Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Reviewing 2017 NFL Preseason Picks

By Brad Oremland

With only one game left in the 2017 NFL season — Super Bowl LII — I thought we'd take a look back at my preseason power rankings to see what I got right and wrong. We'll review teams in reverse draft order: Eagles and Patriots at the top, then the Vikings, the Jaguars, and the rest of the playoff teams, all the way down to the Browns, who will choose first in the 2018 draft.

New England Patriots

Predicted record: 12-4
Actual record: 13-3

Key quote: "The Pats return largely the same team that went 14-2 last year and won the Super Bowl ... Health is the only real question mark on a team that looks poised to repeat in February."

They were a popular preseason Super Bowl pick, and they didn't disappoint.

Philadelphia Eagles

Predicted record: 8-8
Actual record: 13-3

Key quote: "Imposing defense should give them a chance against anyone ... If Jeffery stays healthy, Blount plays better than he's shown in preseason, and Wentz develops, the Eagles are probably a playoff team."

The offense came together behind an elite line, ranking 3rd in points and 7th in yards. The Eagles ranked 3rd in rushing and led the NFL in touchdown passes.

Minnesota Vikings

Predicted record: 8-8
Actual record: 13-3

Key quote: "Spent this offseason locking up their best defensive players, with Everson Griffen, Linval Joseph, and Xavier Rhodes all signed through 2022 ... If Minnesota competes for a playoff spot, it will be with great defense and ball control offense."

I underestimated Minnesota on both sides of the ball, but I had the general formula for success right.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Predicted record: 6-10
Actual record: 10-6

Key quote: "Finished 5-11 or worse for six years in a row. If they avoid a seventh, it will be with massive improvement from a defense addressed in free agency."

The quote above is definitely correct, but I'm embarrassed at how badly I underestimated the impact of Jacksonville's free agency moves. I put too much weight on the team's culture of losing, and not enough on its excellent personnel.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Predicted record: 10-6
Actual record: 13-3

Key quote: "They return essentially the same team that made the AFC Championship Game last season ... they'll repeat as division champs."

I thought the Steelers might have more problems with injuries, but those didn't really hit until the last few weeks of the season.

New Orleans Saints

Predicted record: 7-9
Actual record: 11-5

Key quote: "Since winning Super Bowl XLIV, Brees has never taken fewer than 650 drop-backs. New Orleans has a great fantasy football offense, but would probably win more games with better balance."

I underestimated the impact of the Saints' exceptional rookie class, including Alvin Kamara, Marshon Lattimore, and Ryan Ramczyk, but they really benefitted from the shift back to a balanced offense in which the ground game functions as more than an afterthought.

Atlanta Falcons

Predicted record: 12-4
Actual record: 10-6

Key quote: "The Falcons took remarkably few hits in free agency: other than offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, replaced by former USC coach Steve Sarkisian, this is basically the same group that went 11-5 last season and won the NFC ... there's every reason to forecast them as a Super Bowl contender again."

One of my better predictions, albeit a pretty easy one.

Tennessee Titans

Predicted record: 9-7
Actual record: 9-7

Key quote: "Continuing to move in the right direction ... the AFC South is a two-team race, between Tennessee and Houston."

Did I say Houston? I meant Jacksonville.

Carolina Panthers

Predicted record: 7-9
Actual record: 11-5

Key quote: "Finished under .500 in two of the last three seasons ... Carolina should be better than last year, but those holes in the defensive backfield preclude a serious run in the postseason."

I was wrong about Carolina, but the Panthers ranked 3rd in rush defense and only allowed 7 rush TDs all season, yet allowed a 92.9 passer rating (about the same as Ben Roethlisberger). They still need to upgrade that secondary.

Los Angeles Rams

Predicted record: 4-12
Actual record: 11-5

Key quote: "They brought in a new head coach, former Washington OC Sean McVay, and a new defensive coordinator, Wade Phillips. That should help ... The addition of Andrew Whitworth should help quarterback Jared Goff, who was a disaster last season, and running back Todd Gurley ... The Rams look like they're moving in the right direction, but they're moving slowly."

They're not moving slowly at all! Whitworth anchored a much-improved offensive line, facilitating radically better play from Goff and Gurley. McVay and Phillips deserve credit as well.

Kansas City Chiefs

Predicted record: 10-6
Actual record: 10-6

Key quote: "It's hard to see how they can replicate last year's success in an increasingly competitive AFC West. They're probably the best of the all-defense, no-offense teams."

I got the record right, but the AFC West underperformed expectations, and the Chiefs' offense came alive behind Kareem Hunt and Tyreek Hill. Alex Smith shed a decade of being a game manager and set career-highs in almost every meaningful stat.

Buffalo Bills

Predicted record: 6-10
Actual record: 9-7

Key quote: "New head coach Sean McDermott takes over a team that has a .500 record (48-48) over the past three seasons. I see them below .500 this year, with offense a particular area of concern."

They made the playoffs for the first time in 18 years, but they're still essentially a .500 team, and they ranked 31st in passing offense.

Detroit Lions

Predicted record: 7-9
Actual record: 9-7

Key quote: "Last year, Theo Riddick led the Lions with 357 rushing yards. Even in a passing era, that's not a sustainable way to win games. If the Lions are over .500 again this year, Stafford might deserve a raise."

I can't believe they fired Jim Caldwell after his third winning season in four years. I was joking about the raise, but Stafford continues to play well in a one-dimensional offense.

Dallas Cowboys

Predicted record: 9-7
Actual record: 9-7

Key quote: "The defense should be unspectacular but solid, as long as Sean Lee can stay healthy. The NFC East appears to be a fairly strong division, so Dallas isn't a sure thing."

Injuries and Ezekiel Elliott's suspension sunk the Cowboys' playoff hopes.

Seattle Seahawks

Predicted record: 12-4
Actual record: 9-7

Key quote: "They probably still won't rush very well, and I doubt Wilson will get enough protection, but as long as he stays healthy, the Seahawks are going to score, and there are no ifs about the defense, and they're always going to be tough at home."

I take it back, there are ifs about the defense if Earl Thomas gets injured, and right when he comes back Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor miss half the season. Also, their offensive line is an emergency.

Los Angeles Chargers

Predicted record: 4-12
Actual record: 9-7

Key quote: "If the Chargers could stay healthy, they could surprise people ... The Chargers have talent on paper, but it doesn't seem like this is the season that they overcome their injury woes and make a playoff run."

They won as many games in 2017 as the previous two seasons combined.

Baltimore Ravens

Predicted record: 7-9
Actual record: 9-7

Key quote: "At best, the Ravens are treading water, a .500 team who lucks into a 9-7 finish and squeaks into the playoffs."

Even though I had Baltimore on the wrong side of .500, I feel good about this forecast.

Arizona Cardinals

Predicted record: 10-6
Actual record: 8-8

Key quote: "With the same old offense — old potentially being the operative word — and a defense down some of its top playmakers, do the Cardinals have another run in them before Palmer and Fitzgerald retire? It's hard for me to see that they do."

If David Johnson had played more than half a game, I think they would have finished 10-6.

Green Bay Packers

Predicted record: 10-6
Actual record: 7-9

Key quote: "Green Bay has made the playoffs eight years in a row, and it's hard to see anything on their roster, or elsewhere in the NFC North, that would indicate that trend stopping ... If [Aaron Rodgers gets] injured or struggles consistently, the NFC North could turn black and blue."

One of the hard things about preseason predictions ... you can't assume that Aaron Rodgers will miss nine games. You can't assume anyone will get hurt, in most cases. But injuries dictate results; that's the main reason that so many preseason forecasts end up looking nuts at the end of the season.

Washington

Predicted record: 7-9
Actual record: 7-9

Key quote: "If Kirk Cousins clicks with Pryor and Doctson, and the defense plays consistently, Washington could make a playoff push. But it wouldn't take a lot going wrong for this team to end up 5-11."

Injuries contributed to a disappointing season, but the team gave its fans some reasons for optimism heading into 2018, pending what they do at quarterback.

Cincinnati Bengals

Predicted record: 9-7
Actual record: 7-9

Key quote: "This is substantially the same team as they had last year, when they finished 6-9-1, and the year before, when they went 12-4. I'd guess they end up closer to 6-9-1, but a playoff berth wouldn't be surprising:"

The Bengals went 6-4 with Vontaze Burfict in the lineup, 1-5 without him. Adam Jones and Tyler Eifert missed significant time with injuries. The Bengals need to keep their best players on the field.

Miami Dolphins

Predicted record: 9-7
Actual record: 6-10

Key quote: "Last year, they were lucky to make the playoffs. This year, they'll have to earn it. Jay Cutler wasn't a great quarterback in his prime, and now he's clearly past his prime."

The offense really slipped this year, without Ryan Tannehill and Jay Ajayi, but I also expected more from their defense. It's loaded with players, and needs to demonstrate more consistency.

Oakland Raiders

Predicted record: 10-6
Actual record: 6-10

Key quote: "They benefitted last season from an unsustainable turnover diffential [but] the Raiders are a young team that's still getting better. I don't think they'll win 12 games again, but they should certainly compete for a playoff spot."

Last season, everything clicked; this year, nothing did.

San Francisco 49ers

Predicted record: 4-12
Actual record: 6-10

Key quote: "This is a multi-year rebuilding project, and the Niners are nowhere near being competitive. I can't see any scenario in which they make the playoffs this season."

The trade for Jimmy Garoppolo turned around their 1-10 start, and their rookie class played great down the stretch. They should compete for a playoff spot in 2018.

Chicago Bears

Predicted record: 5-11
Actual record: 5-11

Key quote: "There is some talent on the roster, so if everything gels, the Bears could be respectable. But I don't see any particular reason to believe that everything will gel."

The Bears have a good defense and a legit ground game. With even an average passing offense, they would probably be a playoff team.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Predicted record: 10-6
Actual record: 5-11

Key quote: "If the key pieces stay healthy, it looks like improvement across the board. It's been a decade since Tampa qualified for the playoffs, but that trend ends this year."

The key pieces did not stay healthy. Jameis Winston missed 4 games and played hurt in others. Kwon Alexander missed 4 games, Lavonte David and Brent Grimes missed 3. With better injury luck and a little more consistency, there's no reason the Bucs can't double their win total next year.

New York Jets

Predicted record: 4-12
Actual record: 5-11

Key quote: "I don't think anyone would be surprised if the Jets are the worst team in the NFL this season ... The Jets were bad last season, and to all appearances, they've gotten worse."

When a 5-11 season is a pleasant surprise, you know the bar was really low.

Denver Broncos

Predicted record: 11-5
Actual record: 5-11

Key quote: "New head coach Vance Joseph opted to replace defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. That's a curious choice ... If the offense can step things up a little — with a good line and good receivers, the tools are there — and the defense can play like it did under Phillips, the Broncos should factor into in the playoff race."

Brock Osweiler was their best quarterback this season. They're wasting Demaryius Thomas' prime years. And Von Miller's, for that matter. The Broncos have way too much talent to go 5-11.

Houston Texans

Predicted record: 10-6
Actual record: 4-12

Key quote: "If Watt stays healthy, and Clowney and Mercilus play like they did last season, Houston can compete with anyone, and should be in the playoff race all year. But if the offense can't consistently put points on the board, or opponents exploit cracks in the secondary, or the Watt/Clowney tandem fails to produce, Texans fans may not like the way that playoff race turns out."

J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus missed most of the season, and their offense fell apart after Deshaun Watson's injury. I'll probably forecast a 10-6 finish next year, too, but they need to keep their best players on the field.

Indianapolis Colts

Predicted record: 5-11
Actual record: 4-12

Key quote: "Andrew Luck isn't healthy: there are serious questions about how much he'll play this year ... I'd be surprised if they match last year's 8-8 performance."

Luck didn't play at all, and the Colts ranked 31st in total offense.

New York Giants

Predicted record: 8-8
Actual record: 3-13

Key quote: "They're strong at three positions — wide receiver, defensive line, and defensive backfield — and vulnerable everywhere else ... luck seldom holds up two years in a row, and I see the Giants as a middle-of-the-road team."

Relative to most forecasters, some of whom pegged the Giants for a Super Bowl appearance, I was skeptical about this team. The injury to Odell Beckham and the momentum of their own awfulness turned a mediocre team even worse.

Cleveland Browns

Predicted record: 6-10
Actual record: 0-16

Key quote: "The Browns are young, obviously. They won't compete for a playoff spot this year, and perhaps not next year, either, but they are moving in the right direction. They went 1-15 last season, but they're positioned to improve quickly."

Okay, they went 0-16. But if they have Josh Gordon and Myles Garrett for 16 games next year, and they hit on a couple of their draft choices (they have two of the first four selections), they could still improve quickly. They'll probably draft a QB, but they also need a decent veteran backup to keep the ship steady if the young guy gets hurt or needs some time to develop.

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