Thursday, September 8, 2016

2016 NFL Preview and Week 1 Picks

Football is back! It's the time of year when every team has reason for optimism with a new season and new players, and I'm going to go through each team's season outlook with their Vegas over/under for win totals as I make my Week 1 picks, with the road team listed first.

Panthers over 10.5 wins

On offense, MVP quarterback Cam Newton gets his favorite receiver, Kelvin Benjamin, back after a lost season due to a torn ACL, and when the 6'5", 240 pound behemoth was healthy in 2014, he was peppered with 145 targets that he turned into 1,008 yards and 9 touchdowns as a rookie. His return's impact on the offense will be interesting since besides counting on Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen, an unheralded receiving core provided well distributed production, including another jumbo sized receiver that they like in 6'4", 232 pound Devin Funchess. This is still a run first offense, though, with Newton and effective running back Jonathan Stewart running behind one of the best interior lines in the league with Ryan Kalil, Chris Norwell, and Trai Turner.

On defense, it is abundantly clear where general manager Dave Gettleman values his players with an absolutely beastly front seven that has heavy draft capital in it, including this year's first rounder, defensive tackle Vernon Butler, who might be the eventual replacement for Kawann Short due to an upcoming monster contract that's well deserved. If defensive end Kony Ealy maintains his high level of play from the playoffs, then they'll continue to get by without having to pay a high premium on defensive backs thanks to go with their elite coverage linebackers. Gettleman's been great at picking up veterans off the scrap heap that provide big contributions like safety Kurt Coleman last year, and now after letting All-Pro corner Josh Norman go to Washington after developing him as a fifth rounder, they're going to be giving second and third round rookies James Bradberry and Daryl Worley all the snaps they can handle with third year player Bené Benwikere.

Overall, the NFC champions kept finding ways to get it done during a remarkable 15-1 season, and their outlook for 2016 hasn't changed in a substantial way. They're a mostly young, hungry team that seems certain to make the playoffs again behind their defensive front and playmaking quarterback.

Broncos over 9.5 wins

A full year in Kubiak's scheme is good news for C.J.
On offense, they actually have potential to improve from last year's mediocrity, which is surprising considering one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time just retired, but Peyton Manning wasn't nearly the player he normally was. Now, they'll be fully committed to head coach Gary Kubiak's system after trying to mix it in with Manning's preferred offense last year, and the offensive line could be a lot better with free agent tackles Russell Okung, who struggles to stay on the field but was signed to a steal of a contract after he chose not to use an agent, and Donald Stephenson, who flashed potential but inconsistency with the division rival Chiefs, in the fray. Running back C.J Anderson is set up well to be the bell cow after they matched Miami's contract offer to him, and fourth rounder Devontae Booker should prove capable if he can't maintain his strong finish for the second year in a row. Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, and underrated tight end Virgil Green make up a strong receiving core, but last year's seventh rounder, Trevor Siemian, will likely just be a caretaker at quarterback until first round pick Paxton Lynch is ready to roll. That could be a problem, though, considering that Siemian had a 58.9% completion rate and a 27-24 touchdown to interception ratio in 44 college games at Northwestern.

On defense, a consequence of having a historically good unit is that you'll lose some key pieces to free agency like defensive lineman Malik Jackson and inside linebacker Danny Trevathan. That being said, this is still the best secondary in the league behind arguably the best group of outside pass rushers, a devastating combination. If remaining inside linebacker Brandon Marshall can continue to make plays behind run-stuffing lineman Sylvester Williams and Derek Wolfe, this could still be the top defense in the league.

Overall, defensive coordinator Wade Phillips leads a group that is capable winning games by themselves, so the defending champs should have another successful season. After all, the already dealt with poor quarterback play last year, so could this year really be that much worse?

The pick: The Super Bowl champs almost never lose these Thursday night home opener, but they also hardly ever have a giant hole at the quarterback spot, either. Denver might have more talent on the roster overall, but Carolina's offense is much more reliable in this situation. Panthers -3

Buccaneers over 7.5 wins

On offense, Jameis Winston became just the third rookie quarterback to throw for over 4,000 yards, joining fellow #1 overall picks Cam Newton and Andrew Luck, and his offensive line has room to improve with the two players drafted in the second round after him, Donavan Smith and Ali Marpet, entering their second years as returning starters. Receiver Mike Evans could be on the precipice of stardom after opening his career with back to back 1,000 yard campaigns, and veteran Cecil Shorts provides some depth with an appropriate name behind him and fellow 6'5" giant Vincent Jackson. Winston also has one of the best receiving backs in the league in Charles Sims, who totaled 1,090 total yards from scrimmage backing up last year's second leading rusher, Doug Martin.

On defense, rookie head coach Dirk Koetter brought over the former coach he used to coordinate under, Mike Smith, to coordinate a unit that made some potential impact additions but still has some holes. Linebacker Daryl Smith has quietly been a great player and reunites with his defensive coordinator from Jacksonville to form an effective duo with Lavonte David, but his best years may be behind him. You could almost repeat that exact sentence for Brent Grimes, whom Smith had in Atlanta, joining first round stud Vernon Hargreaves III at corner. Free agent Robert Ayers and second round pick Noah Spence should help improve the pass rush at defensive end around star defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, which could mitigate their safety play.

Overall, I'm on the fence whether this team could take the next step, but a two win improvement to avoid a losing season seems within reach. They'll need that offensive line to do a better job of protecting Winston, but the cornerstone pieces of a good team are sprinkled across the roster.

Falcons over 7.5 wins

On offense, this reloaded offensive line responded well to new coordinator Kyle Shanahan last year and added prized free agent center Alex Mack, who already knows the system from a year with Shanahan in Cleveland. They should continue to pave the way for last year's top breakout running back, Devonta Freeman, and his running mate who originally had the starting gig before a rib injury, Tevin Coleman, stands to make a bigger impact as a sophomore. The system of course helped show off star wide receiver Julio Jones' elite talents, and he should continue to cement himself as an unstoppable force being fed targets since the new receiver opposite hiim, Mohamed Sanu, will likely just inherit the 116 looks Roddy White and Leonard Hankerson left behind since the X receiver is typically favored in this scheme. If quarterback Matt Ryan can cut down his turnovers, especially in the red zone, this unit could be elite.

On defense, the addition of defensive end Derrick Shelby is an underrated move to help bolster a lackluster pass rush that is the team's biggest weakness. Last year's first rounder, Vic Beasley, is the key to that changing as he sadly led the team with just 4 sacks but has the athleticism to make an impact from a variety of spots on the field. Fellow second year player Grady Jarrett could help pair with Shelby on the defensive line to make their young linebackers' lives easier, and although first rounder Keanu Neal was a reach in my opinion, he could also become an impact player in the run game as head coach Dan Quinn's "new Kam Chancellor" at strong safety. Ricardo Allen is passable at the other safety spot while Desmond Trufant is one of the best young corners in the league.

Overall, the first year under Quinn should be counted as a success despite the regression to the mean looking disappointing after the surprising 5-0 start, and I like them to build on that to get around 9 wins this season. Some of their depth could be an issue, but they have a good starting point of talent.

The pick: In a battle of comparable division rivals, I'm going with the home team in what should be a tight one. Atlanta has experience on their side, and I want to see Tampa's improvement against the pass before trusting them. Falcons -3

Vikings over 9 wins

Bradford's in yet another offense but the best situation of his career.
On offense, I've always been a Teddy Bridgewater fan, and his gruesome knee injury simply sucks. They overpaid for a replacement I like in Sam Bradford, so hopefully his former offensive coordinator and current tight ends coach Pat Shurmur was right to vouch for him being able to pick up the offense within these first couple of weeks because this team's capable of winning now. Future Hall of Famer Adrian Peterson is 31 and might be in his last year with the team under his current contract, and they want to go for it now before handing the reins over to backup explosive running back Jerrick McKinnon, whom you might not recognize in a new number this year. Free agents Alex Boone and Andre Smith aren't coming off their best seasons at left guard and right tackle, respectively, but this offensive line should be above average with a good group of players who have played at high levels at some point in their careers. Wide receiver Stefon Diggs was a revelation last year as a fifth rounder with a high recruiting pedigree, they have a solid tight end in Kyle Rudolph, and after Charles Johnson couldn't maintain his flashes of greatness as Norv Turner's X receiver, they landed arguably the best receiver in the draft with the 23rd pick, Laquon Treadwell.

On defense, they had a chance to complete the star UCLA linebacker core with Myles Jack before opting for Treadwell, but they did add even more talent to this deep unit, including their second and seventh round picks out of Clemson, Mackenzie Alexander and Jayron Kearse, who were both discussed as possible first rounders before pedestrian combines. I personally though Alexander was the third best corner in the draft and worthy of going in the top half of the first, and he joins a loaded corner back group behind the tantalizing Xavier Rhodes, the ageless Terence Newman, the slot stopper Captain Munnerlyn, and last year's first rounder, Trae Waynes. They play behind a stout defensive line of Everson Griffen, Linval Joseph, Sharrif Floyd, Brian Robison, with emerging rusher Danielle Hunter pushing for more snaps and Anthony Barr a great blitzing 'backer, and they have the most complete safety in the league behind them in Harrison Smith.

Overall, it's not a great comparison since Bradford probably won't become an MVP, but I think this team is capable of having a 1999 Rams season and rally around a new quarterback. This roster is ready to be a Super Bowl contender if they can avoid any more injuries and Bradford can handle Norv's offense.

Titans under 5.5 wins

On offense, the offensive line should be improved with the addition of first round right tackle Jack Conklin and free agent center Ben Jones, so hopefully they can keep franchise quarterback Marcus Mariota upright for a full season. Leaning on the revamped running game with DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry can help in that regard, and when they do pass, I like the new go-to receivers around tight end Delanie Walker, who had an incredible year soaking up all the targets. Free agent addition Rishard Matthews has shown well when given opportunities, and rookie wide receiver Tajae Sharpe was dominant at UMass before falling in the draft due to poor combine numbers and then standing out all offseason.

On defense, they have some pass rush juice between defensive lineman Jurrell Casey and linebackers Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan, but the unit hasn't been able to stop the run in the past. Veteran corners Jason McCourty and Perrish Cox are adequate, but the secondary lacks legitimate playmakers.

Overall, this team should be better if they can protect Mariota, but I'm not sure just removing the interim tag from Mike Mularkey will provide that much of a coaching boost. Perhaps defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau can get his side of the ball to overachieve, but I view them as a 5 win team.

The pick: Shaun Hill is likely to start at least this game since Bradford only has 8 days to prepare with his new team, but he can be a capable spot starter. Despite being in a tough situation on the road, the team as a whole should be able to get a W as long as he doesn't throw the game away, Vikings -2

Browns under 4.5 wins

On offense, they could actually be pretty fun if new coach Hue Jackson can get new quarterback Robert Griffin III close to the level he played at as a rookie before injuries and an unstable situation derailed his career. Wide receiver Josh Gordon will finally be back after 4 games, rookie Corey Coleman was the first receiver taken in the draft, tight end Gary Barnidge is coming off a breakout season, and former quarterback Terrelle Pryor is starting to harness his athleticism as a receiver. The offensive line chould be solid behind stalwart left tackle Joe Thomas if 2015 first rounder Cameron Erving does well shifting over to center in place of the departed Alex Mack, although losing stud right tackle Mitchell Schwartz in free agency hurts. It will be interesting to see just how much Jackson uses his capable young running backs Duke Johnson and Isaiah Crowell like he did Gio Bernard and Jeremy Hill in Cincinnati.

On defense, they'll be feeling the brunt of their rebuild with hardly any veterans left to lead the way. Veteran cornerbacks Joe Haden and Tramon Williams have been effective in the past but have not been as consistent of late and are surrounded by inexperience. Danny Shelton and rookie Emmanuel Ogbah could become impact players in the front seven eventually, but overall this is a unit that will likely get taken advantage of.

Overall, unless Hue Jackson is a miracle worker, I can't see this team actually increasing their win total by two games in the first year of the rebuild under new management.

Eagles under 6.5 wins

On offense, I'm surprised they're throwing #2 overall pick Carson Wentz right into the fire after initially planning on sitting him as a rookie due to the big jump in competition from the FCS, especially since he missed most of preseason due to fractured ribs and they paid veteran backup quarterback Chase Daniel to come with new head coach Doug Pederson from Kansas City. At least he'll have a good offensive line in front of him and in theory can rely on the running game as long as Ryan Mathews is healthy. Beyond Jordan Matthews and Zach Ertz, he won't have too many reliable targets, though; the fact that Tennessee already gave up on last year's second rounder, Dorial Green-Beckham, isn't a good sign, while his addition doesn't bode well for Philly's first rounder from that same draft, Nelson Agholor.

On defense, their line might be even stronger on this side of the ball and will be for a while after locking up defensive tackle Fletcher Cox and defensive ends Vinny Curry and Brandon Graham with recent extensions. New coordinator Jim Schwartz has brought along some of his previous players like Leodis McKelvin, Nigel Bradham, and Stephen Tulloch to compete with some of the incumbent talent, and the unit should be strong as a whole, although corner depth could be a concern.

Overall, the first year of this new regime will be interesting since they want to develop Wentz but don't own their own first round pick in case the season goes in the tank due to the trade to acquire him. They got incredible value by essentially using $11 million in cap space and cash to get a 2017 first rounder and 2018 fourth rounder that could become more in the Sam Bradford sign-and-trade, but it puts a murky outlook on a season when they were already looking at taking a step back.

The pick: It's a funny situation that Cleveland controls both of these teams' first rounders and is thus affected by a win either way. I think it's pretty clear that Philly has more talent on their roster and is at home in this battle of new coaches, so I'll lay the points with the rookie QB. Eagles -3.5

Bengals over 9.5 wins

On offense, they lost coordinator Hue Jackson to a head coaching gig and Marvin Jones, Mohamed Sanu, and Andre Smith to free agency, but with quarterback Andy Dalton back from his thumb injury that kept him out of their controversial playoff loss, this team should still move the ball effectively. 2015 first round pick Cedric Ogbuehi could actually be an improvement on Smith at right tackle as a part of a consistently great offensive line that made Dalton one of the least pressured passers. Although he tied for the league lead with 11 rushing scores, Jeremy Hill will need to bounce back from an overall inefficient sophomore slump, and Gio Bernard is just as capable of starting at running back thanks to his receiving ability. Those targets could pick up due to the receivers lost, but I like the chances of second rounder Tyler Boyd replacing Sanu's versatility in the slot and veteran receiver Brandon LaFell adequately taking over for Jones on the outside. Monstrous tight end Tyler Eifert missing around a month of the season due to his lingering ankle issue is the biggest loss, but A.J. Green is a model of how to be a professional receiver and can certainly handle a voluminous role.

On defense, losing first round cornerback William Jackson III to a torn pec and fourth round defensive tackle Andrew Billings to a torn pec hurts as the secondary doesn't have the impressive depth it once had and the defensive line could use some new blood. They'll need former first rounders Dre Kirkpatrick and Darqueze Dennard to step up at corner with mainstay Leon Hall now in New York, while Shawn Williams is ready to fill in at safety for the departed Reggie Nelson. Perhaps 2013 second rounder Margus Hunt can emerge in a contract year as a spark along the defensive line to support stars Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins. While third rounder Nick Vigil could potentially push Rey Maualuga for snaps at linebacker, swapping out veteran A.J. Hawk for the even more veteran Karlos Dansby should be an upgrade, but their run defense could struggle the first three games while Vontaze Burfict serves a suspension.
The Bengals are ready to rise to the next level.

Overall, a sign of how good they have become over the years is the sheer amount of coaches and players they've lost recently, but a drop off of three wins from last season's adversity filled season would be drastic. This team can definitely still vie for a Super Bowl berth.

Jets over 7.5 wins

On offense, coordinator Chan Gailey worked his FitzMagic again with his former Bills quarterback and a dynamite duo of receivers in Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker, and after replacing thumper Chris Ivory with pass catcher extraordinaire Matt Forte at running back, the aerial attack should continue to be productive. They also re-signed last year's third down back Bilal Powell on a similar contract to Forte's, potentially signalling that they won't overwork the 30 year old vet, and both should be heavily targeted due to a lack of depth after the two star receivers. The offensive line is a concern, however, with the right side much worse than the left, which is replacing the retired D'Brickashaw Ferguson with former Bronco Ryan Clady, who is a former All-Pro but has only played 18 games the past three seasons due to injury.

On defense, head coach Todd Bowles has a blitz happy background and will likely keep that up with unproven outside rusher behind their star-studded defensive line that garners a lot of attention. That group should continue to shut down opposing rushing attacks even with the free agency downgrade from "Snacks" Harrison to Steve McLendon, and their safeties provide solid help, as well. However, the cornerback group isn't what it once was with Darrelle Revis starting to hit his post prime career and the inconsistent Buster Skrine moving from nickelback to full-time starter.

Overall, despite a likely step back from their 10 win season in which they might have overachieved a bit, they should be able to avoid a losing season thanks to their top-end talent.

The pick: New York's advantage of home field in this playoff-worthy opening matchup makes this more difficult than it should be, and the battle in the trenches will be a sight to see. I'm not overly concerned about the more complete team taking care of business, though. Bengals -2

Raiders over 8.5

On offense, quarterback Derek Carr took a big step forward to start his second year before fading down the stretch, but he could lead a legitimate breakout campaign with this supporting cast. After making Rodney Hudson the highest paid center in the league last year, they broke the bank again for Kelchi Osemele to step in at left guard with fellow stud guard Gabe Jackson moving to the right side, forming what might be the best offensive line in the AFC. After being selected fourth overall, receiver Amari Cooper became just the 16th player to break the 1,000 yard threshold as a rookie in the Super Bowl era despite tying for the league lead with 10. If he can keep his focus, he'll be a true #1 threat to lead a good group of weapons with the sure-handed Michael Crabtree, emerging touchdown threat Seth Roberts, and good looking second year tight end Clive Walford. Running back Latavius Murray proved capable of carrying a heavy load without breaking down, and Osemele's addition should help his efficiency, with fifth round rookie DeAndre Washington as a fleet-footed change of pace.

On defense, they spent even more in free agency, and strong side linebacker Bruce Irvin's addition will cement the havoc wreaking Khalil Mack at defensive end full-time, which is a bit surprising considering that he had 10 sacks in his seven starts at 'backer compared to 5 in nine games at end. Regardless, they should generate a lot of pressure with Mack and Irvin, and last year's second round defensive end, Mario Edwards, showed well before suffering a scary neck injury. He's now a candidate to be recalled from injured reserve after a preseason hip injury, so this year's second rounder, Jihad Ward, will have to step up next to effective interior lineman Dan Williams and Justin Ellis. Cornerback Sean Smith was brought in to be another long, physical corner across from David Amerson, who looked like a second round bust in Washington before harnessing his talents in Oakland after being given up on too soon, and D.J. Hayden and T.J. Carrie provide decent nickel options. Taking safety Karl Joseph with the 14th pick was a little high for me given his torn ACL, but he wowed scouts before his senior season was cut short and provides some versatility on the back end with their other big free agent addition, Reggie Nelson, whose 8 interceptions tied for the league lead.

Overall, both sides of the ball have tons of potential with general manager Reggie McKenzie's spending spree completing the cycle of his rebuild as his draft picks matured following the initial salary purge after he took over. Taking the next step as a team is much harder, but second year coach Jack Del Rio has experience at leading winning season and should do so once more.

Saints under 7.5 wins

On offense, this team just keeps on humming under coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees, even as the roster churns around them. Left tackle Terron Armstead leads a mostly good offensive line that opens up running lanes for effective-when-healthy running back Mark Ingram and allows Brees to spread the wealth among talented receivers Brandin Cooks, Willie Snead, and second rounder Michael Thomas. New tight end Coby Fleener fits in perfectly as a threat down the seam in theory, and if big play running back C.J. Spiller can get back to his previous form now that he's healthy, he can bring an extra dimension to the offense.

On defense, they can't possibly be as bad as last year...right? Cutting bait on Brandon Browner is already addition by subtraction, and across from the emerging Delvin Breaux, their questionable cornerback group gets back last year's third rounder P.J. Williams from a torn hamstring that wiped out his rookie season before it began. Unfortunately, they lost this year's first rounder, defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins, to a broken leg, and the front seven is likely to get worked yet again. The safety group should be good with Jairus Byrd, Kenny Vaccaro, and second rounder Vonn Bell, but there are so many liabilities in front of them that there's only so much they can do.

Overall, I think they can improve on last year's 7 wins with an even more dangerous offense, but I have no confidence in their defense despite the changes. While Nick Fairley and Paul Kruger are solid additions given their cap situation, they still lack a reliable pass rush, which will make it hard to maintain leads and get back to a winning record.

The pick: This is the type of tough road test in a hostile environment that Oakland will need to win if they are going to take that next step to become a playoff contender. I think their improved defense can do just enough to let the offense take advantage of the Saints' weaknesses and win the game in a possible shootout. Raiders +1

Chargers under 7.5 wins

On offense, offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt returning to his proper role could help a solid unit boost its efficiency back to what it was in 2013 when they made the playoffs. The offensive line always seems to battle injuries but can be a good group altogether, especially with free agent addition Matt Slauson taking over center. If they can actually open up some holes, last year's first round pick, Melvin Gordon, should be able to showcase his talents on early down before ceding snaps to reliable third down back Danny Woodhead. Getting star receiver Keenan Allen back healthy is an even bigger boost for quarterback Philip Rivers than tight end Antonio Gates not being suspended since he had 62 catches through seven games and had 5 more in the first half of the eighth before suffering a lacerated kidney. If he could have kept up his pace, he would have had 144 catches for 1,520 yards and 10 touchdowns, breaking Marvin Harrison's NFL record for receptions in a single season. Losing Stevie Johnson for the year should feed Allen even more intermediate targets as he's flanked by new speedster Travis Benjamin and second year sleeper Tyrell Williams, a great athlete.

On defense, the mishandling of Joey Bosa's rookie scale contract could really hamper their chances to compete as they need him to make an immediate impact at the point of attack both in the run game and pass rush. New nose tackle Brandon Mebane can help clog up the middle but isn't the player he once was for Seattle, while Melvin Ingram and Jerry Attaouchu need to get more consistent as outside rushers. There is some potential if inside linebacker Denzel Perryman can build on his rookie season and Manti Te'o can bounce back because they boast one of the best cornerback trios in the league with Jason Verrett, Casey Hayward, and Brandon Flowers, but the safety play could hold them back from becoming an elite coverage team.

Overall, I like them to improve upon their four wins from a season ago, but it's a big jump to get back to .500 and above. Add on the shroud of whether or not they will stay in San Diego affecting their home games, and I can't get behind hitting the over on their win total.

Chiefs over 9.5 wins

Ware was impressive down the stretch.
On offense, Alex Smith has a been as steady as they come at quarterback under coach Andy Reid's tutelage and posted a career high 3,486 yards with the arrival of Jeremy Maclin, the best wide receiver he's ever thrown to. Reunited with the coach who drafted him in Philly, the Missouri alum started slightly slowly before gaining a rhythm with Smith and especially got into a groove over their last 6 games, during which he caught 39 of 51 targets for 476 yards and 6 scores, or a season-long pace of 136 targets, 104 catches, 1,269 yards, and 16 touchdowns. Whether or they end up airing it out that much may depend on the return of All-Pro running back Jamaal Charles from his second ACL tear, but even if they take it slow with his recovery, Spencer Ware and Charcandrick West proved to be more than capable backups as they both earned contract extensions that they could easily outperform with their talent. Left tackle Eric Fisher got a much more lucrative extension to continue to improve and will now be book-ended by new stud right tackle Mitchell Schwartz to help compensate for some losses at guard. Lastly, the always exciting tight end Travis Kelce was extended before the end of last season and provides a talented second pass-catching option to Maclin while athletic marvels Chris Conley and Tyreek Hill develop at receiver.

On defense, a different ACL issue for a star, Justin Houston, provides a much more dire situation as he will be out at least the first six games on the PUP list and is a difference-making pass rusher that allows this whole unit to function at a high level under Bob Sutton. Fellow outside linebacker Tamba Hali was re-signed but is now 32 while 2014 first rounder Dee Ford still needs to become more consistent while filling in for Houston behind an intimidating defensive line. Defensive Rookie of the Year Marcus Peters tied for the league lead with 8 picks, but that pass-rush helped cover up a lot of warts, and they lost steady veteran Sean Smith opposite him at corner. They do get back Phillip Gaines from a torn ACL that ended his season after after just 3 games, and rookie Keivarae Russell was a good get near the top of the third round. Furthermore, Eric Berry and Ron Parker as good a pair of safeties as you'll find to help in coverage.

Overall, although the 10 game winning streak to end last season may seem a little flukish, this team is 31-17 in three season under Reid and has kept its talent pool well stocked. There may be a couple more shootouts than usual with the defense taken a small step back, but another double-digit win season should be expected in a year where they can finally overtake the defending champs for the division title.

The pick: All that being said, I don't think Kansas City will simply blowout another division contender due to those question marks on defense to start the year. I still think they can certainly win at home as the better team, but this spread is a bit too high for my blood. Chargers +6.5

Bills under 8 wins

On offense, quarterback Tyrod Taylor proved to be a steal from the Ravens and proved he's more than just a backup, showing better accuracy than he ever has in his career going back to Virginia Tech. He has always had a pretty deep ball, and star receiver Sammy Watkins caught fire in the second half tracking those down even though defenses know he's their only big threat in the passing game, with Robert Woods and tight end Charles Clay mostly serving as complementary pieces. On the ground, besides Taylor himself, running back LeSean McCoy is one of the most dangerous runners in the league with his moves. After a grear rookie season, it was a shock to see second year back Karlos Williams cut loose considering that he wasn't taking up a roster spot due to a 4 game suspension, but that speaks volumes to just how difficult of an offseason it's been for him away from the field.

On defense, head coach Rex Ryan has his work cut out for him to get this group playing at a level he's accustomed to, especially in the front seven. First round pass rusher Shaq Lawson is out to start the year with a shoulder issue, second round inside linebacker Reggie Ragland tore his ACL, and All-Pro defensive lineman Marcell Dareus is suspended 4 games and currently in rehab, leaving them vulnerable against the run and with Jerry Hughes as the only player with the proven ability to generate pressure. Fortunately, their dynamic duo of corners, Stephon Gilmore and Ronald Darby, lead a good secondary overall to allow for Ryan to send blitzes, but putting guys on an island constantly is a dangerous way to live.

Overall, I think they'll be right around 7 or 8 wins again due to their vulnerabilities on defense. Even though Taylor is an exciting player with some great nicknames in Tygod and T-Mobile, counting on the offense to generate any more wins is counting on a quarterback that is still unproven aside from a 14 game sample, which the Bills understand is why they structured his "92 million dollar" extension in a way that they could easily get out of it.

Ravens under 8.5 wins

On offense, the line could be great with first round left tackle Ronnie Stanley having the potential to join right guard Marshal Yanda as an All-Pro and right tackle Rick Wagner capable of playing at a high level like he did in 2014. It's unclear how ready quarterback Joe Flacco will be coming back from a torn ACL and MCL suffered in November, but he has a lot of options in a confusing skill position group. Fourth rounder Kenneth Dixon has the most potential at running back but is dealing with an MCL injury; veteran Justin Forsett is back with the team and a presumed starter but could be on a short leash; last year's fourth rounder, Buck Allen, showed well as a receiver but wasn't the most efficient runner when he took over as lead back down the stretch; and they seem to like Terrance West as a power back after he was cast off from the lowly Browns. Free agent Mike Wallace comes over as a needed deep threat receiver after last year's first rounder, Breshad Perriman, missed the season with a knee injury, and although Kamar Aiken emerged as a solid possession receiver last year, 37 year old Steve Smith will fight for targets despite his double ruptured Achilles. Unfortunately, veteran tight end Ben Watson suffered his own Achilles tear after he was surprisingly signed after his career year in New Orleans even though they invested a second round pick last year in Maxx Williams and a fourth rounder in Crockett Gillmore the previous draft.

On defense, they have some potential stars with C.J. Mosley and Timmy Jernigan in the front seven and Jimmy Smith at corner, but the overall depth isn't what it used to be. They're relying on 32 year old Elvis Dumervil (foot) and 33 year old Terrell Suggs (Achilles) to generate a pass rush, but both are dealing with health issues. Free agent safety Eric Weddle will have to get the secondary in order with former standout corner Lardarius Webb making the switch to safety and questionable corners behind Smith.

Overall, I don't want to say coach John Harbaugh will have another losing season after last year was his first, but there are just too many uncertainties to predict a winning record.

The pick: I don't have a great feel for either of the these potential-laden teams, so taking the points seems like the choice to make even if it's a fair spread for the home team. I'm counting on Buffalo being the more ready offense and Taylor making some plays against this pass defense. Bills +3

Bears under 7.5 wins

On offense, losing offensive coordinator Adam Gase hurts as he maximized their questionable talent last year, so it will be interesting to see how former QB coach Dowell Loggains handles Jay Cutler behind what they're hoping will be a better offensive line. However, alongside elite right guard Kyle Long and still developing left tackle Charles Leno, free agent right tackle Bobby Massie wasn't exactly a world-beater in Arizona, second rounder Cody Whitehair is learning a new position at center, and the new left guard making the rookie move, Josh Sitton, was surprisingly cut by Green Bay. I am excited to see second year back Jeremy Langford get a full opportunity to carry the workload, though, and if receivers Alshon Jeffery and Kevin White and tight end Zach Miller are healthy, at least Cutler will have some dangerous weapons to target.

On defense, the front seven has been overhauled and has a lot of potential with free agent linebackers Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman running behind free agent defensive lineman Akiem Hicks, third rounder Jonathan Bullard, and emerging second year nose tackle Eddie Goldman. However, losing their best pass rusher, Pernell McPhee, to the PUP list for the first six weeks leaves a void that ideally first rounder Leonard Floyd can fill in a rotation with Lamarr Houston and Willie Young. They'll need to generate something because besides some flashes from cornerback Kyle Fuller and safety Adrian Amos, the secondary does not look promising.

Overall, the new defense might take a step forward now that coordinator Vic Fangio has more of his type of guys while the offense takes one back after overachieving last year under Gase. Thus, another season of around 6 or 7 wins looks to be in the cards.

Texans over 8.5 wins

On offense, the $72 million question is how much of an improvement will surprise free agent addition Brock Osweiler be on the quarterback play they got out of Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett last year. However, with fellow free agent addition Lamar Miller completing a $106 million backfield, it might not matter, especially if enticing fourth rounder Tyler Ervin can contribute as a backup running back, as well. After being criminally misused in Miami, Miller joins a team that has been among the most run heavy in football under coach Bill O'Brien and is dark horse to lead the league in rushing yards if he can maintain his elite efficiency with the higher volume. On top of that, they complimented star receiver DeAndre Hopkins with lid-lifting first rounder Will Fuller and intriguing slot option third rounder Braxton Miller after Jaelen Strong, last year's third round pick, struggled as a rookie. There is some concern about the line that already lost second rounder Nick Martin for the year at center and anchor left tackle Duane Brown still getting his quad healthy to start the year, but the unit has potential with free agent guard Jeff Allen replacing the departed Bradon Brooks.

On defense, if J.J. Watt can maintain the form that has won him the Defensive Player of the Year award three of the past four seasons after offseason back surgery, this unit will remain elite with him, Whitney Mercilus, and Jadaveon Clowney serving as rare talents that are effective at both rushing the passer and stopping the run. Their top two picks from last year, Kevin Johnson and Bernardrick McKinney stepped right in with strengthened the cornerback and linebacker groups, respectively, and although the safeties could stand to be improved upon, they should be solid.

Overall, I think this team could be a sleeper to make the Super Bowl in their hometown if they play to their potential. They've improved a solid playoff team, so matching last season's 9 wins at the very least should be expected.

The pick: At home and against a banged up defense, you best believe I'm laying the points because something would have gone worryingly wrong with the new offense otherwise. Texans -6 

Packers over 11 wins

On offense, Aaron Rodgers is the best quarterback in the world and always a favorite to win his third MVP award, and the unit as a whole should return to elite status with big play receiver Jordy Nelson back from the torn ACL he suffered on an innocuous play in the preseason. Randall Cobb was also injured all of last season, and between that and the extra attention from defenses not respecting any deep threat, his efficiency plummeted: he caught 12 less passes than the previous season despite 2 more targets, dropped his average yards per catch from 14.1 to 10.5, and scored half as many touchdowns. That should bounce back this year, and rare free agent signing Jared Cook could provide another athletic target down the middle at tight end to help open things up, as well. Hopefully one of Davante Adams, Ty Montgomery, Jeff Janis, and Jared Abbrederis can step up in a complimentary role outside because the running game can no longer be depended on until Eddie Lacy can be relied upon to keep his weight down in a contract year. All-Pro left guard Josh Sitton was shockingly released from the last year of his contract, but this offensive line is a great group when at full strength. They traded up to get Jason Spriggs in the second round, so perhaps he could make the switch to left guard or transition right tackle Bryan Bulaga to that spot.

Randall had a seamless transition to corner.
On defense, they should continue to be strong against the pass even after losing cornerback Casey Hayward in free agency thanks to last year's first and second rounders, Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins. Veteran Sam Shields is an underrated shutdown corner to lead the group, and safeties Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Morgan Burnett, and Michah Hyde round out a terrific secondary with potential breakout stars. Clay Matthews staying at outside linebacker full time and former first rounder Datone Jones converting to a stand up rusher creates a deep group of edge players with Julius Peppers and Nick Perry. Stud defensive end Mike Daniels will have Letroy Guion next to him at nose tackle again where he excels, and either their first rounder Kenny Clark or fourth rounder Dean Lowry should be able to handle the other end spot. The ceiling of this unit overall will depend on whether 2015 and 2016 fourth round picks Jake Ryan and Blake Martinez can improve the run defense from their inside linebacker spots.

Overall, this team is the Super Bowl favorite for reason, and they project to do well in all phases. Getting back on track after last year's "down" season that ended in a thrilling overtime playoff game should be expected, but I want to see the offense get fully in sync again before crowning them.

Jaguars under 7.5 wins

On offense, an exciting young unit should continue to get better if free agent left tackle Kelvin Beachum is healthy and can solidify a group with some moving parts. Running back T.J. Yeldon didn't always have much room to work with but had a strong rookie year in total and now gets a powerful compliment in free agent addition Chris Ivory. Last year's big offensive free agent, Julius Thomas, is now healthy to start the year and should provide nice mismatches at tight end to give quarterback Blake Bortles more options than just having to heave it up to his big play Allens, Robinson and Hurns. A-Rob in particular built on his good rookie season and dynamic physical tools to put up an incredibly clean 80 catches for 1,400 yards and 14 touchdowns, and he's the type of talent that can help a team always feel within striking distance.

On defense, they're flush with new talent with the free agent signings of defensive lineman Malik Jackson, cornerback Prince Amukamara, and free safety Tashaun Gipson; the drafting of do-it-all defensive back Jalen Ramsey, linebacker Myles Jack, defensive end Yannick Ngakoue, and defensive tackle Sheldon Day; and defensive end Dante Fowler back on the field after missing his rookie year with a torn ACL right after being picked third overall. With a defensive line rotation that looks impressive on paper, they should be much more effective getting after the quarterback now, and they're deep at corner with the incumbent Davon House and Aaron Colvin still deserving of roles, albeit with the latter being suspended the first four games.

Overall, I have a soft spot for this team and really want to see them get out of their losing funk, but there's still a lot of uncertainty around them. It's hard to pick a team to improve by three wins when you still need to see how this many new pieces fit, so I'm going to wait and see them prove it.

The pick: This spread is in a tough range since I think Green Bay will win, but Jacksonville can make it interesting. Given how last year's Pack couldn't always pull away like in years past, I'm going with the home 'dogs to cover. Jaguars +5.5

Dolphins over 7 wins

On offense, I am a believer in new coach Adam Gase, and he should help quarterback Ryan Tannehill get the most out of his talent to unleash his talented receivers Jarvis Landry, DeVante Parker, and Kenny Stills. Tight end Jordan Cameron should also be primed for a nice role if he can get his focus back to what it was in Cleveland, and running back Arian Foster can still be effective catching the ball at least as he works his way back from a torn Achilles. The new offensive line that essentially features four tackles around centerpiece Mike Pouncey should at least do well in pass protection, and if they can gel as run blockers, then perhaps Foster and second year back Jay Ajayi can provide some balance to the offense after they lost Lamar Miller to Houston in free agency.

Mario Williams is looking to bounce back in a new home.
On defense, they've got some big names on the defensive line but could get gashed on the ground, relying on stud safety Reshad Jones to clean up runs. The rest of the secondary could surprise some folks, but they'll likely need a lot of help from the pass rush that the aforementioned line should specialize in. Vance Joseph is a good coach, but he'll have his work cut out for him in his first year as a defensive coordinator.

Overall, expectations should be tempered, but I'm leaning towards Gase bringing some competency to the offensive system to outscore teams. The team may have had the worst record of his career, but Tannehill did set a new yardage high last year and has won 23 games his first three seasons. Another 8-8 season doesn't seem out of the question.

Seahawks over 10.5 wins

On offense, they have probably the worst line in the league, but Russell Wilson always seems to have a knack for getting out of sacks. He connected with Doug Baldwin on an unbelievable run to close last year after both Jimmy Graham and Marshawn Lynch suffered injuries as they opened up the offense, and it will be interesting to see how Graham fits in if he's back healthy from a torn patella tendon. Lynch's replacement at running back, Thomas Rawls, is coming back from his own injury that ended his season prematurely, so their top pick from the 2013 draft who was cut loose before finally maturing, Christine Michael, has a chance to run away with the job now that he's "had an awakening" to harness his talents. Third rounder C.J. Prosise brings a different element than those two as a receiving back if he can get himself healthy, and second year receiver Tyler Lockett could get more short passes as a replacement for the running game since he can turn any short screen into a punt return situation.

On defense, what is there to say anymore? They've lost depth in recent years as some of their younger guys have gotten more expense, but they have a beastly front seven and big names in the secondary that make their Cover 3 system work as well it does. Cornerback Richard Sherman often shuts down one whole side of the field, free safety Earl Thomas has the range to recover on any deep shots from his deep middle position, and strong safety Kam Chancellor covers better than you'd expect from a a player of his sheer size who can impact the run game so well. #2 corner Jeremy Lane's healthy return helped a lot during the season while Deshawn Shead is a capable backup in multiple spots. They're helped by the pressure generated from the devastating duo of defensive ends with versatility, Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett, while second round defensive tackle Jarran Reid will join Ahtyba Rubin in stuffing the run. Lastly, Bobby Wagner gets more hype as the middle linebacker, but K.J. Wright is just as much of a difference maker if not more so.

Overall, this team is always capable of playing with everyone and is capable of making a deep playoff run. They still won 10 games despite last year's slow start, and although I'm not sure they've done anything to noticeably get better, they'll be in contention as long as they keep Wilson upright...which isn't a given now given the state of their offensive line.

The pick: That's a looong flight from Miami to Seattle, but I like the way the 'Phins' defensive line matches up against the 'Hawks' offensive front. Since Landry plays in the slot and will avoid Sherman, they should be able to move the ball decently enough to at least keep it competitive. Dolphins +10.5

Giants over 8.5 wins

On offense, coordinator Ben McAdoo is now head coach and has produced two of the best years of Eli Manning's career in his system with both a quick tempo and quick throws that are much needed giving their tackle concerns around a strong interior line. Ereck Flowers was a reach at both the 9th overall pick and left tackle, but he has nowhere to go but up after a rough rookie season. Perhaps the recently re-signed Will Beatty could regain his spot on the left side after missing last year with a torn pec and move Flowers to right tackle over journeyman Marshall Newhouse. Following Andre Williams release, Rashard Jennings is set to be the workhorse running back he excelled at once they scrapped their convoluted committee during the final four games last year (521 yards on 86 touches), with Shane Vereen as an electric change of pace. Second round receiver Sterling Shepard has the route running chops to be a reliable secondary option across from Odell Beckham, who is capable of going into another stratosphere statistically. He slowed down last year from his torrid 10 game stretch after becoming the #1 receiver as a rookie, but his 16 game pace over his 25 games in that role is 179 targets for 116 catches, 1,717 yards, and 15 scores. If he can push closer to the 190-200 target range in this offense like Antonio Brown and Julio Jones got last year, the sky's the limit for the 23 year old.

On defense, they let cornerback Prince Amukamara and defensive end Robert Ayers walk in free agency and spent a boatload of cash on Janoris Jenkins and Olivier Vernon in those spots, along with run-stuffing defensive tackle Damon Harrison. With full seasons from Jason Pierre-Paul and Jonathan Hankins, this could be an elite defensive line in front of linebacker core that is always a liability. First rounder Eli Apple was a bit of a reach as the second corner off the board at 10th overall, but I like his potential down the line as he serves as the third or fourth corner in a deep group. Free safety Darian Thompson fell to the third round after a pedestrian combine, but he has ball-hawk skills that will be needed behind last year's second rounder, Landon Collins, who is a good run defender but struggled in coverage as a rookie.

Overall, a three win leap is a lot to ask for under a rookie head coach, but facing two rookie quarterbacks in their division will make it easier. If their pass defense plays up to its potential and the offensive line comes together, this could be a sleeper team.

Cowboys under 8.5 wins

On offense, the consensus best set of blockers in the league will put the rookie backfield of Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott in favorable situations, and although Zeke was an unnecessary luxury pick at fourth overall for a team starved of defensive difference makers, he is an elite talent that is as well rounded of a running back as you'll see. The backup quarterback pressed into service due to another Tony Romo back injury has lit up the preseason after falling to the fourth round due to a DUI arrest that was eventually thrown out, and he has some nice potential to put this team in winnable sutations after his excellent college career at Mississippi State. Athletic and poised, he should have no problem getting the ball to star receiver Dez Bryant, but whether or not he can elevate the level of play of the other pieces around him that will be the question.

On defense, they're really behind the eight ball with middle linebacker Rolando McClain suspended 10 games and both defensive ends DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory suspended 4 games apiece. Cedric Thornton and and Benson Mayowa were nice under the radar signings to give the defensive line some depth alongside Tyrone Crawford, but with second round linebacker Jaylon Smith unsure to play due to his tragic knee injury, weak side 'backer Sean Lee is the only true impact player in the front seven and is always a health risk himself. The secondary isn't much better with contract year corners Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne disappointments in Dallas, but at least they get Orlando Scandrick back from a torn ACL and MCL and will have a full-time role for Byron Jones as a second year safety.

Overall, a winning season is possible, but I just think they're missing too many pieces to get there. There is a chance that Prescott just takes the job and runs with it without looking back, hiding the defense with sustained offensive drives sustained by Elliott, but more than likely, Romo will have to try to be a hero late in the season, with the surrounding cast too weak to support.

The pick: I'm surprised this line hasn't shifted more after the Romo injury, and with the better roster overall, traveling to Jerry World shouldn't stop them from opening with a win. Giants PK

Lions over 7 wins

Marvin could become a marvelous number one option.
On offense, it feels weird to say they'll be better despite Calvin Johnson's surprise retirement, but it's certainly possible with a full season of Jim Bob Cooter as offensive coordinator and a hopefully improved young offensive line with first rounder Taylor Decker stepping in at left tackle and moving Riley Reiff, a solid tackle himself, to the right side. That unit's inconsistency forced a game plan of having quarterback Matthew Stafford get the ball out quick, which he succeeded with under Cooter, but a little more time would allow him to make bigger plays with the best free agent receiver Marvin Jones and athletic tight end Eric Ebron instead of having to rely on short throws to Notre Dame alums Golden Tate and Theo Riddick and having them make people miss. Ameer Abdullah and the running game also did better under Cooter, and if he's fixed his fumbling problems, Abdullah is a big play waiting to happen.

On defense, Ziggy Ansah leads a strong front seven that is getting linebacker DeAndre Levy back after a hip injury essentially wiped out his whole season following his All-Pro 2014. Across from him, they will need strong side linebacker Kyle Van Noy to step up and help his college teammate Ansah in generating more pressure because although Darius Slay has become a shutdown corner, the rest of the secondary has question marks.

Overall, this team didn't make any drastic moves to improve on last year's seven win season, but as long as defensive coordinator Teryl Austin continues to work his magic in hiding their deficiencies, I like them to get back to .500 or better.

Colts over 9 wins

On offense, quarterback Andrew Luck is back healthy, and they're hoping spending a first round pick on center Ryan Kelly will solidify an up and down offensive line to keep him that way. If that group can step up, he has some dynamic young receivers in T.Y. Hilton, Donte Moncrief, and Phillip Dorsett and a good all around tight end in Dwayne Allen, who was re-signed over the flashier Coby Fleener. 33 year old Frank Gore is an ageless wonder at running back, but it would be nice if they could develop a more inspiring backup than undrafted free agent Josh Ferguson or former Seahawk flameout Robert Turbin.

On defense, they would be solid if at full strength, but shutdown corner corner Vontae Davis is out for around a month with a sprained ankle, stud second year defensive lineman Henry Anderson is still coming back from a torn ACL, former free agent prize Arthur Jones is also out on the defensive line with a four game suspension, presumptive starter at strong safety Clayton Geathers is coming off foot surgery, and nickelback Darius Butler has his own ankle issue that will keep him out to start the season. Their linebacker group is weak after losing tackle machine Jerrell Freeman to Chicago, and they'll have to continue their blitz happy ways to generate pressure behind their stout defensive line with Trent Cole and Robert Mathis past their prime. That will put pressure on holdover free safety Mike Adams, solid free agent corner Patrick Robinson, newly added corner Antonio Cromartie, and second round safety T.J. Green, who has a ton of potential but is still raw.

Overall, I think a full season of Luck will get this team back into the playoffs, but whether or not they truly take the next step into legitimate contender status will depend on how improved they are around the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball.

The pick: Although I think Indy will have the better season and can overcome their early storm of injuries, you've got to with the points in what will likely be a back and forth shootout. Lions +3.5

Patriots over 10.5 wins

On offense, Jimmy Garoppolo will get an extended audition to show whether he can be a future starter for someone while Tom Brady serves a four game suspension for a crime that still has no evidence, and he has the benefit of throwing to arguably the best player in football, tight end Rob Gronkowski. Next to him, versatile receiver Julian Edelman is a chain-moving dynamo, and fourth round pick Malcolm Mitchell is a polished rookie that will battle solid free agent addition Chris Hogan as next in line for targets. They're already being hit with injuries as stud right tackle Sebastian Vollmer could be out for the year while running back Dion Lewis recently needed a follow up surgery on the ACL he tore in November and is also on the PUP list. The oft-injured Lewis was a valuable piece as a receiving back who was also an electric runner, so now they'll be a bit more predictable with power back LeGarrette Blount replaced by strong receiving back James White on most passing downs, with UDFA D.J. Foster lurking as a threat. Marcus Cannon filling in for Vollmer is the much bigger concern, but at least they're getting Nate Solder back at left tackle. The Chandler Jones traded netted them right guard Jonathan Cooper, the #7 pick in the 2013 draft who's been derailed by injuries, and the picks that became Mitchell and third round left guard Joe Thuney, giving them potentially three starters.

On defense, they've made a habit of collecting other's team's high draft picks, and defensive end Chris Long could be another bargain like his counterpart Jabaal Sheard, who had 8 sacks as a rotational player last year. After Akeem Ayers contributed 4 sacks on their 2014 championship team as a mid-season addition at linebacker, former first rounders Barkevious Mingo and Shea McClellin are in the mix on the strong side next to the doiit-all duo of Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower. Corner Eric Rowe could also eventually become a contributor after being Philadelphia's second round pick last year, but right now they have solid depth with top pick Cyrus Jones joining Logan Ryan and rising star Malcolm Butler. All-Pro Devin McCourty leads a good group of safeties with Patrick Chung and Duron Harmon to round out what should be another good defense without any obvious weaknesses.

Sheard was a steal for the savvy Pats.
Overall, they face some tough teams with Brady out, but the good news is that after facing the strongest opponent on the road this week, they get Miami, Houston, and Buffalo all at home, where they are dominant. That's why going 3-1 or at least 2-2 during that stretch is crucial to try and get the home field advantage they lacked in that heartbreaking AFC title game that they almost rallied back to win if Brady would've went back to an open Gronk on the 2 point conversion. If they can do that, they're my pick to win it all.

Cardinals over 9.5 wins

On offense, head coach Bruce Arians likes to push the ball downfield, and Carson Palmer throws one of the prettiest deep balls in the game, which is why this match has been so successful in creating big plays with their deep receiving core. #11 Larry Fitzgerald is the future Hall of Famer and most consistent receiver in his slot role, #12 Smokey Brown is a speedster who rounded out his game nicely to have a 1,000 yard season in his second season, #13 Jaron Brown is a solid backup capable of playing all three receiver positions, #14 J.J. Nelson is the fastest guy on the team pushing for a larger role, and #15 Michael Floyd is the big bodied threat down the field in a contract year. They'll need last year's first round right tackle D.J. Humprhies to help give Palmer time to throw after not playing as a rookie, and he'll have the still effective free agent Evan Mathis join him as a new starter on the right side in what should be a good offensive line. Of course, all-purpose running back David Johnson is poised to become the best player on this offense after averaging 131.6 yards from scrimmage with five touchdowns in his five starts to close his rookie season. 17 of his 36 catches came during that span, and the ultra athletic 6'1, 224 lb Northern Iowa product is a dynamic weapon in space with a shiftiness that belies a man of his stature.

On defense, they added some interesting pieces to their already unorthodox style, with pass rusher Chandler Jones the headliner. The former Patriot has spent most of his time with his hand with his hand in the ground as a defensive end, but he has the athletic prowess to handle being a 3-4 outside linebacker opposite the high-motor of second year stud Markus Golden. If first rounder Robert Nkemdiche can also provide some interior pressure to compliment star run-stuffer Calais Campbell, then perhaps their exotic blitzes might not be as needed anymore. That would alleviate having to put raw third rounder Brandon Williams on an island, which is good since he will be heavily targeted across from perhaps the best corner in the game, Patrick Peterson. Starting "free safety" Tyrann Mathieu might have a claim to that title since he starred as a nickelback for the majority of his snaps before suffering a second ACL tear that started the downfall of their season. Free agent safety Tyvon Branch is also capable of playing some nickel, so I'm curious as to how they will deploy him with Mathieu and Tony Jefferson, who is a breakout candidate in a contract year with a more consistent role as the starting strong safety since Deone Bucannon's switch to inside linebacker is part of what makes this defense uniquely great.

Overall, this is a dangerous team with stars all over the field, and the only potential hole on paper is that number two corner spot with Williams, who's had a long journey from being a running back at Oklahoma as a freshman to eventually switching to the other side of the ball as a senior at Texas A&M and now starting Week 1 as a rookie. The revamped offensive line should hold up to keep Palmer up, and if he is going right, they might force the NFC to go through Glendale.

The pick: While I would usually wouldn't even consider laying this many points against a Bill Belichick team, having Jimmy G make his first start in a hostile environment with Gronk and Solder questionable with hamstring issues is a tough ask. If they fall behind early, it will be tough to protect against pressure with their offensive line in flux, so I'm going with the home team in what I think is a Super Bowl preview missing some key players. Cardinals -6

Steelers over 10.5 wins

On offense, Antonio Brown is a threat to break all kinds of receiving records with an absurd average of converting 180.33 targets into 125 catches for 1,677 yards and 10.33 touchdowns the past three seasons. The question will be whether or not Ben Roethlisberger will have any other weapons to throw to with elite dual threat running back Le'Veon Bell suspended the first three games, game breaking receiver Martavis Bryant suspended the whole season, reliable tight end Heat Miller retired, and new free agent tight end Ladarius Green on the PUP list. Last year's third rounder, Sammie Coates, has the best physical tools to replicate Bryant's dynamic presence but is still an unrefined receiver, so Markus Wheaton's role will probably have to be extended more than it should be, with second year UDFA Eli Rogers likely getting opportunities in the slot as another small, quick find. Once Bell retakes the reigns from veteran fill-in DeAngelo Williams, he'll be running behind an offensive line that has really grown into a strong unit, with the only question mark at left tackle with former Army Ranger Ali Villanueva still harnessing his raw physical tools.

On defense, the front seven has potential to become a fearsome bunch thanks to Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt on the defensive line with third rounder Javon Hargrave hoping to make an impact between them. Lawrence Timmons and Ryan Shazier provide excellent range from their inside linebacker spots, but they might need to blitz more with last year's first round pick Bud Dupree on injured reserve and the still threatening James Harrison now 38. Generating pressure will be key in front of this average secondary that could need big contributions from first and second rounders Artie Burns and Sean Davis, the former of which was a reach during an interesting run on corners. Former Bills castoff Ross Cockrell was a pleasant surprise at one of those corner spots, joining William Gay and Mike Mitchell as an acceptable starter on the back end, and he'll need to maintain that level of play for this team to meet expectations.

Overall, this is a team that a lot of people like for the Super Bowl, and while I think there are too many question marks to expect that, an increased win total is likely. When at full strength, this team has a lot of options to compete with anyone.

Redskins over 7.5 wins

On offense, quarterback Kirk Cousins will try to build on his strong second half and use his bevy of weapons to earn a new contract while playing on the franchise tag. First round receiver Josh Doctson has the potential to eventually become a true #1 receiver once he gets on the field and joins hyper athletic tight end Jordan Reed, burner receiver DeSean Jackson, still solid possession receiver Pierre Garcon, second year slot specialist Jamison Crowder, and effective third down back Christ Thompson. The offensive line is mostly good, but they will need to do a more consistent job in the running game with Matt Jones taking over as the starting running back following an up and down rookie season.

On defense, they opened up the checkbook to shore up their secondary with Josh Norman forming a potentially great cornerback duo with Bashaud Breeland and David Bruton a part of a new safety pairing next to DeAngelo Hall, who's having to switch from corner. Junior Galette unfortunately suffered a second torn Achilles, but the good news is that Preston Smith showed the makings of a potential star pass rusher as a rookie across from top threat Ryan Kerrigan, with Trent Murphy providing support. The rest of the front is more of a question mark, with second round pick Su'a Cravens the most intriguing box player, but if they can play with a lead, this defense could surprise some people.

Overall, Cousins might not stay as hot as he was to close last year, but that might not matter as they have enough talent to avoid a drop-off from last year's team that won a division that still doesn't have a standout squad.

The pick: Pittsburgh has the better team, but they're in a tough spot on the road against a playoff team during one of Bell's missed games. Williams should be able to have success running the ball in his stead, but since I'm worried about the coverage of DeSean Jackson on the other side, I'm taking the points with the home 'dogs. Redskins +3.5

Rams under 7.5 wins

On offense, the Jared Goff era isn't off to a great start since his coach is still Jeff Fisher, who is 9 losses away from being tied for the most in NFL history. I'm counting on that happening this year since their offensive line is still better in theory than in real life so far and the receiving core is comparable to the 49ers except that it's "star receiver" had nearly as many rushing yards as receiving last year yet was just given a big extension. Unless fourth round rookie Pharoh Cooper can make a big leap right away, sensational sophomore running back Todd Gurley is the only piece Goff can rely on once he eventually becomes the starter.

On defense, the front four is still loaded and thus gives the rest of the unit some potential. Talented linebacker Alec Ogletree making the move to the middle will be interesting with former safety Mark Barron manning the weak side, and strong safety T.J. McDonald makes an impact in the box, as well. However, the free agent departures of Rodney McLeod and Janoris Jenkins leaves only corner back Trumaine Johnson as the only reliable coverage man on the back end.

Overall, I am not a believer that defensive coordinator Gregg Williams can get much more out of this defense than what defensive tackle Aaron Donald will provide, and although Gurley is an amazing weapon to have, they are simply asking too much of him. Maybe Goff will be ready later in the season to spark them, but I have a hard time seeing Fisher get to his first winning season since 2008.

49ers over 5.5 wins

Kelly's not perfect but is an improvement on Tomsula.
On offense, new head coach Chip Kelly should provide a dramatic improvement on the worst scoring team in the league, if only because of the faster tempo that will lead to more plays run. The offensive line could look dramatically different with cornerstone left tackle Joe Staley the only projected starter who starter who started in more than 3 games last year. Center Daniel Kilgore is finally healthy and will likely be flanked by veteran free agent Zane Beadles, who is returning to a zone-blocking scheme that better suits him, and Anthony Davis, who is converting to right guard and is back in shape after his "retirement" and injuries really hampered the offense the past two season. The reason for that switch is because Trent Brown emerged as a starting right tackle in his two starts at the end of his rookie season and has big believers within the team. This revamped line could mean good things for running back Carlos Hyde, who stands to benefit the most from Kelly's system. Establishing a successful running game first would make life easier for Blaine Gabbert, who is coming off surprisingly acceptable numbers in his 8 starts last year and could be a nice fit in this offense with his quick decisions and athleticism. Of course, it would be nice if he doesn't only make the quick check down and actually challenges defenses downfield with speedster wide receiver Torrey Smith and athletic tight end Vance McDonald since they are both set up to garner all the targets they can handle, even if the latter has to share snaps with the more well-rounded Garrett Celek. I've been excited for Smith in the DeSean/Maclin role since the coaching hire.

On defense, there is some potential to return to their previous form if the young twin towers from Oregon, 6'7" defensive linemen Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner, that they made first round picks these past two drafts are ready to become disruptive forces at the point of attack, which would free up star linebacker Navarro Bowman to roam around and make plays against the run. Interior pressure is also the best way to get edge rushers opportunities to generate pressure, so an attacking defensive line would help second year linebacker Eli Harold and newly extended and converted linebacker Tank Carradine try and fill in for Aaron Lynch, who is suspended the first four games. More pressure always helps the secondary, which has strong safety play but is lacking experience on the corners with so many talented but unproven options. Veteran Tramaine Brock is effective if inconsistent on one side, but Jimmie Ward is a former college safety now making the change to the outside full-time after coming on as a nickelback. Fourth round rookie Rashard Robinson is long, athletic and potential-laden but hardly played at LSU before being kicked off the team, while Dontae Johnson and Keith Reaser have barely gotten opportunities after being highly thought of as rookies and now look to have fallen behind athletic castoff Chris Davis of Iron Bowl lore for nickel duties.

Overall, I may be in the minority but feel that this team can get to 6 wins if their young defenders step up and could even push for a .500 season if everything falls right, but it will be tough with a tough travel schedule filled with 10 AM games. Losing receivers that they had some high hopes for in Bruce Ellington and Eric Rogers definitely hurts since they now have to rely on former decent contributors Jeremy Kerley and Rod Streater to fill those roles after their teams were happy to get anything for them in trades before final cuts, and nose tackle Ian Williams would have been a great veteran anchor on the defensive line for the young studs. It's sometimes hard for me to be objective with this team, but despite the possible implosion on offense, I think there is reason for optimism.

The pick: They may get to more wins on the season, but I don't think the Rams start with one in Week 1 with Case Keenum laying a 2.5 on the road. 49ers +2.5

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