Here are my predictions for the 2014 NFL season.
1. Philadelphia Eagles (11-5)
Do you think that opposing defenses will be more prepared to slow down Chip Kelly and the Eagles' offensive attack now they have had a season of experience of seeing it? Well, I don't and I think he is just getting started. Nick Foles is not going to play as well as he did last year (after all, a 27-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio is unprecedented) and that is not meant to be a slap at him. I like Foles and he should be a good quarterback for the Eagles. He will be joined by LeSean McCoy, who was sensational last year in Kelly's scheme and newcomer Darren Sproles in the backfield, a strong offensive line, a quality tight end in Zach Ertz, and a passable receiving corps that may miss the deep presence DeSean Jackson provided but with what the scheme provides, his loss may be being overrated.
While the offense certainly has some pop and will be tough to stop, it will be the defense that determines what Philadelphia does this season. The secondary was a mess at times but the hope is that Malcolm Jenkins can help solidify the free safety position while the corners still look like a work in progress. Coordinator Billy Davis has a number of solid pass rush threats to utilize in his 3-4 scheme including Trent Cole, Connor Barwin and rookie Marcus Smith. They can also be good against the run with a solid defensive line and a quality inside linebacker pairing of DeMeco Ryans and Mychal Kendricks.
The Eagles have not taken a huge step forward to where they could be a Super Bowl contender but in a weak division, they should easily win the crown.
2. Washington (8-8)
Can Jay Gruden get the most out of Robert Griffin III, or at least keep him healthy? I think that the new coach, one of the better playcallers in the league in my opinion, has a shot to do the former and with Griffin finally healthy, they could take a few steps forward. And particularly so after the nice acquisition of DeSean Jackson who will help bolster an underrated receiving corps led by Pierre Garcon and tight end Jordan Reed and stretch the field. Fellow newcomer Andre Roberts should help to do the same. Washington has a fine running back tandem in Alf Morris and Roy Helu but the offensive line, outside of left tackle Trent Williams, who is very good, and center Will Montgomery, is still in flux.
How Jim Haslett still has a job in Washington is beyond me, but it probably speaks to his relationship with Gruden. Haslett will have a better unit thanks to a strengthened defensive line and a very good pass rush that will be led by Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan off the edge and Jason Hatcher and Barry Cofield from the interior. However, a weak and aging secondary could still cause some problems and they could struggle to find a replacement for London Fletcher.
They may not be a playoff team just yet but this is a franchise that should get back on the right track under Gruden going forward.
3. New York Giants (7-9)
With a new offensive scheme under new coordinator Ben McAdoo, there will be even more pressure on Eli Manning than usual. While he was hurt by a weakened offensive line and his receivers at times, Manning still was a mess taking care of the ball last year. Now Manning, always known for being willing to take risks, is going to have more calculated football the likes of which we see from Green Bay. The receiving unit looks good on paper with first round pick Odell Beckham, Jr. joining Victor Cruz and Reuben Randle, but Beckham has struggled to stay healthy thus far during training camp. In McAdoo's scheme, you do not need a great offensive line but for a Giants club that is accustomed to having strong lines, it looks like a weak spot. Will Beatty's availability at left tackle is still in question and there are holes across the line, with the possible exception of Justin Pugh at right tackle. The running game is also in flux but it looks like Rashad Jennings, who surprised in Oakland last year, will be the bell cow.
Remember when the Giants were known for a dominant pass rush? Well that really was not the case last year as virtually everybody disappointed. It is imperative for Jason Pierre-Paul to rediscover his game and for Damontre Moore to step up after a disappointing rookie season. The line also lost Linval Joseph and now will have to rely on Cullen Jenkins for some interior pass rush next to Johnathan Hankins, who is a fine run stuffer. The linebackers aren't particularly special as a unit but Jon Beason is quality in the middle when he is healthy. There will not be any excuse for the secondary to disappoint after spending some coin to bring in Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Walter Thurmond to pair with safeties Antrel Rolle and Stevie Brown.
The Giants are not quite there but in this division, who really knows for certain.
4. Dallas Cowboys (4-12)
It is crazy to think that the Cowboys could go backwards from their pitiful defensive unit that they fielded a year ago, and yet it looks like it is the case. After losing Jason Hatcher and DeMarcus Ware to free agency and the excellent Sean Lee to injury, this is a defense that will be awful. They will need Anthony Spencer to return from an injury-filled 2013 as well as somebody to join him in rushing the passer. Henry Melton will have to rebound at tackle while somebody has to step up at linebacker. The secondary has really disappointed as Brandon Carr has not done much in Dallas and Morris Claiborne has really struggled.
With such a bad defense lining up on the other side of the ball, there will be even more pressure on the offense and Tony Romo. Romo gets a lot of crap for coming up short late in games, some of it being accurate, but it also can be overblown. He was really good last year before being lost for the season due to a back injury and he will once again be able to throw to Dez Bryant and Jason Witten and hand off to DeMarco Murray, should he continue to stay healthy. Also, he has himself a fine offensive line that will be bolstered by first round pick Zack Martin.
Jason Garrett will have to do one heck of a coaching job just to get to 8-8 once again as this team appears headed for the East cellar.
1. Green Bay Packers (13-3)
How did the Packers get to the playoffs despite having to start four quarterbacks last year? Well, the Lions falling apart certainly helped but Mike McCarthy's squad was rather resilient as they rode Offensive Rookie of the Year Eddie Lacy hard, and he delivered. What makes the Packer offense even more dangerous is that Lacy was even better (and averaged more carries) when Aaron Rodgers was healthy. Even with Rodgers and a loaded receiving corps led by Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb, McCarthy has always been a balanced playcaller and that should endure. They did lose James Jones to free agency and the talented (and frustrating) Jermichael Finley to a variety of injuries (although he could still return), but they drafted three solid receivers in the draft who will team with Jarrett Boykin to add depth while Andrew Quarless is a passable tight end. However, the line will be key again but it should be better with a healthy Bryan Bulaga, an improving David Bakhtiari and a superb guard tandem of Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang. However, the center position looks like an issue.
The Packer defense has been continually flustered by 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick so it will be interesting to see how free agent signee Julius Peppers, who has never played in a 3-4 before, is utilized by coordinator Dom Capers. Capers pledges to use Peppers all over the place but it will be imperative that he complement Clay Matthews III for an average Green Bay pass rush to take off. B.J. Raji has been a big disappointment these past few years after the Super Bowl win and he will not have the ability to bounce back as he is out for the season. The line could be a question considering a number of new starters and some largely unproved youngsters. The Packers have one of the stronger collections of corners in the game in Sam Shields, Tramon Williams, Casey Hayward, Davon House and Micah Hyde and the hope is that first round pick Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix can be a big improvement at safety.
As long as Rodgers is in town and upright, this is a Super Bowl contender and now with an improving defense and a talented running back, they may just win it all.
2. Chicago Bears* (10-6)
Weren't the Bears a defensive team? Well they once were that way but changed rather quickly this past season with Marc Trestman taking over for Lovie Smith. Trestman, a shrewd offensive mind, the offense went from to eighth overall statistically from 28th overall, while the defense dropped from 4th to 30th overall. They were pitiful down the stretch against the rush and the pass rush disappeared as well. Chicago brought in a number of defensive ends including Jared Allen, who lost a step a year ago, and Lamarr Houston, who was very good in Oakland. However, the team didn't do all that much to improve the interior of the line, or at least beyond drafting a couple of tackles on the second day of the draft, hoping instead that Jeremiah Ratliff Stephen Paea improve their play. They also did nothing to address a soft linebacker corps save for moving Shea McClellin to strongside linebacker and their safety pairing is mediocre at best. At least the corners should improve with the drafting of Kyle Fuller out of Virginia Tech, if he isn't moved to safety, and the improved health of Charles Tillman.
The Bears got bailed out when Jay Cutler was lost for four games due to an ankle injury as Josh McCown was tremendous in his place. However, McCown is now in Tampa so now Cutler has to stay healthy for Chicago to go offensively. And fortunately he is joined by a strong supporting cast. Matt Forte is one of the finer playmakers in the games and he is a major weapon receiving out of the backfield. Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall are both huge, physical and athletic and they are both matchup nightmares for many a corner. Martellus Bennett is a solid tight end and the offensive line, generally a point of mockery, was much improved last year.
Any improvement from the defense and this is a playoff club. The offense is simply too good in my opinion.
3. Detroit Lions (7-9)
The Lions are seemingly always very talented but they seem to always fail to get it done. Therefore it was questionable they would bring in the eminently-clueless Jim Caldwell, who isn't exactly a master at getting the most out of his players. However at the very least, he is a strong quarterback coach and he and new coordinator Joe Lombardi may just be able to get Matt Stafford to reach his vast potential. Stafford is supremely talented and shows it at times but his mechanics can be very sloppy too. He has also been hurt when either Calvin Johnson has been out or shut down considering he has not really had much other weapons, until now. Golden Tate joins the club as does rookie tight end Eric Ebron, who will help make for a strong tight end crop after Brandon Pettigrew was inexplicably re-signed and dancing Joseph Fauria. Reggie Bush and Joique Bell are a nice running back combo that excelled when playing together last year. The offensive line is good too and it returns everybody, including Larry Warford who was outstanding as a rookie at guard.
The defense under new coordinator Teryl Austin, who came from the Ravens, will show a number of varied looks in order to confuse opposing offenses but one thing will remain, and that's the strong offensive line. Ndamukong Suh is one of the elite line forces in the game and his partner Nick Fairley isn't too shabby either. The edge rush will be solid with Ezekiel Ansah entering his second season but there are a lot of questions opposite him. The linebacking unit is versatile with rookie Kyle Van Noy joining Stephen Tullock and DeAndre Levy, all of whom can blitz. Even though the secondary was a mess last year, they did not do that much to upgrade the unit and thus they hope that better health will help.
This is a playoff team if games were played on paper. However, you know the cliche.
4. Minnesota Vikings (6-10)
Everybody knows that Adrian Peterson is the best running back in the league but the Vikings have never really been able to fully take advantage of him considering they have had a revolving door of quarterbacks that have been largely inconsistent in their on-field performance (save for Brett Favre in 2009 when they went to the NFC Championship). The team hopes that Teddy Bridgewater, who the team traded back into the first round for, can be their franchise quarterback going forward but in the meantime, Matt Cassel will be the guy and appears to give them the best chance to win right now. However, he is a guy that needs all the help he can get from his supporting cast and that means that last year's first round pick Cordarrelle Patterson has to build off the promise he showed last year to be a strong weapon down the field, tight end Kyle Rudolph to further rise as a seam threat and an offensive line to pass block better.
What new coach Mike Zimmer is known for is his brilliance on the defensive side of the ball and he has some pieces to work with, most notably in first round selection Anthony Barr. Barr is a gifted pass rusher and Zimmer will be able to move a versatile player like him around. He also has the talented Everson Griffen who has disappointed to this point but he is also a great fit for the Zimmer scheme. Linval Joseph and Sharif Floyd looks like a nice tackle pairing, Chad Greenway is a talented linebacker and Harrison Smith is a very talented safety with a bright future. It will be key for Xavier Rhodes, another first rounder from a year ago, to build off the promise he showed in 2013 at corner.
Zimmer finally got the job he deserved but the Vikings still have too much uncertainty, particularly at QB, in a deep division to seriously think about the playoffs.
1. New Orleans Saints (13-3)
The conversation with the Saints naturally starts and stop with Drew Brees and coach Sean Payton, but considering they now features a quality defense under the Rob Ryan (who has more fun than that guy?) that should only get better. The Saints forked out a ton of green to lure in one of the top safeties in the NFL, Jairus Byrd, to the Big Easy and he and sophomore Kenny Vaccaro, a first rounder a year ago, will form one of the league's finest safety pairings. The corners are not nearly as good but they do have the rising Keenan Lewis, as well as Corey White and second round selection Stanley Jean-Baptiste. The secondary will benefit from a good pass rush led by Cameron Jordan, Junior Galette and, should he be healthy, Junior Galette. Jordan and Akiem Hicks are both strong run stuffers.
Brees was a disappointment when the Saints ran into the Seahawks in Seattle last year late in the season and then in the playoffs and knowing that guy, that will drive him even more. He will enjoy another strong receiving unit to take advantage of with Jimmy Graham giving everybody nightmares wherever he lines up, the ever-steady Marques Colston, the speedy Kenny Stills and the electric Brandin Cooks, who was drafted in part to replace Darren Sproles. Pierre Thomas and Khiry Robinson return to handle the running game and while a guy like Brees makes any line look better, he also has a good one led by a strong guard pairing and a solid tackle pairing.
They may still have some nightmares about CenturyLink Field but even then, this is a club that can very well win it all come February.
2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-7)
Oh what a change the Buccaneers are going through from Greg Schiano to Lovie Smith and as a result, this should be a much improved ballclub. And with him came Josh McCown, who was tremendous filling in for Jay Cutler last year under Marc Trestman. Yes, McCown still is a journeyman, excelled under a QB guru and had two huge receivers in Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, but he will at least have that in Tampa with Vincent Jackson and first round pick Mike Evans. He will also have another rookie in his receiving corps in tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, an improved offensive line bolstered by the acquisitions of Anthony Collins, Evan Dietrich-Smith and the recent trade for Logan Mankins, and a good backfield led by Doug Martin as well as Mike James and Bobby Rainey.
Smith is known for his conservative Tampa-2 defensive scheme and he has got a solid unit to execute. Former Bengal Michael Johnson will team with Adrian Clayborn to bring a nice pass rush and the interior of the line is in good shape with Gerald McCoy, former Seahawk Clinton McDonald and Akeem Spence. Beyond Lavonte David, who is a tremendous three down 'backer, there is not all that much at linebacker but the secondary can be pretty good. Even though he wasn't a great scheme fit, dumping Darrelle Revis after just one year was a little questionable but in his place, Alterraun Verner is pretty good in his own right. He will be paired with the talented Jonathan Banks and a physical safety pairing with Mark Barron and Dashon Goldson, who disappointing amid injuries last year.
Can McCown do what he did last year in Chicago? Will Smith's defensive schemes succeed in an NFL where disruption on the defensive side seems to be the norm? Answer both questions in the affirmative and this could very well be a playoff club.
3. Atlanta Falcons (8-8)
Are the Falcons closer to the 2013 squad, one that floundered to a 4-12 record amid a number of injuries and a lack of depth, or the 2012 squad that came close to getting to Super Bowl XLVII? I think they are in the middle, trending towards the latter. It is a must that Matt Ryan receives much better protection than he did last year, hence the hiring of veteran line coach Mike Tice and the drafting of Jake Matthews, who will play right tackle until Sam Baker is hampered by injuries, ineffectiveness or both. It would not hurt if the running game was better as Steven Jackson looks like he is aging, hence the fourth round selection of Devonta Freeman. At least Ryan still has Julio Jones and Roddy White plus Harry Douglas in the slot, but Tony Gonzalez will still be missed.
It looks like the Falcons will show much more 3-4 defensive looks, but I don't see where they greatly strengthened a mediocre pass rush. Instead, it looks like they focused on beefing up their line in adding Tyson Jackson and Paul Soliai, who will team with Jonathan Babineaux, one of the more underrated linemen in football. The team will miss Sean Witherspoon in the middle due to him tearing his Achilles and there isn't that much in lieu of him there. The safeties are questionable but the corners, Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford, are far from it.
If the offensive line holds up and defensive coordinator Mike Nolan can ramp up the pass rush, the Falcons can return to the playoffs. I would be stunned if they fell apart like they did a year ago.
4. Carolina Panthers (5-11)
Why such a fall for a club that went 12-4 and gained a bye in the NFC? It has nothing to do with Cam Newton, who has steadily improved every season into one of the finer quarterbacks in football, despite all the crap Peter King put out about him. The problem here is with the supporting cast which has definitively declined due largely in part to the cap issues caused by the previous management brass. The Panthers' offensive line is a mess and has one quality starter in center Ryan Kalil after Jordan Gross and Travelle Wharton retired and neither have been adequately replaced. The top three wideouts from a mediocre receiving unit all left and will be replaced by raw rookie Kelvin Benjamin, Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant, but at least tight end Greg Olsen returns. Both DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart have been disappointments due to their contracts, and Stewart has struggled to stay healthy.
Alas, the defense is still strong in Charlotte. The defensive line is exceptional as Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson are an excellent pass rush combo and Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei are both strong in the middle, but Hardy is also facing a significant suspension due to misdemeanor assault charges. However, Kony Ealy was drafted out of Mizzou and he could help fill that void. The linebackers are led by the strong duo of Thomas Davis and reigning Defensive Player of the Year Luke Kuechly but the secondary has some issues and is clearly the weak spot of the defensive side.
Thanks to a rough offseason, the Panthers, who may have been poised for regression anyways, look like they will take a couple of steps backward in a tough division.
1. Seattle Seahawks (12-4)
We all know how tough it is for a Super Bowl champion to successfully repeat consider it's happened only seven times, but could the Seahawks break the trend? The defense is loaded but could there be some concerns? Richard Sherman is the best corner in the league but their next two corners, Brandon Browner and Walter Thurmond, both departed in free agency. The safeties are also tremendous with Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor but a strong defensive line lost some depth after losing Red Bryant, Chris Clemons and Clinton McDonald in free agency. However Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril and Brandon Mebane all return with former Viking Kevin Williams joining the action.
On the offensive side, Marshawn Lynch is the focus but I think you will see a little less of them offensively in part to keep him fresh and in part to give more responsibility to Russell Wilson. Wilson has been a revelation for the Hawks and he should only get better with a healthy Percy Harvin and the talented but raw rookie Paul Richardson. The line is the weakness of this club and it has largely been a group in flux this offseason.
Pete Carroll has dialed up everything correctly en route to a title but it will take more than that to repeat.
2. San Francisco 49ers* (11-5)
Could San Francisco possibly regress this year? Of course that has been speculated for the past couple seasons now and while they have a tough schedule, I still think they are a solid playoff club. Their focus will be on the running game but with Frank Gore being 31, will he slow down sooner rather than later? They took the best back in the draft in the second round to provide insurance but Carlos Hyde has looked lost thus far. Of course Colin Kaepernick will be a dangerous rushing threat but the team needs him to utilize his strong arm more, hence the acquisitions of Steve Johnson and Brandon Lloyd as well as the drafting of Bruce Ellington to join second-year man Quinton Patton and the solid Vernon Davis. The excellent offensive line returns in tact with the exception of a new center in Daniel Kilgore.
The defense is the centerpiece of this club but it may take a step backwards with questions in the secondary, the nine-game suspension of Aldon Smith and Novarro Bowman's return from injury. Without Smith, they could struggle to rush the passer with Ahmad Brooks remaining as the sole fearsome rusher. The line is solid with Justin Smith, who isn't getting any younger, Glenn Dorsey on the nose and Ray McDonald. Much of the secondary was rebuilt save for returning safety Eric Reid, who will likely pair with first rounder Jimmy Ward. Tramaine Brock and Chris Culliver will be the corners and neither are all that imposing.
Jim Harbaugh is a tremendous coach and there is still plenty of talent to get to the playoffs, but another NFC title game appearance is far from a lock.
3. Arizona Cardinals (8-8)
Bruce Arians did a tremendous job in Glendale a year ago and it goes to show what this team was capable of once they found a legitimate quarterback. Carson Palmer is not what he was back in his Cincinnati prime and was a little careless at times with the ball but all in all, he did a fine job in powering the Arizona attack. Larry Fitzgerald had a down year by his standards as he was almost a decoy at times, but he also was not 100% the whole year. Opposite him was Michael Floyd who was tremendous last year and should only improve. The running game should be much improved should Andre Ellington, who broke out down the stretch, get utilized more than he was. The offensive line has been a mess but should be better with the addition of left tackle Jared Veldheer from injury and guard Jonathan Cooper from injury.
Given the division, the defense is going to have to be strong for Arizona to get into the playoffs but losing Daryl Washington to suspension for the year and his partner Karlos Dansby to free agency will be a big loss, even with second-year man Keith Minter in the mix. Those losses are key considering the lack of strong pass rush options off the edge, although their line does a solid job pressuring the pocket and stuff the run. Patrick Peterson is a star at cornerback and he will have a decent partner in the newly-acquired Antonio Cromartie as well as impressive rookie Tyrann Mathieu when he returns from injury.
Arizona is going to have to be even better than they were last year to break through to the playoffs but I just don't see it this year.
4. St. Louis Rams (6-10)
2014 was going to be Sam Bradford's make-or-break season: either he was going to take a big step forward and lead the Rams to the playoffs or remain stagnant at his current state. Well that question has been rendered moot due to Bradford tearing the ACL in his left knee and thus being lost for the season. Now with journeyman Shaun Hill under center, unless the Rams make a move for someone like a Mark Sanchez, the Rams' hopes of getting back to the playoffs are shot but that does not mean that they won't be competitive. Hill hasn't played regularly in a few years but he is a passable starter for a club that went 4-5 with Kellen Clemens a year ago. Despite all the draft picks that have been used on the receiving corps, it is still a group with plenty to prove with the hopes that newcomer Kenny Britt can rejuvenate his career, last year's first round pick Tavon Austin can take a step forward and tight end Jared Cook rebound from a disappointing 2013. Zac Stacy, however, looked sharp in the backfield last year in nearly rushing for 1,000 yards and he will be joined by Auburn's Tre Mason. The offensive line was bolstered by the selection of the massive Greg Robinson with the sixth pick and he should help make for a quality offensive line alongside Jake Long, Scott Wells, Rodger Saffold and Jon Barksdale.
The strength of the Rams will be their defensive line, and it already looks nasty. Robert Quinn and Chris Long are a tremendous end duo as they combined for 27.5 sacks last year. Tackles Michael Brockers and Kendall Langford return and they will be joined by Pittsburgh's Aaron Donald, arguably the best interior pass rusher in the draft. The linebacking corps was disappointing last year as James Laurinaitis and rookie Alec Ogletree both struggled at times against the run. Both will have to take a step forward as does the secondary, which was rather sloppy at times last year. Cortland Finnegan was terrible and thus was cut, leaving as the corners a pair of talented youths in Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson, neither of whom was great a year ago. They will be joined by nickel corner Lamarcus Joyner, who was drafted out of Florida State. The safeties are rather underwhelming and will have to step up.
While the pass rush will be fun to watch, the lack of Bradford nor a great alternative at quarterback will lead to the cellar.
1. New England Patriots (12-4)
The Patriots lost a talented corner in free agency in Aqib Talib but they replaced him with an even better one in Darrelle Revis, who is only one of the finest corners that can legitimately be known as a "shutdown corner." Revis will pair with another talented man coverage corner in Brendon Browner (following his four-game suspension) and slot corners Kyle Arrington and Logan Ryan to comprise a very good corner crop and with free safety Devin McCourty to comprise a nice secondary. The secondary will help improve a pass rush that is not particularly speedy off the edge but both Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich know how to get to opposing quarterbacks. The team took a chance on the talented Dominique Jones in the first round to add some more explosiveness to the line and to the pass rush. The linebacking corps is solid with Jerod Mayo, Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins.
Is Tom Brady really on the decline? I'm not buying it and neither should you. He did struggle with an inexperienced receiving corps at the start of the year but he was able to adapt and the team shifted to a greater emphasis on the running game. The backfield did lose LaGarrette Blount to Pittsburgh but the shifty Stevan Ridley, who can struggle to hold onto the ball, and the versatile Shane Vereen return. The receving corps returns largely intact with Julian Edelman, Kenbrell Thompkins, Aaron Dobson, Danny Amendola (until he gets injured) and now Brandon LaFell. Bill Belichick made a controversial move to acquire tight end Tim Wright for Logan Mankins and it will hope that he will join with Rob Gronkowski to solidify the two tight end sets. Speaking of Mankins, he did allow the second highest amount of sacks of any guard in the NFL but he was still one of the better players on a line that struggled at times in pass protection but was sound in the run game.
It's a weak division and New England should sail to the playoffs but what happens once there? Could New England be bound for the Super Bowl once more?
2. Miami Dolphins (7-9)
It will be a make-or-break year for coach Joe Philbin as well as quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who has shown flashes of being a good quarterback but has struggled to put them together consistently. Of course, a crap offensive line has hurt him but with upgrades coming in tackles Brandon Albert, via free agency, and Ja'Waun James, via the draft (and a reach), and guards Shelley Smith and Daryn Colledge. More importantly, new coordinator Bill Lazor is bringing Chip Kelly's offensive scheme with him and that should help improve the line play as the quick striking offense minimizes the necessity for a strong pass protection. Tannehill also has some options to work with at receiver in last year's free agent disappointment Mike Wallace, who struggles to do things other than run fly patterns, Brian Hartline, rookie Jarvis Landry out of LSU and tight end Charles Clay. Meanwhile the 'Phins do not have anything special in the backfield.
On the other hand, Miami looks to have themselves a rather nifty defense. Cameron Wake and Oliver Vernon are a strong pass rush pairing while Jared Odrick and Randy Starks do fine work stuffing the run. The linebackers are speedy and solid blitzers but there are questions in the secondary. Brent Grimes is solid at one corner spot but there could be issues if Cortland Finnegan is manning the other as he was either hurt or garbage a year ago in St. Louis.
The pressure is high in South Florida but if Tannehill can reach his potential, a surprise playoff run could be in the cards. Alas, I am not sold yet.
3. New York Jets (5-11)
Geno Smith is the man at the moment in East Rutherford but with Michael Vick in town, will Rex Ryan be as hesitant to make a change should Smith struggle again as he was last year? Smith had some decent performances but he also was also atrocious at times in taking care of the football. He did have a terrible supporting cast but it did not really improve all this much. Eric Decker was a top-dollar acquisition but he isn't a number one type of receiver, struggles against press coverage and if he so coveted, why did the Broncos not bring him back? I like Decker but what can he do without Manning. He'll be joined at wideout by Jeremy Kerley, a fine slot receiver, and David Nelson who isn't much of anything. Jade Amaro is a talented tight end but also quite raw; he was almost exclusively split out wide at Texas Tech. Chris Johnson is a back reliant on his speed but has clearly lost some of that speed, and he has been on the decline for the last few years. Chris Ivory returns and he was solid last year but he has struggled to be the bellcow. The offensive line isn't great as both D'Brickashaw Ferguson and Nick Mangold, the stalwarts of the line, were relative disappointments a year ago.
Ryan is widely regarded to be one of the finer defensive minds in the NFL but even that cannot mask the fact that this secondary is a total mess. How GM John Idzik failed to address the cornerback position at all is mind-bottling, meaning that Dee Milliner, who struggled mightily as times last year, and somebody else will be the corners after Dimitri Patterson was cut. And Milliner is not even healthy at the moment. At least the talented Calvin Pryor should improve one safety spot. The inside linebacking pairing of Demario Davis and David Harris are both solid players against the run but the pass rush off the edge does have to improve. At least the defensive line is very strong, some would say the best 3-4 front in the league in Muhammed Wilkerson, Damon Harrison and Sheldon Richardson.
Some think the Jets may be a playoff team. However, I just don't see it as the offense is still too weak and the defense still has holes.
4. Buffalo Bills (5-11)
Given that they made such a bold move to trade up in the draft to take Sammy Watkins, trading their first and fourth in next year's draft, one would think that perhaps the Bills considered themselves one receiver away from taking a big leap in the standings, or at least in the win column. If they seriously felt that, they are severely mistaken. Yes, Watkins, who just re-injured his ribs by the way, is a supremely talented wideout but his talents would be wasted without much better play from the quarterback position. E.J. Manuel showed some promise but he also was far too inconsistent when he was healthy. He will benefit from a strong running game with C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson but he will need better play from his offensive line.
On the other side of the ball, the Bills may be switching schemes but they are in solid shape nonetheless. The defensive front should be strong with Mario Williams, who should benefit from a switch to Jim Schwartz's 4-3, Kyle Williams, Marcell Dareus, who may be awaiting league suspension, and Jerry Hughes, who has previously struggled in such a scheme. The defense will greatly miss Kiko Alonso and the linebackers are greatly weakened as a result. The secondary will certainly miss one of the game's elite safeties in Jairus Byrd but they have a strong corner combo in Stephon Gilmore, who is steadily becoming an elite cornerback, and Leodis McKelvin.
Could Doug Marrone's job be on the line? Such a deal as was the Watkins may just signify a need to win now but they just are not there yet.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers (9-7)
We have not seen the typical Pittsburgh defense these past few years and thus the team overall has slipped as a result. They simply have not made the big plays that are the focal point of Dick LeBeau's defense. The team has used a number of high draft picks on that side of the ball including this past draft where the took the speedy Ryan Shazier to play next to Lawrence Timmons in what could be a fun inside linebacker pairing to watch. They also drafted end Stephon Tuitt out of Notre Dame and he will start opposite Cameron Hayward, who finally broke out a season ago. Steve McLendon is solid at the nose and is bulking up. The pass rush has to improve and pressure is on last year's first round pick Jarvis Jones to improve off his very disappointing rookie campaign and on Jason Worilds to build off a strong finish. The secondary is still led by Troy Polamalu, who is still a quality playmaker, and he will be joined by Michael Mitchell who is aggressive in the box. The cornerbacks are still led by Ike Taylor but he was awful at times a year ago.
The Steelers have not fixed all of their issues but this is a club good enough to pull away and win a tight AFC North.
2. Baltimore Ravens* (8-8)
With Ray Rice's rapid decline, and now his joke of a suspension, the pressure of carrying the offense will be in the hands of quarterback Joe Flacco. And even as he was a disappointment last year in having the worst season of his career, he is a good fit for new coordinator Gary Kubiak's scheme. He also has some weapons to work with, even as the running back position is in flux with Rice and Bernard Pierce. I still think Steve Smith has something left and he should help Torrey Smith rebound as the holdover Smith needs a wideout undernath to help him over the top. Flacco will also have a really good tight end duo with a now-healthy Dennis Pitta joined by Kubiak's former tight end Owen Daniels. The line struggled in the run game last year and also needs to do a little better in pass protection. Eugene Monroe is one of the better left tackles in the league.
As we have seen, this is not the Ravens' defense we have come to know and it is a unit that is still being rebuilt. Haloti Ngata is still a force on the defensive line which helps Chris Canty make big plays next to him. The pass rush is still strong as Elvin Dumervil played well in his first year in Charm City and Terrell Suggs is still a strong rusher as well. The linebackers will be key to watch as the veteran Daryl Smith will be joined inside by either first round pick C.J. Mosley or the very athletic Arthur Brown, plus the solid Courtney Upshaw is a little lighter and should be a solid contributor as well. There isn't much depth at corner and the safeties, namely Matt Elam, have to step up as well.
It will be a dog fight in the AFC North but I think the Ravens will get themselves into the playoffs just barely.
3. Cincinnati Bengals (8-8)
The Bengals will have to replace both of their highly-regarded coordinators and how both sides react will be key if this club can get back to the playoffs. Andy Dalton got a new contract this offseason but the criticisms of him remain as he has really struggled in the playoffs. He's not a bad quarterback by any stretch but he needs a strong supporting cast that can help mask some of his flaws. A.J. Green is an elite wideout and yet he and Dalton still have not developed the kind of chemistry you want. Marvin Jones is a quality complementary wideout that will be out until October and Mohamed Sanu isn't awful either. He has got a couple of talented tight ends in Tyler Eifert and Jermaine Greshem as well as a talented running back tandem of Gio Bernard and Jeremy Hill, who should eventually take over for BenJarvus Green-Ellis. The offensive line is a very good unit as well.
Matt Guenther is a talented defensive coach in his own right, but can he be as good as departed coordinator Mike Zimmer was? He lost end Michael Johnson to Tampa so it will be key for the pass rush that Carlos Dunlap continues to rise and for tackle Geno Atkins, who was awesome before tearing his ACL in late October, to bounce-back from said injury. The defense loves to utilize Vontaze Burfict, who was undrafted mind you, and Rey Maualaga in rushing the passer right up the middle, even as Maualaga is being supplanted by Vincent Rey. Corners Terence Newman and Adam Jones are not getting any younger, and Leon Hall is coming back from his second Achilles tear, hence why Darqueze Dennard was drafted in the first round and he was one of the top cover guys in the draft.
The talent is still there but can the new coordinators be as good as their predecessors were? And just as important, what will we see out of Dalton? I just think they just miss out on the postseason.
4. Cleveland Browns (5-11)
So Johnny Manziel will not be starting right off the bat for the Browns, and that's okay. Brian Hoyer probably gives the club the better chance to win right away and Cleveland can afford to be patient considering they are not going anywhere this season. The receiving corps is putrid, particularly as Josh Gordon's season-long suspension was upheld, as the starting wideouts project to be Miles Austin, who is just about done, and Andrew Hawkins, who is very small but shifty. At least Jordan Cameron is a rising star at tight end and the offensive line is solid with a pair of outstanding players in left tackle Joe Thomas and center Alex Mack. Ben Tate also should be a solid bet at running back as he fits very well into Kyle Shanahan's offense, and Terrence West out of Towson should get some run as well.
Mike Pettine is a talented defensive coach and he has got himself some intriguing pieces to work with by the Lake. That starts at cornerback as the excellent Joe Haden will team with first round pick Justin Gilbert, the top corner in the rookie class. Pettine loves to utilize aggressive man coverage on the outside and he has got a couple of playmakers that can do just that. Cleveland was able to effectively replace T.J. Ward with Donte Whitner and he will join Tapshaun Gibson, who tied for the AFC lead with five picks, in the defensive backfield. The pass rush should benefit from a quality secondary, but they still have to improve their play, particularly last year's first round selection, Barkevious Mingo. In the meantime, the top pass rusher is Jabaal Sheard and he has a tremendous motor. Opposite him is Paul Kruger and while he isn't an elite pass rusher, he's solid in virtually every aspect when his motor is cranking. Karlos Dansby will be expected to help the pass rush while a heavy defensive line with Phil Taylor, Ahtyba Rubin and Desmond Bryant, will help stuff the run.
The cupboard isn't completely bare in Cleveland but he may have a future in town should Jimmy Haslam not pull the plug prematurely.
1. Indianapolis Colts (10-6)
The Colts have been taking advantage of a weak AFC South to cruise to the playoffs and that should happen once again. But to be fair, the rise of Andrew Luck is becoming the reason why the Colts are years ahead on their rebuilding process and why some consider them to be a Super Bowl contender. Luck is sensational already and as he enters his third season, that should only continue. It looks like Luck will have to be the focal point once again as the running game looks unspectacular once again and the offensive line, outside of tackles Anthony Costanzo and Gosder Cherilus, is nothing special either. However, Luck does have a stronger crop at wideout to utilize with Reggie Wayne returning from a torn ACL, a hungry and healthy Hakeem Nicks, the talented T.Y. Hilton and the rising tight end Dwayne Allen.
But if the Colts really want to get to Glendale, their defense is not only going to have to stay healthy, it is going to have to improve as they were downright shoddy at times. The secondary in particularly is a mess, even with the excellent Vontae Davis at corner. There isn't much opposite him and while safety LaRon Landry is a quality player in the box, he is also banged up often. The front seven is a little better off and while the line will be with a new starter at the nose, they also add the talented Arthur Jones who is good against both the run and pass. The edge rushers leave much to be desired but the interior of the unit should be improved after the addition of D'Qwell Jackson.
With Luck, virtually anything is possible but Chuck Pagano still has some work to do defensively.
2. Houston Texans (7-9)
Bill O'Brien comes to Houston from Happy Valley with the reputation of being a bright offensive mind and a gifted quarterback tutor, and the quarterback position is going to be key for the Texans considering the amount of talent that is on the roster. Matt Schaub's sudden downturn was alarming and his and his replacements' mediocre play was a key reason why the Texans sank so hard so Houston will move forward with Ryan Fitzpatrick under center. Fitzpatrick isn't bad but he also plays above his head, and his talent level, at times. Tom Savage is talented but very raw and the team also acquired Ryan Mallett from New England. At least the QB will have a very good running back to hand off to in Arian Foster, an aging but certainly capable Andre Johnson and the talented DeAndre Hopkins at wideout. The offensive line is also very good.
What will certainly be fun to watch will be the Houston pass rush now that the prodigiously talented top pick Jadeveon Clowney is in town, teaming up with the league's finest defensive player, J.J. Watt. Clowney is too talented not to be a factor but how great will he ultimately be? Whitney Mercilus is a talented pass rusher as well, Brian Cushing is a force at inside linebacker, Brooks Reed also has some pass rush ability and the hope is that Louis Nix, who somehow fell to the third round, can eventually fill the void at the nose. The secondary is a solid unit that is good at corner with Jonathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson and D.J. Swearinger is a big hitter at safety, but he can be a little too inconsistent at times.
There is a lot more talent than you would normally see from a reigning 2-14 club but what will the Texans get from their signal callers?
3. Tennessee Titans (7-9)
A lot of folks are thinking that the Titans will take a step backwards but I actually think they will be a little better than expected. And it starts with quarterback Jake Locker, who has largely been a disappointment in his young career but had been showing some promise at the start of last season before being lost for the season in November. New coach Ken Whisenhunt is a very good QB tutor and there is no question that Locker is talented, but can he stay healthy? Or could Zach Mettenberger, who was drafted out of LSU in the sixth round, potentially be their quarterback of the future? Tennessee invested much in their offensive line the last two years, particularly at tackle. Taylor Lewan looks like their left tackle of the future after Michael Roos and they also brought in Michael Oher. They'll team with the excellent Andy Levitre, the talented but unproven first rounder from a year ago Chance Warmack, and mediocre center Brian Schwenke. The running game could be in question as the plodding Shonn Greene will start ahead of future back Bishop Sankey for now, but Locker does have some receivers to work with in the very talented Justin Hunter and Kendall Wright, the reliable Nate Washington, the gadget guy Dexter McCluster and a solid tight end in Delanie Walker.
Ray Horton is one of the better defensive coaches in the league but he may have his work cut out for him in converting this defense inverting a base 3-4 scheme that he favors. He doesn't have that much at corner beyond the solid Jason McCourty but he also has a solid safety duo in Michael Griffin and Bernard Pollard. Horton's scheme isn't overly reliant on top edge rushers but even though, the position is a little tenuous at the moment. Shaun Phillips was good last year but he isn't getting any younger. Kamerion Wimbley was awful last year and Derrick Morgan could be an odd fit in this scheme. Jurrell Casey broke out at tackle a year ago but he does not project to be a great fit in a 3-4 as an end and Tennessee doesn't have a nose guy. The versatile Akeem Ayers and free agent signee Wesley Woodyard will start at linebacker and the athletic Zach Brown should be in the mix as well.
Whisenhunt, Horton and the new staff do have pieces to work with but it is imperative that Whisenhunt, who played a role in the resurgence of Philip Rivers last year, to help take Locker to the next level.
4. Jacksonville Jaguars (5-11)
The Jaguars had one of the weaker rosters in recent memory last year but it's a testament to rising young coach Gus Bradley that they were able to win four games. Both sides of the ball were dreadful last season (31st in offensive yards, 32nd in points scored, 27th in defensive yards allowed, 28th in points allowed). On offense, veteran Chad Henne will be the starter initially but with how strong rookie Blake Bortles has looked in preseason, initial plans to sit him may go by the wayside. Bortles was a reach with the third pick but he has the tools that you want out of a franchise quarterback. Whoever the quarterback is will look towards a receiving corps rebuilt through the draft. Marqise Lee gives the Jags a nice catch-and-run target while Allen Robinson is as well, albeit more as a possession type. Cecil Shorts and Ace Sanders return as both veteran tight end Marcedes Lewis, and the team is high on undrafted rookie Mike brown. The Jaguars took a chance in free agency on Toby Gerhart to be their running back but he wasn't anything special in Minnesota. The offensive line should be a little better, but it really couldn't get any worse. Last year's first round pick Luke Joeckel only played in five games last year and is now being counted on to be the left tackle. The guards should be a little better after drafting Brandon Linder and overpaying for Zane Beadles.
It is clear that Bradley wants to build the Jaguars into "Seattle East" and while he certainly is not there yet, the defensive unit should take a step forward. The pass rush almost has to be better by default and it is hoped that former Seahawk Chris Clemons can help stave off aging and provide some pop off the edge. The run stuffing of the line will be better after the signing of Red Bryant from, surprise, Seattle to join with Sen'Derrick Marks, a solid pass rusher, and Roy Miller. Paul Posluszny and Geno Hayes were disappointments last year but they do play well off of each other and they will be joined by Dekoda Watson. The cornerback position is still a mess and Jon Cyprien has to take a step forward at safety.
The rebuilding process continues in Jacksonville but they should at least be better than last year's squad.
1. Denver Broncos (13-3)
The Broncos were soundly embarrassed by the Seahawks in the Super Bowl and it showed that the Broncos had more flaws than perhaps thought. Therefore, they had an aggressive offseason in which they tried to solidify themselves as a Super Bowl team. The biggest moves came on the defensive side of the ball with the acquisitions of DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward. Ware should team up with the elite Von Miller to form a strong pass rush, and that will help make the jobs Talib, one of the finer cover corners in the game, and talented rookie Bradley Roby easier. Ward brings a big upgrade at safety and he will be joined by Rahim Moore, who is solid when healthy. With a strong pass rush, the defensive line should be better as well with Derek Wolfe, last year's first rounder Sylvester Williams and Terrance "Pot Roast" Knighton.
Even after getting smoked in the Meadowlands, Peyton Manning clearly still has it after his record 2013 campaign. He is 38, however, placing greater importance on the offseason, which has seen some shuffling. Montee Ball is expected to carry the load in the backfield after the departure of Knowshon Moreno and the departure of Eric Decker should be fulfilled by the talented Emmanuel Sanders and raw rookie Cody Latimer. Wideout Demaryius Thomas and tight end Julius Thomas are both elite but can Wes Welker stay healthy?
Denver is primed for another run but have they done enough to get over the top?
2. San Diego Chargers* (8-8)
It took a little bit of luck and some help but the Chargers rallied hard down the stretch to win their final games and get into the playoffs. There, they took out the Bengals in Cincinnati and gave the Broncos a fight before falling short. How did they do it? Well Philip Rivers was resurgent last year after a disappointing 2012 but even more importantly, the Chargers controlled the clock by keeping the ball on the ground. However, Mike McCoy will return to the wide open style that is the best fitting for the personnel. Rivers should be strong once again, Keenan Allen was tremendous as a rookie, Malcolm Floyd, should he be healthy, is a good deep threat, Antonio Gate and Ladarius Green make for a nice tight end combo and Danny Woodhead is very good receiver for a small back. Ryan Mathews broke out last year given he was finally healthy, but can he do it again? The offensive line isn't great but King Dunlap and D.J. Fluker are workable at the tackle positions and Nick Hardwick is a quality center.
Want another reason the Chargers rallied down the stretch? The defense really improved in the second half and there is reason to believe that that will continue. The corners should be improved after the signing of Brandon Flowers, formerly of Kansas City, and the drafting of Jason Verrett out of TCU. The pass rush also should be better with Melvin Ingram and Dwight Freeney returning from injury, although it be tough for Freeney to return to form considering his age. Donald Butler is a nice playmaker at linebacker and ends Kendell Reyes and Corey Liuget are talented but coming off disappointing seasons.
San Diego should be better than they were a year ago and I think they will get back to the playoffs via the tiebreaker.
3. Kansas City Chiefs (6-10)
The Chiefs were the big surprise of 2013 following their disastrous 2012 season as they started 9-0 but they only finished 2-5 and choked hard in the playoffs at Indianapolis. With a tougher schedule and a number of key departures in free agency, KC is bound for a step back. Alex Smith, who just got himself a solid contract extension, needs a strong supporting cast around him to take advantage of but even with the elite Jamaal Charles, his support just isn't there. The wideouts leave something to be desired as Dwayne Bowe is on the decline, Donnie Avery isn't much to speak of and A.J. Jenkins is still raw. Travis Kelce needs to step up at tight end and the offensive line took a step backwards. 2013's top overall pick Eric Fisher really has to improve as he slides to left tackle.
The defense took a step backward in the second half of the season and, as mentioned, completely fell apart against the Colts. If Tambi Hali and Justin Houston are healthy, they are one of the better pass rush duos in the league. The defensive line does not provide much beyond the tremendous nose tackle Dontari Poe. Derrick Johnson is sensational in the middle of Bob Sutton's 3-4 and he is backed by a quality safety pairing in Eric Berry, who is Kansas City's best cover guy, and Husain Abdullah. Brandon Flowers was not a great fit in Sutton's scheme but after he was cut, the corner position is a weak spot.
The Chiefs are simply trending backwards in Andy Reid's second year and even a return to .500 could be difficult.
4. Oakland Raiders (4-12)
GM Reggie McKenzie and coach Dennis Allen are both on relatively thin ice as there appears to be a "win now" mantra in the East Bay when there shouldn't be. That's why you saw McKenzie add a number of veterans with the team's prodigious cap space and how they are now the oldest team in the league. And they are not that much closer to the playoffs either. At least Oakland's pass rush, a second-rate unit a year ago, should be improved as I think Justin Tuck and Lamarr Woodley still have a little bit left should they be healthy, and I loved the selection of Khalil Mack out of Buffalo. Antonio Smith is a little long in the tooth but he can still contribute at tackle and he will team with the underrated run-stuffer Pat Sims. I still don't know why Oakland let Lamarr Houston go however, and he will be missed. The corners are passable but Carlos Rogers is not getting any younger and Tarell Brown is decent and not much else. Last year's first rounder D.J. Hayden needs to take a big step forward. Charles Woodson still can play and Tyvon Branch is a solid strong safety.
Oakland had nothing at quarterback last year and took a flier on Matt Schaub after his fiasco of a 2013 to see what he still has. Schaub may not have a big arm but he should at least be an upgrade. If not the talented Derek Carr will be waiting in the wings. The Raiders could really use Darren McFadden to get back to his old self but since that isn't likely, they acquired an aging Maurice Jones-Drew. They also brought in James Jones from Green Bay and he is a solid deep threat but beyond him and the backs, who, along with fullback Marcel Reese, are all good receivers, there isn't much to speak of in terms of weapons. After the failed Rodger Saffold signing failed, Donald Penn and Austin Howard will be the new tackles with the talented Menelik Watson waiting in the wings. The interior of the line has seen some upgrades and should be the strength of the line.
The Raiders just are not good enough to get into playoff contention and as to whether that will lead to another regime change is something to watch.
3 Seattle Seahawks vs. 6 Chicago Bears
4 Philadelphia Eagles vs. 5 San Francisco 49ers
AFC Wild Card
3 Indianapolis Colts vs. 6 San Diego Chargers
4 Pittsburgh Steelers vs. 5 Baltimore Ravens
1 New Orleans Saints vs. 5 Philadelphia Eagles
2 Green Bay Packers vs. 3 Seattle Seahawks
1 Denver Broncos vs. 4 Pittsburgh Steelers
2 New England Patriots vs. 3 Indianapolis Colts
1 New Orleans Saints vs. 2 Green Bay Packers
1 Denver Broncos vs. 2 New England Patriots