Hope everyone is safe and enjoying time with loved ones. Here’s one of the few things I’ve been working on during the down time. Hope you enjoy it and find it helpful:
5. Cleveland Browns- It was pretty obvious that the Browns didn’t live up to their preseason standards from a year ago but if you looked closer into their roster and coaching moves you’d be able to identify that they weren’t gonna meet those expectations. They promoted a coach that started out as a position coach and mid season he was an offensive coordinator then named head coach left to deal with big time personalities with no experience and high expectations, they traded a key piece of their offensive line for an explosive WR in Odell Beckham Jr but the WR position is one of the most dependent positions for success and they had a young QB in Baker Mayfield going into his 2nd year with the league having a season worth of tape on him and an offseason to prepare for. This offseason has been great by bringing in a respected head coach in Kevin Stefanski and GM Andrew Berry, having a solid free agency and addressing much needed positions in the draft by getting one of the better tackles, one of the most underrated interior defensive linemen in Elliot out of Missouri to help improve the run defense that ranked 30th last year and maybe the best TE in the draft in Harrison Bryant. Stefanski comes from Minnesota where he liked to use 2 TEs as he did with Rudolph and Smith so I expect him to do the same in Cleveland with a combination of Hooper, Bryant and a healthy Njoku to complement a great running game and two explosive WRs in Landry and OBJ. AFC North will be tougher with Big Ben coming back for the Steelers and the improvements the Bengals have made but the Browns have the coaching and personnel in place to have their first .500 or better season since 2007 and a wild card spot is a realistic goal.
4. Dallas Cowboys- When I analyzed the Cowboys from last year it’s hard to grasp that they didn’t have a better record to be a playoff team. They were one of the handful of teams that had a top 10 offense and defense while Dak Prescott had the best season of his young career. For me it comes down to coaching. They were 1-6 vs teams that made the playoffs so because the talent was there to have their offense and defense finish inside the top 10 I’m gonna believe it was a lack of preparation from coaching in the biggest games. They’ve not only upgraded the head coach position making a change to Mike McCarthy but they've also had a great offseason having an outstanding draft. They were able to get maybe the still of the draft in Ceedee Lamb to strengthen a strength and get a underrated cornerback in the 2nd round from Alabama in Trevon Diggs that can replace Byron Jones. They were also able to land Travis Frederick’s replacement in the 4th round with the center from Wisconsin. Dallas also needed to address their pass rush by losing their top pass rusher to the Bears and they believe they’ve done that leaning on the reinstatements with Aldon Smith and Randy Gregory plus they added another rusher in the 4th round while they’ll be expecting better production out of DeMarcus Lawrence. I believe the Cowboys finally have the right coach in place to get the best out of one of the most talented rosters in the NFC and they have a realistic shot getting to the NFC Championship and if things go in their favor a shot at the Super Bowl. Dak will get signed at some point.
3. Indianapolis Colts- The Colts had a great offseason too by adding Phillip Rivers and the pieces are in place so he doesn’t have to win games on his arm alone. The Colts have had one of the better offensive lines in the league and last year they had top 5 running game mainly because they depended on it more because the passing game was so weak. Now they add one of the best running backs in the draft in Jonathan Taylor to strengthen a strength and they also add one of the more underrated WRs in the draft in Michael Pittman Jr. They also added a safety to sure up the back end of the secondary to pair with Malik Hooker and added one of the most stable interior defensive linemen in a trade with the 49ers in DeForset Buckner. Adding Rivers will improve the Colts passing game that finished 30th because Jacoby Brissett was incapable of pushing the ball downfield (60% completion 6.6 YPA). Rivers not only has the personnel and coaching staff in place he has the confidence within his skill set to push the ball downfield to their playmakers. The Colts were 3-3 vs playoff teams last year and they beat the Super Bowl champs so with the additions made this offseason I have them as the 3rd best team in the AFC and I wouldn’t be surprised if they ended up in the AFC title game this year.
2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers- The Bucs have had one of the best off-seasons by any team by just upgrading at quarterback adding Tom Brady over Jameis Winston but then they added the best TE in history in Rob Gronkowski and addressed positions of need in the draft by adding one of the best tackles in Wirfs, one of the best safeties in Winfield Jr., a dual-threat running back in Vaughn and one of the best slot WRs in Tyler Johnson. Tampa Bay was the only team that out gained their opponents, had a top 5 scoring offense and number 1 pass offense and didn’t make the playoffs. That was due in large part to Winston’s turnovers. He led the league with 30 INTs and had another 8 fumbles. With this amount of turnovers he often put his defense in bad situations with short fields to defend or little to no time to rest in between series and with all those obstacles stacked against them they still managed to rank 15th in yards allowed/game. Now with Brady at QB not only will the turnovers be limited and the defense will be out of harms way but when they go to 11 personnel package (Evans, Godwin, Johnson and Gronkowski) it’ll be a short list of teams that can match that production or defend it. I believe the Bucs are the 2nd best team in the NFC with these additions and they could be the first team ever to host a Super Bowl.
1. San Francisco 49ers- At the beginning of last year the story on the 49ers was “Can Jimmy G lead them to the playoffs?”, “Is Kyle Shanahan worthy of being a head coach?” and “Does John Lynch know what he’s doing as a GM?” Those narratives quickly changed 8 games into the season to “How far can they go?” They got all the way to the Super Bowl and were 8 minutes away from being champions in year 3 of a rebuild. The 49ers roster is so talented that they missed 50+ games due to injury from key starters from the offense and defense and still managed to have a top 10 offense and defense while beating teams by 10.1 PPG. They did lose some key players this offseason in trading DeForset Buckner to the Colts for the 13th pick, Emmanuel Sanders to the Saints and a sudden retirement from their all-decade left tackle Joe Staley but they managed to replace them with more explosive and younger players in all-pro left tackle Trent Williams, Javon Kinlaw and Brandon Aiyuk. They also will be looking forward to healthy returns from Trent Taylor, Jalen Hurd, Ronald Blair and other healthy players from last year. They improved the interior offensive line to better protect Jimmy Garoppolo and their wasn’t many QBs better than Garoppolo from a clean pocket. Garoppolo finally got to start a full 16 games and he didn’t disappoint coming off an offseason where he spent majority time rehabbing from a torn ACL. His first 8 games were inconsistent as he was trying to knock off rust and find a rhythm. He averaged 206 yards/game and leaned on an explosive running game and elite defensive play but in the next 8 games the 49ers needed more out of him and he delivered averaging 260 yards/game while winning a shootout on the road in New Orleans, leading a come from behind win to knock the Rams out of the playoffs and going on the road to Seattle to get a win that would lock up the division and the number 1 seed then NFC. I expect Garoppolo to take a big step in his progression as a 2nd year starter and with better health going into next season this should be the best team in the league earning a trip back to the Super Bowl.