Leadership: Matt Rhule (HC), Ben McAdoo (OC), Phil Snow (DC), Sam Darnold / Baker Mayfield (QB)
The Matt Rhule era in Carolina could finally end this season. Unless key actors on this team surprise me, the Panthers have done little to change the trajectory of their organization after last year’s tragic campaign.
Let’s start with the offense. The club made a good move canning Joe Brady, but Ben McAdoo isn’t necessarily the right replacement. McAdoo chiefly runs a safer variant of the air raid - his offense emphasizes looser formations with 3-4 receivers flared out along the wings. It’s a style of offense tailored more towards bull-headed quarterbacks who aren’t afraid to sling the ball around or shoulder the burden of production successfully. Sam Darnold certainly isn’t that quarterback. Baker Mayfield may have some of that temperament McAdoo wants in his ideal quarterback, but Baker’s shown time and time again that he’s incapable of leading through skill or intelligence. Sure, he’s shown admirable toughness, but that isn’t nearly enough to thrive in an offense that demands so much from the quarterback. Christian McCaffrey is probably the best weapon on offense, but his durability worries me - the man’s only played 10 games over the past two seasons.
Things aren’t much better on defense either. The team letting Haason Reddick walk was foolish considering he was pretty productive as a pass rusher lining up alongside Brian Burns in the trenches. Rhule and Snow are likely expecting Derrick Brown or Yetur Gross-Matos to account for the missed production, but neither are guaranteed to do so. On top of that, Phil Snow is such an uninspiring coordinator - it sickens me to see the man pick the worst times to call three-man pass rushes. Three-man pass rushes only work when used judiciously in choice circumstances, but Snow’s never really demonstrated much nuance in the way he manages his defense. It shows in the EPA chart below.
Not only did Carolina’s defense worsen as the season waned onward, but the unit didn’t fare so well against division rivals in subsequent matches, which tells me offensive coordinators gained a beat on their tendencies.
The fact that the sportsbooks seem to forecast this team winning only 6 games this season is damning enough. One would have thought the inclusion of Baker Mayfield would have boosted this team’s prospects, but the experts feel otherwise. I’m inclined to agree.
Kansas City Chiefs
Leadership: Andy Reid (HC/OC), Steve Spagnuolo (DC), Patrick Mahomes (QB)
The Chiefs are always a fun team to analyze, being perennial championship contenders. This year should be no different. Even though Tyreek Hill and a few other receivers are no longer with the club, don’t expect the offense to lose much a step here - Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Juju Smith-Schuster were signed in the offseason, so the unit won’t be lacking in weapons. Yes, neither player can adequately replace Tyreek Hill, but those two should help spur a much-needed identity shift in this offense. Too many defenses were comfortable playing against this unit with multiple safeties, especially given Kansas seemed oddly unwilling to adopt a less explosive style of football in response. With Hill now gone, Mahomes and Reid will have no choice but to devise new strategies now that their receiving corps is missing its signature explosive weapon.
Defensively, things should be fine too. Even though the defense lost its “quarterback” in Tyrann Matthieu, the team should be able to compensate just fine with Justin Reid - I trust Spags will do his best to ensure Reid and some of the other coverage players can lead this offense should the need arise. Melvin Ingram was essentially swapped out with another older proven veteran in Carlos Dunlap. The hope here is that Dunlap carries over some of his production from his days in Seattle last year, because if not, the Chiefs will only have one definitively dominant pass rusher in Chris Jones. One thing in their favor is that Dunlap actually churned out slightly better numbers than Ingram last year, though I distinctly remember the latter making his presence known on more critical plays.
Ultimately, the fate of this team lies in the leadership outlined above. I know it sounds like an obvious truism, but it cannot be emphasized enough in the case of the Kansas City Chiefs. Spagnuolo will need to partly reinvent this defense now that it’s missing some key contributors from the past couple years. Remember that aggressive press coverage only works if the secondary stays disciplined in formation, but that type of discipline only comes with habituation. So expect this defense to go on a transformative journey as the season unwinds. On offense, Reid and Mahomes need to show much more flexibility in their approach to offensive football. As I said earlier, not having Tyreek Hill in the huddle anymore might be that mental reset they so desperately need - with their glorified deep threat now replaced by a pair of scrappy receivers, Reid and his quarterback are forced to adjust to an offensive brand of football no longer predicated on the deep ball.
I think it can happen. And I think the Chiefs are once again a strong contender for the Super Bowl.
Las Vegas Raiders
Leadership: Josh McDaniels (HC/OC), Patrick Graham (DC), Derek Carr (QB)
Probably the most exciting team to watch given their potentially high ceiling.
Offensively, the team’s loaded with weaponry at every key position - tight end, slot receiver, running back, and outside receiver. Speaking of outside receiver, dealing two first round picks for Davonte Adams was a stroke of genius. Yes, Adams won’t have as productive a season under Carr as he would have under Rodgers, but in the grander scheme of things, Carr and the Raiders needed him to be the cornerstone of an offense built more on the diversity of its personnel than on the sheer talent of the man playing under center. Everybody knows Carr lacks the tools to be anything more than an average quarterback, but the number of quality skill players should be enough to keep this offense thriving, so long as McDaniels doesn’t screw things up as badly as he did in Denver.
And that’s the big question here. I know Michael Lombardi sings his praises as an offensive genius, but I have my own reservations about declaring Josh McDaniels as such. Last year’s Patriots were stocked with talent too. Yet it didn’t feel like that. Jonnu Smith was criminally unused. Hunter Henry only started emerging as a viable receiving threat later in the season. Granted, the organization was developing a rookie quarterback at the time, but this isn’t the first time we’ve seen a unit coached by McDaniels underwhelm. 2019’s Patriots also disappointed in terms of weaponry, despite that unit being led out in the field by the inveterate Tom Brady. People have made the argument that Brady’s trust issues frustrated any of McDaniels’ attempts to foster more production from his set of receivers, but that’s only speculation at this point. I do give him credit for tailoring New England’s offense in 2020 to a more run-oriented one, knowing full well Cam Newton’s far more efficient running the ball than passing it.
On defense, I expect Patrick Graham to pick up right where he left off in New York. This time though, he’ll be given not one, but two premiere pass rushers at his hand in Maxx Crosby and Chandler Jones. He’ll have no excuse should his defense fail to mount any sort of consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks. But if he can sustain solid pressure with his defensive front while keeping coverages in the backfield hazy (in true Belichickian fashion), then we could see the Raiders finally emerge as one of the league’s better defenses.
So much of their success here depends on whether McDaniels can live up to the hype. The history of Bill Belichick’s coaching tree gives me pause here - despite all of Belichick’s success, not one of his assistants have established themselves as credible head coaches elsewhere. In fact, it makes me chuckle to think most of his assistants tend to find their way back home after failing dismally in their own ventures as head coach - Matt Patricia, Josh McDaniels (after his failed time with the Broncos), Joe Judge…Brian Flores would have likely been welcomed back too had he not broken Belichick’s heart. It’s very possible McDaniels might end up back home in New England in due time. That being said…I do see this Raiders team having some success, if only because of their stacked roster.
Leadership: Nathaniel Hackett (HC/OC), Ejiro Evero (DC), Russell Wilson (QB)
Dange-russ is in town! Before we discuss him and the offense though…let’s start with write-up discussing defense.
Ejiro Evero is a name I never heard until now. Apparently, he’s been coaching the Rams secondary the past three years or so, all under different defensive coordinators. It’s not fully known which style of defense he plans on adopting. My guess is it’d be some sort of variant of the Fangio defense, possibly with Patrick Surtain or Justin Simmons in some sort of free-wheeling role, similar to what the Rams pulled off with Jalen Ramsey. One notable decision is that Evero plans on keeping the same exact terminology Fangio instituted the past few years during his coaching tenure up in Colorado, allegedly in a bid to keep things simple for his defensive roster through the transition. But I suspect that this decision comes more because Evero’s style of defense is fundamentally the same as Fangio’s. Anyway, Evero should see some success, if only because the Broncos have one of the best defensive backfields in the league. Up front, they have a few issues, but Bradley Chubb’s return to full health combined with the newly acquired Randy Gregory may give them a much-needed boost, especially in terms of the pass rush.
Offensively, things remain a black box. Not much is known about Nathaniel Hackett - even though he has some prior stints as offensive coordinator, it’s hard to gauge his thinking or coaching ability. His last true stint as a coordinator came during the Doug Marrone era in Jacksonville. To his credit, his offense was good enough to advance to the conference championship. The year after though…the unit completely collapsed. In fact, things were so bad that Marrone was forced to fire Hackett midway through the season. Not long after, Matt LaFleur took him under his wing in Green Bay as anoffensive coordinator, but in reality, Hackett wasn’t really much a coordinator so much as a crony charged with running the offense according to LaFleur’s principles. Now that Hackett is the head coach, he’ll be able to go forward with his own vision of offense, though what that ultimately looks like remains to be seen.
One thing for sure - his system will need to incorporate Russell Wilson’s vision of an ideal offense as well. Denver gave up significant capital to acquire Russell Wilson from the Seahawks, so it goes without saying that the man will have some say over the structure of the offense. Luckily for him, this offense is stocked with a good bit more talent than what he was given in Seattle. That being said, it’s pretty clear from the last few years that Wilson is waning as he’s aging - Russell’s no longer capable of carrying the offense on sheer will any more. For this offense to be prolific, significant contributions are needed from the ground game.
Thankfully, Denver has two proven tailbacks in Javonte Williams and Melvin Gordon. On top of that, Hackett has a proven history crafting efficient rushing attacks. Honestly, so much of Denver’s success on offense this year will be determined by whether Russell Wilson can distribute the ball and trust other elements around him to carry the burden of production.
Denver is a little too wild for me to run any forecasts. Too many intangibles will dictate their win-loss record this season. The only real expectation I have is that things will start slow as the franchise looks to familiarize itself with a new coaching regime as well as a new quarterback. Do expect things to improve over the course of the season, though it’s impossible to determine when exactly things will swing upward.