The NFL is on the cusp of a fascinating campaign. These are the people in and around the league who will drive the conversations of 2018.
They're not necessarily the most skilled or important players, coaches and executives, but for one reason or another, I think we'll either be talking about them or noticing how they influence the upcoming season. I've split them into several unordered groups, starting with the folks who have the most riding on the season.
Jump to a section:
Group I: The Now-or-Nevers
Group II: The Rookies (or Almost Rookies)
Group III: Familiar Faces in New Places
Group IV: The Rehabilitation Stories
Group V: The Breakout Stars
Group VI: One More Ride
Group VII: The Wild Cards
Group VIII: The Ghost
Group I: The Now-or-Nevers
These are the people around the league who have more to gain or lose than just about anyone else over the next six months -- for all kinds of reasons.
1. Le'Veon Bell, RB, Steelers
I think we're underrating Bell's MVP (or Offensive Player of the Year) chances heading into the season. For one, he has actually been healthy for most of the past two seasons underneath a heavy workload. Past availability doesn't always indicate future health, but it's a positive sign for a player whose only weakness seemed to be injury concerns. If he stays healthy, we can feel reasonably confident Bell is going to pick up another 350-touch season given the lack of a notable second back on the roster, Pittsburgh's chances of winning 10-plus games, and the advancing age of 36-year-old quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
Bell's yards per carry dropped in 2017, but he remained efficient and posted a success rate of 49 percent as a runner. As I mentioned earlier this offseason, Bell's totals fell because he didn't rack up big plays as a runner. He had eight runs of 30 yards or more on 908 carries from 2013 to '16. The Steelers handed Bell the rock 321 times last season and didn't get a single run longer than 27 yards. Bell had three catches of 30 yards or more, and history tells us that there's little reason to think that Bell won't rack up a few big gains in 2018.
A healthy Bell with a heavy workload and a few more big plays should be enough to produce a career year. Running backs are always at a disadvantage against quarterbacks in award races, but Bell could be uniquely positioned to exceed even lofty expectations in 2018.
2. Marcus Mariota, QB, Titans
In the paradox that was the 2017 Titans season, Mariota was a microcosm of Tennessee's stunted growth. The former second overall pick produced his worst season as a pro and simultaneously led the league with three fourth-quarter comeback victories and four game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime. He became the first Titans quarterback to win a playoff game since Steve McNair, but he struggled so much in Mike Mularkey's antiquated scheme that the Titans had little choice but to fire their coach.
If Mariota stays healthy and succeeds in 2018 under the stewardship of former Rams offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur, all will be forgiven. If he struggles, though, the Titans might be looking at a Ryan Tannehill-esque situation. Nobody doubts that Mariota's mobility, leadership and propensity for highlight-reel plays make him a great prospect, but after years of cycling through coaches and schemes to try to fit their quarterback, at what point is it more about the passer than the people around him? If Mariota doesn't turn into the player we've been waiting to see this season, there are going to be reasonable concerns about his ceiling.
3. Jameis Winston, QB, Buccaneers
Winston produced the best four-game stretch of his career after returning from injury last season, a run in which he completed nearly 72 percent of his passes while averaging 9.3 yards per attempt and throwing for eight touchdowns against two picks. He improved in virtually every statistical category I can find and was better than league average by the vast majority of measures.
We should be looking at a potential Pro Bowl season for Winston. Instead, he is suspended for three games after allegedly groping an Uber driver in Arizona in March 2016. This is a critical year for Winston's development, but that has far less to do with what he does on the field than how he acts off of it. Can the Buccaneers justify giving an eight-figure contract to a quarterback who has repeatedly been accused of sexual misconduct and doesn't appear to be learning any lessons? Should we even be asking the question?
4. John Elway, GM, Broncos
It's unfathomable to suggest that Elway's job might be on the line given that he's a franchise icon and two years removed from winning Super Bowl 50. But it's difficult to believe just how much has gone wrong in Denver since the team raised the Lombardi trophy. The Broncos weren't able to come to terms on an extension with defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, who went to Los Angeles and turned around the Rams' defense overnight. Six of the 11 starters who suited up for the Broncos in the Super Bowl win over the Panthers are no longer on the roster, and the defense regressed and fell from first to 10th in DVOA last season.
More disconcerting, though, is Elway's inability to improve the offense. He mishandled the C.J. Anderson situation and was forced to match an onerous offer sheet from the Dolphins for what ended up being two years of ordinary play. The efforts to upgrade the offensive line in both the draft and free agency have made little progress; the Broncos are about to cut Menelik Watson despite owing the former Raiders right tackle $5.5 million in guaranteed base salary this season.
What's most worrisome, though, is how the transition from Peyton Manning has not gone to plan. Elway avoided a landmine when the Broncos were outbid for Brock Osweiler, who went to Houston, but the trade up to grab Paxton Lynch in the first round in 2016 looks to be a misstep. Lynch was awful in 128 pass attempts over two seasons and might not make the roster after slipping behind seventh-rounder Chad Kelly. Now, it will be Case Keenum's turn after the Broncos made a $25 million bet on the former undrafted free agent keeping up his stunning form from Minnesota.
It's hardly as if Elway was on an island with his decisions, of course. The Texans wanted Osweiler. The Cowboys were furiously upset about the Broncos beating them to the punch in trading up for Lynch, and after the Raiders drafted fellow target Connor Cook, Dallas was forced to settle for Dak Prescott. There wasn't much chatter around Keenum before he signed with the Broncos, but it's not difficult to believe that he would have attracted serious money on a one-year deal if the Broncos had gone in a different direction.
Part of the equation with Elway, though, has always been the idea that his experience as a player offers an advantage over executives who haven't won games on the field at the highest level. To be fair, Elway has been humble and hasn't expressed that sentiment himself, but this is a league in which both John Dorsey and Dave Gettleman were out of a job at this time last season. If any other general manager pieced together a five-year stretch of first-round picks that included Sylvester Williams, Shane Ray, Lynch and Garett Bolles (and the useful Bradley Roby), wouldn't we be worrying about his future?
5. Joe Flacco, QB, Ravens
Since 1970, 318 quarterbacks have thrown 500 or more passes in a season. Of those quarterbacks, just three have posted a worse yards per attempt index (Y/A+) than Flacco did last season, when the Super Bowl XLVII MVP averaged 5.8 yards per attempt in a league in which the average pass went for 6.6 yards per throw. Flacco hasn't posted a Y/A+ above the league average of 100 since the 2012 season.
Since winning the Super Bowl in the 2012 season, Flacco has been one of 19 passers to throw 2,000 or more pass attempts. He's a middling 13th in completion percentage, and that's the bright spot. Flacco ranks last in yards per attempt, last in adjusted net yards per attempt, 16th in interception rate, last in touchdown percentage, 18th in passer rating and 15th in Total QBR. If a productive preseason is a sign that Flacco is responding to the challenge of first-round pick Lamar Jackson, that's great. Just one question, though: What has he been waiting for?
6. Ezekiel Ansah, DE, Lions
Here are Ansah's sack totals and then the number of sacks we would have expected for Ansah given his quarterback knockdown totals:
He is right where we would expect him to be over the course of his career, but he has dramatically under- or over-performed his expected sack total in four of his five pro seasons. That doesn't bode well for 2018, during which Ansah will be playing out his franchise tag under a new coach in Matt Patricia and defensive coordinator in Paul Pasqualoni. Since 2006, 55 pass-rushers have outperformed their expected sack total by somewhere between 3.5 and 4.5 sacks, as was the case for Ansah last season. The following season, 42 of those 55 players declined, while just nine improved.
7. Norv Turner, offensive coordinator, Panthers
Panthers fans who were deliriously excited about the franchise moving on from longtime offensive coordinator Mike Shula had about three days to celebrate before being puzzled by the hire of the 66-year-old Turner, who was just over one year removed from leaving the Vikings in the middle of a frustrating season. Turner has had an impressive career as an offensive coordinator, but after the Chargers finished fifth in offensive DVOA in 2011, his offenses haven't ranked better than 16th in offensive DVOA in any season.
As I mentioned earlier this year, Turner has never really worked with a mobile quarterback during his career. Is that a great fit for Cam Newton? Turner has built his offenses around attacking teams downfield, which makes sense given Carolina's offensive weapons but might not be a great fit given this offensive line. The Panthers already are missing star guard Andrew Norwell, who left for Jacksonville, and could be down both starting tackles with Daryl Williams likely heading to injured reserve and Matt Kalil undergoing a knee scope. It seems like one of three things will happen: The Panthers make miracles happen with their backup offensive linemen; Turner changes his spots as an offensive coach after decades in the NFL; or Cam Newton gets hit more than any other quarterback in the league.
8. Blake Bortles, QB, Jaguars
The best example of the unique position Bortles occupies in the NFL world is that he is a former No. 3 overall pick who had an organization shop for pieces to make him look good each offseason while simultaneously making excuses as he failed to improve and yet, still, Bortles manages to have a persecution complex.
We know the lows have been bad for Bortles. Even the highs, though, haven't been impressive. I took each quarterback's top 16 starts by Total QBR over the past five seasons and combined their numbers into what amounts to their best-case seasonal line. Of those 37 passers, Bortles' best 16 games combine to rank 35th in completion percentage, 26th in yards per attempt, 34th in interception rate and 29th in adjusted yards per attempt.
The best-case scenario is that we see more of the Bortles who pieced together the best three-game stretch of his career last December along with the guy who subsequently held his own against Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady in the playoffs. The worst case is that we get the Bortles who showed up in between the stretches, the guy who threw five interceptions across three games and became the first quarterback in nearly two decades to throw 20 passes in a playoff game and win despite failing to make it to 100 passing yards. If you know which Bortles is going to show up in 2018, we're all ears.
9. Hue Jackson, coach, Browns
Let us all grow up to have Jackson's confidence. Few coaches keep their jobs after a 1-15 season, although it would have been harsh to fire Jackson amid Cleveland's tanking efforts. Even fewer manage to hold onto the gig after a winless campaign, when the Browns actually were supposed to be more competitive. Jackson was hired for his ability to work with quarterbacks, but he spent 2017 destroying DeShone Kizer's confidence before letting the rookie flail on the field during a brutal season. Deposed general manager Sashi Brown and analytics chief Paul DePodesta have taken the heat for trading away the pick the Eagles used on Carson Wentz, even though Jackson didn't want to use the second overall pick on Wentz.
Brown certainly had his own issues and probably deserved to lose his job, but Jackson framing the Browns' future as the greatest turnaround in sports history seems like a case of putting the cart before the horse. In this case, the horse is something like "two wins in a season" or "handling a quarterback situation effectively for a month at a time." Jackson was eager to frame himself as a traditionalist in contrast to Brown after the latter was fired and replaced by John Dorsey, but the decision to play rookie Antonio Callaway into the fourth quarter of a preseason game as a punishment was panned by ex-players. To keep his job past 2018, Jackson is going to have to settle on a story and an identity. With first overall pick Baker Mayfield in the fold, the time for excuses is up.
10. Steve Sarkisian, offensive coordinator, Falcons
I'm not convinced Sarkisian deserves anywhere near as much of the blame for what happened with the Falcons' offense last season. For one, the Falcons were always going to decline from the record marks they put up in 2016, regardless of whether former coordinator Kyle Shanahan stuck around. The Falcons produced the best first-down offense in league history in 2016, and in 2017, they fell all the way to third in yards per play and third in conversion rate on first downs. Their offensive line also stayed healthy for 80 starts in 2016, which is virtually impossible to repeat (and out of any coordinator's control).
The biggest problem with the Falcons' offense in 2017, instead, was that it spent too much time on the sidelines. Atlanta's defense allowed more plays per drive than any other team in football. The Falcons' defense allowed the second-longest average drive in terms of time of possession. It ranked 26th in turnover percentage.
As a result, the offense ran only 157 meaningful possessions last season, the lowest mark in the league by nine full possessions. The league average was 179 possessions. It's as if the Falcons just punted on first down every drive for two games of the season. Atlanta also faced the league's second-worst average starting field position. With that, the Falcons then averaged the league's second-most yards per drive and its seventh-most points per drive. They finished ninth in offensive DVOA. The offense held up its end of the bargain.
Those numbers aren't going to placate Falcons fans, though, and Sarkisian might make for a convenient scapegoat if the defense doesn't take that long-awaited big step forward. He will have to hope for a positive regression to the mean in the red zone from Julio Jones, who scored a scarcely believable three touchdowns on 88 receptions a year ago. I imagine Falcons fans might have some playcalling suggestions for what not to do in the red zone after last season's goal-line stand in Philadelphia.
11. Cam Newton, QB, Panthers
There aren't many comparisons made between Newton and Andy Dalton. Rightfully so. I'm making one here because both Newton and Dalton put together 2015 campaigns that look like huge outliers in context with the rest of their careers. Dalton's passer rating falls between 80.4 and 91.8 in six of his seven seasons. In 2015, he posted a passer rating of 106.2. Cam's passer rating stays within a similarly modest range in five of his six campaigns, with a low of 75.8 and a high of 88.8. During his MVP season, the former Auburn star made his way up to a rating of 99.4.
Passer rating shouldn't tell the whole story for Newton given how much he offers as a runner, but you can understand why there's a sense of frustration with Cam stagnating as a passer. After their attempt to change the offense and reduce the workload on Newton failed last season, though, the Panthers punted on the idea and leaned even further into a downfield passing attack by hiring Norv Turner to serve as offensive coordinator. It would be foolish for the Panthers to put Newton on the hot seat given how productive he has been before turning 30, but it's also fair to wonder whether the MVP is coming out to play again anytime soon.
12. Adam Gase, coach, Dolphins
It took one year for Gase to morph from darling young coach into a frustrated, possibly overmatched leader. This time last year, Dolphins staffers were somehow predicting breakout seasons for virtually every one of Miami's weapons. The breakouts didn't come. Jay Ajayi was traded in an attempt to fix the team culture, only for the Eagles to win a Super Bowl with him in the lineup. DeVante Parker was rarely healthy. Kenny Stills' touchdown percentage regressed toward the mean. The much-ballyhooed reunions of Gase with Jay Cutler and Julius Thomas ended with both players retiring; Thomas to get his Ph.D., Cutler to serve as the languid, curious muse of a reality show.
The Dolphins instead structured this offseason around rebuilding their culture, replacing Jarvis Landry and Ndamukong Suh with Danny Amendola, Albert Wilson and Robert Quinn. The problem is that the culture woes in Miami stretch beyond the 2017 team and even Gase's tenure with the organization. The Dolphins don't operate in the real world. This is a team that can't afford to make Suh the highest-paid defender in the league and does so anyway, drastically restructures the deal to free up cap room, then cuts him to bring in the next big-name player while patting themselves on the back for dumping their most talented defender. If Gase can overcome that, he's an even better coach than the guy we were impressed with after 2016.
13. Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Jets
UPDATE: The Jets were, in fact, able to procure a valuable pick for their $500,000 investment in Bridgewater when the Saints sent their 2019 third-round selection for the former Vikings starter and a sixth-round pick. It's a great move for the Jets, who basically bought a top-level compensation pick without having to pay Bridgewater his base salary. It's a curious move in the short term for the Saints, but if Bridgewater wanted to find a long-term home, it's hard to find a better location for the 25-year-old than Sean Payton's offense in New Orleans.
A league constantly decrying the lack of useful quarterbacks didn't value Bridgewater this offseason; while veterans such as Mike Glennon and Chase Daniel were able to sign multimillion-dollar deals, Bridgewater's one-year deal guaranteed him only $500,000 at signing. It seemed like a logical landing spot for Bridgewater given that he would be competing with injury-prone veteran Josh McCown, only for the Jets to trade up and grab Sam Darnold in the draft, pushing back Bridgewater into the No. 3 role.
Darnold seems likely to start Week 1, which leaves both the Jets and Bridgewater in a quandary. Both Bridgewater and McCown have $5 million base salaries, but while McCown's money is guaranteed, Bridgewater's is not. The Jets also value McCown as an on-field coach for Darnold. There's not an obvious fit on the roster for Bridgewater, even though he has looked impressive during the preseason.
Carrying Bridgewater's $5 million base salary in the hopes of essentially buying a compensatory pick also doesn't make sense. The league isn't going to suddenly value Bridgewater at $16 million per year if he sits behind Darnold. If he gets backup money on the free-agent market in 2019, Bridgewater would qualify for a draft pick only in the sixth or seventh round. Even that would require the Jets to mostly sit out free agency, something they haven't done under GM Mike Maccagnan (and shouldn't do as they build their offense around Darnold).
The most likely scenario is that the Jets either cut Bridgewater or trade him for a conditional pick. The Jets can hope to get a second- or a third-round pick, but they have little leverage in keeping Bridgewater and aren't likely to find a desperate team on the market. The comparisons to Sam Bradford don't fit; the Vikings were a unique match in terms of a team expecting to be very competitive, and the Eagles had a quarterback who the league continues to value as a starter.
While there have been folks clamoring for the Jaguars to acquire Bridgewater -- and a swap of Bridgewater and a pick for Dante Fowler would make sense for both sides -- Tyrod Taylor would be a much better fit for the Jags and their desire to hold onto the football and protect field position. Bridgewater remains a useful player and deserves a chance to start somewhere, but that opportunity probably won't come until 2019.
14. Khalil Mack, DE, Raiders
Teams don't normally wait this long to sign true franchise players, as we're seeing from the other stars in this draft class. Mike Evans signed an extension over the summer, while Odell Beckham Jr. just signed an extension. Aaron Donald is close to signing his deal. It's a little bit of a surprise that Mack isn't yet signed, but it's far more disconcerting that the Raiders don't even appear to be close to a deal with their star pass-rusher.
Do the Raiders really think Mack isn't worth Donald-level money? Would they realistically trade their star pass-rusher with no obvious replacement for Mack left on the roster? It's difficult to fathom, in part because 27-year-old superstar edge rushers don't often come available. Whichever team acquires Mack would be immediately paying him a huge contract, which would reduce his trade value to a point in which it's difficult to imagine the Raiders getting a return they could sell to their fans as viable.
The most likely scenario is still that the Raiders and Mack find common ground and work their way into a deal. Oakland could still franchise Mack in 2019 at a defensible price, leaving it with another year to negotiate. At the same time, though, it's not as if Mack's price is about to come down. The sooner the Raiders make this move will be the better.
15. David Culley, quarterbacks coach, Bills
It's possible that Culley is extremely well-qualified to coach new Bills quarterback Josh Allen, for whom the team traded draft capital in excess of the first overall pick to move up in April. Culley takes the stance that coaching is coaching regardless of position, and as a 62-year-old entering his 40th year on the job, you suspect he knows a thing or two.
At the same time, though, how many teams do you see handing the quarterback coaching duties to a guy whose résumé at that specific job has a 30-year gap? The last quarterback Culley directly tutored before taking over as Bills quarterbacks coach in 2017 was future NFL running back Brian Mitchell at Southwestern Louisiana in the mid-1980s. Culley worked mostly as a receivers coach over the ensuing decades, but the early returns from 2017 weren't very exciting. Tyrod Taylor had his worst season as a Bills starter, and Nathan Peterman ... well, you know what happened. Culley deserves his chance to mold Allen, but if things go poorly, who do you think is going to take the blame?
Group II: The Rookies (or Almost Rookies)
Here are the folks who are either debuting or practically debuting on the national stage this upcoming season.
16. Patrick Mahomes, QB, Chiefs
When the Chiefs traded up to grab the top guy on their draft board in 2017, they sealed Alex Smith's fate. What happened next could not -- and did not -- alter the plan. Smith produced the best season of his career and led the league in passer rating. The Chiefs fired the general manager who drafted Mahomes and lost much of their offensive brainpower when Matt Nagy left for the Bears. No matter. The Chiefs drafted Mahomes in 2017 to start in Week 1 of 2018. We're about to get there.
Organizations don't do this very often, in part because it's difficult to be spoiled for choice with quarterbacks. Teams peck and claw and stay up at night dreaming about getting someone like Smith, who virtually never throws his team out of a game and gets them back into it more often than the public thinks. Imagine a team like the Browns or the Jets being frustrated by a quarterback whose purported ceiling is 10 wins and a playoff loss. It's football privilege to shoot for a better quarterback than Smith, even given Smith's age (34) and cap number.
Teams have replaced their sitting Pro Bowl starter with an inexperienced backup for injury reasons, of course, but there aren't many recent examples of a team willingly trading or allowing a Pro Bowl passer to leave during the offseason while replacing them with a first-round pick sans track record.
You remember the most famous example, of course. The Packers traded Brett Favre after he retired and un-retired in the summer of 2007 to turn things over to Aaron Rodgers, who had thrown 59 career passes with a passer rating of 73.3. It worked out fine. Drew Brees actually tore his labrum in Week 17 of the 2005 campaign and would have likely made the Pro Bowl, but the Chargers sealed his fate beforehand by using their 2004 first-round pick on Eli Manning and subsequently trading for Philip Rivers.
The other recent example, perhaps not coincidentally, involves Andy Reid. The Eagles traded away Donovan McNabb after their longtime starter made it to the Pro Bowl and led the Eagles to the playoffs in 2009. McNabb was about to enter his age-34 season and had two years and $19.2 million in unguaranteed money left on his contract, but the Eagles didn't have the sort of clear succession path the Chiefs have with Mahomes.
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Philly's plan was to turn the job over to Kevin Kolb. Their 2007 second-round pick had thrown seven interceptions in 130 pass attempts over two seasons, but he had been a wildly accurate quarterback in college and completed 64.6 percent of his passes over a 96-throw campaign while filling in for McNabb in 2009.
Things went awry almost immediately. Kolb went down with a concussion after throwing 10 passes in the opener against the Packers, an injury that would sadly crop up repeatedly throughout his career. Reid was forced to turn things over to Michael Vick, who had spent two years in jail before throwing 13 passes as Philadelphia's third-string quarterback in 2009. Vick excelled as Kolb's replacement and was named the starter after Week 2.
There's no Vick lurking on the roster for the Chiefs, who would have to turn things over to Chad Henne or Matt McGloin if Mahomes got hurt. The 2010 Eagles season reminds us of two truths about quarterbacks, which apply to these Chiefs. One is that we don't know whether a quarterback can stay healthy at the NFL level until he has actually pulled it off. The other is that Andy Reid can sure coach quarterbacks.
17. Saquon Barkley, RB, Giants
Does any rookie running back in recent memory come into the league under more pressure than the former Penn State star? Ezekiel Elliott was drafted nearly as high, but he was entering a situation with a great offensive line on a team that had run the ball well in previous seasons. Leonard Fournette and Trent Richardson were joining teams with low expectations, although the Jaguars quickly exceeded theirs with Fournette's help.
Barkley, the highest-drafted running back since Reggie Bush in 2006, has to single-handedly rescue a moribund Giants running game. He won't have the offensive line, given that the move to swap Weston Richburg and Justin Pugh for Nate Solder and Patrick Omameh might not be an upgrade. (The Giants used a second-round pick on guard Will Hernandez, but as the Ereck Flowers saga will tell you, using a high pick on a lineman is no guarantee of success.) New York is simultaneously counting on Barkley to take some of the load off Eli Manning and extend the longtime quarterback's career in the process. It's a lot to ask of a 21-year-old rookie, but Barkley might very well be up to the task.
18. Sidney Jones, CB, Eagles
The biggest surprise from the 2017 Eagles roster was ... OK, it was Nelson Agholor. The second-biggest surprise on the roster was Patrick Robinson, who was cut after one season with the Colts and signed with the Eagles for just $775,000. Robinson promptly turned into one of the best slot cornerbacks in the league, giving the Eagles a huge advantage at what became close to a starting role. He knocked away 18 passes, which tied the former Saints first-round pick for the sixth most in football. Robinson promptly returned to New Orleans on a four-year, $20 million deal this offseason.
Enter Jones, who tore his Achilles and fell to the Eagles in the middle of the second round in last year's draft. Jones essentially took 2017 as a redshirt year, but with Robinson leaving, the Washington product will be taking over in the lineup as Philadelphia's slot cornerback. The Eagles can still survive if Jones struggles, but a successful sophomore campaign from Jones would reinforce Philadelphia's current plan under Howie Roseman. If they can get cornerbacks like Jones to produce on the cheap, they can continue to spend money at the line of scrimmage and lock up weapons for Wentz. If they can't, you can take a look at the Seahawks roster for what happens when you try to invest everywhere.
19. Matt Nagy, coach, Bears
When teams fire their head coach, they often replace that coach with someone who represents the polar opposite of their deposed leader. It's no surprise, then, that the Bears replaced 63-year-old defensive stalwart John Fox with 40-year-old Chiefs offensive coordinator Matt Nagy. Fox has 16 years of head-coaching experience; Nagy has 10 years of coaching experience in total, having been elevated to the offensive coordinator's role in Kansas City after Doug Pederson left for the Eagles.
Bears fans understandably want to give Nagy the credit for the Chiefs blowing teams away on offense with a modern attack during the first two months of the 2018 season, but he might also deserve some of the blame for that same offense stagnating during a four-game midseason losing streak. Nagy took over as playcaller from Reid in December and helped inspire a return to form, but even after the Chiefs averaged 28.6 points per game over the final five contests and dropped 21 points on the Titans in the first half of their wild-card game, Reid seemed to be the one blamed when the Chiefs went scoreless and seemed to forget about Kareem Hunt in the second half of their crushing loss.
If everything goes right, the Bears could be one of the league's most entertaining offenses. The combination of Nagy, Brad Childress and former Oregon coach Mark Helfrich as offensive coordinator gives the Bears the opportunity to get ahead of the curve on offense as pro teams bravely begin to go where college offenses were seven or eight years ago. The learning curve in going from the vastly experienced Alex Smith (who has thrown exactly 5,200 passes at the college and pro level) to Mitchell Trubisky (who comes in at 902 attempts) could limit what Nagy can implement in Year 1.
20. Terrell Edmunds, S, Steelers
The Steelers haven't really found a replacement for Troy Polamalu since the future Hall of Famer faded after 30 and retired in 2015. Their defense took a step forward last season, only to regress after star linebacker Ryan Shazier suffered a career-threatening spinal injury, allowing an average of 28 points per game.
While Pittsburgh didn't acquire a direct replacement for Shazier this offseason, their best solution may be to get creative. New safety Morgan Burnett played some linebacker in Green Bay and could feature there on passing downs. Edmunds, on the other hand, might play a little bit of everything. The first-round pick from Virginia Tech will probably begin the season as a part-time strong safety, but by the end of the year, it wouldn't be a surprise to see Edmunds playing everything from safety to linebacker to slot cornerback. If he can make a quick adjustment to the pro game, the Steelers will have a Swiss army knife capable of filling in the weakest spot in their lineup from snap to snap. They might also have someone capable of competing athletically with Steelers killer Rob Gronkowski, who has racked up 664 receiving yards and eight touchdowns in six career games against Pittsburgh.
21. Michael Dickson, P, Seahawks
There's something a little sad about Seahawks fans who once bragged about arguably the best roster in football pinning their hopes on a rookie punter, but Dickson has comfortably been the best punter in football during the preseason. He is averaging 48.1 net yards per punt, nearly three yards better than any other punter and 3.5 yards ahead of Brett Kern's league-leading 44.6-yard mark from a year ago. It's a small sample, of course, but the NFL has preseason punting data going back through 2000, and no qualifying punter has even hit 47 net yards per punt. Make sure to quote this preseason punting statistic at your Labor Day party if you want to be left alone for a while.
One question, though: If Dickson is really good during the regular season, would he be a candidate for Offensive Rookie of the Year or Defensive Rookie of the Year? Could he inspire the league to create a Special Teams Rookie of the Year award? And shouldn't there be a Special Teams Player of the Year award already?
Group III: Familiar Faces in New Places
How will these names we already know fare in new digs?
22. Kirk Cousins, QB, Vikings
The most plausible scenario for the 2018 Vikings, sadly, is that they decline for reasons almost totally unrelated to Cousins, only for their $28 million quarterback to take the blame. Cousins can't control how healthy the Vikings will be on defense or whether Aaron Rodgers will be in the lineup for more than one quarter of the two Packers-Vikings games. He also has no control over his own offensive line staying healthy, although the issue plagued Cousins' final season in Washington and seems to have followed him to Minneapolis before the season has even begun.
The scary thing is that the only way for Cousins to really live up to this deal, given how good the Vikings were a year ago, is to make it to the Super Bowl. Anything less and there will be a portion of the audience pointing out that they could have kept Case Keenum (or Teddy Bridgewater) at a fraction of Cousins' price tag while using the savings to add an impact player at another position of need, regardless of how effective Cousins performs. Is this fair? Absolutely not.
Yates: Cousins is top-10 fantasy QB
Field Yates sees Kirk Cousins as a top-10 fantasy quarterback this season due to an improved receiving group with the Vikings compared to his Redskins days.
23. Jon Gruden, coach, Raiders
The league's biggest mystery is what we'll see from the Raiders' offense in Week 1. Gruden's offseason moves as shadow general manager haven't been inspiring, which isn't a surprise given his track record with personnel in Tampa Bay. It's also fair to note that there's still plenty of talent on the offensive side of the ball in Oakland, as the Raiders are only two years removed from looking quite competitive offensively under Bill Musgrave.
What should you expect? Tempo, at least on a selective basis. Gruden is going to try to make Derek Carr's life easier by giving him simpler reads and controlling the defense's ability to make adjustments, in much the same way Sean McVay has in Los Angeles. It's hard to imagine that Gruden will get too far away from the West Coast offense he grew up in during his time with the 49ers and Eagles, although it wouldn't be a surprise to see him add some tags to his core running plays to give Carr the option to throw a screen or a quick hitch to Amari Cooper. I'd also expect growing pains for both coach and quarterback alike. Gruden is beginning a 10-year, $100 million contract. Patience might be the most important virtue for the new Raiders.
24. Jerick McKinnon, RB, 49ers
The list of unheralded, inexpensive backs who made their names in offenses led by a Shanahan goes back more than 20 years. It starts with Terrell Davis and then runs through Olandis Gary, Mike Anderson and Reuben Droughns under Mike Shanahan in Denver. Clinton Portis was a late second-round pick, then the Broncos traded him before he got expensive in a deal for Champ Bailey and second-round pick Tatum Bell, who briefly followed in Portis' footsteps as a starter. The Broncos gave Davis a big extension in 1998, but injuries limited him to part-time work after that season. The only other running back the Broncos paid up for was Travis Henry, who was ineffective before his career fell apart due to off-field concerns.
In Houston, meanwhile, Gary Kubiak and Kyle Shanahan got solid numbers from rookie third-rounder Steve Slaton for a year before the West Virginia back struggled in 2009. Shanahan left after that season, with Kubiak subsequently turning things over to second-year back Arian Foster, who quickly emerged from relative obscurity as an undrafted free agent into the league's most productive runner.
Shanahan went to join his dad in Washington, where former Broncos backup Ryan Torain produced a useful season in 2010. By 2012, Washington turned things over to rookie sixth-rounder Alfred Morris, who racked up 1,613 yards and 13 scores as a rookie and followed it up with a 1,275-yard season before the Shanahans both left town. Kyle couldn't coax much out of the Cleveland rushing attack in 2014, but after he arrived in Atlanta, Shanahan turned midround picks Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman into one of the league's most fearsome one-two punches.
The 49ers guaranteed McKinnon nearly $12 million this offseason.
25. Malcolm Butler, CB, Titans
Given the events of Super Bowl LII, Butler really couldn't have had a better offseason. The Patriots took plenty of criticism for benching the Super Bowl XLIX hero in a game in which their cornerbacks couldn't hold up in coverage. Butler might have been forced to settle for a one-year deal if teams had questions about what Bill Belichick saw, but instead, he found a five-year, $61.3 million contract that doesn't really represent any sort of discount from what he would have gotten had Butler been anonymously fine in the Super Bowl. He also landed in a comfortable spot, playing for a pair of ex-Patriots in Mike Vrabel and Dean Pees under former New England executive Jon Robinson in Tennessee.
If you look backward past the Super Bowl, though, 2017 was a wildly inconsistent year for Butler. He struggled all season, and while Stephon Gilmore drew most of the attention for giving up big plays early in the season, Butler was the corner teams were picking on by the time the second half arrived. Football Outsiders notes that Butler allowed 9.1 adjusted yards per pass, which ranked 69th among qualifying cornerbacks. Cornerback statistics can be guesswork, but Butler didn't look good on film, either. He has to bounce back from something more than the Super Bowl benching in 2018.
26. Alex Smith, QB, Washington
Smith has spent the past seven years in the protective cocoon of quarterback gurus Jim Harbaugh and Andy Reid, and the list of quarterbacks who have faded after parting ways with their coach is considerable. Colin Kaepernick, Kevin Kolb, Donovan McNabb and Michael Vick all regressed after their spell under Harbaugh and Reid, and while you might argue that they were hit by either injuries or the aging curve, Smith is 34.
The best argument against Smith following in their footsteps is the 2017 season in which Smith leveled up and finally added to his ability to avoid takeaways by making plays downfield. In Washington, Smith will have his underneath weapons in slot receiver Jamison Crowder and halfback Chris Thompson, but his ability to make something out of former first-round pick Josh Doctson and expensive free agent Paul Richardson downfield might be the difference between Smith living up to expectations as Kirk Cousins' replacement.
Jay Gruden also has a lot riding on Smith. It has been two years since Washington made the playoffs, and no coach has gone three years without making the playoffs under Daniel Snyder while managing to keep their job for a fourth year. Cousins broke out under Gruden, but it's fair to say that a good amount of the credit for that breakout is going to Sean McVay. Andy Dalton's standout season didn't come until 2015, two years after Gruden left Cincinnati. If Smith suddenly declines under his new coach, Gruden might be the one taking both the blame and the fall.
Group IV: The Rehabilitation Stories
These players are physically or mentally rehabbing after traumatic ends to their 2017.
It should be telling that after two years essentially lost in the injury wilderness, Watt is still the favorite to win Defensive Player of the Year. As tempting as it is to compare Aaron Donald to Watt after the Rams star emerged in Watt's absence, consider that Donald racked up 19 sacks and 58 knockdowns over the past two seasons. Those are incredible numbers, but Watt managed to generate 20.5 sacks and 51 knockdowns in 2014 alone. Over a four-year stretch from 2012-15, Watt averaged -- averaged -- more than 17 sacks and 47 knockdowns per season. Nobody in the NFL has topped 33 knockdowns in either of the past two seasons. A healthy Watt is sui generis.
Of course, it's unclear whether we'll ever see that version of Watt again. Watt broke down in 2016 and underwent back surgery, and while he said all the right things about feeling fantastic and raring to go this time last year, he racked up just five knockdowns without a sack in four games before breaking his leg. The Texans don't necessarily need the old Watt to be competitive on defense as long as Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus are around, but if they get back the Deshaun Watson we saw in 2017 and the Watt from 2015, they're Super Bowl contenders.
28. Aaron Rodgers, QB, Packers
I don't need to tell you about Rodgers. If you've forgotten, watch this:
29. David Johnson, RB, Cardinals
Does anybody have more riding on the 2018 season than Arizona's star running back? If we see a repeat of the 2016 season, when Johnson had a credible case as the best running back in football, he should challenge for a Todd Gurley-sized contract with $50 million or so in new money. If we see a repeat of Johnson's 2017 season -- which lasted all of three quarters before Johnson dislocated his wrist -- he's probably looking at a one-year, prove-it deal before hitting free agency again in 2019.
Obviously, it would be truly awful to see Johnson go down during the season opener again. The good news is that the injury wasn't to a knee or ankle, but Johnson did sprain his MCL in Week 17 of that 2016 campaign. He also seems like a logical fit for new Cardinals offensive coordinator Mike McCoy, who coaxed the two biggest receiving seasons of Danny Woodhead's career out of the scatback during their time in San Diego.
30. Andrew Luck, QB, Colts
Here are the 15 active quarterbacks who have thrown the most passes in the NFL since Luck joined the league in 2012, sorted by the difference between their college and pro completion percentage:
The two outliers on the negative side are Cam Newton (who threw only 292 passes at the top level in college while playing in a spread scheme under Gus Malzahn) and Luck, who threw more than 1,000 passes during his time at Stanford, most of which came under Jim Harbaugh.
Completion percentage never tells the whole story, but Luck still hasn't had that MVP-caliber season since joining the league. The closest he came was 2014, when he threw 40 touchdown passes and ran for three more, but even that was more about a dismal Indianapolis rushing attack than anything else. Trent Richardson & Co. scored on just 22.2 percent of their tries inside the inside the 5-yard line, the third-worst rate in the league that season. The next year, Indy was even worse, falling to 14.3 percent on those runs. That was the fourth-worst rate of the past decade.
Nobody would argue that the Colts are worse off with the return of Luck, but as we fret about the former first overall pick returning to his old form, is it fair to wonder whether there's ever going to be another gear for the best quarterback prospect of his generation? Luck admittedly hasn't had much help up front, so a healthy and effective offensive line might unlock the MVP candidate waiting to get out.
31. Marcus Williams, S, Saints
I feel confident that nobody on the planet is looking forward to Week 1 of the NFL season more than Williams, who will get a chance to atone for his leading role in the disastrous end to the Saints-Vikings playoff encounter from last season. What was forgotten in light of what happened is just how impressive Williams was during his rookie campaign. Marshon Lattimore took most of the attention and was transformative for the Saints' defense, but Williams finished his with four picks and added a fifth earlier in the Vikings game. One on-field mistake shouldn't define a career. Everyone around the league should be rooting for the 21-year-old to return to form this upcoming season.
32. Deshaun Watson, QB, Texans
I wrote about Watson earlier this month in context with Carson Wentz, but Watson is further ahead in his rehabilitation and a lock to start Week 1. Skeptics want to compare Watson to Robert Griffin III in terms of rookie quarterbacks who succeeded in offenses with college flourishes before struggling after knee injuries, but Watson wasn't anywhere near as reliant on his legs last season as Griffin was during that fateful rookie campaign. On the other hand, Watson might also be stuck behind the worst offensive line in football. Those legs could come in handy.
Group V: The Breakout Stars of 2017 (and 2018)
Can the standouts of 2017 hold onto their gains in 2018? And can the players who impressed underneath the radar last season take an even bigger step toward stardom this year?
33. Myles Garrett, DE, Browns
Lost in the chatter about how the Browns foolishly traded away the pick the Texans used on Deshaun Watson is that they still might have ended up with the best player in the 2017 draft. Garrett really played only about 10½ games during his rookie season, but across 500 defensive snaps, the first overall pick racked up seven sacks and 18 quarterback knockdowns. Prorate those numbers over a full season and you're looking roughly at what Melvin Ingram (10.5 sacks, 25 knockdowns) did during his 2017 campaign, and Garrett didn't have Joey Bosa to distract teams on the other side of the field. The comparisons between the Browns and the 76ers are realistically too simplistic, but if you want to make them, Garrett is Cleveland's Joel Embiid.
34. Jimmy Garoppolo, QB, 49ers
35. Jalen Ramsey, CB, Jaguars
Ramsey might not be the best cornerback in football. He might not even be the best cornerback on his own team when you consider how good A.J. Bouye was last season. He's damn good right now, though, and you would be a fool to bet against the 23-year-old continuing to improve. There were few complaints about Ramsey coming out of Florida State, but the scouting reports suggested Ramsey lost a bit of his on-field fire during his final year at school. Three weeks into his NFL career, Ramsey was calling out Steve Smith. There were concerns about Ramsey as a playmaker given that he finished his college career with just three interceptions. He racked up four interceptions last season. As the wildly entertaining face of the league's best defense, Ramsey is the next Richard Sherman. With his ability to move around the formation and cover any receiver at any time, it might be more appropriate to call him the first Jalen Ramsey.
36. Trey Flowers, DE, Patriots
The first team in NFL history to amass 600 yards from scrimmage in a game and lose was the Patriots in Super Bowl LII, the last meaningful professional football game you watched. You lose a game in which your offense marches up and down the field for one of two reasons. One is that the offense turns the ball over a bunch of times, which the Patriots didn't do. The other is that your defense can't get off the field. Bill Belichick's defense forced Nick Foles into an interception on the 2-yard line, but it otherwise allowed the Eagles to score on eight of nine drives. New England failed to sack Foles even once on 43 dropbacks. A defense that finished the season ranked 31st in DVOA played right about that level on the biggest stage.
The Patriots spent the offseason trying to fix that by adding depth for the front seven, signing Adrian Clayborn and trading for Danny Shelton. They'll get back playoff hero Dont'a Hightower and probably have enough on the edge to move him back to inside linebacker. The guy who could make the biggest difference, though, is Flowers. The former midround pick racked up 25 knockdowns last season and added nine more during the postseason, three more than any other player. The 25-hit total usually amounts to a total of just over 11 sacks in a given campaign, but Flowers finished his season with just 6.5 sacks, which was the sixth-largest gap in football. He's either a budding star or already a secret one.
Greeny doesn't expect Pats or Eagles back in Super Bowl
Mike Greenberg wouldn't bet on New England or Philadelphia to make it back to the Super Bowl this season.
37. Doug Pederson, coach, Eagles
What do you do for a follow-up after taking your team from worst to first and winning a Super Bowl? The league has watched what Pederson has done in Philadelphia and taken from his bounty; the Eagles lost offensive coordinator Frank Reich to the Colts and quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo to the Vikings, with the Eagles promoting Mike Groh and Press Taylor from within to take their places.
Teams also will notice what Pederson did on his way to the Super Bowl, but I'm not as confident they'll emulate his aggressiveness. When Ron Rivera morphed into Riverboat Ron in 2013 and suddenly got aggressive on fourth downs, nobody else in the league came out and followed. (Rivera himself hasn't really been very aggressive since, to be honest.) The league as a whole is moving slowly toward going for it more frequently in tight situations, but no team converted more on fourth down than the 2017 Eagles.
Pederson has a competitive advantage; to keep that advantage up, he might want to lean further into those tendencies. The Philadelphia offense was a mess with Nick Foles before Pederson began to focus more on RPOs; with Pederson more open-minded about borrowing college concepts than most other coaches, he has the opportunity to stay ahead of the curve by mixing in more of them for both Foles and Carson Wentz this season. And while Wentz isn't likely to run the ball as frequently on fourth downs after his knee injury, the Eagles should stay ahead of the pack on fourth down by threatening teams with their offense.
38. William Jackson III, CB, Bengals
Marvin Lewis has a pattern when it comes to cornerbacks. He likes drafting them in the first round. He likes sitting them for a while or giving them limited snaps. Eventually, they break through and quite often succeed in doing so. (You might notice this trend also popping up in Minnesota under former Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer.)
Jackson might make Lewis accelerate his cornerback curve. After the 2016 first-round pick missed his entire rookie season with a torn pectoral muscle, Jackson muscled his way into the lineup last season and immediately emerged as Cincinnati's top cornerback. The Football Outsiders Almanac notes that Jackson was targeted only 41 times but managed to knock away 15 passes, which led the Bengals. When you manage to hold Antonio Brown to zero catches across two games, you're doing something right.
The Houston product finished 2017 with only five starts, but now that Adam Jones has moved on, Jackson has to take on a starring role. Dre Kirkpatrick has been inconsistent over the past couple of seasons, but the Bengals have a starting cornerback duo with as much upside as any in the league.
39. Grady Jarrett, DT, Falcons
We're still waiting for the Falcons' regular-season defense to live up to the one we've seen in the postseason. The 2016 Falcons finished 26th in defensive DVOA, only to dominate the Seahawks' and Packers' offenses before shutting down the Patriots for most of the Super Bowl (and then letting up under the strain of a historic workload). The Atlanta defense got its best player (cornerback Desmond Trufant) back for 2017, but it improved only to 22nd in defensive DVOA. Yet again, though, the playoff edition of Dan Quinn's defense held the Rams to 13 points and the Eagles to 15, which is even more impressive when you remember that Philly would score 79 points over the two ensuing games.
The defense is something less than the sum of some impressive parts. The guy who might be able to make the difference is Jarrett, who had three sacks in the Super Bowl loss to the Patriots and dominated for stretches in 2017, but finished the season with only four sacks and 13 hurries. Those are good numbers, but if Vic Beasley Jr. returns to form as a full-time defensive end and Jarrett adds to his dominance as a run defender by chipping in more as a secondary pass-rusher, the Falcons could unlock their playoff code.
40. Sean McVay, coach, Rams
In Year 1 as coach of the Rams, McVay was blessed with good health. The Rams' offense suffered from the fewest adjusted games lost in the league in 2017, as Los Angeles' offensive starters combined to miss more games by sitting out a meaningless matchup in Week 17 than they did due to injury over the previous 16 weeks.
Health isn't everything -- the Rams also ranked as the league's healthiest offense by AGL in 2016, too -- but the user-friendly campaign allowed McVay to have the largest possible impact during his debut campaign. This was and remains a top-heavy Rams offense. Every team would suffer by losing their starting quarterback, but the Rams have only Sean Mannion and Brandon Allen in reserve behind Jared Goff. Their top back behind Todd Gurley is Malcolm Brown, who has averaged just 3.6 yards per carry as a pro. Rookies would likely be the first players off the bench if Andrew Whitworth were injured at left tackle. McVay has already proved that he's a good coach, but he's going to get a chance to see how he improvises in 2018.
41. DeForest Buckner, DL, 49ers
If the 49ers want to make a move to the top of the NFC West and into the postseason, it'll be less about Jimmy Garoppolo and more about the defense. Robert Saleh's bunch can call on as many five first-round picks on defense, but none of them has shown as much promise as the third overall pick of the 2016 draft.
Buckner was drafted with the hopes that he would turn into a young Calais Campbell, and while the transformation isn't yet complete, the Oregon product is further along the way than most realize. The 24-year-old Buckner racked up only three sacks last season, but those takedowns came amid 22 quarterback hits, a figure which topped that of stars such as Joey Bosa and Jadeveon Clowney. Twenty-two hits would typically generate about 10 sacks in a season, and the vast majority of players who underperform their sack total by as much as Buckner a year ago improve their totals the following season. If Buckner can rack up 10 sacks in 2018, he would become the anchor of the first post-Harbaugh 49ers defense worth writing home about.
Group VI: One More Ride
These are the stars making one final trip through the league while hoping to win a Super Bowl before possibly retiring.
42. Rob Gronkowski, TE, Patriots
Whether this is or is not Gronk's final season in the NFL, the 29-year-old has probably already done enough to earn his place in the Hall of Fame. Terrell Davis' arrival in Canton showed that the electorate is willing to honor players with shorter careers, and while Gronkowski hasn't won league MVP, he's the most impactful and dominant tight end we've ever seen. Gronkowski already has been named a first-team All-Pro four times, a feat which has cleared the path to induction for each of the 10 eligible skill position players to pull off that trick since 1970. Tony Gonzalez, Peyton Manning and Adrian Peterson also will be first-ballot Hall of Famers when they're eligible for election. One more typical season wouldn't hurt Gronkowski's chances, but he has simply been too good to keep out.
Does Brees still carry value?
Field Yates, Mike Clay and Stephania Bell offer their insight on where Drew Brees ranks heading into the season.
43. Drew Brees, QB, Saints
ESPN has air yards and yards after catch data going back through 2006. Of the 393 qualifying seasons from quarterbacks over that time frame, Brees' 2017 season had the fourth-smallest gap between air yards per throw (6.36) and yards after catch (6.18). The only quarterback who has been able to have consistent success with a range that small is Alex Smith, and Brees' 2017 season was more productive than any of the Smith campaigns that would come close to an even split. This archetype has an extremely thin margin for error.
This can go one of two ways. One is that the 2017 season was a once-off aberration for Brees, whose air yard percentage had been declining but fell off of a cliff last season. Quarterbacks like Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers make cameos toward the top of this list. The alternative is that Brees relies too heavily on his receivers, gets what will almost surely be a less impressive season from Alvin Kamara, and sees his numbers suffer.
44. Andrew Whitworth, OT, Rams
Talking about Whitworth is difficult. The 36-year-old LSU product is probably the most underrated football player of the past decade, given that he played extremely well at a premium position for an extended period of time. His 2017 season was also somehow overrated, given that he took a step backward as a pass protector after leaving Cincinnati for Los Angeles. Even more paradoxically, Whitworth was simultaneously a massive upgrade at a position the Rams have spent nearly a full decade trying to solve. Appraising offensive linemen is hard.
If you're looking for a spot in which the Rams might unravel on offense, though, the offensive line is the likely entry point. There just haven't been many offensive tackles to play at a high level into their late 30s, and while Whitworth could slip inside to guard, the Rams don't have much veteran depth at tackle. Center John Sullivan, who's 33, started 15 games after suiting up for just one start between 2015 and 2016. The Rams had one of the league's healthiest offensive lines last season; if the line can't hold up in 2018, all the schemes and weapons in the world won't save Los Angeles.
Group VII: The Wild Cards Who Could Decide the Season
While not necessarily the first names we think of as game-changers, these are the players who could help swing a division if they're healthy and productive.
The Cowboys are quietly excited about their defense, which shouldn't be a surprise after investing three of their past four first- and second-round picks on that side of the ball. For whatever DeMarcus Lawrence and Leighton Vander Esch might offer, though, the defense is likely to remain utterly dependent on the 32-year-old Lee, who, incredibly, is still yet to play a full 16-game season as a pro.
You can understand why the Cowboys used a first-round pick on Vander Esch when you consider how their defense disintegrated without Lee in the lineup in 2017. With Lee on the field, the Cowboys allowed a passer rating of 86.6 and a Total QBR of 48.2. On the 244 pass plays in which Lee was on the sidelines, though, the Cowboys allowed a passer rating of 106.8 and a Total QBR of 65.3. Things were even worse against the run: Dallas allowed 3.5 yards per carry with Lee at linebacker and a whopping 4.9 yards per rush while he was sidelined.
46. Sammy Watkins, WR, Chiefs
You might argue that the Chiefs made an even more shocking bet on Anthony Hitchens than they did on their new wide receiver, but the signing of Watkins makes more of a statement. The Chiefs didn't really need another weapon given the presence of Kareem Hunt, Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce. They desperately needed help at cornerback and could have signed someone like Trumaine Johnson with the money they spent on Watkins, although it would have required a longer commitment on paper.
Instead, Kansas City went in the opposite direction and went all-in on weapons for Mahomes. Watkins is still only 25, but he has a serious foot injury in his past and spent last season as a relatively innocuous afterthought in the Rams' offense. Reid has been able to form coherent offenses around workmanlike wideouts like James Thrash and Jason Avant in the past, but Watkins didn't stand out under the halo of Sean McVay when virtually every other Rams weapon had a career year. At $16 million per year, the Chiefs are paying Watkins like he's a top-10 wideout. If he finally comes of age in Kansas City, Reid will break even on the deal. What happens if Watkins doesn't?
47. Damon Mitchell, head athletic trainer, Chargers
Nothing has hurt the Chargers more over the past three seasons than injuries. They've overcome terrible kickers and awful special teams. They made it over .500 last season despite playing their home games in a soccer stadium mostly filled with opposing fans. They made it to nine wins because they got full seasons out of Keenan Allen and Joey Bosa and a 15-game campaign from Russell Okung. Philip Rivers wasn't throwing to undrafted free agents and being protected by ailing tackles in December, which must have been a pleasant surprise.
The Chargers improved from 31st in adjusted games lost in 2016 to 16th last season, a move that coincided with the ascension of Mitchell into the role as head trainer. Correlation isn't always causation, and the Chargers are already down several would-be contributors with Hunter Henry, Jason Verrett and Jaylen Watkins all out for the year, but Mitchell is on this list as a reminder of what the Chargers need to do to thrive in 2018. Few teams in football can compete with their core of stars on both sides of the ball. A few extra starts from Denzel Perryman or Forrest Lamp might be enough to push Los Angeles over the line in a crowded AFC West.
48. Tyron Smith, OT, Cowboys
Is Smith the last star Cowboys lineman left standing? With Travis Frederick sidelined by Guillain-Barré syndrome and Zack Martin missing most of the preseason with a knee injury, Smith's return from back and knee issues is absolutely critical for a Cowboys line in major transition. Even if Martin comes back for Week 1, the Cowboys will have new starters at left guard and center for a season that starts with matchups against Kawann Short and Damon Harrison. We saw what happened when the Cowboys were forced to replace Smith in the lineup last season; contract-year defensive ends are salivating at the idea of an Adrian Clayborn special.
49. Samson Ebukam, OLB, Rams
You know what the Rams did this offseason. Ndamukong Suh, Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib are all here. Trumaine Johnson, Alec Ogletree and Robert Quinn are in other places. It seemed likely that the Rams were going to use their title-adjacent status to lure a veteran or two in to rush the quarterback from the outside, but it never really happened. The Rams find themselves entering the season with the reigning Defensive Player of the Year and a five-time Pro Bowler rushing from the inside ... and the duo of Ebukam and Matt Longacre on the outside.
Wade Phillips has made stars out of unheralded players in the past, but those breakouts haven't really come at edge rusher. In fact, Phillips has had at least one superstar and/or a first-round pick on the edge for most of his recent career. Quinn was around last season. In Houston, Phillips had J.J. Watt drifting outside to end across from second-round pick Connor Barwin and subsequently first-rounder Whitney Mercilus. Phillips' Dallas tenure coincided with DeMarcus Ware's peak alongside Greg Ellis and first-round pick Anthony Spencer. Shawne Merriman was a freak for Phillips in San Diego, although Phillips did help mold fourth-round pick Shaun Phillips into a very useful second option. The legendary defensive coordinator inherited first-round pick Patrick Kerney in Atlanta and took over a defense with Bruce Smith, Phil Hansen and Bryce Paup in Buffalo. You get the idea.
There's no doubt Phillips is likely to get the most out of his inexperienced charges, but this is a wildly aggressive move from a team that has dealt away draft picks and handed out big contracts to players at positions on both sides of the ball. Teams that operate under this model often have to punt a position or two. The Eagles are currently trying to save money at running back and cornerback. The Peyton Manning-era Colts skimped on linebackers. In a league that values edge rushers as the most valuable non-quarterback entities available on the market, the Rams are placing a huge bet in their defensive coordinator and a 2017 fourth-round pick with two sacks to his name.
Group VII: The Ghost
The player who dominates more conversation about the NFL than anyone without even stepping on the field.
50. Colin Kaepernick, QB, free agent
It's still impossible to talk about the most important people in and around the NFL without bringing up Kaepernick, whose protests against social injustice still reverberate and impact the league. The NFL has repeatedly bungled its attempts to establish some sort of policy surrounding the national anthem, an issue President Donald Trump has used to energize his base against the league.
The on-field story still hasn't changed. Kaepernick is overqualified for a job; there is no modern precedent for a healthy quarterback with Kaepernick's résumé failing to find work in the NFL. Every time a team has an opening during the season, it goes after and eventually acquires a quarterback worse than the guy who is freely available on the open market. The Packers and Texans tanked their seasons in 2017 with Brett Hundley and Tom Savage, passers who nobody could credibly say were likely to outplay the 30-year-old Kaepernick. Some team will make the same mistake in 2018.
There's no end in sight to the conflict between the players and the league. Kaepernick has filed a grievance against the NFL. Eric Reid, the talented safety who knelt alongside Kaepernick during the 2016 season, also has filed his own collusion grievance. The grievance might prevent Kaepernick from finding work; the only team that expressed interest in him this offseason was the Seahawks, who reportedly declined to bring Kaepernick in for a visit after he refused to say whether he would kneel during the anthem if signed.
I've been covering the NFL for 10 years now, and in the course of that decade, I've met plenty of people for the first time and had that natural conversation about our lives and what we each do for a living. Before 2016, when I said I wrote about the NFL, it usually led to a conversation about a favorite team or player. Occasionally, it led to player safety. Since 2016, those same conversations have almost without fail led to the other person giving their opinion about Colin Kaepernick and how the NFL has handled his situation. Kaepernick and his decision to protest have become shorthand for political sides in these divided times. That's not going anyway anytime soon.