The Schein Nine  

 

2019 NFL bubble teams: Case for, case against, early prediction

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Here's what we know ...

Patrick Mahomes is awesome. The Chargers are talented. Dallas and Philly are the truth. The Saints will be back. Same with the Bears. And of course, it's the Patriots' world -- we're all just living in it.

All that said, though, the NFL feels more competitive than ever before. Heading into the 2019 campaign, it seems like more teams than ever before should be in that 7-to-10-win range. A few key plays (or costly gaffes) can decide seasons.

With that in mind, here's my annual list of bubble teams, Schein Nine style. As training camps open across the NFL, each spotlighted squad gets a case for, a case against and a way-too-early-DON'T-HOLD-ME-TO-IT-because-this-isn't-my-official-prediction take:

1) Cleveland Browns

2018 record: 7-8-1.

Case for: Simply put, Cleveland is loaded. The Browns had a sensational offseason. No team added more talent in every phase, with the Odell Beckham Jr. acquisition obviously topping the marquee. Baker Mayfield is a tremendous young quarterback who is incredibly accurate and oozes confidence, something Cleveland seriously lacked before his arrival. Beckham and Jarvis Landry could be the top receiver duo in the NFL -- and once Kareem Hunt returns from suspension in November, he and Nick Chubb could comprise the backfield equivalent. On the other side of the ball, the Browns boast a legit Defensive Player of the Year candidate (Myles Garrett) and one of the league's best young cover men (Denzel Ward).

Case against: I love the roster, but I didn't love the choice of Freddie Kitchens as the head coach. It felt like a shotgun marriage. Can Kitchens, a first-time head coach who wasn't on anyone's radar at this point one year ago, handle all of the big personalities in this locker room? How will Kitchens and Co. respond to super-high expectations in Cleveland for the first time in memory? There are a lot of potential pitfalls in Berea.

Early take: Look, I'm really into these Browns. The immense talent is undeniable. Kitchens and Mayfield have a rapport as play caller and quarterback from the second half of last season. And Kitchens, to his credit, put together a great staff. At this moment, I say Cleveland wins the AFC North and makes a legit run in January.

2) Baltimore Ravens

2018 record: 10-6 (AFC North champions, lost in Wild Card Weekend).

Case for: Lamar Jackson is a winner and will only get better as an NFL quarterback with experience. I loved Eric DeCosta's highest-profile moves this offseason: signing RB Mark Ingram and S Earl Thomas in free agency and then drafting blazing WR Marquise "Hollywood" Brown in the first round. John Harbaugh is one of the league's better coaches. And new offensive coordinator Greg Roman knows exactly how to maximize Jackson's explosive skill set.

Case against: Jackson still has a ways to go with his accuracy. The defense isn't vintage Baltimore: The Ravens will enter a season without Terrell Suggs for the first time in 17 years, losing centerpiece linebacker C.J. Mosley was a serious blow, and the team's sack leader from 2018 (Za'Darius Smith) is gone, too. As mentioned above, the Browns are vastly improved, ready to stake their claim to the AFC North throne.

Early take: I expect the Ravens to hit nine wins. I am a huge Lamar Jackson fan, and believe he can take this league by storm with more refinement on the passing front. Still, I'll have to monitor Jackson's progress in camp and the preseason before I decide whether or not to put Baltimore in the playoffs.

3) Atlanta Falcons

2018 record: 7-9.

Case for: Julio Jones showed up, so there's no hold-out distraction. Meanwhile, Thomas Dimitroff brilliantly doubled down on O-linemen in the first round of April's draft, snatching up OG Chris Lindstrom and OT Kaleb McGary. Dirk Koetter is back to run the offense. And all of the aforementioned points are great for Matt Ryan. Hard-hitting safety Keanu Neal and hyper-athletic linebacker Deion Jones are healthy, and that's everything for the defense. There's a real expectation this unit can return to its top-10 form on D.

Case against: Vic Beasley and Takk McKinley need to get to the quarterback far more often. The offensive line needs to click. Atlanta has a bad reputation of not finishing games and losing close ones. You can argue that this comes down to the man in charge, fifth-year head coach Dan Quinn.

Early take: I love the Falcons to win 10 games. But in the NFC, is that enough?

4) San Francisco 49ers

2018 record: 4-12.

Case for: Jimmy Garoppolo is healthy! So is Jerick McKinnon. And I loved the Tevin Coleman signing. Kyle Shanahan is a superb coach who will maximize Jimmy G and the plethora of quality running backs. Nick Bosa should be in the mix for Defensive Rookie of the Year, and he's not the only new edge rusher Niner Faithful should be thrilled with, as the Dee Ford pickup was a gem. With Bosa and Ford joining DeForest Buckner up front, San Francisco suddenly boasts one of the most imposing D-lines in football.

Case against: It's wild considering his age (27) and contract (five years, $137.5 million), but Garoppolo still has just 10 NFL starts under his belt. The defense is better, but the secondary remains suspect. The division and wild-card competition is brutal.

Early take: I like the Niners a lot. And yes, I'm still drinking the Jimmy G Kool-Aid. Are the Niners better than the Rams, who must overcome the Super Bowl curse? I have San Francisco more than doubling their 2018 win total, logging nine or 10 Ws this fall.

5) Minnesota Vikings

2018 record: 8-7-1.

Case for: Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs are absolute studs, two incredibly productive and versatile weapons at receiver. As stated above, Cleveland has the potential to field the best 1-2 punch at wideout in 2019, but Minnesota undoubtedly possessed the top tandem last year. Kirk Cousins should be more relaxed in Year 2, and I've always been a bigger Cousins fan than most. Mike Zimmer's defense remains talented on every level.

Case against: Cousins' performance in prime-time games has been shaky. Despite all the money Minnesota has pumped into the QB and WR positions, Zimmer still wants to run the ball a ton. The offensive line is better, but still not great. And the defense dipped last year.

Early take: The Bears are better. The Packers are better. A nine-win Vikings team falls a dollar short in a highly competitive NFC North.

6) Jacksonville Jaguars

2018 record: 5-11.

Case for: Nick Foles is everything in terms of tangibles, intangibles and simply not being Blake Bortles. Leonard Fournette seems to be refocused. I love that John DeFilippo's now calling the plays -- and his old cohort at quarterback will, too. The defense, which stole Josh Allen in the draft, has the ability to bounce back from last year's overall team debacle and rank among the game's elite units again. Doug Marrone is a strong head coach.

Case against: Last year was a staggering mess, with Fournette's individual downturn being quite representative of this team's overall disappointment. Defensive captain and uniquely gifted linebacker Telvin Smith is taking the year off. The division is quite strong.

Early take: I expect the Jaguars to bounce back and win nine or 10 games. The positives outweigh the negatives in Duval County.

7) Pittsburgh Steelers

2018 record: 9-6-1.

Case for: Pittsburgh has a Hall of Fame quarterback and, I'd argue, the best offensive line in the game. Devin Bush was put on this earth to be a Steeler and play linebacker in the black and gold. JuJu Smith-Schuster is more talented than most people seem to realize. The Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell headaches are gone.

Case against: The Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell megatalents are gone. It's one of the biggest talent drains in one offseason I've ever seen. A Mike Tomlin-coached team has issues with being buttoned-up and focused throughout the season.

Early take: This feels like 8-8 and third place in the AFC North. Another long and cold January in Pittsburgh.

8) Oakland Raiders

2018 record: 4-12.

Case for: The Raiders' offseason was sensational. They are better in every area on offense -- and made major strides on defense, too. Antonio Brown is a Hall of Famer who will get the best out of Derek Carr, helping the 28-year-old signal-caller return to his Pro Bowl form. Rookie Josh Jacobs is a Swiss Army Knife at running back.

Case against: Antonio Brown can be a Hall of Fame clown. Are Jon Gruden and Carr on the same page? The defense still desperately misses Khalil Mack.

Early take: I'm telling you, the Raiders are going to be better than you think and win games you don't expect. But playing in the same division as the Chargers and Chiefs -- and still having holes on the defense -- I think we're looking at 7-9.

9) New York Jets

2018 record: 4-12.

Case for: Le'Veon Bell is a star. Sam Darnold is going to be one very soon. Adam Gase will help both. Gregg Williams running this defense is genius. Quinnen Williams was a great (no-brainer) draft pick. Jamal Adams is one of the very best safeties in the game today. The C.J. Mosley pickup was inspired.

Case against: The offensive line isn't strong. The defensive backfield has holes. The other teams have more talent. I like Gase, but he has to handle the media better than he did in Miami. Bell hasn't played in a football game in a year and a half.

Early take: The Jets are going to be fun! Seriously! Major improvement with seven wins.

Follow Adam Schein on Twitter @AdamSchein.

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