Is their any more optimistic time than NFL right before training camp? Every team has reason to look ahead. Bad teams have new quarterbacks, good teams have Super Bowl hopes and middling teams have dreams of sneaking their way into the postseason.
The important thing to remember, however, is that no matter how excited you are for the season, chances are good that excitement will be dashed to nothing. Most teams end up disappointed, most fans end up hanging their head when the season ends. Some teams will surprise and make a run no one saw coming. Most will fail to meet their coaches’, front offices’ and fans’ expectations.
Andy Hammel covered the teams that will be pleasant surprises (Spoiler alert, there may be a team pulling double duty). Now it is time to look at five candidates to fall short of their goals in 2018.
This entry really depends on what one defines as “disappointing.” Most NFL fans probably do not have Denver much on their radar. But John Elway seems fairly convinced the Broncos are playoff-caliber. He made that clear after his big offseason move, signing quarterback Case Keenum.
Beyond that, Elway did not make many moves to improve the roster outside of the draft. The defense is solid, but certainly not the shutdown unit it once was. The offense has some weapons, but is sporting four rookies and Devontae Booker at running back. Drafting Bradley Chubb to put next to Von Miller was a draft day home run. But they also lost their best cover corner Aqib Talib and do not have a guaranteed replacement.
And let’s talk about Keenum. He had a career year in Minnesota, no question about it. But he went from a lifelong journeyman to an average quarterback in one season. That one season took place on one of the most loaded rosters in football, and Keenum still ended up being a liability by season’s end. There is little evidence that Keenum is anything more than a stopgap, and plenty of evidence he will not be much more valuable than Trevor Siemian or Brock Osweiler. He may be better, but not three-to-five wins better. With the roster as currently constituted, Denver is looking at another five-win season with seven wins as the peak of optimism. Anything more would be flooring.
Tennessee is going to find themselves in a significantly tougher situation than getting the four-win Colts and Texans twice, like they had last year. For the first time in years, the AFC South may be one of the better divisions in football. Three teams have playoff aspirations and the fourth could be a quarterback resurgence away from joining them in that group. To the Titans’ credit, they beat the Jaguars twice last year (though the second was a meaningless game for Jacksonville). But they also benefited from a fairly light schedule.
Here is what Tennessee has going for them. They have a solid roster up and down, a good running game, some real play-makers on defense and exciting pass catchers. But they also have one thing going against them: massive question marks surrounding their quarterback. Marcus Mariota had a tremendous 2016, which made his precipitous drop in 2017 all the more confusing. With two above-average (and one top-three) defenses in the division, an enhanced strength of schedule and Indy and Houston theoretically returning their quarterbacks, Mariota cannot afford to be nearly as turnover-prone. If he is, despite the enticing roster around him, there is a real possibility of the Titans dropping to fourth in the AFC South.
Kansas City Chiefs
In order to win the division last season, Kansas City needed a four-game losing streak from the Chargers to open the season and an MVP-caliber year from quarterback Alex Smith. They will not get either in 2018. Los Angeles appears on paper to have one of the best defenses in football, as well as an explosive passing offense. Kansas City, on the other hand, will go to bat not with the veteran Smith, but with second-year quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who has one start under his belt. Granted, in that lone start, Mahomes showed promise and put up good numbers. But Kansas City’s offense was, at times, anemic with Smith having the best season of his career.
That is not to mention the potential loss that Matt Nagy represents. True or not, the narrative of the Chiefs’ 2017 was that Kansas City thrived when Nagy called plays, faltered under Andy Reid, then succeeded again when Nagy resumed control. Nagy is now in Chicago. Smith is in Washington. Marcus Peters, one of their three best defensive players, is with the Rams. The Raiders could rebound from a bad season. The odds are stacked against Kansas City repeating a division title they had to scrap to clinch in 2017.
Take a breath before sending your hate-tweets, Vikings fans. Your favorite team will still in all likelihood make the playoffs. And they are appropriately viewed as the NFC North frontrunners. They have the best roster in the division and one of the five best in the game. But they also have one of the toughest schedules, at least on paper. Plus, they are at a point where expectations among the fanbase is Super Bowl or bust.
The Vikings were close last year in one sense. In another, they lost to the eventual champs by 31. They made the adequate moves to take the next step, signing a (in theory) franchise quarterback and bolstering their interior pass rush. But they are also more likely to get more than two quarters of Aaron Rodgers. Plus, they have the Patriots, Eagles and Rams on the road. As such, the relatively disappointing results of a 10-win season and an early playoff exit are certainly within the realm of plausibility. The NFC has loaded up this offseason and there is far more than just Carson Wentz and the Eagles standing in their way.
Now, the 2017 season seemed daunting, as well. And the Vikings came out on the other end 13-3. That is also a legitimate possibility. But as it appears now, three Super Bowl favorites and an improved NFC North loom pretty large.
San Francisco 49ers
Expectations and optimism are both desirable and demoralizing things for a rebuilding franchise. On the one hand, they provide the fanbase with some light at the end of the tunnel. On the other, the dashing of said hopes leads to further frustration. The 49ers are at their most optimistic since Jim Harbaugh left. They have their franchise quarterback, still young and undefeated as a starter. John Lynch drafted weapons and linemen to put Jimmy Garoppolo in the best chance to succeed moving forward. He made moves in free agency, bringing in Richard Sherman and Jerick McKinnon. Some see 2018 as the first push towards the postseason.
But the truth is that the 49ers are still rebuilding. The most important piece is in place, but several young players have yet to show they will be long-term solutions, namely Solomon Thomas and Reuben Foster. The receivers are average at best, with Pierre Garcon and Marquise Goodwin entering camp as the top two targets. There is still work to do on the defense. McKinnon, though coming off his best season, has never been the feature back in his four NFL seasons.
The 49ers are dealing with a lot of question marks, an absence of depth and a fair amount of youth still waiting to blossom. There is no doubt that they are in a good position moving ahead. But six or seven wins in 2018 is in play. How far past this total they go will depend a lot on the handsome right-hander, Garoppolo.
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