Note: This article is the edited transcript of a recent collaboration between me and my good friend Christian Clark, a Panthers fan from NFL Updates Express.
John Riker: Hey guys! I was recently down at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill campus for the Carolina Sports Journalism camp. It was one of the coolest experiences that I’ve ever done, not only because I got to go to the football field and basketball court and meet some players and professionals in the field of sports journalism, but also I got to meet a lot of really cool sports fans and we talked the whole week. Today, I’m going to be talking with one of my good friends, Christian, who works on NFL Updates Express, and we’re going to talk about the upcoming NFL season. So here are our 17 burning questions for the 2017 football season!
Christian Clark: Alright, it’s definitely an honor to be on Riker Rants. I’m NFL Updates Express’ Christian Clark from Virginia and it’s just an honor to be on the show. So without further ado, here we go!
Question 1: Can three teams from the NFC East or NFC South make the playoffs?
JR: NFC South. The NFC East and NFC South are both very talented. Last year we saw two teams come out of the NFC East with the Cowboys getting the top seed in the NFC as well as the Giants getting the fifth seed. That division should be strong again and we’ll definitely see those two [in contention]… In the NFC South, all four teams have a really good chance to win the division. You see the Panthers, who were in the Super Bowl two years ago, you see the Falcons, who were just in the Super Bowl last year and blew the 28-3 lead. There’s also the Buccaneers who I picked to go to the playoffs last year and everyone thought I was crazy. They came real close, but they didn’t get it either. And the Saints, who have perpetually finished 7-9 and have quarterback Drew Brees and recent acquisition Adrian Peterson. Both divisions have the potential, and what it will come down to is the strength of the schedule… I would give the edge to the NFC South, which hasn’t had a wild card team since Atlanta in 2011 but has so many teams that can not only get to the playoffs but go far.
CC: NFC South. I definitely agree with a lot of the points you said. It’s definitely going to be stiff competition because three teams in the playoffs for one division is really insane. But I think the NFC South is the more likely division to do it. In the East, definitely the Cowboys are going to be a big Super Bowl contender, 13-3 last year. I also think the New York Giants- they had a rough playoff debut, but I think they’ll be right back at it… The big question for me is the back end of the division. I think for the Redskins, it really depends whether quarterback Kirk Cousins can build off a pretty solid season last year. I look at the Redskins as the key team if three teams come out of the division, but I could honestly see maximum two teams come out of the division…I think the NFC South does have an edge… I think all four teams in that division are talented. I give it to the South, but I think ultimately two teams will come out of the division.
Question 2: Six quarterbacks have been drafted in the first round the past two seasons, and each has been traded up for by the team that drafted them. Historically, trading up for a quarterback in the first round of the draft doesn’t bode well. Going into this season, which of these quarterbacks (Jared Goff, Carson Wentz, Paxton Lynch, Mitch Trubisky, Patrick Mahomes III, Deshaun Watson) will have the best season?
CC: Carson Wentz. First of all, I don’t think Trubisky is going to start this year, as well as Mahomes… It was tough for me to pick between Paxton Lynch and Carson Wentz. I know Paxton Lynch has a good defense, but I think that right now, Carson is the best quarterback from the 2016 draft. The NFC East has a lot of competition and that will definitely affect his development. If he was in the AFC South, he might have made the playoffs. The additions of Alshon Jeffery and LeGarrette Blount will help them, they have Mack Hollins from UNC. I really think Carson Wentz is in the best position to succeed, both now and in the future.
JR: Deshaun Watson. I don’t know if he’s going to start Week 1, but I really like the situation in Houston. He has a quarterback-oriented coach in Bill O’Brien, a running game, a lot of talented receivers, and a defense that could rival the Broncos’ as the best in the conference. Watson’s just a winner, he’ll find ways, even as a rookie, to have a Dak Prescott-like year and bring Houston another playoff berth.
Question 3: Which rookie running back will have the best rookie season: Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey, Dalvin Cook, or Joe Mixon?
JR: Leonard Fournette. This was difficult for me, choosing between the first two, Fournette and McCaffrey. I’m going to go with Fournette in Jacksonville. He’s going to be the central point in that offense. I could see him maybe having an Ezekiel Elliott-type role where he’s a workhorse. I think his addition to the Jacksonville Jaguars’ offense could win them a couple more games. He was a bruising runner at LSU and though I don’t think the Jaguars will make the playoffs, but he’s a contender for Rookie of the Year.
CC: Leonard Fournette. A lot of people are assuming that McCaffrey will assume the number one spot in Carolina, but I don’t see that happening, and I’m a big Panthers guy. What they’re going to do is have McCaffrey trying to be the 3rd down, mix-in. Carolina has three running backs that can make an impact, and I think Jonathan Stewart will be the starter this season… I have Leonard Fournette being the best running back [from the draft].
Question 4: Which team is best poised to end its playoff drought?
CC: Tennessee Titans. They’re really good, they were 9-7 last season and they were so close to the playoffs… I think the Titans have the weapons. They have Eric Decker from the Jets. Obviously [running backs] DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry, they’re going to be a great tandem in the backfield. They drafted [receiver] Corey Davis at five overall. The Titans will be right there. I think that they’re the team that can make some noise.
JR: Tampa Bay Buccaneers. I’m going to go with Tampa Bay, my pick last year. Like the Titans, they were 9-7 last year. It’s going to be a tough division, as all four teams are playoff-worthy, though you could debate the Saints. Jameis Winston is an MVP-caliber quarterback and Mike Evans is a top-five receiver in today’s game. He got a high number of targets last year, so thankfully for Tampa Bay, they added [receiver] DeSean Jackson from the Redskins for another dimension and drafted tight end OJ Howard. That is going to be a passing attack that no one wants to face. The defense also has a lot of pieces that I think Tampa Bay can put it together… If they can get their running game going, they’ll have an offense no one wants to face and will be in the playoffs.
Question 5: Which is more likely: the Patriots go 16-0 or the Jets go 0-16?
JR: Patriots go 16-0. After we saw the Browns last year almost go 0-16, I don’t think this Jets team is as bad, and only one team in history, the 2008 Lions, did lose all 16 games. We’ve seen the Patriots go 16-0 in a season before and this team could be even better. Tom Brady is back and they really improved during the offseason. The question if they do go 16-0 is whether they’ll go 19-0, or 18-1 like when they lost to the Giants in the Super Bowl.
CC: Patriots go 16-0. I agree with you, the Patriots could have one of the best teams in team history. Brandin Cooks will be an added dimension to an offense already with Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski if Gronk can stay healthy. They added [Dwayne] Allen in a trade with the Colts… I really think now the Patriots have a better chance than the Jets of going 16-0 versus 0-16.
Question 6: Which team is a dark horse to represent each conference in the Super Bowl?
CC: Ravens and Redskins. I’m going to take the Baltimore Ravens. I don’t know if Joe Flacco is elite, but I’ll give you this, when he gets to the playoffs, there’s something that turns on. Even in the Patriots-Ravens game a couple years ago, Joe Flacco played his heart out. The Ravens have had the Patriots number a lot of times and that’s a big rivalry. I would say for the AFC, the Ravens definitely… The NFC’s hard because of the parity and every year it seems to be a new team. This will surprise you, don’t laugh, I’m going to say the Washington Redskins. It really depends how their defense does. Kirk Cousins is a really streaky guy. He had stretches last year where he played really well and had poise in those games, but he had some stepback games. I could see him being a guy like Eli Manning or Joe Flacco who plays mediocre through the regular season but then when he gets into the playoffs, something could turn on.
JR: Giants and Raiders. I know people are expecting the Giants to be good, but I do think they have a very good shot and we know what happens when they play the Patriots. They went 11-5 last year and added Brandon Marshall to that receiving core. I think that makes them really scary. Their defense is legit. The running game and offensive line isn’t great, but they’ve never been a great running team. The big question mark is Eli Manning because he is up there in age. I don’t want to see Eli in the playoffs, but he could do damage… In the AFC, I think New England is so far ahead of everybody else that the whole conference is fair game for dark horse. I’m going to talk about the Oakland Raiders. Prior to last season, they had a long playoff drought and they lost to New England in the Tuck Rule game way back in 2001. This year’s team is really talented. If [running back] Marshawn Lynch comes in and provides a running game, that offense is better than the Patriots. And we saw when New England played Denver a couple seasons ago how vulnerable Tom Brady can be to a pass rush. On Oakland, you look at [defensive end] Khalil Mack and he’s probably the best pass rusher on the team.
Question 7: Which running back tandem in the NFL is most impressive?
JR: Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, Atlanta Falcons. There are a lot of duos that are good on paper, but I’m going to go with one with results, and that’s Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman in Atlanta. They proved themselves on a national stage, and though they didn’t end up winning the Super Bowl, I think that they have the pass catching dimension and have that offensive line. They’ll take a step back after the departure of offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, but I don’t see the dropoff being too steep for the Atlanta running backs.
CC: Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, Atlanta Falcons. If [Panthers running back Christian] McCaffrey is a 1,000 yard back and [running back Jonathan] Stewart is a 1,000 yard back, then I’ll change my opinion. Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman lead this one.
Question 8: Which star player is going to fall off the map in 2017?
CC: Doug Martin. This was hard because you have to think of a player who has been solid but will fall off. I’ll say Doug Martin from Tampa Bay. I don’t think that because of the talent but because of the situation he’s in. He has a suspension, he’s on thin ice, they were real close to cutting him. They drafted a running back in the fifth round from Boise State. They also have Jacquizz Rodgers. I think if those two play well, Doug Martin may not see a lot of daylight.
JR: Carson Palmer. I narrowed this down to quarterbacks because that’s what this game’s about. I believe that [Arizona Cardinals quarterback] Carson Palmer will fade into oblivion and very possibly retirement. He had a very strong season in 2015, but I think that was a mirage. His whole career he’s been a Bengals and Raiders quarterback who hasn’t gotten much done. He’s only had one playoff win and I believe he’s overrated. For this Cardinals team to succeed, he has to do what he does best- the long ball. On a team that is falling out of playoff contention even in a weak division, I think that Carson Palmer, at 37, is up there in age and this will be his last season as a starter.
Question 9: Will Tony Romo end up in the National Football League this season?
JR: No, he will not. I was so happy when he retired because he had a great career and he deserves some rest going into the CBS booth. I couldn’t see him in another team’s uniform and that hasn’t changed. I doubt that he’s coming back, even if the Cowboys have a need at the position. I think he’s done, I doubt that he’ll pull a Brett Favre.
CC: No, he will not. Romo has had a pretty solid career and has been chastised for choking in big games, but I think ultimately he won’t come back to the NFL.
Question 10: Which game are you most excited to watch?
CC: Falcons at Patriots in Week 7. I’ll go with the Super Bowl LI rematch, Patriots-Falcons. They were going to make that the opening game, but last year [Panthers coach] Ron Rivera complained about how it affected their season. That’s the game everyone will watch to see how Atlanta will respond to all the criticism from the Super Bowl. I think it’s really going to be a good game and New England’s going to take it.
JR: Cardinals at Seahawks in Week 17. I’m going with the Week 17 game with playoffs on the line. This has been a big rivalry game the past couple seasons and could determine the division.
Question 11: Which veteran running back will return to form: New Orleans’s Adrian Peterson, Oakland’s Marshawn Lynch, or Denver’s Jamaal Charles?
JR: Marshawn Lynch. 2016 wasn’t too kind to any of them. Charles had 40 rushing yards, Peterson had 37 yards, and Lynch was in retirement. I don’t know if any of them will, but I’ll put my money on Marshawn Lynch. He’ll have the best opportunity to succeed. He’ll be in a dynamic offense behind one of the best offensive lines. He could be back to Pro Bowl form.
CC: Marshawn Lynch. Two words: Beast Mode. I’ll keep it sweet. Jamaal Charles will be fighting for carries with C.J. Anderson and Devontae Booker, I don’t see him starting. Adrian Peterson is in a Drew Brees offense in a crowded backfield. So I’ll go with Marshawn Lynch to be the top running back.
Question 12: What is your dream Super Bowl matchup?
CC: Seahawks vs. Raiders. You can probably see the connection here- Marshawn Lynch. He might want to stick it to Seattle (his old team). He was a top five running back and didn’t get the carry in the Super Bowl, being so close to scoring and having back to back Super Bowl titles. I think it would be a really great game. Oakland’s defense had some struggles, though they have Khalil Mack. I also like having a West Coast matchup. There’s also an early season matchup between Seattle and Oakland
JR: Cowboys vs. Raiders. I’m also interested in a Raiders Super Bowl. I’d love to see them against my Dallas Cowboys. What could be more fun than watching Carr vs. Prescott, Elliott vs. Lynch? You have the two best offensive lines. That would be such a shootout and those are two historically great franchises who haven’t been to the Super Bowl in a long time. That could be a classic game, a lot of fun.
Question 13: Which first-year head coach is in the best position to succeed?
JR: Vance Joseph. I think this is a no-brainer pick with Vance Joseph in Denver. Vance Joseph moves in for Gary Kubiak, who brought the Broncos to the Super Bowl just two years ago. He inherits a loaded defense, probably the best in the NFL right now, and he has [linebacker] Von Miller. My question is whether he can get the quarterback situation settled. If he can do that, Denver has to be one of the favorites to win the AFC West.
CC: Sean McDermott. I agree, but Denver’s quarterback situation scares me. The team I’ll pick isn’t much better, I’m going with the Buffalo Bills and Sean McDermott. Buffalo has been close, [former coach] Rex Ryan has been the one piece that held them back. Sean McDermott [can make changes]. Right now, I have the Bills around an 8-8 team, but they have a solid defense and secondary. I think Buffalo will be a sneaky team. If they made the playoffs, I would not be surprised in the least bit.
Question 14: There was a lot of commotion with two teams announcing relocations: the Los Angeles Chargers and soon-to-be Las Vegas Raiders. Will either team be impacted by those relocation plans?
CC: For Oakland, I don’t think it’s going to be that much. They have a big fan base and it’s not like they’re moving across country to the East Coast. The Raiders are going to be a team that’s around [the playoffs] the next five to seven years. I don’t think it’ll affect them… For San Diego, excuse me, Los Angeles Chargers and the Rams (Los Angeles’s other new team), they’re definitely going to have some effects. For the LA Chargers, they’re playing in a small stadium the first couple years. San Diego, as they move to LA, they’ll have issues. The one person who can keep it together is Philip Rivers because he hasn’t been to a Super Bowl yet, he’s one of the best quarterbacks in the modern era. Now, he’s regressed a little bit, but San Diego could be a team that no one expects but does really well. They’re not even the most popular team in LA, because that’s the Raiders.
JR: I do think the relocation will affect the Raiders, but not in a negative way. I think this motivates them knowing that they need to win this one for Oakland. That’s one of the primary reasons Marshawn Lynch came out of retirement, just to play for Oakland. They’re certainly a playoff team and could be a Super Bowl team… For the Chargers, it will affect them. When you pack up your bags and move, there’s going to be growing pains and the Chargers were at best a borderline playoff team. I think this buries them a bit in that [AFC West] division, especially with how competitive that division is. I see them as a playoff longshot now.
Question 15: Which mainstay in the playoffs will be overtaken?
JR: Kansas City Chiefs. In the AFC West, it is the toughest division in football. They were the division champs last year, but I do not see that lasting, especially with Denver and Oakland on the rise. At the quarterback position, you have to base a lot and put a lot of weight, and I’ve never been an Alex Smith guy. I haven’t seen him do anything in the playoffs. Coach Andy Reid has found some consistency with a team that has been up-and-down, but I think that this is a team that could very easily go between 7-9 wins and missing the playoffs. I don’t see this team as special, I don’t see them as explosive, and I don’t think that they’ll win the division or make the playoffs.
CC: Houston Texans. They’ve only made the playoffs because of that division. The main reason for the fall of the Texans is the rise of the Tennessee Titans. The Texans have to play a first place schedule- New England, Pittsburgh, Kansas City. That’s going to hurt the Texans and Tennessee’s going to be a 9, 10, or 11 win team.
Question 16: Which teams are Super Bowl contenders?
CC: There are three teams in the AFC: New England Patriots, the Oakland Raiders, and the Pittsburgh Steelers… In the NFC, I’ll give you six. The two teams that made the NFC Championship last year- the Green Bay Packers and Atlanta Falcons, then the Dallas Cowboys, the Seattle Seahawks, if they can get their run game going. Then the fifth team is the Giants and then my sixth is the Carolina Panthers. They were a quarter away from winning the Super Bowl and I think the Panthers will be back in it.
JR: I’m also putting the Patriots in the Super Bowl. I don’t have confidence in the other [AFC] teams… For the NFC, it’ll be between the Cowboys, Giants, Packers, and Panthers.
Question 17: What is your Super Bowl prediction?
JR: Patriots over Cowboys. I’m putting the Boys in the Super Bowl…Of the past 12 Super Bowl champions, 11 have been the team wearing the white jersey. So, of course, whichever team wears the white jerseys will win. Patriots for now, 30-23.
CC: Patriots over Seahawks. I was so tempted to go with Oakland, but I couldn’t do it. New England’s too strong… The rich got richer. They’re the best team and will make back-to-back Super Bowl appearances as they take on the Seattle Seahawks… Seattle has been there, they’re the safe pick. Seattle’s running game could be a dominant force with Eddie Lacy if he lays off the snacks. Seattle even came close to beating Atlanta before getting waxed in the second half. Who will win the Super Bowl? I’ll go with New England right now, 23-16.