2019 AFC Preview: AFC West + Playoffs & SB LIV

(Note: Squid refers to targets plus carries.)

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AFC West

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Kansas City Chiefs: 11-5

Los Angeles Chargers: 10-6

Denver Broncos: 6-10

Oakland Raiders: 6-10

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Denver Broncos

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Last Year: 6-10 (7.4 Pythagorean wins)

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Projections:

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Scouting Wins: 7.79

DVOA Wins: 6.2

FPI Wins: 7

Market Expected Wins: 6.93

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Implied Pythag: 45.54%

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I’m worried about the Denver Broncos. John Elway is on an awful run with quarterbacks, and it looks like he’s just extended it. He brought in Joe Flacco and Drew Lock, a pair of quarterbacks with big bright flashing warning signs. I’m also concerned about the hiring of new coach Vic Fangio. Previous coach Vance Joseph was an absolute disaster. He had to go. My concern about bringing in Fangio is that he’s not a great fit for the Broncos’ defense. The existing talent doesn’t mesh with his scheme at all. In the long run, I figure he’ll be a competent leader. In the short run, I expect some setbacks as players try to adapt to unfamiliar responsibilities.

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The biggest problem the Broncos face is Elway’s love of tall incompetent quarterbacks. Case in point, the no-longer-elite Joe Flacco:

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2016: 4,317 yards, 20 TD, 15 INT, 5.8 NY/P, -14.6% DVOA, -134 DYAR

2017: 3,141 yards, 18 TD, 13 INT, 5.2 NY/P, -19.3% DVOA, -277 DYAR

2018: 2,465 yards, 12 TD, 6 INT, 6.1 NY/P, 5.4% DVOA, 442 DYAR (in nine games)

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It’s ironic that Flacco was finally benched when he was having his best season in years. The fact remains that Flacco is no longer a trustworthy NFL quarterback. He’s a stopgap at best. The Broncos drafted their quarterback of the future in the second round. Alas, that’s another problem:

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Drew Lock: DO. NOT. DRAFT. The data says he’s the third-best quarterback prospect in the draft. My eyes say “NO!” I couldn’t stand watching him force throws to well covered receivers. Yes, his arm is great. He just lacks the decision-making skills to go along with it. His accuracy is suspect, especially when pressured. Even if he escapes the pressure, his footwork falls apart outside of the pocket.

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The problem is that he looks the part. He has the desired size (6-4) and frame. When things are going well, he’s the prototypical NFL quarterback. He just doesn’t adjust too well when things go wrong. Coaching and experience can help with that, but my brain is screaming at me that he doesn’t have it. Haskins has it. Murray has it in spades. Lock is a trap.

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It blows my mind to see mock drafts with Lock ahead of Haskins. There are rumors that the Giants want Lock. If that’s true, the silver lining is that we’ll finally see Gettleman’s end on the horizon.

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Let me note that Lock does have some good skills. When the play calls are working, he executes them flawlessly. He has a quick release and can move around the pocket to avoid pressure. I understand why front offices are seduced by Lock. Heck, my #’s have him as the #3QB. I don’t care. You can’t count on the coaching staff to beat the defense. The quarterback has to bring more to the table than the ability to execute if little goes wrong. I’m trusting my lying eyes here. Hard pass.

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Elway clearly disagreed. The Broncos traded a second, a fourth, and a sixth round pick to take Lock. They’ll regret it.

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Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders is coming back from an Achilles tear. His recovery is much further along than was expected. Sanders has had a tough run under some terrible quarterback play:

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2016: 79 receptions, 1,032 yards, +2.4 +/-, -3.3% DVOA, 103 DYAR

2017: 47 receptions, 555 yards, -7.1 +/-, -18.2% DVOA, -40 DYAR (12 games)

2018: 71 receptions, 868 yards, +6.8 +/-, 2.0% DVOA, 113 DYAR (12 games)

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He had a pretty good rapport with departed quarterback Case Keenum. Keenum couldn’t really take advantage of Sanders’ skills as a deep threat. Flacco can throw far. His accuracy is hit or miss.

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2018 second-round pick Courtland Sutton showed flashes of talent. The thing about flashes is that they aren’t sustained. Case in point:

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2018: 42 receptions, 704 yards, -5.9 +/-, 1.3% DVOA, 95 DYAR

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The dude dropped nine balls last season. Rookie learning curve aside, that’s how you convince your quarterback not to trust you. At least he now has a second chance to make a first impression.

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2018 fourth-round pick DaeShawn Hamilton is an overmatched slot receiver:

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2018: 30 receptions, 243 yards, -0.9 +/-, -18.1% DVOA, -20 DYAR (14 games)

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#4WR Tim Patrick didn’t impress when given the opportunity last season (-17.6% DVOA, -16 DYAR). Hamilton lacks NFL athleticism and speed. He has good hands, though. Patrick brings almost nothing to the table.

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2015 third-round pick tight end Jeff Heuerman has put up -48 DYAR over the past three seasons. 2017 fifth-round pick Jake Butt has been unable to stay healthy. Enter rookie first-round pick Noah Fant:

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Noah Fant: Iowa’s other elite tight end. He’s more athletic than T.J. Hockenson. His speed makes him more of a midrange-to-deep threat. He isn’t as physical or as polished as Hockenson, but I suspect some teams have Fant above Hockenson on their draft boards due to his potentially higher ceiling.

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Tight ends have a steep learning curve moving to the NFL. It might be a while before we see what Fant is capable of.

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2018 undrafted free-agent running back Phillip Lindsay was a revelation:

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2018: 239 squid, 1,278 yards, 11.9% DVOA, 212 DYAR (15 games)

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It was a needed boost for a team up against the salary cap. 2018 third-round pick Royce Freeman is getting a mulligan on his rookie season due to an ankle injury. The onus is on him to show that he’s worthy of splitting time with Lindsay.

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Left tackle 2017 first-round pick Garett Bolles looks overmatched. He finished 30th in my positional rankings last season. At some point he needs to either learn how to hold his own or the Broncos need to move him to an easier position.

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Rookie second-round pick Dalton Risner is taking over at left guard:

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Dalton Risner: Strong but slow. I trust him to hold his block once he gets his hands on you. He projects as a right tackle in the NFL. At worst, he has the skills to play guard. There’s an outside shot that he continues to develop and could handle left tackle in a few years. I might snag him at the tail end of round one if there’s been a rush on offensive linemen.

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I love Risner’s versatility. I expect it to come in handy for the Broncos.

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2016 fifth-round pick Connor McGovern has played both center and guard. He’ll be asked to play center for the Broncos this season. I haven’t been impressed with his play at either position.

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Ronald Leary did a decent job at left guard in limited usage last season. He’s being moved over to right guard. I’m cautiously optimistic. He’s had problems staying healthy, landing on IR each of the past two years.

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Denver signed Ja’Wuan James to take over at right tackle. I thought he was mediocre last season.

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This isn’t an inspiring offensive line. Or receiver corps. Or quarterback crew. Oh dear.

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Previously, the Broncos’ defensive line was tasked with holding their positions while leaving the pass rush to outside linebackers Von Miller (14.5 sacks, 47 hits+hurres) and Bradley Chubb (12 sacks, 46 hits+hurries). I can’t stress enough how good Chubb’s rookie season was. If I were to nitpick I’d say he could react a bit faster against the run. As for Miller, he’s a monster attacking the line of scrimmage. But… in Fangio’s system he has significantly more coverage responsibilities. Will Fangio let Miller do what he does best? Or will he have his players adapt to his system? We’ll see.

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Back to the defensive line. Defensive ends Derek Wolfe and 2016 second-round pick Adam Gotsis are returning. Nose tackle Domata Peko was let go. Shelby Harris was promoted in his place. Harris looks like an improvement over Peko. 2017 second-round pick DeMarcus Walk has shown us little. He’ll provide depth along with rookie third-round pick Dre’mont Jones:

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Dre’mont Jones: I’ve never said this before, but I think Jones was more interested in beating his man than stopping the play. I guess that’s not a fair criticism, as Jones was very good at diagnosing what he needed to do. Still, his first instinct on the snap was to beat his man, and only then to track the ball. He’s going to need to bulk up a bit, as he is a tad undersized. I’d be happy to grab him in the second round.

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I thought Jones was a nice value pick for Denver.

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Von Miller and Bradley Chubb will get the bulk of the snaps at outside linebacker. The depth behind them is thin. Inside, Todd Davis will pair with 2018 fourth-round pick Josey Jewell. Jewell is a pretty good fit for the new scheme. He played well last season and should do even better this year. Davis was a weak link in an otherwise-solid defense. If he doesn’t thrive in the new system, look for Denver to draft his replacement next season.

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Denver is experimenting with a variety of defensive backfield configurations. Look for recent addition Bryce Callahan to start in the slot. He knows Fangio’s system quite well from his time in Chicago.

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Cornerback Chris Harris has been versatile, playing inside or outside depending on what the Broncos needed. Look for him to play mostly outside this season. He’s no longer the elite pro he once was, but he should still be a solid contributor.

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2016 third-round pick Justin Simmons looks like he’ll start at free safety. His production has lagged behind his talent. Perhaps the new scheme will provide a breakthrough for him. He was quite a bit better in 2017.

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Free-agent pickup Kareem Jackson looks like he’ll play at strong safety. He’s also available to play cornerback as needed.

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Will Parks, Su’a Cravens, and 2018 third-round pick Isaac Yiadom are competing for the other starting job. Yiadom struggled last season, as rookies do. Parks has better film than Cravens. I guess it will come down to whoever looks most impressive in practice.

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Kicker Brandon McManus has been consistent. His lack of range limits him to being no better than average. Punter Coby Wadman was terrible last season. If Denver had cap space, he might be out of a job. The return games were terrible. There was plenty of blame to go around, from the poor blocking to the overmatched return men. Regression to the mean is the hope here. The problem is that Denver’s special teams have been consistently awful. I have no idea why.

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Denver has too good a defense to be terrible. Von Miller and Bradley Chubb will keep them in games even if the offense struggles. And the offense will struggle. Flacco will make Elway look bad. The receiver corps may grow to miss Keenum. The good news is this: Denver plays a last-place schedule. They’ll have their fair share of opportunities to snag wins against other flawed teams. 6-10.

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Kansas City Chiefs

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Last Year: 12-4 (11.0 Pythagorean wins)

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Projections:

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Scouting Wins: 11.03

DVOA Wins: 9.3

FPI Wins: 10.3

Market Expected Wins: 10.48

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Implied Pythag: 66.27%

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The Patriots have two Super Bowl wins that relied on coin flips. The Atlanta Falcons would love to have had a shot to have the ball in overtime. Kansas City felt the same way last year. A coin flip is not a fair way to start a sudden death period of football, even with a touchdown required to win. A bidding system where each team bid closer and closer to their own goal line would be fair, so long as it was worth being on defense if the offense would start on the half-yard line. A bidding system would be fairly challenging for coaches at first, but that’s worth it for removing a random factor from giving a team a huge edge after 60 minutes of play.

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There’s one other rule that I would change. If two teams were tied in the playoff standings and they only played each other once, I would award home field advantage to whichever team was on the road when they played originally. Right now a win at home counts as 1+ wins for tiebreak purposes. That’s rather unfair. Awarding the tiebreak edge to the road team might seem odd, but it’s significantly more equitable.

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Of course, none of this matters. The rules are the rules. For the second year in a row, the Chiefs will visit New England. The results of that game will go a long way towards determining home field advantage in the AFC. For now, the Chiefs have to focus on what they can control.

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Most of the above projections are in a tight range. The exception is the DVOA projection. DVOA expects the Chiefs’ offense to fall back from the stratosphere. It’s difficult to do what Patrick Mahomes did two years in a row:

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2018: 5,097 yards, 50 TD, 12 INT, 8.1 NY/P, 39.9% DVOA. 2,070 DYAR

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Dan Marino set multiple NFL records in 1984, averaging 8.60 NY/A. The closest he came to that in the rest of his Hall of Fame career was 7.23 in 1986. The Dolphins went 8-8 that season. So, will Mahomes regress a full yard-per-attempt? Or might he be able to sustain his elite rate of play? That’ll come down to his receiver corps.

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2016 fifth-round pick Tyreek Hill has been a monster on and off the field:

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2017: 75 receptions, 1,183 yards, +10.0 +/-, 23.6% DVOA, 304 DYAR (in 15 games)

2018: 87 receptions, 1,479 yardsm +8.3 +/-, 23.8% DVOA, 387 DYAR

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He managed to dodge a suspension and will be available week one.

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Sammy Watkins has seen his role change:

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2017: 39 receptions, 593 yards, +3.4 +/-, 24.1% DVOA, 216 DYAR (in 15 games)

2018: 40 receptions, 519 yards, +3.8 +/-, 24.1% DVOA, 161 DYAR (in 10 games)

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He’s not working as far downfield. His yards-per-catch has dropped, while his catch rate jumped from 56% in LA in 2017 to 73% last year. The problem with injuries has remained, though, and that will be something to watch this season.

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2016 fourth-round pick Demarcus Robinson stepped up in Watkins’ absence:

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2018: 22 receptions, 288 yards, +0.6 +/-, 13.5% DVOA, 68 DYAR

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He’s a fine option as the #3 or #4WR, depending on how the Chiefs view rookie second-round pick Mecole Hardman. Hardman has blazing speed (4.33-40). He’s the same size as Hill, and may be trained as his understudy.

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Tight end Travis Kelce is effectively another slot receiver:

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2016: 85 receptions, 1,125 yards, +4.8 +/-, 26.0% DVOA, 261 DYAR

2017: 83 receptions, 1,038 yards, +7.4 +/-, 17.0% DVOA, 197 DYAR (in 15 games)

2018: 103 receptions, 1,336 yards, +5.0 +/-, 11.5% DVOA, 196 DYAR

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I’m trying to figure out what to make of his persistent drop in DVOA. It might be a matter of defensive attention, although defenses had their hands full last season. I thought it might be an issue with drops, but he had eight in 2016, seven in 2017, and six last season despite more targets. The worry is that he’s becoming less explosive, but the film doesn’t bear that out. I suppose he’s a highly productive receiver no matter how you slice it.

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There was some concern that the loss of Kareem Hunt was partially responsible for the Chiefs’ failed playoff run. Let’s look at his production last season and that of his backup (and new #1RB) Damien Williams. Hunt:

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2018: 216 squid, 1,038 yards, 20.5% DVOA, 332 DYAR

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Williams:

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2018: 74 squid, 481 yards, 28.8% DVOA, 164 DYAR

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Hunt was amazing in a sizable sample. Williams was even better over roughly 1/3rd the plays. It’s hard to credit Hunt when the likelihood is that most of the value is being created by the offensive scheme and the surrounding cast. That’s good news for LeSean McCoy, who has been awful lately:

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2018: 207 squid, 752 yards, -25.8% DVOA, -135 DYAR (in 14 games)

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He started to decline in 2017 (-8.9% DVOA, 22 DYAR). He turned 31 in July. I’m concerned that he no longer has the explosiveness to be an effective NFL player. The Chiefs disagree. We’ll just have to wait and see.

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Left tackle Eric Fisher made the Pro Bowl last season. I graded him as slightly above-average. I guess it’s a nice accomplishment for the 2013 first-overall pick.

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Andre Wylie is moving from right guard to left guard. Like Fisher, I graded him slightly above-average.

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Center Austin Reiter made four starts last season. He was mediocre in them. That was enough to earn him the starting job.

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Right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif is returning from a broken leg. Like Reiter, he was mediocre last season.

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Right tackle Mitchell Schwartz was slightly above-average. That was good enough for an All-Pro nod. His All-Pro and the Pro Bowl trip for Fisher aside, this was not an impressive offensive line last season. Mahomes’s mobility mitigated a lot of missed blocks. I’d be concerned that we won’t see such escapability continue.

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The Chiefs have another problem. They’re switching over from a 3-4 to a 4-3. Alex Bailey (six sacks, 29 hits+hurries), Dee Ford (13 sacks, 67 hits+hurries), and Justin Houston (nine sacks, 31 hits+hurries) have all departed. That’s 28 of the 52 sacks the Chiefs recorded last season gone. Newcomers Frank Clark (13 sacks, 47 hits+hurries) and Alex Okafor (four sacks, 32 hits+hurries) will have their work cut out for them. They’ll be the new starting defensive ends. 2017 second-round pick Tanoh Kpassagnon and 2018 second-round pick Breeland Speaks will provide depth. We haven’t seen much from Kpassagnon. What we’ve seen from Speaks is unimpressive. Perhaps both will benefit from the new scheme.

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2016 second-round pick Chris Jones (15.5 sacks, 50 hits+hurries) returns at defensive tackle. He’ll start alongside 2018 third-round pick Derrick Nnadi. Nnadi is mostly a run-stuffer who hasn’t yet developed much of a pass rush. Rookie third-round pick Khalen Saunders will join Justin Hamilton and Xavier Williams in providing depth.

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Despite a solid pass rush, the Chiefs’ defense wasn’t very good last year (26th in DVOA). The poor linebacker corps deserves the bulk of the blame. Anthony Hitchens and Reggie Ragland were both awful. The switch to a 4-3 isn’t going to hide any of their weaknesses. Damien Wilson was decent in Dallas last season. That makes him the star of the unit. Former Jet Darron Lee will provide depth. Good luck with that, Kansas City.

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The secondary is in a state of flux. Bashaud Breeland has been brought in to play on the outside. He was slowed by a foot injury last season while playing in the slot. I’m not sure what to expect from him this season.

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#1CB (on the depth chart) Kendall Fuller struggled last season. He plays both outside and in the slot.

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Charvarius Ward played his way into the starting lineup last season. I feel like it must have been awarded by default, as his numbers were awful.

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D’Montre Wade is listed as the #4CB. That’s not a good sign for the defense.

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There is some good news. The Chiefs have brought in our favorite honey badger. Mathieu was solid in Houston last season. He’ll play alongside Daniel Sorensen. Sorensen missed the first half of last season with a tibia fracture. If he’s 100%, this will be a solid pairing. The defense sorely needed one.

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The Chiefs’ special teams have been a consistent strength. Kicker Harrison Baker is solid. Ditto for punter Dustin Colquitt. The coverage units are excellent. Tyreek Hill is an excellent punt returner. The kick return unit is very well coached. There are no weak links here.

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The Chiefs have to focus on the Chargers before they can worry about the Patriots. The Chiefs play the Chargers in Mexico City in November. They close the season with the rematch at Arrowhead. That’s a nice edge for the Chiefs. The bad news is they get the Patriots in Foxboro. So much for repeating as the #1 seed. The defense looks terrible. Offense and special teams should be enough to carry the Chiefs in the regular season. The playoffs will be another matter. 11-5.

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Los Angeles Chargers

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Last Year: 12-4 (10.6 Pythagorean wins)

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Projections:

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Scouting Wins: 11.54

DVOA Wins: 10.2

FPI Wins: 8.8

Market Expected Wins: 9.85

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Implied Pythag: 60.81%

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ESPN’s FPI is skeptical. The scouts are optimistic. What’s next for the Chargers? I watched them lose to the Patriots, getting absolutely shredded for 41 points. DVOA credited them with the eighth-best defense in the NFL. It didn’t seem to matter in the big games. They faced Kansas City twice, the Rams, the Patriots, and the Steelers last season. In those games they gave up a combined 172 points. In person, they looked overmatched vs. the Patriots. In their defense, the defense had been ravaged by injuries. When healthy, they can put out a solid lineup. First, let’s cover the offense. We begin with Old Man Rivers:

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2015: 4,792 yards, 27 TD, 13 INT, 6.4 NY/P, 7.8% DVOA, 848 DYAR

2016: 4,386 yards, 33 TD, 21 INT, 6.8 NY/P, 1.4% DVOA, 499 DYAR

2017: 4,515 yards, 28 TD, 10 INT, 7.5 NY/P, 26.1% DVOA, 1,402 DYAR

2018: 4,308 yards, 32 TD, 12 INT, 7.6 NY/P, 27.2% DVOA, 1,261 DYAR

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Rivers looked like he was fading a few years ago, but he has rallied. He’ll turn 38 in November. I have no idea how much he has left in the tank. The Chargers have had multiple chances to make Super Bowl runs with Rivers. The closest they came was a 21-12 loss in the AFC Championship game in 2007. I feel like the window has to be closing fast, even with the recent resurgence. He may have to try to get back without 2015 first-round pick Melvin Gordon:

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2018: 241 squid, 1,375 yards, 16.6% DVOA, 282 DYAR (12 games)

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Do the Chargers need Gordon? Backup Austin Ekeler:

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2018: 159 squid, 958 yards, 13.4% DVOA, 190 DYAR (14 games)

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That’s not a huge dropoff. I’ll add that Gordon has been notably poor in pass protection, despite having the size and frame that coaches look for. Will we see Gordon sign? Will it even matter? I’m expecting the holdout to last into the regular season. 2018 seventh-round pick Justin Jackson (9.3% DVOA, 43 DYAR) would back up Ekeler if Gordon’s unavailable. Yeah, there’s a slight hit without Gordon. Not enough that the Chargers should fold, though.

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Wide receiver Keenan Allen had another strong season in Los Angeles:

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2017: 102 receptions, 1,393 yards, +8.3 +/-, 16.5% DVOA, 378 DYAR

2018: 97 receptions, 1,196 yards, +7.2 +/-, 18.1% DVOA, 320 DYAR

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2017 first-round pick Mike Williams bounced back after a terrible rookie season (-18.0% DVOA, -10 DYAR):

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2018: 43 receptions, 664 yards, +4.9 +/-, 39.2% DVOA, 262 DYAR

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Williams was dominant at times last season. Expect to see him crack 1,000+ receiving yards this year.

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#3WR Travis Benjamin is a pure deep threat. He’s seen his production drop each of the past three seasons. I’m not expecting him to stretch defenses until he shows that last year (-11.7% DVOA) was a fluke.

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#4WR Geremy Davis is a special teams player. The Chargers have two elite wide receivers, and then have to trust their tight ends and running backs.

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#1TE 2016 second-round pick Hunter Henry missed last season with a knee injury. If he’s fully healthy, he’s a monster:

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2016: 36 receptions. 478 yards, +3.6 +/-, 33.4% DVOA, 148 DYAR (15 games)

2017: 45 receptions, 579 yards, +5.8 +/-, 32.3% DVOA, 165 DYAR (14 games)

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If he stays healthy, he’ll be the true #3WR. Backup Virgil Green is a huge step down.

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Left tackle Russell Okung has begun to decline. He finished 15th in my positional rankings. That was far and away the best result on the line:

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Left guard Dan Feeney: 34th (reminder: there are only 32 teams in the NFL)

Center Mike Pouncey: 23rd

Right guard Michael Schofield: 25th

Right tackle Sam Tevi: 30th

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Philip Rivers did an amazing job under very difficult conditions. Rookie third-round pick Trey Pipkins is making a big jump from Sioux Falls. I didn’t have him in my top 300. Tangentially related, I’ve been to Sioux Falls. Moving right along…

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Defensive end Joey Bosa had 5.5 sacks (16 hits+hurries) in seven games last season. The defense would benefit greatly from him staying healthy and on the field. So would fellow DE Melvin Ingram (seven sacks, 53 hits+hurries). 2017 seventh-round pick Isaac Rochelle did a surprisingly good job in relief (five sacks, 18 hits+hurries). Rochelle was also solid against the run. This is a decent group if everyone is available.

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The defensive tackle crew (Brandon Mebane, Justin Jones, Damion Square) returns, save for Darius Philon. Philon will be replaced by rookie first-round pick Jerry Tillery:

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Jerry Tillery: Looks the part. Desired size and musculature. Attacks well when close to the ball. Slow reaction time off the snap. Surprisingly poor technique. Normally, this is the point where I would talk about how much upside Tillery has, with better coaching improving his game. I don’t think that’s the issue here. I don’t think Tillery has great football instincts and that’s not something easily fixed. He might get stronger, but I don’t see him getting much smarter (in terms of reading and reacting to plays). I’d pass on Tillery.

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2018 third-round pick Jones will eventually be paired with Tillery, but for now look for Mebane to start.

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I love the addition of linebacker Thomas Davis. He’ll pair with 2015 second-round pick Denzel Perryman and 2018 second-round pick Uchenna Nwosu. Nwosu is a great athlete who’s still picking up the finer points of the game. Perryman’s greatest challenge is staying healthy. He’s never played a complete season and missed 16 games over the past two years. He has excellent range when healthy. As for Davis, he’s a complete player. 2018 fourth-round pick Kyzir White and rookie fourth-round pick Drue Tranquill will provide depth. Tranquill is a converted safety coming back from multiple ACL tears. I was not impressed with him:

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Drue Tranquill: I’m not really sure why I am giving Tranquill a writeup. He doesn’t have the size, strength, or athleticism to move the needle. Day three pick. His teammate Te’Von Coney is a better prospect. I’m embarrassed for wasting your time.

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The Chargers’ secondary has been consistently solid. Cornerbacks Casey Heyward, Michael Davis, and nickelback Desmond King all put up good numbers. King snagged three interceptions as well. Safety Adrian Phillips had incredible coverage results. 2018 first-round pick Derwin James excelled as well. He’s out with a foot injury and should return early in the season. 2017 fourth-round pick Rayshawn Jenkins has paid his dues on special teams and is ready to join the starting lineup in James’ absence. I should note that the Chargers play a base nickel, and sometimes a base dime. They sell out against the pass, which probably is the correct game theory decision.

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I don’t know why the Chargers always have terrible kicking specialists, but they do. It has been this way for years. Ty Long is competing with Tyler Newsome for the punting job. Mike Badgley has the kicking job. We’ll see if he can finally break the “curse.” At least Desmond King is a quality return man, especially on punts. Speaking of, the Chargers’ punt coverage is another issue for them to solve. Good luck!

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The Chargers get the Dolphins and Steelers while the Chiefs get the Patriots and Ravens. Advantage: Chargers. The Chargers’ home game vs. the Chiefs will be played in Mexico City. Advantage: Chiefs. Overall, I’d rather be the Chargers, though. I’m wondering if the Chargers’ rotten injury luck is just that, or if something is off in their training. My expectation is that the game in Arrowhead will decide the division, and that the Chargers will be in worse shape at that point. 10-6 and another wildcard berth.

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Oakland Raiders

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Last Year: 4-12 (3.7 Pythagorean wins)

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Projections:

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Scouting Wins: 4.92

DVOA Wins: 6.6

FPI Wins: 6.5

Market Expected Wins: 5.92

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Implied Pythag: 38.73%

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It’s not that the Raiders went 4-12 last year. It’s that they were somewhat lucky to do so. They were truly awful on both sides of the ball. The scouts loathe the roster. Head coach Jon Gruden has enviable job security, so he can build the team as he sees fit. One question he has to answer is whether or not Derek Carr is his quarterback of the future:

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2016: 3,937 yards, 28 TD, 6 INT, 6.7 NY/P, 19.8% DVOA, 1,125 DYAR (in 15 games)

2017: 3,496 yards, 22 TD, 13 IND, 6.6 NY/P, 9.7% DVOA, 674 DYAR (in 15 games)

2018: 4,049 yards, 19 TD, 10 INT, 6.3 NY/P, -1.0% DVOA, 400 DYAR

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That’s a bad trend. What makes it worse is that the game film backs up what we’re seeing in the stats. Carr has lost the ability to make plays once the play breaks down at all. It’s a little odd to see, but once you notice it you can’t stop looking for it. Playing quarterback at an NFL level requires you to make quick decisions in complex situations. Carr has regressed badly in that capacity. He’ll (presumably) have much better weapons this season, so if he continues his downward trend, this is likely his last season as a starting quarterback.

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Antonio Brown is currently listed as the Raiders #1WR. I can’t foresee any reason why he wouldn’t be ready to go week one, so let’s look at what he brings to the Raiders:

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2016: 106 receptions, 1,284 yards, +8.1 +/-, 11.1% DVOA, 295 DYAR ((15 games)

2017: 101 receptions, 1,533 yards, +12.0 +/-, 20.1% DVOA, 430 DYAR (14 games)

2018: 104 receptions, 1,297 yards, -4.2 +/-, 1.7% DVOA, 191 DYAR (15 games)

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2018’s results aren’t bad for most wide receivers, but for Brown they represented a catastrophic drop from his peak. Additionally, he effectively quit on Pittsburgh last season, and has been fighting with both the NFL and the NFLPA over the new helmet rules. The drama is drawing attention, but the real issue is that he turned 31 in July and isn’t as explosive as he was at his peak. The Raiders paid peak prices for past performance.

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The Raiders filled their #2WR job in free agency, as Tyrell Williams is coming over from the Chargers:

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2016: 69 receptions, 1,059 yards, +0.4 +/-, 9.0% DVOA, 201 DYAR

2017: 43 receptions, 728 yards, +2.2 +/-, 15.4% DVOA, 150 DYAR

2018: 41 receptions, 653 yards, +1.2 +/-, 12.3% DVOA, 128 DYAR

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Williams wasn’t one of Rivers’ favorite targets. He’s a natural deep-threat in an offense that hasn’t been about that. We’ll have to wait and see if Carr can get the most out of Williams.

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Rookie fifth-round pick Hunter Renfrow looks to have won the slot job:

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As for Renfrow, his hands are fantastic, but will he be able to get open in the NFL? His measurables point to a day three pick. His college production says he’s a day one redzone threat. Apparently, a lot of teams are hoping Renfrow falls to them, so perhaps he too will be a late day-two flyer.

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Renfrow had a lot of pre-draft buzz and might end up being a steal for the Raiders.

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Backup J.J. Nelson is another speedster with few other skills to recommend him.

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Ryan Grant has had a wild ride:

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2016: 9 receptions, 76 yards, -2.9 +/-, -34.9% DVOA, -35 DYAR

2017: 45 receptions, 573 yards, +4.1 +/-, 16.7% DVOA, 146 DYAR

2018: 35 receptions, 334 yards, 0.3 +/-, -9.8% DVOA, 12 DYAR

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He did nothing for the Redskins in 2016. Broke out in Washington in 2017. Indianapolis signed him and hoped for a repeat performance. Grant failed to deliver. Now he’s in Oakland on a budget deal. What will they get out of him? Most likely a below-average performance.

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#1TE Darren Waller has had trouble staying on the field (marijuana). Over the past two seasons, he’s produced 5 DYAR (-4.2% DVOA). There’s a lot of untapped potential here. I hope it doesn’t go up in smoke.

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Rookie fourth-round pick tight end Foster Moreau is a downright magnificent blocker. His receiving abilities are suspect at best, though.

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Rookie first-round pick Josh Jacobs is taking over the Raiders’ running game:

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Josh Jacobs: He can attack the line of scrimmage, bounce it outside, and run routes for you. He’s comfortable waiting for his blocks to line up before accelerating. He attacked tacklers to get the extra yard. He has the size and power to handle pass protection in the backfield, but we haven’t seen him do it enough to know how effective he is at it. One weird thing: I’d swear he was faster returning kicks than he was as a running back after he broke into the open field. I guess it’s a matter of him being careful to look for potential tacklers. It was a notable enough difference that I think it’s something coaches should work on with him. I think Jacobs is a fine pickup early in the second round.

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#2RB Muscle Hamster (Doug Martin) has produced -171 DYAR in the last three years. The job is yours, Mr. Jacobs.

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2018 first-round pick left guard Kolton Miller got demolished last season, tying for the league lead in sacks allowed. The worst part is the person he was tied with was right tackle Brandon Parker. Parker has been moved to the bench in favor of free-agent pickup Trent Brown. Brown did a quality job at left tackle in New England last season. For that, he was rewarded with the largest deal for an offensive lineman in the NFL. Reminder: Jon Gruden was given a ten-year, $100M guaranteed contract.

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Left guard Richie Incognito is currently suspended for two weeks. He hasn’t played since 2017 and I’m not sure what level of play to expect from him. Budget free-agent pickup Jonathan Cooper will likely start in his place.

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Center Rodney Hudson finished first overall in my positional rankings. He’s been fantastic for years and is likely the best center in the NFL.

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Right guard Gabe Jackson finished 30th in my positional rankings last season. He was playing through multiple injuries. He’s shown he can be a dominant player when healthy. I’m more concerned with the fact that the Raiders didn’t have anyone better on their bench than a hobbled starter.

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Between Jackson getting healthy and Trent Brown, the right side of the line should be much improved this season. That just leaves the disaster that is Kolton Miller and whatever the Raiders have at left guard. The issue with Miller is he’s lean in places where he needs to be “thicc.” I’m sure he’ll be better prepared for the NFL challenge this season. Will that be enough? I’m skeptical.

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It’s hard to overstate just how poor Oakland’s pass rush was last season. They managed only 13 sacks on the season. That’s abominable. 2018 fifth-round pick defensive tackle Maurice Hurst had four, but it was a fluke (only seven hits+hurries). 2018 third-round pick defensive end Arden Key had 40 hits+hurries, but only one sack. Rookie first-round pick Clelin Ferrell will try and bring some heat:

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Clelin Ferrell: I love him for the first 3.5 seconds or so. He’s great off the snap with a solid pass-rush repertoire. Excellent power. He’s solid at chasing down the quarterback. However, if the play continues, he slows down. I’m not sure if it’s a mental thing where he’s less sure of what he should be doing. He’s not a great open-field tackler when he doesn’t already have a clear lane of pursuit. Additionally, his game stamina was a clear problem and something he’ll need to work on. I like Ferrell and see him as a solid early first-round pick. I don’t think he’s close to the two players listed above him (Nick Bosa, Josh Allen).

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I should note that his combine wasn’t great. That, plus the fact that offenses weren’t able to key on him at Clemson makes his draft profile curiously suspect. For the record, SackSEER hates him.

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Hrm. Ferrell will start across from free-agent pickup defensive end Josh Mauro. Mauro managed one sack and five hits+hurries last season in limited usage. Keep your expectations low for him.

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Arden Key, Benson Mayowa, and rookie fourth-round pick Maxx Crosby will provide depth. Crosby was very productive at Eastern Michigan.

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Justin Ellis and Jonathan Hankins will start at defensive tackle. Ellis missed most of last season with a foot injury. Hankins is a run-stuffer, and not much of one at that. Maurice Hurst is the most interesting prospect, if he can stay on the field. He was a medical red flag due to a heart issue and fell badly in the draft despite having a round one grade. 2018 second-round pick P.J. Hall played quite well despite making the jump from Sam Houston State. It might not be long before both starters are supplanted.

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The linebacker corps is a major issue. Middle linebacker Vontaze Burfict is a flag-magnet with few redeeming features. He’s poor in coverage and an awful tackler. He’ll be flanked by Tahir Whitehead and Brandon Marshall. Whitehead did his best last season. It’s not his fault that his best isn’t all that good. Marshall ran out of gas a few years ago. He still knows how to play good football. It’s just hard for his body to keep up. As you might imagine, the depth here isn’t great.

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2017 first-round pick cornerback Gareon Conley did a yeoman’s job given the lack of a pass rush. Daryl Worley struggled. I’ll cut him some slack given the amount of time opposing quarterbacks had to throw.

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2018 fourth-round pick Nick Nelson is competing with free-agent pickup Nevin Lawson for the nickel job. Nelson will get first dibs while Lawson serves a PED suspension.

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Rookie second-round pick Trayvon Mullen will be part of the dime defense:

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Trayvon Mullen: Grade: Incomplete. Reason: Teams never threw at him. He has the size and speed you are looking for in a #1CB. I could see him as the second cornerback off the board. I could see him fall to day two. I have no idea what to make of him. From what I could tell, he was very good, but not as good as the players I have listed above him.

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Mullen was dominant at Clemson and might have the highest ceiling of any cornerback in his draft class.

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2016 first-round pick Karl Joseph has failed to live up to his draft billing. Enter rookie first-round pick Jonathan Abram:

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Johnathan Abram: He’s too small to be a weakside linebacker, but that’s the natural fit for his skill-set. He’ll be a box-safety and nickel linebacker. I admire his aggressiveness and short-coverage skills. I wouldn’t want to trust his range in deep coverage. Late day two pick for me.

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The Raiders clearly valued him more than I did. It’ll be a training camp battle between the two physical safeties.

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Free-agent pickup LaMarcus Joyner will start at free safety. Joyner had a down year with the Rams last season. The Raiders are hoping it was just a fluke, as he’s been a playmaker in the past.

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The Raiders’ punting unit will be better than it was last season. Rookie fifth-round pick Johnny Townsend failed miserably last season. He’s been replaced by A.J. Cole. Cole was solid at North Carolina State. Kicker Daniel Carlson was run out of Minnesota. Hopefully, he’ll fare better in Oakland. The poor coverage units (for both kicks and punts) are likely still a problem. Dwayne Harris will be back returning kicks and punts. He’s solid returning punts, average on kickoffs.

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It’s difficult to have any kind of confidence in the Raiders. Derek Carr looks like he’s a shadow of the player he was before getting hurt. Antonio Brown can’t be trusted. Left tackle Kolton Miller is in over his head. The pass rush is anemic. The linebacker corps is awful. Finally, how much can you trust coach Gruden at this point? 5-11.

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AFC Playoffs:

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1. New England Patriots

2. Kansas City Chiefs

3. Cleveland Browns

4. Houston Texans

5. Los Angeles Chargers

6. Pittsburgh Steelers

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Wildcard Weekend:

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Los Angeles Chargers @ Houston Texans

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The Texans got waxed at home by the Colts last season. This year the Chargers get the honor. Chargers 31, Texans 17.

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Pittsburgh Steelers @ Cleveland Browns

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FirstEnergy Stadium (ugh, what a shitty name) is rocking. We see a changing of the guard as Mayfield dumps Roethlisberger. Browns 45, Steelers 31.

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Divisional Round:

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Los Angeles Chargers @ New England Patriots

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A final battle between two great old quarterbacks. Brady gets the best of Rivers yet again. Patriots 23, Chargers 17.

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Cleveland Browns @ Kansas City Chiefs

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The Chargers and Patriots gave us two great old quarterbacks. Browns-Chiefs gives us two great young ones. Homefield advantage is the difference here (plus the week of rest). Chiefs 38, Browns 34.

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AFC Championship Game:

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Little seems to change in the AFC. The Patriots return to their ninth(!) straight AFC Championship game. It’s a rematch with the Chiefs. Mahomes will get there someday, but not this day. Patriots 27, Chiefs 24.

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Super Bowl LIV

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New Orleans Saints vs. New England Patriots (In Miami at the Hard Rock)

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It’s a final showdown between two elite quarterbacks on their last legs. We were close to getting this matchup last year. The Patriots dynasty pulls ahead of the Steelers with a seventh Super Bowl Championship. Patriots 34, Saints 24.

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Well, those are the predictions. The season kicks off Thursday night in Chicago. I hope y’all enjoy it. I know I will (Jets losses excepted.)

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