1. CLEVELAND BROWNS
The perpetual underdogs have fans buzzing about their 2017 season. Cleveland’s excitement is not without reason; their team has overhauled their offensive line and made substantial improvements to their defense. The 2017 team has been reenergized and their efforts have fans feeling optimistic about the team’s upcoming season.
Kenny Britt joins the Browns fresh off of a stellar year with the Rams. Last season, Britt’s performance was a career high for the wide receiver and saw him reach 1,000 yards. Expectations are high for Britt and his role on the offensive line for the Browns. His average of 9.1 yards per target is a significant upgrade for Cleveland. To strengthen their defense, Cleveland also picked up Myles Garrett, Jabrill Peppers, David Njoku, three of the strongest players available. Garret, a rookie defensive end and first overall draft pick, has already shown his adaptability and willingness to learn; his ability to quickly find his place on the team was proven even before summer training was over. The extremely versatile Peppers was another major score for Cleveland. His reputation for being able to play multiple positions on the field may have hurt his ranking in the draft, but it is likely to make him an asset to the Browns. Peppers was drafted as a safety, but is not limited by the role, and positional flexibility is often more valued on the field even when it is not valued in the draft. Njoku, the newest tight end, is off to a shaky start. After performing well at rookie minicamp, he struggled during training camp. He was sidelined for the preseason opener due to a back injury, but he has since recovered and plans to play in the first game of the season. Despite the turbulence, expectations are nonetheless high for Njoku and he is expected to continue growing and developing in his first year in professional football and the coaches have remained consistently supportive of the young player.
But for all the talent the Browns have picked up, there remains an undeniable weakness: the lack of a quarterback. Cleveland desperately needs a star quarterback, and won’t be able to fully take advantage of all the talent they just acquired until they fill that position with an equally skilled athlete. Kevin Zeitler joined the Browns after spending several seasons at the star guard for the Cincinnati Bengals. The Browns also acquired J.C. Tretter, from the Green Bay Packers. These strong additions will be added to the roster that already includes several strong players such as linebacker Jamie Collins, cornerback Joe Haden, nose tackle Danny Shelton, defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah, and running back Isaiah Crowell.
While the team may still be lacking offensively, the new additions are major boons to Cleveland’s prospects. It may take the team another draft to secure a quarterback worthy of the rest of the team, but the Browns are nonetheless on the rise and poised to have a strong season. If the team continues developing at this rate, there is no telling how far they can go in the years to come. Regardless of their future potential, 2017 will be an interesting year for the Browns.
2. PHILADELPHIA EAGLES
The Philadelphia Eagles had a bizarre blend of high expectations and low wins last year. They were predicted to be playoff candidates last year, but they instead became one of only five teams that ended the 2016 season with a losing record and boasted a positive point differential. Of those five, Philadelphia had the largest disparity between expected and actual wins. The strange showing last season makes them a wildcard for 2017-2018.
One of the biggest factors in the Eagles potential for the upcoming season is quarterback Carson Wentz. As he moves into his second season in pro football, Wentz will either live up to the expectations that come with being the 2nd overall draft pick of 2016, or he will continue to struggle. Much of the Eagle’s fate will hinge on whether he has matured enough to be consistent at the professional football level. But supporting Wentz was a priority in the 2017 draft. The additions of wide receivers Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith are expected to help, as each has come off 1,000-yard seasons.
The loss of outside linebacker Connor Barwin, was notable, and is somewhat made up for by the round 1 pick rookie Derek Barnett. The defensive lineman was selected 14th overall and has performed especially well during summer training, nearly surpassing the expectations created by his 32-sack college career with Tennessee. The Day 2 draft picks of cornerbacks Sidney Jones and Rasul Douglas are expected to provide secondary help and fill the void resulting from the loss of Nolan Carroll and Leodis McKelvin.
The Eagles have laid the foundation for a strong support system for Wentz, but that only places more importance on the impending performance by the quarterback. Their offseason has indicated a strong upcoming season, but only time will tell if the team’s efforts to support Wentz will be enough to propel the Eagles into a successful season.
3. THE LOS ANGELES CHARGERS
The Chargers had a rough season in 2016, which is not surprising since their season was defined by unusually high amount of injuries. With 21 players on the injured reserve in 2016, they could have claimed the title for most injuries if that were an existing title. There losses last year were brutal and left them reeling in their notoriously strong division. But their luck is likely to improve this year; predictions of improvement in the upcoming season only intensified after the draft.
They may have suffered due to injuries, but their game plan is not to simply lick their wounds and wait to heal; the Chargers have devised and implemented a plan to dedicate themselves to supporting Philip Rivers, their longtime quarterback. Their draft results reflected this effort. The expensive deal that resulted in left tackle Russell Okung (a former Pro Bowl player and champion with the Seattle Seahawks) joining the team signaled their purposeful approach to 2017.
The revamping of the offensive line is their goal, and Okung is the main component of that plan. Another costly move was the acquisition of the coveted receiver Mike Williams, offensive lineman Forrest Lamp, and guard Dan Feeney, which cost the Chargers their first three draft picks.
Landing Lamp was a major score for the Chargers. The rookie was a starter at Western Kentucky for four years, two of which he was a team captain. He is as skilled as he is tough, making it a surprise that he was even available after the first day of the draft. Feeney, the third round choice, has earned praise for his excellent pass-protection skills. His time as an Indiana Hoosier culminated in a multitude of awards and as a senior he was selected as first-team All-American.
But Okung, Lamp, and Feeney are just the newest members of what was already a fairly strong pre-existing offense. The center and sometimes left guard, Matt Slauson, returns after a strong first year with the Chargers. Slauson is tough yet adaptable, and has established his ability to lead. Center Spencer Pulley, an undrafted free agent, is also in his second season with the Chargers. Pulley’s efforts to earn a starting position will be well served by his no-frills, straightforward approach to the game. Versatile veteran Kenny Wiggins and right tackle Joe Barksdale will be returning to the field for the chargers, though Barksdale is the sole player returning to the same spot. These players and several other returning players, create the carefully curated offense the Chargers desire.
The focus on offense as a strategy has helped the Chargers land a solid, well-rounded offense. And while offense was the focus of the revamp, defense is decently strong as well. Defensive ends Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram and cornerbacks Casey Hayward and Jason Verrett are a pretty solid defensive presence. And if the defense is lacking anything, it wouldn’t be confidence in their abilities; in a recent interview, Ingram was asked what he and Bosa needed to do to perfect their pass-rushing duo. Ingram’s response was that they were already the best. While the statement is debatable, the confidence is admirable and not entirely unfounded. Their history as a pass-rushing duo may not be lengthy, but they did have a combined 20.5 sacks last season.
Although it is impossible to say that the Chargers will be able to break their unlucky streak, it does seem entirely likely that this year will be decidedly different. A lot is riding on Rivers’ performance, but with the strong new additions to the offense, it will be entirely up to him how he plays. If they continue to successfully follow their plan and maintain a healthy team, they will stand a real chance to go far this season.
4. SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
The 49ers are not expecting to be contenders for the Big Game this year, but they are planning on improving. Not that improving over their 2016 record would require much effort. San Francisco is working towards the reasonable goal of laying a foundation for the team’s future. The focus is not to completely rebuild, but to make incremental improvements by reshaping the existing team while blending in new additions. The eventual goal is to create a new and improved team culture in the years to come.
Coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch had their work cut out for them after the 49ers ended last season with an impressively terrible record: 2-14. But they had the advantage of money and draft selections. They obtained three new free agent offensive players: fullback Kyle Juszczyk and wide receivers Pierre Garcon and Marquise Goodwin. They also scored one of the best pass-rushers in the draft, Solomon Thomas. The third overall pick, Thomas is fresh from his final year at Stanford University where he played all 13 games for a total of 62 total tackles, 14 for loss, and 8.5 sacks. Among his many accolades are first team All-Pac-12, the Morris Trophy, and Third Team All-American.
Thomas started all 13 games totaling 62 total tackles, 14 for loss, and 8.5 sacks. Although Thomas had a rocky start of training, as he was not allowed to train with the team until Stanford’s school year was officially over in mid-June, he worked hard to train independent of the 49ers by enrolling in a variety of pass-rushing classes. Nonetheless, Thomas proved he could meet the 49ers high expectations once he was officially able to sign.
They also picked up linebacker Reuben Foster in the draft. Foster is a First-Team All-American, Butkus Award winner, MVP of the SEC Championship game, and All-SEC pick. His last season at Alabama resulted in a record of 115 tackles, 13 losses, and five sacks. Foster has proven himself during training so well that he was announced as a starting player despite dealing with a shoulder sprain.
For all the excitement the new arrivals bring, the 49ers are will still struggle due to their lack of a strong quarterback. None of players picked up throughout 2017 will make up for the loss of Colin Kaepernick and Blaine Gabbert. While these changes could lead to improved record over last year, the team still has a long way to go. This season, it will definitely be interesting to watch the 49ers as they try to alter their future trajectory.