Post-draft joy or blues? How all 32 fan bases should feel

0
89

The initial waves of free agency and the draft are in the rearview mirror. So what’s the outlook for your team in 2018?

NFL Nation reporters rate how optimistic fans of every team should be based on the following scale:

  • 3. Confident: There’s enough pieces in place to seriously contend

  • 2. Hopeful: A few question marks, but reason to be optimistic

  • 1. Lukewarm: Question marks put the ceiling at .500

Note: Teams are listed alphabetically under each rating.


Rating 3: Confident

This has to be the year. The Falcons are two seasons removed from the Super Bowl and hope to regain their offensive swagger in Year 2 with coordinator Steve Sarkisian. The addition of first-round pick Calvin Ridley opposite Julio Jones gives Matt Ryan another big-play threat, provided the line and backs block. Expect the defense to keep ascending under coordinator Marquand Manuel. And special teams got better via the draft. — Vaughn McClure

The Jaguars face some tough decisions financially next year and will have to part ways with some pieces of that elite defense, so this season is their best shot with everyone in place. The addition of Andrew Norwell helps a run game that led the NFL last season. If the Jaguars get consistent play out of Blake Bortles, they’re arguably the best team in the AFC. — Mike DiRocco

It’s crazy to say that this could be the Rams’ year, given the feeling around this team last year. But they surged behind Sean McVay last season, going 11-5 while leading the NFL in points. And they’ve added four legitimate stars in Brandin Cooks, Ndamukong Suh, Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters. Their defensive line (with Suh, Aaron Donald and Michael Brockers) and secondary (with Talib, Peters, Lamarcus Joyner, John Johnson and Nickell Robey-Coleman) are among the best, as is their special-teams unit. Their offense, led by reigning Offensive Player of the Year Todd Gurley, could be even better if Jared Goff takes another step forward in his development. The Rams are legitimate Super Bowl contenders, and they’re acting like it. — Alden Gonzalez

Minnesota was aggressive in free agency, landing a potential franchise quarterback with Kirk Cousins and filling a major hole with Sheldon Richardson. It also got better across the board on defense in the draft, from first-round corner Mike Hughes to defensive linemen Jalyn Holmes and Ade Aruna. The Vikings are very much in a win-now Super Bowl window. It could go wrong if their O-line strategy doesn’t pan out. They didn’t draft a starting-caliber right guard, so finding the right combination to protect Cousins will be the storyline to watch in training camp. But if they do that and get good contributions from their offensive rookies, the Vikings will be in good shape for another playoff run. — Courtney Cronin

In a reflection of how high the bar has been raised in New England, it’s always the year for the Patriots to contend for a Super Bowl championship. One example of this: Las Vegas odds list New England as having the highest projected 2018 win total in the league. Simply put, with Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski back in the fold, the Patriots are still the team to beat. — Mike Reiss

The only thing that could knock this down to “hopeful” is how stacked the NFC is right now. But the Saints have as good a chance as anyone after falling one play short of the NFC Championship Game last year, then adding several new pieces to their defense in free agency and the draft, including linebacker Demario Davis, cornerback Patrick Robinson, safety Kurt Coleman and defensive end Marcus Davenport. The Saints still have one of the game’s best QBs in Drew Brees. More importantly, they’ve rebuilt an offensive line, run game and defense around him. — Mike Triplett

Repeat? They’ve got a shot. Nineteen of the 22 starters from the Super Bowl squad return, and the front office has added a jolt to the roster by bringing in the likes of DE Michael Bennett and WR Mike Wallace. The major question is whether Carson Wentz can return to form following ACL and LCL surgery to his lead leg. If the answer is yes, watch out. — Tim McManus


Rating 2.5: Somewhere between confident and hopeful

The Steelers entered the offseason as ready-made contenders. The roster is well established on both sides of the ball. But there’s reason to feel uneasy about the defense because of the questions still surrounding inside linebacker after the loss of Ryan Shazier due to injury. The team doesn’t appear to have a long-term solution at Shazier’s spot, and though drafting two sizable safeties suggests the Steelers can use them as dime linebackers, that won’t be enough. Still, there are plenty of playmakers returning on defense, and the addition of wide receiver James Washington should pay off for Ben Roethlisberger. — Jeremy Fowler


Rating 2: Hopeful

The Ravens came within a game of making the playoffs the past two seasons and have more optimism of reaching the postseason after an offseason of adding playmakers. They upgraded at wide receiver with free agents Michael Crabtree, John Brown and Willie Snead, and improved at tight end by drafting Hayden Hurst and Mark Andrews in the first three rounds. The hope is that revamping Joe Flacco‘s supporting cast will get Baltimore over the postseason hump. –Jamison Hensley

The Panthers might think this is the year, and for key leaders like Thomas Davis and Ryan Kalil who are entering the final year of their careers, it is all or nothing. But the rebuilt receiving corps has to prove it can help take Cam Newton‘s game to another level under new coordinator Norv Turner. And the secondary remains a work in progress with holes at free safety and the spot opposite cornerback James Bradberry. Plus the NFC South will be strong again. However, the core players led by Newton, Greg Olsen and Luke Kuechly remain in place, which gives the Panthers a chance to make a run. — David Newton

Much of this hinges on the difference Mike Pettine can make in the Packers’ defense. The new coordinator received some reinforcements from new GM Brian Gutekunst to help with the rebuilding job — his former Jets player Muhammad Wilkerson plus the first three picks in the draft, corners Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson, and linebacker Oren Burks. If Pettine can develop some pass-rushers to complement Clay Matthews and Nick Perry after Gutekunst practically ignored that position in the draft, then this could be the year as long as Aaron Rodgers stays healthy. — Rob Demovsky

The Texans’ biggest question mark is whether the key players they had to play part of last season without — J.J. Watt, Deshaun Watson, Whitney Mercilus and D’Onta Foreman — will come back healthy and be able to contribute at a high level. Houston certainly has the talent on the roster to get back to the playoffs, especially if Watson can play at a similar level to last season, but that group has to stay healthy. — Sarah Barshop

The Chiefs have a new and largely untested starting quarterback in Patrick Mahomes II, but that’s the good news. He should experience the ups and downs that most young QBs go through, but he showed in his one game last season that the offense should be capable with him at the controls. It’s the other side of the ball that could ruin things for the Chiefs. They’ll have to score a lot of points if they’re going to win the AFC West title for the third straight season. — Adam Teicher

After just missing the playoffs last season, the Chargers didn’t need to do much this offseason. They added experience to the offensive line by signing center Mike Pouncey in free agency and potentially solved their kicking woes with the addition of Caleb Sturgis. The selection of Derwin James in the first round of the draft gives an already talented defense a center fielder to roam the middle of the field. With all of the changes in the rest of the division, the Chargers should be the favorites in the AFC West. — Eric D. Williams

Adam Gase is banking on a revamped culture to help produce better results than last year’s 6-10 season, and why not have hope that better results will follow? Ryan Tannehill‘s return from a knee injury that cost him the 2017 season instantly makes the Dolphins a better team. Add in a high-upside first-rounder in defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick — who can match up against tight ends like Gronkowski — and those are two foundation-type pieces that provide hope that this year will be better than the last. The optimism ultimately comes down to belief that Gase, having gained valuable experience in his first two years, will push the right buttons to have Miami in playoff contention late in December. — Mike Reiss

The Giants’ talent wasn’t as bad as their record indicated last year, and now they’ve added some major pieces. Nate Solder at left tackle and Saquon Barkley at running back offer massive upgrades over Ereck Flowers and Orleans Darkwa. They also get Odell Beckham Jr. back from injury. If new coach Pat Shurmur can coax even a decent season out of Eli Manning, then the Giants can hold out hope for a playoff spot, even if the roster remains a work in progress. — Jordan Raanan

The amount of buzz surrounding the Niners has been tempered a bit by the ongoing legal situation involving linebacker Reuben Foster. But there’s still plenty of optimism that they can turn their strong finish last season into a run at the 2018 postseason. While questions persist, particularly on defense, the Niners bolstered the supporting cast around Jimmy Garoppolo, and having him in place for a full offseason should position them to have continued success. Make no mistake, the Rams are and should be the favorites in the NFC West, but if the Niners have some injury luck and Garoppolo does what the team expects against a last-place schedule, they could push for a playoff berth. — Nick Wagoner

Labeling the Seahawks as “hopeful” will seem overly optimistic to some based on all the key pieces they lost or parted with, but to put a .500 ceiling on their season would be to sell short everything they still have. Russell Wilson is an MVP-caliber QB, Bobby Wagner and Earl Thomas are All-Pros and Doug Baldwin is a Pro Bowler. Seattle focused on stopgap additions in free agency, including D.J. Fluker at right guard. The only offensive lineman the Seahawks drafted was Jamarco Jones, so they’re counting on young players to make leaps there and on new line coach Mike Solari to coax better play out of the group. The Rams are the clear division favorites with the 49ers are on the rise, but there are still too many good players to dismiss the possibility of a bounce-back season. — Brady Henderson

Tampa Bay finished 5-11 last year, but between trading for Jason Pierre-Paul, signing three other defensive linemen in free agency and then drafting Vita Vea, three defensive backs and Ronald Jones II, the Bucs feel like they were able to address every need this offseason. They also point to the fact that seven of their losses last year came in one-score games, with five decided by three points or fewer or in overtime. They don’t believe there’s much separating them from the better teams in the league. — Jenna Laine

The Titans are a well-built team with few true weaknesses, but the biggest question mark is whether new coach Mike Vrabel and offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur can maximize the talent and make this team a true contender. That starts with Marcus Mariota, who is healthy this offseason and eager to rebound from a rocky Year 3. The AFC South should be a lot tougher than previous years, but the Titans now field a talented, attacking defense (boosted by adding players like Malcolm Butler in free agency and Rashaan Evans/Harold Landry in the draft) and an offense full of potential that should make them a strong candidate to return to the playoffs for the second straight season. — Cameron Wolfe

They were considered a playoff contender last season, but lacked the depth to withstand injuries. They’re not worse than they were entering 2017, so if a few things break right, it’s not hard to see them making the playoffs. Their draft should help provide key players who can do what they want: stop the run (Da’Ron Payne) and run the ball (Derrius Guice). But the real question mark surrounds their health: They need players such as Jonathan Allen, Mason Foster, Jordan Reed, Trent Williams and Chris Thompson to stay healthy, and if they do, then they should have an improved defense and a solid offense. They also have a quarterback in Alex Smith who doesn’t turn it over, allowing them to play ball control. But the hope will fade if they don’t stay healthy. — John Keim


Rating 1: Lukewarm

The Cardinals addressed some serious concerns through free agency and the draft, shoring up their quarterback room, adding depth to the offensive line and adding a variety of skill sets at wide receiver that will help mold an offense that needed an injection of talent. But there are still major question marks. The defense, if it’s healthy, can continue to be as effective as it’s been with who’s currently on the roster. Despite the help the offense got, there’s a major element of unknown. If the Cards can stay healthy — namely Sam Bradford and the offensive line — and find the right cornerback opposite Patrick Peterson, this team can be good. If not, it’ll be another .500 season. — Josh Weinfuss

The Bills received Mel Kiper’s only “A” grade for their haul, but it could take time to show results on the field. Whether it’s AJ McCarron or rookie Josh Allen at quarterback, there figures to be a development process that could mean taking a step back from a 9-7 finish and playoff appearance in 2017. “This is a new year,” general manager Brandon Beane said after the draft. “But hopefully fans understand — or believe in — what we’re doing here as a group, from [owners] Terry [Pegula], Kim [Pegula], [coach] Sean [McDermott] and I and everybody else, that we have it in the right direction but we have not arrived, by any means.” — Mike Rodak

The Bears are an improved team with key free-agent and draft additions like Allen Robinson, Trey Burton and Roquan Smith, but Chicago went 5-11 last year. In fact, the Bears have finished dead last in the NFC North four consecutive seasons and haven’t reached the playoffs since 2010. The Bears’ turnaround is going to take time. Plus, no matter what Chicago accomplished in the offseason, the franchise’s fortunes hinge on quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. When Trubisky begins to play well over long stretches in the regular season, then you’ll know the Bears are for real in the NFC. — Jeff Dickerson

There’s reason to believe the Bengals will be better after overhauling the offensive line, re-signing Tyler Eifert and changing a number of their assistants. But there are a lot of questions as to whether they can get back to the playoffs in Marvin Lewis’ 16th season. Andy Dalton needs to take a major step forward, and their best linebacker, Vontaze Burfict, is suspended for four games. Right now, they seem more of a middle-of-the-road team. They still have talent on the roster with Pro Bowlers A.J. Green and Geno Atkins, and have up-and-comers like Joe Mixon and Carl Lawson, along with a new defensive coordinator in Teryl Austin, that could give them some hope. — Katherine Terrell

It might not seem like much, but remember that this team didn’t win a game in 2017. The Browns have added veteran talent via trade and free agency, and rookie talent in the draft. The quarterback group has been completely revamped, with first overall pick Baker Mayfield and Tyrod Taylor in the fold. The Browns won’t reach .500, but they will be a better team. — Pat McManamon

It’s not so much about what they’ve done in free agency and the draft — the Cowboys have filled holes and added talent in both. They have tried to mitigate the loss of Dez Bryant with depth at the receiver spot, they’ve improved their line depth and their defensive line potential might be the best they’ve had under Rod Marinelli. But the potential retirement of Jason Witten raises questions not only about on-field success but also off-field cohesion. The tight ends not named Witten have nine career catches and he is the unquestioned leader of the team. Without Witten, Dak Prescott will have to step forward even more, and that’s a lot to put on a third-year quarterback. — Todd Archer

They can certainly move to “hopeful” if tackle Jared Veldheer can be a settling influence up front and Bradley Chubb is everything they hope he can be. Their draft class, led by Chubb and wide receiver Courtland Sutton, is filled with players who should contribute as rookies, especially given Chubb has the potential to help lift the defense back to its best level. But they still look somewhat thin on the offensive line, especially if Veldheer, who turns 31 in June, doesn’t stay in the lineup. If he does play 16 games and can help left tackle Garett Bolles settle in, the Broncos can certainly push for a playoff spot, but that remains to be seen. — Jeff Legwold

Yes, there will be a bunch of optimism with first-year coach Matt Patricia, but the Lions still have significant pass-rush questions heading into spring workouts. Detroit is attempting to make a long-term run-game fix by drafting linemen Frank Ragnow and Tyrell Crosby along with running back Kerryon Johnson, but Ragnow and Johnson are likely to have some growing pains adjusting to the NFL. The schedule is difficult, particularly early on, and with a new defensive scheme there could be some bumps before things smooth out. That, combined with Green Bay, Minnesota and Chicago all improving in the offseason, leads to a likely 7-9 to 9-7 range again for Detroit. — Michael Rothstein

The Colts should feel only lukewarm about things until Andrew Luck starts throwing the football, then takes part in training camp, plays in the preseason and plays in the regular season. They made up for an uneventful early free agency by having a solid draft that should include two starting guards. But the reality is that a lot of the Colts’ success will depend on Luck, who is taking part in offseason workouts. — Mike Wells

The Jets are ecstatic because they landed the No. 1 quarterback on their draft board in Sam Darnold. Once the glow fades, they will realize the team still has a number of questions that will prevent it from challenging for a playoff spot. Above all, the Jets have no game-changing players on offense and the line (four returning starters) is coming off a mediocre year. — Rich Cimini

There is a realistic shot this jumps to “hopeful.” The Raiders’ nine-man draft class, which has a certain vintage feel to it due to guys with character flags, potential injury issues and elite talent, has the potential to go either boom or bust. Boom, and the rebuilt Raiders, who also acquired receivers Martavis Bryant and Ryan Switzer over the weekend and added more than 20 players in free agency, might even contend for the AFC West. Bust, and well, at least Jon Gruden has job security, right? — Paul Gutierrez

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here