The most meaningful portion of the NFL's transaction period is now complete. Save for a desperation trade or two during training camp or right before the deadline, and the flurry of waiver claims that punctuate the roster cutdown dates in the summer, we have a very solid idea of each team's personnel.
I'm going to go out on a limb and say no head coaches or general managers are going to be fired out of the blue in June or July this year. That, plus the schedule having been released, means we finally know what we're dealing with when it comes to NFL teams. Every club has a few quarterbacks on the roster now. If they had to, all 32 teams could roll out the footballs tomorrow and play a game.
So we've reached the point of the year where I begin to declare which teams I am on high on who I believe could make a leap forward in 2018 -- yeah, I tend to do this in the doldrums of May when the hectic NFL calendar generally slows down (in a non-Deflategate or non-Bountygate or non-Ezekiel Elliott facing a suspension year). And, yeah, that time is now.
I'm not going to predict every team's record, or play out the season (poor Prisco getting lassoed into that gig every year), but here are a few teams I believe could be movers and shakers in the upcoming season:
I understand all of the consternation and hand-wringing over what was a draft littered with gambles. And only time will tell which of these moves were sage and which will go down as reaches, and how impactful Baker Mayfield and Denzel Ward become.
But even if those rookies are slow starters or whatever, this team is going to win some football games. The presence, patience and ability to protect the football that Tyrod Taylor brings will be huge. He can help close games out, and he won't give games away. This defense will be even better knowing it has a quarterback who won't undermine them.
The Browns should run the ball better as well and the defense has the makings of being menacing enough. The division is weak beyond the Steelers, and I wouldn't be shocked if Cleveland ended up finishing second (though I still have a hard time seeing this head coach being around beyond this season).
Los Angeles Chargers
I fall for this every year, but I guess I can't help myself. They got the move from San Diego out of their system, and they got used to playing in a soccer stadium and being a forgotten team in the L.A. metropolis. They've even put Antonio Gates in their rear-view mirror. Derwin James fills an immediate need at safety, and I like they continue to stack the edge rushers. Adding Mike Pouncey to anchor an ever-shaky offensive line could prove to be vital.
While I would believe them to be actual contenders had they done something bold like trade for Earl Thomas, they are still sitting in a good spot. The Raiders are trying to adjust to Jon Gruden, and he has a learning curve ahead after so much time away from the sidelines. The Chiefs had a talent exodus and are banking on a novice quarterback. The Broncos had what appears to be a heck of a draft ... but are still very much in transition and have to hope Case Keenum can repeat his Cinderella season with the Vikings from a year ago.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Yeah, they fooled me again last year. And I've been expecting bigger things from them for a while now. I can't help but wonder if Dirk Koetter is going to be their head coach in 2019.
But this team should finally take a step forward. They have completely reinvented the defensive line, with the draft the culmination of that, adding Vita Vea in the first round and veterans Vinny Curry and Jason Pierre-Paul earlier in the offseason to go with a healthy Gerald McCoy. I still have serious reservations about the secondary, but they addressed the run game in the draft and the offensive line in free agency. DeSean Jackson should find his way this season, and this team should not be an afterthought in 2018.
Of course, the big problem is that they play in what quite likely will be the best division in the NFL. The NFC South is loaded with the Saints, Panthers and Falcons. Regardless, this group should far surpass last year's 5-11 campaign. If it doesn't, heads will roll.
San Francisco 49ers
I know, I'm really going out on a limb here. They became media darlings with the way they finished the season and rallied behind their new quarterback. But that was no fluke, and Jimmy Garoppolo is just getting started.
There is a very palpable feeling around this team that it is turning the corner and out of the dark ages. Kyle Shanahan knows who and what fits his system. Now in his second year as a head coach and with his sea legs under him, I expect to see immediate dividends from Jerick McKinnon, and the reshaped offensive line should be more adept at that outside zone running scheme. They are deeper at receiver, and should Rueben Foster not be in legal trouble I really like their chances of duplicating what the Rams did a year ago and coming from the basement to win the NFC West.