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Ask a former NFL player: Which team is the biggest dark horse in 2019?

Geoff Schwartz also talks running back holdouts and why the Steelers will win the AFC North in his latest mailbag.

My mailbag is back on Friday! Thank you again for your questions. I try to get as many answered in the mailbag as possible. If you ask a specific question about a team or player, I’ll often just answer those in my DMs, so send them to me on Twitter or Instagram.

Let’s get to the mailbag.

Who is on your radar as the biggest dark horse in the NFL poised to make a little noise this fall? Personally I like Jacksonville, but that hinges on Nick Foles. — @Chetti60

This is easy for me. It’s the Atlanta Falcons. Nick Foles had an outstanding run for the Eagles, but I doubt it will continue in Jacksonville. We saw last season how Foles mostly came back to Earth, and he won’t have Doug Pederson in his ear anymore.

So why the Falcons? Their season was a disaster last year, mostly due to injuries on the defense. Their defense is healthy now and should be much improved, which is all they need with their offensive firepower.

Last season, Matt Ryan threw for 4,924 yards, 35 touchdowns, and sevens interceptions. The Falcons’ overall offensive DVOA was eighth, with their passing seventh, according to Football Outsiders. The rushing game struggling with injuries to Devonta Freeman and an aging offensive line, but Freeman is healthy and the Falcons spent two first-round picks on offensive linemen. Everyone should stay upright, and this offense is going to be fire.

Lastly, the Falcons don’t play outside until Nov. 17, which is totally wild. Their three outdoor games are all in decent weather, too, so their schedule should be easier on a dome team.

Has the NFL stumbled onto a problem with these running backs and their contracts. Are there any solutions for guys like Ezekiel Elliott or Melvin Gordon? — @DomGoogs

I wrote about Gordon in my mailbag last time, but this subject is still going strong after reports that Cowboys running back Zeke Elliott is contemplating holding out of training camp until he gets a new deal.

Asking for a new deal early in their NFL life will be the new normal for running backs. All NFL Draft picks get a minimum of a four-year deal. First-round draft picks get an additional year (fifth year) as a team option. The financial goal of every player is getting that “second contract,” which happens when you’re a free agent, or on the verge of being one, and your current team offers you a new deal. While under a rookie contract as a draft pick, you’re not allowed to renegotiate for that second contract until after year three, which Elliott just finished.

With the wear and tear of the position in the front of their minds, plus the franchise tag option on the horizon, we will see more young running backs try getting an extension ASAP like Elliott is doing.

I think Elliott is the most irreplaceable running back in the NFL because of what the Cowboys’ offense is. People said the same thing about Todd Gurley before last season, so I understand the skepticism about my statement. But, he’s valuable to what the Cowboys do now. That could change if Dak Prescott and the passing game take a big step forward this season, which is entirely possible with their roster.

With all that being said, there’s ample evidence that giving running backs large sums of money that eat up the cap isn’t prudent to team building, especially when Prescott needs to be paid. The passing game is more important to winning than a rushing attack, even with a talent like Elliott.

This week, I got two questions about the AFC North, one about why I think the Steelers will win it and another about the division in general. Thanks to @chocoplusplus and @ThePhoenixXM for the questions.

I’ve made my thoughts on the AFC North clear on Twitter, and I’ve discussed the expectations with the Browns and most notably their new head coach, Freddie Kitchens, right here. I’ll try to put this in the simplest terms, as I plan on previewing this more heavily toward the start of the season.

I have the Steelers winning the AFC North. We are putting too much stock into the Steelers losing a wide receiver, even if Antonio Brown is electric. The Steelers also have JuJu Smith-Schuster, who isn’t Brown, but he’s enough with their veteran offensive line and Ben Roethlisberger.

They also drafted Devin Bush to play middle linebacker, a huge missing piece on their defense since the unfortunate injury to Ryan Shazier. The way people talk about their defense, you’d think the Steelers were at the bottom of the NFL in 2018. Nope, they were 13th overall in DVOA.

Lastly, this is the first time in Mike Tomlin and Big Ben’s tenure together that people are seriously doubting them. As someone who was doubted my entire career, it’s powerful motivation, especially for older players. I expect the Steelers to be highly motivated and play well this season.

Will they probably lose on the road as a touchdown favorite once this season? Yes, probably. But I believe they will get their act together.

As for the other teams, I don’t believe in Lamar Jackson and the Ravens enough to consider them a division favorite.

The Bengals might be the biggest unknown in the NFL. I’m not sure anyone outside of his family could identify Zac Taylor from a lineup.

I think the Browns will go something like 8-8 or 9-7. They are talented but have a first-time head coach. There’s pressure to win with a young roster, which can be tough, especially if you start slow.

Also, while Baker Mayfield impressed last season, he did struggle against top pass defenses and faces a schedule heavy with great pass defenses this year. According to Warren Sharp, the Browns faced the 27th toughest pass defense schedule last season and now face the fifth-best this season. It won’t be as easy for the Browns in 2019 as most think.