The preseason is coming to a close. The fourth week of preseason could be gone for good. Predictions? Here to stay. This week, you’ll get a two-for-one in NFL prognostication.
I’ve gone through and worked out the most — and least — each NFL team can hope to achieve in the win/loss column this season. A challenging feat, considering that while some teams treated big hits in the preseason like they came on fourth-and-goal in Week 16 (SEE: Chiefs vs. Seahawks), others treated their big-time players like they were delicate china, barely using them at all (SEE: Eagles‘ starting offense, Preseason ’17). Thus, the spectrum for each team’s predictions can range from postseason berth to getting Hackenberg’d.
That said, take a look to see the success meter for your favorite NFC squad below (I’ll hit the AFC on Wednesday). Your measured thoughts are welcome … @HarrisonNFL is the place.
Again, be sure to check back Wednesday for the floor/ceiling of each team in the AFC.
Ceiling: 13-3. If everything rolls right for the Cowboys, who could be without running back Ezekiel Elliottuntil Week 8, the best they can hope to do is equal last season’s record. The light bulb must turn on for first-rounder Taco Charlton (DE) quickly, while in this scenario, linebacker Jaylon Smith and right tackle La’el Collins (only three starts last year) play like vets.
Floor: 7-9. The 2017 campaign could go south quickly on the Cowboys if the defense regresses without vets in the secondary (namely, Barry Church), and there is no pass rush to mitigate it. Also, in the 7-9 debacle, the Run-DMC-Alfred Morris sandwich struggles to a 2-4 record in Elliott’s absence.
NEW YORK GIANTS
Ceiling: 13-3.Eli Manning plays like the 2014-15 version of himself. Paul Perkins or Wayne Gallman run like Joe Morris on the old Giants stadium concrete … er … turf. The defense plays like it did last year, particularly in the middle of the defensive line, even without Johnathan Hankins. Evan Engram is emphatically not a bust.
Floor: 6-10. For the Giants to sink this low, more has to go wrong than simply yielding to the crushing pressure of the media and Manning showing his age in Year 14. Let’s start with a factor that Big Blue fans will educate you on very quickly: the offensive line. Ben McAdoo has been trying different hands there. The 1.6 yards per carry versus the Browns wasn’t promising.
Ceiling: 11-5.Carson Wentz develops chemistry early and often with all his new toys, namely receivers Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith and, perhaps, rookie running back Donnel Pumphrey. Jim Schwartz gets the same effectiveness out of his defense on the road this year as he did at the Linc last season (road: 26.9 ppg allowed, home: 15.5). LeGarrette Blount (30) is at least 80 percent of what he was in New England in 2016.
Floor: 5-11. Think the defense is going to be viable enough to win six games. That said, the Eagles could struggle if no hot hand can be found among Blount, Wendell Smallwood, Pumphrey and Corey Clement. Oh, and the 34-year-old Darren Sproles ends up showing his age (it was bound to happen eventually). The addition of Ronald Darby doesn’t lift the play of a middling secondary that’s waiting for rookies to flourish.
Ceiling: 11-5. Much has to go right here, starting with the revamped pass offense. Terrelle Pryor is new, while Josh Doctson will be asked to take on a bigger role in Year 2 (he just needs to stay on the field). Jamison Crowder improves on last year’s impressive production, and Jordan Reed stays healthy all season. Rob Kelley? Fewer peaks and valleys.
Floor: 5-11. The Redskins own too much talent on both sides of the ball to finish with fewer than five wins. This was a team that went 8-7-1 last year. But playing the AFC West with a defense that finishes 28th again could mean going 0-4 against that division. Washington should be better on that side of the ball this season, but rookie defensive end Jonathan Allen must contribute early, especially if the first-team offense sputters like it did against Baltimore.
Tipping point: Jay Gruden’s squad follows the old-school formula of running the football and stopping the run — two things they struggled to do in last season’s losses to the division champion Cowboys. If Washington does that well, this team is playing in January.
Ceiling: 9-7. John Fox pushes back against his better judgement, starting Mitchell Trubisky under center. The kid responds with a Matt Ryan-esque rookie season. The Bears limit Trubisky’s pass attempts to fewer than 30 in most games, allowing a standout offensive line and Jordan Howard to carry much of the load. The front seven stays healthy, while Leonard Floyd becomes a double-digit sack guy.
Floor: 2-14.Eddie Goldman, Pernell McPhee, Lamarr Houston and Kyle Fuller have trouble staying healthy and on the field. The secondary carries 2016 over into 2017. Howard slogs through a sophomore slump, while a brewing QB controversy stifles any momentum the Bears can muster. I think Chicago will fare much better than this, but …
Ceiling: 12-4.Matthew Stafford continues the pull-games-out-of-our-a#%-fourth quarters, enabling the Lions to take a few games they probably shouldn’t. Ameer Abdullah provides long-needed balance, staying on the field and on pace for 1,100 rushing yards. First-round pick Jarrad Davis carries his solid camp performance into the season, making the Detroit defense more active.
Floor: 5-11. Abdullah gets hurt … again. Marvin Jones suffers an up-and-down season, while preseason sensation Kenny Golladay shows he’s not quite ready to be the WR2. Ziggy Ansah takes longer than expected to return to 100 percent, with the pass rush unable to impose its will enough to cover for a secondary that, well, couldn’t cover in 2016. What accounts for the wild swing between floor/ceiling? All the close calls this Detroit team has.
Tipping point: Maybe Eric Ebron emerges as a Pro Bowler in 2017, pushing the 20th-ranked scoring offense into the top 10 … maybe.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
Ceiling: 13-3. Much must go right to hit 13-3, like the offensive line staying healthy and cohesive. Rookie Jamaal Williams provides Mike McCarthy with a three-down back to protect late leads so Aaron Rodgers doesn’t have to do it all by himself. Mike Daniels, Clay Matthews and Nick Perry must generate enough of a pass rush so the offense doesn’t have to put up 30 points to win every week.
Floor: 8-8. Free-agent acquisition (a rarely used phrase in the Ted Thompson era) Jahri Evans struggles to replace T.J. Lang‘s high level of play at guard. Davante Adams drops more passes, failing to ascend to the level the organization is anticipating. The secondary fails to stay healthy, forcing Dom Capers to mix and match like last season.
Tipping point: Can Ty Montgomery evolve into an 800/800 guy, forcing defenses to declare themselves pre-snap?
Ceiling: 12-4. Peruse this Vikings roster up and down, and you’ll find a hornet’s nest of talent. In this scenario, the front seven stays upright and intact, making it one of the best in the game — certainly 12-4 worthy. Sam Bradford completes 71 percent of his passes again, but this time with a few chunk plays mixed in.
Floor: 6-10. Free-agent additions Riley Reiff (LT) and Mike Remmers (RT) fail to bolster what was a team weakness in 2016. The Vikings get nothing from 2016 first-rounder Laquon Treadwell again. Terence Newman reveals he is 600 years old, and neither Trae Waynes nor Mackensie Alexander steps up to effectively man the side opposite Xavier Rhodes (SEE: Patrick Peterson in Arizona for a similar situation). Bradford dinks and dunks ’til you drop.
Tipping point:Dalvin Cook rushes for, say, 1,250 yards and takes home the OROY award — plus-2 wins if that happens.
Ceiling: 14-2.Matt Ryan picks up where he left off last season, making quick decisions while not being afraid to patiently let plays develop downfield. Taylor Gabriel puts up 1,000 yards opposite Julio Jones. The latter stays off the injury report. New additions in the front seven rock.
Floor: 7-9. New coordinator Steve Sarkisian’s offense whimpers in the wake of Kyle Shanahan’s departure. Sophomore slumps from Deion Jones, De’Vondre Campbell and Keanu Neal deep-six the defense in an offensively stacked NFC South. The Bucs, Saints and Panthers improve, resulting in Atlanta’s losing record within the division.
Ceiling: 12-4. While much of the 2015 NFC championship team remains in place, many of the key cogs are older or coming off major injuries. Thus, availability is huge. The NFC South is right behind the NFC East and AFC West as the best divisions in football. The Panthers reach 12 wins thanks to Cam Newton playing efficiently, without serving as the team’s “thumper” in the run game. Christian McCaffrey delivers the OROY.
Floor: 6-10.Thomas Davis (34 years old) hits the career wall. Ditto Charles Johnson (31). Ditto Julius Peppers (37). Luke Kuechly is unable to play a full slate yet again. These four things leave the front seven in the lurch. Ryan Kalil‘s shoulder becomes problematic, while a refitted offensive line causes Newton to take one too many hits on the chin.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
Ceiling: 11-5.Drew Brees finally receives the soft pillow to land on: a ground game that complements the air raid, coupled with a defense that allows him to put 24-28 points on the board and feel mildly comfortable. Michael Thomas becomes a beast in his second year, and the secondary holds up versus Jameis, Cam and the MVP.
Floor: 6-10.Adrian Peterson shows he doesn’t have IT anymore, Mark Ingram posts his usual season and Sean Payton struggles to involve rookie Alvin Kamara enough in the offense. The young secondary — Marcus Williams, P.J. Williams and Marshon Lattimore — gets burnt early and loses confidence late. Brees takes a pounding from the blind side early in the year, with Terron Armstead sidelined.
Tipping point: The little-talked about, low-pedigree LB outfit. Mike Nolan will coach the @#%* out of that group. If they overachieve, Dennis Allen’s defense has a puncher’s chance.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
Ceiling: 13-3.Jameis Winston takes home league MVP, throwing for 4,600 yards and 35 touchdowns and cutting down on the dumb throws. Meanwhile, Gerald McCoy, Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander all make the Pro Bowl. Vernon Hargreaves takes a big step forward.
Floor: 6-10. I cringe even putting this record down for Tampa Bay. But in this worst-case scenario, the offensive line falters, causing a RB-by-committee to tiptoe to the hole. DeSean Jackson slows down while O.J. Howard does not start his career as hoped. Dirk Koetter’s offense fails to take the whole game off Winston’s back.
Tipping point:Doug Martin. Do we see the 2012/2015 Martin, or the version from the in-between years?
Ceiling: 12-3-1. You know the kicking game is bound to account for an epic #fail and, thus, a tie. OK, now that we got that out of the way, here are three things that have to happen to make this mark possible: 1) Carson Palmer puts together a 2005 redux; 2) John Brown stays healthy enough to be a 1,000-yard sidekick to Larry Fitzgerald; and 3) first-round pick Haason Reddick makes significant contributions.
Floor: 7-9.David Johnson is merely productive, not spectacular. As the focal point of the offense — both in the ground game and as a safety valve for Palmer — Johnson’s inability to carry the offense puts more pressure on the other side of the ball. The defense misses Calais Campbell more than expected, both from a locker-room standpoint and up front. Robert Nkemdiche fails to step into a (productive) starter’s role.
LOS ANGELES RAMS
Ceiling: 8-8.Jared Goff might be, uhhhhh, uninspiring to the masses. But if he can absorb the techniques and scheme that Sean McVay imparted on Kirk Cousins … why not .500 ball in Los Angeles? The “fight for L.A.” will go the Rams‘ way with the resurgence of Todd Gurley and the emergence of Cooper Kupp. The defense merely needs to perform like it did early in 2016, before the putrid offense wore it out by year’s end.
Floor: 3-13. Loved the signing of Andrew Whitworth, but if his 35-year-old body says it’s had enough, then McVay’s offense is in trouble. Goff’s pocket awareness might not be nil, but it could stand to improve a notch or three. Liked the Sammy Watkins deal, but if his foot doesn’t respond … ugh. Injuries could really hurt this roster; deep is not a word you hear much to describe it.
Tipping point: Please, Vince Ferragamo, Eric Dickerson and Jack Youngblood, don’t let Aaron Donald‘s holdout bleed into the season. Pull some rank. (Actually, Dickerson may not be the best person to ask, here …)
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
Ceiling: 8-8. The 49ers demonstrate that they have a few pieces on both sides of the ball. In this scenario, Kyle Shanahan utilizes his running backs in much the same manner as he did with the Falcons, getting the most out of Carlos Hyde. The offensive line improves leaps and bounds from its preseason performances in opening up running lanes. Solomon Thomas and Reuben Foster are both in DROY contention.
Floor: 2-14. Brian Hoyer falters miserably (which I don’t think will happen). The team decides to go with rookie C.J. Beathard midseason, showing 2017 to be an evaluation year … while Beathard shows the line between potential and practicality. The Pierre Garcon and Marquise Goodwin acquisitions fail to pan out (I think Goodwin will play well).
Ceiling: 14-2.Russell Wilson contends for the MVP, pulling off a season that mirrors his historic run late in the 2015 campaign. The RB-by-committee works better than, well, most RB-by-committees do, with Chris Carson and Thomas Rawls plunging their way to at least 10 touchdowns. The offensive line holds up, covering for George Fant’s injury.
Floor: 8-8.Richard Sherman fails to recapture his All-Pro level of play. Earl Thomas slips a smidge in his return from injury. The RB chorus becomes the walking wounded again, with the WR2 unable to take pressure off Doug Baldwin in the air game. Then there’s the possibility — however unlikely — of in-fighting.
Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter @HarrisonNFL.