This Is What Literally Every Couple On Property Shows Sound Like

This Is What Literally Every Couple On Property Shows Sound Like

Hi! I’m Dave! And I’m Shannon! We’re an artisanal candlemaker and a kindergarten teacher respectively, and we have a budget of $1 million. We just got engaged and are currently living with Shannon’s mother-in-law, but it’s feeling a bit crowded and we’re ready to take the plunge! We’re excited to meet the realtor in a cute coffee shop and outline our super easy and highly achievable wishlist! We’re looking for something away from the hustle and bustle while still close to public transport and all the local amenities. We’d like the property to be completely modern with lots of old classic features, be big and sprawling but also have an intimate, cosy feel, and ideally it’ll have beautiful views of nature right outside of our window while being nowhere near any countryside. We hope this helps narrow things down a little bit!

The first place seems to tick a lot of boxes, but while we know we asked for a bathtub, this bathtub is too bathtubby, y’know? It’ll need some updating. Although in the living room there’s a beautiful period fireplace that we can’t wait to rip the hell out! And also some lovely exposed brickwork that will look even better once it’s wallpapered over. We’ll refer to the spare room as a potential man-cave for Dave, or a space for all of Shannon’s shoes! The realtor will look at us knowingly and say “maybe even…a nursery” and we’ll laugh. Oh, what fun we have. We want other people in our home a lot, so we need space for entertaining – like really, a lot of space. We’re definitely giving the impression that at any time upwards of 30 people will be hanging out in our kitchen despite the fact that 98% of the time it’ll just be the two of us at home.

There are some huge, immovable problems though; we only want granite countertops and unfortunately, as we all know, there’s literally no way to ever, ever change kitchen countertops! Science hasn’t advanced that far yet! Plus the garden has grass and we were looking for patio, another permanent fixture that no mere mortal could ever do anything about. We’ll also make a point of saying that we’d like a garden where we can sit outside and knock back a few drinks, as opposed to those famous home gardens that you can never ever sit in! Plus there’s little space in the living area for the gigantic dining table we’ll need for all that entertaining we’ll do – i.e., twice a year when one of our friends comes to visit!

Thankfully the second house is much more our thing – the perfect location, space for entertaining, a huge closet (but where will DAVE keep HIS clothes, hahahahaha), and those sweet, sweet granite kitchen countertops. We’ll definitely take this one, and despite it being $600,000 over our budget we’ve magically found the means to buy it! “But what about the pre-approved mortgage limit?” Well, we say SCREW the pre-approved mortgage limit! We’re putting in an offer immediately!

Fast-forward a couple of weeks and our cute coffee-shop chat with the realtor is much more sombre than last time. It’s with a very heavy heart that we have to reveal that we are withdrawing our offer. Don’t get us wrong, it was lovely: the location, the layout, the kitchen…but the bedroom was painted blue and we don’t like blue. Oh well, better luck next time!

Ranking Every NFL Backfield Heading into the 2018 Season

Ranking Every NFL Backfield Heading into the 2018 Season

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    Gary McCullough/Associated Press

    Today’s NFL is pass-driven. Quarterbacks and pass-catchers have become the offensive stars, while defensive backs and pass-rushers have become the most in-demand players on the other side of the ball.

    The ground game still has an important place in modern football, but it doesn’t look like it once did. Though young running backs such as Ezekiel Elliott, Leonard Fournette and Todd Gurley have recently brought back the concept of the dominant rusher, every-down backs are few and far between.

    Most teams employ a committee, each back with his own specialization. During the course of a game, we’ll see bruising early-down rushers, pass-catching backs, blocking specialists and even the occasional fullback. 

    The defending champion Philadelphia Eagles, for example, used six different running backs during the regular season. Three of them rushed for at least 300 yards, but only one, LeGarrette Blount, logged more than 100 carries.

    Because of the style of the modern game, we’re going to rank the projected backfields of 2018 rather than individuals. We’ll look at each team, its projected depth chart and the role each back can play this season.

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    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    Starter: Marlon Mack

    Depth: Nyheim Hines, Jordan Wilkins, Robert Turbin

    Fullback: N/A

    The Indianapolis Colts have a lot riding on Hines and Wilkins (2018 fourth- and fifth-round picks, respectively). If the pair can’t make immediate contributions, the team could have the worst backfield we’ve seen in some time.

    Last year’s was bad enough. It ranked 22nd in yards per game (103.8) and averaged just 3.7 yards per carry. Only four teams averaged fewer yards per carry. No one running back reached 4.0 yards per tote, and Gore, the starter in 2017, left in free agency.

    Mack should head into camp as the starter, but he averaged just 3.8 yards per carry last season and led all returning backs with a mere 21 receptions. The Colts should hope either Hines or Wilkins is able to unseat him.

    Hines has the kind of speed (4.38-second 40-yard dash) to be a difference-maker as a change-of-pace back. However, he is undersized (5’8″, 198 lbs). Wilkins has more traditional size (6’1″, 216 lbs) but doesn’t possess the skill set of a future starter. Robert Turbin is an experienced but often unproductive 28-year-old veteran who should round out the depth chart.

    Expect the Colts to utilize a committee backfield this season, but don’t expect it to be a strong one. The running game should get a boost from Andrew Luck‘s pending return, as his downfield passing should back opposing defenses off the line. However, the backfield is full of unknowns and unproven talent.

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    Todd Olszewski/Getty Images

    Starter: Joe Mixon

    Depth: Giovani Bernard, Brian Hill, Mark Walton, Quinton Flowers

    Fullback: Ryan Hewitt

    The Cincinnati Bengals had the second-worst ground game in 2017, with an average of just 85.4 yards per game. While some of the blame is on Cincinnati’s shoddy offensive line, backs like Jeremy Hill and Mixon struggled to create their own space.

    Hill is gone to the New England Patriots, and Mixon looks like he’ll be taking over the starting gig full-time. However, Cincinnati’s best back last season was Giovani Bernard. He averaged 4.4 yards per carry and caught 43 passes for 389 yards.

    Mixon averaged a subpar 3.5 yards per carry, but he is the bigger back at 6’1″ and 228 pounds. The 5’9″, 205-pound Bernard is more of a change-of-pace back and a pass-catcher. Mixon is built better for a heavy early-down workload, though Bernard may again be the superior back when he gets his opportunities.

    Brian Hill is purely a depth player who had just 11 carries in 2017. Fourth-round pick Mark Walton and undrafted free agent Quinton Flowers should compete for playing time and may push Hill out of the backfield. Flowers, who played quarterback at South Florida, could carve out a role as a Wildcat player in sub-packages.

    Ryan Hewitt is a 2014 undrafted free agent who will block in certain situations but won’t see many touches on offense.

    The additions of Cordy Glenn via a trade and rookie Billy Price should improve Cincinnati’s blocking up front. If Mixon doesn’t take a big step forward in his second year, however, the Bengals could have the worst running game in the NFL. Bernard brings some versatility to the backfield, but there is virtually no proven depth behind him.

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    Harry How/Getty Images

    Starter: Marshawn Lynch

    Depth: Jalen Richard, DeAndre Washington, Doug Martin

    Fullback: Keith Smith

    Oakland Raiders running back Marshawn Lynch ran hard in 2017 and continues to be a load for opposing defenses to handle. However, he isn’t the same workhorse he once was with the Seattle Seahawks. While he did average 4.3 yards per carry, he only logged 207 totes last season.

    Lynch could get an even smaller workload in 2018. A lot will depend on how new head coach Jon Gruden decides to split his backfield. The Raiders have a quality change-of-pace back in Jalen Richard, who averaged 4.9 yards per carry last campaign. However, Gruden and the Raiders brought in Doug Martin on a one-year, $1.48 million deal this offseason.

    If the Gruden tries to force Martin into a role, Richard could lose opportunities. Most likely, though, Martin and DeAndre Washington will compete for a depth role. Martin and Washington averaged just 2.9 and 2.7 yards per carry last season, respectively.

    The Raiders signed former Dallas Cowboys fullback Keith Smith in free agency. He appeared in all 16 games in each of the past two seasons.

    Oakland didn’t add a running back in the draft, so if Martin doesn’t regain his Pro Bowl form and help improve the Raiders backfield, the ground game is likely to look a whole lot like it did in 2017. That’s not good, as Oakland averaged just 97.1 yards per game last season, 25th in the NFL.

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    Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

    Starter: Royce Freeman

    Depth: Devontae Booker, David Williams, De’Angelo Henderson

    Fullback: Andy Janovich

    The Denver Broncos have to hope rookie third-round pick Royce Freeman is the same back he was three years ago. Yes, he did rush for 1,475 yards last season with the Oregon Ducks, but in 2015, he rushed for 1,836 yards and caught 26 passes. A knee injury in 2016 robbed him of some of his playmaking ability. A struggling Ducks team didn’t help.

    If the Broncos are getting the same player Freeman was in 2015, they may have landed the steal of the draft.

    “With better blocking in front of him, I’m not so sure that he’s not still that same kid we saw as a sophomore,” an AFC personnel director said of Freeman, per NFL Media’s Lance Zierlein.

    If Freeman isn’t that guy, the Broncos could have an underwhelming backfield. 2017 starter C.J. Anderson is gone to the Carolina Panthers, and there isn’t quality depth. Booker did rush for 299 yards last season, but he only averaged 3.8 yards per carry. Henderson saw just seven carries. Janovich started nine games over two years.

    Williams, a seventh-round pick, is a bit of a wild card. The former Arkansas running back averaged 5.6 yards per carry in 2017 and averaged more than 17 yards per reception. He should have a legitimate shot at making the roster.

    If Freeman struggles this offseason, the Broncos may want to bring back free agent Jamaal Charles, who averaged 4.3 yards per carry last season.

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    Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

    Starter: Jerick McKinnon

    Depth: Joe Williams, Matt Breida, Raheem Mostert

    Fullback: Kyle Juszczyk

    The San Francisco 49ers have their franchise quarterback in Jimmy Garoppolo. What they don’t have is a franchise running back. The team added Jerick McKinnon in the offseason, and while he’s a versatile back, he isn’t a workhorse.

    McKinnon produced 570 rushing yards and 421 receiving yards last season. Those are solid numbers, but they aren’t starting-back caliber. He’s going to make some explosive plays in head coach Kyle Shanahan’s offense, but he isn’t likely to dominate games.

    Expect the 49ers to rely on a committee in 2018. McKinnon should split time with Matt Breida, who rushed for 465 yards as a backup last season. They will also be counting on 2017 fourth-round pick Williams, who missed all of last season with an ankle injury. The former Utah standout rushed for 1,407 yards with the Utes in 2016 and will be an offseason wild card.

    Raheem Mostert has spent three years in the NFL but has just seven career carries. He’ll likely be a backup and special teams player. Juszczyk should round out the backfield. He is an experienced veteran who joined the 49ers last year and went on to start 10 games and appear in 14.

    There are many unknowns in the backfield, and a lot will depend on how McKinnon performs in a larger role. It looks, though, like the 49ers are going to have to rely heavily on Garoppolo and the passing game in 2018.

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    Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

    Starter: Aaron Jones

    Depth: Ty Montgomery, Jamaal Williams, Devante Mays

    Fullback: Aaron Ripkowski

    The Green Bay Packers averaged a solid 4.5 yards per carry last season. However, quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers and Brett Hundley helped that number tremendously.

    Jones was the only running back to average more than 4.0 yards per carry, and the Packers averaged just 107.8 yards rushing per game (17th in the NFL). Though Jones did average 5.5 yards per tote, the Packers largely employed a committee backfield, and that may be the case again this season.

    Jones is dealing with legal issues after pleading no-contest to a marijuana-related charge. He’ll need to regain the organization’s trust if he hopes to earn a full-time starting role.

    For now, Jones will be sharing carries with Montgomery, who converted from receiver, and Williams. They averaged 3.8 and 3.6 yards per carry last season, respectively. Williams led the team with 153 carries and added 25 receptions. Montgomery had 23 receptions.

    Ripkowski has been Green Bay’s primary fullback since 2016, and he’ll stay in that role. Just don’t expect him to contribute much as a runner or receiver. Mays was a seventh-round pick and saw just four carries as a rookie in 2017. Barring a massive jump, he’ll be a depth back and a possible special teamer.

    The Packers should have better luck running the ball with Rodgers healthy and able to stretch the field this season. It remains to be seen, however, if their committee backfield is talented enough to be even an average unit.

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    Steve Nesius/Associated Press

    Starter: Ronald Jones

    Depth: Jacquizz Rodgers, Charles Sims, Peyton Barber

    Fullback: Austin Johnson

    The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will likely go with a committee backfield in 2018. Its success will depend on how rookie second-round pick Ronald Jones adapts to the pro game. 

    Jones was a star at USC—he rushed for 1,550 yards just last season—but he doesn’t have the best measurables. He ran the 40 in 4.65 seconds at 5’11” and 205 pounds. While he has enough agility to make defenders miss, Jones isn’t a burner or a bruiser.

    “I love his juice,” one NFC executive said, per Zierlein. “You have to have some of that to become a good back in the pros, and he has a lot of it. He may be a little too light to give it to him more than 12-14 times per game though. I worry if he can hold up.”

    Tampa is bringing back Rodgers and Barber, who rushed for 244 and 423 yards last season, respectively. However, neither averaged more than 3.9 yards per carry. They will provide running depth behind Jones.

    Sims, who caught 35 passes last season, should be the primary receiving back. Johnson, who didn’t appear in any games last season, will have a shot at earning the starting fullback job.

    If Jones manages to be as productive with the Buccaneers as he was with the Trojans, Tampa Bay should have an improved backfield. If he struggles, though, it may be as disappointing as the 27th-ranked unit last season.

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    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    Starter: Rashaad Penny

    Depth: Chris Carson, C.J. Prosise, Mike Davis

    Fullback: Jalston Fowler

    If the Seattle Seahawks are going to have a high-end backfield, Penny is going to have to live up to his status as a first-round pick this April.

    The team’s backfield was largely a joke last season, as was the offensive line’s run blocking. Seattle averaged 101.8 yards per game on the ground, 23rd in the league. However, many of those yards came from quarterback Russell Wilson, who led the team in rushing by a large margin with 586 yards. Davis was second with 240 rushing yards. Carson had just 208.

    While Prosise showed promise as a runner and receiver as a rookie, he had just 49 carries and seven receptions before landing on injured reserve with an ankle injury. Thomas Rawls and Eddie Lacy are both gone.

    Fowler, who spent the last three seasons with the Tennessee Titans, should be the starting fullback.

    It’s going to be up to Penny to return the Seahawks ground game to its former glory, and he’s going to have to do so behind a questionable offensive line.

    At least the rookie is ready for the challenge.

    “I’m not nervous. I’m ready to ball,” Penny said, per Kirk Kenney of the San Diego Union-Tribune.

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    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    Starter: Lamar Miller

    Depth: D’Onta Foreman, Alfred Blue, Tyler Ervin

    Fullback: Jay Prosch

    The Houston Texans struggled to run the ball often in 2017. They can’t blame everything on losing quarterback Deshaun Watson to a torn ACL either.

    Miller was a 1,000-yard back in 2016 but rushed for just 888 yards and a career-low 3.7 yards per carry last season. He did add 36 receptions but didn’t look like the same player.

    Foreman proved to be a quality back as a rookie, but he’s unlikely to challenge for the starting role. He averaged 4.2 yards per carry last season, but Houston lost him for the year after 10 games because of a torn Achilles. He’s still recovering, but the Texans believe he’ll be ready for training camp.

    “We are hoping that he will be back here when we get ready to put the pads back on,” general manager Brian Gaine said, per Aaron Wilson of the Houston Chronicle. “So, we will manage that and massage that as we go forward.”

    Houston brought back Blue on a one-year deal this offseason. He’s spent four campaigns with the Texans and should be the team’s No. 3 back. Ervin will provide depth behind him, while Prosch, a four-year veteran, will lock down the fullback spot.

    If Miller can bounce back from a poor season and Foreman proves healthy, Houston’s backfield could be solid. If these things don’t happen, however, it could be one of the league’s most disappointing.

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    Starter: LeGarrette Blount

    Depth: Kerryon Johnson, Theo Riddick, Ameer Abdullah, Zach Zenner

    Fullback: Nick Bawden

    The Detroit Lions have had a laughable rushing attack for some time. They haven’t had a runner reach 100 yards in a game since 2013, and they ranked dead last in rushing last season (76.3 yards per game). However, they have talent in the backfield, especially after a productive offseason.

    Detroit added Blount in free agency. He rushed for 766 yards and 4.4 yards per carry last season with the Philadelphia Eagles. He will likely take over for 2015 second-round pick Abdullah, who has averaged a mere 3.8 yards per carry for his career (3.3 last season).

    Abdullah may find himself behind both Blount and second-round pick Johnson, if he’s on the roster at all. Johnson was a productive player at Auburn, rushing for 1,391 yards last season and adding 24 receptions.

    Let’s not forget about Riddick, one of the league’s best receiving backs. While he may not add a lot to the ground attack, he’s a valuable member of the backfield as a receiver. He caught 53 passes last season for 444 yards.

    Zenner, a regular preseason standout, should provide depth, while rookie seventh-round pick Bawden should lock down the fullback spot.

    Blount will need to prove he’s still a high-level starter, and Johnson will have to show he has what it takes to succeed in the NFL. Still, it’s looking like the Lions will no longer be laughingstocks in the running game and will have a deep, talented backfield this season.

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    Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

    Starter: Kenyan Drake

    Depth: Frank Gore, Kalen Ballage, Gregory Howell

    Fullback: N/A

    The success of the Miami Dolphins backfield will hinge largely on the success of Drake as a full-time starter. He didn’t get many opportunities last season until the team parted with Jay Ajayi at the end of October. However, he did average 4.8 yards per carry and rush for 75 yards or more in four of the final five games.

    The Dolphins brought in Gore this offseason to complement Drake. While the veteran does still run hard between the tackles, he is 35 years old and hasn’t averaged at least 4.0 yards per carry since 2014. He’ll see some early-down and short-yardage work, but he isn’t the playmaker he once was.

    The good news is that Gore can handle a large workload, and the Dolphins can count on him to start if Drake goes down with an injury.

    Ballage, a rookie fourth-rounder, has good speed (4.46 40-yard dash) and can be a versatile change-of-pace player.

    “I am a running back, but I consider myself a football player. I feel like I’m somebody that can do everything pretty well,” Ballage explained, per Alain Poupart the team’s official website.

    The Dolphins added former Florida Atlantic running back Gregory Howell as an undrafted free agent. He has good size at 6’1″ and 215 pounds and could make the roster as a short-yardage back. Head coach Adam Gase doesn’t feature a tradition fullback in his spread offense, and the Dolphins may not even carry one this season.

    Miami had the fourth-worst rushing offense in 2017 (86.8 yards per game). It has the potential to improve this season, but there remain a lot of unknowns.

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    Al Pereira/Getty Images

    Starter: Isaiah Crowell

    Depth: Bilal Powell, Thomas Rawls, Trenton Cannon

    Fullback: Dimitri Flowers

    The New York Jets are going to command a lot of attention because of the presence of rookie quarterback Sam Darnold, especially if he earns the starting job over Josh McCown. However, the Jets should be getting attention for their backfield.

    New York averaged just 106.4 yards per game last season, 19th in the league. However, this was largely due to the ineffectiveness of Matt Forte and the limited use of Powell. While Powell did start 10 games, he only logged 20 or more carries once. He finished the season with 772 rushing yards, 4.3 yards per carry, 23 receptions and a host of huge plays.

    Powell ranked fourth in the NFL with nine plays of at least 20 yards. A league-leading four of those went for more than 40 yards.

    To complement Powell, the Jets added former Cleveland Browns starter Crowell. The 5’11”, 225-pound back is a powerful between-the-tackles runner who has averaged 4.2 yards per carry throughout his career to go with 21 rushing touchdowns.

    Crowell and Powell will give the Jets a powerful backfield duo. Former Virginia State back Cannon, a player with 4.4 40-yard-dash speed, will further complement them. Rawls will provide veteran depth, while undrafted free agent Flowers could snag the fullback job.

    New York is going to have a good backfield in 2018, though the stats may not show it if Darnold earns the starting job and opposing defenses refuse to respect him.

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    Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

    Starter: Melvin Gordon

    Depth: Austin Ekeler, Justin Jackson, Russell Hansbrough

    Fullback: Derek Watt

    Gordon, a first-round pick in 2015, was finally a 1,000-yard back last season. In fact, he rushed for 1,105 yards, added an impressive 58 receptions and produced 476 yards receiving. Though he is more of a grinder than a playmaker—he averaged 3.9 yards per carry in each of the last two seasons—he is a legitimate workhorse.

    The Chargers have a solid backup in Ekeler. He averaged 5.5 yards per carry on 47 attempts and added 27 receptions and 279 receiving yards. He showed he can be an explosive player who deserves a few more opportunities in 2018.

    The Chargers grabbed former Northwestern running back Jackson in the seventh round of the draft. He rushed for 1,311 yards and 11 touchdowns and added 44 receptions last season with the Wildcats. He should provide great situational depth and could even steal some reps from Gordon and Ekeler in passing situations.

    Hansbrough is a third-year player who spent the majority of 2017 on L.A’s practice squad. Derek Watt, the brother of defensive star J.J. Watt, has spent the last two years as the team’s fullback.

    The Chargers should hope that Gordon can be a more consistent and explosive runner in 2018. However, he can handle a huge workload, and there’s some decent depth behind him. The team will have a good group this season.

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    Jose Luis Magana/Associated Press

    Starter: Derrius Guice

    Depth: Chris Thompson, Rob Kelley, Samaje Perine

    Fullback: Elijah Wellman

    The Washington Redskins had the league’s 28th-ranked rushing attack in 2017 (90.5 yards per game) but could have one of the league’s most improved backfields this season. It’s all going to depend on how rookie second-round pick Guice performs.

    He is a dynamic runner who can break tackles and make defenders miss. He rushed for 1,251 yards at LSU last season and has the kind of motor teams want in a starter.

    “He’s just a ball of energy,” head coach Jay Gruden said, per John Keim of ESPN.com. “He’s really excited to be here. He’s willing to learn. He’s first in the meeting, got his playbook open and just soaking in all the knowledge.”

    Thompson will likely be backing up Guice, assuming he’s the same player he was before last year’s broken fibula. The 27-year-old is a tremendous receiving back (510 yards on 39 catches in 10 games) and an underrated runner. He averaged 4.6 yards per carry in 2017.

    Perine and Kelley were often inefficient runners last season—nether averaged 3.5 yards per carry—but will add experience and depth to the backfield. Wellman, an undrafted free agent, could stick as Washington’s fullback.

    If Guice is the same kind of player he was at LSU and Thompson is back to 100 percent, the Redskins could have one of the league’s better running back duos this season.

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    Patrick Smith/Getty Images

    Starter: Alex Collins

    Depth: Javorius Allen, Kenneth Dixon, Gus Edwards

    Fullback: Patrick Ricard

    The Baltimore Ravens found themselves a starting-caliber back in Collins, whom they scooped up after Seattle cut him in September. Though he only made 12 starts, Collins rushed for 973 yards and averaged 4.6 per carry. He also added 187 yards on 23 receptions.

    The rest of the backfield was a bit disappointing. While the team ranked 11th in yards per game (116.0), it only averaged 4.0 yards per carry (19th).

    Allen will be a solid backup behind Collins—he rushed for 591 yards last season—but his biggest value may be as a receiving back. He logged 46 receptions in 2017. Dixon will try to bounce back after a season lost to suspension and a meniscus injury. He’ll provide depth along with undrafted rookie and former Rutgers standout Edwards.

    Ricard, who also plays defensive tackle, will likely serve as Baltimore’s fullback when the offense decides to use one.

    A lot will depend on how Collins responds to being the team’s unquestioned starter. Baltimore didn’t draft a running back and parted with Terrance West in the offseason.

    “I know I’m durable. I can handle the load, and I can do whatever it takes,” Collins said recently, per Jamison Hensley of ESPN.com.

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    Gregory Payan/Associated Press

    Starter: Jay Ajayi

    Depth: Corey Clement, Darren Sproles, Wendell Smallwood, Donnel Pumphrey

    Fullback: N/A

    Ajayi appears likely to take over for Blount as the Eagles’ starter. He rushed for 408 yards in seven games for Philadelphia last season and averaged an impressive 5.8 yards per carry. He has the size (6’0″, 233 lbs) and the skill set to be a workhorse back, as he proved with the Dolphins in 2016 (260 carries, 1,272 yards).

    Second-year player Clement, who rushed for 321 yards last season, should serve as Philadelphia’s backup rusher. Sproles has decided to return for another season on a one-year $1.4 million deal, and the veteran, who will turn 35 in June, should be the primary receiving back.

    Sproles has logged 532 receptions over his 13-year career (missed all of 2006). While Philly lost him to injury after just three games last season, he had at least 50 receptions in both 2015 and 2016.

    Smallwood and Pumphrey will provide depth behind Ajayi, Clement and Sproles. The Eagles rarely use a fullback and typically place other position players into the role when they do line up with one.

    If Ajayi can be the same guy he was in 2016 and if Sproles still has anything left in the tank, the Eagles backfield can be even more talented than it was in 2017. While there’s no clear-cut star in this group, it’s the sum of its parts and creative offensive design from head coach Doug Pederson that give it upside. 

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    Adam Bettcher/Getty Images

    Starter: Dalvin Cook

    Depth: Latavius Murray, Mack Brown, Roc Thomas

    Fullback: C.J. Ham

    The success of the Minnesota Vikings backfield will depend on second-year back Dalvin Cook’s health. As a rookie, Cook looked like a future star before suffering a torn ACL. He rushed for 354 yards and caught 11 passes in his four appearances.

    Fortunately, it appears Cook is on schedule to start in Week 1.

    “He’s done really well,” head coach Mike Zimmer told NFL Network earlier this month. “He’s ahead of schedule. We’re excited about where he’s at.”

    The Vikings also have depth behind Cook in the form of Latavius Murray. He led the Vikings with 842 yards rushing last season. He and Cook should form an even better duo than Minnesota had in Murray and Jerick McKinnon last season. Those two helped give the Vikings the league’s seventh-ranked rushing attack (122.3 yards per game).

    Mack Brown and undrafted free agent Roc Thomas will provide further depth in the backfield. C.J. Ham is entering his second season as Minnesota’s fullback.

    If Cook is the same player he was before the injury, the Vikings should have one of the top backfields in the league. Even if he isn’t back to 100 percent right away, Minnesota’s backfield will be more than serviceable.

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    Grant Halverson/Getty Images

    Starter: C.J. Anderson

    Depth: Christian McCaffrey, Cameron Artis-Payne, Kenjon Barner, Elijah Hood

    Fullback: Alex Armah

    The Carolina Panthers had the league’s fourth-ranked rushing attack last year (131.4 yards per game), but 754 rushing yards came from quarterback Cam Newton. Starting back Jonathan Stewart wasn’t all that effective (3.4 yards per carry).

    To replace Stewart, the Panthers brought in former Broncos back C.J. Anderson, who rushed for 1,007 yards on 4.1 yards per carry last season. They also have Christian McCaffrey, who established himself as one of the league’s most versatile backs as a rookie.

    McCaffrey rushed for 435 yards, caught 80 passes and produced 651 receiving yards. Anderson and McCaffrey should provide a similar one-two punch as Stewart-McCaffrey provided last year. 

    The Panthers lost depth back Fozzy Whittaker to a torn ACL this offseason, but they have Cameron Artis-Payne. The former Auburn standout has never carved out a large role in Carolina’s offense, but he does have a solid 4.3 yards-per-carry average for his career.

    Artis-Payne and former Raiders back Elijah Hood will provide depth behind Anderson and McCaffrey. Second-year man Alex Armah should hold down the fullback spot.

    A lot is going to depend whether Anderson can be a 1,000-yard back for the Panthers. However, there is a ton of versatility with this group.

    Do the Panthers have an elite backfield? No, but they will have a good one in 2018 and should have one of the league’s best rushing attacks thanks to Newton.

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    Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

    Starter: LeSean McCoy

    Depth: Chris Ivory, Taiwan Jones, Travaris Cadet, Marcus Murphy

    Fullback: Patrick DiMarco

    Buffalo Bills running back LeSean McCoy is closing in on his 30th birthday (July 12), but he’s still one of the most explosive backs in the NFL. Though he only averaged 4.0 yards per carry last season, he tied for first in the NFL with 12 carries of at least 20 yards. He also caught 59 passes for 448 yards.

    In 2017, McCoy essentially was Buffalo’s offense outside of quarterback Tyrod Taylor. He’ll likely be the main guy supporting either AJ McCarron or rookie Josh Allen this season. However, the Bills at least brought in Chris Ivory to help provide depth.

    Ivory is an experienced back, but he averaged just 3.4 yards per carry with the Jaguars last year. He’ll likely be Buffalo’s primary backup, but he may no longer be one of the best backups in the league. Taiwan Jones, Travaris Cadet and Marcus Murphy are strictly depth players who combined for just 29 carries in 2017.

    Fullback Patrick DiMarco is a solid seven-year veteran.

    Buffalo would have been wise to add a running back in the draft this year. There isn’t much talent outside of McCoy. He’s going to face a lot of stacked boxes until/unless opposing defenses start respecting McCarron or Allen at quarterback.

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Starter: David Johnson

    Depth: Chase Edmonds, Elijhaa Penny, D.J. Foster

    Fullback: Derrick Coleman

    Running back David Johnson missed 15 games with a wrist injury last year, and the Arizona Cardinals offense plummeted. How we view the Cardinals’ backfield this season will depend entirely on whether he is the same back he was before the injury. So far, it appears he is on the right track.

    “He looked outstanding today,” head coach Steve Wilks recently told NFL Network. “It’s good to have him back out there. Just flying around and the things that he’s doing right now is pretty exciting.”

    There isn’t a whole lot of proven depth behind Johnson, though. Elijhaa Penny rushed for just 124 yards last season with the Cardinals, while D.J. Foster saw just six carries.

    Chase Edmonds is a rookie fourth-round pick out of Fordham. While he was a quality collegiate runner, he didn’t face a high level of competition. He did have nearly 1,800 rushing yards two seasons ago, but he isn’t likely ready for a heavy workload at the NFL level.

    Johnson is also going to have to get used to running behind a fullback. The Cardinals almost never used one under Bruce Arians but will be using one under Wilks. Derrick Coleman, who started seven games for the Atlanta Falcons last season, will almost certainly earn the starting job.

    Two years ago, Johnson produced more than 2,000 combined rushing and receiving yards. If he does so again, Arizona’s backfield would deserve to be higher on this list—even if Johnson does all the heavy lifting. 

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    Harry How/Getty Images

    Starter: Devonta Freeman

    Depth: Tevin Coleman, Ito Smith, Justin Crawford

    Fullback: Daniel Marx

    The Falcons have a pair of quality running backs in Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. However, the duo didn’t see as much production in Steve Sarkisian’s offense as it did in Kyle Shanahan’s. 

    It has to be noted that Freeman missed two games last season and Coleman missed one. Still, Freeman went from 1,541 combined rushing and receiving yards to 1,182 combined yards. His yards-per-carry average fell from 4.8 to 4.4.

    Coleman was roughly the same back. He had 941 combined yards in 2016 (in 13 games) and 927 combined yards in 2017.

    Freeman and Coleman can still be one of the league’s better duos, especially if Sarkisian’s offense takes a big step forward in his second season as offensive coordinator. There isn’t proven depth behind the two, though. Ito Smith was added in the fourth round, and Justin Crawford was signed as an undrafted free agent.

    Fullback Daniel Marx was also added as an undrafted free agent.

    We know what Freeman and Coleman can do, and they’ll be the primary contributors to an above-average backfield in 2018. We don’t know what the rookies will add, and they could be the pieces needed to make it one of the best units in the league.

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    Tom Pennington/Getty Images

    Starter: Saquon Barkley

    Depth: Jonathan Stewart, Wayne Gallman, Robert Martin

    Fullback: Shane Smith

    The New York Giants had a dismal rushing attack in 2017. They didn’t have the kind of running back opposing defenses would worry about and averaged just 96.8 yards rushing per game (26th in the NFL).

    Things should be completely different this year.

    New York selected former Penn State running back Saquon Barkley with the second overall pick in the draft. Barkley is a do-it-all back who can change the course of a game all by himself.

    “You don’t screw up the special ones when you are a talent evaluator. This guy is special. Any concerns you file on him just feels like nitpicking to fill out the report,” one general manager said of Barkley heading into the draft, per NFL Media’s Lance Zierlein.

    The Giants also brought in Stewart in free agency. He amassed 640 yards rushing with the Panthers in 2017. In addition, New York has Wayne Gallman, who accumulated 476 yards rushing and 34 receptions last season. Undrafted Rutgers product Robert Martin should provide depth, while tight end-fullback hybrid Shane Smith will also see some time in the backfield.

    If Barkley is everything he’s expected to be as a player, the Giants could have an elite backfield. They have a potential superstar, good veteran depth and Odell Beckham Jr. to keep defenders honest. 

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    Don Wright/Associated Press

    Starter: Carlos Hyde

    Depth: Duke Johnson, Nick Chubb, Matt Dayes

    Fullback: Dan Vitale

    The Cleveland Browns offense was bad in 2017. Cleveland averaged a league-low 14.6 points per game and had a rotation of folly at the quarterback position. However, the Browns were actually very good at running the ball.

    Cleveland averaged just 107.1 yards per game on the ground (18th in the NFL), but this was largely due to the team trailing in games and Hue Jackson’s refusal to stick with the run. As a team, the Browns averaged 4.5 yards per carry. Only the Kansas City Chiefs and New Orleans Saints averaged more in 2017.

    The Browns replaced Crowell with former 49ers back Carlos Hyde, who many consider a superior back. Hyde was recently named the 97th-best player on NFL Network’s NFL 100 list. Hyde rushed for 940 yards and caught 59 passes last season.

    Hyde will likely split carries with rookie second-round pick Nick Chubb, who was one of the draft’s most productive backs. Last season at Georgia, Chubb racked up 1,345 yards rushing.

    Cleveland features one of the NFL’s best pass-catching backs. Duke Johnson caught 74 passes for 693 yards last season. He’s caught at least 50 passes in each of his three NFL seasons and has averaged 4.2 yards per carry. He, Hyde and Chubb should form one of the league’s most dangerous three-headed backfield attacks this season. Matt Dayes will provide depth and Dan Vitale will serve as fullback. 

    With Todd Haley now running the offense in Cleveland, the backfield could be one of the league’s most productive. 

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    Gary McCullough/Associated Press

    Starter: Leonard Fournette

    Depth: T.J. Yeldon, Corey Grant, Tim Cook, Brandon Wilds

    Fullback: Tommy Bohanon

    Jacksonville Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette wasn’t the Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2017, but he had an even bigger impact on his team than winner Alvin Kamara. The 6’1″, 228-pound bruiser became the player to stop on Jacksonville’s offense, and he helped turn the Jaguars into a legitimate Super Bowl contender.

    Fournette rushed for 1,040 yards in just 13 games last season. Expect him to compete for the NFL rushing title in 2018.

    Former second-round pick T.J. Yeldon is one of the better backups in the league, and he can definitely start in a pinch. He averaged an impressive 5.2 yards per carry last season. Corey Grant is an explosive depth back (8.3 yards per carry in 2017) who provides a nice change of pace.

    Tim Cook hasn’t seen regular-season action, but at 6’0″, 242 pounds, he has the size to be a bulldozer between the tackles. Brandon Wilds has spent time with the Jets and Browns and brings experience to the bottom of the depth chart.

    Fullback Tommy Bohanon is a quality lead blocker and pass protector, but he doesn’t add much as a runner. He’s averaged fewer than three yards per carry over the course of his career.

    The ground game is the identity of the Jaguars offense. As a team, the Jaguars averaged 141.4 yards per game last season, most in the NFL. If a player like Grant or Cook can replace the production of the departed Chris Ivory, Jacksonville should again have one of the top rushing attacks in the league.

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    Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

    Starter: Ezekiel Elliott

    Depth: Bo Scarbrough, Rod Smith, Trey Williams

    Fullback: Jamize Olawale

    The Dallas Cowboys have one of the league’s best running backs in Ezekiel Elliott. He only appeared in 10 games because of suspension last season but still managed to rush for 983 yards and 4.1 yards per carry. He’s also a quality pass-catcher who has racked up 58 receptions in less than two full seasons.

    The problem with Dallas’ backfield is that it lacks proven depth. The Cowboys haven’t re-signed Alfred Morris, who rushed for 547 yards last season. That leaves Rod Smith as the veteran backup behind Elliott. He rushed for 4.2 yards per carry last season but has 57 total NFL carries.

    The Cowboys drafted former Alabama running back Bo Scarbrough in the seventh round. He is a 6’1″, 228-pound bruiser who should see some work in short-yardage situations. The Cowboys also have Trey Williams, who has also spent time with the Colts and Steelers.

    Fullback Jamize Olawale is a six-year veteran who has spent his entire career with the Raiders.

    While Dallas’ backfield is mainly a one-man show, the quality of the team’s offensive line suggests guys like Scarbrough and Smith can succeed if thrust into a starting role for a short stretch. Even with Elliott absent for six games, the Cowboys still finished the season ranked second in rushing, with an average of 135.6 yards per game.

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Starter: Le’Veon Bell

    Depth: James Conner, Fiztgerald Toussaint, Stevan Ridley, Jaylen Samuels

    Fullback: Roosevelt Nix

    You may expect to see the Pittsburgh Steelers higher on this list because they feature three-time Pro Bowler Le’Veon Bell. While it’s true Bell is one of the most talented backs in the NFL, the Steelers just don’t have much behind him.

    Bell rushed for 1,291 yards and caught 85 passes last season. James Conner was second on the team with just 144 yards rushing. Fitzgerald Toussaint and fullback Roosevelt Nix tied for second among backs with just two receptions apiece.

    Veteran Stevan Ridley is purely a situational backup at this point in his career. Rookie fifth-round pick Jaylen Samuels is a hybrid back who may push for Nix’s job.

    Pittsburgh still has a good backfield because it has Bell; however, it’s top-heavy and could be undone if he suffers an injury, sees his play decline or isn’t in football shape early in the season due to again avoiding the offseason.

    Bell avoided the team until just before the start of the 2017 season, missed the opener and struggled over the first month of the season.

    Even with him on the field, the Steelers ranked just 20th in rushing (104.2 yards per game) and had almost no receiving production in the backfield.

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    Tim Warner/Getty Images

    Starter: Sony Michel

    Depth: James White, Rex Burkhead, Brandon Bolden, Jeremy Hill

    Fullback: James Develin

    The Patriots used a committee approach last season. New England ranked 10th in the NFL in rushing (188.1 yards per game). Backs like James White and Lewis—who combined for 88 receptions—were also big-time contributors to the passing game.

    New England could again utilize a committee approach, but it also drafted a potential workhorse back in Sony Michel. The former Georgia Bulldog has a good combination of size (5’11”, 214 lbs) and speed (4.54) and can excel both inside the tackles and on the edge. He rushed for 1,227 yards on 7.9 yards per carry last season.

    Lewis is gone, but White will return as the team’s primary receiving back. Rex Burkhead is a versatile rusher and receiver who will provide depth behind Michel and White. Hill will likely compete with Mike Gillislee for a roster spot, though Gillislee may be the odd man out because of his contract.

    He is due $2.1 million this season, but none of that money is guaranteed.

    Brandon Bolden has become a special teams staple for the Patriots, and he could earn a roster spot based on that alone. James Develin is coming off a Pro Bowl campaign and is a virtual lock to make the team. Though not technically a back, we could see a lot of offseason acquisition Cordarrelle Patterson in the backfield this year.

    New England may not lean on the ground game like some teams—at least as long as Tom Brady is under center. However, the Patriots have a great collection of talent in their backfield and may have the league’s most versatility.

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    Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

    Starter: Derrick Henry

    Depth: Dion Lewis, David Fluellen, Akrum Wadley

    Fullback: Anthony Firkser

    Former Heisman-winner Derrick Henry emerged as the Tennessee Titans’ best back during the second half of the 2017 season. While he still shared with DeMarco Murray, he managed to finish the year with 744 yards and an average of 4.2 yards per carry. With Murray gone, Henry is in position to be one of the most dominant runners in the league.

    This offseason, the Titans added former New England Patriot Dion Lewis, one of the most versatile backs in the NFL. The explosive playmaker rushed for 896 yards and 5.0 yards per carry last season. He also caught 32 passes for 214 yards. He and Henry should forge one of the best backfield duos in the league.

    “I am definitely excited he is on our side now,” Henry said of Lewis, via the team’s official website.

    Taiwan Taylor is a solid receiving back who can help the passing game in a situational role He caught 16 passes for 231 yards last season. David Fluellen is purely a depth player with limited experience in an NFL offense.

    The wildcard here is former Iowa running back Akrum Wadley. The undrafted free agent is a shifty runner who can create his own space even in a crowd. He rushed for 1,109 yards last season and produced 353 receiving yards. He has a chance to become Tennessee’s change-of-pace back behind Henry and Lewis.

    Anthony Firkser is a tight-end fullback hybrid who was signed after a recent tryout. If the Titans choose to carry a traditional fullback this season, he could be the guy.

    Tennessee’s backfield will largely be defined by the tandem of Henry and Lewis. IF healthy, though, these two will combine to give the Titans one of the best and most versatile backfields in the league.

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    Dylan Buell/Getty Images

    Starter: Jordan Howard

    Depth: Tarik Cohen, Benny Cunningham, Taquan Mizzell, Ryan Nall

    Fullback: Michael Burton

    The Chicago Bears’ Jordan Howard has emerged as one of the NFL’s top rushers. He finished his rookie season with 1,313 yards, second-most in the NFL. Last season, he rushed for 1,122 yards and 4.1 yards per carry even though Chicago had the league’s least threatening passing attack (175.7 yards per game).

    Howard isn’t the only standout back on the roster, though. Tarik Cohen is a supremely talented runner and receiver and a perfect complement to Howard. Last season, he amassed 370 rushing yards, 53 receptions and 353 receiving yards.

    Benny Cunningham is the No. 3 back behind Howard and Cohen, but he’s a quality contributor when he gets on the field. He caught 20 passes for 240 yards and two touchdowns in 2017. Taquan Mizzell appeared in three games as a rookie last season but didn’t record any statistics. He is purely depth.

    Michael Burton served as fullback last season, and he is a good lead blocker. He could, however, be pushed for the starting job by fullback-running back hybrid Ryan Nall.

    Chicago is going to have one of the best backfields in the NFL this season, and it’s going to get a boost. The addition of pass-catchers like Allen Robinson II, Taylor Gabriel and Anthony Miller should ensure the Bears offense isn’t again hamstrung by the league’s worst passing attack.

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    Harry How/Getty Images

    Starter: Todd Gurley II

    Depth: Malcolm Brown, Justin Davis, John Kelly

    Fullback: N/A

    Running back Todd Gurley was a difference-maker for the Los Angeles Rams last season. He rushed for 1,305 yards, caught 64 passes and produced 788 receiving yards. He also commanded the attention of opposing defenses and took a ton of pressure off second-year quarterback Jared Goff.

    The Rams have a solid backup in former Texas standout Malcolm Brown. He rushed for 246 yards in limited action last season and added nine receptions. He isn’t likely to see the field often in 2018, however, according to head coach Sean McVay.

    “What Todd did was he showed why he’s a complete back, and to take him off the field, he better be pretty tired,” McVay said, via the team’s official website. “You want to be smart about that, but there’s a reason why he was able to have all that success.”

    While Gurley is a bona fide star, and Brown is a quality backup, keep an eye on rookie sixth-round pick John Kelly. The Tennessee product racked up 778 rushing yards and 37 receptions last season and could be a situational player.

    Justin Davis appeared in four games for the Rams but logged just one carry. He’ll be purely a depth player and special teamer. Los Angeles waived fullback Sam Rogers last week and may not carry a player at the position.

    If Gurley misses extended time, the Rams backfield will take a major hit. There is enough depth, however, for it to keep rolling for a short stretch without him.

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    Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    Starter: Alvin Kamara

    Depth: Mark Ingram II, Boston Scott, Daniel Lasco, Trey Edmunds

    Fullback: Zach Line

    Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram II formed the NFL’s best backfield duo in 2017. The pair helped the Saints to the league’s fifth-ranked rushing attack (129.4 yards per game) and combined for a whopping 139 receptions and 1,242 receiving yards.

    The Saints backfield may take a slight step back, as Ingram was handed a four-game suspension for violating the league’s performance-enhancing drugs policy. Ingram appealed the suspension, but it was upheld in arbitration.

    This means the Saints will be without their leading rusher from 2017 for a month. But Kamara has the talent needed to start in Ingram’s stead. The bad news is there isn’t much depth behind Kamara.

    Daniel Lasco was primarily a special-teamer and had his season cut short by a spinal injury in 2017. Trey Edmunds is another special-teamer who had just nine carries last season. Boston Scott is a rookie sixth-rounder out of Louisiana Tech. Zach Line is a blocking fullback who had just seven carries and two receptions in 2017.

    New Orleans should be fine as long as Kamara stays healthy over the first month. Statistically, the Saints backfield might not be what it was in 2017, but it should still be one of the best groups in the NFL.

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    Reed Hoffmann/Associated Press

    Starter: Kareem Hunt

    Depth: Spencer Ware, Charcandrick West, Kerwynn Williams

    Fullback: Anthony Sherman

    Kansas City’s Kareem Hunt was the league’s most explosive back in 2017. He led the NFL with 1,327 yards rushing and also tied for the league lead with 12 rushes of 20 yards or more. And he tied for second with three rushes of at least 40 yards.

    Hunt was also a tremendous pass-catcher, finishing with 53 receptions for 455 yards and three scores.

    Unlike teams like the Steelers and the Rams, though, the Chiefs don’t have just a one-man backfield. They have a tremendous backup in Charcandrick West, who averaged 4.0 yards per carry last season while catching 27 passes. They also have Spencer Ware, who missed all of last season with a torn PCL.

    Before the injury, though, Ware was a budding star. In 2016, he rushed for 921 yards, averaged 4.3 yards per carry and caught 33 passes. If he’s back to 100 percent, Kansas City will essentially have two starting-caliber backs and one of the better backups in the league.

    Oh, and the Chiefs also have former Cardinals back Kerwynn Williams, who signed a one-year, $790,000 deal this offseason. He made six starts and rushed for 426 yards last season.

    With veteran Anthony Sherman also in the backfield, the Chiefs should have the best group in the league. They can run the ball with multiple guys, keep their backs fresh and also provide first-year starting quarterback Patrick Mahomes with quality receiving outlets.

       

    All contract information via Spotrac.com.

Every NFL Team’s Most Important Training Camp Battle

Every NFL Team’s Most Important Training Camp Battle

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    Jeffrey T. Barnes/Associated Press

    Roll up the sleeping bags.

    Pack up the pup tents.

    Load up the s’mores supplies.

    It’s time to go camping!

    OK, that’s a totally different kind of camping. And training camp won’t begin in earnest in the NFL until July. But teams have already conducted their rookie minicamps. More OTAs will follow—some voluntary, others not so much.

    The preparation for 2018 has begun.

    As all 32 teams in the NFL get ready for training camp, all have one thing in common, whether it’s the winless Cleveland Browns or the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles.

    For every NFL team, there’s a need that must be addressed. A hole that must be filled.

    One looming camp battle that’s more important than the all the rest.

       

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    Sam Bradford‘s gone from the first overall pick in the 2010 NFL draft to a player teams look to replace almost as soon as they acquire him.

    One year after the Philadelphia Eagles traded for Bradford, the team moved up to draft Carson Wentz. Bradford was then dealt to the Minnesota Vikings, where he started 15 games in 2016 and two last year before going down with a knee injury.

    This offseason, the Vikings signed Kirk Cousins, and Bradford was on the road again.

    Now, the 30-year-old finds himself in Arizona, and it’s fair to wonder if he’ll even get one season as starter with the fourth team of his career.

    The Redbirds moved up in Round 1 of the 2018 draft to select UCLA signal-caller Josh Rosen, and while speaking to Omar Ruiz of NFL Network, new Cardinals head coach Steve Wilks made it clear that Bradford’s leash is as long as his performance dictates.

    “We’re pushing everybody to start,” he said. “I’ve stated this several times: Sam Bradford’s our starter. We’ve gotta go out there with 11 guys, and Sam’s gonna be the first guy out there.

    “But everybody’s fighting for a position, so I’m not going to hold him back at all. I want guys competing. I want guys fighting for the starting job. Whoever ends up winning the position, that’s who’s gonna end up playing. “

    The Cardinals were an eight-win team last year despite being ravaged by injuries. It’s a team that can make some hay in 2018—if they get decent quarterback play.

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    Young Kwak/Associated Press

    If you’re looking for dramatic training camp battles for starting spots, Atlanta probably isn’t the place to look. Sure, it will be interesting to see how quickly rookie wide receiver Calvin Ridley picks up the NFL game and whether edge-rusher Takkarist McKinley is ready to take a big step forward in 2018, but the starting lineups on both sides of the ball are pretty much set.

    With one exception.

    The fullback position is going the way of the dinosaur and rotary phones. Many NFL teams no longer carry one at all. The Falcons had one of the best in the game during their Super Bowl run in Patrick DiMarco, but he left in free agency before the 2017 season.

    His absence was felt, especially in short-yardage situations.

    This isn’t to say the Falcons made a big investment at the position. Stanford’s Daniel Marx and Nebraska’s Luke McNitt were both undrafted free agents. Marx blocked for Christian McCaffrey and Bryce Love in Palo Alto. McNitt told Brian Christopherson of 247Sports that the absence of a fullback on Atlanta’s roster is one of the things that attracted him to the team.

    “They don’t have a fullback on the roster right now, so I have a chance to come in and compete for a starting job,” McNitt said. “I’m just all about making an active roster.”

    One of these youngsters will make the 53-man roster. The other’s NFL career may be over before it begins.

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    Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

    There are two players the Baltimore Ravens hope will touch the ball on every snap in 2018.

    One is quarterback Joe Flacco. If we see rookie Lamar Jackson in games that count this season, it means something has gone wrong in Charm City.

    The matter of who will be snapping Flacco (and possibly Jackson) the ball is much less certain after fifth-year pro Ryan Jensen left for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in free agency.

    Per Ryan Mink of the team’s website, the early leader to start at center is Matt Skura, who made 12 starts at right guard in place of an injured Marshal Yanda last season. Skura’s natural position is in the middle, and he told Mink he’s looking forward to the opportunity to show what he can do in his second year.

    “It’s a really good opportunity for me to showcase to the coaches that I can be that leader on the offensive line and make the calls to direct guys where to go,” Skura said. “I think that’s the biggest thing for me.”

    Skura will be pushed by Alex Lewis, sixth-round rookie Bradley Bozeman and possibly Nico Siragusa, but head coach John Harbaugh would surely rather see this camp battle end early and emphatically.

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    Jeffrey T. Barnes/Associated Press

    Of all the battles to start at quarterback in the NFL this summer, Buffalo’s has to be the weirdest.

    Sure, it’s possible that rookie Josh Allen winning this duel could mean that the youngster tore up training camp and proved to be much more ready for the pro game than we believed.

    The problem is that everything we’ve seen from the Wyoming quarterback indicates he isn’t ready yet. He needs time to learn better mechanics and footwork and to work on progressing through his reads before delivering an accurate throw.

    The more likely scenario, should Allen “win” the job, is that free-agent acquisition AJ McCarron lost it. McCarron showed some ability in starting four games (including a playoff game) for the Cincinnati Bengals in 2015, but the Bengals didn’t think twice about letting McCarron walk once he won his grievance and was declared an unrestricted free agent this spring.

    In a perfect world, McCarron will play just well enough to hold Allen off and justify keeping the rookie on the bench while he develops.

    We don’t live in a perfect world though. And after making the playoffs last year for the first time since 1999, a rough start to the season isn’t going to sit well with the fanbase.

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    Chuck Burton/Associated Press

    The Carolina Panthers’ hole at wide receiver isn’t new. Nor is 2018 the first time the team has tried to fill it.

    Early draft picks Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess weren’t failures, but neither was or is exactly a success. With Benjamin now in Buffalo, it’s back to the old drawing board—with a familiar strategy.

    The veteran/rookie two-step.

    The experienced half of the fight to start opposite Funchess is eighth-year man Torrey Smith, who won a Super Bowl with the Eagles in 2017. The good news is Smith has a 1,000-yard season on his resume.

    The bad news is it came in 2013—and he hasn’t had even 800 yards since.

    No. 24 pick D.J. Moore will push Smith in camp. The 6’0″, 210-pounder may have the most athleticism and highest ceiling of any pass-catcher in the class, but like those of many first-year receivers, his route tree is a work in progress.

    The best case is Moore shines and seizes the job. The worst is neither does and tailback Christian McCaffrey notches 221 three-yard catches in 2018.

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    John Froschauer/Associated Press

    It’s a time of great change in the Windy City. Chicago Bears general manager Ryan Pace was aggressive in the offseason in improving both the weapons around 23-year-old quarterback Mitchell Trubisky and the Bears defense.

    There remains a looming question in the latter regard though.

    With Pernell McPhee, Willie Young and Lamarr Houston all gone, the Bears need an edge-rusher opposite Leonard Floyd.

    The hope is that will be Aaron Lynch, who joined the Bears in free agency after four years in San Francisco. Over his first two NFL seasons, Lynch amassed 12.5 sacks and showed considerable potential. However, over the last two seasons, Lynch’s production fell off a cliff.

    Two-and-a-half sacks in two seasons is, um, yeah.

    If Lynch can’t recapture past glories, the Bears may turn to rookie Kylie Fitts, who piled up seven sacks at Utah in 2015 before injuries ruined his last two years. Per Colleen Kane of the Chicago Tribune, Fitts impressed at rookie minicamp.

    “He’s a kid that has a good motor,” new Bears head coach Matt Nagy said of the 6’4″, 253-pounder. “He can bend well, he accelerates well and then he has nice size, too. So really good kid that’s putting it all together.”

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    Gary Landers/Associated Press

    It’s no secret that Carlos Dunlap will fill one of the starting defensive end spots for the Cincinnati Bengals—just as it’s no surprise that Dunlap’s production has been down the past two years. He’s also entering into a contract season.

    The presumptive starter opposite Dunlap is 10th-year veteran Michael Johnson. Johnson’s a steady pro who has piled up 44 career sacks. His 2017 sack total was the third-highest of his career. But that total was five, and Johnson’s had over six in a season once.

    A number of youngsters could push him. There’s second-year pro Carl Lawson, who flashed pass-rushing chops with 8.5 sacks as a rookie. Fellow second-year player Jordan Willis, a third-rounder who made one start in 2017. And rookie Sam Hubbard, who the Bengals took on Day 2 this year after his standout career at Ohio State.

    Lawson will see time as a nickel edge-rusher as well as snaps at “Sam” linebacker if last year was any indication. The question then becomes if Willis or Hubbard can impress enough in base sets to give Johnson a run for his money.

    Cincy needs to maximize its up-front depth on defense if the team’s going to get back into contention in the AFC North.

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    There’s little doubt what the biggest training camp battle in Cleveland is.

    In one fashion or another, it’s been going on for the past two decades.

    Cleveland’s never-ending search for a quality starting quarterback features a pair of new faces this year. As Mary Kay Cabot reported for Cleveland.com, head coach Hue Jackson insisted that the matter’s already decided—veteran Tyrod Taylor will start for the Browns in Week 1.

    “I’m not going to back off of this,” he said. “We can keep writing this narrative; Tyrod Taylor’s the starting quarterback of this football team, and that won’t change.”

    The narrative Jackson mentioned is that No. 1 overall pick Baker Mayfield is nipping at Taylor’s heels. And while Jackson can double down until the cows come home, pretending he isn’t there doesn’t change anything.

    This isn’t to say Taylor shouldn’t start. The reason for acquiring him to begin with was as a “bridge” to a rookie (who turned out to be Mayfield).

    But that rookie’s in town because Taylor’s a known commodity. A low-ceiling one at that.

    If Mayfield shines and/or Taylor struggles in camp, Jackson will have a Grade A quarterback controversy on his hands.

    Ignoring it would be a very Hue Jackson thing to do.

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    Roger Steinman/Associated Press

    You may have heard, but the Dallas Cowboys are overhauling the wide receiver position.

    They are officially in the post-Dez Bryant era.

    Bryant’s release was just one part of a flurry of activity at the position for Jerruh’s boys this offseason. The team added a trio of veteran options in Tavon Austin, Allen Hurns and Deonte Thompson. Two more wideouts joined via the draft in third-rounder Michael Gallup and sixth-rounder Cedrick Wilson.

    The question is: Who slots where?

    As Mike Fisher reported for 247Sports, the Cowboys apparently have a “hybrid” role in mind for Austin, the 2013 first-round pick who flamed out with the Rams. He’ll spend time lined up in both the slot and the backfield as a “web back.”

    Sounds like a knockoff Spider-Man villain.

    Assuming he can stay healthy, Hurns would appear an obvious choice for one starting spot, as he’s the only receiver on the roster with a 1,000-yard season to his credit. However, that came in 2015, and Hurns has missed 11 games in the two years since.

    That leaves one spot up for grabs between holdover Terrance Williams, Thompson (a six-year pro who posted a 38-catch, 555-yard, two-TD stat line in Buffalo and Chicago in 2017) and Gallup (a 6’1″, 205-pounder who caught 100 passes for 1,418 yards at Colorado State last year).

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    Jeff Haynes/Associated Press

    The Denver Broncos hope they have addressed the quarterback position (at least in the short term) with the addition of Case Keenum. The 30-year-old has a number of passing-game weapons at his disposal in Emmanuel Sanders, Demaryius Thomas and rookie Courtland Sutton.

    The run game is much more uncertain.

    With C.J. Anderson gone, there’ll be a new lead back in Denver. Third-year pro Devontae Booker has piled up over 250 carries for the Broncos the last two years combined, but he hasn’t done a lot with them—averaging 3.6 yards a rush.

    DeAngelo Henderson averaged 6.5 yards a carry in two preseason contests last year, but he touched the ball just nine times in games that counted.

    The tentative front-runner may be rookie Royce Freeman, who averaged six yards a carry and piled up 1,475 rushing yards for the Oregon Ducks in 2017—his fourth straight season of over 1,000 total yards.

    Both holdovers have had issues with fumbling. Freeman carried the ball a ton in college and showed it later in his Oregon career.

    And this battle won’t be resolved until well into the preseason.

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    Jose Juarez/Associated Press

    There isn’t an NFL team with a harder position battle to peg than the Detroit Lions’ pass rush.

    Partly, that’s due to schematic questions. We still don’t know how Matt Patricia’s new defense will shake out in Motown. During his time with the New England Patriots, Patricia was known for featuring multiple fronts and myriad looks.

    Camp’s going to be mighty interesting in Detroit.

    There’s also the matter of who’ll rush the quarterback in which scheme. Detroit’s list of proven pass-rushers is short.

    There’s Ziggy Ansah and…well…

    Can defensive end Kerry Hyder bounce back from the Achilles tear that wiped out his 2017 season? Can outside linebackers Devon Kennard, Jalen Reeves-Maybin or Jonathan Freeny get a push off the edge when the Lions utilize a 3-4 scheme?

    Unless a surprise player comes from nowhere to seize control of a spot as a complement to Ansah, there’s going to be a lot of rotation in Detroit’s front seven.

    And a lot of double-teams for Ansah.

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    Mike Roemer/Associated Press

    In 2017, the Green Bay Packers failed to make the playoffs for the first time since 2008. An injury to quarterback Aaron Rodgers‘ collarbone was the down year’s biggest cause, but Green Bay’s 23rd-ranked pass defense didn’t do the Packers any favors.

    That pass defense got a major overhaul in the offseason.

    First, general manager Brian Gutekunst brought back a pair of familiar faces. Tramon Williams spent the first nine seasons of his career in Titletown before three years in Cleveland and Arizona. Davon House re-signed for the second year of his second stint with the Pack after a siesta in Jacksonville.

    There’s a youth movement afoot as well. For the second straight season, the Packers used significant early draft capital on the secondary. In 2017, it was cornerback Kevin King and safety Josh Jones. This year it’s corners Jaire Alexander of Louisville and Joshua Jackson of Iowa.

    At 6’3″, King’s the biggest of the lot and the front-runner for one of the outside jobs. The rest isn’t so certain—Williams and House have the edge in experience, but both Alexander and Jackson were considered the top prospects at their position by some pundits.

    Whatever the starting lineup winds up being, the ability to go five deep in the defensive backfield is a good problem to have.

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    Tim Warner/Getty Images

    There’s an elephant in the room where the Houston Texans are concerned. That elephant is a problem because Houston’s leaky offensive line keeps letting it trample quarterback Deshaun Watson.

    Only the Indianapolis Colts (56) allowed more sacks in 2017 than Houston’s 54, and that has to stop.

    In theory, Houston’s line appears improved. After four years in Buffalo, tackle Seantrel Henderson joined the team in free agency. Ditto for guard Zach Fulton, who started 12 games for the Kansas City Chiefs in 2017. And guard Senio Kelemete, who started eight games for the New Orleans Saints last year.

    Add in second-year pros Nick Martin and Julie’n Davenport, and on paper this unit looks better than last year’s quintet of matadors.

    But games aren’t played on paper.

    Henderson hasn’t been able to recapture the form he showed as a rookie in 2014. He and Davenport could be in for a challenge from third-round rookie Martinas Rankin. If Fulton or Kelemete struggle to acclimate to their new home, Kyle Fuller or David Quessenberry could challenge for snaps.

    With Watson returning from an ACL tear this summer, it’s doubly important that the Texans get their best five linemen on the field in front of him.

    And that new-look line will be the storyline to watch when the Texans open camp in late July.

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    If NFL success depends on winning the battle in the trenches, then it’s not hard to see why the Indianapolis Colts were 4-12 last year.

    Both the offensive and defensive lines were horrific. And the Colts’ move to a 4-3 defense under head coach Frank Reich magnifies the hole at defensive end.

    One spot appears sewn up. Eighth-year veteran Jabaal Sheard has never posted more than 8.5 sacks in a season, but he’s the most proven pass-rusher on the team by a sizable margin.

    The problem is filling the hole on the other end of the line. Denico Autry, who came over in free agency from Oakland, had a career-high five sacks a year ago. Indianapolis spent a pair of draft picks on ends in second-rounders Kemoko Turay and Tyquan Lewis, and both showed promise in college.

    Neither was considered an elite prospect, however—and rookie edge-rushers often take time to acclimate to the NFL.

    There’s also Margus Hunt, himself a second-round pick (2013). But Hunt has 2.5 sacks for his career—one that’s lasted five years.

    New defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus needs to figure out quickly where these players (and the other ends on the roster) fit in the rotation and which, if any, can generate consistent pressure.

    Because if the Colts can’t, it will be another long season.

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    Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

    The Jacksonville Jaguars are sailing in uncharted waters. The team is coming off a trip to the AFC Championship Game. Its defense is as loaded as any—especially in the secondary.

    But there’s at least one question mark hanging over the unit.

    When the Jaguars drafted Myles Jack out of UCLA in 2016, it was with a clear vision in mind. Jack would eventually replace Paul Posluszny as the Jaguars’ middle linebacker. It’s how things started out last year, but as the season progressed, Jack saw more time on the strong side while “Poz” took back over in the middle.

    Per Mike Kaye of First Coast News, head coach Doug Marrone said the move had nothing to do with a lack of confidence in Jack.

    “I think last year, one of the big things I tried to say was that we never felt that Myles couldn’t play Mike, and I mean that,” Marrone said. “We just knew that, hey listen, [Posluszny] being in there playing Mike and us moving Myles to Sam was the best combination versus 21 personnel and 12.”

    Now, Posluszny is retired, and the job at Mike is Jack’s yet again. It may well be that he thrives in the new role. But if he struggles, second-year pro and presumptive Sam starter Blair Brown could be involved in another linebacker switcheroo.

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    Ed Zurga/Associated Press

    The Kansas City Chiefs made the postseason in 2017, winning the AFC West.

    That didn’t stop the team from taking a buzz saw to the roster, and with Marcus Peters no longer with Kansas City after a trade to the Los Angeles Rams, the secondary has become one big puzzle waiting to be put together.

    The Chiefs have talent and experience at the position. Kendall Fuller, 23, who came over in the trade that sent Alex Smith to Washington, established himself as one of the better young slot corners in the league last year.

    Steven Nelson has started 22 games over the last two years for the Chiefs. Free-agent-signee David Amerson has 56 career starts for the Redskins and Oakland Raiders over five seasons.

    But neither is exactly a shutdown corner, and after Nelson and Amerson comes a whole lot of “who?” Keith Reaser’s next NFL start will be his first. Ashton Lampkin missed his rookie season last year with an ACL tear. And the Chiefs couldn’t do much about the position in the draft thanks to the Patrick Mahomes trade.

    Maybe one of the youngsters will surprise. But right now the back end of the Chiefs defense reeks of patchwork.

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    Al Pereira/Getty Images

    This battle shouldn’t be much of a battle at all.

    With all due respect to Tyrell Williams, who came from nowhere to top 1,000 receiving yards in 2016, the Los Angeles Chargers spent a first-round pick on Clemson’s Mike Williams last year for one reason and one reason only.

    He was supposed to become the primary complement to Keenan Allen at wide receiver.

    However, this is the Chargers, a team so snakebitten by injuries that’s it’s fair to wonder if some sort of ancient curse is involved. Williams’ rookie year was a wash, but he’s now healthy and told ESPN.com’s Eric Williams he intends to leap forward in 2018.

    “Now that I have a full offseason,” Williams said, “I’m out here trying to get a lot of balls. There’s a lot of motivation going into this season, not just to prove to everyone else, but to prove to myself. I know I’m capable of playing in this league, so I just have to go out every day and compete.”

    Provided he can stay on the field as a sophomore, Williams (Mike) should beat out Williams (Tyrell) as the starter in two-wide sets.

    And a sneaky good Chargers team should have plenty of passing-game weaponry for Philip Rivers.

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    Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

    Where big-name acquisitions are concerned, the Los Angeles Rams went next-level.

    Cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh were all brought in to help bolster a solid defense. But there were departures as well—inside linebacker Alec Ogletree, who paced the team with 95 total tackles in 2017, was dealt to the New York Giants. Edge-rusher Robert Quinn was sent to Miami.

    The former left a big hole in the middle of L.A.’s defense. And there won’t be any household names arriving to fill it.

    Fourth-year pro Bryce Hager acquitted himself well in his lone start for the Rams in 2017. But that lone start was his first, and Hager has amassed all of 23 total stops in three seasons.

    Ramik Wilson offers more NFL experience, having started 15 games over the past two seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs. But there’s a reason Wilson isn’t in Kansas City anymore: He’s adequate but little more than a liability in pass coverage.

    With Suh and Aaron Donald up front, the Rams have one of football’s best defensive lines.

    The inside linebackers are another matter, aside from Mark Barron.

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    Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

    The Miami Dolphins might have an athletic cadre of young linebackers who can make noise in 2018.

    Or the linebacker spot might be the defense’s biggest weakness.

    The most proven commodity among the group is sixth-year veteran Kiko Alonso, who has amassed 115 total tackles in each of his two seasons with Miami. But there’s a reason Alonso’s on his third team—a shortcoming that becomes evident every time he gets blown off the point of attack.

    The team drafted Raekwon McMillan last year to add physicality to the middle of the defense, but McMillan lost his entire rookie season to a knee injury. Fellow former Buckeyes star Jerome Baker is a rangy 229-pounder, but he’s a bit undersized, and his next NFL game will be his first.

    Then there’s Stephone Anthony, who has the experience starting on the strong side the Dolphins need. But Anthony hasn’t come close to living up to the Round 1 pick the New Orleans Saints invested in him in 2015.

    It seems as though Alonso will man the weak side with McMillan in the middle. But the Dolphins still need a Sam, and none of the jobs (outside maybe Alonso’s are carved in stone).

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    Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

    Like most contending teams, the Minnesota Vikings don’t have a glaring roster hole. Most of the battling that will go on in camp this year concerns depth and special teams contributors.

    However, Pittsburgh tackle Brian O’Neill’s selection in the second round of the 2018 draft sets up an interesting duel along the offensive line.

    O’Neill’s an athletic, 6’7″, 297-pound blocker who in theory has the skill set to play either guard or tackle on both sides of the line. He needs to add strength and refine his technique, but the potential’s there for O’Neill to at least be a valuable reserve.

    Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com thinks O’Neill can be more. Toward the end of the season, the Vikings kicked Mike Remmers inside from right tackle to guard. Rosenthal, apparently expecting a strong camp from O’Neill, predicted the rookie will make that move permanent.

    Just over a year ago, Remmers was all smiles as he signed a five-year, $30 million deal to play right tackle in the Twin Cities.

    If that’s the spot he wants to stay in, Remmers has a fight on his hands.

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    Jeff Haynes/Associated Press

    There isn’t a more important blindside protector in the NFL than the man tasked with keeping Golden Boy Tom Brady’s jersey clean.

    After Nate Solder’s free-agent departure to the New York Giants, the New England Patriots have to figure out who that player will be this season.

    It wasn’t that long ago that six-year veteran LaAdrian Waddle looked to be the favorite to replace Solder. But now he’s likely no higher than third on the early pecking order.

    With New England’s first of two 2018 Round 1 picks, the team selected Georgia’s Isaiah Wynn. The 6’3″, 313-pounder was projected by most scouts as a guard, but per Bernd Buchmasser of Pats Pulpit, offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia indicated New England will try Wynn out at the spot he played in college, left tackle.

    There’s also Trent Brown, who the Patriots gave up a third-round pick to acquire from the San Francisco 49ers during this year’s draft. The 6’8″, 355-pound tackle wasn’t a good fit for San Fran’s zone-blocking scheme and missed six games last year with a shoulder injury. But before that, Brown was playing the best football of his career—albeit on the right side of the line.

    With a star quarterback on the wrong side of 40 and a shrinking championship window, this is one the Patriots have to get right.

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    Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

    Some teams struggle to assemble a starting secondary. Just getting a nickel back they can trust becomes quite the exercise.

    The New Orleans Saints do not have that problem. In fact, the Saints will be rolling out a corner in the dime this year who would probably start for a handful of teams.

    The question is: Who’ll be the odd man out?

    We know it won’t be Marshon Lattimore. After winning Defensive Rookie of the Year honors in 2017, Lattimore secured his status as the team’s No. 1 cornerback.

    Given how well he played in the slot for the Philadelphia Eagles last year (matching a career high with four interceptions), Patrick Robinson would appear to have the inside track for duties there after signing with the Saints in the offseason.

    That leaves a pair of third-year pros to battle for the outside slot opposite Lattimore. And in many ways, P.J. Williams (6’0″, 196 lbs) and Ken Crawley (6’1″, 180 lbs) are carbon copies. Similar size. Similar skill sets. Similar production in 2017.

    That sets the stage for an interesting battle between evenly matched combatants—the fairest of fights.

    May the best man win.

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    Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    There was a time, not long ago, when the New York Giants possessed one of the NFL’s deepest, most talented secondaries.

    There’s still talent in the unit, in the likes of cornerback Janoris Jenkins and safety Landon Collins. But outside Jenkins, the cornerback position looks like the Riddler’s costume.

    Question marks all over the place.

    Eli Apple is a 2016 first-round pick whose first two NFL seasons can best be classified as unmitigated disasters after he spent most of the second feuding with teammates and coaches. The rest of the depth chart is comprised of journeyman veterans such as William Gay and Teddy Williams and unproven youngsters like Curtis Riley, 25.

    New York’s decision to eschew the position in this year’s draft made the water murkier.

    You know the situation isn’t great when undrafted free agents like Aaron Davis have a real chance at cracking the 53-man roster.

    Even if Apple gets his act together, the Giants are thin at one of the NFL’s most important positions.

    If he doesn’t, things could get ugly.

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    Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    There’s a saying in college football that teams with two quarterbacks have no quarterback.

    Here’s hoping that doesn’t apply to the NFL—because the New York Jets have five.

    Where the battle to start in concerned, the Jets have three. If Christian Hackenberg or Bryce Petty wins the spot, that would signal the Apocalypse.

    Especially Hackenberg.

    Of the three, Teddy Bridgewater’s the long shot. It isn’t that Bridgewater can’t play—he led the Minnesota Vikings to the playoffs in 2015. But that’s also the last time the 25-year-old saw significant snaps—he spent the last two seasons attempting to recover from a horrific knee injury.

    After a 2017 season in which he completed 67.3 percent of his passes, posted a passer rating of 94.5 and won five games as the starter, Josh McCown returned to the Jets. But McCown’s 38 and has never made it through a 16-game season.

    Then there’s rookie Sam Darnold, who the Jets selected with the third overall pick. With McCown and Bridgewater in town, there would appear to be no rush to get the youngster on the field. But if Darnold out-plays the veterans in camp, there also no good reason not to start him.

    Summertime in the Big Apple will be all about the battle under center.

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    Rey Del Rio/Associated Press

    The inside linebacker spot has long been a sore one for the Oakland Raiders. And with NaVorro Bowman no longer on the team (at least for now), the Silver and Black are starting again in 2018.

    Not long ago, this looked like it wouldn’t be much of a battle. After six years in Detroit (and two 100-plus-tackle seasons), Tahir Whitehead signed with Oakland. Whitehead’s no world-beater, but he’s a capable, experienced professional.

    However, the later addition of veteran Derrick Johnson has clouded the matter. Johnson looked every bit his age last year in Kansas City, but the 35-year-old is a former first-team All-Pro and four-time Pro Bowler who has logged 100-plus stops five times.

    Whitehead’s still the more likely starter, but Johnson’s arrival signifies he’ll have to earn that gig.

    It also signifies new head coach Jon Gruden understands Oakland’s linebacker play has to improve if the Raiders are to get back in the playoffs.

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    Chris Szagola/Associated Press

    In news that should surprise no one, the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles don’t have many holes.

    In fact, Philadelphia’s starting 11 on both offense and defense are as set as any squad’s.

    That doesn’t mean there aren’t camp battles worth watching, however.

    For many teams, losing their No. 2 tight end would be no big deal. But Eagles head coach Doug Pederson loves him some two-tight sets—and the Eagles demonstrated with the second-round selection of small-school standout Dallas Goedert how much they value the spot behind Zach Ertz.

    The thing is, that role as the second tight end won’t be handed to Goedert—because the Eagles had already taken steps to replace Trey Burton with the signing of free-agent Richard Rodgers.

    Rodgers, who hauled in eight touchdowns for the Green Bay Packers in 2015, offers more experience with getting dirty in the run game. Goedert offers the team another athletic field-stretcher at the position who creates matchup problems.

    If Goedert shows to be a quick study and isn’t afraid to trade paint while opening holes, that athleticism will get him on the field a lot as a rookie.

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    The Pittsburgh Steelers have a large hole looming over the defense—smack dab in the middle.

    With Ryan Shazier already ruled out for the 2018 season due to his spinal injury, Pittsburgh has to attempt to replace arguably its best defensive player.

    Third-year pro Tyler Matakevich is the in-house option. He played in 15 games last year and was called upon when Shazier went down, but in that same Dec. 4 game, Matakevich went down as well with a dislocated left shoulder.

    Matakevich’s unimpressive audition led the Steelers to look outside the organization. Pittsburgh signed free agent Jon Bostic, who posted a career-high 97 tackles in 14 starts with the Indianapolis Colts in 2017.

    Then there’s rookie Terrell Edmunds. Pittsburgh’s first pick in the 2018 draft was a safety by trade at Virginia Tech, but the 6’1″, 217-pounder could figure into the mix as a sub-package linebacker in passing situations.

    Bostic’s the most proven of the trio and the early favorite to win the job. But he’s also on his fourth team since he came into the league in 2015. Entrenched he isn’t.

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    Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

    Should Reuben Foster’s legal status change, the waters could muddy a lot at linebacker in San Francisco. But as things stand, the most wide-open position battle for a 49ers team with postseason aspirations is easily the interior of the offensive line.

    Laken Tomlinson made 15 starts for the 49ers at guard last year after coming over via a trade with the Detroit Lions. To his credit, Tomlinson’s play improved as he grew accustomed to his new team and scheme. But the 2015 first-round pick also drew his fair share of criticism.

    Tomlinson’s main competition to start is another first-round pick who hasn’t lived up to expectations, Jonathan Cooper. Cooper had the best year of his career in 2017 with the Dallas Cowboys, but he’s also coming off knee surgery and suiting up for his fifth team in six seasons.

    Youngster Joshua Garnett was himself a first-round pick of the 49ers in 2016. But an uneven rookie year was followed by a season-ending knee injury before year two. He’s lost weight in an effort to gain the mobility coveted in a zone-blocking scheme, and if his knee’s back at 100 percent, he could push Cooper or Tomlinson if either slips.

    Add in second-year pro Erik Magnuson (who impressed in limited duty as a rookie) and there’s a four-man fight for two positions.

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    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    The Seattle Seahawks’ run game has been a mess since Marshawn Lynch hung up the cleats he later put back on in Oakland.

    There’s been a carousel of ball-carriers and a cavalcade of injuries at the position over the past couple of years. As Brady Henderson reported for ESPN.com, head coach Pete Carroll allowed that the instability in Seattle’s ground game was a big part of the team’s reasoning in making Rashaad Penny (a durable 220-pound bell cow from San Diego State) its first pick in the 2018 NFL draft.

    “Absolutely,” Carroll said. “It was an important element in his makeup and background.”

    The rest is up to Penny.

    There’s little question that Penny has the inside track to early-down duties (at least) with the Seahawks this year. If C.J. Prosise is healthy, he’ll figure in on passing downs, but Seattle’s depth chart at running back isn’t loaded.

    But with that inside track and high draft status comes increased pressure to succeed right away on a team with a lot of pressure already to succeed right away after a disappointing 2017 campaign.

    If Mike Davis or Chris Carson winds up seeing much in the way of a workload, it’s probably a bad sign for the Seahawks.

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    Phelan Ebenhack/Associated Press

    The Tampa Bay Buccaneers struggled in a big way against the pass last year. No team allowed more passing yards per game than Tampa’s 260.6.

    Two years ago, the Buccaneers invested the 11th overall pick in Florida’s Vernon Hargreaves. Despite the fact that Hargreaves hasn’t come close to living up to that slot, Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht insisted to Rick Stroud of the Tampa Bay Times that the team isn’t about to throw in the towel:

    “We were very happy with Vernon in his rookie year. We thought he was trending up. Last year, he had a couple of setbacks. He would be the first to tell you that. By no means are we giving up on Vernon. He has a lot of talent. I thought at the end of the season before he got hurt and put on IR with his hamstring that he was showing glimpses of what he was his rookie year. Vernon fits that to us—he fits the definition of the guy that can do both.”

    Tampa hasn’t given up entirely, but the selection of North Carolina’s M.J. Stewart in the second round of this year’s draft put Hargreaves on notice that his hold on the starting job opposite Brent Grimes is far from assured.

    That may be for the best. Hargreaves’ level of play improved in 2017 when he kicked inside to the slot.

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    Jason O. Watson/Getty Images

    As first-time head coaches go, Mike Vrabel didn’t get a bad deal. The Tennessee Titans won a playoff game in 2017, and the team doesn’t have a ton of holes.

    There is, however, at least one starting spot of interest to a defensively minded head coach like Vrabel that may not be decided until well into the summer.

    The Titans let Avery Williamson walk in free agency (to the Jets) in part because 23-year-old Jayon Brown ate into Williamson’s workload more and more as the season progressed. Brown told Jim Wyatt of Titans Online that he thinks having an NFL season under his belt gives him a decided edge heading into his second year.

    “Having a real offseason this year to focus on football and not running 40s and other [drills], it should help,” Brown said. “This offseason is going great, and I am still working to get stronger and faster and better so I can have a successful second year in the NFL, and make the most of it.”

    Brown will need that edge. The Titans didn’t spend a first-round pick on Alabama’s Rashaan Evans so the 6’3″, 232-pounder could watch games from the sideline. Brown’s experience should at least give him an advantage in the battle for passing-down snaps, but if Evans plays as-advertised, most of Brown’s second campaign could be spent as a spectator.

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    Mark Tenally/Associated Press

    The Washington Redskins struggled to stop the run in 2017, but the team was decent against the pass—ninth in the NFL at 213.8 yards per game allowed.

    However, that pass defense is wide-open in 2018—at least at the cornerback position.

    One spot is sewn up and then some by veteran Josh Norman. The pecking order for the others will be determined in training camp and the preseason.

    With Kendall Fuller heading to Kansas City as part of the Alex Smith trade, both the outside slot opposite Norman and the slot are undetermined.

    The best bet to fill the latter is Orlando Scandrick, who joined the Redskins in free agency after nine seasons with their NFC East rivals in Dallas. Scandrick isn’t a huge big-play threat (just eight career interceptions), but he’s a steady veteran who isn’t afraid to mix it up in run support.

    Outside, the Redskins thought enough of Quinton Dunbar to extend the fourth-year pro this offseason. But he’ll have to hold off second-year pro Fabian Moreau, who is angling for an expanded role after playing sparingly as a rookie.

2018 Playoff Odds for Every MLB Team at Season’s Quarter Mark

2018 Playoff Odds for Every MLB Team at Season’s Quarter Mark

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    Julie Jacobson/Associated Press

    Welcome to the quarter mark of the 2018 Major League Baseball season. There may be no more appropriate way to celebrate than by finally throwing out preseason expectations for MLB‘s playoff picture.

    It’s time for a new assessment of things.

    Ahead are updated playoff odds for all 30 MLB teams. These are based on how their strengths and weaknesses have (or have not) changed since the start of the season, as well as on how the competition around them measures up.

    We’ll go in alphabetical order by city.

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Record: 25-17, 1st in NL West

    The Arizona Diamondbacks were rolling right along, but suddenly they’re just 5-9 in May.

    Being stricken with MLB’s worst offense hasn’t helped, and losing A.J. Pollock for the next four to eight weeks will likely only make things worse. Factor in how the D-backs’ rotation had already lost Taijuan Walker and is still waiting for Robbie Ray’s return, and they’re a first-place team with a lot of problems.

    The situation isn’t hopeless, however.

    Arizona’s offense has already welcomed back Steven Souza Jr. and should get Jake Lamb back soon as well. It’s also a safe bet that Paul Goldschmidt won’t slump forever.

    On the mound, the Diamondbacks could ask for worse rotation anchors than Patrick Corbin and Zack Greinke. Said rotation also has the support of a strong defense and an excellent bullpen.

    What also helps their cause is that other teams in the National League West have bigger problems than they do. More on that to come.

    Odds: 8-1

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    Chris O’Meara/Associated Press

    Record: 25-16, 1st in NL East

    The Atlanta Braves making it to the quarter pole with the NL’s best record probably tops the list of things nobody saw coming.

    Among the factors that could trip them up is the sheer strength of the NL East and two in-house issues. One is a bullpen with a walk problem. Another is an offense whose expected production (xwOBA) casts doubt on whether it’s truly the NL’s best.

    It’s nonetheless hard not to be impressed by the mix of veteran and youthful talent in Atlanta’s lineup. The latter pool will only get deeper if top prospect Austin Riley can ride a torrid performance into the majors.

    The Braves also boast one of the majors’ best starting rotations, and it may not even be operating at peak capacity. They have plenty of young arms they can either plug in or trade for veteran upgrades.

    Even if the Braves aren’t actually the class of the Senior Circuit, they’re still a contender.

    Odds: 9-1

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    Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

    Record: 13-28, 5th in AL East

    The Baltimore Orioles are 15.5 games out of first place, and their minus-56 run differential would advise everyone against wondering whether they deserve to be there.

    Much of Baltimore’s displeasure derives from a pitching staff that’s sputtered out of the gate with a 5.08 ERA. There were few bright spots in it to begin with, and now there’s one less due to Dylan Bundy’s recent skid.

    On offense, the only one who’s hitting is Manny Machado. This would indeed be the same Manny Machado who’s ticketed for free agency, and thus highly unlikely to hang around until the bitter end.

    Also likely to be traded this summer are Zach Britton, Brad Brach and maybe even Adam Jones. Assuming the Orioles cash in as much as they can, the latter half of 2018 figures to be even less pretty than the first half.

    Odds: 100-1

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    Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

    Record: 28-14, 2nd in AL East

    The Boston Red Sox started hot at 17-2. Since then, however, they are just 11-12.

    The Red Sox’s pitching has raised questions by struggling during this stretch. Their rotation is hit-or-miss outside of Chris Sale and Rick Porcello, and now their bullpen is going to be without Carson Smith for a while.

    Still, this is far from a bad mound staff. It does have the AL’s second-best ERA at 3.67, after all, and xwOBA confirms that it’s the real deal.

    And contrary to 2017, the Red Sox have plenty of offense to help them get through tough times. Mookie Betts and J.D. Martinez are a formidable duo, and there are few easy outs around them in a lineup that’s averaging 5.4 runs per game. 

    The presence of the New York Yankees will make it difficult for the Red Sox to capture a third straight AL East title. However, it will be a shock if they miss out on the playoffs entirely.

    Odds: 6-1

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    Record: 22-17, 4th in NL Central

    There are starts that are disappointing, and then there are starts so disappointing that people are already talking about seeking out saviors.

    The Chicago Cubs are mired in the latter, and the widespread freakout about it isn’t totally unwarranted. The NL Central is proving to be stronger than anticipated, and the Cubs are being held back by struggles from high-profile stars.

    It’s not all bad, though.

    The Cubs are scoring 5.3 runs per game despite Anthony Rizzo’s season-long slump. That won’t last forever. The same can be said with confidence about Jose Quintana and Yu Darvish, who can only be helped by the team’s typically excellent defense.

    It was just last year that the Cubs ultimately shook off a slow start and overcame tough competition to waltz back into the postseason. The difference this year is they have a strong bullpen to help share the load.

    Odds: 8-1

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    Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

    Record 10-28, 5th in AL Central

    The only reason the Chicago White Sox have even a smidgen of chance at October is the reality that they play in the AL Central. They’re only 8.5 games out of first place despite having the worst record in MLB.

    Even still, there must be some sort of promise of better baseball to come for there to be real hope of a turnaround. And that’s where the White Sox come up as short as their record would suggest.

    They rank among the most punchless offensive teams (3.9 runs per game) and pitching teams (5.41 ERA) in MLB. The arrivals of top prospects Eloy Jimenez and Michael Kopech will help, but it would take a lot more to totally rescue the White Sox from oblivion.

    As they used to say on Chicago’s North Side: Wait ’til next year.

    Odds: 90-1

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    John Minchillo/Associated Press

    Record: 14-29, 5th in NL Central

    To quote Joey Votto: “It hasn’t been a fun time to be a Cincinnati Reds fan.”

    To be fair, it’s been a little more fun of late. The Reds are a somewhat-respectable 11-14 since they replaced Bryan Price with Jim Riggleman as manager. Sweeping the Los Angeles Dodgers in a four-game series at Dodger Stadium sure helped the effort.

    Positives aside, however, it is hard to be optimistic about the Reds taking their rebound much further.

    The addition of Matt Harvey is unlikely to make a real difference for a pitching staff that’s struggling with a 4.92 ERA. It’ll be up to Votto and Cincinnati’s offense to carry the load, and there’s just not enough depth for that kind of operation.

    Also, the NL Central is awfully tough. The Reds may as well be trying to climb Everest with greased-up hands and feet.

    Odds: 80-1

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    Record: 20-21, 1st in AL Central

    The Cleveland Indians were supposed to run away with the AL Central. Instead, they are living with the shame of being the only first-place team with a sub-.500 record.

    The two most obvious targets for blame are an offense that stumbled out of the gate and a bullpen that’s been the worst in baseball with a 5.73 ERA. 

    On the plus side, Cleveland’s offense has found its stride with an .866 OPS and 6.4 runs per game over its last 20 contests. And as long as both stay healthy, Andrew Miller and Cody Allen should ultimately do more good than harm in cleaning up for a starting rotation that’s quite excellent outside of Josh Tomlin.

    In virtually any other division, the Indians would be in real trouble. But in the AL Central, the trouble they’re in is something they should be able to shrug off.

    Odds: 7-1

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    Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

    Record: 23-20, 2nd in NL West

    The Colorado Rockies’ pitching is the best reason to have faith in their postseason potential. 

    The staff may have a 4.36 ERA, but that mark doesn’t look as bad once a Coors Field adjustment is applied by way of ERA+. Colorado’s rotation doesn’t have a true weak spot, and its bullpen is headed by an elite one-two punch in Wade Davis and Adam Ottavino.

    Even still, strong pitching can only take the Rockies so far. It’s paramount that they also have the bats to take advantage of their home ballpark and put up a fight on the road.

    That’s where the Rockies come up painfully short. Their .704 OPS is on pace to be the worst in franchise history. That gets at the reality that Nolan Arenado and Charlie Blackmon don’t have nearly enough support.

    As long as that’s the case, this is a team that will have trouble finding the extra gear necessary to make it to October.

    Odds: 20-1

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    Orlin Wagner/Associated Press

    Record: 19-22, 3rd in AL Central

    Following trades of Justin Verlander, Justin Upton and Ian Kinsler, it was easy to dismiss the Detroit Tigers as a lost cause for 2018.

    But they haven’t been, largely because their starting rotation has gotten strong contributions from Michael Fulmer, Matt Boyd, Francisco Liriano and Mike Fiers. Their offense has also been better than expected, in part thanks to an overlooked breakout from Jeimer Candelario.

    What the Tigers have is nevertheless far from a good offense, and it sounds like it’s going to be without Miguel Cabrera for a while. The club’s starting pitching will also miss his support. In the meantime, it has to worry about a bullpen that’s been prone to melting down.

    So apart from “they play in the AL Central,” it’s hard to voice reasons to believe in the Tigers as contenders.

    Odds: 30-1

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Record: 27-17, 1st in AL West

    The Houston Astros basically didn’t run into any opposition en route to winning 101 games and their first-ever AL West title in 2017.

    This year is presenting them with a challenge. The AL West has at least two other contenders in it, plus a team on the rise in the Oakland Athletics. The Astros also have their own weaknesses, specifically on offense and in the closer role.

    And yet, they’re outpacing the competition anyway.

    The lion’s share of the credit for that is a Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole-led starting rotation that’s dominating like no other. They’re also getting what they need out of big hitters like Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa, and their ninth-inning issues haven’t sunk their bullpen as a whole.

    Put simply, this is a team that can be pushed but not so easily knocked down. A trip to the postseason to defend their 2017 World Series championship is in the cards.

    Odds: 5-1

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Record: 13-29, 4th in AL Central

    The Kansas City Royals have the same smidgen of hope as the White Sox. They may have MLB’s second-worst record, but they are only 7.5 games out of first in the AL Central.

    But also like the White Sox, that’s about it.

    The Royals are operating with a roster that’s a shell of what it was when they went to the World Series in 2014 and won it in 2015. It shows in their MLB-worst 5.48 ERA and their modest average of four runs per game.

    And whereas the White Sox have elite prospects they can call on, the Royals don’t. They’ll need to try to acquire some by holding a fire sale at the trade deadline, which would make their roster a shell of the shell that it already is.

    Odds: 95-1

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    Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press

    Record: 25-17, 2nd in AL West

    The Los Angeles Angels have a lineup that’s thick with underperforming players, a starting rotation that lacks a true No. 1 and a bullpen that doesn’t have a clear answer at closer.

    Yet it’s no accident that they are winning games anyway.

    It helps that Mike Trout is still refusing to be anything less than the best player in baseball. It also helps that Shohei Ohtani has surpassed even the most optimistic expectations on both sides of the ball, as he’s been both an overpowering starter and a dangerous slugger.

    And while nobody will mistake the Angels’ starting pitching for that of, say, the Astros’, they’re making a six-man rotation work. Part of that has to do with how the Angels are only asking for five good innings out of each starter.

    This doesn’t look like a recipe for a division champion. But a wild-card contender? Absolutely.

    Odds: 11-1

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    Record: 16-25, 4th in NL West

    According to FanGraphs, the Los Angeles Dodgers still have the best odds of winning the NL West.

    According to reality, their run of five straight division titles is likely coming to an end.

    The Dodgers were more interested in saving money than in augmenting their roster over the winter, and they’re paying for it. Injuries have exposed depth issues that might have been avoided with a more active offseason.

    L.A. must hope for the best for Clayton Kershaw and Hyun-Jin Ryu, who were the team’s best starters before the injury bug got them. Corey Seager, meanwhile, won’t be manning shortstop for the rest of the season. A trade for Machado could fix that problem, but that doesn’t square with the team’s luxury-tax goals.

    Even amid weak competition, the Dodgers would face a tall task in coming back. Since the competition is strong both in and out of the NL West, their task is that much taller.

    Odds: 25-1

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    John Minchillo/Associated Press

    Record: 15-26, 5th in NL East

    The Miami Marlins are playing exactly like a team that recently sold off most of its best players and entered a rebuilding phase.

    Their record is the result of combining MLB’s worst offense (3.5 runs per game) with the National League’s worst pitching (5.05 ERA). There are few bright spots to be found on either side of the ball.

    What bright spots do exist probably aren’t long for Miami. J.T. Realmuto, for example, will be a hot commodity at the trade deadline. Justin Bour and Starlin Castro will also have markets, and teams are sure to ask about whatever pitchers the Marlins have to offer.

    In the meantime, the NL East has already left the Marlins behind. 

    Odds: 100-1

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    John Minchillo/Associated Press

    Record: 25-18, 2nd in NL Central

    The Milwaukee Brewers aren’t winning through overpowering offense or shutdown starting pitching. The former is managing only 3.9 runs per game, and the latter has a 4.11 ERA.

    What the Brewers do have is a lockdown defense and an unhittable bullpen. They rank third in MLB in defensive efficiency. And their bullpen—led by Josh Hader, the God of K%—has a 2.66 ERA that’s tied for second with the Cubs.

    Still, the Brewers are probably lucky to have won as many games as they have. That doesn’t bode well in an NL Central division that has three other contenders in it, including a slumbering giant in Chicago.

    However, Milwaukee is positioned to finish strong. Eric Thames, Chase Anderson and Jimmy Nelson will eventually return from injury to help the team’s lineup and rotation, respectively. The Brewers will also likely be one of the more active teams on the summer trade market.

    Ultimately, they should stay in the hunt.

    Odds: 13-1

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    David Banks/Getty Images

    Record: 18-20, 2nd in AL Central

    The Minnesota Twins returned to the postseason in 2017 largely because their offense was just good enough to account for their pitching.

    The script has been flipped this season, mainly thanks to better-than-usual starting pitching. It should get even better once Ervin Santana returns. Eventually, their lineup will also be whole once Miguel Sano gets healthy.

    Even still, it’s hard to see a ton of upside when looking in Minnesota’s direction.

    Any future improvements to the Twins’ lineup may only upgrade from bad to mediocre, as it’s thus far scored the second-fewest runs in the American League. They also have a bullpen that’s struggled with a 4.78 ERA.

    In light of all this, the best thing the Twins have going for them is their placement in the AL Central. They’re only a half-game out of first now, and their deficit may not grow that much even if they struggle to escape the .500 realm.

    Odds: 15-1

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    Record: 20-18, 4th in NL East

    The New York Mets jetted out to a 12-2 start through 14 games. In their past 24 games, they are just 8-16.

    This has happened in part because an offense that wasn’t strong to begin with has been exposed with a .688 OPS. Their pitching also shares in the blame, as it’s put up a 5.00 ERA.

    To make matters worse, the injury bug has returned for more Yoenis Cespedes and Jacob deGrom. In keeping with a theme that plagued the Mets throughout 2017, they have a lot of company on the disabled list.

    If the Mets ever get to a point where they’re fully healthy again, they’re going to be capable of putting another hot stretch together. But the only thing more foolish than banking on that is banking on the rest of the NL East to hang back and keep them in the race. The three teams above them have shown little interest in slowing down.

    Odds: 17-1

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    Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

    Record: 28-12, 1st in AL East

    The New York Yankees entered the week having won 19 out of 22 games and generally looking like the world-beater that anyone could have expected them to be in 2018.

    It’s been the Yankees’ pitching that’s led the charge with a 2.94 ERA. Their bullpen has the highest strikeout rate (12.7 K/9) of any bullpen ever, and Luis Severino and CC Sabathia are leading a great starting rotation.

    And now for the scary part: The Yankees still haven’t really gotten going on offense.

    Although they lead MLB in OPS (.785) and runs (234), Aaron Judge is the only New York hitter who’s been consistent since Day 1. Giancarlo Stanton and Gary Sanchez should settle into grooves eventually, and they’ll have Didi Gregorius, Gleyber Torres and Miguel Andujar there for support.

    The Red Sox are too good for the Yankees to leave in the dust. But between the two of them, it’s the Yankees who should maintain the inside track for the AL East title.

    Odds: 5-1

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    Steven Senne/Associated Press

    Record: 21-21, 4th in AL West

    The Oakland A’s are playing about as well as anyone could have expected, if not a little better.

    Their placement in the middle of the American League in both OPS and runs is somewhat misleading. Theirs is an uncommonly balanced lineup with few easy outs and plenty of power.

    Meanwhile, Oakland’s pitching staff is settling down as the season moves along. Sean Manaea’s awakening as an ace is part of that. It also helps that the A’s have trimmed some fat from their rotation and benefited from stellar relief work on the part of Lou Trivino and Blake Treinen.

    This nonetheless amounts to more of a high floor than a high ceiling, particularly in the stacked AL West. The division has also proven that it can keep the A’s down, as they only have a winning record against the Texas Rangers thus far.

    Odds: 19-1

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    Laurence Kesterson/Associated Press

    Record: 23-16, 2nd in NL East

    The Philadelphia Phillies were already a pleasant surprise, and now their offense is clicking.

    It’s gone from a modest .700 OPS in March and April up to .810 so far in May. Carlos Santana has begun to live up to his free-agent contract, and Odubel Herrera flat-out looks like a superstar.

    This offensive outburst has been well timed, as the team’s pitching has been trending backward after a hot start. This is calling the Phillies’ needs for rotation depth and a reliable closer to attention.

    On the bright side, Aaron Nola and Jake Arrieta are an excellent one-two rotation punch. And when the Phillies are ready to start bringing in outside help on the summer trade market, they’ll have a heck of a trump card: lots and lots of payroll space.

    In all, this is a team that will bow out of neither the NL East race nor the NL wild-card race.

    Odds: 10-1

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    Joe Sargent/Getty Images

    Record: 24-17, 1st in NL Central

    Just when the Pittsburgh Pirates seemed to be fading with a 1-7 stretch in late April, they have come right back with a 12-6 run.

    Their offense continues to lead the way. The Braves are the only NL team that has their .767 OPS beat, and their 5.1 runs per game is third behind the Braves and Cubs. Pretty good for a lineup that lost Andrew McCutchen, one of the best hitters in franchise history, over the winter.

    The Pirates must keep the runs coming, however. It’s the best way they can account for a starting rotation in which only Trevor Williams has been dependable—and his performance reeks of luck, to boot.

    This is doable. Pittsburgh’s offense isn’t the best at anything, but it is good at all the big things: patience, contact and power. Even if holding on to the NL Central lead proves to be beyond them, they are not going to bow out of the wild-card race.

    Odds: 14-1

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    Kyusung Gong/Associated Press

    Record: 17-27, 5th in NL West

    At least the San Diego Padres are interesting.

    Their splurge on Eric Hosmer is working out just fine, and he’s surrounded by some quality young talent. Christian Villanueva is a budding slugger. Franchy Cordero is a rising five-tool star. The Padres also have an assortment of young arms, led by Joey Lucchesi and Adam Cimber.

    Yet this is a case wherein “interesting” is not the same as “good.” Only the Marlins are scoring fewer runs per game than the Padres, and bad defense is just one reason why they are not making up for that by excelling at run prevention.

    The time is coming when they will be ready to contend in the NL West, but it’s not this year.

    Odds: 80-1

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    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    Record: 22-21, 3rd in NL West

    The San Francisco Giants arguably should have used last offseason to pivot toward a youth movement. Instead, they doubled down on a veteran-laden roster by bringing in Andrew McCutchen and Evan Longoria.

    This was only going to work if McCutchen and Longoria turned back the clock to their glory days and the team as a whole had good luck with injuries. Go figure, neither has happened.

    This hasn’t spelled total disaster for the Giants because Cutch and Longo have at least made their offense better than it was in 2017, when it produced only 3.9 runs per game. But it’s still not a good offense, and that’s what the Giants need to overcome a pitching staff that’s riddled with problems.

    The Giants may start getting some good pitching once Madison Bumgarner and Johnny Cueto are together again. But by the time that happens, they could be far behind in both the NL West and NL wild-card races.

    Odds: 22-1

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    Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

    Record: 24-17, 3rd in AL West

    This would have read a lot differently if it had been written when the Seattle Mariners still had Robinson Cano in the middle of their lineup.

    So much for that. Cano was already due to sit for a while with a broken hand, but Tuesday he took an 80-game suspension for testing positive for a banned substance. The Mariners will be without him until the middle of August.

    It will be tough for Seattle to replace Cano’s .825 OPS, and the dire implications of that can’t be overstated.

    Because each of their non-James Paxton starters has an ERA over 5.00 and their bullpen is nothing special outside of Edwin Diaz and James Pazos, the Mariners need their offense to be what carries them. It’s going to be difficult to make that happen without Cano, and that will hurt their standing in the AL playoff race.

    Odds: 20-1

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    Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

    Record: 22-17, 3rd in NL Central

    The St. Louis Cardinals’ first priority is getting more out of an offense that’s produced just 4.2 runs per game. Specifically, it’s Marcell Ozuna, Matt Carpenter and Dexter Fowler who need to snap out of it.

    There are more unlikely things to hope for than that. And in terms of expected production, xwOBA claims the Cardinals offense has been on par with that of the Cubs. In other words: Have patience.

    On the other side of the ball, Carlos Martinez’s strained lat shouldn’t keep him away from one of MLB’s top rotations for long. Meanwhile, top prospect Alex Reyes is looking as good as new in his rehab from Tommy John surgery.

    St. Louis’ bullpen doesn’t invite as much optimism, as it’s leaning too heavily on Bud Norris and Jordan Hicks. Even still, this is a contender that shouldn’t have to worry about falling out of the NL Central or wild-card races.

    Odds: 12-1

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    Record: 18-22, 4th in AL East

    The Tampa Bay Rays seemed ticketed for the bottom of the barrel when they started 4-13. They have since done a 180 with a 14-9 record.

    Driving this improvement is a surprisingly strong offense. There are no great hitters in Tampa Bay’s lineup, but the amount of good hitters within it allows the unit to be better than the sum of its parts.

    The catch is the Rays don’t hit for a ton of power, as their 36 home runs rank last in the Junior Circuit. That will make it tough to hang in an AL East that’s all about power at the top.

    Oh, it also won’t help that the Rays lack a cohesive pitching staff. Said staff will probably lose Chris Archer and Alex Colome at the trade deadline, and they’re unlikely to be the only ones leaving. 

    These things considered, the best part of Tampa Bay’s season is probably happening right now.

    Odds: 50-1

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    Abbie Parr/Getty Images

    Record: 16-27, 5th in AL West

    The Texas Rangers have their bright spots.

    It’s great to see 44-year-old Bartolo Colon still beating major league hitters. Cole Hamels is also having a strong season on the mound. At the plate, Nomar Mazara is finally breaking out, and Joey Gallo is keeping the moonshots coming.

    But that’s it.

    Instead of rebuilding, the Rangers decided to go for a last hurrah in 2018. But they did it on the cheap, and their punishment is a roster with a minus-62 run differential and all sorts of injuries. 

    They are already buried in the AL West. Once they sell what they can at the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, they will practically be rubbing up against the Earth’s core.

    Odds: 80-1

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    Chris O’Meara/Associated Press

    Record: 21-21, 3rd in AL East

    The best thing the Toronto Blue Jays could do is call up Vladimir Guerrero Jr.

    The 19-year-old began the year as one of baseball’s best prospects, and he’s further elevated his stock by destroying Double-A pitching with a .400/.447/.654 batting line. 

    A Blue Jays lineup with Guerrero alongside Josh Donaldson, Justin Smoak and others could be dangerous. As it is, they’re already scoring 4.9 runs per game.

    However, this wouldn’t solve Toronto’s problem with run prevention. Marcus Stroman’s shoulder injury was a blow to a rotation that’s had it bad enough with a 5.69 ERA, and what was a great bullpen is now less so after Roberto Osuna was placed on administrative leave after being arrested and charged with assault. And everyone has to pitch to a bad defense.

    All this spells trouble for the Blue Jays’ chances in the AL East race. They’ll have to make do in a crowded wild-card hunt.

    Odds: 20-1

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    Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press

    Record: 24-18, 3rd in NL East

    Not being at full strength isn’t stopping the Washington Nationals from becoming the team they are supposed to be.

    A 13-2 stretch is putting a slow start in rear view, and it has everything to do with a pitching staff that’s churned out a 2.22 ERA during that time.

    The shoe fits. Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg headline the best starting rotation in the National League. And not to be overlooked is how Ryan Madson has re-established himself as a shutdown setup man in front of Sean Doolittle.

    All the Nationals need is a more consistent offense. They know Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon and Trea Turner will do their part, and there will come a time when they’re reunited with Daniel Murphy (knee) and Adam Eaton (ankle).

    The rise of the Braves and Phillies will make it tough for the Nats to earn a third straight NL East title. But that’s what they’re trending toward, and a wild-card spot will be an attainable fallback.

    Odds: 7-1

    All records and stats are accurate through play on Tuesday, May 15.

Predicting Every Team’s Breakout Player for 2018

Predicting Every Team’s Breakout Player for 2018

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    Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

    Every first-year player has thoughts about his transition to the NFL. Top draft picks come into the league with high expectations right away. In reality, development may take a steady pace, leading to a standout third or fourth year. 

    Nonetheless, a competitive nature leads players to believe a new year will become their best season, though multiple variables can expedite or slow career ascension. Scheme fit, injuries and roster depth all play a factor. 

    In the previous year, we saw two rookies go to the New Orleans Saints and become prime-time players. Cornerback Marshon Lattimore and running back Alvin Kamara earned Defensive and Offensive Rookie of the Year honors for their 2017 performances.

    Tennessee Titans safety Kevin Byard became an All-Pro in his second campaign. Dallas Cowboys defensive end Demarcus Lawrence had a good 2015 term but put together a 14-sack breakthrough in 2017.

    As we go into the early stages of the offseason, who’s on the radar for a breakout year? Which rookies will contend for yearly awards? Are there veterans poised to show out in contract years?

    Let’s cycle through every team with a projection on the player ready to take their career to a new level.

        

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    Norm Hall/Getty Images

    Injuries and healthy scratches have prevented defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche from leaving an early mark on his NFL career.

    Thus far, his most notable play came on a 21-yard fumble recovery for a touchdown against the New York Giants in Week 16 of the previous season. He’s played 17 games since entering the league as the No. 29 overall pick in the 2016 draft. 

    The new coaching staff plans to give Nkemdiche a fresh look. Defensive coordinator Al Holcomb commented on the positives he saw on film, per 98.7 FM Arizona SportsZach Alvira

    “In the little bit of film that I’ve observed and watched, he’s obviously, at times, jumped off the tape,” Holcomb said. “He’s got some ability. That’s something that when we get into Phase 1 and Phase 2, we’re going to sit down and discuss some things and find out exactly what makes him tick.” 

    During the past preseason, Nkemdiche flashed as a disruptor on the interior and looked well on his way to a strong sophomore campaign before a calf injury sidelined him for the first four games of the regular season. Another strong offseason with a healthy finish should put him back on track for a breakout year.

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Tight end Austin Hooper deserves an honorable mention here, but defensive end Takkarist McKinley will have a more profound impact as a pass-rusher off the edge.

    McKinley provided efficiency as a rotational pass-rusher in 2017. He logged 401 snaps but ranked second on the team in sacks with six. The UCLA product had one more tally in the category than Vic Beasley, who was coming off a 15.5-sack season.

    Adrian Clayborn’s exit should create more opportunities for the second-year defensive end to reach the quarterback. Expect him to build on a good start to his NFL career. After the upcoming season, we may have to ask whether his upside supersedes Beasley as a pass-rusher. 

    McKinley could reach a double-digit sack total with his efficiency. The ability to improve as a run-defender will put him in the Pro Bowl conversation.

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    Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

    Linebacker Matt Judon deserves an honorable mention, but he racked up eight sacks and started 12 games for a partial breakout last year.

    Cornerback Marlon Humphrey played nearly 55 percent of the team’s snaps as a starter in five games during the previous season. That number should rise as the former first-rounder takes in more experience.

    Brandon Carr has been an NFL iron man. He hasn’t missed a start in a decade of professional play. Keep in mind teams use nickel packages more than base alignments with spread offenses taking over the league. Both players should see significant time on the field. 

    Nonetheless, the Ravens picked Humphrey with a top-20 selection in 2017. He’s the future in the secondary. The Alabama product saw fewer snaps in the slot than Carr last year; Baltimore will likely continue to use him on the boundary. 

    Humphrey listed second on the team in pass breakups with 11 to go along with two interceptions. With a slight bump in snaps, he’ll see an increase in production.

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    Grant Halverson/Getty Images

    Two years after coming into the league as the No. 19 overall pick, we’re still waiting for defensive end Shaq Lawson to pay dividends on the Buffalo Bills defensive line. He’s recorded six career sacks and fought through injuries in that span.

    In his junior year at Clemson, Lawson looked the part of a solid bookend pass-rusher for a team that needed a dominant defender to set the edge. Head coach Sean McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier can develop the third-year pro into an impact player, but it starts with him staying on the field. 

    The Bills didn’t have one defender on the roster with more than four sacks during the previous term. Buffalo will have a decision to make on exercising Lawson’s fifth-year option next offseason. The looming evaluation may serve as an extra incentive for a productive campaign.

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    Chuck Burton/Associated Press

    Quarterback Cam Newton will have two new catch-and-run options in the passing attack. Eighth-year veteran Torrey Smith and rookie D.J. Moore join a wide receiving corps that needed playmakers who can rack up yards after the reception.

    Smith may have peaked between the 2013-15 seasons as a deep threat, but he’s caught 56 passes in the last two years. Moore can stretch the defense at an early stage in his career. 

    Maryland’s offense never ranked higher than 89th among 128 qualifying programs with Moore on the roster. Still, he led the team in receiving yards for two years and finished with 13.9 yards per reception through three seasons.

    In Carolina, he’ll step into the No. 2 receiver role as a favorable option in the aerial attack. Tight end Greg Olsen goes into his age-33 season coming off an injury-riddled year.

    In a pro comparison, the Maryland product will probably fill Ted Ginn’s old role with the Panthers—hopefully with fewer drops. The rookie should have ample opportunities to burn defenses downfield at around 15 yards per catch.

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    In his third season under defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, it’s finally Leonard Floyd’s year to break out as a pass-rusher for the Chicago Bears.

    Since coming into the league as the No. 9 overall pick in 2016, Floyd has dealt with a myriad of injuries.

    He admitted that it took two months to recover from a concussion suffered at the end of his rookie campaign. In November, a collision with cornerback Kyle Fuller caused injury to his MCL and PCL, shortening his season to 10 games. 

    Assuming Floyd stays healthy, three’s a charm for his impact on the second level of the defense. The Bears signed Aaron Lynch, but they drafted the Georgia product with an idea he’ll develop into a solid pass-rusher. It’s time for potential to turn into production.

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    The Cincinnati Bengals focused on the trenches during the offseason. Offensive tackle Cordy Glenn and rookie center Billy Price join the group as premium players set to start for the upcoming season.

    It’s a positive for quarterback Andy Dalton, but the ground attack will also benefit from the acquisitions. Running back Joe Mixon quietly put together a decent 2017 campaign despite the subpar offensive line. He logged 913 yards from scrimmage as a dual-threat option in the backfield.

    Before Glenn’s injury-riddled 2017 season, he took the field as a quality run-blocker on the perimeter. The Bengals should also have more success in the aerial attack with the upgrades in protection, which would open running lanes for the second-year tailback.

    In the previous season, Dalton targeted Mixon 34 times in the passing game, and he came up with 30 receptions for 287 yards. Expect that number to rise, especially if wideout John Ross fails to bounce back from a disappointing 2017.

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    The front office shipped defensive tackle Danny Shelton to the New England Patriots amid a trading frenzy during the offseason. He’s not going to leave the Cleveland Browns as a footnote, though. The 24-year-old contributed to the seventh-ranked run defense in yards allowed in 2017.

    How will the Browns address the position next to impressive second-year defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi?

    In 2017, the previous regime took a chance on defensive tackle Caleb Brantley, who came out of Florida as a highly touted prospect, but then a misdemeanor battery charge plummeted his draft stock. He fell to the sixth round. 

    Two years ago, Brantley displayed the power and quickness to shoot gaps, blow up the run or pressure the quarterback. With a full offseason on tap, he’s a prime candidate to fill the vacant 3-technique defensive tackle position.

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    Based on what the Dallas Cowboys’ young cornerback group showed on the field in the previous year, Jourdan Lewis flashed the most as a breakout candidate for the upcoming season.

    As a boundary defender, Lewis mirrored receivers and didn’t allow too many big plays or much cushion for yards after the catch. He may have surrendered some touchdowns along the way, but it’s part of the learning process as a first-year player.

    The Michigan product played 746 snaps during the previous term, which converts to a little more than 71 percent of the team’s defensive snaps.

    Fellow cornerback Chidobe Awuzie should also see improvement in his second campaign, but he saw the field far less than Lewis (309 snaps). The experience gives No. 27 the edge over the new No. 24 in the secondary as the premier player in the Cowboys’ coverage.

    Lewis appeared in 15 contests and started seven in 2017. Assuming he locks down a starting position for Week 1, expect him to improve on 10 pass breakups and record multiple interceptions.

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    The Denver Broncos released running back C.J. Anderson after his best season with the team. He rushed for 1,007 yards, though it took him five years to reach that mark.

    By default, running back Devontae Booker steps into the starting role, but the front office also selected Royce Freeman in the third round of the draft. The two will split carries, but the third-year tailback will likely see the field on all three downs due to his skill set as a pass protector. 

    There’s a reason Denver felt comfortable with Booker as its lead tailback. In his rookie campaign, he saw significant snaps because Anderson’s knee injury limited him to seven games. The Utah product finished that season with 877 yards from scrimmage. Over the past two years, he’s also been a factor in the short passing game. 

    It’s always wise to add depth, but Booker should run away with the starting job and toward the best season of his professional career.

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    Devon Kennard started and ended his career as a decent second-level pass-rusher for the New York Giants. He recorded 9.5 sacks between those two terms. The fifth-year pro joins a revamped linebacker corps in Detroit under head coach Matt Patricia.

    The Lions ranked in the bottom half under the sacks category in the previous year, so there’s a need for added pocket pressure. Detroit’s coaching staff will find ways to maximize Kennard’s skill set as a pass-rusher.

    As the Patriots defensive coordinator, Patricia found clever ways to generate a pass rush using non-household names such as linebackers Kyle Van Noy and hybrid defender Rob Ninkovich over the past couple of years.

    Expect a spike in Kennard’s sack numbers and run stops as he poses a bigger threat attacking the line of scrimmage.

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    After allowing 30 touchdowns through the air, which ranked 29th in the league last year, the Green Bay Packers hired Mike Pettine to replace Dom Capers and drafted cornerbacks with their first two picks. Something had to change with poor results in that specific area.

    As for the roster assets acquired, cornerbacks Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson displayed the ability to force turnovers in college. 

    The former gets the nod as the breakout player due to his fluid movements in backpedal motion. Alexander also ran a 4.38 40-yard dash time at the NFL Scouting Combine, which suggests he has ideal speed to close on passing windows in coverage.

    As a sophomore at Louisville, Alexander snagged five interceptions then dealt with leg and hand injuries during his junior year. He’s 5’11”, 190 pounds, but his athleticism and ability to make plays on the football field will stand out in 2018.

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    Coming out of Vanderbilt, Zach Cunningham’s film showed a rangy linebacker who frequently found the football for a stop. He logged 125 tackles, 16 resulting in a loss, during his junior year before declaring for the 2017 NFL draft.

    At 6’3″, 234 pounds, potential lack of play strength and missed tackles on the collegiate level listed as primary criticisms. As a rookie, his quickness and ability to diagnose plays served him well. He started at “Will” and “Mike” in the Houston Texans defense alongside Benardrick McKinley. 

    Cunningham didn’t wither on the field banging against bigger bodies. He recorded 45 tackles and six pass breakups. Going into his second year with another offseason under his belt, expect him to follow short pass routes with more success in coverage, specifically inside the 20-yard line where he gave up costly receptions.

    Another year in a professional facility will also allow him to add more strength in order to fight through blockers and stop the run. Cunningham doesn’t play at a premium position, but he’s going to jump out as an all-around playmaker in the upcoming term.

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    The Colts have multiple question marks in the secondary, but the coaching staff knows it can count on safety Malik Hooker to find the football when it’s in the air.

    We didn’t see his ball-hawking skills on full display during the previous term. He tore his ACL and missed nine games but finished with three interceptions and four pass breakups.

    Hooker doesn’t have a timetable for his return. Assuming he’s back on the field within the first quarter of the season, there’s a good chance the 22-year-old gives us a flashback to his seven-interception year at Ohio State in 2016. In that year, he also recorded three pick-sixes. 

    It’s premature to draw the comparison to former Ravens safety Ed Reed, but it’s something to think about if Hooker adds several interceptions with touchdowns to his NFL resume.

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    The Jacksonville Jaguars made headlines when they decided not to re-sign wideout Allen Robinson and went with a plethora of No. 2-type pass-catchers at the position. 

    At tight end, though, the team added Niles Paul and Austin-Seferian Jenkins then released 13-year pro Marcedes Lewis.

    Seferian-Jenkins made changes to his life and re-emerged with the New York Jets as a much-improved asset in 2017. He recorded season-highs in receptions (50) and receiving yards (357).

    It’s difficult to project which pass-catchers will stand out within a crowded wide receiver position, but quarterback Blake Bortles will have a 6’5″, 262-pound tight end with reliable hands all over the field.

    Seferian-Jenkins’ improved blocking won’t show up in the box score, but he’s going to set new career-highs in catches, yards and touchdowns as a safe option in the aerial attack.

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    The Kansas City Chiefs saw quarterback Patrick Mahomes start under center for one game. Apparently, the performance instilled confidence in his ability to lead a football team. He completed 22 of 35 pass attempts for 284 yards and threw an interception versus the Broncos in their regular-season finale.

    Beyond the statistics, he didn’t look rattled and took his shots downfield. The Chiefs already had their speedy deep threat in wideout Tyreek Hill, and then they acquired Sammy Watkins, who’s performed below expectations as a former No. 4 overall pick. Yet, when healthy, he’s tough to cover one-on-one. Don’t forget tight end Travis Kelce and running back Kareem Hunt in the backfield. 

    Kansas City loaded the roster with dynamic playmakers just in time to provide its potential franchise quarterback with the tools to succeed. Mahomes has the confidence in his arm and the weapons around him to transform the Chiefs offense into a powerhouse.

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    Wideout Mike Williams started his rookie season on the physically unable to perform list due to a back injury. Upon his return, he saw limited snaps before dealing with an ailing knee down the stretch. 

    After an extended bout with the injury bug, the 6’3″, 218-pound pass-catcher should stand out above the rest as a big-body target in the red zone.

    Quarterback Philip Rivers will have one wideout who can come down with receptions despite tight coverage. At Clemson, quarterback Deshaun Watson utilized Williams’ stature and physicality to his advantage. The Chargers shouldn’t have too much difficulty crossing the goal line passing inside the 20-yard line. 

    Among the second-year wideouts picked in the first round, Williams has the best quarterback, which puts him in an ideal position for a breakout year.

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    Interior defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh joins Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald up front. Offensive lines can’t double- and triple-team both players. Even with added protection, there’s a danger in losing track of Michael Brockers.

    Brockers accumulated 19 sacks in six seasons. He doesn’t have a high volume in the category year-to-year, but the 300-pounder could see a season-high playing alongside two premier players on the defensive line.

    Last year, defensive coordinator Wade Phillips allowed Brockers to play in space against the Cowboys in Week 4, and the experiment worked out in their favor, per Los Angeles Times reporter Gary Klein.

    “For [Phillips] to see me as a playmaker and to open it up and give me those opportunities, I appreciate it,” Brockers said. “And I just want to show him that he didn’t make the wrong decision and I can get the job done.” 

    Brockers logged a sack and two pass breakups in that game. Going forward with Donald and Suh in the fold, we could see his game develop beyond an interior run-stopper under Phillips.

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    For the first 10 years of his career, tailback Frank Gore averaged four yards per carry for the season. Over the past three, he’s fallen short of the mark. At 35 years old, it’s fair to expect a natural decline. We can also question the Colts’ offensive line.

    Either way, Gore will cede carries to second-year running back Kenyan Drake, who’s clearly on the rise. He led the league in rushing yards with 444 from Weeks 13 to 17. His breakout started at the end of the previous year, but he’ll pick up where he left off.

    Gore’s presence shouldn’t put a huge cap on Drake’s touchdown production. The 14th-year veteran has tapered off as a finisher near the goal line with seven scores on the ground in the last two years. Expect the Alabama product to handle early and late downs with frequent touches as a receiver out of the backfield.

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    Through the first four weeks of the previous season, running back Dalvin Cook ranked second in rushing yards with 354 before a torn ACL derailed his rookie campaign.

    Now healthy, without Jerick McKinnon sharing touches in the backfield, Cook takes a fresh start with an upgrade at quarterback in Kirk Cousins. Minnesota still has some question marks concerning the offensive line, but the Florida State product also flashed exceptional hands as a receiver at the collegiate level. 

    Cousins will have someone who can handle the bulk of carries in the ground attack and a reliable target in the intermediate pass game as well. Despite Latavius Murray’s presence in a complementary role, mark Cook down for 1,500-plus yards from scrimmage as a dual-threat option in Minnesota’s backfield.

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    The Patriots don’t need flashy names to get the job done. As a second-year defensive end, Deatrich Wise will push for the highest sack total on the team.

    New England signed Clayborn, but he’s played slightly above 50 percent of the Falcons’ total defensive snaps over the past two years. The 29-year-old joins a new team with differences in scheme, but Wise earned a spot in the rotation at the position with five sacks last year.

    The former fourth-rounder started his rookie campaign with two sacks in the first two weeks and finished with two in the last three contests. Despite the inconsistencies midway through the year, another offseason in the system should yield improvement as a pass-rusher.

    As a middle-round pick on a team that uses rotations based on matchups, Wise may not pop up in the box score every week, but he’ll have a significant impact at a premium position.

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    We all remember safety Marcus Williams, right? You know, the guy who missed the tackle on Vikings wideout Stefon Diggs, which led to the game-winning touchdown in the NFC divisional round. Well, he’s going to use the Minnesota Miracle as fuel for a Pro Bowl season.

    As a rookie, Williams had a productive year. The Utah product finished the season as one of just three rookies with four interceptions or more. He also logged seven pass breakups. 

    Lattimore’s stellar campaign overshadowed Williams, but the playmaking free safety will take another step in his sophomore year to establish himself as one of the best young talents at his position.

    The 21-year-old takes a mistake he made early in his career and turns it into a launching pad toward stardom.

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    This is the easiest projection on this list. Critics may question the Giants’ offensive line group in opening pathways for running back Saquon Barkley, but the front office added veteran left tackle Nate Solder and selected guard Will Hernandez in the second round of April’s draft.

    If Hernandez plays on the left, Barkley may have a strong side to target after the handoff. He has exceptional hands catching out of the backfield. The dynamic running back caught 102 passes for 1,195 yards and eight touchdowns through three seasons at Penn State. Oftentimes, an effective short passing attack supplements a subpar ground attack. 

    Lastly, the No. 2 overall pick doesn’t have much competition for touches in the backfield.

    The team waived running back Paul Perkins. Jonathan Stewart goes into his age-31 season. His rush attempts and yards have declined every year since the 2015 campaign. It’s safe to say the Giants didn’t choose Barkley at No. 2 to take a backseat to former fourth-rounder Wayne Gallman. 

    The Penn State product should come close to 1,500 yards from scrimmage; only eight players reached that mark last season. In their first seasons, Hunt and Kamara listed among those names.

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    Clive Walford came out of Miami with high potential as a receiving tight end. He flashed some upside when he caught 28 passes for 329 yards and three touchdowns as a rookie.

    Walford suffered a knee injury in an ATV accident during the 2016 offseason, and his production seemed to level off at his rookie numbers. He didn’t show much improvement in his second year, and then he became an afterthought when the Oakland Raiders signed tight end Jared Cook last offseason.

    After playing just 130 snaps with the Raiders in the previous year, Walford can put a disappointing start to his career behind him with the New York Jets. Looking at the bright side, he caught six touchdown passes in Oakland and didn’t struggle with constant focus drops. 

    Whether it’s Josh McCown, Teddy Bridgewater or Sam Darnold under center, the quarterback will have a reliable tight end in the aerial attack.

    In Cleveland, McCown helped tight end Gary Barnidge see a major production leap between the 2015-16 seasons. Walford has an opportunity to follow suit and outplay second-year pro Jordan Leggett for career-highs as a pass-catcher.

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    Oakland has a former Defensive Player of the Year in Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin on the edge. In order to help them wreak havoc on the pocket, the team brought in rookie defensive tackles P.J. Hall and Maurice Hurst.

    Hall will take a significant step up in competition as an FCS product. Hurst made a name for himself at Michigan. Big Ten quarterbacks remember seeing the 6’2″, 290-pounder penetrate through the interior gaps. He logged 32 tackles for a loss and 13.5 sacks through four collegiate seasons.

    Hurst fell to the fifth round because of a heart condition detected at the NFL Scouting Combine, but he hasn’t missed a game due to the ailment.

    According to Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller, an anonymous source called the Raiders “irresponsible” for drafting the former Wolverine, but he doesn’t have restrictions on his offseason workouts.

    Hurst’s track record shows he’s a first-round prospect. The Raiders rolled the dice on his heart ailment, but defensive coordinator Paul Guenther has a proven interior pass-rusher and Day 1 starter who’s set for a productive rookie season at a position of need.

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    Cornerback Patrick Robinson put together a productive 2017 season with the Philadelphia Eagles. He led the team in interceptions (four) and pass breakups (18), and then he signed a new deal with the Saints during the offseason. Fortunately, the Eagles have depth at the position.

    Rasul Douglas saw significant time on the field as a rookie, but the team drafted Sidney Jones in the second round of the same draft with plans for him to eventually lead the secondary. At his pro day, he suffered a torn Achilles that nearly kept him out an entire year. The Washington product only took 29 snaps in the season finale against the Cowboys. 

    Despite Douglas holding his own and cornerback Jalen Mills’ solid play during the 2017-18 postseason, Jones should see ample snaps in his sophomore term.

    The Eagles selected him as the No. 43 overall pick with a known injury. It’s an indicator that he’s going to play a major role on the back end. His ball-tracking skills will allow him to force turnovers in coverage as a standout defender.

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    Sometimes, a contract nearing its expiration provides enough incentive for a breakout campaign. The Pittsburgh Steelers exercised Bud Dupree’s fifth-year option, but the team can still release him after a subpar season and save cash, barring an injury.

    The Steelers probably expected more than 14.5 sacks in three seasons from the Kentucky product. A groin injury shortened his sophomore campaign to seven appearances, but an underwhelming third year caused general manager Kevin Colbert to pause before extending his contract.

    Fortunately for Pittsburgh, the defense hasn’t been dependent on a highly productive season from Dupree. The team has ranked top-10 in sacks in each of the three previous years.

    Defensive coordinator Keith Butler’s brilliance in dialing up pressure from various angles allows Dupree to see one-on-one matchups—opportunities he should take advantage of in 2018.

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Don’t use the term bust to describe Solomon Thomas’ rookie season. Based solely on sack count, three is an underwhelming number for the No. 3 overall pick. It looks further behind the curve next to Browns pass-rusher Myles Garrett’s seven in the category.

    However, Thomas knows he needs to adjust to the scheme and avoid overanalyzing his moments on the field, per San Jose Mercury reporter Cam Inman.

    “I overthink sometimes,” Thomas said. “Just trying to adjust to this scheme. You know, I haven’t really played on the edge much my whole career. So adjusting to that and to moving inside during games.”

    Once Thomas hurdles the mental block, he’ll have his hands on the quarterback frequently. Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh also plans to use him at the “Leo” position to tap into his ability as a pass-rusher, per Sacramento Bee reporter Matt Barrows. 

    Thomas is primed for a productive year under a coaching staff looking to schematically bolster his sack opportunities.

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    Richard Sherman signed with the division rival 49ers, which opens up the lead cornerback spot. The team re-signed Byron Maxwell, who’s familiar with the territory, but Shaquill Griffin had a better year as a rookie.

    Seattle lost a recognizable name in Sherman, but the front office picked up a viable starter in Griffin during the 2017 draft. 

    In 15 appearances and 11 starts, Griffin broke up 15 passes and ripped off an interception in coverage. He showed solid field awareness and played in the receiver’s back pocket as a stingy cover defender on the boundary. 

    As a projected starter going into his second season, the Central Florida product will continue to see growth with more experience in a tough division. Quarterbacks Jared Goff and Jimmy Garoppolo will certainly test him. He’ll see a high number of targets, which gives him an opportunity to deflect more passes and force multiple turnovers.

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Pass-rusher Vinny Curry didn’t start a game or play more than 50 percent of the Eagles’ total defensive snaps until his sixth year with the team. For the most part, he’s been a rotation defender, though a breakout season came in 2014 with nine sacks.

    Curry will start anew with the Buccaneers, who completely revamped their defensive line. He’ll stand alongside rookie Vita Vea, Gerald McCoy and Jason Pierre-Paul across the front.

    McCoy and Pierre-Paul should command attention as consistent, proven pass-rushers. They combine for 107 sacks in their respective careers. At 347 pounds, Vea will demand extra help on the interior. Curry could see frequent one-on-one opportunities on the edge. He’ll take advantage using speed and his relatively fresh legs.

    Curry could potentially push for team leader in sacks as offensive coordinators game-plan to stop his established teammates on the defensive line.  

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    Wideout Corey Davis didn’t score his first NFL touchdown until the Tennessee Titans’ final game of the year—an AFC divisional-round loss to the Patriots. He scored twice in the contest.

    Davis came into the league recovering from ankle surgery. A hamstring injury sidelined him through a portion of last year’s camp activities and cost him games during the regular season. In addition, the Titans offense didn’t look sharp in 2017. Quarterback Marcus Mariota threw 13 touchdowns to 15 interceptions in his worst season. 

    Offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur’s time spent with the Rams’ top-scoring unit during the previous term bodes well for Davis and the Titans offense as a whole. 

    Mariota will have a No. 1 wideout in Davis who can outmuscle and win jump-ball battles against smaller defenders. Expect him to triple his previous 375 receiving yards total in 2018.

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    Mark Tenally/Associated Press

    The Washington Redskins addressed their defensive line with first-round picks out of Alabama in the last two years. Jonathan Allen and Da’Ron Payne will line up next to each other like their good ol’ 2016 days as full-season starters in Tuscaloosa.

    Allen only played five games in 2017 before landing on injured reserve with a Lisfranc injury. Despite the uncertainty on his return to the field, the second-year defensive end should see action at some point during the team’s offseason program.  

    Washington ranked last against the ground attack in 2017; opponents dominated the Redskins defensive line. Allen returned to Alabama for his senior year to sharpen his skills as a run-stopper, and the extra time spent on campus should help him bolster the Redskins’ front in the upcoming season.

    On the end, Allen has the quickness and technical skills to set an edge and pressure the quarterback. Watch out for him as a dynamic playmaker.