2019 NFL Picks Week 1: I'm Sorry, WHO Retired?
Last Year: 115-117-6 (hopefully you again waited until the Super Bowl to follow my lead)
This time last year, I was bemoaning the gap between the perceived and real impact of offseason storylines. Rookie QBs like Sam Darnold and Baker Mayfield helped their teams, but both still finished with losing records. Le’Veon Bell decided to sit out an entire season in objection to the Steelers’ use of the franchise tag, and their rushing offense tumbled all the way from 6th to…12th. Ryan Tannehill remained, definitively, Ryan Tannehill despite another offseason filled with praise.
In an effort to spite me (it’s definitely personal), the NFL upped the ante this offseason. 29-year old Andrew Luck retired before 42-year old Tom Brady and 40-year old Drew Brees, not to mention 38-year old Eli Manning last seen playing like a 44-year old Steve DeBerg. The Texans’ headless chicken of a GM room traded Jadeveon Clowney for Seahawks scraps instead of using any of their $27M of cap space to sign a good-if-not-flashy defensive lineman to a multi-year contract. My Chicago Bears cut the kicker who (kinda) cost them a playoff win last year, brought nine kickers into training camp, and saw one of the final contestants pull an extra point wider than the camera angle could contain in their final playoff game (okay, that last one might not mean very much for the season, but can we just sign Carli Lloyd already?).
Green Bay Packers +3 at Chicago Bears
The only case for the Bears replicating or improving on last season’s results rests entirely on improvement from Mitchell Trubisky. Their defense was incredible last year, but it’s impossible to maintain the health (4th-fewest games lost) and turnover luck (36 takeaways) they enjoyed last season even if there aren’t any personnel changes. Chicago is still stocked with talent on that side of the ball, but defensive coordinator Vic Fangio left to become Denver’s head coach, and they lost safety Adrian Amos to Green Bay in free agency. I wish I believed in Trubisky the way the Bears’ front office does, but I don’t think he’s going to improve much on last year’s performance.
The Packers moved on from head coach Mike McCarthy after 13 seasons and brought in Matt LaFleur, who’s four years older than Aaron Rodgers and coordinated the Titans’ offense to a 22nd-place finish in DVOA last year. I’m going to ignore any chatter about friction from the offseason, but I’m not expecting LaFleur to be the next Sean McVay or Kyle Shanahan.
It was a lot of fun to watch the Bears last year, but I’ll take Aaron Rodgers, the points, and a heaping spoonful of regression to kick off 2019. Packers +3
Los Angeles Rams -2.5 at Carolina Panthers
The defending NFC champions open up their season on the road, and the 2.5 point spread here seems a little odd given the way things played out for these two teams last season. If Cam Newton is fully healthy and the Panthers’ (very solid!) offseason acquisitions had enough time to jell, I could see them beating the Rams at home. Unfortunately, there has been just enough rumbling for me to wonder whether Cam is going to more closely resemble his 2015 MVP form or the banged-up version that couldn’t get a win in the second half of last season.
The Rams, meanwhile, will be back on the field with a healthy Todd Gurley, an exciting backup in Darrell Henderson, and perhaps most importantly, Cooper Kupp. The Rams’ splits on offense were more severe with and without Cooper Kupp than Gurley last year, and he may be the x-factor they need to return to last season’s top form. Sean McVay will have had all offseason to patch up some of the holes New England exposed in the Super Bowl, and they’ll be looking to make a statement.
Carolina has the talent to keep things close, but until I see Cam playing like his shoulder is back to normal, I’m a little scared to pick them against top teams. Rams -2.5
Minnesota Vikings -4 vs. Atlanta Falcons
Minnesota’s promising 2018 was entirely derailed by offensive line issues, grossly illuminated in their Week 3 home loss to Buffalo. Kirk Cousins proved to be an upgrade over Case Keenum based on their performances last year, but no one throws well from their back. They worked to address some of those problems in the offseason, but it will take time to determine if the soft spot of an otherwise stellar roster has improved enough to carry them back to their NFC Championship Game heights of 2017.
Atlanta ran into a different issue, losing star defenders Deion Jones and both starting safeties early in the season. The end result was a defense ranked 31st in DVOA, bad enough to drag their 8th-ranked offense down to a 7-9 season. Even with perfect health I wouldn’t expect the Falcons to be a top-10 defense, but improving from second-to-last to middle-of-the-pack might be enough to push this team back to the playoffs.
This may be the Vikings’ last run at a Super Bowl with much of the same core that nearly got them there two years ago, and they’ll come out of the gate fast. Until Atlanta can prove their defense has made real strides, taking on Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs on the road is a tall ask. Vikings -4
Philadelphia Eagles -8.5 vs. Washington
Philadelphia once again has one of the most stacked rosters in the NFL, and Carson Wentz is now more than a year removed from the knee injury he suffered late in the 2017 season. They have proven coaches on both sides of the ball, and they’ll be opening up this season at home. If they don’t wind up competing for another Super Bowl, Philly fans will (for once) be right to be disappointed.
Washington has…none of those things going for them. Head coach Jay Gruden is Vegas’s favorite to be first fired, Case Keenum has been brought in as a caretaker in Alex Smith’s absence, and other than a formidable defensive front, the depth chart is a who’s who of “who?”. The only person who thinks this team will be competitive is their delusional owner Dan Snyder.
The gaps in talent and coaching are the primary reasons for my pick, but it’s comforting to see zero one-score games in recent history. Eagles -8.5
New York Jets -3 vs. Buffalo Bills
The Jets are coming into this season optimistic after a promising stretch run from Sam Darnold. If the four games after he returned from injury are a sign of what’s to come and free agent signing Le’Veon Bell regains his form with fresh legs after sitting out a season, their offense should absolutely improve. There’s not much room for anything else when you finish 29th, but maybe that will be promising if Tom Brady ever retires.
Buffalo also started a rookie quarterback last year, but he didn’t have an encouraging four-game stretch to close the year or at any other time. Their defense managed to finish 2nd in DVOA, on the strength of a smothering secondary and fierce pass rush led by Jerry Hughes. Much like the Bears, though, the Bills face the scary prospect of regression in 2019. They likely won’t improve on their 6th-place finish in defensive Adjusted Games Lost, and any drop-off from their 27 takeaways will be especially damaging for a team that tied for second in giveaways.
Neither team is exciting, but Sam Darnold has shown flashes of NFL ability, which is more than we can say of Josh Allen. It won’t be pretty. Jets -3
Baltimore Ravens -5 at Miami Dolphins
Baltimore lost some longtime defensive contributors in Terrell Suggs and C.J. Mosley, but they added perhaps the game’s best safety in Earl Thomas. On offense, the coaching staff has promised a revolutionary run-heavy approach to take advantage of Lamar Jackson’s skillset and zig while the rest of the league zags. There’s a lot of evidence to suggest running the ball can’t work as efficiently as passing, but I’m excited to see the experiment.
Miami has done everything short of waving a white flag to suggest their surrender for the 2019 season, cutting or trading away any veteran talent to clear their books and make room for a slew of draft picks over the next couple of years. Ryan Fitzpatrick will be starting this game, so someone is likely to score 35+ points. If he plays well enough to keep Josh Rosen on the bench, I guess the Dolphins can trade him for a late draft pick before the start of next season.
When one team is trying to lose and the other has playoffs on the brain, five points hardly seems like enough. Ravens -5
San Francisco 49ers EVEN at Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The 49ers are excited to see what can happen this year with Jimmy Garoppolo returning from injury. Kyle Shanahan somehow coaxed a competent offense out of Nick Mullens, but seeing their high-priced quarterback perform under their trendy head coach is all that matters. New defensive additions like Nick Bosa and Dee Ford should give an otherwise dull unit some teeth, but the 2018 version of this team has a long way to go to reach contention.
Tampa Bay is equally mysterious, with Jameis Winston entering his fifth season and “no risk-it, no biscuit” Bruce Arians calling the plays. I’m a big fan of Arians, and his style should only accentuate Jameis’s tendencies for big plays and big turnovers. If he can avoid a few of the backbreaking picks and continue throwing the ball deep, the Bucs have plenty of weapons in place to score points in bunches. Their defense, on the other hand, was more than one Ndomakung Suh away from climbing out of the basement. Improvement on that side of the ball will have to come entirely from the scheme.
With these coaches and these skill-position players, both teams should enjoy some big plays. Jameis’s tendency to give the ball away makes me favor the Niners ever-so-slightly. 49ers to win
Kansas City Chiefs -4 at Jacksonville Jaguars
Nick Foles has a fascinating track record to say the least, but he could be Josh McCown and represent a significant upgrade over Blake Bortles. Jacksonville will be hoping the upgrade at quarterback is enough to open up the run game for Leonard Fournette and push their offense from straight-up depressing to occasionally competent. If it works, the important pieces are still in place on defense to dominate games and bring this team back to the playoffs.
Remember how sad most of the country was when the Patriots sent Patrick Mahomes packing in last year’s AFC Championship Game? The Chiefs were as exciting as any team in the league to watch last year, and nothing suggests they’ll slow down this season. The Kansas City defense struggled last year, and they likely won’t make any big strides in 2019. Last year it didn’t matter much, and they’ll be hoping it still doesn’t.
The Jaguars made life difficult for Patrick Mahomes last year, producing his worst performance of the season. The Chiefs still won by 16. Chiefs -4
Cleveland Browns -5.5 vs. Tennessee Titans
It’s safe to say the Cleveland Browns have been the internet’s offseason darlings. Not hearing from Hue Jackson, watching Baker Mayfield shotgun beers with his teeth, and seeing Odell Beckham Jr. not show up to camp with frostbitten feet or helmet problems will do that for a team. Mix in some expected improvement out of young defensive players like Myles Garrett and Denzel Ward, and a playoff picture starts to take shape.
Tennessee comes into 2019 once again hoping for Marcus Mariota to take a leap, but it’s hard to see that happening without considerable changes to the rest of the offense. The Titans were the textbook definition of “okay” last year, ranking just below average in almost every major category of DVOA. Their offense was okay, but not good enough to win games on its own. The defense could keep the team in games, but they weren’t shutting anyone out. Nothing they did in the offseason suggests a dramatic departure from those ranges this year.
If the Browns don’t come out and torch the Titans, offseason NFL followers will have a lot of stock to sell at a loss. Lucky for them, I don’t see the reality check coming for at least a couple weeks. Browns -5
Detroit Lions -2.5 at Arizona Cardinals
It’s safe to say the Lions’ first year under Matt Patricia was not a resounding success. Detroit finished with their worst record since the Jim Schwartz era, and the advanced stats don’t paint a prettier picture. I don’t want to blame it on their new head coach’s tendency to blink, but thus far the results speak for themselves. They did get some promising contributions from young players like Kerryon Johnson, Kenny Golladay, and Da’Shawn Hand, all of whom they’ll need to take another step this season to make noise in the NFC North.
The Cardinals were an absolute trainwreck last season, drafting Josh Rosen in the first round only to see him eaten alive behind an offensive line that was equal parts injured and ineffective. They insisted on running David Johnson up the middle despite his electric abilities in open space, and the defense struggled to keep games close on their own. Drafting Kyler Murray first overall and bringing in Kliff Kingsbury certainly qualifies as a shake-up, so Arizona will at least be interesting to watch in 2019.
I’m excited to see what the Air Raid can do in the NFL, and I think Kyler Murray is going to be a star, but it’s going to be hard for the Cardinals to come out of the gate clicking. The Lions have enough proven talent to visit last year’s worst team by DVOA and come away with a win. Lions -2.5
Seattle Seahawks -9.5 vs. Cincinnati Bengals
I was largely prepared to talk about the Seahawks in terms of the talent they lost this offseason and how the departure of Earl Thomas concluded the Legion of Boom era. The players behind the moniker may be gone, but somehow Seattle swindled Jadeveon Clowney away from the Texans for a third round pick, which is what they’ll get in compensation if Clowney leaves in free agency next year. With the defense once again poised to be average-at-worst, all eyes turn to Russell Wilson and Brian Schottenheimer. Seattle is paying Wilson $35 million per year, and last season they were the only NFL team with more rushing attempts than passing attempts. It’s a curious choice, and they’ll need to change their approach if they’re going to make it past the Wild Card round this year.
With A.J. Green out and Tyler Eifert one blade of grass away from the IR, the Bengals’ offense isn’t striking fear into anyone’s hearts. First year head coach Zac Taylor may be auditioning Andy Dalton as much as he’s trying to revive his career, and after 16 seasons of Marvin Lewis the franchise may be ready for a rebuild. I tried to come up with some defensive players of interest, but honestly couldn’t remember anyone past Geno Atkins. It’s going to be a long year in Cincinnati.
Seattle, with Brian Schottenheimer and his absurd commitment to the run, is capable of keeping games unnecessarily close against anyone. Still, a home game against a barren Bengals team gives them a chance for a blowout. Seahawks -9.5
Los Angeles Chargers -7 vs. Indianapolis Colts
Luckily, I got this game at -3 before the aforementioned Andrew Luck’s retirement. The Colts still have a young, talented roster, but the dropoff from Luck to Jacoby Brissett should be worth more than four points. Head coach Frank Reich should still be able to produce points with this offense, but they won’t as easily come in bunches now. The defense is going to be solid again, but it remains to be seen if free agent addition Justin Houston is enough to boost their 29th-ranked pass rush.
The Chargers have once again been beset by injuries before their season could start. Star safety/linebacker/whatever-you-need-him-to-be Derwin James is out indefinitely, and an already-suspect offensive line will be at less than 100% in Week 1. Phil Rivers will still work some magic and one of the best all-around teams of 2018 shouldn’t fall off too sharply, but they’re less intimidating now than they were at the start of training camp.
The Chargers will need to work some miracles to be a true contender this year, but the Colts are uniquely situated not to take advantage of L.A.’s offensive line deficiencies. I like Jacoby Brissett, but I like him much more as a backup quarterback than a starter. Chargers -7
Dallas Cowboys -7 vs. New York Giants
I was shocked to see the Giant’s offense ranked 13th in DVOA last year, which says a lot about Saquon Barkley and just how bad some NFL offenses are. It also explains why so many coaches/GMs are unwilling to move on from the Joe Flacco-Andy Dalton-Eli Manning types until well past their expiration date. Of course, the Giants also jettisoned Odell Beckham Jr. in the offseason in return for a couple of picks (good, but not immediately impactful) and a safety of questionable value in Jabrill Peppers. Opposing offenses should still be able to feast on New York’s defense, and now defenses only have to worry about Saquon.
The Cowboys’ decision to give Ezekiel Elliott a massive extension is comedy on par with the Giants drafting Daniel Jones sixth overall. It’s not that either player is bad, it’s just a poor allocation of resources. It doesn’t hurt Dallas at all in the short term, and if Kellen Moore can do more as the offensive coordinator than Scott Linehan (it’s a low bar) this team could take off. Their young defense finished last year 9th in DVOA, and should have no problem improving this season.
I’m not even sure what Giants’ fans should be hoping for this season. Do they really want Eli Manning to surprise people and do well while their 6th-overall pick watches from the bench? At least we’ll get to see some magic from Saquon. It just won’t translate to wins. Cowboys -7
New England Patriots -6 vs. Pittsburgh Steelers
Well, Pittsburgh’s decision to trade Antonio Brown for some underwhelming draft capital is looking less and less strange by the day. As for Le’Veon Bell, he already missed all of last season and you can see my take on Zeke’s contract extension above for how much running backs matter. That leaves an offense dependent on JuJu Smith-Schuster emerging as a true #1 wide receiver and similar growth down the depth chart to recapture their usual efficiency. Their defense should get a boost from first-round pick Devin Bush, and there’s no doubt they’ll contend for an AFC North title once again.
It’s the same old story in New England: Tom Brady is still the quarterback, Bill Belichick is still the head coach, and offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia is still turning reclamation projects into Pro Bowl-ers. They’ll get to feast on the Dolphins, Bills, and Jets six times again this season, and we’ll all watch them secure a first-round bye when their top competition drops a dumb game in December. If anything should change dramatically, it would have to be the emergence of a reinstated Josh Gordon or the decline of some of their older defensive personnel. They had the fifth-oldest defense last year, and eventually that’s going to bite them, right? We can always dream.
Both teams lost some marquee names in the offseason, so we might not get the offensive fireworks we’d usually expect. I’m always comfortable rolling with Belichick and Brady after months of preparation. Patriots -6
Houston Texans +7 at New Orleans Saints
I don’t love the moves Houston has made this summer, and I disagree vehemently with the notion some radio personalities have been spouting that they clearly improved the team in the short term by adding Kenny Stills and Laremy Tunsil and losing Jadeveon Clowney. Clowney ranked second against the run among all defensive linemen last year, and he provides steady pass pressure as well. Laremy Tunsil is a young, improving offensive tackle and Kenny Stills is a pretty good receiver. The Texans might have made Deshaun Watson’s life a little (the rest of the offensive line is still rough) easier, but losing Clowney is nothing to sneeze at.
New Orleans is coming off their second straight year of heartbreaking playoff loss with an aging but still spectacular quarterback. Nothing outside of Drew Brees’s (overstated) late-season woes suggests the offense will slip in 2019, and continued improvement from a very young defensive core could push them into the top 10 on that side. The NFC South could be tough, but losing the division (and a home playoff game) would be a tough pill for the Saints’ faithful to swallow.
The Saints are a better all-around team than the Texans, but a 7-point spread against Deshaun Watson is tantalizing. New Orleans has also performed poorly in season-openers as of late, notably losing at home 48-40 to the Buccaneers last year and 35-34 to the Raiders in 2016. Houston +7
Denver Broncos EVEN at Oakland Raiders
Ahhh, the Raiders. One last season in Oakland before moving to Las Vegas to avoid the indignity of paying for their own football stadium. A head coach whose signature look is a grimace brought back after 10 years off the field. Nathan Peterman. They were already hilarious before cutting flashy offseason acquisition Antonio Brown, and now last year’s second-to-last place finish in DVOA might get even worse. Who are you excited about watching here? I’ll wait.
Denver is right up there with the Giants in terms of surprising offensive efficiency, and a defense that finished 5th in DVOA last year gets a boost from Vic Fangio and Bryce Callahan. Joe Flacco isn’t inspiring anyone, but he likely won’t be a significant drop-off from what Case Keenum managed last year. If the defense reaches its potential in year one under Fangio, no one is going to want to face this team.
What is it about the numbers up there that suggest an even line? Don’t overthink it. Broncos to win
That's all for this week! Kick back, grab a drink, and feel free to blame me if you put money on these picks and come out behind. I won't compensate you, but maybe your significant others will send their wrath in my direction instead of yours.