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The following is excerpted from the team chapters of the always-excellent Football Outsiders Almanac. Buy it here as a PDF, or here in print.

AFC North

Baltimore Ravens: It’s entirely possible that Lamar Jackson’s biggest contribution to the 2018 Ravens is as a motivational tool for Flacco. Since memorably winning the Super Bowl and parlaying his spectacular playoff run into a monster contract, the 33-year-old Flacco has seldom lived up to his paycheck (which simultaneously has hampered roster construction). He was brutal in 2017, finishing 32nd in DYAR, just behind Tom Savage and just ahead of Trevor Siemian, horrifying company given Delaware Joe’s enormous cap hit. Yes, a lack of viable targets hurt Flacco’s cause, as did a preseason back injury and lingering effects from his torn ACL suffered in 2016. But clearly GM Ozzie Newsome and the Ravens brain trust have seen enough. (Robert Weintraub)

Cincinnati Bengals: It’s not that the Bengals are bad. Indeed, that is the problem with head coach Marvin Lewis and QB Andy Dalton; if they have proven anything in their years together it’s that they are just good enough to remain stuck in the NFL’s Middle Earth. Most Bengals fans would welcome being outright bad at this point, which is what they were after 14 games in 2017. Instead, they project to be average, as they mostly have been since Dalton took over (with the exception of 2015). Everything about their projection screams mediocrity, from the mean win total of 7.1 to their mean projected DVOA, all three phases of which hover around 0.0 percent. Indeed, the season-long chase to finish at that magically mundane mark across the board might provide some drama in what otherwise could be an unmemorable campaign. Unfortunately, the one number that stands out is schedule strength. Only five teams face a harder projected schedule than Cincinnati, thanks in part to games against the potent NFC South and tricky AFC West. The first and final quartet of games feature three road contests apiece, so opening pace and closing kick will be tricky to manufacture as well. (Robert Weintraub)

Cleveland Browns: The Browns went an astonishing 1-11 over the last two years in games decided by less than a touchdown. Four of those losses came in overtime. Check points scored and allowed, and the Pythagorean projection suggests the Browns were good enough to win 3.3 games, not zero. That ties them with the 2001 San Diego Chargers (5-11, projection of 8.3 wins) for the worst luck of any team since the NFL started playing a 16-game schedule. (Aaron Schatz)

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Pittsburgh Steelers: If you’re looking for someone to design an offensive scheme from the ground up, Todd Haley is a very good choice. On game days, however, Haley became much less valuable. His game plans and situational play calling were sketchy, at best. In short-yardage and third-down situations, especially, Haley had a habit of being too cute for his own good, often finding excuses to throw bubble screens or take deep shots or run slow-developing pitches rather than having the best running back in football or the biggest quarterback in football plow forward for six inches. Ben Roethlisberger hasn’t run a QB sneak since 2015, which is nearly coaching malpractice. Pittsburgh ranked sixth in rushing DVOA in 2017, but 27th when rushing on third downs. That’s not “Le’Veon Bell forgot how to run on third downs,” that’s a product of trying to over-complicate things and push the envelope, running jet sweeps and misdirection rather than simply letting the best collection of offensive talent in the league overpower people. (Bryan Knowles)

AFC West

Denver Broncos: The 2018 Broncos will be a better team than the 2017 Broncos, because Case Keenum is better than last year’s three-headed monstrosity, Bradley Chubb will reinvigorate the pass rush, and the skill-position rookies are an almost certain upgrade over John Elway’s Wonder Pets. But Elway sunk a ton of effort and resources into making the Broncos very good on defense and non-embarrassing on offense. They are an expensive, veteran .500 team. (Mike Tanier)

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Kansas City Chiefs: The exciting part for Chiefs fans is not just having a young strong-armed quarterback, or having a young quarterback with a good statistical projection. It is having any promising young quarterback to root for whatsoever. Before Patrick Mahomes, the Chiefs had not drafted a quarterback in the first round since drafting Todd Blackledge in 1983. Furthermore, the team only drafted two quarterbacks in the top 50 between 1983 and 2017. Mike Elkins (1989) and Matt Blundin (1992) were the Chiefs’ previous two experiments with quarterbacks in the top 50, and neither made it past his second year with the team or ever started a game. Over that span, the Chiefs relied on stretches of quality play from veterans via free agency and trades, including Steve DeBerg, Trent Green, and most recently Alex Smith. Mahomes, an in-house first-round pick heading into his age-23 season, will be the first of his kind in Kansas City in roughly three decades. (Derrik Klassen)

Los Angeles Chargers: The Chargers can make a strong bid to win the AFC West. Perhaps they can even win the 11 games they might have won last season if not for a missed tackle here and missed field goal there. But their lack of urgency is puzzling and discouraging. The Chargers appear too content to be pretty good at too many positions, and they don’t seem too concerned to be expensively ordinary at some positions (interior defensive line) and razor-thin at others (the backup quarterback situation is ... mysterious). Anthony Lynn made little impression as a first-year coach, in part because Ken Whisenhunt still directs the offense (though Lynn made the Chargers more run-oriented early in games last year, which was as ineffective as you would expect) and in part because it’s hard to set a head-coaching tone when your team is losing due to terrible fundamentals. (Mike Tanier)

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Oakland Raiders: The Raiders’ offseason 90-man roster is a groaning hodge- podge of iffy veterans, risky rookies, and lots of last-regime holdovers who shouldn’t get too comfortable if they aren’t named Derek Carr, Khalil Mack, or Amari Cooper. The one certainty in camp competitions is that head coach Jon Gruden will prefer “his guys;” it’s practically his catchphrase. The Raiders will end up old on both offense and defense, yet they won’t have the veteran chemistry that comes from players coming up though the same system together, and many of their backups will be the long-range projects from this draft class. Positions like linebacker and wide receiver may have gotten short-term upgrades from all the free-agent moves, and the Raiders (who still have the nucleus of a team that won 12 games two years ago) should compete for a wild card or even squeak out an AFC West title with so much of the division in transition. But it doesn’t take a $100 million coaching mastermind to craft a .500 roster out of 28- to 36-year-olds. (Mike Tanier)

AFC South

Houston Texans: As to what comparable players can tell us about quarterback Deshaun Watson, the answer is not very much at all, because the precise details of Watson’s season are sui generis. Highly drafted rookies who are good tend to play the entire season. Highly drafted rookies who only start for part of the season tend to be pretty bad. Watson started for part of the season, but was quite good. His 23.2 percent passing DVOA was seventh among qualifying passers. The only other quarterback drafted in the first or second round in the past 20 years to make between five and eight starts in his first or second season and play at an above-average level was Colin Kaepernick with the 2012 49ers. But Kaepernick is not a perfect comparison, for a couple of reasons. He started three more games in the playoffs, putting him by attempts closer to the company of Ben Roethlisberger, who started nearly the entire season as a rookie. It was his second season in the NFL and second in the playbook. Further, Kaepernick was, by passing DVOA, almost exactly as good as Alex Smith had been before he took over—in contrast to the huge gap between Watson and Houston’s other quarterbacks. (Tom Gower)

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Indianapolis Colts: Helping Andrew Luck gain yards will be a pair of familiar faces, who were also the apple of Jacoby Brissett’s eye last year. The former Patriot who ended up playing almost all of the season after a preseason trade had a process that seemingly went like this: look deep for T.Y. Hilton, look short for tight end Jack Doyle, check it down to a back, then take a sack if you cannot throw the ball away. Hilton and Doyle were each targeted on at least 22 percent of Brissett’s plays with an intended receiver, more than twice that of any other Colts player. The next players on the most-targeted list—Donte Moncrief, Kamar Aiken, and Frank Gore—have all departed this offseason. (Tom Gower)

Photo: Phelan M. Ebenhack (AP)

Jacksonville Jaguars: On the topic of franchise quarterbacks, the Jaguars offense is highly unlikely to make up for any defensive drop-off. Blake Bortles is now entering his fifth season as a professional, and to this point has been a first-round quarterback bust. A competent 2017 season was achieved mostly by protecting Bortles from himself: his 547 pass attempts were the fewest since his rookie year (in which Chad Henne started the first three games of the season) and Bortles only threw more than 38 passes twice. That was not just a function of winning, as he averaged slightly fewer attempts in defeats (37) than in victories (39). Most teams pay lip service to the idea of “establishing the run,” but the Jaguars really did focus their offense around a bruising, tackle-breaking running back and a mauling offensive line. For most of the year, Bortles played the part of Jets-era Mark Sanchez: hand the ball off, don’t do anything stupid, and don’t put the defense in a hole. Even then, he still tied for the seventh-most interceptions thrown, and his 2.49 percent interception rate was almost exactly league average among quarterbacks with at least 100 pass attempts—which marks another year-on-year improvement for Bortles, but only in the most favorable circumstances the team could possibly manufacture. (Andrew Potter)

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Tennessee Titans: The Titans are a much more interesting prospect in 2018 than they looked set to be in early January. Had the owner retained Mike Mularkey, this would have been one of the simplest teams to project in 2018. They did not, and they are substantially more intriguing for that. The head coach has never been a head coach in the NFL before. The young offensive coordinator has one year of experience in that role but has never been a playcaller before; Sean McVay retained those responsibilities in Los Angeles, and thus claims most of the credit for that Rams offense. Likewise, the 2016 Falcons offense is mostly credited to Kyle Shanahan. We have never seen Matt LaFleur away from those mentors, but we know that he will change the Tennessee offense a lot next year strategically despite using mostly the same personnel. Ultimately, those 2017 Rams and 2016 Falcons might tell us more about how the 2018 Titans approach the game on offense than either the 2017 or 2016 Titans. (Andrew Potter)

AFC East

Buffalo Bills: Optimistic Bills fans who embrace the Carson Wentz comparison should take heed that 2018 is not the year that rookie QB Josh Allen will prove us all wrong. All the money that would have gone into fixing the offense is instead dead cap space. Buffalo GM Brandon Beane talked with Peter King on The MMQB after trading Tyrod Taylor and offered this quote: “Getting the 65th pick was huge. Patience was the key. I am very happy how it worked out for the Bills and for Tyrod, and the financial part was a part of it. When it’s all said and done, we’re going to have about $45 million in dead money this year. That was part of my plan—to eat all of it, or as much as we could, this year.” That’s what it looks like when your general manager all but admits he’s not trying his best this year and is playing for the future. A more close-to-the-vest general manager could have extended Taylor while given Allen time to grow, then traded Taylor next year. Instead, all Allen will have to do to get into the starting lineup is have his coaching staff watch A.J. McCarron for three or four weeks—or wait for an injury. (Rivers McCown)

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Miami Dolphins: The problem with the Dolphins as currently constructed isn’t that they don’t have replacements for Jarvis Landry and Ndamukong Suh. It’s that by subtracting the only two players they have regarded as stars, they don’t have much left that qualifies. They have built a team of good-to-solid football players with few elite talents to take them up that notch. When you go that route in the current AFC, you can make the playoffs if every one of your contracts is successful and you draft well, but you can’t create a stable playoff team. Of the players currently under contract in Miami, only Cameron Wake, Josh Sitton, and Robert Quinn have had a year approaching dominance in their last five seasons. Wake and Sitton are both into their mid-30s. Quinn hasn’t been the same player since injuries struck in 2015 and was seen as expendable by a Rams team without another established edge rusher. (Rivers McCown)

New England Patriots: New England’s biggest 2017 problem was its run defense. A 2.8 percent DVOA allowed doesn’t seem too bad, but that’s only because passing is more efficient than rushing, so nearly all NFL defenses end up with a run defense DVOA below zero. That 2.8 rating put the Patriots 31st in the NFL, just ahead of the Chiefs. The good news there for the Patriots is that A) they’re traditionally very stout against the run and the failure wasn’t schematic, and B) reinforcements are here. The Pats traded for Browns nose tackle Danny Shelton, a big reason Cleveland had the fourth-best rush defense in the NFL last year, and will plug him right into the starting lineup. If you expect improvement in this area, and improvement in that the Patriots won’t be asking cornerback Stephon Gilmore to play outside of his comfort zone, the defense can rebound quite a bit. (Rivers McCown)

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New York Jets: While Sam Darnold has the prototype size and arm talent to tempt scouting-heavy front offices, he also flashes a lot of talent under pressure. Darnold was credited by draftniks like Matt Waldman for his pump fakes, which generated little slivers of extra time when plays were breaking down. He’s a decent scrambler, and he can occasionally pull a rabbit out of a hat when the play seems entirely dead. This will help immensely with the offensive line the Jets are planning to run out in 2018. (Rivers McCown)

NFC North

Chicago Bears: Jerrell Freeman retired in May, but the Bears already found their next inside linebacker by taking Georgia’s Roquan Smith with the eighth pick in the draft. Many scouts have pegged Smith as the best linebacker in this class, an exciting prospect for a team that has led the way in star power at inside linebacker throughout history. Some have said Smith is a bit undersized for the position, but he was listed at the combine as 6-foot-1 and 236 pounds. Patrick Willis, a sure-fire Hall of Famer who played for defensive coordinator Vic Fangio in San Francisco, was 6-foot-1 and 240 pounds. Lance Briggs, a seven-time Pro Bowler with the Bears, was 6-foot-1 and 238 pounds. This is not a red flag at all. With Smith’s elite athleticism, he should be a building block for years to come alongside fellow first-round linebacker Leonard Floyd, who has missed 10 games to injury in his first two seasons. If they can keep these players on the field with veteran Danny Trevathan, then the Bears should field one of the best linebacker corps in the league. (Scott Kacsmar)

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Detroit Lions: Detroit hasn’t had a 100-yard rusher since Reggie Bush did it on Thanksgiving in 2013. The Lions have played 68 regular-season games since then. According to research by Chase Stuart, the NFL record for the longest streak without a 100-yard rusher is 72 games by the Redskins in the 1960s. Detroit has a good shot to break that record, but individual 100-yard rushers are a bit overrated. Stafford would gladly take a 150-yard effort from his backfield even if it meant two or three players contributing to that. Head coach Matt Patricia comes from New England, where the committee approach with specialized roles has been very successful. He looks to continue that here, even bringing in veteran ex-Patriot LeGarrette Blount to complement receiving back Theo Riddick. (Scott Kacsmar)

Green Bay Packers: New defensive coordinator Mike Pettine probably doesn’t have a Darrelle Revis equivalent, but he should like what he has up front with Muhammad Wilkerson joining Kenny Clark and Mike Daniels along the defensive line. That could even be the strength of the pass rush as Clay Matthews’s production has dropped off in recent years. Outside linebacker Nick Perry has struggled to stay healthy throughout his career, but there has always been potential there. Pettine will hope to get out of him what he got out of Jerry Hughes in Buffalo in 2013. Hughes was considered a bust in Indianapolis, but after going to Buffalo to be a situational pass-rusher in Pettine’s defense, Hughes stepped up with 10.0 sacks. Perry could be in for a career year under Pettine. (Scott Kacsmar)

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Minnesota Vikings: Is Kirk Cousins as good as a Manning or Brees? No, but he doesn’t have to be to win a Super Bowl. Manning clearly wasn’t himself in 2015 when he won behind Denver’s great defense. Does Minnesota’s defense have to be 2015 Denver quality to win a Super Bowl? No, because the offense should be stronger than Manning’s Broncos were that season, providing a better balance. Remember, this is a league where Nick Foles is the reigning Super Bowl MVP after he got the job done with a great supporting cast in Philadelphia. Eli Manning (twice) and Joe Flacco were great enough for one month to win Super Bowls. If Cousins can always keep a flawed team around .500 in Washington, then why can’t he excel with one of the most talented rosters in the NFL and win the whole damn thing with Minnesota? (Scott Kacsmar)

NFC West

Arizona Cardinals: Regardless of whether Arizona’s primary starting quarterback for 2018 is Sam Bradford, Josh Rosen, or Mike Glennon (please, no), they should at least have some support on the offensive side of the ball thanks to the return of David Johnson in the backfield. Barring another serious injury, Johnson poses a major threat to defenses due to his ability to impact the game as both a runner and a receiver. Two years ago, he finished ninth in rushing DYAR and first in receiving DYAR among running backs. His receiving total of 274 DYAR would have ranked eighth among wide receivers. Not bad for a third-round pick from a small school. (Carl Yedor)

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Los Angeles Rams: With the extra space provided in part by rookie contracts for Jared Goff, Todd Gurley, and Aaron Donald, the Rams were able to bring in four All-Pro-caliber players this offseason. They traded for defensive backs Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib, two of the top corners in the league. They signed Ndamukong Suh in free agency, pairing him with Donald to create an interior line duo that had 68.5 pass pressures in 2017. This defensive trio will help compensate for a less impressive collection of edge rushers, as you don’t need top-flight talent there if nobody can get open and the interior offensive line is buckling. The Rams also traded for Brandin Cooks, who has put up three seasons with at least 1,000 receiving yards and seven receiving touchdowns all before turning 25. He fits better in head coach Sean McVay’s offense than Sammy Watkins did, with greater speed forcing safeties to stay deep to prevent the home run ball. Put it all together, and you have one heck of a haul. (Bryan Knowles)

San Francisco 49ers: Even if Jimmy Garoppolo can’t equal his 2017 production moving forward, there are certainly non-quarterback reasons for optimism on the offensive side of the ball. Head coach Kyle Shanahan and his offensive creativity will not be leaving town anytime soon. Running back Matt Breida quietly finished 15th in rushing DYAR and fifth in rushing DVOA in a part-time role, and former Vikings running back Jerick McKinnon will be joining him in the backfield after signing as a free agent. When McKinnon was in college at Georgia Southern, he had a variety of roles, spending time at running back, wide receiver, and quarterback in their triple-option offense. Minnesota used him primarily as a third-down back and as a receiving threat out of the backfield, with McKinnon exceeding 50 targets in both 2016 and 2017. It is easy to picture Shanahan turning McKinnon into a matchup nightmare lining up all over the formation, creating a similar dynamic to what he had in Atlanta with Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. (Carl Yedor)

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Seattle Seahawks: The 2017 Seahawks had the second-worst red zone rushing DVOA we have ever recorded. They had 43 carries inside the red zone, and managed just 46 yards. But wait, it gets worse—29 of those yards came from Russell Wilson or Tyler Lockett, rather than running backs. So that’s just 17 yards on 34 carries. But wait, it gets worse—20 of those 17 running back yards came from outside the 10-yard line. Seattle running backs carried the ball 20 times inside the 10, and managed negative-three yards. (Bryan Knowles)

NFC South

Atlanta Falcons: Offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian now has had a full offseason to work with his stars. He has also been able to bring in players he may be more comfortable working with—some of his own guys, rather than Shanahan’s leftovers. The Falcons drafted Alabama wide receiver Calvin Ridley with the 26th overall pick to immediately fill the third receiver role and sustain a strong receiving corps as Mohamed Sanu potentially moves on after the 2018 season. Ridley is a much more traditionally built receiver than Gabriel; he ran a full route tree at Alabama and should be fairly plug-and-play into whatever role Sarkisian feels is best for him right off the bat. It’s a great fit for player, team, and coordinator. (Charles McDonald and Bryan Knowles)

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Carolina Panthers: The development of Devin Funchess, Christian McCaffrey, and first-round pick D.J. Moore should provide three receiving threats that all flourish with different styles of play. This is a far cry from Kelvin Benjamin and an inexperienced Funchess standing tall like Ents from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. McCaffrey and Moore have the ability to eat up yards after the catch. McCaffrey had a slow start to his rookie season, but started to get into a bit of a groove later. Moore’s strengths as a receiver closely align with McCaffrey’s, so it will be interesting to see how the Panthers utilize the two and how Moore develops as a route-runner. (Scott Kacsmar and Charles McDonald)

New Orleans Saints: More Alvin Kamara sounds like a great thing, because he was a treat to watch last year and led the NFL by averaging 6.07 yards per carry. However, only one running back in NFL history has ever had multiple seasons with 6.0 yards per carry on at least 100 rushes: Joe Perry for the San Francisco 49 ers in 1954 and 1958. (Michael Vick did it four times, but he was a quarterback.) Kamara was never given more than 12 carries in any game last season, and it’s possible we’ll see that trend continue this year even with Mark Ingram’s four-game suspension. Kamara has a ton of value as a receiver. He led all backs with 278 receiving Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement last year. New Orleans ran a fairly unique running back-centric offense last year with Kamara and Ingram. The Saints threw to their running backs on a league-high 34 percent of their targets. It was the first time an offense was over 30 percent since the 2013 Saints, and the highest rate in our Strategic Tendencies database going back to 2007. That had a lot to do with Drew Brees resetting the single-season record for completion rate at 72.0 percent. (Scott Kacsmar)

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Tampa Bay Buccaneers: There is no denying that Jameis Winston can move the chains at the level of a franchise quarterback, but Tampa Bay was supposed to score a lot more points last season after adding DeSean Jackson and drafting tight end O.J. Howard in the first round. The Buccaneers finished seventh in yards per drive, but only 16th in points per drive. We saw a very similar pattern in Winston’s rookie year when the Buccaneers were fifth in yards per drive, but 18th in points per drive. In both years the offense was below average in the red zone, finishing 24th last year in points per red zone trip and 24th in touchdowns per red zone opportunity. Winston could certainly afford to get better in the red zone, where he has been average at best, but this is another area where the running game has been a real letdown. In fact, we compiled Tampa Bay’s DVOA splits for the run and pass over the last three years and found that the passing game has often been above average to great in areas such as first down, third down, and the red zone. The running game, though, has been feeble since 2016. (Scott Kacsmar)

NFC East

Dallas Cowboys: Even though Dak Prescott’s cap hit is less than $800,000—not even 15 percent that of Jared Goff’s or Carson Wentz’s—they couldn’t make nearly as big a splash because of all the dead money. Oh, they added some veterans here and there this year. A journeyman pass-rusher on his third team in three seasons. A utility lineman who couldn’t nail down a starting spot in four years in New England. A trio of wide receivers, none of whom made the top 100 players in catches last year. And that’s about it. These are not the kind of moves that typically lead to postseason glory. Aside from rookie linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, a first-round draft pick out of Boise State, it’s hard to find a starter in Dallas who is more talented than the man he replaced in last year’s lineup. (Vincent Verhei)

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New York Giants: Luckily for Saquon Barkley, investments were made along the Giants’ offensive line to ensure he will get more help than he did at Penn State. Free-agent left tackle Nate Solder was brought in to kill two birds with one stone: Solder is an upgrade over Ereck Flowers at left tackle, while Flowers, who played right tackle as a freshman at Miami in 2012, should be better than the dismal right tackle combination of Bobby Hart and Chad Wheeler that New York used last year. Via the draft, offensive guard Will Hernandez was brought in to steer the offensive line toward a meaner, more downhill style of rushing. Hernandez is an excellent pull player who meshes well with Barkley’s boxer-like running style and can be used by Barkley as an obstacle with which to manipulate defenders. (Derrik Klassen)

Philadelphia Eagles: Even more impressive than Philadelphia’s passing performance on third downs was their passing performance in the red zone. Philadelphia’s red zone passing DVOA of 110.8 percent was the third highest of any offense since 1986. We’ve written numerous times about the fact that red zone performance does not correlate from year to year as well as overall performance. A little regression in a small, volatile sample turns touchdowns into field goals, quickly shaving a win or two off the standings. The good news here for the Eagles is that while their passing performance in the red zone was exceptional, their rushing performance in the red zone was pretty bad, 28th in the league. Just as their red zone passing is likely to regress towards the mean, so is their ground game near the goal line. (Mike Tanier)

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Washington Redskins: The puzzling part of the Alex Smith acquisition is his age: the first overall draft pick way back in 2005, Smith turned 34 in May. He’s four years older than Kirk Cousins, a huge difference at this point in their respective careers. Despite what Tom Brady and Drew Brees and even Josh McCown did in 2017, the vast majority of NFL quarterbacks have declined sharply in their mid- to late 30s. As Cousins enters the peak of his career in Minneapolis, we can reasonably expect Smith’s performance to slip in D.C. Bruce Allen and Dan Snyder apparently disagree, because they doubled down by signing Smith to a four-year extension that lasts through 2022. Realistically, Washington can get out of the deal after 2020, but it’s puzzling that they opted to guarantee $71 million to Smith, barely any less than the $80 million Cousins got from the Vikings. (Vincent Verhei)


Excerpted from the Football Outsiders Almanac, which can be purchased here as a PDF, or here in print. The almanac was written by Aaron Schatz, Ben Baldwin, Ian Boyd, Bill Connelly, Brian Fremeau, Tom Gower, Scott Kacsmar, Derrik Klassen, Bryan Knowles, Rivers McCown, Charles McDonald, Chad Peltier, Andrew Potter, Mike Tanier, Vincent Verhei, Robert Weintraub, and Carl Yedor.