanahan, fresh off leading the Atlanta Falcons to one of the most prolific offenses in NFL history, and new General Manager John Lynch, a surprise hire who lobbied Shanahan for the unorthodox opportunity of jumping straight from the broadcast booth to being the man in charge of a team’s front office. The two of them went to work adding numerous players to a roster that was badly in need of a talent infusion all over the board. At quarterback, journeymen Brian Hoyer and Matt Barkley will vie for the team’s starting job in the near future, but it wouldn’t be the slightest bit surprising to see them them address the position with one of their picks in the 2018 NFL Draft (which looks to have a quarterback class absolutely loaded with talent). Early on, they’ll look to the defense to keep them in games, after spending a first round pick on a defensive lineman — Soloman Thomas from Stanford University — for the third year in a row, and then trading up into the latter part of the first round to select linebacker Rueben Foster from the University of Alabama. The defense has some really intriguing players in pass rushing specialist Elvis Dumvervil, stalwart linebacker NaVorro Bowman, free safety Jimmy Ward, and defensive linemen DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead (their first round picks in 2016 and 2015 respectively). But, with a much-needed roster turnover taking place over the long-term, this team is still years away from being ready to make any real noise in the division.

FF-Winners.Com 2017-8 NFC East Preview

Here’s one thing we know, for sure, about the NFC East: history tells us that, for as good as the Dallas Cowboys were last season, it’s far from a foregone conclusion that they’ll repeat as division champions. After all, a different team has won the division in each of the last six years, and only one team has won the division crown in back-to-back seasons over the past decade (Philadelphia did so in 2010 and 2011).

You could easily make the argument that the Dallas Cowboys were, in fact, the second best team in the NFL last season, behind the New England Patriots. They finished with 13 wins, which was more than anyone else in the NFC. They didn’t lose a single game between the middle of September and the middle of November. And they featured what was far and away the most dominant rushing attack in the NFL. So, the simple question for them is: what can they do in 2017 for an encore? For as magical as the rookie seasons were for quarterback Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott, the harder part will be replicating their performances from their first year during their second year in the NFL, now that teams have much more film to study. The Cowboys might have brought back 10 of their 11 starters on offense to help keep things familiar, but this team will have a target on its back all season long.

The New York Giants finished the 2016 ranked eighth in the total number of passes they threw on offense last year, but they apparently decided that their solution to dethroning the Dallas Cowboys involved throwing the football even more. How else would that explain their acquisition of wide receiver Brandon Marshall, in what could have been the most underrated free agent acquisition in the entire league. Putting Marshall on the opposite side of Odell Beckham Jr. has the potential to create nightmares for any opposing defensive coordinator who even considers the idea of rolling their coverage towards Beckham’s side of the field. On top of that, the Giants went and drafted tight end Evan Engram out of Ole Miss, who perfectly fits the mold of the new age, ultra-athletic tight end we’re seeing in the league. His combination of size (6’3 and 236lbs) and speed (a legitimate 4.41 in the 40 yard dash) will give quarterback Eli Manning a weapon the likes of which he’s never had in his career at tight end.

Conversely, the Washington Redskins decided to try and keep last year’s third-ranked offense together with duct tape and cheap replacements, while devoting their offseason resources to fixing a defense that was the fifth worst in the league in 2016. The Redskins totally revamped the defensive line that was the source of much consternation last year, adding defensive linemen Terrell McClain and Stacey McGee via free agency, and pouncing on defensive lineman Jonathan Allen with the 17th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft (after he shockingly fell that far on draft night). On top of that, they added former Pro Bowl linebacker Zach Brown and safety DJ Swearinger to patch up a couple of their other major trouble spots from last year. If they can get contributions from the oft-injured Junior Galette (who’s missed the last two seasons due to injury) and Ryan Anderson (their second round pick in the last draft), the offense is still plenty good enough to help this team make some serious noise next year.

For the Philadelphia Eagles, who are coming off back-to-back losing seasons (the only team in the NFC East with that dubious distinction), their modus operandi for the immediate future is simple: do everything they can to help quarterback Carson Wentz develop. In Wentz’ rookie season last year, he looked absolutely terrific for stretches of the first half of the season, but looked much more like a rookie during the second half of the year. In his defense, having one of the worst groups of wide receivers in the NFL certainly didn’t help him. That’s a big reason why the Eagles went out and acquired wide receiver Alshon Jeffrey, the top ranked receiver in free agency last season. Philadelphia also decided to kick the tires on receiver Torrey Smith, which raised a few eyebrows from those observing the league, as Smith looked like he had nothing left in the tank during his last two seasons in San Francisco. But if Jeffrey and Smith both work out as the outside receivers, that’ll allow promising young receiver Jordan Matthews to operate from the slot, where he presents a major match up dilemma because of his size advantage against nickel cornerbacks.

Simply put: no matter who might be the favorite to win this division in the beginning of the season, any of these four teams has the chance to be the one wearing the division crown by the end of the season. That’s just the way it is in the “NFC Beast.”

Preview: Oakland versus Kansas City

Coming off a win against Buffalo, the Oakland Raiders have continued their hot streak and look to catch up to New England for the number one seed in the playoffs. The Kansas City Chiefs on the other hand hold a wildcard spot and hope to hold on to it and make a good postseason run. This is a big game for both teams, and it could play a pivotal role in deciding each team’s playoff rankings.
Derek Carr’s injured finger didn’t seem to play a role in last week’s win against the Bills, as he was able to fight it off and have a great game. He moved the ball efficiently and the Oakland defense eventually got its act together to get him out onto the field as much as they could. However, Oakland overall still has a very poor defense, and Andy Reidâ’s West Coast scheme that he runs with the Chiefs is built to destroy the type of defense Oakland has. Oakland’s main weaknesses on defense are against the run and their linebackers, so not only will running the ball be effective, but short, quick passes will stop Raiders defensive ends Bruce Irvin and Khalil Mack from putting their pass rushing skills to good use. Khalil Mack had another big game against Buffalo, forcing the hit that led to Tyrod Taylor’s interception, and also the strip sack that sealed the game for the Raiders. He can be used all over the field, and coach Jack Del Rio will want to use his versatility in defending against the Kansas City Chiefs style of offense.
On defense the Chiefs have good players all around. An interesting player to watch will be Justin Houston, who has been a monster since he came back from injury. While the Raiders have given up the least sacks in the league, they have a noticeable weakness on the right side. The Chiefs may want to put Houston there to do the most damage, but they can switch it up due to teammate Tamba Hali being a very good pass rusher himself. An interesting matchup to watch will be Raiders wideout Amari Cooper against Chiefs corner Marcus Peters. Peters has a knack for being boom or bust at the corner position, and Amari Cooper is known to make great plays on deep routes. Do not be surprised if Peters gets an interception but also lets Cooper have a big game as well. It is also possible that Peters may protect one side and line up against Michael Crabtree on occasion, who is quite good as well. Just another story to watch this week, and it makes for a very exciting game.

On paper the Raiders have the better team, but the Chiefs are no pushovers. This should be a very competitive game, and both teams have their case for a win.

  • Analysis by NFL artificial  intelligence!