1) The Jaguars are good
Doug Pederson deserves a ton of credit for Jacksonville’s turnaround. He’s installed an imaginative yet simple offense that has helped unlock the potential of Trevor Lawrence. But while Pederson and Lawrence have drawn the early-season acclaim, it’s Jacksonville’s defense that stands out.
Through three weeks, the Jags’ defense is second in the league in success rate and third in EPA per play, the top two measures of a unit’s down-to-down quality. Sure, the defense has feasted on rough quarterback play and banged-up offenses: Carson Wentz doing Carson Wentz things, a creaking Matt Ryan and an injury-riddled Chargers offense have not formed the most intimidating schedule. But this is no mirage.
Jacksonville have all the component parts for a top-10 unit. Up front, the Jags cycle through a rotation of A-plus athletes. They’re long, athletic and versatile. New defensive coordinator Mike Caldwell is deploying first-round picks Travon Walker and Devin Lloyd in creative ways, creating matchup chaos up front that allows the veteran players to prosper. All of Trent Baalke’s questionable offseason moves have all hit – selecting Walker first overall and dedicating so much of the cap to off-ball linebackers, typically a no-no, has allowed the team to field one of the league’s most malleable and explosive defensive fronts.
The Jags are up to second in DVOA, a measure of a team’s down-to-down efficiency. I remind you: Jacksonville only faintly resembled a professional football team 12 months ago. Already, Pederson has bettered Urban Meyer’s win total. With a friendly schedule the rest of the way, the Jaguars are a legitimate threat to contend in the AFC South.
2) Jalen Hurts is in the MVP conversation
The Philadelphia Eagles entered the year as one of the favorites to rip through the NFC – and they’re delivering. Top to bottom, they have the best and deepest roster in the NFL. A loaded defense and an overwhelming offensive line is enough to drive any team close to 12 wins.
The only lingering question mark was Hurts. Could he develop enough from the pocket? Would the team have to scheme around his flaws? Were the other pieces so overwhelmingly dominant that none of it would matter?
After three weeks, that conversation is over. Hurts has elevated his game, answering any concerns that he was too limited as a passer to make Philly a championship contender. He currently accounts for 80.3% of the Eagles offense, a figure that puts him in the same realm as Lamar Jackson.
Is he really the most important part of the Philly set-up? No. But Hurts deserves credit for squashing any preseason doubts. With an average Hurts, the Eagles could win 12 to 13 games. With an excellent Hurts – with this Hurts – they could push close to 15 wins. That’s enough to put him on the shortlist of early-year MVP candidates.
3) The NFC North is a race
The Green Bay Packers remain the standard in the NFC North, despite early teething issues on offense. But the Detroit Lions and Minnesota Vikings have gelled quickly enough that will hang around in the division race.
The Lions, this year’s Hard Knocks darlings, are more than a feel-good story. With an outstanding (when healthy) offensive line and as many playmakers as any team in the NFL, Detroit can keep pace with anyone – they opened the season by scoring touchdowns in 11 straight quarters, the most to begin a season in league history. Jared Goff has been fine, a decided improvement over recent seasons.
The concerns are on defense. Through three weeks, the Lions lead the league in points conceded per game (31.0), have fielded the worst redzone defense, and made so many bone-headed mistakes that the IMF is thinking of releasing a statement. Tighten things up by even 5% on defense side, and the Lions can match up with anyone.
Elsewhere, the Vikings continue to hover around just-above-league-average across the board – quarterback, offense, defense, the coaching staff – with some dynamic pieces sprinkled throughout the roster. In a weak NFC, that should be enough to keep them in contention deep into the year.
4) Josh McDaniels is feeling the heat
Maybe this shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. The Las Vegas Raiders’ offseason was dominated by the acquisition of Davante Adams, the game’s top receiver. But that move helped to masquerade trouble beneath the surface: A defense in the midst of a multi-year overhaul; an offensive line that is a mess; a second-time head coach who, for all his excellence as an offensive architect, has yet to prove he can govern a franchise as a head honcho.
What is a surprise: That it would get this bleak this quickly. The Raiders are 0-3. Over the past two decades, only one team out of 98 has overcome an 0-3 start and made the playoffs. Even with an expanded playoff field, it’s hard to see Vegas turning this around in time in a stacked AFC West. Already, Mark Davis has held a “lengthy” closed-door meeting with McDaniels, some 20 weeks before the unorthodox owner typically gets testy.
5) Tom Brady and the Buccaneers’ offense is broken
Let’s call whatever is going on with Tom Brady “peculiar”. Sometimes, for a 45-year-old, as he says, there is just “a lot of shit going on”. Yet the grumpier Brady looks at the podium, the more Wednesdays he takes off, the more tablets he smashes, the more snarls he flashes at a weakened receiver group, the more puzzling it is that he chose to return in the first place.
Right now the Bucs offense is broken. This season, Brady sits behind the likes of Jared Goff, Jacoby Brissett and Geno Smith in the RBSDM composite, which attempts to isolate the impact of a quarterback on an offense, a category in which he typically wracks up a Katie Ledecky-style lead.
There are plenty of extenuating circumstances: Injuries and suspensions have hit; the Packers defense – who smothered the Bucs last week – is going to be really, really good; and Dennis Allen and the Saints defense appear to have stashed several voodoo dolls of Brady at the team’s facility since he joined the NFC South. It’s also worth remembering that it took Brady half a season to get up to speed when he first arrived in Tampa. Sometimes, a Brady offense takes time to click – and there was plenty of change along the Bucs offense last offseason.
But grinding out 17 points per game is not how Brady’s last dance with the Bucs was intended to go.
6) The Bengals are blowing it
It is with a heavy heart that we report that an offense featuring Joe Burrow, Ja’Marr Chase, Tyler Boyd, Joe Mixon and a refashioned offensive line remains the most predictable and plodding unit in the league.
That the Cincy offense has fallen back to Earth is no surprise, but that the offensive staff have made minimal effort to try to adjust is bordering on self-sabotage. What should be a fireworks show has instead turned into a slop fest.
There is only so much Burrow and Chase can do to cover up institutional failures. Changes to the offensive line, a glaring weakness last season, have not worked. Worse: As defenses have adapted to Cincy’s star duo – refusing to blitz Burrow, dropping into ever-deepening defensive shells – Zac Taylor and his staff have failed to adjust to the new environment, leaving their quarterback exposed (again) and neutering the offense.
Championship windows are small. Taylor and the Bengals’ brain trust are blowing it.