Football is near! Finally!! By the end of this week, every NFL team will have reported to training camp, and color me obsessed.
What about that robust group of teams in the middle? You know, the ones that aren't widely viewed as top-tier contenders, but also aren't seen as potential holders of the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. How about them? At this point in the summer, they're the really interesting organizations to study.
Below, I've compiled a list of nine fascinating teams, analyzing upside and downside before providing my gut feeling on each. Remember, I don't put my predictions in pen until the Tuesday after Labor Day. For now, let's take a closer look -- Schein Nine style -- at some franchises that could rise or fall in 2017:
1) Dallas Cowboys
The case for:Ezekiel Elliott is a star. Dak Prescott is fresh off one of the best seasons ever by a rookie quarterback. Dez Bryant still boasts game-changing ability. Jason Witten and Sean Lee remain great players and leaders. Oh, and did I mention the offensive line? Yeah, that's quite a strength. The upside here is a Super Bowl run driven by a truly transcendent young running back.
The case against: From Elliott to Lucky Whitehead to David Irving to Damien Wilson to Nolan Carroll, there's a ton of "stuff" around the Cowboys. An Elliott suspension would be a killer early in the season, given that the Cowboys open up at home against a tough Giants team and then travel to Denverand Arizona. And Dallas won't sneak up on anyone this year. Can these 'Boys handle the pressure of lofty expectations in the Big D? The defense is mediocre overall, and Irving's four-game suspension doesn't help. The secondary's a huge concern, following the offseason losses of four key players (cornerbacks Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne, as well as safeties Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox). The offensive line remains stout with three first-team All-Pros, but Dallas must break in new starters at right tackle and left guard.
My gut feeling: Nobody loves Zeke as a player more than I do, but I don't think Dallas is a playoff lock. The NFC East is great and the Giants have the best defense in the division. I have the Cowboys winning about nine games. I acknowledge the upside, but the postseason's hardly a foregone conclusion.
2) Tennessee Titans
The case for: After breaking his leg last December, Marcus Mariota just said he's "ready to go with everything" in training camp. Yeah, I think he's ready ... ready to explode in Year 3. I loved the Corey Davis pick, giving Mariota a legit WR1 talent for the first time. I also loved the Eric Decker acquisition. Mariota goes from a 1-2 punch of Rishard Matthews and Tajae Sharpe to Davis and Decker. Upgrade! Not to mention, tight end Delanie Walker's coming off his second straight Pro Bowl campaign. Tennessee has an elite offensive line that fuels a fantastic power run game led by DeMarco Murray. The defense showed improvement last season with Dick LeBeau as coordinator.
The case against: Mariota needs to show -- not just say -- he is 100 percent healthy. Davis needs the light go on right away in his first pro season. (The guy tore up the MAC; the AFC South is a little different.) Is LeBeau's defense good enough to shut down potent offenses and win on the road? Tennessee surprised many by finishing second in the AFC with 40 sacks -- can that be replicated? And most crucially, this team has received a ton of offseason buzz -- are the Titans ready to deal with expectations?
My gut feeling: I'm not as sky high on these Titans as many others. I believe the Texans are clearly the team to beat in the AFC South, with Deshaun Watson at quarterback and J.J. Watt healthy. But I think Tennessee wins 10 games and that puts thie group in the mix for a wild-card slot. I love watching this team. And this fan base is amazing and deserves its first playoff team since 2008.
3) Los Angeles Chargers
The case for:Philip Rivers is still a star. Don't worry about last year's NFL-high 21 interceptions -- injuries leveled the Chargers (again) and Rivers was forced to overcompensate. I loved two coaching hires: Anthony Lynn as the new head man and Gus Bradley as the defensive coordinator. Keenan Allen is healthy. The light went on for Melvin Gordon in Year 2, and he's poised for an even bigger season in 2017. The Chargers wisely addressed receiver (Mike Williams) and O-line (guards Forrest Lamp and Dan Feeney) in the first three rounds of April's draft. Joey Bosa is an absolute monster. Hard to find a better young edge-rushing duo than Bosa and Melvin Engram.
The case against: Only the Chargers! No. 7 overall pick Mike Williams already has a back problem. While he denied a report that he could be due for season-ending back surgery, Williams clearly isn't 100 percent. It's a killer if Williams is compromised. When right, this guy can give Rivers a game-changing weapon. On defense, can CB Casey Hayward again provide the kind of fine play he offered up last season (see: NFL-leading seven interceptions)? Will the Chargers have the fan support and interest in L.A. that they had in San Diego?
My gut feeling: It's all about Williams. After the draft, I was ready to declare the Chargers my sleeper team. I was all ready to scream playoffs. Now, I have to hit the pause button.
4) Washington Redskins
The case for: You like that?! Whether they realize it or not, the Redskins have a franchise quarterback in Kirk Cousins. This cat nearly hit 5,000 yards passing while completing 67 percent of his throws. The draft was strong: DL Jonathan Allen still feels like a steal at No. 17 overall, while fourth-round RB Samaje Perine should make an impact in Year 1. The offensive line continues to be a strength of Jay Gruden's squad.
The case against: The Cousins situation stinks -- questions about his future could be a big distraction all season long. I like Terrelle Pryor, but Washington got worse at receiver by losing DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon. The defense, which finished 28th in yards allowed last season, doesn't exactly make opponents shake in their shoes.
5) Philadelphia Eagles
The case for: I love Carson Wentz! Remember, he wasn't supposed to start last year -- and he wouldn't have if Teddy Bridgewater hadn't gotten hurt, causing the Vikings to desperately give up a top pick for Sam Bradford. Still, the rookie logged 16 starts and showed some real flashes, despite not having a legit receiving corps or run game. Enter Alshon Jeffery -- Wentz is gonna love the guy. Also, I liked the LeGarrette Blount signing and the drafting of scat back Donnel Pumphrey. The offensive line is great, and the defensive front is loaded with studs like Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham and first-round pick Derek Barnett.
The case against: The Eagles' run game still doesn't look good enough for a young quarterback to truly lean on. The secondary -- particularly at cornerback -- is quite suspect. And so is the in-game coaching of Doug Pederson.
My gut feeling: A part of me wants to get on the Eagles train before anyone else. I think Philly has the potential to surprise some people. Eight wins sounds right. And although that'd only be a one-win improvement from last year, I think this could be the type of team that'll challenge some powerhouses.
6) Baltimore Ravens
The case against: Who are they? What's the identity of this team? Steve Smith Sr.'s play and leadership will be missed. Dennis Pitta's, too. Versatile RB Kenneth Dixon is already done for the year. I like the Danny Woodhead signing, but can the former Charger (fresh off a torn ACL) and Terrence West do enough in the backfield? Color me skeptical. While the Ravens' defense quietly finished last season seventh in yards allowed and ninth in points allowed, I still think it's a far cry from the Ray Lewis-Ed Reed units of yore.
My gut feeling: I'm always high on the Ravens. Not this year. I think Pittsburgh is significantly better. But I'm smart enough to know how great Harbaugh and this organization are. I'll never count them out. It's a fascinating team. Eight wins? If not, 7-9 feels more likely than 9-7.
7) Kansas City Chiefs
The case against: The division is so damn tough -- Oakland is my favorite -- and the Chiefs have had a lot of drama of late. GM John Dorsey surprisingly lost his job just a month ago. I was stunned by the Jeremy Maclin cut. Tamba Hali is airing grievances on social media. Odd start. And it's still only July. And then there's the quarterback situation ... I love Smith and Pat Mahomes. And the rookie is there to watch -- in theory. But this kind of thing never runs smoothly. Chiefs fans will be pining for Mahomes if Smith doesn't air it out or if K.C. isn't winning.
My gut feeling: Kansas City has the roster to hit double-digit wins again. But with the QB situation, the Chiefs have to manage all the outside noise -- and not create more noise on their own.
8) Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The case for: GM Jason Licht dominated the offseason. Signing DeSean Jackson to take the top off of the defense was a masterstroke. The O.J. Howard pick was the steal of the draft. This will all help Jameis Winston take a step forward. Lavonte David and Gerald McCoy are defensive stars, while Kwon Alexander has the potential to be quite a player.
The case against: Can you bank on Doug Martin, on and off the field? Can you trust the defense -- which finished last season at 23rd in yards allowed -- to make big stops in a division with superb quarterback play?
My gut feeling: I am rolling with the Bucs and their upside. Jameis is about to go off. I think Tampa wins 10-plus games and makes the playoffs.
9) Arizona Cardinals
The case for:David Johnson is fantastic -- an all-around star rushing and receiving. The receiving crops is good and diverse, especially if John Brown is right again. Bruce Arians is a great coach. Tyrann Mathieu and Patrick Peterson are bona fide stars and Chandler Jones is a top-notch pass rusher.
My gut feeling: Last year was a fluke for the Cardinals. The team is just too talented to finish below .500. The fine brass and coaching staff won't allow that to happen again. Arizona bounces back and makes the playoffs.