LEAST: 1. Team Trump (MA) 2. Team Trump (NJ) 3. Buffalo 4. Team Trump (FL)Ooops. they did it again. In the rush to praise intentional losing — to the point where organizations are being praised as singular models before they’ve even accomplished much of anything — it’s worth noting that there’s a lot to be said for maintaining a competitive infrastructure that can attract and get the best out of talent on one hand, and just adding some talented players to a dysfunctional organization doesn’t necessarily lead to great leaps forward. The knocks on Brown aren’t just racist talk-radio-mouth-breather bullshit — “refusing to show up to practice” and “illegally taping the coach’s phone calls and putting them on the internet” are different things than “getting photographed on a boat” or “excessive end zone celebrations” or whatever. But it’s a great gamble for the Pats — if he can’t get it together they’ll just get rid of him and carry on, and if he does they’ve just added a Canton-level talent they can really use. And since they already figured to be a top-2 seed without him…other than the it-can’t-go-on-forever issues with Brady the Pats continue to be what they are. The New York and New Jersey teams are at least interesting. I’m a believer in Darnold and not a believer in Gase, although as both coach and coordinator he’s been more “generic/generic minus” than “bad,” and the effects of his tendency towards boardroom politics won’t manifest themselves for a while; they should be improved. McDermott has actually done some impressive work since joining the Bills — the defense has been restored to the top-3 DVOA unit is was before Rex Ryan wrecked it with stubborn nostalgia and rank nepotism, and the team is much more disciplined and professional than it’s been in a while. But…McDermott has so far failed at the most important part of the job, finding a QB. Even among some analytic types there is a contrarian case for Allen developing: roughly, 1)he’s a genuinely freakish athletic talent, not just another tall white guy with an arm, making him more likely to be the exception to the rule that QBs who aren’t accurate in college never become accurate in the pros; 2)he was better than could have been expected last season, particularly given the utter lack of surrounding talent; and 3)he looked better this offseason. I don’t even disagree with any of those points, but to me there’s still the facts that 1)he was nowhere near the performance level one would expect of an NFL QB in peonage ball, and 2)if compared to a baseline of “what one expects of an NFL QB” rather than “what does one expect of someone who was mediocre in Mountain West Conference” he was really bad last year. I’m not saying it’s impossible that he’ll develop into a decent pro, but I am saying I won’t believe it until I see it. Despite my tanking skepticism I’m fine with the Tunsil trade for the Dolphins — trading players for well over their market value is more a “rebuilding” than a “tanking” move, even if the value is in futures, and it’s not like the team would be competitive if they had just retained a decent LT and an decent #2 wideout. But for now they’re awful, and they have to be careful not to develop the organizational habits that cause losing to repeat itself even if you keep getting nice draft picks.
North: 1. Pit 2. Bal (*) 3. Cle 4. Cin Despite my reservations about tanking, and my apparently unusual belief that they should, like, have a winning season before people declare them a model for how to build a championship team, I am bullish about the future of the Browns. I think Mayfield will fall somewhere on the very-good-to-great spectrum and defense has the potential to be scary. I also like the trade for Beckham Jr, although injuries have been a major concern throughout his career and he’s apparently already banged up. But this pick isn’t so much anti-Browns as pro-the-top-of-the-NFC North. Roethlisberger was one of the 5 best QBs in the league last year and the Pittsburgh defense figures to be significantly improved. Baltimore was 6th in DVOA despite the sub-replacement-level stlyings of Joe Flacco and a very raw Lamar Jackson. We’re looking at three very talented teams, in other words, only two of them are organizations of longstanding quality with Super Bowl-winning coaches, and one is coached by Freddie Kitchens and is one season removed from an 0-16 season. Maybe the Browns will arrive this year, but it seems premature to declare them better than Pittsburgh or Baltimore. The Bengals are now in the situation of the organization coming off the downside of the run of a good-not-great coach; firing Marv was postmature, but the Bengals are much more likely to get a worse coach than a better won, and the talent as deteriorated significantly.
South 1. Hou 2.Ind 3. Jax 4. Ten I’m tempted to kick the Texans down a couple notches, but they’re still the most likely division winners. Last year they prove that stars-and-scrubs can work if the stars are good and healthy enough, and they have the best QB in the division backed up by arguably the bets wideout in the league, who will be better supported than he’s ever been. And Tunsil will help even if the price was excessive; they’re the most likely team to get destroyed by a real AFC contender in the playoffs. That used to be Indianapolis’s job, and despite the sudden retirement of Luck I think they’re closer than you might think. The tragedy of Luck retiring now is that the organization is in much better hands than it’s been in a while. Having had a chance to learn Reich’s system, I think Brissett might be OK, and they have a lot of impressive talent on both sides of the ball. The Jaguars should have the best defense in the division, and while Foles has been all over the map he should certainly be an upgrade over Blake Bortles. There’s a reasonable case to be made for picking them to win the division but 1)expecting Foles to repeat what he did in Philly with inferior offensive infrastructure is probably unrealistic and 2)he’s had trouble staying in the lineup and his backup is [checks notes] Garnder Minshew? The Titans have been very competitive and you have to respect that; any of these 4 teams could win the division. But they don’t have the front-line talent of the Texans, the Colts had 12 notches of DVOA on them last year and I don’t think that’s all Luck, and the Jags have a better defense and it’s hard to make a case that Mariota is better or more likely to stay healthy than Foles at this point.
West 1. KC 2. LA (*) 3. Den 4. Oak The Chefs speak for themselves; they have the MVP on a rookie contract well-coached and surrounded with weapons, and a defense with nowhere to go but up. The Chargers have a high upside, but as always their excellent roster is already being limited by injury issues and holdout. The Broncos are still loaded on defense and now have a world-class defensive mind in the organization again after the bizarre Vance Joseph Experience (Magary: “lest you think Joseph is returning to the role he’s best suited for, please note that he was a shitty DC too! And he only has one year of experience as one! No no, Vance Joseph’s true calling is as inside linebackers water station quality control associate.” I still can’t believe Adam Gase has a coaching tree.) A nice start! And yet another year of Von Miller’s career will be wasted because of John Elway’s fondness for shitty quarterbacks. The only question about the Raiders is whether they’ll be better than the Dolphins or even worse.
NFC picks here.