This is one of my favorite weeks on the sports calendar. Yes, seriously. Dog days of summer? Not for long! Every NFL team will be in training camp by the end of this week. That means hope. And it's awesome.
Of course, certain powerhouses don't really need the uncertain quality of hope; they're bona fide contenders. We know the Patriots have Brady and Belichick. We know Aaron Rodgers is healthy. We know the Saints, Rams and Vikings ooze talent. We know the Steelers' offense is fantastic -- and so is the Jaguars' defense. And we know the defending Super Bowl champions are poised to be even better in 2018.
But how about the fascinating teams that might break through -- and might not? The teams that could go 10-6 or 6-10. The pre-preseason bubble teams, if you will. Those are the really interesting squads to assess at the start of training camp. So, let's take a look at the most prominent ones -- in alphabetical order -- Schein Nine style!
1) Arizona Cardinals
Case for: I loved the hiring of Steve Wilks. And the defensive-minded head coach has a fine collection of talent to work with on that side of the ball, particularly when it comes to CB Patrick Peterson and DE Chandler Jones -- two of the very best players at their respective positions. Multi-talented running back David Johnson is healthy and should have extremely fresh legs, having missed all but one game of last season with a wrist injury. Despite wanting a new contract, Johnson opted against holding out, reporting to camp on Monday. Wise move, if you ask me, as he's poised to dominate in 2018 and undoubtedly get his money. Larry Fitzgerald is still Larry Fitzgerald. First-round pick Josh Rosen has all of the goods to start -- and star -- right away at quarterback.
Case against: Rosen is still a rookie -- and he's currently blocked from the starting lineup by Sam Bradford. The offensive line isn't great. (Which, combined with Bradford's fragility, might actually lead to Rosen seeing the field sooner than later.) The NFC West is tough.
Early gut feeling: I think Arizona is just a little short. I have the Cards as a nine-win team. I'd feel much better if they ended the Bradford nonsense and just let Rosen be the starting quarterback, allowing him to get all those valuable reps with the 1s.
2) Chicago Bears
Case for: Earlier this offseason, I wrote that Chicago could be the Cinderella team in the NFL. New head coach Matt Nagy will turn Mitchell Trubisky into a real quarterback in short order. I loved the Allen Robinson signing. Jordan Howard doesn't get enough credit for eclipsing 1,100 yards rushing in each of his first two NFL seasons. Vic Fangio is a fantastic defensive coordinator.
Case against: The Bears' defense is good, but not great. The NFC North is stacked. I believe in Trubisky, but he's the fourth-best QB in the division heading into the season.
Early gut feeling: After posting 19 total wins over the past four years, the Bears are indeed going to surprise some people. But I don't see a playoff berth. Seven wins -- and friskiness on a weekly basis -- would equal a step in the right direction.
3) Dallas Cowboys
Case for:Ezekiel Elliott is the most indispensable offensive player (non-quarterback) in the NFL, as I wrote last week. Having him for 16 games is momentous, as the gifted back changes everything for Dallas' offense and defense. Elliott takes a whole heap of pressure off Dak Prescott, giving the offense balance. Consequently, he keeps the defense off the field. I also think the release of Dez Bryant was addition by subtraction. Dez was a distraction and not good for Dak's development. Honestly, I think Allen Hurns can be an upgrade.
Case against: That prior Hurns comment aside, the receiving corps, as a whole, is hardly elite. Meanwhile, the defense is better than it gets credit for ... but definitely not dominant. And Jason Garrett is not an upper-echelon coach. Did I mention that the NFC is absolutely loaded this year?
Early gut feeling: My mindset going into camp is that Dallas should win nine or 10 games and finish in second place in the NFC East. I wouldn't be stunned if the Cowboys made the playoffs via the wild card. But there are more complete teams in the NFC.
4) Detroit Lions
Case for:Matthew Stafford is a stud -- the kind of tough, clutch franchise quarterback every coach wants. Speaking of coaches, I loved the Matt Patricia hire. The defense got better the minute he walked in the door. Meanwhile, the Lions' offensive line and run game got much better and tougher this offseason, through the draft (adding mauling OL Frank Ragnow and versatile back Kerryon Johnson in the first two rounds) and free agency (scooping up 247-pound hammer LeGarrette Blount).
Early gut feeling: The Lions are a tough team to project. In theory, this group is much better than the 2017 version, starting with the coach. But every team in the division improved this offseason. And the NFC is jammed. Eight or nine wins.
5) Houston Texans
Case for:Deshaun Watson is healthy -- and now experienced as an NFL player, leader and student in the Bill O'Brien playbook. And make no mistake: He's special. Watson-to-DeAndre Hopkins is a fantastic combo -- one of the NFL's best. Houston's defense -- with J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus back in the fold -- has spectacular potential. I like O'Brien a lot. And with his new contract, there is no question about security.
Case against: OK, let's be honest: J.J. Watt hasn't been J.J. Watt since 2015. Given his age (29) and injury history, there's no guarantee we'll see the generational game wrecker at full strength ever again. The offensive line is underwhelming. And, well, Houston was dreadful last year, dropping nine of its last 10 games and finishing 4-12.
Early gut feeling: I'm in on the Texans! I think this team returns to good health -- and returns to the postseason, via the wild card.
6) Kansas City Chiefs
Case for:Patrick Mahomes is going to be special. And he's lucky enough to be coached by someone as fantastic as Andy Reid, who has a knack for developing quarterbacks and maximizing their specific talents (of which Mahomes has plenty). Tyreek Hill is a game changer. So is Travis Kelce. Kareem Huntled the league in rushing last year as a rookie.
Early gut feeling: Second or third place in the AFC West -- behind at least the Chargers -- feels right. But Mahomes is going to be special. Really special. In fact, I'm pegging him as a dark-horse MVP candidate this year.
7) San Francisco 49ers
Case for: Jimmy G! The Niners were flawless with the pairing of Jimmy Garoppolo and Kyle Shanahan last year. These guys are special, individually and especially together.
Case against: Everything else! San Francisco is hardly stellar in any other phase. Question marks abound across this roster.
Early gut feeling: These days, the NFL is a quarterback/coach-driven league. Thus, despite all the unknowns this team presents in other areas, I'm going into camp with the mindset that the Niners win 10 games and make the playoffs!
8) Tennessee Titans
Case for: Tennessee made the 2017 playoffs, won a game on the road and then got better this offseason, with excellent picks for head coach (Mike Vrabel) and offensive coordinator (Matt LaFleur). I still cannot believe they stole both ILB Rashaan Evans (at No. 22) and OLB Harold Landry (No. 41) in the draft. The defense is strong on every level. Kevin Byard has become one of the best safeties in the game. I still believe in Marcus Mariota, especially now that LaFleur's in the building. The offensive line is strong.
Case against: While I like Vrabel, he is a first-year head coach. Mariota had more interceptions (15) than touchdown passes (13) last season, as his QB rating plummeted to a career-low 79.3. The AFC South is the strongest it's been in recent memory. Jacksonville and Houston are better on defense.
9) Washington Redskins
Case for: I love Alex Smith. He's a born leader and underrated great quarterback coming off a fine season in Kansas City. Washington had a strong draft; the Redskins are improved on defense and should be much better running the football with Derrius Guice. Vikings defensive lineman Everson Griffen told me in studio on my SiriusXM Radio show, "Schein on Sports," that left tackle Trent Williams is top three at his position. Hard to argue with that, as Williams has made the last six Pro Bowls. Smith will enjoy that kind of blind-side protection.
Case against: I love Alex Smith ... but Kirk Cousins is/was better. That's just the truth. And yet, Washington was almost exactly a .500 team over the last three seasons (24-23-1) with Cousins at the helm. Can we expect a big jump after a downgrade at the QB spot? While the defense improved, it's not the kind of elite unit that can cover up other warts. And then, of course, there's always drama with the Redskins.
Early gut feeling: 8-8 feels right, if not generous.