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Evan’s guide to all things NFL: 2018 NFL playoff preview and mock draft

Analyzing the possible outcomes of the playoffs and looking ahead to April's draft

Tyrod+Taylor+of+the+Buffalo+Bills+warms+up+before+a+game+in+2015.+Taylor%27s+Bills+made+the+playoffs%2C+but+also+have+two+first-round+selections+in+the+upcoming+draft.
Tyrod Taylor of the Buffalo Bills warms up before a game in 2015. Taylor's Bills made the playoffs, but also have two first-round selections in the upcoming draft.

Tyrod Taylor of the Buffalo Bills warms up before a game in 2015. Taylor's Bills made the playoffs, but also have two first-round selections in the upcoming draft.

Photo: courtesy: Getty Images

Photo: courtesy: Getty Images

Tyrod Taylor of the Buffalo Bills warms up before a game in 2015. Taylor's Bills made the playoffs, but also have two first-round selections in the upcoming draft.

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Preface: We have officially reached the end of the 2017 regular season. It’s been as fun as any NFL season I remember, with eight out of the twelve playoff teams having missed the playoffs last year. In other words, only the defending champion Patriots, as well as the Falcons, Steelers and Chiefs are back to contend for a Super Bowl once again. These playoffs seem totally unpredictable. This season has brought plenty of surprises, and there’s a lot to reflect on before this postseason, and eventual offseason. This will serve as your guide for what’s to come.

 

Part I: The Playoffs.

The 2017 NFL playoffs will feature six teams from each conference, just like every other season. The Patriots and Steelers will dominate the AFC bracket, while the Eagles and Vikings dominate that of the NFC. Some of the biggest headlines include:

  • The Buffalo Bills clinching a playoff berth for the first time since 1999, ending the longest active postseason droughts in American sports. They pass the torch to the Seattle Mariners of the MLB, who haven’t made a playoff appearance since 2001.
  • There’s a chance the Patriots and Falcons could square off for the Lombardi trophy once again.
  • The Vikings are the #2 seed in the NFC, which means that if the Eagles lose in the divisional round, the Vikings will never have to leave Minneapolis during their playoff run, and could be the first team to play a Super Bowl at its home stadium.

I would be remiss not to make official, but easily incorrect, predictions regarding the outcomes of the playoff games. It’s not that I’m not confident in my abilities to analyze the NFL, it’s just that this postseason is completely unpredictable, with elite teams squaring off in every round. So, who knows if I’ll be right?

 

Round 1: Wild Card Games

NFC: Falcons @ Rams, Panthers @ Saints

  • The Rams will defeat the Falcons, 38-24. This is the highest scoring team in football we’re talking about (the Rams) and they have almost inarguably the MVP-to-be (Todd Gurley), the most improved player (Jared Goff) and the coach of the year (Sean McVay). The Falcons have some “playoff magic” in them, but not enough to beat the Rams in the first round.
  • The Saints will defeat the Panthers, 27-16. The Saints have bested the Panthers twice already this season, so there’s no reason to believe anything will be different this time, especially after the Panthers put on an utterly pitiful performance in Week 17 when the NFC South Championship was on the line. Also, not many teams have found success when taking on the presumptive offensive and defensive rookies of the year, Alvin Kamara and Marshon Lattimore, respectively.

AFC: Bills @ Jaguars, Titans @ Chiefs

  • The Jaguars will defeat the Bills, 44-17. Frankly, the Bills are one of the worst teams to qualify for the playoffs in years. I could go on and on about how unfortunate it is that the Chargers and Ravens will not compete in the postseason, but what has happened has happened. The Jaguars have been dominant of their opponents more often than not; their two consecutive losses at the end of the season were flukes, in my opinion. The Jaguars’ defense will eviscerate the Bills’ stagnant offense, especially if LeSean McCoy’s apparent ankle injury holds him out of the game.
  • The Chiefs will defeat the Titans, 33-13. The Chiefs had a pretty terrible slump late in the season, but they seem to have rebounded. They do still have a 4,000 yard passer (Alex Smith), a 1000-yard rusher (Kareem Hunt) and two 1000-yard receivers (Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce). The Titans just aren’t a strong team.

I realize the probability of all four higher seeds winning on Wild Card Weekend isn’t exactly high, but it’s what I think is most realistic. I won’t go into too much detail about every single game after this, but I will make score predictions for each game that would happen in the playoffs if my first round predictions are correct.

 

Round 2: Divisional Round

NFC: Saints @ Eagles, Rams @ Vikings

  • Saints 28, Eagles 20 – The Saints will be able to overcome this season’s strongest team without Carson Wentz to lead them.
  • Rams 30, Vikings 23 – It seems difficult for the Rams to go into Minnesota, the site of the Super Bowl, and pull off a victory against a team that handled them earlier this season, but I think Sean McVay will help his superstars rise to the occasion.

AFC: Chiefs @ Patriots, Jaguars @ Steelers

  • Patriots 40, Chiefs 34 – The Patriots get revenge for the Chiefs’ Week 1 victory in Foxboro in another high-scoring affair.
  • Steelers 24, Jaguars 20 – Even the most elite defenses can only shut down either Le’Veon Bell or Antonio Brown, so the Jaguars should expect to face trouble handling the Killer Bees. The outcome of this game mostly hinges on Antonio Brown’s availability – if he’s healthy, it’s a relatively easy win for the Steelers.

 

Round 3: Conference Championships

  • NFC Championship: Rams 45, Saints 38 – I expect nothing but a total shootout between two of the NFL’s most powerful offenses. The Rams pull it out in a showdown between Todd Gurley on one side and Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram on the other side.
  • AFC Championship: Patriots 21, Steelers 17 – Yet another contest between the Patriots and Steelers to decide the champion of the AFC. Not as high scoring, but still an exciting game.

 

Super Bowl 52

  • Patriots 41, Rams 38 – In a much anticipated matchup with a fairly orthodox score (no bizarre numbers of field goals, safeties, or two-point conversions will throw off the scoreboard), the Patriots emerge victorious for a second straight year. There’s just no stopping this dynasty.

 

Part II: The Draft.

The 2018 NFL Draft will feature some of the most exciting players we’ve seen in years, but I’m more wary of future busts than most years. While the likes of Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen, Josh Allen, Calvin Ridley and James Washington are praised as the future of the NFL, I can see them becoming immediate busts. I’ve prepared a mock draft for the first round with an order that reflects playoff projections and the current definitive draft order. See if you agree.

  • Pick #1: Browns – Sam Darnold, QB, USC: Yes, I did call Sam Darnold overrated and then cite him as my pick to go first overall to Cleveland. There is one major factor here that compels me to have the Browns select Darnold rather than Josh Rosen – Rosen has publicly declared that he doesn’t want to play for the Browns, while Sam Darnold has voiced his excitement for his future in the NFL regardless of the team to which he is selected. I think the Browns will be scared away by Rosen’s cockiness, and they’ll dodge a bullet by not drafting him (more on that later). Even though Baker Mayfield is the Heisman winner and clearly the best player in the country, Darnold is the one the Browns will go with, because they don’t exactly know how to draft a franchise QB (having passed on Carson Wentz and Deshaun Watson in the past two years).
  • Pick #2: Giants – Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State: I like to think that this is a foregone conclusion at this point. The Giants have all but confirmed that Eli Manning will return next season, and even if he doesn’t start every game, last year’s draft pick Davis Webb could be used to determine if the G-men need to pursue a class-of-2019 QB like Kelly Bryant after next season, or if Webb is the long term answer (he’s probably not). Anyway, Barkley is the most talented running back in years and he’s easily the best prospect in this draft. He’d provide an immediate spark to an offense that has been stuck with a putrid run game all season. With Odell Beckham returning for next season to complement Evan Engram and Sterling Shepard, the Giants could have the ultimate bounce back season in 2018.
  • Pick #3: Colts – Quenton Nelson, G, Notre Dame: I have to admit that I don’t know much about the subtleties of an offensive line, but given that two of the highest-touted prospects for lineman are coming from Notre Dame, I’m happy to trust the experts and make this pick for the Colts. Andrew Luck has officially not been “Bledsoed” (usurped as the starter after suffering an injury) by Jacoby Brissett, so the Colts won’t need to look to this draft class for a QB. Rather, they’ll be well-suited to find a strong offensive lineman who can keep Andrew Luck safe from the daunting defensive front-sevens he’ll face next season, especially the intimidating Houston and Jacksonville defensive lines he’ll go up against on two different occasions.
  • Pick #4: Browns (via Texans) – Minkah Fitzpatrick, DB, Alabama: The Browns may have passed on Deshaun Watson, and they can’t ever really rebound from that, but the Texans’ utter failure to win games after Watson’s injury has left the 2018 pick that was traded for Deshaun Watson in the top-four for the Browns, who now have a lot of flexibility with their draft. The pair of picks they own so high in the draft puts them in prime position to finish their rebuild, as they’ll be building an offense around Sam Darnold (theoretically) and Josh Gordon, and a defense around last year’s first overall selection, Myles Garrett. That defense could be made exponentially better by a flexible defensive back who could find his NFL identity as either a lockdown cornerback or intimidating safety, or both. Minkah Fitzpatrick is an athletic freak, and he’s just the guy to make the Browns’ defense one that will eventually be feared.
  • Pick #5: Broncos – Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA: Hear this: I do not like Josh Rosen. I think he is incredibly overrated, he lacks NFL skills, his best trait is his accuracy (which is easy to come by in NFL prospects), he has zero intangibles, his history of concussions is concerning (as well as other minor injuries) and he simply won’t fit in a pro-style offense. That being said, all it will take for him to become a top five pick is for one team to fall in love with him at the combine. Obviously, the combine doesn’t reflect real-world NFL situations, which is a major reason why I project him as a bust. I think the Broncos, owning the fifth pick, will be the team to fall for him, given their utter desperation to find a franchise QB. Brock Osweiler will never start again unless he’s the backup to an injured QB, Trevor Siemian has shown no signs of being any team’s future QB and Paxton Lynch’s skills haven’t worked in the Denver offense (as a Memphis fan, I’m confident he can thrive elsewhere, but not behind this offensive line with a mediocre coach like Vance Joseph). Rosen won’t thrive, probably ever, but he’ll be given a chance.
  • Pick #6: Jets – Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma: Here is the steal of the draft. If the Browns are lucky, they’ll know to draft him with one of their two top-four picks, but if not, I think it’s most likely he goes sixth overall to the Jets. There’s buzz that members of the Jets’ front office are excited about the prospect of Mayfield becoming a Jet, and he’d fit well with the offense. The Jets have been using a running back committee for a while now, and Matt Forte’s age means young Elijah McGuire will get more touches to share with Bilal Powell. That situation can be improved by a smart QB with leadership and other intangibles, and Mayfield is the man for the job. Plus, wouldn’t it be fun to watch him throw deep passes to Robby Anderson and Quincy Enunwa?
  • Pick #7: Buccaneers – Mike McGlinchey, OT, Notre Dame: The Bucs’ offensive line simply isn’t good, and Jameis Winston needs strong men up front to prevent him from being destroyed by the opponent’s defensive line every week. McGlinchey is the other Notre Dame offensive lineman who’s being recognized as a top prospect, and he’s the man for the job in Tampa.
  • Pick #8: Bears – Courtland Sutton, WR, SMU: My disparaging of Calvin Ridley and James Washington should be an indication that I’m especially cautious of the bust potential of this year’s receivers. Rookie wide receivers are always enormous gambles – notice that second-rounder JuJu Smith-Schuster and third-rounder Cooper Kupp have far outdone players like Corey Davis, Mike Williams and John Ross, who were all selected in the top nine in the 2017 draft. That being said, Courtland Sutton shows much more promise than some of the other receiver prospects. Simply put, Sutton scores touchdowns on a consistent basis, having found the end zone 12 times in 2017. He’s in a prime position to produce for a team whose best receiving threat for most of this season was their backup running back who stood five feet, six inches tall.
  • Pick #9: 49ers – Bryce Love, RB, Stanford: Carlos Hyde is a fine running back, but the 49ers have a great opportunity to snag a very bright young rushing prospect here. With Jimmy Garoppolo having won each of his first five starts as a 49er, it’s safe to say the Niners are safe to draft any position they please in order to add weapons for Garoppolo. Love may start the season as part of a committee or serving as the change-of-pace back, but he could easily develop into a superstar who could form a “Big 3” with Garoppolo and promising receiver Marquise Goodwin.
  • Pick #10: Raiders – Denzel Ward, CB, Ohio State: While Minkah Fitzpatrick can safely take the honors for best defensive back in this draft, Denzel Ward might be the best pure cornerback. He’s simply not a player any NFL receiver wants to be staring down at the line of scrimmage. And as I’ve said, one of the best things you do with your draft picks is target players from traditionally elite football schools. For example, why did the Bears select Mitch Trubisky out of North Carolina instead of Deshaun Watson from Clemson, who just led his historically excellent football program to a national championship? Ward is coming off a great season in which Ohio State came oh-so-close to a playoff appearance (although the results of the Sugar Bowl seem to indicate that including Alabama was the right choice), so NFL scouts would be wise to realize that drafting a superstar from a super-school is absolutely the way to go.
  • Pick #11: Dolphins – Orlando Brown, OT, Oklahoma: Orlando Brown has done nothing but be the heart and soul of the Oklahoma offense, supporting superstar Baker Mayfield all season. He was one of three consensus all-Americans on the Oklahoma offense (along with Baker Mayfield, of course, and tight end Mark Andrews), so it’s obvious that Brown shows great potential. With Notre Dame standouts Quinton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey off the board, Orlando Brown will be the priority selection here, and the Dolphins would do well to improve their offensive line during an offseason in which they’ll be in a sort of limbo before they see Ryan Tannehill back in action and decide if he can continue as their franchise QB.
  • Pick #12: Bengals – Connor Williams, OT, Texas: Truthfully, Connor Williams might be a slightly better prospect than Orlando Brown, but Williams’ college career has been stifled by injuries, which could slightly affect his draft position. Twelfth overall could be generous or cruel with respect to his potential, but it makes sense. The Bengals’ defense looks mostly set after a good defensive draft in 2017, and skill positions shouldn’t be a draft priority given the utter failure to draft the right player in last year’s draft, so Williams would be the right pick for a team that would be best served by improving its offensive line.
  • Pick #13: Redskins – Clelin Ferrell, DE, Clemson: Clelin Ferrell has had a successful rise to the top of draft boards for defensive linemen, and he’s as NFL-ready as D-linemen come. This pick is predicated on the assumption that Kirk Cousins is retained in free agency – if he isn’t, someone like Lamar Jackson, who you actually won’t find on this list of first round mock picks, might be the solution. But if all is business as usual at the Redskins’ 2018 OTAs, they’d be best suited to bring a talented young pass rusher on board.
  • Pick #14: Packers – Bradley Chubb, DE, North Carolina State: Bradley Chubb would probably be considered a steal at 14th overall. The Packers’ defense is clearly the unit that needs the most work, and with Clay Matthews getting older, the Pack’s best outside pass rusher will need to pass the torch to someone new. Chubb can be that new top dog in the pass rush game, and he’s an all around good athlete who can make an immediate difference.
  • Pick #15: Cardinals – Josh Allen, QB, Wyoming *OR* Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville: As expected, Carson Palmer is indeed retiring. The Cardinals could easily decided to trade up in the draft and select a different QB, although Baker Mayfield is the only one worth getting, and he could fall to 15th because the other teams might just be stupid enough to let him slip by. But Josh Allen has been touted as a top-tier prospect, and if the Cardinals want a pocket passer to replace him, he’s likely who they’ll go with if they retain the 15th pick. The Cardinals could decide to go an entirely different route and add the best dual-threat QB college football has ever seen, Lamar Jackson. Personally, I think Jackson is the better pick, especially for a team that already has a dominant run game behind David Johnson, but who knows what the Cardinals will do. Both Allen and Jackson have the potential to slip to the second round, which is why I feel comfortable identifying them both as Cardinals draft prospects instead of reserving one of them for a team with a pick later in the first round.
  • Pick #16: Ravens – Derwin James, S, Florida State: Before Florida State’s nightmare season started, Derwin James was a potential #1 overall pick with athletic upside not seen in years. He’s still worth considering as a surefire first round pick, and the Ravens will be lucky to get him at 16th. He’ll revitalize a secondary that will need help with Eric Weddle getting older and regressing somewhat. Sure, the Ravens need help at receiver and will need to draft their QB of the future to learn behind Joe Flacco, but both of those needs can be addressed in later rounds of this draft, or in free agency.
  • Pick #17: Chargers – Roquan Smith, LB, Georgia: Roquan Smith had a magnificent showing in the Rose Bowl, and raised his draft stock considerably. If there is a team with a higher pick that needs a linebacker, he’ll surely be the first one off the board. Smith can improve a Chargers run defense that was mysteriously not perfect, considering the talent the Bolts have on the defensive line. This addition of raw talent could bring the Chargers to the point of conquering the AFC West for good.
  • Pick #18: Seahawks – Chukwuma Okorafor, OT, Western Michigan: The Seahawks obviously need help on the offensive line, but Duane Brown’s acquisition from the Texans has relieved some of that need. Still, Russell Wilson scrambles so much and is far too important to the franchise not to protect him with every weapon available. Okorafor is an athletic lineman who can bring blocking ability to virtually any position on the offensive line.
  • Pick #19: Cowboys – Christian Wilkins, DT, Clemson: Christian Wilkins is essentially going to be a veteran in a rookie’s body. He’s been part of each of the last three magnificent Clemson playoff teams, and he has the skills to immediately become the leader of the Cowboys’ defense. The Cowboys have a talented pass rusher in Demarcus Lawrence, but they could stand to add another one to improve a soft defense that has struggled in recent years.
  • Pick #20: Lions – Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia: Nick Chubb had a wonderful performance in the Rose Bowl, which was well-complemented by Sony Michel. If there were another team later in the first round that needed a running back, Michel would be the player I’d have them take. The decision here is simply which player would make a more immediate difference for the Lions. Chubb is a stronger, between-the-tackles kind of runner who can become the Lions long-awaited savior in the backfield and end their remarkable drought of games without a 100-yard rusher that has inexplicably gone on for years.
  • Pick #21: Titans – Marcus Davenport, Edge, UTSA: The Titans’ defense is mediocre, to be frank. And while normally I wouldn’t advocate for drafting out of Conference-USA in the first round, Davenport is as NFL-ready as they come. My research on him reassures me that he’ll be the spark to the Titans defense that can keep them relevant and ready to compete with opposing offenses.
  • Pick #22: Bills – Luke Falk, QB, Washington State: Thanks to holding the Chiefs’ pick and miraculously clinching a playoff berth, the Bills are in a position to add two important players in the late first round. Even with their mediocre season yielding a playoff berth, I think Buffalo is likely to move on from Tyrod Taylor, considering his inconsistent performance and status as a free agent. There’s just no reason for the Bills to go crawling back to him after this season. Instead, they can start over fresh with a traditional pocket passer with leadership skills that will make an immediate difference. Luke Falk broke Pac-12 records for all of the following: passing attempts, completions, completion percentage, passing yards and passing touchdowns. Good luck convincing me that doesn’t translate well to NFL success.
  • Pick #23: Falcons – Arden Key, DE, LSU: Arden Key has had something of an on-and-off season, and I can personally testify that he isn’t the top prospect he once was because I simply haven’t heard his name. Nevertheless, I still expect him to be a first round pick thanks to a solid performance at the draft combine and he should end up with a team in need of a new pass rushing talent. The Falcons already have a strong foundation in that area thanks to Vic Beasley, but it’s well known that several of the Falcons’ defensive linemen will be free agents who could easily leave this offseason.
  • Pick #24: Saints – Harold Landry, OLB, Boston College: Much like Arden Key, Landry’s name hasn’t exactly been sweeping the sports news circles this season. Nevertheless, he’s still a top prospect who can fit in well with a team that needs defensive help. The Saints’ defense has made incredible efforts to turn things around, but most of that revolves around the superstar play from rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore. The Saints can make a power play by drafting Landry and adding an intimidating talent to their linebacking corps that doesn’t have much going for it right now.
  • Pick #25: Jaguars – Billy Price, C/G, Ohio State: The Jaguars truly don’t have much to improve on, and I could easily see them trading out of the first round. At the beginning of this season, I would have expected them to find a new QB to build around, but Blake Bortles has essentially been the best QB in the NFL in the last month or so, except for a bad performance in Week 17, when nothing was at stake. That being the case, the Jags’ top priority will likely be to find more linemen to protect Bortles. In later rounds, they should try to find a tight end like Mark Andrews, Troy Fumagalli or Mike Gesicki who can serve as a blocker and pass-catcher.
  • Pick #26: Bills (via Chiefs) – Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama: As I said, I think Ridley is overrated, but someone will take him. He comes from an elite football school and knows what it’s like to compete at a high level. Having just added the future franchise QB in Luke Falk, the Bills will set him up for success. With Charles Clay and Kelvin Benjamin as his top targets, he’ll want to have someone smaller who can serve as a run-after-catch deep threat. Ridley can fill that role well enough to merit first round consideration.
  • Pick #27: Rams – Anthony Miller, WR, Memphis: Having seen what hometown hero Anthony Miller can accomplish firsthand, I’m confident that he has first round talent. He’s underrated and has a chip on his shoulder that should make teams aware of the upside of drafting him. He can fit in as a slot receiver immediately and eventually become any team’s #1 option. The Rams had incredible success with Cooper Kupp in his rookie season, so the high-powered offense under Sean McVay has proven that it can help a young receiver acclimate to the system. Anthony Miller will be a great addition to the Rams.
  • Pick #28: Panthers – Arden Tate, WR, Florida State: The Panthers sold Kelvin Benjamin to the Bills for chump change, and Devin Funchess acclimated fairly well to being the new #1 wideout. With Greg Olsen getting older and a thin receiving corps backing up Funchess, it’s time for the Panthers to find a new reliable receiving option. Curtis Samuel has great upside, but had his rookie season come to an end just when he was starting to contribute meaningfully. He can be used in a similar role to Christian McCaffrey – a reliable pass-catcher with great run-after-catch ability who can be a star in the backfield as well. Meanwhile, the Panthers should use their first round pick to bring in a big, strong wideout who can spook defenses that are tasked with defending him and Devin Funchess. Arden Tate is that big, strong wideout.
  • Pick #29: Steelers – Josh Allen, LB, Kentucky: Ryan Shazier’s football career is over, realistically. There’s just no coming back from that spinal injury. To that end, the Steelers need to find a new reliable linebacker to pair with TJ Watt as their every-down linebackers. Allen played very well at Kentucky and can immediately fill that role in Pittsburgh. He’s a tough, gritty player who fits with the Steeler mentality.
  • Pick #30: Eagles – Christian Kirk, WR, Texas A&M: I’m not entirely sure what to make of Christian Kirk. He comes from a rather mediocre football school where he was clearly their best player, but wasn’t always consistent. He finished with good enough stats to be clearly NFL ready, but considering the toss-up status of every rookie receiver, there’s no real way of telling if he’ll be an immediate difference maker. But for that reason, I see him going to the Eagles, a team that doesn’t need much, if any improvement this offseason.
  • Pick #31: Patriots – Vita Vea, DT, Washington: The Patriots have a way of bringing new players on board who are too good to have ended up on the team that already has everything, so I think they’ll draft the best available prospect when they’re on the clock, which will likely be Vita Vea. The 340-pound monster from Washington fits a need for the Patriots, a strong and talented pass rusher who can slaughter any opposing offensive line.
  • Pick #32: Vikings – Josh Jackson, CB, Iowa: Much like the Eagles, the Vikings have very few needs, but they can at least make an effort to set themselves up for success in the future. Trae Waynes hasn’t reached his full potential in the NFL, and it may be time to pull the plug on his young career. Xavier Rhodes is excellent, but he could use a solid corner mirroring him on the other side.
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