Realistic Best-Case Scenario for Every NFL Team This Season
Regardless of whether an NFL team finished the 2017 season with an 0-16 record or hoisted the Lombardi Trophy in February, a new year brings optimism.
All 32 fanbases would like to think their squads deserve consideration as a Super Bowl contender or a sleeper team that vastly improved over the offseason.
Before reality hits, let's take a look at realistic best-case scenarios for each club. For some, it's championship or bust, but that isn't the case for every team.
Perhaps a more achievable goal comes before Super Bowl aspirations, such as hoping to see progress from a young quarterback, winning a division title or looking for a specific group to perform at a high level.
Let's take a look at the best practical 2018 season outlooks for each club.
Arizona Cardinals: Sam Bradford Remains Healthy for All 16 Games
It's only happened twice in his eight NFL seasons, but having a healthy Sam Bradford under center for all 16 games could put the Arizona Cardinals in contention for a playoff spot.
It sounds like a long shot, but the offense features a high-level dual-threat running back in David Johnson, and wideout Larry Fitzgerald can still rack up 100-plus catches. Bradford will have the assets around him to move the ball downfield. If Arizona's quarterback-tailback-wideout trio remains healthy, play-caller Mike McCoy has enough talent to field a top-10 offense.
Arizona boasted the sixth-best scoring offense in 2016 with a 37-year-old Carson Palmer at the helm. Before he went down with a knee injury and had to sit out Week 2 of the 2017 campaign, Bradford started 29 out of 32 games between the 2015-16 seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles and Minnesota Vikings.
As long as the Cardinals offensive line keeps Bradford upright, he'll have an opportunity to accumulate yards in chunks. Look no further than what he did against the New Orleans Saints in Week 1 last year, when he threw for 346 yards and three touchdowns while completing 84.4 percent of his passes.
Arizona has rookie signal-caller Josh Rosen waiting for an opportunity to take over, and he showed promising flashes in Week 2 of the preseason. However, Bradford's ability to pick his spots and protect the ball gives this team the best chance to compete in a tough NFC West.
Atlanta Falcons: Win Super Bowl LIII
A year before the Eagles hoisted the Lombardi Trophy, the Atlanta Falcons took the field in a similar situation—in position to take home the franchise's first Super Bowl title if they could beat the New England Patriots.
Following their devastating loss to the Patriots, the Falcons didn't suffer a Super Bowl hangover. Instead, they went back to the postseason, but they fell short against the eventual champion Eagles in the NFC Divisional Round.
Nonetheless, we all remember 28-3—the lead Atlanta held over New England in the third quarter of Super Bowl LI. It's time for the Falcons to erase that memory and finish the season on top.
In late July, Atlanta signed head coach Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff to matching extensions through the 2022 campaign. Quarterback Matt Ryan, left tackle Jake Matthews, wideout Julio Jones and safety Ricardo Allen also signed new deals or earned pay raises during the offseason.
The Falcons clearly value their roster nucleus and decision-makers. With key players, a head coach and a general manager in place for the long term, it's Super Bowl or bust.
Baltimore Ravens: Joe Flacco Clicks with New Receiving Corps
The Baltimore Ravens have revamped their receiving corps. Wide receiver Breshad Perriman, a 2015 first-rounder, may not have a spot on the 53-man roster, but the team got a much-needed makeover for the passing attack, which ranked 27th in yards and scored 20 touchdowns in 2017.
Wideout Michael Crabtree, arguably the team's biggest free-agent acquisition, compiled 25 touchdowns over the last three seasons. When targeted inside the 20-yard line, he's a viable red-zone threat to finish off drives.
The front office also added John Brown and Willie Snead IV; both players experienced their best year in 2015. The former logged 65 receptions for 1,003 yards and seven touchdowns. The latter compiled 69 catches for 984 yards and three touchdowns.
Quarterback Joe Flacco will also have two big-body targets in rookie tight ends Hayden Hurst (6'4", 245 lbs), who's expected to return from his fractured foots in three-to-four weeks, and Mark Andrews (6'5", 256 lbs).
The signal-caller's progress with his new receivers could change the Ravens' grind-it-out offensive identity to a more dynamic approach, which bodes well for their chances to knock the Pittsburgh Steelers off their AFC North perch.
Buffalo Bills: The New-Look Offensive Line Jells
In Buffalo, whoever wins the quarterback battle will lack starting experience. AJ McCarron has started three games in four seasons. Nathan Peterman opened the game under center twice as a rookie in 2017. No. 7 overall pick Josh Allen entered the competition this year out of Wyoming.
The Bills should expect rough patches in the passing attack, but a solid offensive line could minimize some of the growing pains. The team lost offensive guard Richie Incognito (free agent) and center Eric Wood (retirement due to injury) and traded left tackle Cordy Glenn.
Dion Dawkins looked the part of a starting offensive tackle in Glenn's absence last year. According to The Athletic's Matthew Fairburn, Ryan Groy has pushed Russell Bodine for first-team reps at the pivot. Vladimir Ducasse fared well in pass protection last year. Offensive guard John Miller impressed head coach Sean McDermott during the offseason, per Mitchell Courtney of the team's official website.
Despite the changes up front and the unsettled position in the middle, the Bills have the talent to field a decent offensive line. Solid blocking up front should give the offense a chance to grind down defenses with a conservative approach and provide quarterbacks more time to take shots downfield.
Carolina Panthers: Defensive Unit Ranks Among Best in Yards, Points Allowed
Head coach Ron Rivera must figure out how to slow down the Saints, who've fielded a top-10 scoring offense in each of the last seven seasons, and a Falcons squad that ranked top-10 in yards over the past four campaigns.
Defensively, Carolina should field one of the best front seven units in the NFL. Dontari Poe joins the group as a stout run-stopper. Julius Peppers still has juice in the tank as a situational pass-rusher, and Mario Addison looks like a late bloomer on the opposite side. Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly has quarterbacked this defense on an All-Pro level for the majority of his career.
However, there's much to prove in the secondary. Rookie cornerback Donte Jackson will likely to take over for Daryl Worley opposite James Bradberry. Free safety Mike Adams is going into his age-37 year. Next to him, the Panthers have to figure out whether Da'Norris Searcy fits or if Rashaan Gaulden will take over as the long-term starter at some point during his rookie season.
The Panthers have to face top-notch quarterbacks Drew Brees and Matt Ryan twice a year in the NFC South, and they suit up for teams with Super Bowl aspirations. If the secondary looks solid, you can add Carolina to the championship contender discussion.
Chicago Bears: Mitchell Trubisky Soars in Sophomore Year
The Chicago Bears didn't hesitate to insert Mitchell Trubisky into the huddle after Mike Glennon struggled through four games in 2017. The North Carolina product experienced ups and downs, but he didn't fold under the pressure of his draft status as the No. 2 overall pick.
Trubisky didn't have multiple passing scores in a single game and finished with just seven touchdowns through the air. Now, with head coach Matt Nagy and coordinator Mark Helfrich designing the offense, the second-year signal-caller could produce promising results in the upcoming season. As a play-caller, Nagy helped the Kansas City Chiefs finish sixth in scoring last season.
Pro Bowl wide receiver Allen Robinson will likely emerge as the lead pass-catcher. Trubisky will also have tight end Trey Burton, versatile running back Tarik Cohen and rookie second-round wide receiver Anthony Miller. If the 24-year-old surges in his sophomore year, the Bears could avoid a fifth consecutive last-place finish in the NFC North.
Cincinnati Bengals: Win a Playoff Game
Marvin Lewis is 0-7 in playoff contests as the Cincinnati Bengals head coach, but the team's last postseason opportunity came during the 2015 campaign. The club finished with sub-.500 records over the last two terms.
Owner Mike Brown had a change of heart on going in a new direction at head coach after the Bengals won their final two games of the 2017 season. He should set a clear standard in the upcoming campaign and win a playoff game, or it's time to find a new head coach.
Lewis is going into his 16th season as the Bengals lead skipper. Despite his overall winning record with the team (125-112-3), someone has to help this talented roster to move forward.
Cincinnati's pass rush featuring Carlos Dunlap, Geno Atkins, Carl Lawson and Michael Johnson looks like a formidable group against any offensive line. The secondary features three former first-rounders in Dre Kirkpatrick (2012), Darqueze Dennard (2014) and William Jackson (2016). The front office also added Preston Brown to quarterback the defense. He started 62 out of 64 regular-season games in Buffalo.
We already know what wideout A.J. Green brings to the field as a lead pass-catcher. Running backs Joe Mixon and Giovani Bernard (and potentially rookie fourth-rounder Mark Walton) could provide balance to the offensive attack.
Lewis has the pieces to take the next step with this squad. A playoff win would provide some hope for the future.
Cleveland Browns: Avoid Last Place in the AFC North
When a team finishes 0-16, there's nowhere to go but up. The Cleveland Browns have a low bar to hurdle. Realistically speaking, it's an accomplishment if this team avoids last place in the AFC North for an eighth consecutive term.
The offensive changes make this feat achievable. The Browns have a starting-caliber quarterback in Tyrod Taylor, but it's fair to wonder how long he'll remain under center with Baker Mayfield, the No. 1 overall pick in April's draft, on the sideline. Once head coach Hue Jackson pulls the veteran for the rookie, it's time for growth and development, which could mean another fourth-place finish in the division.
On the other hand, Jackson may leave Taylor in command until the Browns fall out of playoff contention in an attempt to strengthen his job security. He's 1-31 over the last two campaigns and needs some victories.
Taylor will have a reliable target in wideout Jarvis Landry, and the team anticipates a return to action for Josh Gordon. The backfield features a versatile trio in Carlos Hyde, rookie Nick Chubb and Duke Johnson.
Defensively, the Browns have question marks in the secondary, with rookie Denzel Ward on the boundary, safety Jabrill Peppers looking to take the next step in his development and new additions Damarious Randall in center field and T.J. Carrie in the slot.
Nonetheless, Cleveland should have enough offensive firepower to challenge the Bengals and Ravens in high-scoring matchups. Division victories give this squad a chance to avoid the AFC North cellar.
Dallas Cowboys: Dak Prescott Flourishes with New Receivers
Tight end Jason Witten retired as the Dallas Cowboys' franchise leader in receiving yards (12,448). Wideout Dez Bryant holds the team's all-time record in touchdown receptions (73), but the front office decided to release him in April.
Now, quarterback Dak Prescott must thrive with new pass-catchers rather than lean on familiar veterans who delivered on a high level year after year. Despite Bryant's drop-off in production, he led the team in receiving yards (838) and touchdowns (six) last season. Rookie third-rounder Michael Gallup and Allen Hurns will join Terrance Williams and Cole Beasley in filling the void.
Running back Ezekiel Elliott will probably serve as the engine for this offense behind a top-notch offensive line. Nonetheless, Prescott has to show that he's capable of moving the ball through the air to keep extra defenders out of the box to clear room for the All-Pro ball-carrier.
If that happens, the Cowboys would have a unit capable of winning games when the defense struggles against top offenses.
Denver Broncos: Case Keenum Proves He Isn't a 1-Year Wonder
The Denver Broncos signed quarterback Case Keenum to a two-year deal in hopes the 30-year-old can show more of what he did in Minnesota during the last term.
Keenum experienced a breakout year, throwing for 3,547 yards, 22 touchdowns and seven interceptions while completing 67.6 percent of his pass attempts. He's not going to sling the ball downfield often, but the seventh-year signal-caller can evade pressure and doesn't excessively turn over the ball.
The Broncos hope Keenum's 2017 campaign isn't a mirage, but they have the assets to help him continue his path as a starting-caliber signal-caller.
Keenum should benefit from second-year left tackle Garett Bolles' progress, the addition of right tackle Jared Veldheer and a healthy Ronald Leary at left guard.
Rookie third-rounder Royce Freeman has flashed through three preseason contests as a potential playmaker in the backfield. He's logged 15 carries for 84 yards and three touchdowns.
Finally, the Broncos have a strong front seven. The run defense ranked fifth last year (89.4 yards allowed per game), and in April, the front office added first-rounder Bradley Chubb to pair with three-time All-Pro Von Miller on the edge. With stops on critical drives, Keenum doesn't have to score with every possession, assuming the pass defense (ranked fourth last year) can limit touchdowns through the air.
Detroit Lions: Matt Patricia Fields a Top-10 Scoring Defense
The Detroit Lions fielded the No. 7 scoring offense last season, but the defense ranked 21st in points allowed. Quarterback Matthew Stafford can easily throw for 4,000-plus yards with his big arm and an underrated trio of receivers in Golden Tate, Marvin Jones Jr. and Kenny Golladay, but the offensive unit needs help on the other side of the ball.
New head coach Matt Patricia must find a way to put together a formidable defense. The unit has ranked 10th in points allowed just once since the 1997 campaign. Nonetheless, it's a realistic goal for a former coordinator who fielded top-10 scoring defensive units in each of the last six seasons with the Patriots.
Patricia would have to develop a boundary cornerback opposite Darius Slay and further optimize middle linebacker Jarrad Davis' skill set while keeping Ezekiel Ansah and Anthony Zettel productive as pass-rushers.
It's a tall task, but Patricia developed pass-rusher Rob Ninkovich and cornerback Malcolm Butler in New England. The former came into the league as a 2006 fifth-rounder, and the latter went undrafted in 2014. It may only take two surprise contributors at premium positions on the defensive side of the ball to give the Lions a shot at competing for an NFC North title.
Green Bay Packers: Defensive Backs from Last 2 Draft Classes Make an Impact
Dom Capers served as the Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator for nine seasons. In that span, the pass defense ranked better than 16th in touchdowns allowed only twice.
The front office has selected defensive backs as its top two picks in each of the last two draft classes, indicating the need to strengthen the secondary. New defensive coordinator Mike Pettine must optimize the young talent on the back end to compete with the Vikings, who upgraded at quarterback with Kirk Cousins.
Second-year cornerback Kevin King is going into the year as a starter. Josh Jones fell into a backup role behind Kentrell Brice over the offseason, but the 2017 second-rounder has time to turn the corner as a contributor in pass defense. The Packers selected cover men Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson in the first and second rounds of April's draft.
There's no debate Aaron Rodgers walks onto the field as one of best quarterbacks in the game, but the Packers only have one Super Bowl victory to show for his greatness. Green Bay needs more than a perennial MVP candidate at the helm in a pass-happy league, especially with Minnesota primed to see a boost in the aerial attack.
Houston Texans: Defense Returns to Its 2015-16 Form
Perhaps you thought about quarterback Deshaun Watson's sophomore outlook as an angle for an ideal scenario, but he performed at his best in two games against the Chiefs and Seattle Seahawks and then lost both in 2017.
The Texans defense surrendered 83 points over those two contests. Defensive end J.J. Watt and linebacker Whitney Mercilus went down with season-ending injuries against Kansas City in Week 5.
As great as Watson looked in a short period, the defense must hold up its end of the bargain. Watt, Mercilus and Jadeveon Clowney need to produce in the pass rush to help a secondary with question marks.
The Texans moved Kareem Jackson to safety, which will likely draw some attention from opposing quarterbacks in the upcoming season. Kevin Johnson hasn't lived up to expectations as a 2015 first-rounder in 17 starts, but he'll take on a prominent role on the boundary.
The Texans defense ranked third in yards and seventh in points allowed in 2015 and then finished first in yards allowed for the 2016 term. With that level of play and Watson under center, Houston should have a good chance at reclaiming the AFC South crown. The second-year signal-caller can't elevate this team alone.
Indianapolis Colts: Andrew Luck Returns to Pro Bowl Form
It's doesn't take a football genius to understand the Indianapolis Colts' season rides on quarterback Andrew Luck's shoulders. Right out of college, he led this team to three consecutive playoff appearances with a defense that ranked in the bottom half of the league in yards or points allowed.
Eventually, injuries caught up to the three-time Pro Bowler. He missed nine contests during the 2015 campaign because of a lacerated kidney and a torn abdominal muscle and then sat out all of last season with a shoulder injury.
The Colts have an improved offensive line, featuring first-round rookie guard Quenton Nelson, a healthy Ryan Kelly at the pivot and offseason signing Austin Howard at right tackle. The ground attack must do its part to complement the passing game.
Luck has struggled while shaking off the rust in the first two preseason contests, which is expected after a year away from the field. He completed 12 of 22 pass attempts for 114 yards and an interception over those two outings.
Nonetheless, it's like riding a bike—the 28-year-old didn't forget how to play football. He put together a strong performance in a 23-17 win over the San Francisco 49ers on Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium, completing eight of 10 passes for 90 yards and a touchdown. Once the seventh-year veteran establishes a rhythm, the Colts will have a top signal-caller capable of winning games with his arm.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Sacksonville Doesn't Lose Its Luster
If you believe in the NFL cliche, "defense wins championships," the Jacksonville Jaguars can't afford to take a step back as one of the best pass-rushing teams in the league, especially since there are still lingering questions about quarterback Blake Bortles. NFL.com's Gregg Rosenthal doesn't have the signal-caller ranked among the top 32 at the position.
In 2017, Jacksonville accumulated 55 sacks, which helped propel this team to the AFC Championship Game. Assuming Bortles shows improvement in his third full season in offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett's system, a steady defense gives the Jaguars a chance at another deep postseason run.
Nonetheless, it's fair to wonder if we witnessed the beginning of a trend or a flash in the pan for the Jaguars' defensive unit. The group finished within the top 10 in points surrendered for the first time since the 2007 campaign.
Cornerback Jalen Ramsey's quarterback assessments in GQ Magazine add a little bit of pressure on the defense to live up to the hype, but there's enough talent to repeat last year's breakout season.
Kansas City Chiefs: Patrick Mahomes Looks Like a Starting-Caliber QB
The Chiefs opted to trade quarterback Alex Smith, which turned the offense over to Patrick Mahomes. Head coach Andy Reid isn't concerned with interceptions during training camp, but the Texas Tech product must exercise judicious decision-making once the games count.
Kansas City claimed the AFC West title over the last two seasons with Smith at the helm but stumbled in each playoff trip. There's hope that Mahomes will elevate this offense with his big arm, and he put his best preseason performance on display Saturday against Bears, completing 18 of 24 passes for 196 yards and a touchdown.
The Chiefs set Mahomes up for offensive success. He'll have a dynamic wideout in Tyreek Hill, a consistent pass-catching tight end in Travis Kelce and a solid wide receiver in Sammy Watkins. Mahomes can also turn around and hand off to Kareem Hunt, the 2017 rushing champion.
Mahomes will go through the ups and downs as a first-year starter, but the Chiefs need to see that he's the future at the position to comfortably move forward. With the skill players around him, he should put up strong numbers in 2018.
Los Angeles Chargers: Win the AFC West
There's offseason hype around the Los Angeles Chargers. Head coach Anthony Lynn doesn't want his players buying it, but the roster, even with the recent injuries to tight end Hunter Henry and the secondary, looks stacked on both sides.
Quarterback Philip Rivers, a seven-time Pro Bowler, will have one of the deepest wide receiver corps in the league, featuring 2017 Comeback Player of the Year Keenan Allen, Tyrell Williams, Travis Benjamin and Mike Williams. Running back Melvin Gordon should continue to contribute as a dual-threat in the backfield.
Last season, the Chargers ranked third in scoring defense, and the front seven features two highly productive pass-rushers in Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram—both logged double-digit sacks.
Nonetheless, before the Chargers think about a Super Bowl, they have to focus on winning the division for the first time since 2009. It's open for the taking with Mahomes starting his first full season in Kansas City, the Oakland Raiders wiping the slate clean with a new coaching staff, and the Broncos looking to rebound from a last-place finish in 2017.
Los Angeles Rams: The New-Look Defense Jells Immediately
The Los Angeles Rams took a huge step in development under head coach Sean McVay, specifically on offense, finishing as the No. 1 scoring unit in the league. General manager Les Snead made a concerted effort to bolster the defense during the offseason.
On paper, notable acquisitions Ndamukong Suh, Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters should improve a group ranked 12th in points and 19th in yards allowed. The latter two talents will take over the starting cornerback spots. The former joins Aaron Donald on the defensive line, assuming he reports to the team at some point this year.
Despite the flashy, accomplished names, the trio of All-Pros must show they're able to mesh with the roster. If that's the case, defensive coordinator Wade Phillips should have a top-three defense to pair with McVay's prolific offense, which likely means a deep postseason run.
Miami Dolphins: Knock off the New England Patriots for AFC East Title
Among the three teams chasing the Patriots for an AFC East title, the Miami Dolphins have the best chance at ending New England's nine-year reign as division champions. For starters, the New York Jets and Bills could potentially start rookies or inexperienced quarterbacks.
Secondly, the Dolphins will have signal-caller Ryan Tannehill back under center. He started 13 games during the 2016 campaign before tearing his ACL, and the team went 8-5 with him on the field. The 30-year-old doesn't bring the same excitement as Andrew Luck returning to action, but it's far better than quarterback Jay Cutler, who started last year, or this year's backups, Brock Osweiler, David Fales and Bryce Petty.
The Dolphins also have depth in the secondary—enough to frustrate quarterback Tom Brady. Defensive coordinator Matt Burke can utilize defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick to help with coverage on tight end Rob Gronkowski or as an extra cover man to force the Patriots to rely on a new lead ball-carrier in the ground attack.
Here's an intriguing statistic to consider when projecting the AFC East team primed to dethrone the Patriots for the division crown: Tom Brady has come up short against the Dolphins the most (21-10) among the three clubs. He's lost to the Jets seven times (25-7) and the Bills just three times (28-3).
Minnesota Vikings: Kirk Cousins Finds Playoff Success En Route to Super Bowl
The Vikings don't have time to take baby steps with Kirk Cousins, who has yet to win a playoff game. Minnesota went to the NFC Championship with Case Keenum and the league's best defense in points and yards allowed last season.
It's still unclear if Keenum possesses the skill set to remain a starter in the league. Cousins inked a fully guaranteed three-year, $84 million deal during the offseason as the most coveted free agent on the market. When a quarterback signs a contract worth $28 million per year, there's much expected of him.
Minus running back Jerick McKinnon, who signed with the 49ers, the Vikings have the same key offensive assets as last year plus Dalvin Cook coming back from an ACL tear. The defense remains intact, with defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson and safety George Iloka added to the mix.
The offensive line has some question marks at left guard because of Nick Easton's season-threatening neck injury and a battle at right tackle, but Keenum didn't have Pro Bowlers protecting him in the trenches, either.
Cousins joined a team that's better than his last in Washington. As a result, he's in position to take another step as a winner with the help of arguably the league's best defensive unit.
New England Patriots: Appear in Third Consecutive Super Bowl
Head coach Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have five rings apiece as members of the Pats. The Patriots played in the last two Super Bowls. It goes without saying, it's Lombardi Trophy or bust for this team.
However, New England's road to the Super Bowl may have more bumps than usual. The front office moved on from Pro Bowl cornerback Malcolm Butler, and there's a new left tackle, presumably Trent Brown, protecting Brady.
Neither position holds more importance than the quarterback, but in a pass-happy league, a below-average blindside protector and starting cornerback could put a doubt in a team's Super Bowl hopes.
Nonetheless, New England has been able to plug-and-play guys after losing starters and remain in the thick of title contention. There's a stigma attached to the term "system" in the NFL, which gives more credit to coaches than players, but there's nothing wrong with a team structure that yields results.
Brown lined up primarily at right tackle with the 49ers. Eric Rowe has played sparingly since the Eagles selected him in the second round of the 2015 draft. Both could succeed as replacements for Nate Solder and Butler with a top-notch coaching staff in place.
New Orleans Saints: Overcome 2017 Divisional-Round Loss, Win Super Bowl LIII
The Minnesota Miracle will remain framed in time as a memorable moment in playoff history—certainly an all-timer for Vikings fans. On the other end, safety Marcus Williams wants to move forward, per ESPN.com's Mike Triplett:
"You know it's always gonna be in your mind. But you gotta move on. It's a new season, a new team. Everybody's trying to be better than they were last year. We don't pick up where we left off last year; we all start over and we start again. Do what we gotta do to make it to the next level."
Williams whiffed on the tackle that allowed wideout Stefon Diggs to score a game-winning touchdown against the Saints, but the team will come into the 2018 campaign with Super Bowl aspirations, and it's evident in the building, per MMQB's Albert Breer:
"The Saints' starry sophomore class—fronted by corner Marshon Lattimore, tackle Ryan Ramczyk, safety Marcus Williams and tailback Alvin Kamara—has brought new life to the building, and it puts the franchise squarely in a championship window."
Sure, Saints fans would like to see rookie defensive end Marcus Davenport live up to first-round expectations after the team traded this year's first- and fifth-round picks along with its 2019 first-rounder for him, but there's a bigger goal to achieve in New Orleans: a second Super Bowl victory.
New York Giants: Saquon Barkley Establishes Himself as a Rookie Sensation
When the New York Giants passed on quarterback Sam Darnold, who's impressed in a short period, for running back Saquon Barkley at No. 2 in April's draft, some felt general manager Dave Gettleman made a huge mistake.
Nonetheless, the pressure on Barkley goes beyond a potential regrettable draft-day decision. The Giants need to balance their offensive attack with a viable ground game. Quarterback Eli Manning goes into his age-37 season, and the team hasn't fielded a rushing unit that ranked in the top half of the league since the 2012 campaign in which Ahmad Bradshaw logged 1,015 yards and six scores.
Big Blue needs to see Barkley show gold-jacket potential. It's the reason they committed to a quarterback who's at the end of his career and selected a running back at No. 2. Early success for the Penn State product gives the Giants another star player in tandem with wideout Odell Beckham Jr. Together, they can put the team back in playoff contention.
New York Jets: Sam Darnold Starts His Entire Rookie Season
The decision to toss a rookie quarterback into the fray could become disastrous or expedite development. According to ESPN.com's Rich Cimini, the New York Jets continue to give Sam Darnold a majority of first-team reps, which suggests he could start Week 1.
Teddy Bridgewater has looked good enough through three exhibition games to garner trade interest, as he's completed 28 of 38 passes for 316 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. Unless Darnold looked overwhelmed in the pocket, which he didn't, Josh McCown would suffice as a starter until the Jets fall behind in the playoff picture.
Despite a less-than-stellar performance against the Redskins, Darnold still completed eight of 11 pass attempts and didn't look flustered. He made some rookie mistakes, which we should all expect from him throughout the year, though he started against the Giants on Friday and threw a touchdown pass. There's no point in delaying the inevitable transition at quarterback.
For those concerned about the offensive line, a blocking tight end up front or running back in the backfield could slow down an aggressive pass rush. Darnold will eventually take his lumps—it's better he go through the rough patches in a full season than come off the bench cold late in the year.
Oakland Raiders: Jon Gruden Proves He Isn't a Football Dinosaur
When it comes to Jon Gruden's return to the sideline, we have a quote about 1998, his undeniable passion for the game, and not much more on the old-new head coach's influence on the Raiders.
"Man, I'm trying to throw back the game to 1998," Gruden said, adding, "I still think doing things the old-fashioned way [is the right way.]"
The quote above doesn't mean Gruden hasn't updated his understanding of the game. Looking at the Raiders in preseason action, he'd like to establish the ground attack. Undrafted rookie running back Chris Warren III leads the league in rushing with 46 carries for 250 yards and two touchdowns.
Perhaps that's "old-school" in a league leaning toward spreading defenses apart in the passing game. However, the ability to run the ball through the heart of the defense should serve as a big help to quarterback Derek Carr, especially when running back Marshawn Lynch takes handoffs between the tackles.
If Carr has truly mastered Gruden's scheme and the design yields positive results, the Raiders would have a strong head coach-quarterback tandem that could lead the team to its first AFC West title since 2002.
Philadelphia Eagles: Repeat as Champions with Carson Wentz Under Center
The Eagles stand in a class of their own in 2018 expectations. Coming off a Super Bowl victory, they're the hunted, which explains why the dog masks are no longer suitable for their motivational tactics.
Philadelphia's obvious goal focuses on a reign as back-to-back champions, which hasn't been accomplished since the 2003-04 Patriots. Nonetheless, there's a new challenge in the quest for another title. Can the No. 2 overall pick deliver the ultimate prize as the lead man under center?
Wentz suffered a torn ACL and LCL in Week 14 last year, which led to quarterback Nick Foles' improbable run to a Super Bowl LII victory in Minnesota. However, we know the third-year signal-caller is the future for this squad.
There's no doubt Wentz performed at an MVP-caliber level before going down with an injury. He threw for 3,296 yards, 33 touchdowns and seven interceptions, taking a major sophomore leap in 2017.
Wentz lost offensive coordinator Frank Reich, who took a head coaching position with the Colts, but offensive-minded head coach Doug Pederson and the wide receiver corps remain intact, with Mike Wallace joining the group. Assuming the 25-year-old stays healthy throughout the season, we'll see how he handles the playoff atmosphere.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Break Through for a Super Bowl LIII Victory
In 11 years, head coach Mike Tomlin doesn't have a losing season on his headcoaching resume, but it's not enough for the Steelers' storied franchise, which claimed five Lombardi Trophies before him.
The Steelers have a high-powered offense featuring quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, running back Le'Veon Bell and wideout Antonio Brown. Don't forget Pro Bowl kicker Chris Boswell, who converted 92 percent of his field-goal attempts into points in 2017.
The defense led the league in sacks with 56 last year, and its pass-rushers (Cameron Heyward, Vince Williams, T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree) have another shot to wreak havoc together this season.
The Steelers fielded a top eight scoring offense and defense last season, but the Jaguars had their number, eliminating them in the AFC divisional round. As Roethlisberger's career clock winds down and Bell's contract situation lingers, another Super Bowl would breathe fresh air into the organization. Pittsburgh's winning ways certainly make it an achievable goal if key players stay healthy.
San Francisco 49ers: Jimmy Garoppolo Flourishes as Full-Time Starter
Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo will eventually lose a professional football game, duh. Beyond the undefeated streak, pay attention to his development knowing he's the guy to lead the offense as a full-time starter.
The 49ers came into the offseason flush with cash but didn't land a star pass-catcher. Nonetheless, the team welcomed Pierre Garcon back to action after he missed the second half of the 2017 campaign with a neck injury. Dating back to last season, Marquise Goodwin has continued to flash in the passing game with Garoppolo under center.
With Kyle Shanahan designing the offense, his connection with Garoppolo could rival the Sean McVay-Jared Goff pairing in Los Angeles. The Rams didn't have a go-to 1,000-yard receiver in 2017, yet the passing attack finished 10th in yards and sixth in touchdowns. We could see similar results with the 49ers head coach working closely with his franchise quarterback.
Under Shanahan, the 49ers ranked ninth in passing yards with Brian Hoyer and C.J. Beathard starting a combined 11 games in 2017. There's some upside with Garoppolo in the system for a full offseason, Garcon back in the huddle and Jerick McKinnon's versatile skill set in the backfield.
Seattle Seahawks: Unheralded Defensive Players Adequately Fill Starting Roles
We can remember the recognizable talents who helped the Seahawks shut down opponents in recent seasons: Richard Sherman, Michael Bennett, Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas. It's possible none of the four takes a single snap for this team in 2018.
The Seahawks released Sherman—he signed the 49ers—traded Bennett to the Eagles for a fifth-round pick and wideout Marcus Johnson, Chancellor isn't cleared to play because of a neck injury and Thomas continues to hold out for a new deal. In their absences, the coaching staff must develop the next crop of starting-caliber defenders to remain competitive in a division with two offensive-minded gurus in San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Second-year defensive backs Delano Hill and Tedric Thompson have played the most reps at safety during the preseason. The latter flashed as a ball hawk at Colorado, logging 13 interceptions between his sophomore and senior years. If he translates that production to the pros, Seattle would have a center fielder able to prevent opposing teams from gashing the defense over the top.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Jameis Winston Takes Major Step in Development
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have to keep their ship afloat before the organization tosses a few people overboard. Head coach Dirk Koetter should have a spot on one of the hottest head coaching seats in the league after a disappointing 5-11 finish in 2017.
Before the Buccaneers can think about winning the NFC South, as the other three clubs have done over the past three years, the offense needs to see more from Jameis Winston. He's the 2015 No. 1 overall pick. Jared Goff's and Carson Wentz's relative successes with offensive-minded head coaches place more pressure on the fourth-year veteran to produce another solid season under Koetter.
The front office also has a looming decision to make on Winston's fifth-year option next offseason. He'll begin the 2018 term serving a three-game suspension for violating the league's personal conduct policy. The 24-year-old will return to an offense without a standout running back to help shoulder the load on offense. Peyton Barber will likely lead the backfield, but rookie Ronald Jones didn't show much during the preseason, logging 18 carries for 18 yards and a touchdown.
When Winston returns, he'll have a bevy of options to target in the passing game, which include former Pro Bowlers Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson, an upstart pass-catcher in Chris Godwin and a pair of receiving tight ends in Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard. If the 24-year-old puts together his best year, the Buccaneers could finally live up to playoff-contending expectations.
Tennessee Titans: Marcus Mariota Rebounds Under Matt LaFleur
Quarterback Marcus Mariota's production took a nosedive during the 2017 campaign, which justifies Mike Mularkey's firing after an AFC divisional-round loss to the Patriots. The Tennessee Titans hired Mike Vrabel for the head coaching position, and he brought Matt LaFleur along as his offensive coordinator.
In 2017, Mariota threw for 3,232 yards, 13 touchdowns and 15 interceptions after two solid terms. LaFleur spent one season alongside Sean McVay in Los Angeles, so there's optimism that he'll carry over some of the innovative play-calling to Tennessee.
We'll also see how Mariota's rapport with wideout Corey Davis, the 2017 No. 5 overall pick, developed over the offseason. If the two consistently connect, the fourth-year signal-caller would have a potential go-to 6'3", 209-pound target in the passing attack.
Like the Buccaneers, the Titans have a fifth-year-option decision to make on Mariota's contract next offseason. His development under the new coaching staff significantly affects the team's short-term outlook; a promising season would put the front office at ease.
Washington Redskins: Alex Smith Leads Team to Wild-Card Berth, Playoff Victory
For clarification, team wins don't fall squarely on the quarterback's shoulders, but they're going to take majority credit or blame for the team's successes and losses in most cases. The Redskins opted to acquire Alex Smith instead of turning to a young signal-caller to succeed Kirk Cousins.
The front office took the acquisition a step further with a four-year, $94 million extension. There's nothing wrong with the price tag, but the Redskins will quickly find out if they paid for a quarterback who can lead them to the postseason.
Washington has hovered around .500 in head coach Jay Gruden's last three seasons, give or take a win, loss or tie, but made the postseason as a 9-7 division winner with Cousins at the helm in 2015. With the Eagles in the division, mediocrity won't bring home another NFC East crown, but there's room for a wild-card berth.
The offense won't implode with Smith under center. He knows how to protect the football. The three-time Pro Bowler has thrown eight interceptions or fewer in each of the last seven seasons. The 34-year-old should keep this team competitive in football games.
Smith's shrewd decision-making in the pocket and ability to connect with a young wide receiver trio featuring Jamison Crowder, Paul Richardson and Josh Doctson could put this club back in the playoffs as a sleeper team to watch.