We round out our 2017 predictions with the North divisions, both of which were pretty exemplary in 2016. The AFC North provided our best all around race, with all four teams above 500 and in contention throughout most of the season, while the NFC Norris provided our Super Bowl Champion in the Detroit Lions. Here we go again!
Detroit Lions (11-5): My literal initial exclamation when opening Detroit’s roster for an initial review. “Oh yeah. The ()$&#$() Super Bowl champions got $#(&)#$ Tyreek Hill. Actually, that’s pretty much the cliff notes version of my NFC North predictions. The Minnesota Vikings are a year away from being scary and the faffing Lions got faffing Tyreek Hill. Credit where credit’s due – he drafted the guy in the middle rounds of the 2016 draft after the entire rest of the league passed on him twice. Shame on the rest of us. But it still sort of seems unfair.
Look, there’s no getting around it. This roster is loaded once again. Stafford at QB. Ameer Abdullah and Todd Gurley due for a bounce back at RB. Brandin Cooks (now with a Brady!), Tyreek Hill, and Tyler Lockett at WR. Martellus Bennet at TE. That’s a starting seven and no mistake. And that’s before we note that Patrick Mahomes and Marlon Mack are just chilling on the practice squad, waiting to not be picked off by anybody because they are first rounders. Bleh.
Perhaps a team that has neglected its defense to focus on offense? Sorry, nope. Every position group on this team is solid, It starts with a young and brutal D-Line of Chris Jones, Stephon “I’ll get around Tuitt”
, “Sorry Malik Jackson, I am for real”, Takkarist climbing Mt. Mckinley, and “Oh yeah, I’m Derek Barnett, the first Eagles 1st round pick to be worth a damn in years”. It moves to a Linebacking group that has Leonard Floyd and Jamie Collins flanking the less impressive but still starting Todd Davis. And it ends with a powerful secondary that goes at least 5 to 6 deep with Ronald Darby, Darius Slay, Glover Quin, LaMarcus Joyner, and Adoree Jackson. Even more bleh.
If there’s one place this team could be vulnerable, it’s offensive depth. It seems like quite a nitpick (and I think it is), but ask poor Buffalo how injuries can shred a star-studded cast at the worst possible time.
UPDATE: He just traded for Eric Decker. So much for that depth thing.
Still. It seems a bit of a foregone conclusion. The ($#)&#$) Super Bowl champs got (#)$*#$ Tyreek Hill. The NFC North is all but guaranteed, and Detroit has to be considered the odds on favorite to return to the Super Bowl for the first time in RDFL history. Triple bleh.
Green Bay Packers (8-8): This division is BRUTAL. it could rival the NFC South this year for sheer top to bottom ridiculousness. The Packers aren’t the favorites, and they don’t have Chicago’s sneak up on you panache, but this team could still make some real noise. Somehow, Green Bay has dodged the full reload and should return with a very solid team.
Kirk Cousins is good. Davante Adams is good. Carlos Hyde could either lose his job or be a feature back. Jamison Crowder should become good soon. Jason Witten is somehow STILL good (if a little overpaid). Eli Rogers has had a lot of hype and might become good. Brandon Oliver, Vernon Davis, and Andre Holmes could all contribute. Mario Addison is an underrated beast. KJ Wright is a god. Mason Foster isn’t far behind. Richard Sherman talks a lot and has great hair. Patrick Chung and Morgan Burnett talk less and aren’t as good, but score more fantasy points. Domata Peko always plays super well against Kansas City, so in my mind he’s a top 10 DE.
I don’t know, man. This team isn’t loaded with studs at every position. There are holes. But It has enough studs, enough really good players, and enough depth to be seriously competitive. If this team was in either western division, it would be competing for a playoff spot. If this team were in either eastern division, it would be competing for a playoff spot. But you know what? The NFC North and the NFC South both suck a lot to be in.
The big danger for Green Bay is no man’s land. Detroit is not beatable this year. And with a loaded NFC South and a hungry Philadelphia, it’s not a great year for the wild card either. But starting next year, Minnesota is going to become a voracious beast and compete too. Make no mistake, this Green Bay team does have staying power with young assets, and are ahead of schedule on a rebuild – but I worry it is neither young enough, nor old enough. Of course, I said the same thing about the Houston Texans last year in this column too – and they ended up in the Super Bowl.
Chicago Bears (8-8): The monsters of the Midway, however, are lurking in the shadows. Mark my words. This team will surprise. The Bears are like the Grey Men in Robert Jordan’s the Wheel of Time (What? I’m a sci-fi nerd? You hadn’t figured that out already? Deal with it.). Your eyes run over them. You don’t really notice they are there. They seem so… normal. And then before you know it, they’ve ripped out your innards. The RDFL Bears of 2017 are like that.
You look over their roster, and they almost look… bad. I mean. Brian Hoyer? Will Tye? Terrance West? Cameron Meredith? Adolphus Washington? Nick Kwiatkowski? Andrew Adams? I mean… who?
And then you suddenly realize that Brian Hoyer is working in a Kyle Shanahan offense and throwing to decent receivers. It dawns on you that Terrance West is the unquestioned feature back on a ground and pound team. You realize that Devante Parker might be really good, and that Brandon Marshall and Matt Forte may well have one more year in them. You say “Meredith… Meredith… where have I heard that name… oh yeah, he’s suddenly the Bears #1 receiver…” You don’t realize anything about Will Tye because let’s face it, these aren’t the Lions and they still have holes – there is nothing about Will Tye to realize.
UPDATE: Cameron Meredith is done for the year. I have therefore moved the poor Bears behind GB.
But then you move on to the defense and see that Adolphus Washington and Andrew Adams could earn starting roles out of nowhere. You can’t help but think “twatkowski” and chuckle every time you see Nick Kwiatkowski’s name, so even though he isn’t likely to be that good, he adds value (also, I am not posting a picture of twatkowski). You note that Akiem Hicks and Kwon Alexander are studs, Kevin Minter is the leader in the center of the Arizona defense, AJ Bouye is good enough you want to shout “booyah!”, and Ron Parker and Da’Norris Searcy are a pair of damn good safeties. Frostee Rucker, Junior Galette, and LaMarr Houston could have value if things break right, and Terence Newman may have one more good campaign with a pick-six or two left in his ancient frame. And you start to feel alarm just as the claw slips in and Chicago rips out your innards.
This team isn’t going to dethrone the Lions. But it’s absolutely going to sneak up on people, and I honestly don’t think a playoff berth is out of the question. Pay heed to the Bears, my friends, and don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Minnesota Vikings (7-9): What do you do when you start off with a franchise team that has AP and very little else? You store up a bajillion draft picks, you go without a quarterback for three years, you lose a lot of games, and then you draft ALL. THE. PLAYERS. All of them.
The Vikings are coming to plunder a village near you. Dak Prescott is the franchise quarterback. Joe Mixon and Duke Johnson provide a bruising one-two out of the backfield. And Laquon Treadwell, Allen Robinson, and Tyler Boyd make up an intriguing wideout trio, though only Robinson has really reached his potential thus far. Jace Amaro and Kyle Rudolph are passable TEs, and Minnesota has a lot of practice squad pieces that can hopefully develop into depth.
Somewhat surprisingly given Minnesota’s self-described “lack of knowledge” on the defensive end (::cough:: ringer! ::cough::), the defensive rebuild has gone even better, bringing in guys like Reuben Foster, Myles Garrett, Joey Bosa, Harrison Smith, Vic Beasley, Phillip Gaines, Marcus Peters, Reshad Jones, Kawann Short, and Noah Spence. A couple veterans like Paul Posluz (I STILL can’t effing spell it!) nky and Eric Kendricks sprinkled in and blam – Minnesota has a spectacular defense.
One more year. One more year for Dak to move off of game management mode, Laquon Treadwell to develop, Joe Mixon to get through the rookie blues, and Jace Amaro to turn into a player. One more year for the rookies and young guys. The Vikings have 23 guys on rookie contracts. One more Wide receiver. One more year. And the rebuild will be over. Over with a capital O and a capital VER. OVER like in mother effing CRICKET over. Over like the comb in Donald Trump’s hair over. Over. In 2018, the drought ends.
So first, a shout-out. This division was awesome last year. For the first time ever, every single team in the division was competitive all the way through. There was a point late in the season last year where all four teams were vying for both the playoffs and the division title – and all four teams finished with above 500 records. It was a really remarkable division wide performance that I didn’t give nearly enough recognition to. I don’t think it will be quite as good this year, in part because I think Pittsburgh and Baltimore get a bit more separation from the Ohio teams. But it should still be a chaotic division with some definite potential for mayhem.
Pittsburgh Steelers (10-6): Remember when we were talking about Indianapolis and the LA Chargers? A quarterback, a defense, and not much else? And remember how we said it didn’t work? Well, Pittsburgh is following the same model. And this is what the model looks like when it works. Ben Roethlisberger doesn’t stand alone. He also has Jarvis Landry and Le’Veon Bell. And the defense isn’t just good. It’s Grrrreeeaaatttt!
It starts with the linebackers, where Alec Ogletree, Lawrence Timmons, and Tahir Whitehead form a formidable threesome. Jared Crick, DeForest Buckner, and Brent Urban are a well above average D-line, and the secondary of Byron Maxwell, Sean Davis, Mike Mitchell, Bradley McDougald, and even Jamar Taylor are all very fantasy relevant. There really are not any critical weaknesses in these positional groups.
This team does have the same challenge as LA and Indy – a drop off in offensive quality. Roethlisberger is great (if injury prone), Bell is great (if marijuana prone), and Jarvis Landry is sort of great (but possibly prone to Jay Cutler). After that, though, they have Albert Wilson (he’s a bit of a magic wand), Ju-ju Shuster Smith (he has a bit of a magic name), and the outlaw Jesse James (who is not magic so far as I understand, but can still rob a train like nobody’s business).
Basically, this is what you have to do to be successful. Rock the defense. Rock the QB. Pick up a few studs. And round out the backside with competent players, not zeros. The Steelers have the formula, the talent, and the championship pedigree, and I see them back atop with Norris in 2017.
Baltimore Ravens (9-7): Baltimore has a fun, fun team. The type of team you may not necessarily want to have in fantasy, but that you LOVE to watch if you are a 14 year old teenager who loves nothing more than seeing lots of passing touchdowns. Big arm Joe Flacco has ZERO running game to speak of, but a cadre of young receiving options who can absolutely fly. The top four wideouts on this team are Keenan Allen, Amari Cooper, Terrelle Pryor, and Adam Thielen, with even Coby Fleener a solid pass catcher at Tight End. Can you imagine if the real life Joe Flacco had THAT kind of firepower and weaponry? I mean, we all know he’d still totally be overpaid and mediocre, but he’d be just slightly less overpaid and mediocre!
It’s fortunate, because as I said, there exists no running game. Kenneth Dixon was supposed to provide it, but that didn’t work out. As a result, the top options are Jamaal Williams, Rex Burkhead, Tarik Cohen, and Tim Hightower. Remember when Baltimore had all the running backs?
It’s a fun squad on defense too. Cliff Avril and Olivier Vernon can both get after the quarterback. At linebacker, Telvin Smith IS a stud, Terrell Suggs USED to be a stud, and Shaq Lawson WANTS to be a stud. And the secondary is decent as well, with ball hawking backs like Bradley Roby, Eric Reid, and Lardarius Webb.
Here’s what it’s going to come down to. The QB is passable. The defense is good. There is no such thing as a running back. And the depth is questionable. The strength of this team is its quartet of fast young receivers, and it is on them that Baltimore’s fortunes rest. If they are merely good, this team is a wild card contender. If they aren’t so good or catch the injury bug, the Ravens could struggle to finish .500. But if they are great like we all think they could be… the North is well within reach. We’ll see. With Jay Flacco slinging the rock, what could possibly go wrong?
Cleveland Browns (8-8): The real NFL has ruined us. We don’t think of the AFC North as a passing league. But man, should we ever. Not only is this division full of close races and competitive times, it has epic firepower.
Pittsburgh: Antonio Brown and Jarvis Landry
Baltimore: Keenan Allen, Amari Cooper, Terrelle Pryor, Adam Thielen
Cleveland: Mike Evans, Just as Mike Crabtree, Not quite as Mike Jeremy Maclin, and not at all Mike Marvin Jones.
That’s ten really really strong wide receivers, and I give Cleveland the nod to have the best of the group. That positions the offense really well. Blake Bortles may or may not be a productive quarterback for them, but Isaiah Crowell is poised to be a breakout running back this year. Erik Swoope is a hole at Tight End, and there’s no depth at all to speak of, but the starting offense is the best in the league, pound for pound.
The trick for Cleveland is that the defense is second tier. It’s not bad, not like some teams we’ve seen. The players are decent and for the most part starting caliber. Brandon WIlliams is a great nose tackle, Karlos Dansby is still an excellent linebacker, and it’s a nice secondary with Jordan Poyer, Tyvon Branch, and Joe Haden, though Haden is one of those fantastically talented real-life guys who doesn’t do quite as well in fantasy. But there are holes. And the poor holes have names. Names like Kyle Emanuel, the 5th round backup who Cleveland is looking to start at LB. Names like Nate Orchard and Tanoh Kpassagnon, two defense ends you’ve never heard of for good reason. And names like Ibraheim Campbell, who keeps the secondary from reaching an actual A rating. It’s not a terrible defense – its just simply not on the same plane as the Steelers and the Ravens – hence the third place rating.
Still, the offense has enough firepower that if things break badly for the other teams in the division, Cleveland could surprise as a playoff team, like it threatened to do for most of last year before being doomed by a brutal back-end schedule.
Cincinnati Bengals (5-11): At first glance, Cincy isn’t as flashy as the rest of the division. They do have the badly underrated T.Y. Hilton catching passes from the also badly underrated Andy Dalton. (RDFL is over before the NFL playoffs. Dalton’s decent during the regular season. Chill.) But after that, the offense doesn’t have a whole lot – Rishard Matthews, Virgil Green, Jaron Brown, Jeremy Kerley, Theo Riddick, and Ryan Fitzpatrick. Slim pickins. Certainly nothing like the high octane passing attacks they are competing with.
That said, this team is still flashy. It just comes on defense. Because the 2017 Bengals have some play-makahs! Cam Heyward, Dee Ford, Geno Atkins, Vontaze Burfict, Reggie Nelson, Vinnie Rey, and even BJ Goodson. Sacks and stuffs are coming your way if you are a fan of this team.
So why 5-11 if I like the defense that much? Well, I really don’t like the offense. And while I love the playmakers, I’m not sure I love the depth, and I definitely don’t love the secondary. It’s going to get picked apart. And you can’t get your secondary picked apart in a division with legendary receiving groups. (Yes. I know that doesn’t actually matter in RDFL. I’m writing a damn sports column. Didn’t I JUST tell you to chill? Drink a beer and appreciate the artistry.) But beyond that, guys like Burfict really haven’t put up a lot of stats from a fantasy perspective, and guys like Dee Ford haven’t put up any stats at all.
Look, it’s distinctly possible I’m too low on the Tiger Cats. If some of the offensive guys break out, and if the defense plays up and not down, they could definitely mount a challenge. And I picked them fourth last year and they led the division for half the year before finishing in a three way tie for second at 9-7. So they could certainly surprise. But the offense is so weak, and the defense has enough holes… I just don’t see it happening.
Anyway, my playoff predictions:
AFC East: Buffalo
AFC North: Pittsburgh
AFC South: Houston
AFC West: Oakland
AFC Wild Card: Kansas City
AFC Wild Card: Baltimore
NFC East: NY Giants
NFC North: Detroit
NFC South: Carolina
NFC West: Arizona
NFC Wild Card: Atlanta
NFC Wild Card: Philadelphia
AFC Championship: Buffalo over Houston
NFC Championship: Detroit over Arizona
Super Bowl: Buffalo over Detroit. It’s hard to repeat, and the Bills are due for some luck.