Last season, the NFL took a rare dip in the ratings in part due to the league’s reputation as the “no-fun league,” a divisive result of politics and star players making bone-headed decisions. This year, not much has changed. The NFL is still frightfully tone-deaf, particularly with the Colin Kaepernick situation.
After taking a political stand, Kap has gone from starting in the Super Bowl to being black-balled by NFL owners in only four years. Owners are finally taking their own stand, not against abuse of women, children or animals, or against other miscellaneous felonies, but against kneeling at the national anthem.
As bad as the Kaepernick unemployment story gets, it’s not a football story, and the actual football in the NFL looks stronger than ever. After a historically stacked NFL draft, the laughingstock teams rising to supremacy and iconic players bouncing to different teams, the intrigue for the upcoming season is growing by the second. But even with the massive roster changes, can anyone hang with the defending champion Patriots?
1. Seattle Seahawks: Pretender
Following the shellacking of Peyton’s Broncos in the 2014 Super Bowl, many thought that Seattle would be the next great NFC dynasty. Only a year later, the Hawks were one yard and one horrific call from winning back-to-back Super Bowls over two all-time great quarterbacks, but Pete Carroll decided to not hand the ball off to Marshawn Lynch, and the rest is history. Malcolm Butler picked off Russell Wilson in the end zone as the Patriots stole the glory, and Seattle hasn’t been back to the big game since.
Today, Seattle’s defense isn’t as intimidating as they once were. They were the fifth-best defense in 2016, which seems great, but considering that they were the first- or second-best defense every year since 2012, it seems like a step off for Seattle. Their foundation of Richard Sherman, Bobby Wagner, Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor is still undoubtedly great, but they are aging—their window won’t last forever.
That being said, the most worrying thing in the Seahawks camp is the internal turmoil. All is not well in the City of Flowers. A recent report unveiled the organization’s lack of faith in Russell Wilson, particularly from the star defensive players. Coupled with Sherman’s criticism of Carroll’s play-calling and the leaked rumors regarding Sherman being shipped out of Seattle, it appears that the “Legion of Boom” will be broken up sooner rather than later.
If only Carroll had handed the ball off to one of the best RBs in football in the end zone.
2. Oakland Raiders: Contender
How painful it must be for the city of Oakland that the Raiders became great again on the precipice of their move to Las Vegas. For years the Raiders have toiled in obscurity, having only four winning seasons in the twenty years since their move back to Oakland. Yet, this great Oakland team feels like they don’t belong in Oakland. While previous Oakland teams have fit the city’s grittiness with their brutal defenses and take-no-prisoners attitude, last year’s Raiders’ glamourous offense fits more with the bright lights of Vegas—and boy are they glamourous.
Derek Carr and Co. were a dominant force last year, and after adding Jared Cook and pulling Marshawn Lynch out of retirement, they will be more dynamic than ever. Excelling through the air and ground, the Raiders could be the most complete offense on the field next year.
Although, offense has never been the problem for the Raiders; the defense was. Even if Carr had remained healthy last season, the weak secondary more than likely would have prevented them from making a Super Bowl run. Drafting high-upside players like Gareon Conley and Obi Melifonwu certainly addresses that need. Under the tutelage of defensive mastermind John Pagono, the Raiders will be no pushover on D next year.
If Carr stays healthy, this is the team that will give the Patriots a run for their money.
3. Dallas Cowboys: Pretender
I know it’s not popular to say, but America’s Team will almost certainly take a step back in 2017.
First, there’s the free agency exodus. The Cowboys lost depth on the offensive line with Ronald Leary signing with the Broncos and on the entirety of their secondary with the loss of J.J. Wilcox, Morris Claiborne, Brandon Carr and Barry Church to free agency. The Cowboys’ defense certainly wasn’t anything to write home about last year, but was at least steady enough to produce twelve wins. With three rookies (Jourdan Lewis, Xavier Woods, Chidobe Awuzie) and a veteran CB, Nolan Carroll, who’s already been arrested during his short time as a Cowboy, taking the reins, expect the wheels to fall off this year on defense.
Next, there’s the Zeke issue. Ever since college, star RB Ezekiel Elliott has been one scandal after another. This offseason has been more of the same for the troublesome young man. On St. Patrick’s Day, he caught heat for a recording of him pulling a women’s top down, exposing her. In July, he was involved in a bar fight in Dallas. Both incidents are in the wake of the NFL investigation into a domestic violence allegation. Zeke is a phenomenal talent, but he seemingly can’t stay out of trouble—and it’s only been a year in the NFL. He will almost certainly face some kind of suspension headed into the 2017 season, and if he keeps this up, it certainly won’t be the last. Without Zeke, the offense just won’t be the same.
Finally, there’s the potential for a sophomore slump for both Zeke and Dak Prescott. Both rookies took the NFL by storm last year, but Dak won’t take anyone by surprise anymore and Zeke has had his fair share of issues. Matt Ryan, Franco Harris, Ndamukong Suh, Todd Gurley, Robert Griffin III, Doug Martin, Anquan Boldin, Mike Evans, Keenan Allen, Jeremy Shockey and Martellus Bennett are just a few of the names who’ve had major setbacks in their second seasons. With a loss of depth on the O-line, who’s to say that Zeke and Dak won’t add to the long list of sophomore slumps?
With the fierce competition in the NFC East, I just don’t see how the Cowboys could avoid regression this year.
4. Atlanta Falcons: Contender
After complete humiliation in last year’s Super Bowl, the Falcons will enter 2017 with an unprecedented chip on their shoulder. The Patriots exposed Atlanta’s young defense during their historic comeback in Super Bowl LI.
This year, Atlanta isn’t messing around. They replaced defensive coordinator Richard Smith with Marquand Manuel, made a major splash by signing the monster DT Dontari Poe, drafted two strong rookie linebackers in Takkarist McKinley and Duke Riley and returned shutdown corner Desmond Trufant from injury.
The defense should be a point of contention, but the Falcons’ Super Bowl hopes live and die with the offense. After losing offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan to the Niners, it’s likely Atlanta won’t be as dominant as last year, but with last year’s MVP Matt Ryan, the unstoppable Julio Jones and De’Vonta Freeman suiting up, odds are that their chances are great again.
The Falcons are hungry, and right now, they’re the team to beat in the NFC.
5. Kansas City Chiefs: Pretender
With the exception of Dontari Poe, Jeremy Maclin and Jamaal Charles, the Chiefs will be largely the same team that won twelve games and the AFC West last year. Poe’s loss will be softened after signing former Philly bigman Bennie Logan, while Maclin and Charles aren’t the same players after injury. Needless to say, the Chiefs shouldn’t miss a step.
So, why are they pretenders? Two words: Alex Smith. As long as the mediocre quarterback is leading the charge, the Chiefs will never be more than just a playoff team. Foreseeing this exact possibility, the Chiefs proactively grabbed his successor by trading up and drafting Patrick Mahomes. The gunslinger from Texas Tech has had a strong training camp and seems to be the heir apparent in KC. At this point, the pressure is firmly under the ass of Alex Smith. Any slip-up and the Chiefs’ faithful will be quick to forget Smith, as calls for Mahomes will reverberate across Arrowhead Stadium.
Even if Mahomes looks like a stud, how many times has a rookie led his team to a title, and how many times has a quarterback controversy ended in glory? With Mahomes’ giant leap from a rudimentary Texas Tech offense, I’m not buying that he is NFL-ready just yet, which again leaves the Chiefs’ fate in Smith’s hands.
With a terrifying division, it’s not even a guarantee the Chiefs end up in the playoffs.
6. New York Giants: Contender
With the Cowboys’ resounding success in 2017, many forgot how incredible the Giants were. They beat those Cowboys twice, mainly due to the incredible dominance of their defense. With the deepest secondary in the NFL, led by dominant safety Landon Collins, a shutdown corner Janoris Jenkins and a dominant defensive line led by Jonathon Hankins and Damon Harrison, the Giants gave up the second fewest points. Hankins left in free agency to the Colts, but with Eli Apple’s growth into another shut-down corner, the Giants should be just as dominant this season.
The problem for last year’s Giants was their mediocre offense. Even with the explosiveness of Odell Beckham Jr., the Giants were a let-down. Eli Manning was a turnover machine, there was no running game to speak of and the injuries of Sterling Shepard and Victor Cruz prevented a strong number-two option next to OBJ.
This year, it’s hard to see a repeat. Paul Perkins seems like he’s taken a step forward in his sophomore season, and by all accounts should be their leading rusher in 2017. Adding Brandon Marshall, Evan Engram and the improvement of Sterling Shepard will give Eli one of the deepest bins of weapons he’s ever had. Eli never seems to have two bad years in a row, and with one of the deepest teams in the NFL, maybe Big Blue will have a third shot at Brady in the Super Bowl.
7. Pittsburgh Steelers: Pretender
Like the Chiefs, the Steelers were another great AFC team in 2016 who cruised through the regular season but were shown up in the post season when it mattered most. For Pittsburgh, the problem came on the defensive end; Tom Brady and the Pats sliced and diced the Steelers’ D in a thirty-six to seventeen rout in the AFC title game. The days of dominant defenses in the Steel City are long gone.
Today, dominant offensive reigns supreme—and the “Three Bs” are just that. Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown led one of the most dynamic offenses the league has ever seen. With a more consistent defense, the Steelers could have easily won thirteen or fourteen games in the regular season. This season, the Steelers will add another powerful “B” to the fray, when Martavis Bryant is reinstated after a year-long suspension for substance abuse issues. This offense is chock-full of talent, but has often lacked character and has recently been plagued by internal turmoil.
Bell, arguably the best RB in the NFL, missed seven combined games the last two seasons due to substance abuse issues. This year, he’s refused to sign the franchise tender and is holding out of training camp and preseason action in the hopes of receiving a massive contract. Brown, who’s had over one-hundred receptions and twelve-hundred yards in each of the last four seasons, made the asinine decision to unintentionally record Mike Tomlin’s profanity-filled speech about the Pats ahead of their upcoming matchup over Facebook Live. Most recently, Bryant and Roethlisberger have been involved in a very public feud over Bryant’s suspension.
Even if all these problems work themselves out, the Steelers still don’t have the defense to hang with the elite offenses of the AFC like the Raiders or Patriots.
8. New England Patriots: Contender (duh)
To the chagrin of many, the defending Super Bowl champs got significantly better. While the entire league tried to catch the Pats, they just kept trucking along. Instead of buying into the hype of the historically deep-draft class, the Pats traded most of their picks for veteran talents ready to win.
They traded their first rounder for the wonder-kid WR Brandin Cooks, their second rounder for pass-rusher Kony Ealy and their fourth rounder for Martellus Bennett’s replacement at TE, Dwayne Allen. Despite giving up most of their top picks, New England still landed arguably the steal of the draft with fourth-rounder Derek Rivers, the pass rusher from Youngstown State, and it doesn’t stop there.
In free agency, they added Pro Bowl CB Stephon Gilmore, Bengals RB Rex Burkhead, Bills RB Mike Gillislee and Jets LB David Harris, all without losing either of their dominant defensive leaders in Dont’a Hightower and Malcolm Butler.
The rest of the NFL should be trembling in their boots. This is the closest the NFL has to a “Super Team.”