We’re nine days away from the first game of the regular season, and I’m already prepared to obliterate the playoff aspirations of at least 12 fan bases before your team’s incompetence becomes a reality.
Parity isn’t dead in the NFL, but it isn’t widespread either, and while several of the teams I’m about to list are trending in the right direction, that won’t be enough to get them to the postseason this year. Read this and weep.
1. New York Jets
The Jets are by far the worst team in football, with almost no talent to speak of at the five most important positions in the game — quarterback, edge pass rushers, offensive tackle, cornerback and wide receiver.
The interior defensive line is strong, and almost every other player is young and unproven or experienced and bad. 0-16 is an absolute possibility, and the Jets could be drafting in the top five for several years to come due to the long-term rebuild that is about to happen here.
2. San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers are coming off a disastrous season on both sides of the ball, and while a new regime offers hope for the future, there are still major holes on this roster to be filled before consistent winning can begin to happen. The defense has some intriguing talent in Reuben Foster, Solomon Thomas, DeForest Buckner and obviously Navorro Bowman, but the secondary is ugly, and I’m not sure where the edge pass rush comes from if Thomas isn’t a beast as a rookie.
San Francisco still doesn’t have a quarterback, and Carlos Hyde was rumored to be on the bubble earlier in training camp. This is a long-term rebuild from the bottom, and the 49ers are only on the first step.
3. Buffalo Bills
Quarterback Tyrod Taylor is hurt and was struggling in the preseason, his offensive weapons are more devoid than ever before and the offensive line must adjust to a new zone attack after dominating in a gap-heavy scheme for the past few years.
Sammy Watkins and Ronald Darby, the team’s best receiver and cornerback, are gone, leaving both position groups in a world of hurt heading into the season. The Bills desperately need second-year players Reggie Ragland and Lawson to step up this season, otherwise the second level run defense and the pass rush could continue to be an issue moving forward.
4. Baltimore Ravens
Some might balk at the Ravens inclusion on this list, but you tell me where the production is going to come from offensively? Joe Flacco has been a bottom 10-12 quarterback for the past two seasons, and his old reliable tight end position has been ravaged by injury.
The team’s best chance at a feature back went down for the season when Kenneth Dixon tore his meniscus, and the offensive line has question marks at every spot outside of Marshall Yanda and hopefully Ronnie Stanley if his growth continues.
Even defensively, which is obviously supposed to be this team’s bread-and-butter, the Ravens will be forced to absorb the loss of players like Lawrence Guy, Timmy Jernigan and Zachary Orr, key members of that defensive front seven that was so dominant in shutting down opposing run games last season.
There will be a heavy reliance on young players, many of whom have yet to play a snap in the NFL. Rookies Tim Williams and Tyus Bowser are the team’s best hope at a successful pass rush, while Bronson Kaufusi and Kamalei Correa attempt to surge into the starting lineup after redshirting their rookie seasons last year. The secondary is good, but there’s no true shutdown corner in the group, which could be a problem in a division with Antonio Brown and A.J. Green.
5. Los Angeles Rams
The Rams are moving in the right direction, but they aren’t going to see a major difference in the win-loss columns this season. QB Jared Goff will be better under Sean McVay, but will it be good enough?
The offensive line still needs rebuilding despite the strong addition of veteran Andrew Whitworth, and the defensive line is still awaiting the return of Aaron Donald from his holdout, while also absorbing the loss of Dominique Easley for the season.
The linebacking corps is one of the worst in the league, and a transition to a 3-4 front, even with many of the same principles the players executed before, could take some time. Check back in a year or two.
6. Cleveland Browns
Another team moving in the right direction, Cleveland looks like it has a strong candidate for its quarterback of the future in DeShone Kizer, but this season should be full of growing pains and ups and downs.
The offensive weapons are solid, but could take another year to jell, while the offensive line is the most improved unit on the team. Defensively the secondary is a disaster, and a talented front seven is still very young and inexperienced. I don’t think the Browns will finish last in the AFC North this season, but they’ve still got work to do in order to become a playoff team.
7. Chicago Bears
Typically when you can win in the trenches on both sides of the ball, I like your chances to make some noise in the regular season. The Bears’ offensive line is a tremendous unit with depth, and Jordan Howard proved he can be a feature back after a strong rookie campaign last season.
Chicago has similar strengths in its defensive front seven, where Eddie Goldman and Jonathan Bullard have played like monsters this preseason, and Akiem Hicks, Jerrell Freeman and Danny Trevathan are already quality starters.
But the pass rush is still somewhat of a question mark unless Leonard Floyd can be the feature guy, and the Bears’ secondary, like their receiving corps, is very much a work in progress. Mike Glennon looks like he’ll be the guy to start the season at quarterback, but when he inevitably gives way to the more talented Mitch Trubisky, expect the typical bumps in the road for a rookie starter with only one year of collegiate starting experience under his belt.
8. Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jaguars have some serious talent, but until the quarterback situation is solved, this is a franchise going nowhere fast. The offensive and defensive lines have some talented pieces, but neither are clear strengths of the team yet.
I expect the Jaguars to be a solid defensive unit overall, but they’ll need sheer dominance to carry an offense whose best hope of success is Leonard Fournette having an Ezekiel Elliott-like season behind a very non-Cowboys-like offensive line.
9. Denver Broncos
It may seem premature to some to have the Broncos on this list, but the quarterback situation is almost as disastrous as Jacksonville’s, and the Broncos’ offensive line and run game are still major question marks.
I like the team’s stable of backs, but Ronald Leary is switching to right guard and Max Garcia has been inconsistent at left guard, while rookie tackle Garrett Bolles has been up and down during the preseason in lieu of what will probably be a similar rookie campaign. Right tackle is a mess with Menelik Watson set to begin the season in the starting lineup despite a career full of struggles.
Defensively Denver’s unit is still good, but not on the same level as the groups it has had in recent seasons. The pass rush and secondary should be effective, but I’m not sure the league’s 28th-ranked run defense improved at all over the offseason, as Domata Peko has been below average most of his career and Demarcus Walker was a massive reach in the second round. Denver could quietly fall into a top-seven draft spot this season.
10. Detroit Lions
Matthew Stafford has pulled off some ballsy stuff in his career, but he’ll need to be a god for Detroit to return to the playoffs this season. There is no reason to believe the running game improves much from the 30th-ranked unit it was a year ago, as Ameer Abdullah has yet to stay healthy in his career and the Lions made no notable additions to the backfield in the offseason.
The loss of Taylor Decker is a massive one that makes the left side of a solid offensive front a clear liability, meaning Stafford will have to carry the offense once again, likely under pressure.
Defensively Detroit has already lost Kerry Hyder for the season and Ezekiel Ansah’s health is still a question mark with Week 1 around the corner, which will make this potentially the worst front seven in football, both in terms of pass rush and run defense. The secondary is better, but not good enough to be a difference-making group without a substantial pass rush, putting the Lions in the running for the worst defense in the NFL.
11. Miami Dolphins
Miami isn’t as strong on the offensive line as it was a year ago unless Laremy Tunsil plays like a veteran, the Dolphins are currently shopping their best wide receiver in Jarvis Landry, and you’re going to have a hard time convincing me that post-brief retirement Jay Cutler is better than the replaceable passer he has been the last few seasons.
The offense will be more erratic, while the defense has already lost cornerback Tony Lippett and linebacker Raekwon McMillan to injury. The linebacking corps is overrated and this defense will get run on again despite the talent it has up front (30th in rushing yards allowed per game last season).
The Dolphins have a better chance than the teams ahead of them on this list due to an insanely weak division and conference, but Adam Gase will need to be a coach of the year candidate to pull this off.
12. Indianapolis Colts
The rumors are swirling that Andrew Luck could miss Week 1 of the regular season and possibly slightly beyond, and he’s the only thing separating Indianapolis from a top-five draft pick. Even when Luck returns, we don’t know how the injury and subsequent layoff will affect his play, and the Colts roster is not prepared to do anything without him.
The offensive line is dealing with the loss of center Ryan Kelly and the weak play coming from the right side, while the running back position has hung their hopes on rookie Marlon Mack to provide a spark from Frank Gore’s aging decline.
Defensively the Colts have no edge pass rush but should be slightly better against the run, although their inside linebacker play will likely be among the league’s worst.
Rookies Quincy Wilson and Malik Hooker have both been banged up this preseason, but they will be counted upon to make major contributions if the Colts’ hapless secondary is to have any hope of taking a small step forward from their status as the 27th-ranked pass defense in the league last season. The AFC South is improving, but the Colts roster isn’t ready to compete with Houston or Tennessee unless Luck is the league MVP and offensive player of the year.
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