2018 NFL primer: Who’s at the top?

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Tonight marks the end of the NFL’s absence in our lives and the beginning of countless Sundays wondering where the hell the whole day went. We’ve survived more than seven months without regular season NFL, and the Falcons vs. Eagles game should be a wonderful preview of the drama and intrigue to come. Let’s get into it, tier-style.

Disaster looming (Tier 10): Tampa Bay

In Tampa Bay, a disaster is brewing. A suspended Jameis Winston and a brutal schedule could leave the Buccaneers without a win heading into November. Head coach Dirk Koetter has a decent chance be the first coach to be fired (if Hue  Jackson doesn’t beat him to it).

Rookie QBs galore (Tier 9): NY Jets, Buffalo, Arizona

Ok, some of these teams may end up with less wins than the Bucs, but the Bucs are out of excuses.

Even though Nathan Peterman and Sam Bradford are officially the starting QBs for Buffalo and Arizona, respectively, rookies Josh Allen (BUF) and Josh Rosen (ARI) should debut soon enough. The rosters the teams have to work with are pretty awful, but the fan bases can still watch a 4-win season with hope that they’ve landed the next Hall of Fame quarterback.

Rookie QB Sam Darnold will start immediately for the Jets, but his team won’t fare much better.

Better than awful (Tier 8) : Indianapolis, San Francisco, Cleveland

The Colts are just one giant question mark, with star QB Andrew Luck finally set to start an NFL game. We aren’t so far removed from him dragging a terrible Indy team to the playoffs Aaron Rodgers-style in ‘14-’15, but it’ll still be a shocker if this team makes any noise as a winner.

The hype for the Jimmy G Niners has slowly grown quieter since newly acquired RB Jerick McKinnon was placed on IR with a torn ACL. Without McKinnon, there isn’t much skill-position talent to speak of. Meanwhile in Cleveland, there is some real talent brewing on both sides of the ball. An improved secondary features rookie CB Denzel Ward, free-agent signee CB Terrance Mitchell and trade acquisition CB Damarious Randall (from GB).

Irrelevant (Tier 7) : Miami, Oakland, Denver

These teams’ fan bases may have it the worst in the league for this season. There is no real hope to point to, such as a promising young QB prospect or even a decent chance at a top-five draft pick for next year. Just a lot of 7-9.

Problematic and irrelevant (Tier 6) : Washington, Dallas

Not only are these two NFC East-ers largely irrelevant for the upcoming NFL year, but their owners are also among the worst and biggest distractions in the league. Between Jerry Jones’ anthem stance and ignoring domestic violence, and Dan Snyder’s violation of Washington’s cheerleaders’ rights, it isn’t the best time to be a fan of one of these teams. New Washington QB Alex Smith won’t have even an average run game to balance with his aerial attack, and Cowboys’ QB Dak Prescott simply won’t have enough targets.

9 wins max (Tier 5) : Seattle, Detroit, NY Giants, Cincinnati

The Legion of Boom is no more, and Russell Wilson can’t do it all for Seattle. This will likely be a retooling year for the Seahawks.

The Lions remain the league’s best 9-7 candidate. QB Matthew Stafford is capable of having some elite games, but they come few and far between. Also, when was the last time we saw a Belichick disciple succeed as a head coach?

With some new blood at O-line, the Giants should perform better than last year’s disastrous 3-13 Ben McAdoo season. Even with a rapidly declining Eli Manning at quarterback, elite skill-position talent (WR Odell Beckham, RB Saquon Barkley) can win some games for New York single-handedly.

Head coach Marvin Lewis will enter his 16th year coaching the Bengals, all without a single playoff win. Not much else to say here.

Sneaky (Tier 4) : Ravens, Chiefs, Bears

Kansas City QB Patrick Mahomes may be the most intriguing watch of the season this year. If he can command an explosive offense, the Chiefs could secure a wild card and be feisty in the AFC playoffs.

The Ravens have a top-ten defense and a recovered Joe Flacco at quarterback. Even if Flacco can be just passable, Baltimore could be a scary team in January.

The Bears added one of the NFL’s best defenders in DE Khalil Mack to an already strong defense that features a stellar secondary. Mitch Trubisky should develop nicely in new Head coach Matt Nagy’s offense, and Chicago could win some games that no one expects them too.

Not fooling anyone (Tier 3) : Carolina, Houston, Tennessee

All of these teams could challenge for 10-11 wins, but when push comes to shove, it likely won’t be there. Don’t expect Houston QB Deshaun Watson to pick up exactly where he left off with last year’s amazing seven-game performance.

Panthers QB Cam Newton still can’t throw an accurate pass 7 yards out, and he still doesn’t have a receiver that can get open. Not convincing.

The Titans did have a decent offseason, adding RB Dion Lewis, CB Malcolm Butler and LB Rashaan Evans. Out of this tier they probably have the most potential to leap up, but they are not proven enough like the teams to follow.

Bad juju (Tier 2): Pittsburgh, Jacksonville, LA Chargers, Atlanta, Green Bay

Between injuries, lagging defensive units and more, these teams just have some bad juju and can’t really be serious conference favorites.

It does not seem like Mike Tomlin and the Steelers will ever figure out how to cover Gronk effectively, so unless another AFC foe knocks out the Patriots, Pittsburgh will probably not advance to the Super Bowl. Especially after LB Ryan Shazier’s devastating injury last season, the defense just has too many holes.

QB Aaron Rodgers and the Packers face similar problems. At his best (and healthiest), Rodgers has been able to will a poor defense and O-line to the playoffs, but his chances of getting through a loaded NFC by himself are negligible.

Jacksonville was a popular AFC favorite after the team’s strong performance in last year’s playoffs, but it just won’t happen for the Jaguars without any semblance of a passing game. With Marqise Lee on IR after a knee injury in the preseason, the Jags’ No. 1 WR is Keelan Cole. How will they move the ball?

In most other universes, Atlanta would be a strong team competing at the top of the NFC. And maybe the Falcons still will, but the defense doesn’t seem up to snuff, and bad juju remains from their Super Bowl loss and a 10-point effort in a weird loss against the Eagles last playoffs.

If not for season-ending injuries to TE Hunter Henry and CB Jason Verrett, the Chargers would likely be in tier 1. But those losses plus a unpredictable Philip Rivers place them squarely in tier 2. Don’t be shocked if they grab the No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the AFC but fail to make a deep playoff run.

1 SB team here, if not 2 (Tier 1) : Philadelphia, LA Rams, Minnesota, New Orleans, New England

Notice a pattern here? Four of these five teams are from the NFC, and for good reason.

The Eagles acquired DE Michael Bennett from the Seahawks to upgrade an already elite defense. Carson Wentz will be back soon enough, protected by a stellar offensive line that includes two All-Pros from ‘17 (Jason Kelce, Lane Johnson). Tough to point out a weakness.

Meanwhile, in LA, defensive coordinator Wade Phillips is having one of many evil laughs that he’ll enjoy over the season. The Rams were able to bring in three top-end defensive talents (DT Ndamukong Suh, CB Marcus Peters, CB Aqib Talib). With Sean McVay scheming open throws for Cal alum QB Jared Goff on the other side of the ball, this team could easily have a top-five offense and a top-five defense.

The same goes for the Vikings, if free-agent signing QB Kirk Cousins can click with new offensive coordinator John DeFilippo (QB coach from the Eagles). They will have lots to bond over, given all the skill-position talent in Minnesota (WRs Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, RB Dalvin Cook). But the perennial question for the men in purple still remains: can the O-Line hold up?

Guess what? The same probably goes for QB Drew Brees and the Saints too! New Orleans is basically running the same roster back again but with improvements from young studs like RB Alvin Kamara and FS Marcus Williams; they are in the conversation for a Super Bowl this season.

Rounding out tier 1 are the same old Brady-Belichick Patriots. New England’s roster does not match those of the top four NFC teams, but you don’t count Tom Brady out until you are more than certain. They won’t use Gronk; the defense will be atrocious; Brady will have no WRs — the tired storylines will repeat. But they remain favorites in a relatively weak AFC.

Dev Navani writes for Bear Bytes, the Daily Californian’s sports blog. Contact him at [email protected].