Training camp is here! That means the 2018 NFL season isn't far behind. The longest-tenured head coach in the league, Bill Belichick, is beginning his 19th season with the New England Patriots.
Three of Belichick's Patriot disciples are head coaches this fall: Bill O'Brien (Houston Texans), Mike Vrabel (Tennessee Titans) and Matt Patricia (Detroit Lions). O'Brien enters his fifth season with the Texans and has led the team to two playoff appearances since taking the job in 2014. Vrabel and Patricia are both in their first year as a head coach.
After scanning the 2018 NFL regular-season slate, this question comes to mind: Which Belichick disciple will lead his team to the most wins in 2018?
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I tried to look at this a number of different ways, but it always kept coming back to Bill O'Brien. As the incumbent, experienced head coach, he's already gone through the growing pains that Matt Patricia and Mike Vrabel will undergo. More importantly, the Texans have the most talented team on paper -- provided they stay healthy. Getting J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus back will restore one of the league's most talented defenses to full strength. Having a healthy Deshaun Watson for a full season to throw to DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller will make Houston a big-play offense.
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I'm going to go with Mike Vrabel. He was an interesting choice because he didn't have a ton of experience as a coordinator, but I kind of like that about him. When you hire a longtime assistant who has been around the game forever, you can end up with the a guy like Mike Mularkey -- and, well, we know how that ended. I know it ended with a playoff win, but were the Titans really close to a Super Bowl? Of course not.
Vrabel is a nice choice for a league that is skewing younger. And probably the most impressive thing he did was resist the temptation to hire a stodgy, old offensive coordinator (like the Panthers did) and instead went with Matt LaFleur -- an up-and-coming coordinator from one of the hottest offenses from last season. Love what the Titans did this offseason and I fully expect them to be in the playoffs. Hence the Vrabel pick.
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All three teams have a chance to have a winning record. Bill O'Brien's Texans are well-grounded with a young quarterback (Deshaun Watson) and a very good defense. Mike Vrabel has learned as a player and a college coach, and the Titans have the most balanced personnel. But I'm going with Matt Patricia in Detroit, both because of Patricia's acumen and because the Lions have the best quarterback of the bunch in Matthew Stafford. Patricia also gets marks for giving up a high-paying engineering career to work in football. He clearly has a lot of confidence in his own ability.
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I thought Detroit overachieved last year at 9-7 with Jim Caldwell as the head coach. With Matt Patricia's current roster, the Lions should be able to run the ball better, but Detroit's lack of a pass rush and incomplete secondary will hurt the cause. While the Titans made the postseason in 2017, the Texans will edge them out for a playoff spot this season. Tennessee also lacks a pass rush and has questions in the secondary.
Lastly, I think there is a learning curve to becoming a head coach. That is where O'Brien also has an edge right now.
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The Texans have the most complete team, as they've built a premier defense and have a star in quarterback Deshaun Watson. If they can avoid injuries to key players, which plagued them last season, they will have a good chance to win the AFC South. Mike Vrabel's Titans are learning a new offense, while Matt Patricia's Lions have too many questions on defense.
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NFL.com analyst Daniel Jeremiah: Houston poised to have 10-plus wins and get back to playoffs in 2018
Of these three organizations, the Houston Texans look the most like a playoff team, especially with J.J. Watt and Deshaun Watson returning from injury. I think the Jaguars will once again win the AFC South, but Houston will earn a wild-card spot with 10-plus wins in the regular season. To me, the Lions and Titans look like they'll teeter around the .500 mark in 2018.