19. San Francisco 49ers
The Niners have talent all over the place defensively, trading for Dee Ford and drafting Nick Bosa to add to an already-stacked defensive line. Offensively, their biggest boon will come from the return of franchise QB Jimmy Garoppolo. But given how much of an unknown Garoppolo is after only eight games as a starter, it’s hard to bank on the Niners getting much better. Their defense will improve, but the talent on the back end of that unit remains suspect. A lot has to break right for San Francisco to be true contenders this year.
18. Carolina Panthers
The Panthers’ season rides and dies with Cam Newton, who will be returning after losing the end of last year to a shoulder injury. He will presumably be throwing more to cut down on physical wear-and-tear; this will be a good thing if he worked on his accuracy over the offseason (when he could throw), but if he’s the same caliber-thrower he’s always been, the team will need their other skill players to step up in a big way. The defense will stay very good. But they don’t have a quality target for Newton to throw to at receiver, and their offensive line remains a weak spot.
17. Cleveland Browns
The Browns are everyone’s favorite Upstart Team in 2019, and for good reason. Baker Mayfield flourished after they finally canned Hue Jackson, and the defense had flashes of dominance. They only got better once the season was over, adding a superstar in Odell Beckham Jr. to make their offense even more dangerous. But none of this is guaranteed. Mayfield may yet hit a sophomore slump, and Freddie Kitchens has never run any locker room, much less one with these personalities. OBJ is a stud and playing with his best friend in Jarvis Landry, but if he finds that he’s unhappy in a small market like Cleveland, everything could go down in flames. Still, they have enough talent to be a middling team, an improvement from the last decade.
16. Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens were rejuvenated as a unit when Lamar Jackson took over the starting QB spot last year. They were then dismantled by the Chargers in the playoffs and lost a few key guys in free agency like C.J. Mosley and Za'Darius Smith. Their playoff loss shouldn’t be an indictment of Jackson, and with a full offseason to design schemes for the young QB, the Ravens’ offense should be at least league average. Jackson’s improvement will ultimately determine their ceiling. He’s a talented runner, but his flaws as a passer were glaring even when the team was winning games. Unless he takes a leap in that area, Baltimore will tread water in the middle of the league.
15. Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings now know Kirk Cousins’ strengths and weaknesses intimately. How they address those issues determine how good they’ll be. Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen remain a top receiving duo in the league, but Cousins can’t operate under pressure. Picking Garrett Bradbury in the first round will help matters, but the unit as a whole has to get better. Similar to the Lions, however, they’re banking on continuity more than any one guy. Until Cousins proves he can consistently be a top-15 QB, the Vikes won’t be making another playoff run soon, even with an upper-echelon defense in the NFL.
14. Dallas Cowboys
Dallas had a scorching end to 2018 and fought their way to the second round of the playoffs. It remains to be seen if they can keep that pace. Given his track record, it seems likely Amari Cooper won’t be that good all season, and Dak Prescott has his known limitations. The group needs to make a big leap defensively to stick as a top team in the league. Their offense is good and occasionally great, but has reached its ceiling unless Prescott makes the leap to superstardom. Where Prescott’s limitations end will define their season.
13. Houston Texans
If the Texans’ offensive line is only slightly better, the Texans have a chance to repeat as division champions without breaking a sweat. They didn’t make any major moves to address that particular issue over the offseason, however, and picked a project tackle in the first round of this year’s draft. Still, as long as they have Deshaun Watson, J.J. Watt, and DeAndre Hopkins, they have a chance to win every game. Not much will change from last year; it’s how their rivals got better that pushes them down the list.
12. Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers lost Brown and (technically) Le'Veon Bell, but James Conner and Juju Smith-Schuster are both quite good in their own right. This won’t be the world-destroying offense of years past, but it will still be borderline top-five. Ben Roethlisberger hasn’t fallen off yet (although he’s getting there), and their defense led the league in sacks last year. The secondary is still suspect, however, and it’s impossible to not experience some kind of dropoff after a player of AB’s caliber departs. Their defense needs to lock down opposing passers to move higher than their current spot.
11. Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons were not very good last year, but more than any other team, they can point to injuries as the cause. Now they’re healthy, Matt Ryan is coming off a season equal to his MVP year statistically, and they invested heavily in the offensive line. They don’t need to worry about too much offensively. How guys likeDeion Jones and Keanu Neal come back after season-ending injuries will determine Atlanta’s ceiling, but they should be looked at as contenders.