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2018 NFL Season Preview: 23 Predictions And Thoughts

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I’ve been thinking a lot, and these are my thoughts.

Dallas Cowboys v Houston Texans Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

For the past three weeks, my life has been wrapped up in football thinking. I’ve been reading NFL Previews, an almanac, gearing up for fantasy football drafts that have left me tired/bored/hungover for the rest of my life, making GIFs and not JIFs, and ignoring everything else I should be doing. The pursuit of this monomaniacal obsession has left my brain swirling, like a snow globe, but instead of little dandruff flakes reverberating around the Empire State building, it’s a bunch of little thoughts and nuggets. I won’t keep them to myself. I got some things to tell you. 23 of them, to be exact:

1.) The Helmet Rule Is Going To Be A Disaster.

Rain has fallen down on this melted pavement and released some of the heat. The last few preseason games weren’t as bad. But the previous examples were egregious. The referees didn’t know how to call the rule. They called it every time they maybe, possibly, could, and it drove me insane. I still don’t know how you can run the football and not lower your shoulder into a tackle, bringing your head down into it and drawing a flag. They don’t want to allow quarterbacks to take any sort of shot that could possibly hurt them, even if it’s legal. It’s going to lead to a lot of side picking and guessing instead of brawling tackles.

Even though things have cooled off a bit, these plays are still going to be called occasionally, and it’s going to absolutely determine the outcomes of games. A quarterback will get hit by a helmet under his chin. 15 yards. First down. The game winning drive continues. A wide receiver is going to go up high to catch a pass, the safety will falter and delay the tackle because of the rule, leading him to whiff, Marcus Williams style. Receivers and running backs will get Kerrigan’d more often. On top of it all, the refs are having to learn how to call this rule on the fly, trying to curtail something immediate, instantaneous, and almost impossible to claim as against the rules. They can’t review it after the fact either, and will have to wait until the Supreme Court calls them on Sunday night after they finish their shower beer to know if they did the right or wrong thing.

The game needs to be cleaned up in some ways. Those vicious helmet-to-helmet hits have no business in football; they should be reviewed. It would allow refs to toss players out for becoming a guillotine instead of a tackler, making the ejections with complete knowledge at their disposal.

But this, using your head to make a tackle, is insane. I hope I’m wrong. I hope everything is okay. I hope football is still good and kind of sort of the same.

2.) The Rams Won’t Make The Playoffs.

I’ve watched sports for a long time. Too long probably. I should have read more books. I should have done calculus instead.

One of the foundations of every offseason is a team that makes big signings, tosses money around, trades up in the draft, trades for malcontent stars, snips players off the rosters of rebuilding teams, and then comes rolling into the season with an insane amount of talent. Sometimes it works. Sometimes you get the Washington Nationals or Philadelphia Eagles.

I don’t have much of a case here analytically. I’m just tired of getting roped in and excited only to feel duped and stupid when the championship and all-time season doesn’t happen. My backbone is missing some discs, but if I had to get out of bed and carry on, this is what I got:

Todd Gurley won’t have 19(!) touchdowns this year.

Jared Goff made the biggest leap in passing DVOA in one year.

The Rams made the second biggest overall leap in DVOA in one year.

The plexiglass principle is real.

Aaron Donald sat out the entirety of training camp and may be rusty

Their outside pass rush is whatever and their inside linebackers are bad.

Ndamukong Suh has never played in a 3-4.

Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib are as volatile as a can rolled down the stairs.

The biggest thing the Rams have going for them, aside from their overall talent level, is their isn’t another team in this division you can see easily stepping up. The Seahawks screwed up by not building their offensive line once their defense ran away. The Cardinals have a lot of young question marks on defense, and Sam Bradford will get injured. The 49ers have a terrible secondary, and Jimmy Garoppolo only played pretty well against bad teams in meaningless games in a setting impossible to extrapolate.

My best guess is the Cardinals do it. I’m probably wrong. I just got this rumble in my gut.

3.) Eli Manning Retires First.

Eli Manning, Tom Brady, Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger, and Drew Brees are all remnants of late 2000s football. The quarterbacks that dominated the end of one decade and the majority of another are passing over that hill. Their father is up ahead. He’s carrying the fire. Their time in the NFL is coming to an end.

Manning is going to be the first one to go. Last season, his games played streak ended when he was benched by for Geno Smith, an act that will one day be some fun Stump The Schwab barroom trivia. Manning doesn’t have anything to really live for now. He has his two rings. His career is set.

This season will probably be trench warfare for Eli. Ereck Flowers has moved from left to right tackle (spoiler alert: it probably won’t work). Nate Solder is overrated, never fully extinguishes a pass rush, and was masked for years by the greatest quarterback of all-time and a scheme that helped him with quick passes, chips, and tight ends.

Additionally, Pat Shurmur’s scheme typically calls for longer drop backs to develop a vertical passing attack. All of this, plus a deteriorating arm, will lead to Manning deciding he shouldn’t do this anymore.

4.) Von Miller Leads The NFL in Sacks With 17.

For the first time in two seasons, the Broncos didn’t lead the league in pressure rate last year. They fell to seventh. This wasn’t because of Miller. The NFL’s best edge rusher had 53 pressures, 13 quarterback hits, and 10 sacks. He was still magnets flipping polarity before the snap and blasting off around tackles into the quarterback. Those 10 sacks, however, were the lowest he’s had since an injury riddled 2013 when he mustered just 5 of them.

This season, Miller and the Broncos’ pass rush will be back. They added the top pass rusher in this draft class in Bradley Chubb. Shaquil Barrett was a surprising jolt opposite of Miller. There’s no way Shane Ray and Derek Wolfe have a season as bad as they had in 2017. With the attention spread around more, like a spoonful of peanut butter splayed out to make one last sandwich with, Miller will get more one-on-one rush opportunities. He’ll also get these rush opportunities against subpar pass blockers like Eric Fisher, Kolton Miller, Russell Okung, and Mitchell Schwartz.

5.) Jadeveon Clowney Leads The NFL In Tackles For A Loss.

Last season without J.J. Watt or Whitney Mercilus, the Texans had 72 tackles for a loss, which was tied third in the league. They finished 12th in rushing defense DVOA as well. The main reason why was that septum pierced witch doctor, Chandler Jones, led the NFL with 28 tackles for a loss.

Clowney was second with 21. With D.J. Reader adding another year to his life and Watt potentially playing in front of him at times or teams attempting to run away from him, Clowney will eviscerate tight ends, tackles, and trey blocks and turn running backs into a spray of pink mist, staining backfields all around the NFL.

6.) Blake Bortles Scrambles For A Lot More First Downs.

Last season Tyrod Taylor and Cam Newton led the NFL with 22 and 21 third down conversions with their legs. Blake Bortles had only 7. Newton had 47 overall last season. Bortles had only 26.

In 2018, Bortles is going to be in the 20s on third down conversions by legs alone, even if he won’t come close to Cam’s overall total. He knows his job. Hand the ball off a lot. Throw drags and crosses. Take occasional shots downfield. When the defense is spread all around, take off for it.

It’s going be frustrating. It’s going to be his jam. And even if Bortles doesn’t get it, a punt isn’t a that bad of a thing with the defense they don’t allow him to play against wearing Jacksonville’s colors.

7.) Arizona’s Defense Will Be Better.

The Cardinals lost Frostee Rucker and Tyrann Mathieu this offseason from a defense that was second in run defense DVOA and tenth in pass defense DVOA. They are going to lean on former top picks Budda Baker, Haason Reddick, and Robert Nkemdiche to fill in the gaps from the past. They will meet the challenge, and the Cardinals’ defense will be even better than the previous season.

This, combined with Sam Bradford throwing a lot of short passes to David Johnson and slants to Larry Fitzgerald, will lead to Arizona being much better than everyone thought they would be. That’s an enormous jump from Blaine Gabbert and Adrian Peterson the year prior.

8.) The Texans’ Offensive Line Doesn’t Finish Last In Pressure Rate Or Sack Rate.

Julie’n Davenport, Senio Kelemete, Zach Fulton, Nick Martin, and Martinas Rankin (once he takes over for Seantrel Henderson) will be an offensive line sooooo much better than the narrative coming into this preseason. Davenport got strong. Kelemete has been good in the past. Fulton is a Pro Bowl caliber player and an excellent pass blocker. Playing between these two instead of Xavier Su’a-Filo and Jeff Allen will be the best thing to happen for Martin’s career. If Rankin gets the playbook down quickly, he’s going to be a better than Henderson.

Deshaun Watson at quarterback will help things as well. This will lead to the offensive line finishing 20th at a minimum, not 30th or 31st, which is great news since Watson was the best quarterback without pressure in football last season.

9.) Carolina And Seattle’s Offensive Lines Are Going To Be Disasters.

Cam Newton broke 24 tackles behind the line of scrimmage last season. Russell Wilson broke 15 tackles behind the line of scrimmage last season. That thing they do, they need to do more of it. Because without Andrew Norwell, Matt Kalil—who really doesn’t matter that much, but the other options are worse—and Daryl Williams, and with everyone else on Wilson’s offensive line being terrible aside from Justin Britt and Duane Brown, both quarterbacks will be flailing around the pocket to escape.

10.) Le’Veon Bell Holds Out For A Month And It Doesn’t Matter.

I can see the movie in my head. James Conner will play a lot of running back. With the Steelers’ offensive line, the running game will still be acceptable. On 32 change of pace carries, Conner averaged 4.5 yards a carry and had a rushing DVOA of 10.2% last year. Bell will save his body some and arrive next month, then take another month to fully get up to speed, and then take over for the last half of the season. The Steelers’ run attack will still be one of the best in football. It’s their passing game that will suffer in Bell’s absence.

11.) The Raiders Finish Last In Defensive DVOA.

In 2017, the Raiders had a defensive DVOA of 19.3%, which put them at 29th. They had a pass defense DVOA of 26.1%, which was 30th. That was with Khalil Mack! Then they traded him. And they traded him for future assets! They didn’t refill the Brita pitcher at all for this year. Mack accounted for 80 defensive plays last season and for 9.8% of the Raiders’ defensive plays. This was best in the league. He also added 10.5 sacks, 12 quarterback hits, 52 quarterback pressures, and 2 disruptions on one of the meeker pass rushes in the league.

This is going to end very badly.

12.) The Patriots Win 14 Games.

Typically there’s one team every season that wins at least 14 games, which is an insane number. Since the Tom Brady-Bill Bellichick love fest began, the Patriots have pulled it off four different times. This season they have the easiest projected schedule in football. The AFC East looks to be the worst in football aside from the men at top. The Jets will probably finish second yet win just six games. Tom Brady is looking to get that sad(!) taste out of his nose.

And their front seven is healthy. They made some sneaky little signings, and their overall defense will be at least mediocre this season. Add this to a top three (two? best?) offense in football, and this is what you get.

13.) The Lions Finally Have A 100 Yard Rusher.

The Lions haven’t had a hundred yard rusher since Reggie Bush did it in a 40-10 win over the Packers in 2013. Bush picked up 117 yards on 20 carries. Since then, the closest they got was when Ameer Abdullah picked up 94 yards last year, and when Joique Bell picked up 94 yards in 2013. The streak ends this year. I don’t who does it, but someone does it.

14.) Aaron Rodgers Plays 16 Games.

Despite Khalil Mack looking to do what Anthony Barr did last year and will try to do again this year, Rodgers will play every game for the Packers this year, and the Packers will win the NFC North.

He’ll also win MVP. A non-quarterback will never win the MVP again. If Watt couldn’t get it in 2014 despite all those touchdowns, and if Gurley couldn’t get it despite all those touchdowns last year, then nobody will.

15.) Nick Foles Will Be Terrible.

To end the regular season, after taking over for Carson Wentz, Nick Foles had a completion percentage of 56.4%, threw 5 touchdowns, 2 interceptions, and averaged 5.3 yards an attempt. In the NFL Playoffs, even including the boring checkdown win over Atlanta, he had a completion percentage of 71.94%, threw 8 touchdowns, 1 interception, averaged 8.39 yards attempt, and even eclipsed 10 yards per attempt gainst Minnesota.

Some happier people may see the end of the regular season as a tune-up. I don’t. I see the playoffs as a beautiful aberration. Until Carson Wentz arrives again, the Eagles will struggle with their passing game, and Foles will look more like 2017 regular season Foles than the Super Bowl winner who vanquished the evil empire.

16.) Hue Jackson Is The First Head Coach Fired.

The Browns have the talent of a nine win team, depending on how the young guys turn out. This won’t happen. Nine wins won’t come close to happening. The Browns won’t win a game with Jackson.

They play the seventh toughest projected schedule this season. They open with Pittsburgh, at New Orleans, New York (J), Oakland, Baltimore, L.A. (C), and then Tampa Bay. If they start off 0-4, Jackson will just barely edge out Dirk Koetter and taste the blade first. Until this happens, I refuse to watch Cleveland play. When it happens, I’m having a party. I can’t wait to watch Myles Garrett again.

17.) Lamar Jackson Takes Over At Quarterback In Baltimore This Season.

The end can’t come soon enough for the Ravens and Joe Flacco. The defense has been too good for too long. They have had to play too perfectly, without even a drizzle of offensive air conditioning to roll down their spines, because of the offensive ineptitude.

Thanks to his contract, Flacco has been the least valuable player in football since the end of his Super Bowl run. He’s had one good season because of Gary Kubiak, but the rest of the time, he’s finished in the 30s in DVOA and DYAR. He plays the most important positionon the field. He has a cap hit of $24.75 million this year and $26.5 million next year. John Harbaugh will have to pull the plug and maybe this brutal defense can squeeze in another playoff run.

18.) [NAME REDACTED] Starts Multiple Games For Miami.

The joke’s over. I don’t really care anymore.

19.) Atlanta Has A Top Five Offense Again.

The Falcons had the inevitable plummet from all-time great offense to really good one in 2018. This season Julio Jones won’t catch only three touchdowns, Matt Ryan won’t throw only 20 touchdowns, and they won’t score only 353 points. This season will look a lot like the Super Bowl season, just not as exorbitant.

20.) Ezekiel Elliott Leads The NFL In Touches.

Last year Le’Veon Bell led football with 403 touches. He started 15 games and managed to be number one despite sitting out Week 17. This came out to 26.86 touches a game. With Bell still holding out and no one having any idea when he’ll arrive, someone else will take this crown.

Last season, Ezekiel Elliott had 268 touches in 10 games, which is...26.8 touches a game. This season Elliot may even get more touches than that as Dallas tries to corral Dak Prescott’s interception rate and the spinny wheel receiver group they got. They’re going to leave Elliott looking busted before his rookie contract is up.

21.) NFC Playoff Teams:

Arizona Cardinals, New Orleans Saints, Green Bay Packers, Philadelphia Eagles, Minnesota Vikings (WC), and Atlanta Falcons (WC).

22.) AFC Playoff Teams:

Denver Broncos, Jacksonville Jaguars, Pittsburgh Steelers, New England Patriots, Houston Texans (WC), Cincinnati Bengals (WC)

23.) Super Bowl Prediction:

New Orleans over Jacksonville. The Saints have a top five offense and a top ten defense. The Jaguars double down, face a bit more injury struggles on defense, yet still have the best pass defense in football.

The AFC winner will probably be New England, but I won’t put it in blood because by throwing it out into the universe, it exists in some ways, and I can’t take another New England AFC title. I guess by writing that I did it anyways.

Dammit.