On Monday, we used underlying metrics from 2017 to project which teams are most likely to improve upon last season's record. Today, we look in the opposite direction to try to identify the teams that have the best chance of declining in 2018. The numbers mentioned below have exhibited some ability to project future performance in past years. You can read more about those metrics here.
Click the links below to read about each team:
Minnesota Vikings (13-3)
Point differential in 2017: +130
Pythagorean expectation: 11.7 wins
Record in games decided by seven points or fewer: 3-2 (.600)
2017 strength of schedule: 0.514 (seventh toughest in NFL)
There might not be a more talented team in football, top to bottom, than the Vikings. Defensive coordinators would beg their general managers to get the sort of high-end talent and depth Mike Zimmer has on his preferred side of the football. The Vikings also return the best one-two wideout duo in football from a year ago and a running back who looked like a star before tearing his ACL, and they had enough cap space to pay Kirk Cousins $28 million per year, which should lock in both a higher floor and higher ceiling at quarterback versus Case Keenum.
So why are they likely to decline in 2018? Start with the schedule. Last year, the Vikings went up against Aaron Rodgers for a total of two possessions before Anthony Barr essentially ended the Packers' season by breaking their star quarterback's collarbone. They picked off replacement Brett Hundley five times over two games while holding the Packers to a total of 10 points. Rodgers will be back in 2018, and the Bears should be fielding an improved roster after investing heavily this offseason. The NFC North could be the toughest division in the league -- the Vikings probably won't go 5-1 within it again.
It's no surprise the Vikings' defense was great last season, but it was able to pull off one of the most remarkable outlier seasons in recent memory by allowing opposing offenses to convert on only 25.3 percent of third-down attempts. Pro-football-reference.com has play-by-play data going back through 1994, and no team over that time frame was stingier on third down than last year's Vikings.
Even great defenses can't keep that up. The 25 best third-down defenses before the 2017 Vikings allowed teams to convert on 30.0 percent of their third downs. Each of those teams gave up conversions 36.8 percent of the time the following year, which was far closer to the league average of 38.5 percent. As you might suspect, their defenses were worse. They allowed an average of 43.8 more points the following season, which would bump the Vikings from their top-ranked finish in points allowed to fifth.
Minnesota's defense also ranked as the league's healthiest by adjusted games lost last season. While that number doesn't include Sharrif Floyd, who would have started at defensive tackle if he hadn't been ruled out with what appears to be career-ending nerve damage in his knee, the remaining Vikings defenders were remarkably healthy. Minnesota's 11 defensive starters missed a total of four games: three from Andrew Sendejo and one from Everson Griffen. That's not going to recur, and if you remember how the Vikings' defense declined once Harrison Smith suffered a high ankle sprain in 2016, you'll know that even the most talented defenses need only one missing star to run the risk of falling apart.
The Vikings might be able to make up for a modest defensive decline with an improvement on offense, but what are the chances Cousins is an upgrade on the version of Keenum we saw last year? It would have been easy to suggest that the former third-stringer would have regressed toward his previous career averages had he stayed in Minnesota, and Cousins' track record certainly suggests a higher floor than Keenum's level of play before last season, but Keenum was great last season. Between the two, Keenum topped Cousins in Total QBR, passer rating, completion percentage and interception rate.
You would still pick Cousins if you were deciding between the two passers, but Cousins' ceiling in 2018 is likely the sort of season Keenum had in 2017. He'll also be working with a new offensive coordinator in John DeFilippo, who drew rave reviews as the quarterbacks coach in Philadelphia but ranked 32nd in points scored during his lone season as a coordinator with the Browns in 2015. There will likely be some growing pains for the Vikings early during the 2018 season, which has to be disconcerting given that they start with games against the 49ers, Packers, Bills, Rams and Eagles. The Vikings should still be a very good team, but 13 wins would be an enormous ask.
Pittsburgh Steelers (13-3)
Point differential in 2017: +98
Pythagorean expectation: 10.5 wins
Record in games decided by seven points or fewer: 8-2 (.800)
2017 strength of schedule: 0.497 (14th toughest in NFL)
By point differential, the Steelers and Ravens finished in a dead heat in 2017. Pittsburgh outscored the opposition by 98 points, and Baltimore topped teams by 92 points. The Steelers finished third in DVOA, and the Ravens, in sixth, weren't far behind. The primary reason Pittsburgh won 13 games and Baltimore won only nine is the Steelers swept the Ravens and went 8-2 in games decided by one score, while the Ravens went 2-4 in those same contests.
The Steelers were certainly a good team independent of their record in close games, but they really pulled out some squeakers:
In Week 6, the Steelers came up with a goal-line stand against the Chiefs in the fourth quarter of what would eventually be a 19-13 victory.
In Week 8, Pittsburgh led the Lions 20-12 heading into the fourth quarter, only for the Lions to shoot themselves in the foot. Jim Caldwell kicked a field goal from the 1-yard line on fourth down (after failing on a fourth-and-goal in the same situation earlier in the half), Golden Tate fumbled away a ball on the Pittsburgh 24-yard line and the Lions came up short on a late drive that ended inside the 10-yard line.
In Week 10, facing a second-and-17 on his own 18-yard line with 1:26 left in a tie game against the Colts, Ben Roethlisberger got the yardage over the next two downs to keep the drive alive, before Chris Boswell hit a 33-yard field goal as time expired.
In Week 13, the Steelers trailed 17-3 at halftime vs. the Bengals in the game in which Ryan Shazier suffered his career-threatening injury before fighting their way back and winning 23-20 on another Boswell field goal as time expired.
In Week 14, they trailed the Ravens 38-29 with 6:45 to go, only for Roethlisberger to lead them back for 10 points in just under six minutes, with Boswell again hitting a game winner from 46 yards out with 46 seconds left.
You also may remember the game Pittsburgh didn't pull out, when it trailed the Patriots 27-24 with 56 seconds left. Roethlisberger hit JuJu Smith-Schuster for 69 yards and then completed a pass to Jesse James for what looked to be a game-winning touchdown, only for the Steelers tight end to be laid low by the catch rule. Roethlisberger threw an interception two plays later.
Of course, it would be easy to look at a veteran team like the Steelers and assume they have some secret to pulling out football games when they need a stop, but that hasn't been the case under Mike Tomlin. The 8-2 performance is an outlier -- the Steelers were 41-38 in games decided by seven points or fewer under their longtime coach before the 2017 season. And when you look at teams that won six more close games than they lost in a season, those squads did not keep it up the following year. A group that includes veteran teams such as the 1999 Titans, 2004 Steelers and 2015 Broncos went 101-23 in the close ones during their standout campaigns but followed it by going a combined 38-37 in one-score games the following season. Their overall record declined by an average of nearly three wins.
Sadly, there also have to be concerns about the Steelers' defense without its star linebacker Shazier, given that it struggled mightily after he suffered his spinal injury on Dec. 4. Pittsburgh allowed 17.8 points per game through the Bengals contest, which was the fifth-best mark in the league. The Steelers' defense was seventh in win probability added over that time frame. Afterward, though, the Steelers allowed an average of 28 points per game, including 38 to the Ravens, 27 to the Patriots, 24 to the Browns and 38 to the Jaguars (with a defensive touchdown making it 45). Their only effective defensive performance after the Shazier injury came against T.J. Yates and the Texans.
The splits for Shazier on and off the field support the rise. Opposing runners averaged 4.1 yards per carry and a 21.1 percent first-down rate with the star linebacker on the field and 5.1 yards per carry with a 27.4 percent conversion rate with him sidelined. Quarterbacks facing the Steelers posted a 34.9 Total QBR with Shazier active and a 58.4 QBR with him unavailable.
Strangely, Pittsburgh didn't do much to address the position this offseason, choosing to bring in special-teamer Jon Bostic, who has struggled when used as a defender in multiple locations. Morgan Burnett could take some snaps there on passing downs, but the competition appears to be between Bostic and Tyler Matakevich. Teams are going to attack the Steelers at inside linebacker until Pittsburgh proves it can hold up there.
On the other hand, the Steelers got a rare season in which both Roethlisberger and Le'Veon Bell were healthy for the entire campaign. Each sat out the Week 17 win over the Browns, but Pittsburgh's star duo stayed on the field for the other 15 games, marking just the second time in which they've both managed to stay healthy (if not active) for an entire season. Antonio Brown missed only one game because of injury, and Pittsburgh's offense was the sixth healthiest in the league by Football Outsiders' adjusted games lost metric.
All of this isn't to suggest the Steelers will be bad. As long as Roethlisberger doesn't suffer a debilitating injury or drop off suddenly at the age of 36, the Steelers should be favored to make a return trip to the playoffs. With the Ravens likely transitioning from Joe Flacco to Lamar Jackson at quarterback during the season, any growing pains from Baltimore's quarterback-to-be would hand Pittsburgh an easier path to the division title, barring an unexpected rise from the Bengals or Browns. The Steelers should be in the thick of things come January, as always, but it's more likely to be as a 10-win or 11-win team this time around.
Carolina Panthers (11-5)
Point Differential in 2017: +36
Pythagorean expectation: 9.0 wins
Record in games decided by seven points or fewer: 7-1 (.875)
2017 strength of schedule: 0.527 (fourth toughest in NFL)
At the risk of belaboring the point, the dramatic year-to-year swings the Panthers seem to experience under Ron Rivera have been explained, to some meaningful amount, by their record in close games over the past seven years:
Overall, the Panthers were 26-24-1 in games decided by seven points or fewer during that stretch. They don't gain or lose the ability to pull out the close ones from year to year. They're not subject to the gambler's fallacy of being "due" for a good or bad year. For whatever reason, they've operated at the extremes to a greater degree than any other team over the course of 51 close games. The most likely explanation for that is randomness, and the best projection in close games next year would be for Rivera's team to win 50 percent of them.
I'll spare you the list of close games again, but the margin of victory at times was razor-thin: think Bills rookie Zay Jones dropping a would-be game-winning touchdown on fourth-and-11 in Week 2, or Cam Newton recovering his own fumble and plunging in for the game-winning score with 39 seconds left against the Bucs in Week 16. They even picked off Drew Brees on fourth-and-the-season with two minutes to go in the wild-card round down five points, only for the ensuing drive to fail after an intentional grounding and a 17-yard sack.
The Panthers, coming off an 11-5 year, are a team in transition. Carolina will have to replace both coordinators for different reasons. Steve Wilks was hired away to serve as Arizona's coach, which pushes the duties onto Eric Washington, who has never been a defensive coordinator at any level before.
Carolina's defensive line coach will also be taking over what was the league's oldest defense last season by snap-adjusted age, and while they'll be younger in spots, this will still be a wizened bunch. Thirty-year-old Kurt Coleman will likely be replaced by 29-year-old addition Da'Norris Searcy. Twenty-seven-year-old Dontari Poe will come in for 28-year-old Star Lotulelei. Just 13 players age 34 or older played 400 snaps or more on defense last season. Three of them were Julius Peppers (38), Mike Adams (37) and Thomas Davis (35), all of whom are expected to play meaningful roles for Carolina this season, although Davis will be suspended for the first four games.
The Panthers are younger on offense and will return eight of their starters from a year ago, but one of the outgoing players is first-team All-Pro guard Andrew Norwell, who will be replaced in the lineup by former Vikings reserve Jeremiah Sirles. The offensive line concerns grew worse when right tackle Daryl Williams went down with a serious knee injury in practice over the weekend. Williams will try to play through his dislocated kneecap and torn MCL, but history suggests it's going to sap his effectiveness and/or fail to work out. Taylor Moton, a second-rounder in 2017 who played only a handful of snaps last year, will get the first crack at replacing him on the right side.
With the offensive line likely to decline, Carolina's most plausible path toward improving its offense will probably come through healthier seasons from center Ryan Kalil and tight end Greg Olsen, who missed a combined 19 games last season. The issue here, again, is age -- both Kalil and Olsen are 33.
There's another elder statesman who could complicate things: 66-year-old Norv Turner, who takes over as the offensive coordinator for the fired Mike Shula. Panthers fans were over Shula's tenure with the team, but the decision to hire Turner seems curious. His offenses ranked 16th, 21st and 26th over the past three years in Minnesota, following a 26th-place finish during his lone year in Cleveland. Turner did have a lengthy run of success with Philip Rivers in San Diego, but the offense faded badly as the Chargers' offensive line regressed, and Turner wasn't able to shift his scheme in the way Mike McCoy and Ken Whisenhunt were when they took the reins with Rivers.
Turner hasn't had many mobile quarterbacks, but he also hasn't shown any propensity for letting his quarterback run with the football. Turner has had only one quarterback run the ball more than 50 times in a season, and that was when Doug Flutie made 53 rushing attempts with the Chargers in 2001.
Newton has averaged more than 118 rushing attempts per season as a pro, and while Turner did incorporate some zone read concepts with Teddy Bridgewater in Minnesota, Bridgewater is no Newton as a runner. Turner might improve Newton as a passer, of course, but it's a curious choice to have a quarterback with Newton's skill set and bring in an offensive coordinator who has spent virtually his entire pro career working with pocket passers.
It will be a difficult road for the Panthers in 2018. Their schedule might be slightly easier, but ESPN's Football Power Index still projects them to face the 10th-toughest slate in football. They won't be as good in close games, and the Panthers probably won't recover more than 63 percent of fumbles as they did last season, the fourth-highest rate in football. This is still going to be a competitive team, but it is more likely to come in around 8-8 or 9-7.
Buffalo Bills (9-7)
Point differential in 2017: -57
Pythagorean expectation: 6.4 wins
Record in games decided by seven points or fewer: 5-2 (.714)
2017 strength of schedule: 0.470 (sixth easiest in NFL)
After 18 years in the wilderness, Bills fans rightfully would have sacrificed just about anything for a spot in the playoffs. The joy we saw when Andy Dalton's late TD strike downed the Ravens and vaulted Buffalo into the postseason was nearly two decades of pent-up frustration dissipating in seconds. The Bills' subsequent playoff loss in Jacksonville might not have been particularly satisfying, but with new general manager Brandon Beane shedding salaries and escaping from the mistakes of the previous regime, the long-suffering Bills were heading in the right direction.
Sadly, it's likely the Bills will take a step backward this season. While Beane and coach Sean McDermott might be well-positioned to lead the Bills for the long term, Buffalo has shed too much talent from a team that was lucky to make it to nine wins a year ago.
Remember how the Bills looked out of it at 5-5 after benching Tyrod Taylor for Nathan Peterman and losing to the Chargers by 30 points? They turned things around by beating mostly inferior competition. The Bills finished the season 4-2, with their two losses coming by a combined 41 points to the Patriots. Their most impressive victory came against a slumping Chiefs team in Week 12, when a dominant defensive performance helped them win the turnover battle against Alex Smith & Co. in a 16-10 victory.
Their other three wins down the stretch included an overtime victory over the Colts and a two-game sweep of the Dolphins. Against teams with a winning record, the Bills went 2-5 and were outscored by 14.6 points per game, which was the second-worst average point differential in the league. They finished 21st in team DVOA, squeezing just between the 49ers and the Cardinals. They were also 21st in point differential, between the Bears and the Bengals.
Nobody can take away that playoff berth. But those metrics are a better predictor of a team's future record than their previous record, and it suggests the Bills are in trouble. They won 2.6 games more than their Pythagorean expectation from the previous year, and teams that pull that off decline far more frequently than they improve. From 1989 to 2016, teams that outpaced their Pythagorean expectation by a number between two and three wins declined by an average of 2.6 wins the following year, with 23 of the 35 examples declining. Last year, this group included the Cowboys, Dolphins, Giants and Texans, all of whom were mentioned in this column. Those four teams went a combined 43-21 in 2016, only to fall to 22-42 last season.
Six teams have overcome that gap and actually improved their record the following season. In five of those cases, the team either changed quarterbacks for a clearly superior option or got a healthy season from a star passer after he had been injured for a chunk of the previous season. If you're a Bills fan who wasn't enthralled with the low-risk efficiency of Taylor, you're probably counting on improved quarterback play to push the team forward in 2019.
Anything is possible, but this current crop of quarterbacks isn't likely to be an improvement over Taylor. Peterman threw six interceptions on 52 pass attempts last season (including the playoff loss) as a rookie and didn't exactly convince the Bills that he was their starter of the future. Free-agent addition AJ McCarron produced superficially impressive stats while taking over one of the league's best offenses in 2015, but he was outplayed by Peterman during the spring and appears to be a bridge quarterback.
Buffalo has clearly thrown its eggs into the basket of Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen. Beane sent three picks that combined to be worth more than the first overall selection (according to the Chase Stuart chart) to the Buccaneers to trade up and grab his quarterback of the future at No. 7, but even Allen's staunchest supporters would have to suggest that the rifle-armed passer is going to be a work in progress. Allen wasn't even a particularly effective quarterback in the Mountain West in 2017, so while his frame and arm strength are prototypical, he's going to make plenty of mistakes as he learns to adjust to the speed and complexity of NFL defenses.
While Beane is still in the process of rebuilding this roster, he hasn't done enough to surround Allen with talent in 2018. The Buffalo offensive line, in particular, is a mess. Dion Dawkins will take over for Cordy Glenn as the full-time left tackle, but Richie Incognito and Eric Wood are both gone, and the Bills will have to replace them with Vladimir Ducasse (who filled in for John Miller at right guard last season) and former Bengals center Russell Bodine, who failed to impress despite starting regularly in Cincinnati. There just isn't enough talent here, even given how Dawkins was impressive in a limited role last year. Allen's weapons ranked 29th in the NFL when I sorted through them earlier this month, and that was without considering the possibility of LeSean McCoy being suspended for an off-field incident.
Allen's offensive coordinator is Brian Daboll, whose offenses have ranked between 20th and 31st in offensive DVOA during his four seasons running things for the Browns, Dolphins and Chiefs. His quarterbacks coach is David Culley, who has been a wide receivers coach for the majority of his pro career. The last quarterback he mentored was former Eagles running back and returner Brian Mitchell, who was under center for Southwest Louisiana in 1988. Neither of their backstories preclude Daboll and Culley from making an impact, but does any of this sound like the Bills are putting Allen in the best position to succeed?
This time next year, we'll likely be talking about how the Bills rightfully spent the spring of 2019 surrounding Allen with the right coaches and weapons, just as the Bears did with Mitchell Trubisky this offseason. It'll also probably be coming on the heels of a consolidation year for last year's playoff crashers.
Arizona Cardinals (8-8)
Point differential in 2017: -66
Pythagorean expectation: 6.1 wins
Record in games decided by seven points or fewer: 6-2 (.750)
2017 strength of schedule: 0.500 (12th toughest in NFL)
The Cardinals might have considered 2017 a moral victory after losing David Johnson during the season opener and Carson Palmer before the team's bye in Week 8. If Bruce Arians is done in the NFL, his final act was pulling a winning record (5-4) out of a nine-game stretch with Blaine Gabbert and Drew Stanton under center. I'm not sure whether it really qualifies as offensive genius given that the Cardinals mostly let Adrian Peterson pound the ball into the line for 3.5 yards per carry, but it was a nice note for the two-time NFL Coach of the Year to leave on.
It was the defense that really came up with big plays late in games to set up that 6-2 record in one-score contests. Late interceptions of Jacoby Brissett and Marcus Mariota set up game-winning field goals for Phil Dawson, who also hit a 57-yarder to beat the Jaguars. The Cardinals were bailed out by a second-and-20 pass interference call in a win over the pre-Jimmy Garoppolo 49ers and a third-down roughing the passer call against Bobby Wagner before a Dawson winner against Seattle. Even then, they had to sweat a would-be game winner by Blair Walsh from 48 yards out in what might have been the former Pro Bowler's last NFL kick.
Chandler Jones & Co. drove Arizona's success. After the Week 8 bye, the Cardinals ranked first in yards per carry allowed (3.4), fourth in first downs allowed per game (15.9) and third in QBR allowed (40.4). The only offense to top 30 points against them over that timeframe was, bizarrely, the Texans and Tom Savage. (The Rams scored 32 points, but that included a pick-six.) The Cardinals finished the year fourth in defensive DVOA, the sixth straight year in which they ranked among the seven best defenses in football.
Why might they struggle to hit those same heights in 2018? Changes. New coach Steve Wilks is moving the defense from a 3-4 to a 4-3 alignment, and while that means less than ever before because of how frequently teams line up in sub packages, there will likely be growing pains.
The outflow of talent also has to eventually catch up with the Cardinals. After the 2016 season, Arizona lost five of its seven most used defenders to free agency and a strained cap situation, most notably star defensive end Calais Campbell, who had a monster year in Jacksonville. It's still a problem. Nine defenders played 50 percent or more of the defensive snaps for Arizona last year, and five of them -- most notably safety Tyrann Mathieu, who played 99.4 percent of the defensive snaps last season -- are no longer on the roster.
If you're a Cardinals fan, you can make the reasonable argument that they should be healthier on offense. Indeed, Arizona ranked 32nd in adjusted games lost on offense a year ago, and just three of its 11 starters in Week 1 played all 16 games. Johnson and Mike Iupati are probably going to play more than one game each in 2018. An offensive line that was beset by injuries can't be as beaten up this season, especially after hitting the free-agent market. And the Cardinals won't have to turn to substandard quarterbacks like Gabbert and Stanton after signing Sam Bradford and trading up to grab Josh Rosen in the first round.
All of those statements are true. The Cardinals will be healthier on offense in 2018. I wouldn't be so sure they'll be healthy, though. Johnson pulled his hamstring in 2015 and sprained his MCL during Week 17 of the 2016 season. Asking for 16 full starts out of the Northern Iowa product is a big ask. Left tackle D.J. Humphries sat on the bench during his rookie season, missed time in 2016 with a concussion and then suffered a torn MCL and dislocated kneecap last season. He has played 18 games over three seasons. Free-agent addition Justin Pugh hasn't played a full 16-game slate since his rookie year and missed 13 games over the past two seasons. Tight end Jermaine Gresham, signed to an above-market deal last year, probably won't be ready for Week 1 after tearing his Achilles in Week 17.
You already know about Bradford's injury history. He has missed 48 games over eight seasons and was sidelined for 14 contests in 2017 with a mysterious knee injury that flared up seemingly overnight after Week 1. There just isn't any way you can expect Bradford to play 16 games. Rosen, meanwhile, missed half of the 2016 season with a shoulder injury and then suffered a pair of concussions last season. The duo should play better than Gabbert and Stanton, but health is still going to be a concern with this offense.
The schedule is also going to give Arizona fits. FPI projects the Cardinals to face the third-toughest slate in the NFL thanks to a relatively difficult NFC West and a pair of tough divisions in the AFC West and NFC North. Last year, Arizona racked up wins against the Buccaneers (with an injured Jameis Winston), Colts and Giants and a pair of triumphs over the 49ers before the Garoppolo trade. The worst team on their schedule this season might be Denver. A pushover should inevitably appear, but with their over/under posted at just 5.5 wins in Vegas and a projection to win just 6.1 games by the FPI, the Cardinals might be the pushover.
Tennessee Titans (9-7)
Point differential in 2017: -22
Pythagorean expectation: 7.4 wins
Record in games decided by seven points or fewer: 6-4 (.600)
2017 strength of schedule: 0.456 (second easiest in NFL)
It might be telling that the Titans made it to the playoffs for the first time since 2008, came back from a 21-3 halftime deficit to win their first postseason game since 2003, and still fired Mike Mularkey to delirious applause from most Tennessee fans. After a promising 9-7 season in 2016 fell narrowly short of the postseason, the 2017 Titans kept the record but ditched the excitement. Mularkey's exotic smashmouth scheme sputtered to an 18th-place finish in DVOA. Marcus Mariota's interception rate spiked to 3.3 percent as the offense turned the ball over in 14 straight games, which tied Houston for the longest streak in football.
Tennessee actually got out to an 8-4 start, although that was mostly due to a 5-1 record in one-score game against teams such as the Bengals, Colts and Browns, the last of whom Tennessee needed overtime to top. The Titans promptly lost their next three games against the NFC West by a combined 11 points, blowing fourth-quarter leads in each one. The comeback playoff win over the Chiefs appeared to save Mularkey's job, only for the Titans to fire him after a 35-14 loss to the Patriots.
As has been the case with most of his moves in Tennessee, general manager Jon Robinson responded to the frustrating yet successful season by upping the Patriots quotient. Well, sorta. He hired Mike Vrabel -- whose only year as a defensive coordinator had seen the Texans fall from ninth to 23rd in defensive DVOA -- to take over as coach, and Vrabel followed by bringing former Patriots defensive coordinator Dean Pees in to take over for Dick LeBeau. Robinson signed Dion Lewis and Malcolm Butler in free agency, paying premiums for players at positions in which the Patriots tend to churn talent and let other teams make mistakes. He traded up in both the first and second rounds of the draft to grab linebackers Rashaan Evans and Harold Landry, shipping off Tennessee's third- and fourth-round picks in the process. It feels a little like a Patriots cover band so far.
What's going to make or break the Titans over the next couple of years is whether Vrabel, Pees and offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur can develop young talent, with Mariota standing out as the most important example. Last year was an unquestioned step backward, and while it's easy to pin that on Mularkey and the wrong scheme, Mariota didn't transcend, either. His yards per attempt fell by a full half-yard, and while his receivers didn't do much after the catch, they also posted the second-lowest drop rate in the league.
The only quarterbacks in the league who threw more interceptions than touchdowns were Mariota, DeShone Kizer, C.J. Beathard, Brett Hundley and Trevor Siemian. None of those other four is going to be starting games again anytime soon, and Mariota's interception total wasn't a fluke. It would be foolish to write him off, but as he approaches the fifth-year option of his rookie deal, the 2015 second overall pick needs to improve under the tutelage of LaFleur.
Mariota struggled during what was a relatively healthy season for the former Oregon star, as he missed just one game with a hamstring injury. It was also a healthy season for the Titans' offense, which finished fourth in adjusted games lost. The much-ballyhooed Tennessee offensive line started 78 of 80 games, but right tackle Jack Conklin tore his ACL during the playoff loss to the Patriots and might not be ready for Week 1. Backup Dennis Kelly would be a downgrade on a player who had been on the field for 843 of Mariota's 844 pass attempts over the past two regular seasons. Mariota faced the league's second-lowest pressure rate last season, which would be tough to recreate with Conklin unavailable or limited in 2018.
While 2017 was a rough year in many ways for the Titans, they have a lot to look forward to heading into 2018. They have a relatively young, talented roster with plenty of breakout candidates, Mariota included. If Vrabel is the right coach, team-wide improvement might overcome their middling level of play from a year ago.
On the other hand, the Titans might get left behind by their division. Over the past three years, Tennessee has faced almost a comically easy slate of opponents. By my strength of schedule metric, the Titans have faced the league's easiest (2016) or second-easiest (2015, 2017) schedule over each of the past three seasons. Combine the three-year stretch and they've had the easiest schedule by a significant margin; second-place Jacksonville is closer to the Ravens in ninth than it is to the first-place Titans.
The Football Power Index predicts the Titans will face the league's third-easiest schedule this season. The horror! I think there's a good chance the FPI might be underestimating Tennessee's opponents in the division, given it is likely to have Andrew Luck and Deshaun Watson under center this time around. The Titans won't want to see either of them: Luck has gone 9-0 with a 92.4 passer rating against Tennessee, while Watson produced five touchdowns as part of a 57-14 rout of the Titans last October. If the Titans face them twice each in 2018, they'll struggle to hit nine wins for the third consecutive season.