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The act of being criticized falls under some section of the internet’s unwritten policy and certainly under it’s most charming ways. Recently, the USA Today Twitter account got caught in the crossfire for the utter “insanity” of their 2018 NFL Predictions. Admittedly, there were several eyebrow-raising records projections, but for the most part, I was actually onside with some of their “outside the box” thinking.
At this point in the summer, with camps around the corner, it’s typical to start seeing plenty of those bold predictions popping up in all kind of different formats. But you know, even “bold” gets boring after a while, so let’s prop these three predictions up with a “WTF!?” instead. If you’re still under a rock and not sure what that means, I urge you to consult Urban Dictionary for a tutorial.
For football fanatics, one thing that needs no consulting, is how wacky the NFL season tends to be. Just when you think you know everything, you’re lucky to know anything. That’s why we love it. I think. So regardless of this article’s title, here are three WTF!? predictions that might go against traditional thinking or common opinion. Scratch your head as you wish.
1. The Seattle Seahawks will finish LAST in the NFC West.
In 2018, the Seattle Seahawks are a team destined for rapid decline, and in all faucets of the game. Even looking back at the previous five seasons, there’s shades of a downward trend already evident, even just glancing at their win-loss records from the past five seasons (2013 to 2017): 13-3, 12-4, 10-6, 10-5-1, 9-7. Getting to 9 wins in 2018 is going to be one tough stretch.
Simply put, in a very short window of time, the team has saw major deterioration of their once-vast pool of talented players, on both sides of the ball. Too many elite players have walked out the door, without much coming back in return. Just this offseason alone, the team has lost four key players inside the Top 46 of NFL.com’s 101 Top Free Agents list. Sheldon Richardson (#6), Richard Sherman (#22), Jimmy Graham (#25) and Paul Richardson (#46) all left via free agency, and all within the same conference. With Kam Chancellor’s injury-laden retirement, Earl Thomas’ frosty relationship with management and Cliff Avril’s body basically running on fumes right now, this team is figuratively and literally a shell of it’s former self.
The team made a halfhearted attempt to has bring in replacements, but none of the incoming personnel can plug the holes left by legitimate stars. D.J. Fluker was brought over to build up the porous and heavily-penalized offensive line. Ed Dickson will try to replace the production of both Graham and Luke Wilson (who also departed). The corpse of Sebastian Janikowski (who didn’t even play in 2017) will enter his 18th season to try to secure the kicking job left behind by Blair Walsh, who ended the Seahawks season and playoff hopes with a missed field goal. Wide receiver Jaron Brown (Cardinals) and Barkevious Mingo (Colts) are guys entering their 5th seasons, but haven’t quite lived up to their billing so far. Overall, the two streams of departures and arrivals aren’t at all comparable.
“The one dynamic element that this franchise has prided itself on for the past several seasons, that rock solid defensive core formerly known as the “Legion of Boom,” has been reduced to rubble.”
Thomas is the only holdover left standing, and if he doesn’t get paid, he may not even be standing on the Seattle sidelines when the season begins. Bobby Wagner, K.J. Wright, Shaquill Griffin and newcomer Frank Clark are the only formidable pieces left. This group, especially the secondary, is going to be targeted relentlessly all season.
You want a further sign of ugly times? During the majority of that five-year run mentioned earlier (this time from 2013 to 2016), the Seahawks were an astounding 26-6 at home (an .813% winning percentage). Almost literally unbeatable. Although a much smaller sample size, the team dropped to just 4-4 last season. Could it be that even the once-intimidating “12th Man” home field advantage has been compromised and it’s edge been lost? This current roster and a bitter fan base won’t exactly put the fear of God into teams traveling to Seattle like the told days.
Realistically, and perhaps unfairly, the ultimate success of this team will not be solely dependent on a transitioning defense, but almost entirely on the shoulders of one Russell Wilson. While Wilson tied his career high in touchdown passes last season (34), he’ll be without many of the weapons that supported him. With biases aside (I’m just not a Wilson “guy” in the least), he doesn’t have the pieces to run a well-oiled offense and will rely too much on his ability to scramble and extend plays. Behind Doug Baldwin and Tyler Lockett, his receivers are largely unknowns and the ground attack behind him will be reliant on a rookie (1st round pick Rashaad Penny) and some below average version of a committee. With an offensive line that’s still questionable at best, this season may not be much fun at all for Mr. Ciara.
Worst of all for the Seahawks is that the division has now caught up (and in 2018, will surpass them). The Rams are the clear division favorites, and rightfully so. The 49ers have a new franchise quarterback in Jimmy Garoppolo, who’s yet to lose a game as a professional and have made some shrewd moves of their own (including stealing Sherman away). Even the Cardinals are a team that could be a tough out on a weekly basis, with running back David Johnson returning from injury, quarterback Sam Bradford on board (and Josh Rosen drafted for insurance), the ageless Larry Fitzgerald and a defense led by the likes of Patrick Peterson and Chandler Jones.
In ’18, the Seahawks will sitting at the back of the NFC West bus.
2. The Cleveland Browns will narrowly miss the playoffs and finish 2nd in the AFC North.
Painfully, the numbers don’t lie. 0-16 last season. 1-15 the season before. And an ungodly 4-44 if you reach back for a third season (the worst three-year performance in NFL history, obviously). To say it will be a challenge to come back from that kind of petulance, would be the definition of an understatement. But on the flip side, and with a “glass-half-full” demeanor, one might conclude that there’s (literally) nowhere to go, but UP. Save all your punchlines for the Browns fans, they can recite the recent history.
But in the sports world, if you suck SO bad, for SO long, you eventually get to own some nice things. In the Cleveland Browns case, it’s draft picks. Plenty of extremely valuable picks that represent prime opportunities to secure talent at the top of what’s now multiple drafts. And yes, management has screwed up the selection process on more than one occasion, most glaringly by the whiffing on multiple quarterbacks over the years without getting their “franchise guy.” Many have tried, all have failed.
Finally, this annual event of talent collection is starting to bleed into just about every primary position on the roster. The Browns, my friends, are now trending up. I’m actually standing in line right now to purchase some Cleveland Browns stock for the 2018 season. Don’t even judge me.
“On paper, the Browns actually have more talent than the Green Bay Packers. And if you remove the quarterback position (Rodgers) from the equation, it’s significantly more.” – @andyjardine
On paper, the Browns have talent just about everywhere. For yet another offseason, they stockpiled and appeared to have “hit” on their draft picks (time will ultimately tell), made some key signings and further enhanced the roster through a couple of effective trades. Their first order of business, one that’s all too familiar in Browns lore, was addressing the quarterback position, which they did by dealing for Tyrod Taylor from the Bills (by sacrificing only a 3rd rounder). On top of that, and with the #1 overall selection in the 2018 NFL Draft, the team selected Baker Mayfield out of Oklahoma to be their future franchise guy. Label him a “transition” quarterback if you must, but Taylor has been one of the more efficient quarterbacks in the league the previous few seasons and has some major weapons at his disposal this upcoming season, far more than he had in Buffalo. I’m sure those in Cleveland are hoping they don’t even have a reason to see Mayfield on the actual field this entire season.
Speaking of that offensive weaponry, the Browns have loaded up at practically every skill position. The acquisition of Jarvis Landry from Miami, the inevitable return of Josh Gordon, combined with Corey Coleman (with depth behind them) and David Njoku at tight end, has the receiving corps finally set. The backfield is arguably tops in the league with new signing Carlos Hyde, premier pass catcher Duke Johnson and Georgia rookie Nick Chubb providing a very versatile look. The offensive line is the second highest paid in the entire league, so big things are expected there as well. And I’m still betting that the team inks Dez Bryant as opening week approaches. ALL of this offensive talent is finally being placed into the capable hands of offensive coordinator Todd Haley, who’s been over in Pittsburgh running that dynamic offense for the past five years. They’ve also got Super Bowl-level confidence!
Led by (healthy) 2017 #1 overall pick, defensive end Myles Garrett and 2018 #4 overall pick cornerback Denzel Ward, the defense might be just as good as the offense. Even if Ward takes time to adjust, the secondary is deep with Jabrill Peppers, Damarious Randall (who came over from Green Bay) and E.J. Gaines. The linebackers, led by Jamie Collins, feature three guys that have made Pro Bowls in the past three years. Up front with Garrett, you might get to know the names of Emmanuel Ogbah and Carl Nassib, who both benefited from the ’17 arrival of defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who switched the team to a 4-3 base, allowing them to play their more natural positions. Like Haley on offense, Williams is a veteran defensive guru who will continue to see this unit thrive.
If the team has a weak spot, it would be the special teams unit, who finished ranked 23rd by Pro Football Focus last season. The unit featured a rookie kicker in Zane Gonzalez (though he did make 13 of his final 15 kicks of the season) and will feature a punter in Britton Colquitt, who’s relatively inexperienced. The return game should be solid with specialist Peppers, but the kicking could still be suspect.
In terms of the AFC North division, the Steelers are clearly still the class, as they have all their pieces still intact from a 13-3 season in 2017. However, the Bengals are in a vulnerable state, as they did almost nothing to improve a 7-9 team from last season. I can envision a scenario where they fall behind on the talent scale and sink to the bottom of the division. The 9-7 Ravens have made some personnel changes, particularly on offense, so the book is still out on whether that will come together. With Joe Flacco playing as an absolute shell of his former Super Bowl-winning self, one of the more intriguing storylines of the season in the AFC will be whether he takes a seat in favor or exciting rookie Lamar Jackson. Such a transition could potentially see a spike in the loss column for the Ravens, with the Browns lurking to take advantage. Overall, I think the Browns talent will finally pay off this season and they’ll surpass both Cincinnati and Baltimore, finishing in second place in the North division, winning somewhere between 7 and 9 games. They won’t be able to touch Pittsburgh, but they’ll sniff around a playoff spot. But hell, if you ask any member of the Dawg Pound, after years of complete misery, they’ll take this kind of process every week of the year.
3. The Buffalo Bills will go from surprise ’17 playoff team to WORST in the AFC.
Last season, the Buffalo Bills conquered the longest playoff drought in North American sports (1999 was their last appearance). It was a miracle that came down to the final plays in the final week of the season. Unfortunately, that might have been the short-term peak, as 2018 looks to be a dreadful one in Orchard Park.
In short, I’m buying every single word of this ’18 projection, as provided by Jonathan Jones over at Sports Illustrated:
“The 2017 Bills team depended on LeSean McCoy racking up yards, low-risk quarterback play and an opportunistic defense. It’s tough to see two of those three happening in 2018. Buffalo’s receiving group shouldn’t be feared, so that means defenses will keep focusing on the run. The Bills lost Eric Wood to retirement, Richie Incognito to… something, and traded away Cordy Glenn, so good luck running the ball. A stacked box means the quarterback will look to take chances down the field, and that’s a problem with first-rounder Josh Allen. He was the least-accurate and most turnover-prone top quarterback in the draft. It all spells a big step back for the surprise playoff team from 2017.”
I mean… ouch. That’s has to be a nasty kick in the junk, right?
But it’s all true. Say what you want about Tyrod Taylor and his style of play, but the numbers indicate that he’s been one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the entire league over the past three seasons. The current quarterback situation is completely suspect. On one hand you have A.J. McCarron, brought over in the offseason from Cincinnati, who has played in a grand total of 10 games in his entire career and attempted an even more ridiculous 133 passes. And you’re going to just hand the keys over to that? The other option is Josh Allen, who was taken 7th overall in the 2018 Draft. A kid with a big arm, but questionable accuracy, especially down the field. The claim is out there that the Bills playoff hopes will rely on his development. You think? Maybe in 2024.
While everything is tied to LeSean McCoy’s success on the ground, one thing not mentioned above is the fact that McCoy could be facing some legal distractions off the field. While nothing has really progressed and his attendance at camp is anticipated, it’s certainly something worth paying attention to. He’s also 30 years old, where the “downside” of a running back’s career often rears it’s ugly head.
And there are several other variables that are signalling a dismal season ahead. After losing three starters, the offensive line projects as the worst line in the entire league. The defense didn’t do anything to upgrade a unit that ranked 26th in the league in yards per game allowed. There is still a huge lack of depth in the receiving corps (who are needed now more than ever, given the quarterback situation). They open up with five of their first seven games on the road. All of this, without even digging. I won’t continue.
Optimistic Bills fans will (and should) count this as a “transition” season. Though, the roster makeup and supporting information tells us that this is a full-on rebuild. Glancing around the four AFC divisions, it’s near impossible to see a team that I feel is going to be worse than Buffalo in 2018. The usual bottom-feeding suspects have reasons to look up next season. The Browns (see above) should finally win some games. The Colts will have Andrew Luck returning. The Broncos should still win more games. The Jets and perhaps the Dolphins might be the only serious challengers for the “worst team in the AFC” crown, but I still think they have more talent on their rosters. The inter-division games among those three teams will decide everything.
The one thing that I would bet money on for the 2018 season, is that the Buffalo Bills will be re-establishing a shiny new drought for playoff futility.