Parity in the NFL is Shiva.
Every year, a couple teams who were afterthoughts a season prior make an unpredicted jump. Playoff teams from last year won’t make it this year. Every year, the NFL gets tossed in a raffle drum and spit back out that looks little like it did the year before.
So here’s a mid-offseason look at who might be the surprise teams on the incline, on the decline and three that will stay stuck in neutral.
The Steelers were the team from last season that held the best record among those teams that missed the playoffs despite the two-headed drama hydra between WR Antonio Brown and RB Le’Veon Bell. Despite posting the 6th-highest offensive DVOA and 13-highest defensive DVOA, the Steelers were left watching in January. After starting out 7-2-1, the Pittsburgh...ok, you get the point.
But they have a legitimate chance at being stronger in the aftermath of the Killer B’s. They traded up to #10 in the 2019 NFL Draft to get a human wrecking ball in Devin Bush. Their kicker, Chris Boswell, should have a bounceback season. And if WR JuJu Smith-Schuster makes any kind of jump in Browns’ absence, the Steelers might be able to claim they kept the better receiver for 2019 and beyond.
In the wild card round of the playoffs when the Falcons played the Los Angeles Rams, one player perhaps more than any other cemented their impact in a game of that stature: Falcons LB Deion Jones. Jones controlled the middle of the field and largely shut down Rams RB Todd Gurley while forcing QB Jared Goff to push the Rams offense to the outside instead of exploiting outside gaps. In 2018, Jones broke his foot in Week 1 and the effect of his absence was clear (stat pulled from the recent Pro Football Focus roster ratings):
If the 2018 season showed us anything, it was just how important Jones is to the Falcons’ defense. In 2017, Jones and the rest of the Falcons linebackers combined to allow a passer rating of just 92.4 on throws into their coverage, and 32.8% of those targets resulted in either a forced incompletion or a defensive stop. With Jones out in 2018, the Falcons’ linebackers allowed a passer rating of 124.3, and only 25.0% of their targets resulted in a forced incompletion or a defensive stop. There is no question that Jones is one of the league’s best coverage linebackers, and his ability to buoy this defense shouldn’t be overlooked.
Beyond Jones, the Falcons have remade their offensive line. The defense was racked by injuries and was pretty abysmal last year; they should have a natural improvement base on a progression to the mean alone.
San Francisco 49ers
It pains me to say as much, but I think the 49ers might be in the mix for most improved team in the NFL this season.
Much of that comes down to injuries. The 49ers were fourth-to-last in the entire NFL in Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Games Lost metric. They lost their starting QB in Jeffrey Grop in Week 3. They lost their starting running back, Jerick McKinnon, before the season even started. As a result, their season cratered. To their benefit though, that cratering positioned them to own the #2 overall pick in the 2019 draft. So needing to add edge rushing talent to their already talented interior D-line, the Niners traded for Dee Ford and drafted Joey Bosa. They might have the best front four in the NFL in 2019. If they get their talents back from injury on offense to perform, that Week 16 game between the Niners and the Rams could be a major one for the 2019 NFL landscape.
This one comes down to a single position group: the offensive line.
(Again, cribbing from the PFF roster rankings here) The Texans have given up more sacks and QB hits than any team in the NFL except for the Arizona Cardinals. As good as QB Deshaun Watson is, exposing him to that much pressure is going to be very difficult to sustain both in terms of performance and health. The Texans spent two of their first three draft picks on linemen (wisely), but expecting them to come in Week 1 firing is probably asking too much.
The Texans do have plenty of talent, but between the O-line and their running back depth chart, they might have to lean too much into the passing game. Not a bad thing when you have WR DeAndre Hopkins, but we’ve seen teams before that are overreliant on a WR1. And defensively, they have the front. EDGE Jadeveon Clowney, EDGE J.J. Watt and ILB Benardrick McKinney lead one of the NFL’s better front sevens. It’s the secondary that worries me.
One other factor I think could contribute to a decline? The relationship between their success/record in 2018 and the strength of that division which could be the best in the NFL. The Texans came out on top of the AFC South going 11-5 and 4-2 in the division. After starting out 0-3 last year, Houston turned things around in Week 4 with an overtime win over the Indianapolis Colts followed by an overtime win over the Dallas Cowboys. Those are the kinds of games that separate 11-5 teams from 8-8 teams, and I could see the Texans coming up short in more than a handful of those in 2019.
Washington is my pick to own the worst roster overall in 2019.
The offensive line isn’t good enough to get strong production from RB Adrian Peterson or RB Derrius Guice. The wide receiver depth chart is below average. Their defensive line is adequate, but the linebackers and secondary are not. They’re asking a lot of rookie QB Dwayne Haskins to come in and keep things from souring on offense for the team that was 29th in scoring last year.
In a top-heavy NFC East, I could see the New York Giants topping them for third place with Washington in the division cellar this year.
Poor Bengals fans. From 1989-2004, they went to the playoffs just once. Head Coach Marvin Lewis had the reins from 2003 until last year overseeing some decent rosters, but they never got it going in the postseason going 0-7 in the Lewis era.
In comes Zac Taylor off of two seasons under Rams Head Coach Sean McVay. I’m intrigued by the hire and once the Bengals move from QB Andy Dalton, I’m extremely intrigued in what Taylor might do with that offense though I’m not sure how much more WR A.J. Green has in him.
But that defense gave up the most yards of any team in the NFL in 2018. The offensive line is subpar, and despite a smart draft pick in Alabama Crimson Tide OL Jonah Williams they were extremely unlucky that he injured his shoulder in OTAs and is out for the year.
They only won six games last year, but they’ve got a ton working against them already heading into this season.
Stay the same
I know the Browns have been a media darling since the end of the season having won an uncharacteristic seven games with QB Baker Mayfield’s braggadocio attracting a lot of fans even beyond Browns fans. Adding WR Odell Beckham, Jr., only intensified a lot of the adoration being thrown Cleveland’s way; I think we can all expect that to continue as the Browns will be getting quite a bit of hype heading into the season.
I’m just not sold on them as an overall product yet.
Their starting left tackle is Greg Robinson. Yes, that Greg Robinson. They were 30th in yards allowed last year on defense. And the schedule for a team that finished third in their division is unusually tough.
Three road games with two on national TV with home games against the Tennessee Titans, Los Angeles Rams and Seattle Seahawks...all before the Week 7 bye! That leaves five road games post-bye including trips to play the New England Patriots and the Pittsburgh Steelers. They’ve got the Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens at home in the second half as well.
So it’s not that I think the Browns will be a “bad” team, per se. But they weren’t a “bad” team last year. I’m just not buying the idea this team is winning double digit games.
Green Bay Packers
Aaron Rodgers threw for nearly 4,500 yards with 25 touchdowns and 2 interceptions...and the Packers went 6-9-1. I suppose the hope here is that three draft picks in the first 44 selections can help push things up, but first-year Head Coach Matt LaFleur is going to have a work a bit of McVay magic as the Rams’ former offensive coordinator in 2017 to get more from that team if they want to come out on top of the NFC North.
I’m just not seeing it.
New England Patriots
Man, whatever. Screw those guys.