June. It’s that unfortunate month on the NFL calendar when a guy drinking kombucha becomes newsworthy. The only real news out of OTAs and minicamps worth discussing is if / when someone gets hurt. So, let’s flip the calendar forward and start looking at the interesting storylines of the upcoming 2017 season.
1. I’m sick of the Ezekiel Elliot coronation as the best back in the league and a hot-take MVP candidate. Elliot had a great rookie year behind the best offensive line in the league. Cool. There’s another Big 10 guy who was equally impressive as a 5th round pick out of Indiana. He played for a team without much consistency in the passing game and injuries to the offensive line but still produced essentially identical yards per carry efficiency numbers, finishing second in the league in rushing yards in only 13 starts. Dallas can keep the controversial Elliot as they try to balance the big personalities in that locker room. I’m excited to see what the humble Jordan Howard can do with a full slate of games this year and beyond.
2. The AFC East has lacked for drama since Bill Belichick and Tom Brady started their dominance over the division and the league. Former Nebraska star and all-world dirty player Ndamukong Suh says the Dolphins will never be scared of the Patriots. I don’t think Suh is scared of much outside of one of Brady’s kale smoothies but should we consider Adam Gase’s squad a real contender to compete for the division in 2017? Ryan Tannehill experienced a jump in efficiency in Year 1 of the Gase system (Cutler-esque you might say) and enters his 6th year with an improving offensive unit. If Tannehill can cut down on the turnovers, I think the Dolphins could keep the division interesting…but there’s no way I’d bet on them to take out the Patriots.
3. The biggest storyline I’m excited about in the NFC East is the Wentz-wagon in Philly. While the Cowboys will open the year as favorites to repeat, this division usually provides for a lot of competition and the Eagles appear poised to be a volatile team that could soar to the top or crash land on the rocks. Carson Wentz has some new weaponry including former Bear Alshon Jeffery and the Philly defense is salty under everyone’s favorite sore-loser Jim Schwartz. I expect Wentz to take a step forward in year 2 and propel the Eagles into a winning record.
4. I was in Nashville, TN a couple years ago around the time the franchise was bottoming out. I didn’t see a single Titans hat, flag, or bumper sticker in the entire place while I was there. Times, they are a changin’. In a wide open AFC South, the Titans made a run at the division crown only to inexplicably drop a week 16 game against the Jaguars. Marcus Mariota enters his third season with stability in the coaching staff, two talented running backs, and an improving offensive line. The Colts are just starting off with a new GM and building around Andrew Luck, the Texans are slated to start Tom Savage after the Brock Osweiler experiment failed miserably, and the Jaguars are, well, the Jaguars. Bolstered by additional picks from the 2016 draft trade with the Rams, I expect the Titans to win the division and play potential foil in the playoffs with a unique brand of exotic smashmouth.
5. The NFC South is home to the last two NFC champions, one coming off a miserable year fighting the hangover and the other with all eyes on them after the greatest collapse in Super Bowl history. There’s also the amazing Drew Brees and the last hooray of Adrian Peterson in the Big Easy, coached by Lester Wiltfong Jr.’s pick for future Bears HC Sean Payton. Despite all of that, I find myself getting sucked into Dirk Koetter’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Maybe it’s because Dirk (a type of dagger) Koetter (pronounced Cutter) is the most Buccaneers sounding coach ever. More likely it’s that Year 3 intrigue of a top QB draft pick hitting his stride. Jameis Winston started to look the part last year, topping 4,000 yards and 28 TDs. The 18 picks are a recurring bugaboo in his game, but the weaponry of the speedy DeSean Jackson, the all-world talent of Mike Evans and the newly drafted elite TE prospect OJ Howard should have everyone in the league on notice. On paper, this is usually a fun division with changes at the top of the leaderboard almost every year. The Bucs are a team on the rise and the best bet to take down Atlanta.
6. The western divisions have a lot of movement of teams to new cities. The Chargers will be playing in a small stadium in LA until the new facility is ready to share with the Rams. The Rams enter year 2 in LA, playing their games at the Coliseum. The Raiders will play the next two years in Oakland before moving east to Las Vegas. I imagine that Oakland will retain their fans as they enjoy national support and they are making this move while they are AFC title contenders. The Rams have some fans from the old LA Rams days, but they are in a lot of trouble right now with the 2nd least amount of cap room with Aaron Donald’s contract coming due and a ton of holes throughout the roster. The Chargers, on the other hand, are moving a short distance north and have a young core of talent that could potentially win over the fickle market. If I were in SoCal, I know I’d rather watch the powder blue.
7. The AFC West is not going to be a runaway division for the Raiders. As much fun as the Marshawn Lynch story is, the Raiders defense still has a ways to go and the Kansas City Chiefs are an effective machine, grinding opponents up and spitting out wins. I expect it to be another tough race with the Chargers playing the role of pesky spoiler.
8. The NFC West is much less interesting with the California teams fighting for draft order. The Seahawks and Cardinals are both teams struggling with an identity crisis. The Seahawks have tilted the offense so far into Russell Wilson’s hands that they’re one of the worst rushing teams in football. As good as Wilson is on the move, it dulls the edge when you’re asking him to do it 40+ times a game. If Carson Palmer can return to something closer to his 2015 season, I think the Cardinals will win the West as the big personalities in that Seahawks locker room pull that team apart.
9. Is there a more boring division than the AFC North right now? Cleveland is not ready to compete, Baltimore has the least interesting established QB in the league in Flacco, and the Bengals are held together with duct tape and are an injury away from a 4-12 year. Ben Roethlisberger is nearing the end but if he stays healthy (a big if) this offense could be something special. The Steelers have arguably the best receiver in Antonio Brown, the best running back in Le’Veon Bell, and the troubled but talented Martavis Bryant returning from a 1-year suspension. If Big Ben stays healthy, the Steelers will once again lead the posse for best Patriots contender.
10. Finally, the NFC North. I’m holding out hope of reading an article of Aaron Rodgers taking up with a Tibetan monk and forsaking his possessions in favor of inner peace and happiness. Short of that happy thought is thinking about what this Bears squad could be this year. Building on Howard’s impressive rookie season, the running game should be able to establish a steady offensive hand. Balance that with Vic Fangio’s 3-4 defense starting to finally come into its own and the Bears are going to be better than what they’re getting credit for in the national media. The proof is in the pudding, so no use complaining about the shade thrown by national writers until things change. However, I believe Ryan Pace made the move for Mitchell Trubisky now because he believes this team will win 8 or more games this year, thus proving impossible for him to move up in the draft in 2018 to secure the signal caller of the future. This team isn’t ready to compete for a title this year, but this is where we start the climb out of the cellar and back into contention.
Those are my thoughts – what are yours?