We now turn our attention towards the rising sun, that mighty land of lobsters, alligators, and attitude. Phase II of our perfect predictions starts now. And we begin, counterintuitively, with the NFC East.
New York Giants (11-5): Same as it ever was. The New York Giants kicked off their RDFL experience with an epic tanking job in 2013 where they finished dead last in Fantasy Points. Since then, they have finished in the top 4 in fantasy points in the entire NFL EVERY. SINGLE. YEAR. 2nd in 2014. 4th in 2015. And first in 2016. And yet they have never made it to the Super Bowl.
New York has become the dominant regular season squad that just can’t seem to put it all together for a playoff run. It’s no longer about what happens in the fall for the New York Giants. It’s what happens after the Thanksgiving that matters. And while I still think the Giants will be good enough to win the division, I begin to worry that that the window might be closing.
Let’s start with the passing game. Eli Manning, for all his bizarre fluctuations as a real quarterback, is always fantasy relevant, and this year should be no exception at all with the weapons at his disposal in a McAdoo system and a division bereft of strong secondaries. Antonio Brown, DeAndre Hopkins, and Larry Fitzgerald make a star-studded trio of receivers, and DeMarco Murray should have at least one more year of powerful running in him.
The defense is not really led by Robert “Come all without, come all within, you’ll not see nothing like the mighty” Quinn, but I needed excuse to use that jingle, and it is stout. Myles Jack anchors the interior, Carlos Dunlap the front line, and Trumaine Johnson plays the role of a strong cover corner. It will be good.
Still, there are holes on this team, for once. Eric Ebron isn’t on par with the rest of the starting offense, and the offense itself lacks depth after the star-studded front lines. On defense, there are actual holes, actual weaknesses in the Giants veneer of power. New York will be relying on guys like Maliek Collins, Trey Flowers, Devon Kennard, Andrew Sendejo, and Josh Jones for meaningful outings in the quest for a Super Bowl. It’s going to be a strong squad some weeks, but I can also see weeks where this team could get well under 200, an almost unheard of result for the past three years.
It’s a strong team. Probably strong enough to win the NFC East yet again. But not the sort of prohibitive favorite we’ve come to expect from Big Blue, and with teams like Detroit, Carolina, and Atlanta trolling the NFC and looking for prey, probably not a favorite to get that elusive Super Bowl berth, much as I think the Giants deserve it. Like the early 2000s Seattle Mariners and the recent Washington Capitals, the New York Real Deal Giants might go down in history as one of the best regular season teams ever and lack hardware to show for their dynasty.
Philadelphia Eagles (10-6): One thing I can guarantee is that the Philadelphia Eagles have zero sympathy. ZERO. They give no fucks. From day #1, two things have been true about the NFC East – the Eagles have been good and the Redskins have been bad. It has just been Philly’s misfortune to be surrounded by dominant squads – first Dallas, and then the Giants. I can tell you this much – the Birds are salivating at any hint of weakness coming from New York, and waiting to pounce at the first sign of trouble. Could it be their year?
Well, yes. It absolutely could. Why? This defense is fan-freaking-tastic. A look at the names is not going to fill anyone with awe, but it goes literally 17 deep with starting players who should play key roles on their respective teams. Ezekiel Ansah, Fletcher Cox, Deion Jones, Dre Kirkpatrick, Damarious Randall, Connor Barwin, Tashaun Gipson, the Honey Badger – even guys like Eric Rowe coming off the bench. It’s a strong, solid defense and one I expect to hit triple digits on a fairly regular basis. One that should outclass the Giants defense by a significant margin.
The question facing the Eagles is simply this: Can their collection of misfits and ne’erdowells on the offensive end keep pace with the strutting star power of guys like Antonio Brown, DeAndre Hopkins, and Larry Fitzgerald.
Well… maybe. There are intriguing players here, to be sure. Derek Carr is growing into a bona fide stud, and could match Eli. Taylor Gabriel, Malcolm Mitchell, Ty Montgomery (still with WR eligibility), Spencer Ware, Jamaal Charles, and Tyler Higbee… you look at these names, and on recognition alone, you expect Philly to get laughed out of the stadium. But man. Gabriel’s a nice player. Mitchell’s a nice player. Montgomery might be an RB1. So might Ware. J-Mail might still have a year left. Higbee might explode. Fitzgerald might fade. Hopkins might have another down year. DeMarco might get hurt…
It feels a little bit like the American Revolution. You know damn well the Redcoats SHOULD win. They have every advantage… BUT. BUT. I don’t know.
In all likelihood, the Giant offense smokes Philly’s by 50 points or more every game, it’s not a gap the defense can make up, and the Eagles maintain their bridesmaid streak. But. But…
Dallas Cowboys (7-9): After Philly, this division gets bad in a hurry. After looking at Dallas’ roster for this piece, I had to do a quick double check on Washington’s, because certainly this team is going to finish in last place. But no. Dallas will finish third. Comfortably ahead of the hapless Redskins. And comfortably behind Philadelphia and New York.
The Cowboys are actually on a pretty good track. DeShaun Watson is plugged in at QB for the foreseeable future, and Dalvin Cook as stud RB – taking care of the two hardest positions in Real Deal to find for the long term. Jake Butt is not a sure thing, but could be a franchise TE sooner rather than later as well. After that, though… man. Paul Richardson and Marquess Wilson are two guys who were pretty lustrous when they were drafted, but have lost a lot of that appeal after people saw them actually play. DeMarcus Robinson is probably nearing his ceiling as a filler guy, and Alex Collins seems perennially trapped at 3rd or 4th on the running back depth chart. There’s no depth at all on offense. The cupboard is really, really bare.
Flipping over to the defense reminded me of the scene from Home Alone 2 where Kevin is running through New York at night and freaking out about the bird lady. He screams for a taxi, hops in, and tells the back of the driver’s head “It’s scary out there.” The driver looks back, and resembling nothing so much as a warty ogre, remarks “Ain’t much better in here kid”, at which Kevin screams and runs away. This experience has a double parallel for Dallas. On the one hand, it’s what I think of their chances with Philadelphia (the creepy bird lady) and New York (the ogre in the cab). More relevantly, it was my personal experience when I jumped from the offensive side of the roster to the defensive one. “That offense is scary!”. “Not much better here on defense, kid”.
And it isn’t. Jalen Collins is suspended for 10 games. Which one ups Dominique Easley, who is both injured and out of a job. It’s slim pickings even among the players who are starting. Brandon Carr and Mo Claiborne represent the perennial “we’ve never been very good Cowboy Corners” club, and Byron Jones is trying desperately not to slide into that role. John Jenkins could be good up front, but has never had the fantasy productivity you hope for. Anthony Hitchens and Shaq Thompson could be decent at linebacker. But man. Zach Orr is technically retired. Perry Riley’s out of a job. So’s Ricardo Matthews. Corey Graham is on a one year prove it deal as a backup safety. The rest of the defense are unproven rookies without clear paths to significant roles. It’s rough.
Still, this team has some franchise pieces in place, and a clear plan, which is actually pretty exceptional considering where the previous owner left the team following a series of brutal trades in which most of Dallas’ good pieces ended up on the Falcons. It’s a tough road for Dallas, but the team is headed in a good direction.
Washington Redskins (4-12): And yet, with all its holes, with all its challenges, Dallas remains light years ahead of Washington. The Skins have been stuck in neutral essentially since the start of the league, plagued with a brutally strong division and handicapped by both a dearth of franchise talent in the initial draft and by the inaugural owner – who made a really bad win now trade with the Giants that essentially set both teams on their current courses. It’s been a monumental challenge for subsequent and current owners. But the Skins ARE finally on the path. A full rebuild has Washington with no less than four first round picks in 2018, a couple of which should be juicy.
Still, the road up remains long and the path remains challenging for a Washington team that remains brutally bereft of true talent. Colt McCoy is the quarterback. The best player on offense is hands down Terrance Williams. UPDATE: WAS Terrance Williams. He now plays for… you guessed it. The Giants. And besides him, only Tyler Kroft and Ricardo Louis have any sort of potential – and one guy is stuck behind Tyler Eifert while the other plays for the Cleveland Browns. The defense is better, with guys like Ryan Shazier, David Amerson, Xavier Rhodes, Kenny Vaccaro, Chris Smith, and Robert Nkemdiche offering at the very least hope, and in some cases, strong play.
The worm can turn fast in this league, once a team gets some traction. Tennessee rebuilt. Jacksonville is on the path. The Giants sort of did it. The Bills have turned into worldbeaters, albeit more through incredible trading acumen than a true rebuild. The Vikings are about to turn the corner. Miami could be great soon. And Washington is positioned. This young defense could grow into something exceptional over the next year or two. And with four first rounders in 2018, the Skins could be ready for an infusion of talent on offense as well. The Redskins might be approaching that point where they can flip the go switch and finally kick things into gear, just as the Giants finally descend from the mountain.
But it won’t be this year. Like the real world 76ers mired in the Process, long-suffering Skins fans have one more campaign of misery. But there is a hint of dawn on the horizon.
Buffalo Bills (12-4): The Eastern divisions of RDFL are nothing, if not predictable. The last time the Bills didn’t win the AFC East was 2013 – coincidentally, the last time the Giants didn’t win the NFC East. In some ways, the two teams have been mirror images of each other – star studded juggernauts who have monstered through their relative leagues with ease, but have yet to win the Big One. Buffalo, at least, has made a Super Bowl (2015), but both have known the disappointment of having utterly dominant squads, but falling short of the ultimate prize. Buffalo particularly is coming off a brutal conclusion to 2016 where injuries and suspension obliterated their lineup and they were knocked out of the playoffs on a last minute, Monday night 80 yard touchdown pass to Chris Hogan with just a few minutes to play. It’s been rough.
Still, the Bills, like the Giants, remain poised for at least one more campaign, and even more than the Giants remain positioned to maintain long-term domination via trading. Miami and New England will pose perennial challenges within the division, and Kansas City, Houston and Pittsburgh continue to pose consistent conference threats, but the Bills remain the cream of the conference – and really deserve a year of good luck.
In all honesty, though, they might not need luck. This team reads like a who’s who list of all-star studs from top to bottom. Adrian Peterson. Devontae Freeman. AJ Green. Rob Gronkowski. Alshon Jeffery. Doug Baldwin. Khalil Mack. Jason Pierre Paul (still with a hand!), Aaron Donald, Navorro Bowman… Even the guys who aren’t big names, like Tyrod Taylor, Anthony Brown, Mike Adams, Jerry Hughes, and George Iloka are good players. And if that wasn’t enough, the Bills have Christian McCaffery and OJ Howard just chilling on their Practice Squad (their Practice Squad!) and six 1st and 2nd round picks in 2019. It’s enough to make someone swear. Detroit – that’s your cue.
If I had to nitpick, it would be to note that the Bills don’t have the kind of depth they did in past years. Where once they could wrangle people into submission with a 15 deep starting defensive core and a flood of solid offensive back-ups, it’s not quite the case here. There may even be a couple holes on defense. But man. That’s such a minor nitpick when you have that kind of star power – and the luxury of having guys like McCaffery and Howard not even PLAY their first year. Silliness. Barring another ridiculous batch of injuries, the Bills should cruise Anthony Davis Kentucky style to yet another AFC East title, and another excellent chance to end that Super Bowl drought.
New England Patriots (9-7): How do they do it? The ultimate “win now” squad, Ric Nowinsky’s Patriots pursue victory every game and every year, building through underpriced veterans with an almost appalling lack of regard for draft picks. It’s the sort of strategy that never works in the NFL and that you constantly expect to lead to cratering and ruin a la Brooklyn Nets even in fantasy. And yet. Every year. There they are. Right there in the playoff hunt, competing for playoff berths and making a royal pesky nuisance of themselves. If not for the dominance of the Bills and a pair of brutal practice squad forfeits a couple years ago, we might be talking about the most unorthodox RDFL dynasty ever.
And somehow, some way, the Patriots are poised to contend again with the most geriatric group of geezers this world has ever seen. Tom Brady is going strong at QB, Frank Gore continues to churn along at RB when most of his peers have forsaken the rock for the wheelchair, and Mike Wallace is an elder statesman at wide receiver after somehow reinventing his entire career. The Patriots have supplemented their veterans with potential value finds and castoffs like Cameron Brate, Nelson Agholor, Lamar Miller, and Charles Clay – and frankly, seem poised to field a really nice offense.
The defense… well, the defense, as always, has holes. It has studs like Eric Berry and Stephon Gilmore in the defensive secondary, and surprisingly fantasy productive guys like Jatavis Brown and Jaylen Watkins. But man does it have some holes as well. Guys like Tyson Alualu, Bronson Kaufusi, Elandon Roberts, Marcus Roberts, and Letroy Guion will have to play above their historical contributions. And that will still leave guys like Brennan Scarlet and Cre’Von LeBlanc to prove that they are actual NFL players and not hokey template characters in a bad remake of “Clue II: Revenge of the Wrench”.
It’s the same blend that has combined to make New England one of the most fun and unpredictable teams in all of Real Deal. A strong, unconventional offense, combined with defensive studs and spare parts that somehow puts it right in the thick of a playoff picture every year. Including 2017.
Miami Dolphins (7-9): That sound you heard when Ryan Tannehill’s knee popped was the mournful wailing of everyone in Miami bemoaning a serious blow to their playoff chances. But what you probably should have heard was relief. This injury gives what could be among the best up and coming offenses in the game another year to develop and, potentially, add another high draft pick to add to the asset stash for when this team is truly ready to compete. Just don’t sign Cutler. Don’t do it. Don’t. Do. It.
Look, if New England is the bizarre beginning of Benjamin Button, Miami is the heartfelt conclusion. Here’s the offense:
- Colin Kaepernick. Age: Doesn’t Matter. Status: Blackballed.
- Leonard Fournette. Age: 22. Status: Rookie of the Year.
- Tevin Coleman. Age: 24. Status: Damn good backup
- Breshad Perriman. Age: 23. Status: Hasn’t quite lost his luster.
- Kevin White. Age: 25. Status: Ready to rock… if Trubisky pans out, of course.
- Jeremy Hill. Age: 24. Status: They drafted a convict to take his job. He cranky.
- Sammy Watkins. Age: 24. Status: Blueballed
- Corey Davis. Age: 22. Status: Star of the high flying Tennessee Titan passing game. Yeah. You heard me right.
- Danny Vitale. Age: 23. Status: I don’t know who this guy is. I think he might have a job because he’s related to DIckie V. I can think of no other reason
- Jacoby Brisssett. Age: 23. Status: Balls owned by Bill Belichick, never to be seen again.
- Josh Doctson. Age: 24. Status: About to see the magical land of opportunity in Washington
- Gerald Everett. Age: 23. Status: Duking it out with the Higbee.
There’s other guys just on offense, but man I’m bored making that list. And seriously? I think it might be obscuring the point. LOOK AT THOSE GUYS. Leo Fournette, Tevin Coleman, Breshad Perriman, Kevin White, Jeremy Hill, Sammy Watkins, Corey Davis, Josh Doctson, Gerald Everett… I mean, are you freaking kidding me? ALL under 25. ALL studs. This is a terrifying array of talent.
Fortunately for all humankind, the defense is just as young, but not the same level of imposing. The starting lineup is strewn with guys like Marcus Smith, Jordan Phillips, Quinten Rollins, and Tony Lippett – younger guys without clear paths to playing time. These folks mingle with players like Vonn Bell, Michael Thomas, and Charles Harris who are the genuine hope of the youth movement and on a parallel track with the offense. Also of concern, the Dolphins are devastated at Linebacker with injuries, with both Trent Williams and Dannell Ellerbe lost for the season and Shane Ray out for the critical multiple-weeks early in the year. Vince Williams is Miami’s only linebacker available for week 1.
End of the story, injuries at major positions on both offense and defense have left glaring holes in Miami’s chances in 2017. But a ridiculous collection of up and coming young talent has Miami poised for the future, if they can pick up just a couple more guys on defense – something another year of mediocrity and high draft picks might allow them to do. Blessings in disguise.
New York Jets (4-12): No blessings and no disguises here. Only brutal, gritty, film noir reality. Like Washington, the poor Jets have been all aboard the struggle bus since year #1. Eerily parallel. A tough division, paired with a dominant team, and saddled with a lack of talent from the franchise draft. Unlike Washington, the Jets have taken a stand pat tactic, rarely trading and gradually building year upon year from strong draft picks and forays into free agency. A more conventional team-building process – neither advanced by strong trades and tanking, or derailed by bad decisions.
It’s not ready to pay off yet. The Jets HAVE talent – a big three of Carson Wentz, Melvin Gordon, and Stefon Diggs is nothing to sneeze at on offense, and it’s much more than a big three on defense: Mo Wilkerson, Demario Davis, Vernon Hargreaves, and HaHa Clinton Dix, just to name a few. Mike Williams would have been a great fourth for the offense if the injury bug hadn’t struck. The problem is that there isn’t enough quantity. And the second problem is that while some of the draft picks have been fantastic, some others like Johnny Manziel have simply not panned out.
There’s definitely talent and hope here beyond the front guys. Rasul Douglas was a canny pick who may see some clear time for the CB-needy Eagles. AJ Klein should catapult to a starting role with the Saints when he gets healthy after being stuck behind Luke Kuechly for years. Vernon Butler, Sharif Floyd, and Leonard Williams are all highly touted young players with potential. Jeff Heuerman has had a lot of buzz for the Broncos at times. But they certainly aren’t ready for yet, and there are no guarantees that the ceiling for any of these guys will be what New York needs.
The Jets need a break. They need a fourth round draft pick to come out of nowhere to become a star. They need to win a blockbuster trade. They need to turn players into assets and assets into players. Because the trajectory is up. But it’s a long slow curve, and it’s not at all clear that the ceiling of that curve ends at the top of the division, not with Buffalo poised to stay good for years to come, New England’s perennial mad wizardry, and an under 25 dolphins roster that is loaded with rocket fuel and about to get launched to the stratosphere. It’s a conundrum.