2018 NFL Season Preview: Division Favorites and Sleepers
by Lucas Garrison
With the 2018 NFL Season finally upon us, we break down the sleepers and the favorites in each division as we get ready for an action-packed year.
Favorite: Pittsburgh Steelers
As always, the Pittsburgh Steelers will be a premier team in the NFL and are favored to win their division. However, with the absence of Le’Veon Bell, it does raise some questions about the team. Bell has already been ruled out for Week 1’s game against the Cleveland Browns. The Steelers draft class this year was exceptional for the fact that they covered their needs on the offensive and defensive side of the ball. First round pick Terrell Edmunds will have time to develop behind top-ten safety Morgan Burnett. The Steelers addressed long-term potential issues at wide receiver and quarterback as well in the draft. They brought in receiver James Washington and quarterback Mason Rudolph from Oklahoma State. It should be very interesting to see how the Steelers perform this year in the wide-open AFC.
Sleeper: Baltimore Ravens
In past years, we’ve see the AFC North come down to the wire in a fight between the Steelers and Ravens. This year, it’s expected that the Ravens offensive unit will finally be able to complement their stellar defense. With the additions of receivers Michael Crabtree, John Brown, and Willie Snead, longtime quarterback Joe Flacco finally has some weapons. The rookies the Ravens drafted this year all have very good upside as well, such as wide receiver Jordan Lasley who was an honorable mention for the All PAC-12 Team at UCLA. However, their best addition this year was bringing in Heisman-winning quarterback Lamar Jackson from Louisville, who might have a chance to prove himself as early as this year if Flacco is to struggle.
Favorite: Jacksonville Jaguars
Coming off a year in which they were one step away from a Super Bowl appearance, the Jacksonville Jaguars are hungry for more. Obviously, the talk of this team is that defense. Jalen Ramsey, Calais Campbell, and AJ Bouye will definitely prove cause headaches for most teams that they face this year. And you can’t talk about the Jaguars without mentioning Leonard Fournette. Fournette is coming off a rookie year in which he rushed for 1040 yards and had 9 rushing touchdowns, so expect to see a lot of him this year. However, the Jags did lose receivers Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns to free agency and Marquise Lee to injury this year, taking away subpar quarterback Blake Bortles’ top weapons. This team undoubtedly has a top defense, but the big question will be whether or not their offense can put points on the board.
Sleepers: Houston Texans, Tennessee Titans, Indianapolis Colts
All three of these teams have the potential to overtake the Jags in the AFC South this year. The Texans looked as good as any team in the league last season before they lost star players JJ Watt, Deshaun Watson and Whitney Mercilus to season-ending injuries. The Titans are brewing a Patriots 2.0 roster by adding several former well-known Pats to their team that include defensive backs Logan Ryan and Malcolm Butler and running back Dion Lewis. On top of that, their new head coach is Mike Vrabel who was a linebacker for the Patriots from 2001-2008. And don’t rule out the Colts with quarterback Andrew Luck at full strength, because they have proven to be dangerous. However, their defense is still awful and it’s still up in the air if Andrew Luck will be the same as he was before his shoulder injury. Plus, this team doesn’t have a solid running back since the departure of veteran Frank Gore and are weak at receiver after losing Donte Moncrief to free agency. But, if Andrew Luck proves to be the same, the Colts can still contend in this wide-open division.
Favorite: New England Patriots
It’s Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. Nothing more needs to be said.
Sleeper: New York Jets
The Jets can take second place easily this year in the AFC East as other teams in this division will have a tough time competing due to struggling offenses and depleted rosters. The Jets have arguably the most complete rookie quarterback in years in third overall pick Sam Darnold and second-year star safety Jamal Adams. Speaking of Jamal Adams, he will have help this year on the defensive side of the ball as the Jets went out and signed cornerback Trumaine Johnson. Defensive end Leonard Williams is primed to make a great impact on that defense as well after a down year last year plagued by bad coaching and injuries. The Jets – if healthy – can pose a real threat in the AFC East this season for the first time in a while.
Favorite: Los Angeles Chargers
The Chargers are coming off a year in which despite being plagued by injuries and close losses they still managed to go 9-7. This year they are much stronger at safety after adding rookie Derwin James in the first round of this years draft. James has continued to impress throughout camp, and looks to complement the Chargers already strong defensive back crew of Casey Hayward, Trevor Williams, and second year man Desmond King. On top of that, the Chargers pass rush will still be exceptional with Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram getting to opposing QB’s. Wide receiver Keenan Allen is coming off a 102 reception, 1393 yard breakout season for the Chargers high-powered offense as well. Pro Bowl running back Melvin Gordon had a 1105 yard season last year and punched in 12 touchdowns. Don’t underestimate longtime quarterback Philip Rivers either, as he remains a reliable option at the helm for the team. However, with all this good the injury bug has already claimed tight end Hunter Henry and cornerback Jason Verrett in training camp. If healthy, the Chargers can be Super Bowl contenders as early as this year.
Sleeper: Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs took a major risk this year by trading away quarterback Alex Smith and putting their faith in second-year talent Patrick Mahomes. The Chiefs offense on paper should be a top-five offense with Travis Kelce at tight end, Kareem Hunt at running back, and Tyreek Hill and Sammy Watkins maning the receiving core. However, the biggest questions will revolve around Patrick Mahomes and if he is ready to take this team to the next level. The only thing standing in the Chiefs way from success is themselves, more specifically their defense after trading away star cornerback Marcus Peters to the Rams and letting their defense continue to age. As long as this offense puts up 63 points per game (lol), their defense should be fine.
Favorite: Green Bay Packers
Yes, the Packers are coming off one of their worst years in recent history, but Aaron Rodgers is back. The Packers added red zone weapon and veteran tight end Jimmy Graham in free agency, as he looks to rejuvenate his career alongside Rodgers. Defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson and rookie corners Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson have shown a lot of promise for the Packers defense as well. Lambeau Field is still the hardest place to play as well. 2018 should be a big comeback year for the Packers.
Sleeper: Chicago Bears
The Bears are going to be dangerous this year. Not only did they recently bring in elite pass rusher Khalil Mack in a trade with the Oakland Raiders, but also brought in free agent receivers Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel and Trey Burton. These guys will give second-year promising quarterback Mitch Trubisky weapons in the passing game. Running back Jordan Howard is coming off another 1000 yard season as well, and the Bears offense is looking substantially better than in recent years. The defense will also be a strong force led by rookie linebacker Roquan Smith, defensive end Khalil Mack, and cornerbacks Prince Amukamara and Kyle Fuller. The Bears have potential to make some noise this year in the stacked NFC.
Favorite: New Orleans Saints
The Saints are once again led by veteran quarterback Drew Brees who will look to propel this star-studded squad into the Super Bowl. This team has one of the best young rosters in football as well. Cornerback Marshon Lattimore, running back Alvin Kamara and wide receiver Michael Thomas lead this force of talent and youth. Lattimore and Kamara last year won the Defensive Rookie of the Year and Offensive Rookie of the Year awards respectively in the NFC. Expect these two to continue on their strong path and the Saints to be contenders.
Sleeper: Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons aren’t necessarily a sleeper team, but more of just a sure-fire contender in the jam-packed NFC South. The Falcons return playmakers Julio Jones and Devonta Freeman to their high-powered offense that struggled in the playoffs last year against the Philadelphia Eagles. Quarterback Matt Ryan will lead this unit, and has proven to be a formidable picker passer in the NFL. The Falcons also have one of the better defensive units in football and will continue to try and make their return to the Super Bowl after their embarrassing choke job in 2017.
Favorite: Philadelphia Eagles
The defending Super Bowl champions will look to repeat the underdog season that they had last year. Despite returning nearly the same team as last year, they will have to start the season without wide receiver Alshon Jeffery and MVP-candiate Carson Wentz. However, the Eagles appear to be just fine with Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles manning the offense until Wentz is 100 percent ready to return. The Eagles also return one of the NFL’s best defenses, led by a strong secondary and scary defensive line. Expect the Eagles to be a heavy favorites to repeat as Super Bowl champions.
Sleeper: Dallas Cowboys
The Cowboys are coming off a tragic year that was nowhere near their expectations heading into last season. Back from suspension this year is star running back Ezekial Elliott, which is a great sign for the team. However, the big question remains who will emerge as the number one wide receiver on their roster for quarterback Dak Prescott following the dismissal of Dez Bryant. The Cowboys did bring in Allen Hurns in the offseason and drafted Courtland Sutton, but that’s about it. The Cowboys defense too is a large question mark with their struggling secondary. Head coach Jason “The Clapper” Garrett is still on the hot seat for the ‘Boys as well.
Favorite: Los Angeles Rams
The LA Rams are starting to look like the Golden State Warriors of the NFL after building their Madden-like super team this offseason. They’ve done this by adding cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh to their already strong defensive unit. On the offensive side of the ball, the Rams brought in WR Brandin Cooks from the Patriots, adding weapons for quarterback Jared Goff. The Rams also have elite running back Todd Gurley who is primed for another big-number season. The Rams have arguably the strongest roster in football on paper and are Super Bowl favorites.
Sleeper: San Fransisco 49ers
Jimmy Garoppolo is already looking like an elite quarterback in this league after his tremendous start last year with the team. However, the 49ers already started off on the wrong foot after losing running back Jerrick Mckinnon for the remainder of the year to an ACL injury. However, the 49ers are still a strong and trendy squad that can definitely make some noise in the NFC this year.