The NFL offseason is effectively over. Sure, a major injury or two will prompt a panicked move or two between now and September -- see, Bradford, Sam and the Vikings a year ago -- but by and large the roster-building portion of the NFL calendar has come and gone.
What you see is basically going to be what you get for the 32 clubs, with a flurry of low-level moves coming before final rosters are set Week 1, but mostly involving middling players who were no longer of use to one team. From here on out, player development takes over and we'll find out in a few months which previously dormant 2014 or 2015 draft picks are finally ready to step up, who the busts are from those classes and which rookies are primed to make an immediate impact.
That, of course, is incredibly difficult to predict, but it won't stop me and others from trying. Vegas is all over this 365 days a year with its odds and over/under win totals and this is generally when I first start to mull the collective gains and setbacks of an organization. Once the draft is complete, you can start to glance at some depth charts and ponder certain scheme fits and perhaps start to get an early pulse on what is to come in 2017.
With that in mind, here's my first look at some projections on which clubs I believe will reach the postseason. History tells us at least 2-3 playoff teams in each conference will be different from how it played out a year ago, and the team that loses the Super Bowl generally is in for a rough go of it the following campaign.
If you're curious about how I graded out last year doing this same exercise,-- and wasn't too far off about the Raiders, who still made the playoffs as a wild card. I totally missed on the Panthers (whoops) and liked the Colts in the AFC South.
Anyway, here's my early forecast of how the 2017 season plays out.
AFC division winners
New England Patriots
The rich get richer. The best get better. All of that good stuff. The Patriots look better on paper than the squad that won the Super Bowl, with a revamped, more dynamic run game, the return of TE Rob Gronkowski to go with the addition of Brandin Cooks in the pass game. Malcolm Butler and Stephon Gilmore are both on the roster at corner, still, and despite having so few picks, personnel guys around the league are raving about Bill Belichick's draft. Jimmy Garoppolo remains as the backup passer should Tom Brady suffer an injury. Pencil the Patriots in for another No. 1 seed.
The secondary used to be the biggest concern for the Raiders, but safety Karl Joseph, their top pick in 2016, should be healthier this year. Getting Gareon Conley late in the first round was a steal and I love the addition of safety Obi Melifonwu as well. That unit got much more athletic and dynamic. I'm not sure Marshawn Lynch has much left, but this offensive line should be powerful no matter who runs behind it. The Raiders will get Derek Carr and Khalil Mack signed long-term and as long as the fans don't revolt too much -- given the team's impending move to Vegas and all -- this team is the class of the AFC West and very much still ascending.
Addition from within here as well, assuming Martavis Bryant stays out of trouble between now and the end of the season. The offense looks like it should truly be able to hit top form, and all the defense has to be is OK for the Steelers to be deep in the playoff mix again. The continued emergence of pass rusher Bud Dupree could be crucial. The Bengals are declining and the Ravens are still trying to get back to their lofty perch and this remains Pittsburgh's sweet spot within the AFC North. For the first time in a while they don't open the season with any key player suspended (well, at least for now).
Nothing has gone right for them in two years it seems, yet the Colts have remained in the hunt for the AFC South crown until the end. Eventually that has to change. New GM Chris Ballard has added some teeth to the defense, and the offensive line is actually coming together and isn't as poor as many would have you believe. Andrew Luck is the best quarterback in the division and he has sufficient weapons on that side of the ball. Give me the top quarterback, especially in a division as traditionally weak as this one. Malik Hooker has the chance to be special from Day 1, and if top corner Vontae Davis can stay relatively healthy I like the Colts' chances of winning a tight race with the Titans for the division.
AFC wild cards
Kansas City Chiefs
All Andy Reid does is get to the postseason pretty much like every season, and while I still don't think Alex Smith puts this team over the top, they should be good for 10 wins or so. The defense remains legit and perhaps gets more out of a finally healthy Justin Houston. They have too many speedsters and play makers on offense not to be able to score quickly on that side of the ball, and they may have the best special teams in the entire league, which is easy to overlook but, trust me, can be the difference between success and failure in this league. Well coached, stable and consistent.
Joe Flacco is now another year removed from major knee surgeries and while he still lacks for proven talent around him, I am buying this defense. Baltimore has the potential to be one of the top defenses in football and will have to be. A secondary that languished for years added Tony Jefferson and Brandon Carr in free agency, Marlon Humphrey in the draft, and managed to keep Lardarius Webb at a lower rate, to go with the signing of Eric Weddle and the drafting of Tavon Young a year ago. That's a ton of resources devoted to two position groups. Edge rusher Tim Williams could be the steal of the draft and while I still have some concerns about the pass rush, I am also intrigued by Matt Judon and others. If any recently drafted receiver can do anything at all (Breshad Perriman??), then maybe they push the Steelers, but regardless I believe they get back in.
Next team up
It's hard not to like what young GM Jon Robinson is doing in Nashville. The Titans can run the ball down your throat, they are gradually adding weapons for Marcus Mariota, and they have totally revamped a once-lagging offensive line. Dick LeBeau is a master scheming on defense and while I'd like a few more playmakers on that side of the ball, we have to remember this is still a rebuilding franchise that couldn't beat anyone a few years ago. I wouldn't be shocked if they got in as a wild card. If they can survive an early stretch where four of their first five games are against 2016 playoff teams, then I'd fancy their chances a little more. If the Texans had a quarterback I'd be more inclined to go with them, and I could see the Dolphins having difficulty winning as many games as they did in 2016 as well.
NFC division winners
Sure, they could use another offensive lineman, but no roster is perfect. This group finds ways to win games week in and week out and if Earl Thomas comes back from injury and gives them anything at all, I could see them as the top seed. Eddie Lacy's contract is loaded with reasons for him to lay off the second helping of desert and Russell Wilson should just now be entering his prime, if you can believe that. They still have better talent on offense than most give them credit for, and still enough alphas on defense to be downright stifling any given Sunday. Keeping a motivated Richard Sherman will provide dividends as well.
Green Bay Packers
Aaron Rodgers is the single biggest impact player in the NFL and he can carry a mediocre team for the better part of a season. This roster still ain't quite what it used to be, and I don't know what to expect from Clay Matthews anymore, but keeping Nick Perry was huge and they should be better on the back end with corner Kevin King and safety Josh Jones in the mix. Overall, it seems like it will be a speedier unit on the defensive side, which is a nice step. Replacing guard T.J. Lang won't be easy, but it's going to take more than losing a guard to slow Rodgers down. He's done more with less in the past.
New York Giants
Defense still wins in this league. You have a legit front seven with two dudes who can come off the edge and a big-time playmaker on the back end who disrupts and turns the ball over, you are going to win a lot of football games. New York has that. Keeping Jason Pierre-Paul was huge and they'll be even better this year on that side of the ball. Now another year removed from the end of Tom Coughlin's long regime and with Ben McAdoo clearly the voice there, the Giants are primed to pick up where they left off. Eli Manning has someone beyond Odell Beckham to throw the ball to in Brandon Marshall and his new tight end Evan Engram, and while pass protection is a concern, I like this team quite a bit. They could still add LeGarrette Blount as well, who has a nose for the end zone.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
This team's growth reminds me some of the Raiders, and I could see them playing in January. Jameis Winston is going to be a superstar quarterback and getting tight end O.J. Howard where they did only helps that development. The defense got much better as the season went on, and frankly, the biggest move of their entire offseason may have been finding a way to retain defensive coordinator Mike Smith amid head coaching interviews. If Doug Martin does give them a boost, post-suspension, so be it, but that won't make or break this team and I get the sense that anything less than a defensive MVP-type season won't be enough for Gerald McCoy.
NFC wild cards
New Orleans Saints
There are always surprises in this league and teams in the postseason few would have expected back in, oh, May. So I'm riding a hunch here with the Saints. Look, we know they can score and score in bunches and that isn't going to change. Drew Brees in a contract year? Yeah, sign me up for some of that. And maybe Adrian Peterson actually does bring something to further boost the run game. Sean Payton knew he had to address the defense and they have done that time and again. Sure, I'd like them even more with Malcolm Butler on the roster, but they got the best corner in the draft and aside from a bit of a panic move taking a right tackle with pick No. 32 (man, Reuben Foster would have put this draft over the top had the 49ers not moved up to nab him) I love everything about their offseason. If they can restore a home field advantage, look out. I expect the NFC South to be one of the more intriguing and competitive divisions in football; the Saints and Falcons play twice within three weeks in December, which could decide who gets in.
Another team that has quietly plugged holes without anyone seemingly noticing. They added ample talent on one-year prove-it deals, and there should be no lack of motivation from them. Terrelle Pryor will help offset the loss of Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson on offense and as long as tight end Jordan Reed can stay healthy, Kirk Cousins and the offense will be fine. Adding two-sevenths of the Alabama starting front in the draft will only help anchor the defensive line, and Jonathan Allen and Ryan Anderson will immediately make this group more stout against the run. This is another gut feeling selection, but they were in the playoff race until Week 17 a year ago and shocked everyone to win the division the year before that, and I just have a hunch they surpass expectations again.
Next team up
I smell a sophomore slump. No longer having Tony Romo as an emergency blanket could change some things here. How much does Jason Witten have left? Can Dez Bryant stay healthy? I just sort of sense a market correction of sorts here and I'm not sure they can duplicate the kind of roll they went on a year ago. I never bought into the defense, and after losing seemingly their entire secondary in free agency, color me concerned once more. Is there any pass rush? Will they have to win shootouts each week? They won't be sneaking up on anyone anymore, that's for sure. I suppose I remain a little skeptical, while the Falcons will miss Kyle Shanahan more than many would have you believe and the heartbreaking fashion in which they blew that Super Bowl will alter their psyche in ways most can't imagine. Just ask the Seahawks from a few years back.