Games of the Week: I genuinely can’t choose between these.
Detroit Lions 214, New York Giants 208: Speaking of Monday night showdowns, this one came down to the wire because the Monday night game WAS the franchise game. And for a possible NFC Championship game preview, this one didn’t disappoint. Todd Gurley and Tyler Lockett went off for the Lions, cancelling out rough games from the Lions stars, and Chris Jones went nuts with two forced fumbles, a pick, and three sacks. The Lions showed much better balance (12/20 in double digits) but lacked any standout performances (no player with 20 or more points). You can point to DeMarco Murray’s early exit as the difference in this one. But to me, this one was Darius Slay, who was everywhere on Monday night (20 points). A couple less tackles and passes defensed also means a few more points for Eli… and we’re looking at a different outcome.
Cleveland Browns 212, Baltimore Ravens 210: The Ravens are the best 1-2 team I’ve ever seen. After shelling the Bengals in week one only to lose the game to forfeit due to some random guy I’ve never heard of on the practice squad (check your squads, people!), the Ravens scored over 210 again only to lose by two points to another division rival. Instead of 3-0 in the division, the Ravens are 1-2 by 2 points and a PS blip. Oof. As before, a solid 108 point defensive performance keyed Baltimore, while the equally tough Browns were galvanized by a 34 point, 3 touchdown extravaganza from 2015’s overpriced stud of the year, Michael Crabtree. Remember back when we thought a double digit salary was outrageous for a FA pickup? O the halcyon days of innocence. Ironically, this one too came down to Monday night. The Ravens, trailing after Sunday, picked up a predictably strong 13.5 point game from Olivier Vernon. But TE Jerrell Adams has ONE single catch all year long. It was on Monday night. It went for 38 yards. It was worth 4.5 points. And Cleveland knocks off it’s rival.
Green Bay Packers 215, Cleveland Browns 212: The “Dear lord you threaded that needle so perfectly you should be a kicker!” award goes to Cleveland this week, who managed to win by 2 and lose by 3 in the same exact week. The runner up goes to the Raiders, who managed to win by 7 and lose by 3. In this one, Carlos Hyde, Davante Adams and Jason Witten all went over 20 to cue a surprisingly good offensive attack. The Pack, at 2-1, are a game back of Detroit and looking really strong to start off the season.
Atlanta Falcons: This could be the year the Falcons break through in the brutal NFC South. A 3-0 start and the highest week #2 point total has the Falcons strongly atop the division after a nice 207-204 win over New Orleans. The Falcs are getting strong contributions up and down their offense. Julio and Jay Ajayi are getting theirs, but guys like Chris Thompson (28 points) and Mohammed Sanu (14 points) are moving this team from strong to dangerous.
Cincinnati Bengals: The 3-0 squads in our league fall into three categories. Detroit and Buffalo (ho hum. Wake me when something surprising happens). Kansas City and Atlanta (good teams, but a little surprising – expect a loss soon). And Cincinnati. WTF? After a forfeit win in week #1, the Bengals followed up their good fortune with a 2-0 week, knocking off Chicago and Houston to move into first place in the AFC North by a full game and a half. That’s surprising. Cincy’s office has been mediocre at best (42 and 63 points in the first two weeks) but their defense has been stellar (110 and 114 points) despite only two total turnovers all year. They need some playmakers on offense to score points badly, but if Andy Dalton can ever get going and Andrew Luck can ever come back to save TY Hilton, this team could be a legitimate contender.
New York Jets: It feels a little odd to call out a 1-2 team as rising, but it’s worth noting that the New York football Jets have been downright competitive in the first two weeks. Their two losses have been to Buffalo by 14 and to the Oakland Raiders by 7. They also smoked the Broncos and are 7th in the AFC in points scored. Carson Wentz, Melvin Gordon, and Stefon Diggs, the young offensive triumvirate, look good, and the defense has been strong as expected. Signs of LIFE for the perennially beaten down green machine.
Honorable Mentions: Buffalo Bills, Detroit Lions, Kansas City Chiefs, Tennessee Titans, Los Angeles Chargers, Seattle Seahawks
Houston Texans: Real Deal Report curse? The Texans have losses to Jacksonville and Cincinnati and have only beaten the lowly 49ers to kick off the year, and have had only 3 two point games so far this year. Problems? Not really. 1-2 is not how the Texans wanted to start, and Jacksonville and Cincy were certainly not games they had fingered on their calendar as losses. But it’s not even close to the end of the world. They’ve scored a lot of points (209 and 187) – it’s just that their opponents have played out of their minds. Jacksonville followed up their 233 point week 1 effort with a 57 point drop in week 2, and Cincy’s week 2 score was 35 points higher than their week 1 score. That’s bad luck, not bad play. Rough week, not great, but Houston will be fine.
Carolina Panthers: What is going on? I feel like Admiral Akbar. This has to be a trap. The second I put this down, Carolina is going to run off 13 straight wins and make me feel like a complete fool. And 2-1 with a loss to Buffalo is not what one usually thinks of as falling. But Carolina has looked… mediocre. 168 points in week #2 following up an under 200 in week #1 as well. And if their loss was to Buffalo, their wins have been over SF and Minnesota – who have combined to go 0-6. With the Falcons playing out of their minds and both New Orleans and Tampa Bay looking strong, that’s not going to be good enough for Panthera. The problem has been on offense. Zach Ertz has been dynamite. Cam Newton and Mark Ingram have been disappointingly mediocre. And the rest of the offense has been an epic disaster. Take this Sunday, for instance. Ertz had 17. Newtown had 11. Ingram had 12. And Campanaro, Woods, Blount, and Olsen combined for 6.75 points. With Olsen out for a while, we’ll have to see where this goes.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Back to earth with a thud. After that 233 point clubbing of Houston in week #1, the Jags returned to earth on Sunday, dropping games to both the Seahawks and Titans. There’s no shame in a 176 point double loss to two playoff contenders, but it will do nothing to dispel perceptions that week 1 was a mirage. The QB situation continues to plague the Jags (hey, that rhymes!). They got a zero from their signal caller position on Sunday. A 20 point QB and Jacksonville is 3-0 and reading a very different column.
Dishonorable Mentions: New England Patriots, Miami Dolphins, Minnesota Vikings, Dallas Cowboys, Washington Redskins
Week 3 Games of the Week:
Arizona Cardinals vs. New York Giants: 2-1. Check. Super Bowl Contenders. Check. Chip on their shoulder. Check. Stiff challenges within their own divisions. Check. Arizona and New York enter week 3 in similar places. Good teams, fine outlooks, one tough loss, and no desire to drop another game. The Giants are hoping like crazy that DeMarco Murray can return, and are hoping even more that their acquisition of Philip Rivers pays dividends after watching Eli struggle.
Atlanta Falcons vs. Detroit Lions: Ka-boom! 3-0 meets 3-0 as the Lions continue their early-season gauntlet of death with a trip to Falcon-land. Atlanta, meanwhile, gets both Detroit and New Orleans in a tough week. If the Falcons can go 2-0, they will have initially announced themselves. 1-1 and they are still looking pretty good. 0-2 and they are suddenly looking up again. It’s a hard conference.
Cincinnati Bengals vs. Detroit Lions: The other 3-0 vs. 3-0 matchup. I almost missed it, but Cincinnati is 3-0. It seems unlikely they’ll stay that way.
New York Giants vs. Philadelphia Eagles: The NFC East is at stake in this clash. Both teams are cranky after narrow losses in week 2, but both teams have brutal double games this week and the team that can channel that frustration into a vicious bout of scoring vengeance will seize the driver’s seat for a division title.
Tennessee Titans vs. Seattle Seahawks: An intriguing under the radar game between two first place teams, this is one I’m going to be watching very closely. Bradford’s health is in question, and will have a big impact on this game. The reason I’m interested is that both teams have gone 2-1 despite rough starts to the year for key stars. When guys like Russell Wilson, Zeke Elliott, and the entire NYG offense (Perkins, OBJ and Shepherd are all here), these two teams could get even better.
Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Houston Texans: I had this one marked on the calendar as a possible AFC Title showdown preview. It’s lost a lot of it’s luster, as the two teams stagger in at 2-3-1. But I still believe that both of those teams are really good. The winner of this one gets some mojo back, while the loser is left searching for answers. The Steelers badly need for Big Ben and Le’Veon Bell to get back on track.
Good luck everyone, and play more close games. Be like Oakland (all three games by 7 points or less). And send Oakland heart medication. We like the guy and want him to stick around!
Week one, in the books. It was a rough, weird week. There are only a few teams feeling on the top of the world. Some are troubled but confident. And others are feeling that same impending sense of panic you get when you live in New York City during a disaster movie. For a one bye-week with the relative health the beginning of the season brings, this week posted some brutal scores with very few 200 point performances. A couple of quick quarterback hooks and bad injuries compound things further.
Here at the report, the general take is this: Don’t overreact to week 1. Fortunately, for all that it’s the first week, it means even less this year than in most years because it is only a single week rather than our typical inaugural double. Things will bet back to normal soon.
That said, there are some teams who have a reason to panic. I’m here to break it down for you.
Game of the Week: Detroit Lions 227 over Arizona Cardinals 201
Good game. The eventual NFC West champ vs. the eventual NFC North champ. Aside from the Giants, the two highest scores in the NFC. Same as it ever was. And what was the difference? 35.4 points from Tyreek Hill. Did I mention in the off-season that the Super Bowl Champions got Tyreek Hill? Look, this was a really excellent game. Both teams played really well. You could say that a pair of close misses to Torrey Smith and a zero to Run DMC were the game, but you could also say that 25 points from Jalen Mills kept the Cardinals in it. In the end, this was a hard fought game where both teams came to play and the Lions demonstrated why they are the team to beat in the NFC – too many weapons who can have a big game any given week.
LA Rams: The Rams are going to have trouble scoring. This is absolutely true. But TJ Watt is the real deal, the rest of the defense stepped up as well, and young receivers like Zay Jones are going to improve as the year goes on. LA isn’t going to be a great team this year, but that defense showed me it has staying power, and I like this team to absolute irritate the competitors and maybe even still a game or two as the year goes on.
Smoke and Mirrors:
Jacksonville Jaguars: Hidden behind the week’s biggest update, a thrashing of the Super Bowl contending Houston Texans, is how the Jaguars got there. Kareem Hunt’s 52 points aren’t going to happen everybody. Nor is the defense, however stout, going to intercept two passes (including a Ryan Kerrigan pick six), force two fumbles, and pick off another one. It’s good news that Cooper Kupp and Danny Amendola look like they are going to be targeted heavily, and Marqise Lee may see more targets with Allen Robinson’s injury, but this is still a team without a quarterback and that I expect to return to earth next week.
Kansas City Chiefs: Yes the Chiefs led week #1 in scoring in an obliteration of the Patriots. But look a little deeper and you’ll see that huge chunks of it came from a 33 point outing by Alex Smith, a combined 66 points from its Linebackers, and a Fumble returned for a TD by a defensive lineman. Where did it not come from? Running back, safety, and WR4. The Chiefs can’t expect repeat performances on the plus side, and the things they needed verdicts on all came back negative. A twin challenge at division rival Oakland and NFC contender Philadelphia loom.
Chill, you’ll be Fine
Houston Texans: David Johnson out 2-3 months is rough. Painful. But all told? No team is better equipped to handle a loss to a stud RB than Houston. Jacksonville had a buzzsaw week. Chris Hogan will play better, the defense will generate more big plays (only 1 sack and 1 turnover for a group that accumulated 41 combined tackles), and DJ will be back. If anything, Austin Hooper’s big day has to be an encouraging sign of things to come, even if it all came on only two catches. It’s never good to lose week one, never good to lose a stud back, and never good to drop a divisional game. But the Texans will be fine, and this game won’t matter in the least come week 1 of the playoffs.
Oakland Raiders: Frustrating start for the Raiders, who drop a winnable home game to Tennessee to open a tough schedule. And yes, there are concerns at the back end of the offense, where guys like Jalen Richard and Benjamin Watson did nothing to justify the Raiders faith in them. But Oakland’s week 1 challenges are more like Houston’s – 1 sack and 1 turnover combined among starting defensive players getting a lot of minutes – that’s going to improve by regression to the mean. And guys like Tyler Eifert, Dez Bryant, and Jordan Matthews are going to get theirs. Dropping a game they should have won by a narrow margin hurts, but Oakland will be fine.
Reason to panic
Chicago Bears: That won’t get it done. The offense didn’t look sneaky for the Bears. It looked ordinary, or worse. Four points for Hoyer. 3 for Brandon Marshall. 6 for Gresham. 7 for Forte. Nothing for Wheaton. Only Terrance West lived up to his billing. The scary part is that these don’t seem like natural reversions. Hoyer and the SF offense looked like the disaster we’ve come to expect, Brandon Marshall and Eli aren’t even reading the same book, let alone getting close to the same page, Gresham is what he is, and Forte is old and in a platoon. To their credit, the Bears are addressing their issues, bringing in Emmanuel Sanders to replace the injured Cameron Meredith. But they can’t be happy in Halas Hall about how week 1 played out.
Indianapolis Colts: Ye gods. Indy has had scoring problems for the last three years. Their offense has depended on two players – Andrew Luck and Julian Edelman. And, of course, where do the injuries strike? Edelman is gone for the year. Nobody knows what’s up with Luck. And in their absence. Mercy. The Colts managed a TOTAL of 20 offensive points, with more than half (10.5) coming from Alvin Kamara. To be clear, no less than 51 individual PLAYERS scored more points than the entire Colts offense put together. If we remove Kamara, this number jumps to 280, including 4 punters. Yes, 280 individual players (almost ten per team!), including 4 punters, scored more points than 6 of the colts top 7 offensive players combined. This isn’t getting better until (if!) Luck gets back, and even then, it’s not getting good. This could be the worst offensive team in RDFL history by a wide margin.
Pittsburgh Steelers: So this will get better. Roethlisberger will score more than 16 points. Le’Veon Bell will return to his stud form. And if we’re talking about starting defensive squads missing out on the big play by luck, the Steelers D put together 34 tackles without a single turnover or sack. It will get a bit better. But enough better? The defensive question marks weren’t answered, the secondary looks mediocre, Fournette’s performance relegated even a healthy Yeldon to handcuff status, and with the exception of lone bright spot Jesse James, the supporting offensive cast doesn’t look like it will have much opportunity. Things will get a lot better for the Steelers than they were in week 1, but winning the AFC North suddenly no longer seems like a sure thing.
New England Patriots: On the one hand, the news on offense was really good. Charles Clay asserted himself well and Nelson Agholor had a breakout day. James White is going to be involved on the Patriots offense, and Mike Gillislee is on pace for a bajillion touchdowns. Despite down days for the geriatric duo of Brady and Gore, this team looks like it could put up a lot of points. On the flip side, the defense has proved itself sustainably terrible, with only three double digit performances, a pair of zeros, and Eric Berry lost for the year. The Pats are legit. But that defense will keep them from being a true threat to the Bills.
Big Games in Week #2:
Buffalo Bills vs. Carolina Panthers: Possible Super Bowl Preview? In week #2? Yes please. Both the Bills and the Panthers took care of week #1 business as expected, but less overwhelmingly than either felt comfortable with, especially Buffalo. Now they meet each other in a game that is both showdown and get-right game. The winner feels great. The loser suddenly has some questions.
Detroit Lions vs. New York Giants: I love double weeks! Week #2 has a couple of doozies. This is a potential NFC Championship game showdown – and much more of a clash, as both Detroit and New York put up strong week #1 performances. The loser here doesn’t have question marks. But the winner has the inside track to top seed in the NFC playoffs.
Baltimore Ravens vs. Cleveland Browns: Of course there’s a big game in the AFC North. There’s ALWAYS a big game in the AFC North because all the teams are in convention. And here we go. Baltimore looked more impressive in week 1 (pre-forfeit), but Cleveland had the bigger win, knocking off Pittsburgh. Whichever team takes this game will grab early control of the North race, pending Cincinnati’s results. A bit like saying “will have sprinted to the lead at the half mile mark of the marathon”, but hey. It’s a lead.
Kansas City Chiefs vs. Oakland Raiders: Divisional showdown #1 between KC and Oakland comes in week 2, with the winner likely taking control of the AFC West race. KC looked like the better team in week one, but a reversal in week 2 could have the Raiders up by a game with a tiebreaker in hand.
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.
Like any other season of Real Deal Baseball, there have been no shortage of trades. Some teams are loading up (Miami Marlins, New York Yankees), while some are building for next year (Tampa Bay Rays).
With the playoffs around the corner (already?), we are going to focus on moves made in the past month that have the most potential impact for this year’s playoff run. Instead of providing all of the fine details in these trades, we will focus on the players that have the most impact.
Houston gets Khris Davis
In a move that helps Milwaukee replenish some of his prospects, Khris Davis goes to the Astros for Teoscar Hernandez, Jason Martin, and Jake Rogers. The latter two players were then flipped to the Cubs in a deal that brought Ervin Santana back to Milwaukee. Like Tampa Bay, the Brewers definitely have a plan for the playoffs.
New York Yankees get Brian Dozier
The Yankees, for what it’s worth, also acquired Carlos Carrasco, Jarrod Dyson, Miguel Gonzalez, and Brad Ziegler in one large trade. But its Brian Dozier who I see as having the most potential, as Dozier sits as the third best overall fantasy player behind Stanton and Machado over the past 30 days. In this deal, the Yankees sent three prospects for Dozier and a late pick. Dozier could be a difference maker come playoff time, and even right now, in the midst of a tight race with Boston for the division.
Milwaukee gets Justin Turner, Andrew McCutchen
One of a number of Tampa Bay sell off moves (He seems to have a definitive plan for next year…), this move saw Milwaukee getting Justin Turner, Andrew McCutchen, and a decent reliever in Joe Smith. Tampa Bay’s haul, as expected, was a number of prospects/young players, headlined by Blake Snell. A heavy price, perhaps, but the Brewers now have a combined (at the moment) 975 extra points in their offense, which will help going into the playoffs.
Miami gets Giancarlo Stanton
Okay, so I am cheating a bit here, in that this deal was more than a month ago, but a deal involving Giancarlo Stanton—given the season he is having—should be mentioned here. Over the past 30 days, (as of this moment) Stanton has been the best player in fantasy, averaging nearly a full point more than the next best player (Manny Machado.) He paid a steep price (Yu Darvish, Christian Yelich, and Eddy Rodriguez), but this could be a deal that has huge implications come the playoffs. As the owner of Arizona, I hope not. =)
Other notable acquisitions that could have playoff implications (Sorry if I missed any, but I tried not to):
We continue our flawless predictions series this year out West, where it is possible that some changes of the guard may be in the offing.
Arizona Cardinals (10-6): The interesting part is that last year, the division was much worse comparatively and Arizona should have been a lot more dominant than it was. But they had some bad luck and inexplicably rough weeks and it ended up being a lot closer than expected. This year, it’s very possible that the rest of the division could be a lot better and yet the Cardinals still have an almost identical result. The weirdness of life in RDFL.
It’s fitting to start on offense for most teams, because that’s where the biggest vicissitudes occur, but any analysis of the Cardinals has to start with their defense, specifically JJ Watt. Partnered with Calais Campbell at Defensive End and Jerrell Freeman, Gerald Hodges, Clay Matthews, and Craig Robertson at LB, this team is going to get after the QB. Get AFTER the QB. Sack after sack. The defensive backfield isn’t quite as strong, but DRC and Barry Church are strong pieces, and while Jalen Mills isn’t very good, he should get a ton of opportunities to make tackles in a questionable Eagles secondary.
Matt Ryan and Shady McCoy headline the offense, and while the rest of the squad isn’t dynamite, it’s passable. Richard Rodgers should catch both passes and TDs from the TE1 role, and nobody was happier about the Zeke Elliott suspension than Darren McFadden, who should get first look behind Dallas’ mighty line for most of the RDFL season. Devontae Booker will catch passes, Delanie Walker is a strong off-season addition who should be good for double digit points a game, Kamar Aiken is a capable substitute, and Torrey Smith might have another shot to rebound.
All told, this Arizona squad gets JJ Watt back, is better than it was last year, got some nice breaks in the offseason, made its own breaks with some aggressive trades, and is quietly poised to get back to the playoffs and contend for a bye week with Detroit, New York, and the Titans of the South. Good offseason, quietly good squad, and damn hard to write a story about.
Seattle Seahawks (9-7): The Seahawks were one of last season’s feel good stories, ascending from the depths of an absolute crater to jump out ahead of Arizona early on and remain within striking distance of the division title into the second half of the season. Emerging from the year into an offseason full of promise, some pundits thought the Seahawks would have a chance to catch Arizona this year and make a return to the playoffs in 2017.
Can they do it this year? Well, we’ll see. At their potential, the answer is clearly yes. This team went from Russell Wilson and literally nothing else two years ago to a collection of kluged together players with opportunities in new places. If all of those players and opportunities pan out, this team could be very, very good. Now Russell Wilson is joined by (or will be joined by, eventually) Ezekiel Elliott, Travis Kelce, Allen Hurns and Sterling Shephard. Martavis Bryant returns from suspension to join the team, and Bilal Powell looks like a magnificent free agent acquisition with the Jets’ lack of a passing game and Elliott’s suspension. Charone Peake should see some throws as well, and guys like C.J. Prosise, Mychal Rivera, and even Adam Shaheen have potential.
Seattle is also back at “starting level” on defense, meaning that every player in the defensive lineup is a legitimate fantasy contributor. The real question for the Hawks is whether or not the defense will rise to the level of “good”, or simply be passable. Guys like Bobby Wagner, Janoris Jenkins, Kam Chancellor, Josh Norman, and Mario Edwards suggest good. Injury question marks around guys like Denzel Perryman, Jimmie Ward, and Markus Golden raise concerns. But even more than the concerns, this defense seems more “real good” than fantasy good. Despite their name appeal and excellence on the actual field, some of these guys just don’t put up as many fantasy points as you would expect given name recognition.
At the end of the day, whether or not the Seahawks make the jump to playoff team seems to me to come down to adaptability on offense. How does Bilal Powell do in a pass free Jets offense? Does Charone Peake take advantage to win playing time? Does Martavis Bryant return to form as the Steelers #2 after his suspension issues, or is he not the same player he was? Can CJ Prosise win the starting job in Seattle? And can a guy like Sterling Shephard make the jump? If the answer is yes, I think this team has the horses to challenge Arizona. But I give Arizona the edge because I think they are a surer thing – and because I like that defense a bit better from a fantasy perspective.
San Francisco 49ers (7-9):
Reviewing the 49ers roster feels a bit like riding a carnival roller coaster, ululating between young stars and spectacular players and black holes of nothing-ness. My brain kept saying “OMG, they have THAT guy? This team could be awesome!” and then following that up with “oh, but they have no quarterback” or “Sheldon Richardson is a boss-man!” but then “the rest of the defensive line isn’t very good” or “Robert Alford is a fantasy stud” followed by “but the rest of that secondary is pretty bad.”
While most teams rebuild by drafting a broad array of players and watching them grow up together, the 49ers are rebuilding by peaks and valleys. It’s not so much a matter of letting the young kids grow together as it is plugging in pieces to the weak spots. It’s snakes and leaders to a tee.
So what are the snakes and what are the ladders? I’m so glad you asked. Because we’re positive here in these parts, let’s start with them ladders!
The starting WRs (Corey Coleman and Michael Thomas) are studs. It’s very possible that SF could have two starting WRs on two strong passing offenses.
Tight End – Potentially resurgent Austin Sea-Faring Jenkins teams with Hunter “Land-lubbing” Henry to form one of the best TE groups in the league, and definitely the best young TE duo in the league
Sheldon Richardson – He’s a beastman. He turns at full moons. He might be slightly real-life better than fantasy good, but he’s still a beastman.
The Linebacking Corps – Hau’oli Kikaha, Manti Te’o, and Ram’ik Wil’s’on (apostrophes intentional. Ramik’s earned those apostrophes, dammit!) are all fantastic linebackers. Aaron Lynch, Lorenzo Mauldin, and Sio Moore come off the bench, making this a powerful and overstocked Linebacking group.
The Injured Reserve – Quincy Enunwa, Derek Rivers, Malcolm Smith, and Aaron Colvin. All starters. All with boss potential. All done for the year.
Quarterback – this is what comes of being a Jets fan. Scott Tolzien, Bryce Petty, and Christian Hackenberg. Yeeouch. That’s the big nasty snake that brings you all the way back to square 2.
Running Back – Shane Vereen has been a fantastically underrated PPR RB stud for a long time in this league. Basically since I was born. Every year, people get surprised by him. But this year, without a clear role, he’s not exactly who you want as your #1. Matt Jones is down to third string, and even having a fullback ain’t going to quite get it done…
Most of the secondary – The recently extended Robert Alford is a bulwark, but the rest of the group is going to struggle a bit. TJ Green is a reserve. Vontae Davis is meh from a fantasy perspective.
Injuries – We listed the IR as a strength, but of course it’s also a weakness, bringing down key players from the receiving corps, the secondary, and D-line. Four IR visits in training camp is high, and it will handicap everyone.
Sum – sum, this team has some excellent building blocks – but I think the holes and the injuries keep them out for another year.
Los Angeles Rams (6-10): If there’s one thing the NFC has been able to brag about since Real Deal’s inception (beyond being the better conference by FAR), it has been consistency at the bottom. Each and every division has had a dynasty squad with an unrelenting grip on ineptitude. Washington in the East, Minnesota in the North, Tampa Bay to a lesser extent in the South, and the LA Rams in the West. In the AFC, only the Jets have had a similar monopoly on last place. It’s a hard, hard place to be in, and a hard, hard place to get out of.
That said, these LA Rams are showing real signs of life, stockpiling youth and talent on the offensive side of the ball and less talent but more depth on defense. It’s not quite ready to pay off, but all the signs are there of a team ready to rise. Marcus Mariota is a franchise QB , and a young receiving corps of Tyrell Williams, Zay Jones, Kenny Stills, and Marqise Goodwin should put real, actual points on the board. Can you IMAGINE what would happen if Marqise Goodwin ever get a “u”? Samaje Perrine isn’t necessarily ready to take over the starting job today, but the smart money is on him having it next year. Jared Cook and Xavier Grimble are passable at Tight End, and if Charles Sims can take the Muscle Hamster’s job, this squad could be legitimately productive.
The defense is a little less young and a little more meh, but it does have some real potential bright spots of its own (T.J. Watt, please stand up). The rest of the defense is littered with a plethora of high end mediocrity – guys who aren’t going to startle or amaze, but who are absolutely legitimate, decent players who can start on NFL football teams. Guys like Bob Ayers, Michael Brockers and Cedric Thornton on the line, Nick Perry and Derrick Morgan in the middle, and Marcus Cooper, EJ Gaines, Rodney McCleod and Darian Stewart in the secondary. There’s not a name on that list that fills anyone with legitimate terror – but every one of those players is qualified to play football.
This team needs to learn how to win. I still think they pick up a 4th place finish, but I think it’s a lot closer than a lot of people think, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see the Rams finish second. Things are looking up in Lala land.
Here’s the thing for the West – it’s Arizona’s division this year, but this place is going to be a bloodbath in 2018-2020. Arizona isn’t collapsing any time soon, but all three of the other teams have trajectories pointed solidly up. There’s not a Miami level rocketship or an obvious dominant team in the lot, but all have the misfortune to be moving in the right direction at the same time. The NFC West is going to be boring for one more year, but starting next year, this becomes AFC North level carnage!
Oakland Raiders (10-6): Another year, another dogfight. It’s starpower central out in the Bay Area, as Aaron Rodgers finds Dez Bryant, Jordan Matthews (freed to once again be the only receiver who matters on a team that will need to throw a fair bit), and Tyler Eifert (healthy… for now), with Jonathan Stew Beef coming out of the backfield. Add to this Karl Joseph taking the heads off of receivers, TJ Ward taking the football off of receivers, and Preston Brown and Jordan Hicks tackling literally everything that moves.
Like its Bay Area brother, San Francisco, though, the Raiders have their own fair share of question marks. The last two offensive starters are badly unsettled, with third stringer Jalen Richard battling third stringer Donnel Pumphrey, unproven wideout Brandon Coleman, Hall of Fame Game darling Brice Butler, and blocking tight end Benji Watson for the slots. Of the Raider’s five defensive ends, not one is currently starting for its team.
Oakland is a Jekyll and Hyde team. The top 5 on offense are fantastic. After that? The roster falls off a cliff. The Linebacking group of Brown, Hicks, Paul Worrilow, Hassan Reddick, and Korey Toomer is one of the best in the league, and the secondary of Joseph, Ward, Sean Smith, and TJ Carrie is likewise excellent. But the defensive line is in shambles and there’s not much depth at all to back up some injury prone starters.
The Raiders literally do this every year. They bring a boom and bust group of high end stars with limitless potential and a handful of question marks to the table and ride them right to the border of greatness, without ever quite crossing the line and entering in to the promised land. Something always keeps them out – the continuing meltdown of Josh Gordon, injures to guys like Eifert and Bryant, underperforming draft picks, or just the absolutely horrific luck of losing three games in a single year by under a point. Oakland has dealt with it all. Like Moses actually hitting the rock instead of talking to it, something always seems to go wrong.
It’s a hard roster to predict. But I never bet against Aaron Rodgers and a great secondary all at the same time. And to be honest, the Raiders are more than due for a little luck.
Kansas City Chiefs (10-6): The Chiefs have been the model of consistency as the only RDFL team to make the playoffs in every year of RDFL’s existence. But they’ve never been great, never making a Super Bowl and only once truly threatening a berth. It seems relatively likely that both streaks will continue this year, as Kansas City is once again a solid squad, but once again seems very likely to fall short of excellence – and, if things break the wrong way, could fall very far short.
Alex Smith, whose play is a microcosm of this team, heads a squad of platoon running backs (Wendell Smallwood, Giovani Bernard, Derrick Henry, Rob Kelley), injury prone tight ends (Jordan Reed and AJ Derby), Jordy Nelson (AWESOME!), and questionable receivers (Pierre Garcon, Tavon Austin, Chris Conley, and Randall Cobb). The defense is likewise strong but vulnerable, with Dante Fowler under arrest, Darron Lee in trouble, Kyle Williams old, and most of the entire Linebacking core (Justin Houston, Derrick Johnson and Reggie Ragland) having sustained season ending injuries within the last two years.
If things go well, one of the RBs will end up feature, Pierre Garcon and Chris Conley become target hogs, Randall Cobb regains his form, Jordan Reed stays healthy, Jordy Nelson stays healthy, the linebackers stay healthy, and the defensive line plays up to expectations, the Chiefs could get over the hump. But there’s enough question marks here, particularly on the health front, that this team could also fail to make the playoffs for the first time in RDFL’s history. Split the difference, and we have a war with the Raiders for the AFC West crown and/or a wildcard berth. Same as it ever was.
Los Angeles Chargers (6-10): LA Chargers. Yeah, I’m not getting used to that. It’s going to be a rough year for the Chargers as they get used to their new digs. It’s going to be a relatively rough year for the Chargers in fantasy as well. This team is led, as always, by their eternal lord and god, Philip Rivers, who has helmed their team since the words “groovy” and “swell” were invented. And he has a nice defense to help him along this year.
The Chargers are a stingy unit that should absolutely get after people. Taco Charlton is a great pick and joins an absolutely vicious defensive line which already had Cameron Wake, Corey Liuget, and Margus Hunt, as well as the great “nope, I’m not even going to try to spell it”. The secondary is excellent as well, with Eric Weddle, Calvin Pryor, Prince Amukamura (angling to murder his father and become King), Robert McClain, and Budda Baker all angling for key roles and putting up the points – and that’s not even counting Deone Bucannon, who should be back with a vengeance. Things fall down a bit at LB (Spencer Paysinger and Benardrick McKinney ain’t quite all that and a bag o’ chips – no chips to be seen, not even pringles), but its still an excellent defense overall.
The offense, though… less so much. After Rivers, there is Travis Benjamin… and then a whole lot of the opposite of serene tacos. More like stressed out tofu salads. Ryan Matthews is in a better position than usual because he’s not an injury risk… but that’s because he doesn’t have a job. The running back with the closest thing to an opportunity is Troymaine Pope. Antonio Gates is still alive and back for more, but has certainly lost a step and Gavin Escobar hasn’t picked one up. The lackluster receiving group of Stevie Johnson, Jermaine Kearse, and Justin Hunter isn’t saving anyone.
It’s not a bad Chargers team – it has a decent defense. But the 2017 edition of LA reminds me of the last few editions of Indy – a quarterback, a solid defense, and an offense that could average 30 a week. It’s enough to be competitive and annoying many weeks – but not enough to contend for a division championship.
Denver Broncos (6-10): Joining the Chargers in the “teams that are solid enough to be competitive, but not strong enough to win a division” division are the Denver Broncos. The Broncos do have some really promising puzzle pieces, but their hopes took a major hit when Paxton Lynch lost the starting job. it’s hard to compete in this league without a starting QB.
Essentially, the Broncos are the anti-chargers (I guess this makes them the run-away-at-a-fast-pacers? The routers? The brave, brave, brave, sir robins? You tell me.). If you combined the two teams, you’d have an unstoppable team. The Chargers have a great QB, the Broncos have a benchwarmer. The Broncos have solid offensive playmakers like Demaryius Thomas, Jack Doyle, Marshawn Lynch, and DeSean Jackson… the Chargers don’t. The Chargers have a fantastic defensive line and an excellent secondary but struggle at linebacker… the Broncos have a fantastic linebacking trio of Ahmad Brooks, Danny Trevathan, and Kyle Van Noy, with Preston Smith at backup, but struggle on the line and have Chris Harris Jr and not a whole lot else in the secondary. I sincerely hope these teams don’t join forces.
Which team do I think is going to play better? Well, the name appeal gives the edge to the Broncos – it’s hard to bet against Demaryius, DeSean, Beast Mode, and Jack Doyle, particularly when guys like Cole Beasley, DeAndre Washington, and Jeff Janis are providing a modicum of production behind them. So that’s my temptation.
But if there’s one thing we’ve learned over the last few years in this league, it is that the better defense usually wins. Indy is competitive every year with Luck and a defense. Teams like Buffalo, Pittsburgh, the Giants, the Chiefs, and even the Lions have won their divisions with defense. There’s just more players and more consistency over a 12 week, 16 game season. Combined with that Paxton Lynch shaped zero at Quarterback, I think Denver faces at least one more year in the cellar – not a pleasant prospect for a team that doesn’t own either its first or second round picks in 2018.
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.
Four years in the books. Four different champions. Eight different Super Bowl participants. Only one team has made the playoffs in every year of the league’s existence. This is a tough league to win. All of which makes this coming year all the more exciting. Who will win it all in 2017? And who can possibly wait for the end of the year to find out?
No worries, my friends! The season is largely unnecessary. A mere formality. I’m about to tell you who is going to win. So pull up a chair and get ready to have your mind filled with brilliant prognostication! With my 0/4 record of predicting championships and 1/8 run of predicting Super Bowl participants (Buffalo 2015, I see you), you can certainly trust my analysis.
But before I get to it, one final apology. Detroit and Houston both had epic playoff runs last year on the way to Super Bowl glory. They deserved to be covered, chronicled, an heaped with praise week in and week out. But I was a slacker last year and did not give either of them the writing or the credit they deserved. I can’t really fix that now – but please guys, accept my heartfelt apologies for not giving you the column space you both so richly deserved!
On to the predictions – this year, we begin with the South divisions. I’m pretty sure I haven’t started there before. But it’s also possible that I think that every year, and have started with them three years running. Whatever. I’ll get to everyone, so hold your horses! 🙂
Houston Texans (11-5): It’s hard to repeat as the AFC Champion. And in a division as competitive as the AFC South, it may be hard to even get a repeat playoff berth. But the Texans, my friends, are loaded for the bear. How so? Well, the Texans have pursued a startlingly effective strategy I eloquently like to call “Find the scarce resource and hoard the shit out of it”. In this case, that scarce resource is workhorse running backs. With the rise of platoons, actual stud workhorse running backs have gone the way of the Dodo bird and the well-paying coal mining job. You can’t find them. You can’t bring them back from China. They are extinct. Except for in Houston. That’s the one place you can still find a classic RB1. At one point this off-season, Houston had David Johnson, Jordan Howard, Mike Gillislee, and Carlos Hyde all chilling on the roster. Even after flipping Hyde for a king’s ransom, the Texans are still sitting on what could be three of the leagues top ten backs, and very likely two of the top five. That’s silly, and as a liberal, I am well within my rights to demand running back redistribution.
The problem for the rest of the league is that the rest of this team is good too. Jameis Winston looks like a franchise QB, Austin Hooper is poised to break out at Tight End, and while the receiving corps won’t finish among the league’s best, a combination of Chris Hogan, Donte Moncrief, Ted Ginn and Tonic, and Kenny Golladay should get the job done. Defensively, this time is well set up to stop the pass with an excellent secondary of Jonathan Cyprien, Desmond Trufant, and Earl Thomas anchoring the defensive backfield. The ancient and oft-injured Brian Cushing is joined in the defensive secondary by the less ancient but still injured Bruce Irvin and the rarely injured but sometimes high Chandler Jones. It seems complicated. But it’s a good complicated. Even the defensive front line, which should be this squad’s weakness, received a solid infusion of talent with Solomon Thomas.
This team isn’t a super team. It’s not going to death march folks the way we’ve seen with some squads. But it’s very good. It lacks weaknesses. And I anticipate a lot of games where the Texans bring in the jumbo set, hand it off a billion teams, and pound the rest of us to dust.
Tennessee Titans (8-8):
Every year, I declare that Tennessee is an up and coming young team. Improving. Young stars. Getting better and better. Last year, I thought they were in contention, but potentially a year away. They got close. And Houston was supposed to get old, paving the way for the rebuild to become the winner. Somehow, though, Houston got young instead of getting old. I’m not sure how that works. And I’m not sure Tennessee has the horses to get over the top – despite being a better team with increasing star power.
There’s no question that this squad will go as far as Odell Beckham Jr. will take them. He’s a stud, and one of the best receivers in the game when his head is on straight, finishing second only to Antonio Brown in WR points. He’ll get some help too, as Sam Bradford is clearly ensconced as the starter in Minnesota and Paul Perkins is set to take over as the unquestioned starter for the Giants. Ndamukong Suh and Danielle Hunter anchor what should be a vicious, fantastic front line, and the Linebacking group and secondary were solid pieces even before the addition of Jaylon Brown.
That said, I just think there are two many question marks here – still. Tennessee needs high caliber contributions from guys like Dwayne Allen, Jimmy Smith, Russell Shepard, Tajae Sharp, and Devin Funchess, and outside of the linebacking group, just doesn’t have a lot of depth. Aside from OBJ, the team also doesn’t have the super high end players that can make up for that lack of depth.
I think this team will be good. I think it has the potential to be very, very good. But some how, some way, this squad doesn’t have the same feel of magic I’ve been looking at for the past couple of years – and it will be one of the season’s more intriguing story lines to see if they can recapture it.
Indianapolis Colts (7-9):
Luck… to Edelman…. Touchdown! Luck… to Edelman… Touchdown! Luck… uhoh… looks like they have 7 guys covering Edelman… Luck… uh… throws it away.
That was the 2016 addition of the Colts. A solid defense, a quarterback who defines franchise, a stud receiver (when not posing for the body issue or fighting Stephon Gilmore), and a whole lot of nothing else. It’s hard to win with 35 point offensive performances in this league.
Will it be different in 2017? It could be. Will Fuller is a oozing with potential. Err… never mind. The pundits are saying good things about Troy Niklas, who certainly has the inside track to a starting role. Deonte Thompson… well. Ok. I’ll stop. To make the playoffs, the Colts would need a series of breaks including an injury to Spencer Ware freeing up the massively overpriced Charcandrick West for a starting role, Bruce Ellington surviving both competition and the offensive dead zone that is San Francisco, and rookie additions like Jonnu Smith and Wayne Gallman making unexpected noise. It’s bleak.
The defense is solid, but a little nondescript. Landon Collins is fantastic, and anchors a secondary that should be the strength of the defense with both cagey vets like Antoine Bethea and rising youngsters like Eli Apple. It’s a similar meshing of the old and new inside where the Colts are hoping to coax one more your from the dessicating body of Brian Orakpo while young guns like Blake Martinez continue their rise to prominence.
As I always do, I’m going back and forth on this roster. It’s got some nice pieces, and some decent depth. But the offense…. but maybe Gallman and Niklas will be great… but it’s still only four players… but the defense… is it good? Or decent? Or bad? Maybe this team could be sneaky good? Maybe… In the end, I think this famous graphic sums up my feelings…
Jacksonville Jaguars (6-10): The Jagulars (spelling intentional) have become the new Tennessee Titans – full of potential, burgeoning with young talent, and not quite ready to win yet. If this was 2020, I would be all in on the Jags. A finally starting Jimmy Garoppolo would be chucking touchdowns to veteran statesman Marqise Lee and all around studs Cooper Kupp and Rashard Higgins, while David Njoku has ascended to a top 5 TE role and Kareem Hunt is a first round pick in normal fantasy drafts. On defense, guys like Jalen Ramsey and Malik Hooker form a new legion of boom, and Yannick Ngakoue continues to sack everyone who can’t spell his name (which is everyone). This team looks silly good then.
However, it’s 2017, not 2020. So Jimmy Garoppolo continues to languish on the bench behind the Darth Vader of
football, putting up a weekly zero. Kupp, Higgins, Njoku and Hunt will face depth chart struggles and rookie bumps. Like Indianapolis, this team has the potential to score an exceptionally small number of offensive points on a weekly basis. Unlike Indy, this team does not have a starting QB, and Marqise Lee is not Julian Edelman. There will be growing pains.
That said, Jacksonville is going to be a pain in the arse to play against this year for contenders. The reason is that defense. It’s straight up exceptional, and doesn’t need to wait a long time to be so. We’ve already mentioned Ngakoue, who is a bone fide stud. But listen to this group of young stars: Ngakoue, Jabaal Sheard, Bud Dupree, CJ Mosley, Linval Joseph Mark Barron, Bashaud Breeland, Jalen Ramsey, Malik Hooker, Kamalei Correa. That’s without even mentioning Trae Waynes, Obum Gwachum, and Kevin Byard.
Very quietly, the Jags have put together a core of talent on both sides of the ball that could position them to dominate the AFC for years to come. The defense is ready much earlier than the offense – but that could just mean another high draft pick or two while the young guys develop.
That said, young talent is notoriously unreliable. Guys you think will be franchise players don’t pan out and randoms ascend to stardom. Will Jacksonville take Tennessee’s path on an exciting ride to fizzle-city, or actually make the leap? It will be fun to see, and I like the plan.
NFC South: A word to the wise, the moderately wise, and the dumbass who traded Paul Perkins for Wendell Smallwood straight up (what a fool, that guy!): the NFC South is a brutal division. I maintain that all four squads last year were playoff caliber, with Atlanta, Carolina, and New Orleans all in possession of Super Bowl Champion rosters. Not only has this division produced one out of four of our Super Bowl champions, it has also produced the closest thing we’ve seen to an undefeated season (New Orleans) and some of the best divisional races year in, year out.
It’s going to be the same old story this year.
Carolina Panthers (10-6): Never start a land war in Asia. Never draft a kicker before the last round of a fantasy draft. Never bet against Carolina. Remember those three maxims, my son, and you will do well in both life and afterlife. The Panthers are quiet, unassuming, and deadly. Like a Canadian Jason Bourne with bruised vocal cords.
It starts at the top this year, where the great Dabbasaurus Rex is ready for a rebound year, replete with running and passing scores. It continues on defense, where the linebacking trio of Luke Kuechly, Alex Okafor, and Melvin Ingram should be one of the league’s best. It continues in proximity to Philadelphia where the recently arrived LeGarrette Blount should grab a feature back role (albeit in a pass driven offense), the recently departed Bennie Logan should dominate up front for KC, and the recently rich Zach Ertz should hopefully get over that sophomore and junior slump and emerge into stardom.
Beyond that, this team has solidity and depth at every position. Mark Ingram is a strong second back (unless AP steals his job, which I doubt), Fast Willie Snead and Robert “Are we out of the Woods yet?” will provide some excellent receiving options. Steve Smith and Eddie Royal will even keep Carolina competitive in the retirement home league, and MIchael Floyd and Michael Thomas will keep them competitive in the rehab league. Carl Lawson and Jamal Adams show that this team still has youth, and the roster on both sides of the ball is filled out with quality players. Depth. Everywhere.
So what’s the problem? The lack of sure things and the level of competition. What if Ingram does lose his job, or end up
in a platoon? What if Ertz is eclipsed by all the Eagles new receivers, Wentz has a sophomore slump, and Doug Peterson inexplicably forgets to hand the ball off to LeGarrette Blount at the goal line? What if last year was not a fluke for Cam, but the new reality? What if Kuechly gets inured? A lot would have to go wrong for Carolina to be a bad team. But like the Tony the Tiger challenge, in this division, it’s not enough to be good, you’ve got to be Grrrreeeaaat!
Atlanta Falcons (10-6):
On paper, the Falcons look like the best team in the AFC South. After repeatedly fleecing the old Cowboys owner in trades, triumphantly drafting Jared Goff, and then somewhat less triumphantly grabbing both Carson Palmer and Mike Glennon to start until Jared Goff starts playing like a quarterback at the level of a Brian Hoyer or Brock Osweiler, the Falcons should be ready to fly.
And I mean fly. This team packs a silly one-two punch at receiver with Julio Jones and Kelvin Benjamin, and backs that nonsense up with Mohammed Sanu and John Brown. There’s a lot of speed and a lot of receptions to be had in that wide receiving corps. Julius “not so caesar-like now” Thomas underwhelmed last year, but is looking to bounce back with his new strategy of “think like a defensive back”. It apparently doesn’t work to try to catch balls when Blake Bortles is trying to throw it to you, so if you have an interception mindset, it should double your receptions. If it sticks, he could be good. Training camp concussions are a concern for Jay Ajayi, and being Eddie Lacy is a concern for Eddie Lacy, but there’s enough firepower and depth here that the offense should be excellent.
On defense, this team’s strength is in the middle, with Zach Thomas, Christian Kirksey, Thomas Davis, and Sean Lee providing a silly Linebacking group that could also be a law firm (Davis, Thomas, Lee, and Kirksey – Attorneys at Law). Interestingly enough, all the last names could be first names too, though the guy named Kirksey would probably get made fun of). There’s also some major beef in the middle of the front line, monsters like Ra’Shede Hageman (warcraft villain), A’Shawn Robinson, Michael Bennett and Clinton McDonald. The trick is that some of these guys are better at eating blockers than ballcarriers, so actual tackles and points could be harder to come by. But it’s a big, high potential group of guys. The secondary could be the Falcs achilles heel. Brett Grimes is good, but on the downside of his career, the Robinsons (Josh and Patrick) aren’t quite there yet, and aren’t quite good either, and Tony Jefferson faces injury concerns.
End of the day, it should be a high-scoring pass-happy affair when the Falcons play anybody, and I think this could be the year when Atlanta gets over the top. But I don’t ever bet against Carolina. That’s not a game you can win. It’s rigged by the house. Or the Russians.
New Orleans Saints (7-9):
Oh N’awlins. I love your accents. I love your mysticism, your haunted cemetary tours, your voodoo peoples, your catfish (so, so good!) and your strange housing styles. I love your team. I love your QB. And I love what this could look like if everything broke right.
But I do not like your questions marks. I do not like them Sam I Am. Not in a division like this. Not in the mighty South. Atlanta and Carolina have certainty at key spots, and redundancy behind them just in case. It’s more layers of redundancy than a Trump speech. They have good players. They have the best players. People tell them all the time they have the best players.
New Orleans, though, is risky. New Orleans is a Casino. New Orleans is a huge bet on self-driving cars. And in this division… I can’t take that bet.
So what are the sure things? Well, Drew Brees is as sure as they come. And I suppose we can put Golden Tate in that camp as well. He’s not certain, but signs definitely point to him being a really good bet this year. Brandon Graham and Jordan Cameron gonna sack some folk. Malcolm Jenkins will show up with his patented blend of great plays and blown coverages to score fantasy points and receive acclaim for his “leadership.” James Harrison will be reasonably productive on the field and exceptionally productive saying mean things about Roger Goodell. And Kiko Alonso will get hurt a couple weeks in. Dude is as bad as Jordan Reed for that nonsense…
But that’s about where it ends. There are question marks about literally every other player on the roster, including both the kicker and the punter. This roster resembles nothing so much as one of those hideous “summer math packets” the teachers used to assign when you were in middle school because it has so many questions. Those summer-ruining bastards. And it’s being perpetuated, you know. My 13 year old daughter has a 23 page math packet to do over the summer. The summer. There’s a lot of bitter divide in Washington, but can’t we all come together to ban this nonsense? Literally nobody is in favor of summer homework, and if you are a teacher, and you assign it, you are a bad person and lack moral agency. Period.
Ahem. Anyway. Let’s talk about the question marks and associated questions:
Darren Sproles: When does your age catch up with you? It’s chasing you like the wolf in the Duran Duran song, and it wants to eat you. Also, when does graduating from K-State catch up with you? That’s a huge negative, and I have no clue how you’ve been a productive member of society with that ball and chain.
JJ Nelson: Do you get passes thrown to you this year? Or nah bro?
Jimmy Graham: Can you be good again?
Joe Williams: Can you supplant Carlos Hyde? If not, how do you deal with that? How do you find the self-esteem to keep going? Also, do you work at a button factory?
CJ F.: Can you finally beat Ryan Griffin? I thought platoons at running back were bad, but platoons at tight end? No thank you because fuck it very much.
James Connor: How did you get so much hype on a team with Le’Veon Bell? How? You have a fabulous publicist, my good sir.
Sammie Coates: Are you a possible stud, or is your confidence shot to Venezuela?
Anthony Barr: Does your coach like you?
Steven Nelson: Wait, who are you? I don’t think I’ve ever heard of you before.
Rafael Bush: Will you be productive as a third guy like you have in the past? Also, how have you been that good and never been a starter for literally your entire career?
Andrew Franks: Are you the kicker?
Anthony Dixon: Are you my mother?
See? Question marks everywhere. If things break right (Sammie Coates is a star, Jimmy Graham returns to form, Anthony Barr becomes a boss, CJ Fiedorowicz catches touchdowns, and the various defensive guys I didn’t list because I ran out of pithy questions play up to their potential, this could be a great team and the Saints could return to the top of the division. But when you have questions against sure things, I’ll go with the sure things. It’s all about probabilities… which I apparently now do in the summer for fun. ::SIGH:: I have become that which I hate.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-10): Poor, poor Tampa Bay. This team keeps getting this close to being good, and can’t quite get over the top. Tampa Bay is to RDFL is what Hillary Clinton is to the presidency. A favorite for the presidency for like twelve years. Super closer in two elections. Wins the popular vote. Not president. Tampa keeps pulling the same stunt – good team for the last three years. Strong players. Good drafts. Good free agent pickups. Not quite able to get over the hump.
More of the same, this year, unfortunately, as the division has stayed strong, but Tampa Bay has taken steps back. Doug Martin is facing threats to his job. Vincent Jackson isn’t on a roster anymore. Josh McCown plays for the Jets. Alfred Morris and Jermaine Gresham have successfully recovered from idiopathic bouts of talent, and the roster, tragically, has Blaine Gabbert on it. Jadaveon Clowney is a bit of a bust and Chris Conte is losing his job to JJ Wilcox.
The defense is still going to be fantastic. Any squad with Lavonte David and Von Miller starting next to each other is going to be absolutely ferocious. Gerald McCoy is still a good player with a good personality, and Aqib Talib is still a good player with a bad personality. The defense is going to put up points, and the offense is going to be much better than say, Indy and Jacksonville. But in this ridiculous division, I just don’t think it’s enough. Not by a long shot. I like Tampa Bay, and I keep rooting for them. But end of the day, it will not be Tampa Bay atop the South for another division. It’s a conspiracy!
On the flip side of teams outperforming their preseason rankings are a number of teams that, so far, aren’t living up to their respective expectations. Some are less drastic than others, but let’s take a look at three teams that aren’t perhaps where they expected to be in July.
Detroit Tigers (30-28, 15th place).
Going into the season, Detroit was ranked 10th overall, so sitting at 15th isn’t too drastic a fall. That said, this is a team that was a playoff team and a division winner in 2016. So to be sitting at 3rd place in your own division is slightly disappointing. Things can change though, so let’s see where the Tigers are in about a month.
2. New York Mets (21-37, 19th place).
Heading into 2017, the New York Mets were ranked 12th, just ahead of the current 4th place Marlins. At this point, I cited the team’s offensive depth. At the time, Jason Heyward, Gerardo Parra, Michael Brantley, and Brett Lawrie were all on the team’s bench. Parra is hurt, Lawrie is not on an MLB roster, Heyward got hurt for a while, and even though Brantley has been playing well, he also got hurt. He is getting nice contributions from Renfroe, Simmons, JBJ, Realmuto, DeGrom, and Fulmer, but has been hurt by injuries to players like Hernandez, Syndergaard, and Harvey. However, he now has a healthy Matz, and with some luck with players like Lugo and Felix, maybe his pitching staff could look a lot better.
Chicago Cubs (36-22, 13th place).
So, yeah, the Cubs are still very good. But they won it all last year and were ranked #2 going into the season. I wouldn’t say there is anything glaring that stands out as to why the Cubs aren’t quite as dominate this year. They did trade away players like Carlos Carrasco and Hanley Ramirez, but there is still plenty of talent. There are a lot of injuries on the pitching staff too, with expected key contributors like Kyle Hendricks, Mark Melancon, Tyler Thornburg, and Ryan Dull on the DL. So despite being in 2nd place in his division (with the Cardinals looming behind), the Cubs probably aren’t a team to count out.
Note: I went with three since I really couldn’t come up with five. These aren’t as drastic as the overperforming teams, but I still thought it would be worthwhile to point out, or to at least get a conversation going.
Maligned as it may be—particularly by owners in areas with high populations of Cubans—the preseason power rankings were rather accurate. Out of the predicted top 15 from the preseason, 9 teams are currently sitting in the “actual” top 15: Yankees, Marlins, Royals, Astros, Indians, Diamondbacks, Red Sox, Cubs, and Brewers. Not bad. That said, the predictions certainly have their outliers in the form of teams that are both defying expectations, and failing to meet them.
Here are the five teams that are defying the expectations most drastically thus far:
Los Angeles Dodgers (25-15, 348 points)
This isn’t as drastic a difference as the other teams, but in the preseason, the Dodgers were ranked #18, and as of now, they sit at #12 overall. The preseason prognosis suggested that they team may be negatively impacted by starting three players that were currently in the minors, but the team added Aaron Hicks and saw some timely call-ups, so they find themselves with a winning record as we approach the summer.
Colorado Rockies (24-16, 9454.779 points)
Projected to be the 22nd best team this preseason, the Rockies are currently sitting in 15th overall. As noted in the preseason, though, the pitching staff is still lacking. A very strong offense led by Charlie Blackmon, Corey Dickerson, and Eduardo Nunez has propelled them to a winning record, however. If you factor in a ‘bounce back’ from Trevor Story, there is no reason to believe that the Rockies won’t be able to win plenty of games throughout the season.
Miami Marlins (34-6, 11092.757 points)
For whatever reason, the preseason points projections had the Marlins at #13. Right now, they are the #4 overall team, and #2 in points overall. As I pointed out this preseason though, the Marlins were a lot likely to be in the top 5-10 than they were outside of it by the mid-season, and here they are. Barring injuries, I expect Miami to stay here for the remainder of the season, being led by someone pretending to be Ryan Zimmerman, Corey Seager, Christian Yelich, Mark Reynolds, Dee Gordon, and of course, Mike Trout, when he returns.
New York Yankees (28-12, 10651 points)
Preseason rankings had the Yankees sitting at #14 overall, but here they are #6, and one of only 7 teams to score 10,000 points or more at this point in the year. Last year, the Yankees made 59 mostly non minor-to-majors trades. Players acquired in these deals that are currently helping the team sit just outside of the top 5 include Justin Upton, Chris Carter, and Brandon Phillips. Goes to show that if you have the ammo and you think you can make a run, go ahead and trade those picks and prospects!
St. Louis Cardinals (25-16, 9232.787 points)
Sometimes, the predictions are way off. The Cardinals were predicted to be the 7th-worst team in the league in the preseason, but here they are, battling for playoff position, at #10 overall, at 25-15. Preseason notes indicate that the Cardinals had too many rookies in starting positions, and that the pitching staff was too thin. In looking at the roster now, all the starting positions have players that are active and scoring points (some more than others, granted). That said, the staff still looks thin, but once healthy, the Cardinals have a lot of depth on offense to either make up for it, or to trade for some pitching help. Consider this, if these players get healthy, between his current DL and bench he has: Marwin Gonzalez, Kolten Wong, Martin Prado, and Yasmany Tomas.
Baltimore needs a 1st baseman. This is the first thing I noticed when looking at the team. First base is a position that can represent a fantasy cornerstone player. (See Miguel Cabrera, Anthony Rizzo, Paul Goldschmidt, Joey Votto, etc.) Without one, it will be hard. There are a few bright spots on the offense though, with DJ LeMahieu and Stephen Piscotty. The rest of the outfield should be decent, but probably not quite strong enough. On the pitching side, it’s hard not like Gausman going into the year, especially on that contract. Bundy could be a break-through, too, but I feel like I have been saying this for years. Overall there is some talent, but it feels like a stretch to say this team will be competing this year, especially in that division.
Philly is a team that has yet to make any moves this year, which is curious. On offense, Pedroia, Franco, and Trumbo are good bets to be solid consistent producers. Franco could even be someone who could improve drastically. Rupp is someone I like this year too, at a thin position. The rest of the offense is more of a question mark. Hernandez and Joseph, if they progress, could be nice. Bourn, Werth, Guyer, and Lowrie, not as exciting, though they will at least provide some points, unlike some teams who have rookies or injured players in these slots. For the arms, not much stands out beyond Hamels and Watson, though I do think that Greg Holland has the chance to be a steal, and would make for excellent trade bait, or a good keeper. Nova should be okay too, but is a little expensive. In fact, this team is more than $20 over the limit, so moves already have to be made. In summary, probably not a staff that can be a huge difference maker.
Los Angeles Dodgers
On first glance, I notice that this is certainly a team with talent, but there are also three minor league players in starting positions. This helps in terms of fielding a compliant roster, but that’s about it. Still: Manny Machado, Jose Ramirez, Clayton Kershaw, and to a lesser extent, Adrian Gonzalez, Yadier Molina, and maybe even Puig and Duda, who knows. There are some guys I like on that staff that could be sneaky good, too. Walker (NL now…could be in for a big year), Baez, Strop, Ottavino, and in particular, Matt Moore. Still, there are some holes on the roster in the form of those minor leaguers. And if a team is going to be carried by its offense, that outfield isn’t all that intimidating. Don’t sleep on the Dodgers, though. There’s a large farm system, with some good names. Trades or call-ups could change this team’s outlook, as obvious as that may sound. Though he would have to make some changes, after not making a single trade in 2016. Finish Reading: 2017 Real Deal Dynasty Baseball Preseason Power Rankings: 20-11
Toronto Blue Jays
Starting with the offense, this is a pretty solid roster. Not really a glaring hole, but aside from Carpenter and Polanco, there are some question marks. Will Buxton will emerge? Will Vargas reach his power potential? Can Reyes still play at a high level? I’m willing to guess that for at least one of these, the answer will be yes. On the pitching side, there are certainly some steady contributors. For one, I am a believer in Marcus Stroman, and think he comes back strong this year. Manaea is another player I like to take a jump this year too. The bullpen is unspectacular, but there are players that will contribute. Keep an eye on Cam Bedrosian, who has been lights out this spring. His name is one that could be a lot more popular come mid-season. Lastly, this is another deep farm system, with multiple top-100 prospects, which provides hope for the help in the future, or ammo for in-season trades for a more immediate run.
San Francisco Giants
The future down we get, the more you see a “complete team.” And by that I mean literally, a team with all spots filled. In every spot on this offense, there are players that are going to contribute consistent points, or will at least be given the opportunity to do so on a regular or semi-regular basis. Some more (Posey, Seager, Pence), than others (Mahtook, Jay, Smoak), but still, points are points. In looking at the pitching staff, your eyes may first go to Bumgarner. Hard not to. But Ian Kenndy, and then bullpen names like Jeffress, Madson, and Strickland should put up some good points. And maybe Keuchel has a year closer to 2015, or at least better than 2016. Of note here, too, is the fact that the Giants also have plenty of players in the farm system.
I think this could be a sneaky good offense. Let’s start with the obvious contributors: Wieters, Pujols, Jones, Kemp. But what about Thames, Haniger, Polanco, and maybe even Saladino? You’ll also have some decent contributions from Gomez and Garcia. Could potentially be a deeper offense than it seems, if one of those aforementioned question marks can break out. Regarding the pitching staff, though, this isn’t as much depth. Sure, Teheran and Ramos will offer plenty of points, but some of the other names are quite average, Dickey, Garcia, Koehler, or even just not very good, Peralta, Knebel. German Marquez could be a nice sleeper though. Not a bad minors’ system here, either, with top 100 names like Albies, Allard, and Anderson in the mix.
New York Yankees
Last year, the Yankees made 59 trades, most of which were non minor-to-majors moves. The team improved from 8-85 to 37-56 last year. Expect another jump this year. Since last season, the Yankees have acquired, among other assets, Justin Upton, Chris Carter, Brandon Phillips, Eduardo Rodrigez, Brandon Finnegan, Mike Montgomery, and Jerad Eickhoff. He also has a healthy Greg Bird for 2016, a player that many people look at as capable of having a star-turning breakout season. In his active minors, he has some players that could help soon, too, in guys like Aaron Judge and Jose De Leon, as well as guys that can help now, like Eduardo Rodriguez. Other certain players, if they pan out, could end up helping too. Names like Severino, Refsnyder, Mitchell. Still, even by slotting in Rodriguez, Severino, Holder, and Mitchell, there will be two open roster spots to fill. Free agency is looming though, so things should pan out. A solid roster coupled with a breakout season or two could help to improve the Yankees, a team on the upswing, once again.
Last year, the Marlins made to the NL Championship against the Cubs, but ultimately fell short. Since then, the team has moved Chris Sale, Drew Pomeranz, Neftali Feliz, Steven Wright, Shelby Miller, Eduardo Rodriguez, JT Realmuto, Rougned Odor, Addison Reed, Francisco Liriano, and David Freese. In those deals, he’s added, among others, Corey Kluber, Yu Darvish, Shin-soo Choo, Nathan Karns, Chris Owings, CJ Cron, Dee Gordon, and Jeff Samardzija. Points prediction wise, the system didn’t seem to favor these moves, but knowing Miami, there are multiple moves to be made. Not to mention, this is a team has Mike Trout, Dee Gordon, Corey Seager, Christian Yelich, in addition to some of the other names mentioned above. I’m trying to steer clear of predictions here, but I am guessing that Miami’s mid-season power ranking is going to be a bit lower on the list. (That is, closer to the top 5-10.)
New York Mets
Check out the offensive depth here. Some teams don’t have full rosters. The Mets have Jason Heyward, Gerardo Parra, Michael Brantley, and Brett Lawrie on their bench, along with a few others. The roster, aside from (promising) rookie Hunter Renfroe, all contributed more than 200 points last season. When healthy, Matt Duffy should be a nice player, too. Beltran, Pederson, Realmuto, and Simmons will put up steady points all year. To the pitching staff we go, where deGrom, Syndergaard, and Matz (if healthy) will anchor the starters. Will Hernandez improve like Verlander, or will he slide more? That determination will have an impact on this team, for sure. Harvey is hitting 97 MPH on the gun too…. The relievers are less impressive than the rest of the team, though he does have Gsellman as an RP available, along with Seth Lugo, who could be decent. The Mets regressed from 2015 to 2016, but we could see and upswing this year if people stay healthy.
Kansas City Royals
The last of the middle group is the Royals, who were a playoff team last year. Looks like the team is poised to once again put up points, with a roster that includes Wil Myers, Robinson Cano, Yasmani Grandal, Jackie Bradley Jr, Jonathan Villar, Jay Bruce, and a healthy Mike Moustakas. If the Royals are going to make another run, though, they will be relying quite heavily on the offense. This a staff that, if we are looking at last year’s numbers, only has two players that eclipsed 200 points, both of which are relievers (Will Harris and Kenley Jansen, the latter of which should once again put up monster numbers, to be fair.) Maybe a Robbie Ray breakout season could assist here, otherwise the Royals will be looking to acquire pitchers, or just stack up an already formidable offense to win games.