It's time to take a stand. Make a call on an NFL team. What franchise will surprise - either good or bad? Why?
Chad Parsons: I think the 49ers will be better than expected, specifically on offense. San Francisco was a bottom-5 passing offense by profootballreference.com Expected Points metric, including horrific marks in net yards per pass attempt, overall first downs, and sack rate. The run game was not the problem as they finishing middle of the pack in most categories. Kyle Shanahan, Brian Hoyer, and Pierre Garcon are key upgrades. Jeremy Kerley is a functional secondary receiver. Marquise Goodwin and Aldrick Robinson offer the speed element present in Atlanta's version of the Shanahan offense last season in secondary roles for explosive plays. The 49ers are written off as an offense overall and improving their offense - especially their passing game - with a functional veteran quarterback and No.1 receiver upgrade, raises the tide into the ranks of respectable in 2017.
David Dodds: I think the wheels fall off of the New Orleans Saints. They start the year off with a tough 4 games before their bye (@ MIN, vs NE, @ CAR, and @ MIA). They could conceivably lose all four of these games.
The Saints are noticeably worse as a pass-first offense having lost WR Brandin Cooks. Their defense took a big hit when DL Nick Fairley's heart condition took a turn for the worse. He is likely never going to play another snap.
The Saints used free agency and the NFL Draft to bolster their offensive line and added Adrian Peterson to move to a more balanced approach. Unfortunately, injuries to that revamped offensive line have already derailed that plan before it got started. And it's hard to imagine the Saints being in a position to close out games with a running attack when they could be playing behind in a lot of their contests.
Andy Hicks: There are plenty of franchises that appear to be heading south and prime for coaching changes for the 2018 season, but harder to find are teams that come out of nowhere for an unexpected playoff appearance. The Raiders did it last year and history shows that half the playoff teams from last year, won't be there this year. The teams that usually make the jump either have a new coach or have been building nicely for a few years. I'm going with a side that has done both in the Jacksonville Jaguars.
This franchise has had an extraordinary amount of top 5 picks in a row, has splashed money in free agency and still is stuck with a problem at the quarterback position. Doug Marrone did well as a head coach in Buffalo before his power grab failed following an ownership change. His last season there got the team to a 9-7 record, their best in over 10 years. Gus Bradley was a great defensive coach, but a complete failure as a head coach in Jacksonville. Ownership was very patient with Bradley and Marrone is likely to be afforded the same deal. The starting roster is loaded with talent and with the team being overseen by Tom Coughlin, the team is stronger than most will expect. Even the limitations of Blake Bortles will be protected as much as possible this year.
Momentum is a key ingredient in a teams success and looking at the Jaguars schedule they have a soft 7 game schedule to open the season and only face 3 playoff teams all year. Being the Jags, failure is usually snatched from the jaws of victory, but this season feels different.
Jason Wood: I think Washington crashes and burns this year. They finished 8-7-1 last year and have had a troubling offseason:
- The firing of one of the better personnel executives in the league, while replacing him with a guy (Bruce Allen) who was awful at the job in his last stint
- Ostracizing Kirk Cousins, who is counting the days until he can sign with San Francisco
- Losing not one but two veteran, 1,000-yard receivers in DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon
- Replacing them with Terrelle Pryor, who barely had 1,000 yards thanks to being the only viable target on an awful team. Pryor signed for a one-year, $6mm prove it deal because he's miscast as a WR1
- Josh Doctson, whose talent I love, has missed most of camp yet again
- Jordan Reed, the team's best offensive player, is already dealing with major foot woes
- Sean McVay, the wunderkind who turned Cousins into an above average passer, is now the head coach in Los Angeles
Far too much turmoil for a (barely) .500 team to stay above water.
Ryan Hester: I see Green Bay not only continuing their dominance of the NFC North but improving to be a dominant NFC force again. They won't be playing on the first weekend in January this season because they'll have a bye into the Divisional Round by virtue of being a top-two seed in the conference.
As a start, they have the most talented quarterback on the planet (no disrespect to Tom Brady, who is the best, but Aaron Rodgers' overall attributes are astounding to watch). Secondly, the NFC North isn't very strong. Chicago is a doormat playing for the future; Detroit made the postseason last year despite being outscored, making them a regression candidate; and Minnesota's offense keeps them from being a complete team.
Looking at the rest of the schedule, Green Bay's AFC division opponents are from the North. The only truly difficult game they have there is in Pittsburgh. And their NFC division opponents are the South, where the road games (at Atlanta, at Carolina) should be only challenges.
Rodgers will integrate his new toys (Martellus Bennett, a full season of Ty Montgomery at running back, and the new rookies in the backfield) with his the existing veteran playmakers and make this offense unstoppable, similar to Atlanta 2016. Green Bay goes 12-4, potentially 13-3.
Chris Feery: I was all set to plant my flag on the Carolina Panthers bouncing back in a big way this year, but reports that Cam Newton hasn’t looked all that great in camp has me feeling apprehensive on that call. I’ll shift gears to another NFC team that I feel is in line for a bounce-back season in the form of the Arizona Cardinals. The club was being hailed as a Super Bowl contender heading into 2016, but those expectations only translated into a record of 7-8-1. They lost by two points to the eventual Super Bowl champion New England Patriots on opening weekend, and the wind seemed to come out of their sails from that point.
For 2017, the schedule is completely manageable. Outside of their divisional schedule, the Cardinals play four games against both the AFC South and the NFC East, and also have games against the Detroit Lions and Tampa Bay Buccaneers on the docket. While there are no gimmes on the NFL schedule, that’s not exactly a murderer’s row of opponents either. Ten wins or more is on the table, and I’ll look for the Cardinals to wrest control of the NFC West back from the Seattle Seahawks.