Articles By Athlon Sports
The 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro will soon commence. Athletes from across the globe will come together to compete in 42 different Olympic sport disciplines. The vast majority of them, such as swimming, gymnastics, basketball and track and field are widely recognized. These Summer Games also will mark the return of golf after more than a century and the debut of rugby sevens.
However, there are some sports, historically and today, that have us wondering one thing — WHY?! Here is a look at some of the weirdest actual events in the history of the modern Olympics.
It is hard to believe that dueling pistols was an actual Olympic event, but it was part of the 1906 Summer Games in Athens. Despite the name of the event, competitors were forced to fire at mannequins with bulls-eyes affixed to their chests. Evidently, the lack of bloodshed made this shooting event unpopular, as it was not renewed in future Olympics.
Remember playing Tug-of-War in elementary school during gym class? In the early days of the modern Olympics, this event was a mainstay of the games, with the Tug-of-War being held at every Olympiad as a track and field event between 1900-20. The sports’ greatest scandal came in 1908 when the City of London Police Club purportedly wore illegal footwear that was so heavy the men had trouble moving their feet.
The champions were as follows: 1900, a combination Swedish/Danish team; 1904: the Milwaukee Athletic Club, representing Team USA; 1906: Germany/Switzerland; 1908: The London Police Club, representing Great Britain; 1912: Sweden; and 1920: Great Britain.
One of the more unusual events in the history of the modern Olympic movement, Rope Climbing was part of the gymnastics programs in 1896, 1904, ‘06, ‘24 and ‘32. Starting in a seated position, competitors raced to the top of a roughly eight-meter rope and were judged on both their time and style. The sport is gaining popularity in France and the Czech Republic, giving hope for those who wish to see this event return to the Olympics.
Race Walking (20km and 50km)
It seems ridiculous that race walking continues to be an Olympic sport while more popular sports like baseball and cricket continue to be snubbed by the International Olympic Committee. For the uninformed, Race walking differs from running in that competitors must maintain contact with the ground at all times with at least one foot. While the event is very technically difficult (competitors are continually judged for proper form and docked if caught using illegal technique), there is nothing exciting about watching a bunch of people walking at a brisk pace. Finally, it doesn’t help that the athletes look like constipated penguins when competing. See for yourself.
IOC members, if you’re reading this, please rethink the inclusion of Rhythmic Gymnastics for 2016. While there’s no denying the technical difficulty and beauty of the competitors’ performances, this activity has no place in today’s Olympics. The sport is simply painful to watch and is guaranteed to put viewers at home into a deep coma. Proponents argue that the sport combines elements of modern dance, ballet and artistic gymnastics but that does not prevent the uninitiated viewers from seeing a bunch of girls dancing around with a ribbon and hula-hoop.
Solo Synchronized Swimming
This was an official Olympic event from 1984-92. What’s most shocking about this is that it took the IOC three Olympics to realize that it was an oxymoron since a person swimming alone cannot be synchronized with someone else. In reality, competitors were judged for their synchronization with the music. Quite frankly, we’re OK if this event never returns from the abyss of retired Olympic sports.
Did You Know?
The 1900 Paris Olympics has the distinction of being the only Olympics where athletes killed animals for sport. Although it was a non-Olympic sport, separate from the other shooting events that awarded medals, three different competitions involving live pigeon shooting took place. Nearly 400 birds were killed over the course of the competitions, in which the winners were awarded a monetary prize. Not surprisingly, this exhibition did not go over well with animal activists, and the official IOC record of the 1900 Summer Games doesn’t even include the results of these live pigeon shooting events.
Even if the Pitt Panthers had to line up against the Steelers on a September Saturday afternoon, Matt Canada would have a plan in place to attack the NFL foe. It sounds preposterous that any college team — even mighty Alabama — would have even the most remote hope against professional opposition, and it’s certain the folks in Vegas would be more than happy to take the money of anyone who felt that way.
Canada isn’t a dreamer. Better still, the Panthers’ offensive coordinator isn’t delusional. Pitt isn’t beating the Steelers, not if the teams played 100 times. Canada knows that. He also knows that there is always a plan of attack, even if the chances of a positive outcome are practically zero.
“No matter how much better they are than us, there is still a worst guy on their defense,” Canada says. “We might be playing the All-Pro team, but there is still a guy that’s the worst on the team.
“You find that guy, put together a plan and go after him.”
Every week, coaches like Canada perch in stadium press boxes or stand along the sidelines all over the country, hoping their game plans are good enough to offset their opponents’ strategies and personnel. Days of meetings, film breakdown, discussion, revisions and practice produce specific blueprints for three hours — four if it’s a Big 12 game — of successful (they hope) offensive football.
The process begins in earnest the moment the previous week’s game ends. The broad strokes are applied several weeks and even months earlier, as graduate assistants and quality control coaches review tape to determine tendencies and situational responses. From there, it’s up to the offensive staff to create a scheme specific to the next team on the schedule.
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That plan doesn’t radically change each week. It can’t, or teams would be trying to learn new offensive principles before each game. Coaches don’t do the same things against each opponent, but it is vital that a team’s identity is preserved as the strategy is assembled.
“We have a good offensive philosophy that we believe in,” says Stanford offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren. “It’s so nice that we know who we are. It’s so comforting.”
Once the planning is complete, the coaches take it to the practice field for installation. Come Saturday, it’s about how well the design addresses the problem — provided the problem stays the same.
Iowa offensive coordinator Greg Davis has been coaching for over four decades and calling plays for more than 30 seasons. He doesn’t boast about his experience or ability, but there isn’t too much that’s going to surprise him come Saturday. That doesn’t mean there aren’t some days when all of the planning and practicing are replaced by adjusting and ad-libbing.
“Some weeks, you get to the ball game, and the defense does exactly what you expect,” Davis says. “Some weeks, you get to the ball game, and the game plan is out the window to some degree. The defense is doing something different or playing a different coverage in a situation you didn’t anticipate.
“But it’s always important you go in with an overall plan, regardless of who you’re playing.”
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The Houston offensive staff isn’t very nostalgic.
No matter how well or poorly things went on Saturday, the game is all but forgotten by about 2 p.m. Sunday. As soon as the grades are in, and the coaches have watched the tape together, the whole thing heads into the archives. There’s another opponent to consider.
“It’s time to move on,” Cougars OC Major Applewhite says.
Each team has its own schedule for creating, revising and implementing a game plan. Davis says most teams assemble and install it “like a crossword puzzle”; it goes in piece by piece, not all at once. At UH, the process begins Sunday when the GAs and quality control folks stand up and brief the full-time staff about the next opponent. Until that point, nobody had been thinking about future rivals. The focus remains on the current challenge. You wonder why programs are devoting more resources to support personnel? It’s so that they can handle some of the preparation each week, taking the burden off people like Applewhite.
The briefing won’t be too complex. It’s more of a starting point, designed to acquaint everybody with the opponent’s personality. What are their tendencies? How do they react to the staples of the UH offensive canon? Which personnel group is the best? The most vulnerable? If there is anything unique the Cougars haven’t seen to that point during the season, it will be emphasized during that presentation.
“Say we’re playing Memphis,” Applewhite says. “[GAs and quality control coaches] let us know the base fronts, the base blitzes and base coverages. They tell us who Memphis is in a nutshell.”
From there, it’s out to the practice field for a brisk, 30-minute session with the players designed to correct mistakes from Saturday and look ahead to the next week. After practice, the Houston coaches reconvene to watch tape of the opponent’s last two games against offenses similar to the Cougars’. By mid-October, that isn’t a problem, but earlier in the season, it can be difficult to locate tape like that, particularly if the foe has faced, say, Navy’s option attack, a pro-style team or an “air raid” outfit that throws the ball 65 times per game. The Cougars employ a “power spread” scheme that is heavy on the run. (UH ran it 237 more times than it passed in ’15.)
Teams with new defensive coordinators are particularly troublesome in September matchups: It’s unwise to consult tape from the previous season due to the change in scheme. In those cases, coaches have to be creative, seeking out film from the rivals’ previous employers or speaking to former colleagues about tendencies and preferences.
“The early part of the season can be a nightmare,” Applewhite says. “Sometimes, you end up talking to friends. Three years ago [while he was at Texas], I was up against a former NFL coordinator. I had to call a guy on his [former] staff and ask what principles the coach believed in.”
Oklahoma OC Lincoln Riley says there are some benefits to facing a new defensive coordinator. His scheme may be unfamiliar to opponents, but it’s also alien to his players. Sure, it’s hard to know what to study, but it’s unlikely defenders will be comfortable with the system right away. “It’s a guessing game,” says Riley, whose Sooner attack was seventh nationally in total yards last season.
On Monday, many staffs complete as much of Davis’ “crossword puzzle” as possible. The Sooners work from 5-8 a.m. on assembling the entire plan. At Houston, Applewhite’s position coaches work on various responsibilities within the scheme. For instance, running backs coach Kenith Pope is responsible for designing answers to opponents’ blitz packages. Tight ends boss Corby Meekins maps out how to attack rival defensive ends. Derek Warehime, the offensive line coach, breaks down the defensive fronts, while Applewhite and new receivers coach Darrell Wyatt will address ways to confront coverages.
The rest of the day is spent applying the staff’s recommendations to specific situations, so that a plan can emerge that addresses all of a game’s possibilities. They draw up regular down-and-distance plays — first-and-10, second-and-8 — red-zone strategies, third-and-long schemes, screens, gadget plays and short-yardage possibilities. Staffs don’t come up with new plays for each game because they don’t want to confuse players who have spent weeks learning and executing one system. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some variations.
Davis points to the Iowa inside zone running play, which he estimates the Hawkeyes ran “260 times” in 2015. It’s going to be in the game plan; that’s no secret. But the Hawks will most likely run it differently against Wisconsin than they do versus Illinois.
“We’re going to run the inside zone, and opponents know we’re going to run the inside zone,” Davis says. “But maybe we’ll make it look a little different. One week, the emphasis will be on using ‘21’ personnel [two backs, one tight end], and the next week the emphasis is on ‘11’ personnel [one of each], with the tight end moving.
“Very few plays that show up on Saturday, especially running plays, are designed just for that week.”
By the time the players hit the field Tuesday — and more and more programs are practicing in the morning — the plan is in place, and it’s time to get the players familiar with the parts of the offense that will be featured. Pitt’s Canada uses Tuesday for “meat and potatoes” — first- and second-down situations — along with any trick plays that might be used and some seven-on-seven passing drills. Houston follows a similar plan, as does Oklahoma. Riley says that if there is a new play for that game, it goes in Tuesday, the better for players to get maximum time to work on it.
The coaches need as many days as possible to evaluate it, too. That goes for every play in the game plan. As the week goes on, staffs spend hours watching practice tape and trying to decide which plays absolutely must remain. The goal is to make sure the players are as proficient as possible in what they will be asked to run, and the more time they can give to a leaner menu, the better prepared they will be. It’s rare to find a staff that is inserting plays as the week goes on.
Applewhite likens his staff to accountants — they measure the cost of every play and ask if it’s worth having it in, or if it’s “too expensive” — and he isn’t alone. Every week, Pitt’s graduate assistants will chart how often plays were run during a game and how much practice time was spent on each. The object is to avoid having spent too much time preparing for things that never are used in games.
“We almost always have too much,” Canada says. “You see things on film and scratch them. There are enough good plays. Maybe you’ll run some of them twice, instead of once. In the average game plan, there are always too many plays.”
As soon as an offensive team crosses the opposing 20-yard line, TV commentators begin to talk about red zone scoring percentages. Applewhite considers those statistics meaningless, because the 20 isn’t a sacrosanct border. For his game-planning purposes, the red zone begins when the defense decides it does, and not when the boys in the booth say so.
“The red zone starts when the defense changes its alignment,” Applewhite says. “It could be the 25 or the 20. A lot of times, it’s the 12- or the 8-yard line. Where do they change their coverage, and where do the blitzes start to change? Some teams don’t change a lick.”
That’s why Wednesday practices are so important for the Cougars. They work on third-down packages, but they also install the red zone strategy. As Applewhite says, it’s quite different every week, due not only to how opponents defend the area, but also to how they define it. Some teams have “split personalities,” according to Applewhite. They may not blitz at all on most of the field, but send everybody but the drumline as the goal line nears.
By the end of practice Wednesday, the players should have ingested the entire strategy. From there, it’s a matter of repetition and figuring out which plays work best together. Many coaches will use Thursday or Friday walk-throughs (there is no universal approach to practicing, although some programs are going with full-speed work on Fridays) to have their offenses replicate drives by running seven or eight plays, with varying tempos. This familiarizes everybody with potential combinations and allows coaches to see what works together and what doesn’t.
“We practice it the way we call it,” Riley says. “We try to fit it together Friday so that it’s close to how we’ll do it in a game.”
Meetings, practices and walk-throughs are important, but at Stanford and a growing number of schools throughout the country, technology plays a big role, too. The Cardinal make use of a virtual reality system that allows players to get extra reps in a classroom by putting on VR goggles and going through practice film to make sure they understand how to attack defenses. If a starter wants more work, he can get it. And if a backup QB wants to see what it’s like to take reps with the first team against the enemy defense, that’s available, too.
“If a coach is there, he can see on the TV in the room where [the quarterback’s] eyes went, and say, ‘Whoa! Whoa! Why are you doing that?’” Bloomgren says. “It gives them extra chances to prepare.”
As the process of installing and fine-tuning a game plan continues, it’s important for the quarterback to feel comfortable with what’s going to be called. To that end, coaches try to get an idea of what they like in certain situations. Canada may give his quarterback six plays that could be called on third-and-5 and ask him to rank his top three.
“So, on the first third-and-5 of the game, if nothing has happened that’s different than what we expected, I’ll call the play that the quarterback likes,” Canada says.
Bloomgren asks his passers what plays they would prefer to be called early on. The answers he has received, whether from Andrew Luck or Kevin Hogan, are the same. Each wants an early, easy completion, and each wants to get hit.
“They want to feel like they are in a game,” Bloomgren says. “I tell them that it’s my job to make sure they don’t get hit, but they say they want to get their pads loose.”
The coaches put together the plan and teach it, but it’s the players who execute it. All of that talk about “Jimmies and Joes” is pretty accurate. No matter how great the scheme might be, it comes down to how well it plays out on the field. It’s easy to look at football as a carefully orchestrated game of parries and ripostes, but rarely does everything proceed according to design. In fact, many games are won by exactly how well teams perform when the whole idea goes to hell.
Davis talks about a running play last year in which the back hit the hole, only to find the cornerback unexpectedly waiting for him. Everything else was proceeding properly, but this rogue agent had emerged to trash the run.
“The running back made the guy miss and went 45 yards for a TD,” Davis says. “Was that a great play? We blocked well, but the cornerback read it, and our back made him miss.
“You’ve got to have a plan, but you have to have the players who can make it work.”
To make sure his players will be ready to do that, Applewhite and his staff administer a video test Friday before practice, during which they ask all their players what their assignments are on a collection of plays. It’s a “very military” approach. A play is announced, and the coaches grill everyone on their roles. This is no time for hesitation or casual behavior. “They are to sit up straight and call out the answer,” Applewhite says. “We fire through it, asking all 11 of them. Then we go to the next play.”
Although the Cougars are encouraged for the rest of Friday to relax, and coaches aren’t grabbing the players for hours of review, Applewhite does remind them that “their preparation doesn’t end until the foot hits the ball on Saturday.” After kickoff, coaches find out just how good their plans are. Davis emphasizes that while offenses are trying to make what they do look different from week to week, the defenses are doing the same thing. If a certain play looks good against what the opponent has done in the past, it might not be successful when called during a game, thanks to an adjustment to a front or a coverage. In those cases, the key is to address the issue without creating a sense of alarm.
“Maybe we thought a certain running play would work against an ‘over’ front, and they are now running a ‘diamond’ front,” Davis says. “We’ll tell the players, ‘Don’t panic. This is still a good play. This is how we have to go about it now.’”
It might just work. And if it doesn’t, the process starts again as soon as the game ends.
In fact, it’s probably already in progress.
— By Michael Bradley
“I think stats are for losers. The only stat that matters is wins at the end of the year.”
Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald gave that quote in the 2013 offseason after his Wildcats went 10–3 with what appeared to be pretty mediocre overall stats. He is one of the most recent coaches to say it, but coaches have been saying it since both football and football stats existed.
Technically, Fitzgerald was right, of course — wins determine conference champions, and wins certainly play a significant role in deciding who plays for the national title. But if you’re looking to predict what will happen moving forward, or if you’re trying to distinguish between teams with similar win totals, then the win column doesn’t give you very much. You might need stats for that.
This feature and more on every team in the Big Ten West are available in the Athlon Sports 2016 Big Ten Preview available now on newsstands and in our online store.
Advanced stats can add much-needed context to a team’s profile. They can adjust for opponent; they can adjust for the wild variations in tempo that we see in today’s college football. They can drop hints regarding who’s lucky and who’s not, or whose results are sustainable or not.
Advanced stats and win columns rarely disagreed more than they did when it came to the Big Ten West in 2015. The division produced three 10-win teams and, in Iowa, very nearly a College Football Playoff participant; it did not, however, produce a top-30 team according to the S&P+ ratings, my opponent-adjusted ratings, based on play-by-play and drive stats, that I have posted at FootballOutsiders.com since 2008.
In ESPN’s FPI, 10–3 Wisconsin led the way at No. 26. In Brian Fremeau’s FEI, also a Football Outsiders measure, no one ranked higher than No. 29 — and that was 6–7 Nebraska. At No. 22, 12–2 Iowa was the only West team in the top 40 according to Jeff Sagarin’s long-running rankings.
The scoffing at these low ratings was constant throughout the season. Iowa began the season 12–0, while 10-win Northwestern beat Stanford and Duke while losing only to Michigan and Iowa. Wisconsin, for that matter, lost to only these two teams and Alabama.
But whether we like to admit it or not, margins matter. Iowa’s narrow wins over Pitt, Indiana, Minnesota and Nebraska did not suggest elite status, and while Northwestern lost only twice in the regular season, the Wildcats lost by a combined 78–10 in those games.
Obviously a lot of the scoffing ended when Iowa lost by 29 to Stanford in the Rose Bowl and Northwestern lost by 39 to Tennessee in the Outback Bowl.
Over the last five seasons, the seven teams currently in the Big Ten West have just once ranked in the S&P+ top 10 (2011 Wisconsin ranked exactly 10th) and have only 11 times ranked in the top 40, an average of 2.2 per year. Worse yet, the coaches responsible for nine of those 11 top-40 finishes in that span have since left: Bo Pelini did it three times at Nebraska, Bret Bielema did it twice at Wisconsin, Gary Andersen did it twice at Wisconsin, and Jerry Kill did it twice at Minnesota. Only Kirk Ferentz (No. 29 Iowa in 2013) and Paul Chryst (No. 31 Wisconsin in 2015) remain.
While historically well-off programs in the Big Ten East have hired big names such as Urban Meyer and Jim Harbaugh in recent years, the West has taken a more low-profile route to hiring.
• Though Chryst had an obvious history with Wisconsin (he’s a former UW quarterback and spent time on staff in 2002 and 2005-11), the Badgers still replaced Andersen with a guy who was 19–19 in three years at Pitt.
• Nebraska fired Bo Pelini, who had averaged 9.4 wins per year since 2008, and replaced him with Mike Riley, who was 29–33 in his last five years at Oregon State.
• Minnesota promoted from within when Jerry Kill retired last year.
• Perhaps most damning at the moment, Purdue retained Darrell Hazell despite a 6–30 record through three seasons.
By comparison, Illinois’ hire of just-fired NFL coach Lovie Smith was met by fans with relative enthusiasm. Any hire can work out well, but in terms of pure ambition and spending, these hires have been rather conservative.
So is there hope moving forward? Possibly. Iowa and Nebraska both return quite a few stellar contributors from last year’s squads, which, by the numbers, weren’t as far apart as the win column would suggest. But while Purdue and Minnesota each return an average amount of experience and Northwestern isn’t far behind, both Illinois and Wisconsin are replacing large chunks of their respective two-deeps. Perhaps both the Hawkeyes and Cornhuskers can approach double-digit wins, and perhaps they can finish the season stronger than Iowa and Northwestern did this past year. But division depth still appears to be an issue, and the future isn’t exactly bright in that regard — according to the 247Sports Composite, only one Big Ten West recruiting class has ranked better than 25th since 2009: Nebraska’s 2013 class, which ranked 22nd. These teams are performing around the level to which they’re recruiting.
When you draw up conference divisions, you have to make a choice: Do you divide teams by approximate geography, or do you attempt to distribute them in an effort to make two competitively equal divisions? I tend to lean toward the former because quality is cyclical. Blueblood programs are good more often than anybody, but it is still hit-or-miss. Case in point: the ACC, which separated Miami and Florida State into different divisions to enjoy the spoils of a decade of UM-FSU conference title games. Twelve years into Miami’s ACC membership, however, the Hurricanes and Seminoles have yet to face off for the conference championship.
The Big Ten first chose the competitiveness route with the maligned and awkwardly named Leaders and Legends divisions. But when Maryland and Rutgers came aboard, the thought of either being a division mate with a faraway school like Iowa or Nebraska was too nonsensical, so the East and West divisions were created. And in doing so, the conference has created a divide nearly as wide as that of the SEC East and West.
This could indeed be cyclical. Nebraska could still return to power under Riley, and for all we know, Meyer and Harbaugh could both leave for the NFL, or retirement, or a flight to Mars. And their replacement hires could bomb, thereby evening out the divisions again. But that’s what it’s going to take. As things currently stand, the East has all the upside, and the West is hoping for lightning in a bottle. Stats may be for losers, but you don’t need too many stats at your disposal to see some serious imbalance in the Midwest.
-By Bill Connelly, SB Nation
The 2016 Summer Olympics are just around the corner, which means athletes from around the globe will descend on Rio to try to take home a gold medal. While an athlete can earn a lot of endorsement money with a gold medal, the actual value in gold isn't nearly as valuable as you might think. In fact, gold medals actually contain very little gold.
Kevin Steele’s laugh isn’t derisive. He isn’t trying to make fun of or belittle the question. But he lets loose with a deep chuckle that fairly drips with cream gravy.
So, coach, how much pressure is there for coaches in the SEC?
When you work at four different SEC schools during your career and are beginning a tenure at your third in the past three years, you know plenty about how tough it is to make it on the sidelines in that conference. Steele is in his first season as defensive coordinator at Auburn, a program in desperate need of some help on that side of the ball. He arrives on The Plains after directing LSU’s D last year and spending 2013-14 in Tuscaloosa with old pal Nick Saban. A Tennessee grad, Steele knows the conference about as well as anyone. And that includes the expectations that dog every coach in the league.
“It’s the same, week-to-week, year-in and year-out,” Steele says. “It’s based on the last game. Every week, you have to use the pressure for good. You have to use it as a positive.
“You are expected to play dominant defense and be prolific on offense and win every week. If you don’t like that, then the SEC is probably not the place for you.”
Steele joins the Auburn staff at a crucial time in Gus Malzahn’s tenure. Even though the fourth-year coach reached the BCS title game in January 2014, his last two Tiger outfits have managed a combined 15–11 record, and last year’s 2–6 SEC mark did not satisfy AU fans, who had to endure yet another Alabama national title and the continued celebration of Saban, who is as popular with them as a houndstooth skin rash would be.
There has been no formal announcement that Malzahn’s job is in jeopardy, but another seven- or eight-win season would definitely upset an already agitated fan base. Malzahn’s offensive genius, which catapulted him from the Arkansas high school ranks to an SEC head spot in just eight years, waned last year, as the Tigers managed just 370.0 yards and 27.5 points per game. If you’re going to finish 7–6 and be boring, you won’t gain too much support.
“We didn’t get it done as a group offensively,” Malzahn says. “It’s one of the few teams in my career where it didn’t happen. We were young and inconsistent, but I feel we’re going to get better.”
Two other SEC coaches enter the 2016 season with a similar optimism, and both could use big improvement from their teams. LSU’s Les Miles and Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin experienced surreal campaigns, with Miles going from fired to re-hired in less than a week, and Sumlin enduring the loss of two quarterbacks in the run-up to the Aggies’ bowl game. Both coaches’ teams share a West Division address with Auburn and — more important — Bama, and they understand that another season of unmet expectations could have them searching for new employment. Would it be fair to consign them to the bread line after they experienced success at their schools and Miles won the 2007 national title? Probably not. But nothing about life in the SEC is particularly just.
“The competition at this level is stiff,” Sumlin says. “It’s not for everybody. It just isn’t.
“It’s a combination of elite talent, elite coaching, big crowds and passionate fans. They create an atmosphere that’s the biggest time.”
To hear Sumlin explain it, the first four seasons of his reign in College Station have gone exactly according to schedule. The Aggies’ 36 wins during that time are tied for the most during any four-year period in the past 20 years. You have to go back to the heyday of R.C. Slocum’s “Wrecking Crew” defenses to find a more prosperous quartet of campaigns. (The 1992-95 A&M teams went 41–6–1.)
The Aggies currently have the school’s highest football graduation rate since the NCAA began recording the statistic. In 2014, 74 percent of the Aggies earned sheepskins, tied for fourth-best in the SEC. And Sumlin is extremely proud of A&M’s APR score (a robust 974, measured from 2010-14).
“That shows discipline,” Sumlin says about the academic accomplishments. “The things we did that increased graduation rate and APR are the first steps. Now, it’s time to take the next step.”
Aggie fans hope that the next step is SEC contention. While the 36 overall victories are impressive, especially considering the “success” rates of Sumlin’s two immediate successors — Dennis Franchione (32–29) and Mike Sherman (25–25) — three straight years without a winning mark in conference play aren’t too inspiring. Of course, the Aggies have been in the SEC for only four seasons, and stepping up from the Big 12 to the Big Time was going to involve some sort of struggle.
Sumlin understands that the biggest thing his team needs now is depth. He calls the SEC “a line-of-scrimmage league,” and that means successful teams have plenty of able bodies to commit to the trench warfare, especially on those brutally hot game days early in the season. Since 2013, the Aggies have had 10 players drafted, and five of them have been first-rounders. Sumlin is quite proud of the high-end A&M products — “I’ll take [wideout] Mike Evans back in a heartbeat,” he says — but he understands that the conference’s best have the kind of overall ability that produces multiple NFL picks, across all the rounds. “We want to have people drafted on days two and three,” Sumlin says. “We haven’t had that.”
The Aggies worked hard to create that depth this year with a top-20 recruiting class that replenished both lines and was heavy on blue-chip defensive talent. With 12 starters returning, Oklahoma transfer Trevor Knight immediately eligible at quarterback and a schedule that features seven home games and the annual Jerryworld clash with Arkansas, there is hope for a step forward. Not that last year’s 8–5 finish was a disastrous. Aggies fans need to remember that South Carolina was 3–9 last year. Now that’s calamitous.
But A&M started the season 5–0 and staggered home from there. The QB shenanigans didn’t exactly instill confidence in the fan base, or the football community at large. People wondered why Kyler Murray and Kyle Allen left and whether the upheaval would influence the decision of Nevada prep quarterback Tate Martell, a five-star prospect who has already committed for 2017. This season will tell a lot about Sumlin’s progress in College Station. He insists that the foundation has been established, and it is time for life to begin among the SEC elite.
“We’ve accomplished more than people think, but we haven’t accomplished all we’ve wanted to or needed to,” says Sumlin, who arrived in College Station after a four-year stint at Houston. “We understand that. I can only control the direction of this program, which is moving forward and will continue to move forward. The opinion and feeling inside the program may be a little different than what it is on the outside.”
Sumlin expects the two perspectives to move closer together this season. That would certainly help make his job easier.
This feature and more on Texas A&M are available in the Athlon Sports 2016 SEC Preview available now on newsstands and in our online store.
When it comes to big postseason news, defeating Memphis in the Birmingham Bowl doesn’t exactly rate bold-face headlines. Auburn smacked the Tigers 31–10 at the end of December to bring a smile to a year that featured too few celebrations but kept Malzahn’s personal streak of 22 winning seasons alive. Few outside of the 59,000-plus who journeyed to Legion Field paid much attention to the game, but for a program that needed a push heading into 2016, it didn’t matter who noticed. The win was quite welcome.
“Any time you win a bowl game, you have some momentum for the next year,” Malzahn says. “It helps with recruiting, spring ball and getting ready for the next season. We played pretty well in the bowl game.”
The Tigers had several “pretty good” efforts last year. The trouble was that many of them didn’t result in wins. Auburn lost four games by eight points or fewer last year, with the most debilitating a four-overtime defeat at Arkansas that came just as it appeared AU was steadying itself after a pair of early-season defeats against LSU and Mississippi State. “If we won that one [against the Hogs], I like to think our season would have been different,” Malzahn says.
Maybe he’s right. The Tigers dropped two of their next three by a combined 15 points. Perhaps a triumph in Fayetteville would have boosted the confidence of a young team and propelled it to a better outcome. Despite Malzahn’s optimism — and what coach doesn’t point to a play here or there as the turning point in a mediocre season? — the Tigers’ inability to rebound from the disappointing loss demonstrated that they lacked an ingredient necessary to compete in the SEC. The team was young and wasn’t so good defensively, despite the high-profile (and high-salary) hiring of Will Muschamp to run the D. It’s hard to forget the sight of LSU’s Leonard Fournette shucking Auburn tacklers like his little brother’s friends en route to a 228-yard, three-TD performance in LSU’s 45–21 throttling of Auburn in mid-September. And even though the Tigers hung with Alabama for a while in a 29–13 Iron Bowl loss, they were still brutalized on the ground by the Tide’s Derrick Henry, who rushed for 271 yards on a whopping 46 carries, including what seemed to be every fourth-quarter play.
Muschamp has moved on to South Carolina, where he received a surprising second chance to be an SEC head coach. Enter Steele, the calm tactician whose pedigree and intimate knowledge of Saban and Miles are quite welcome at Auburn.
“Stability is a very big deal at the defensive coordinator position, and Kevin is a guy who will stabilize the defense,” Malzahn says. “He has done a wonderful job so far developing relationships with the players.”
Steele will make the Tigers more sound and productive defensively, and if Malzahn’s offense does its job, Steele won’t have to stifle opponents. He’ll just need to control them. But the head coach’s vaunted attack, which earned him the quick trip from the high school sideline to college football’s brightest lights, won’t thrive without stability under center. Last year, neither Jeremy Johnson nor Sean White was able to deliver consistent play, so Malzahn convinced junior college transfer John Franklin III, who began his college career at Florida State, to join the fold. If Franklin III can run the run-heavy spread attack, Auburn could climb the SEC West hierarchy quickly. A schedule that features five straight home games at the outset — though two are against Clemson and LSU — could help. A fast start will build momentum. Staggering from the chute could put Malzahn in jeopardy.
“That’s part of our league,” he says. “It’s the toughest league in college football, and the highs are high, and the lows are low. You have to stay consistent and keep working.
“I am definitely looking forward to this season. The recent history at Auburn has shown that anytime there is a tough season, the team bounces back. We’ll do that. I like where the program is at. I like where our staff is at.
“We should be able to rebound.”
This feature and more on Auburn are available in the Athlon Sports 2016 SEC Preview available now on newsstands and in our online store.
For two weeks last November, LSU football was transformed from a stable, successful program into a reality show. You think the “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” is crazy? Try “Les Miles is fired. Wait, no he’s not.”
From the moment Miles’ Tigers lost a 30–16 decision in Tuscaloosa on Nov. 7, members of the school’s booster community started complaining about the head coach. Forget that the loss dropped LSU to a still-robust 7–1. (It would have been 8–1 if a season-opening game against McNeese State hadn’t been canceled due to bad weather.) Miles had to go, and the reports from “sources” emerged that the coach would indeed be ousted.
Losses to Arkansas and Ole Miss followed, and as the Tigers prepared for their season finale against A&M, the mood around the team was funereal. Crying supporters showed up at Miles’ weekly radio show. There was news that Miles had told an audience that the game against the Aggies would be his last. No one was digging a grave, but many believed the party was over.
And then it wasn’t. Fan support swung hard in Miles’ direction. In Tiger Stadium before the game, the crowd chanted that school AD Joe Alleva should be canned, not the coach. And after LSU whipped A&M, Miles emerged safe and victorious, having outflanked administrators and boosters, with a huge assist from fans.
As he prepares for the 2016 season — his 12th at the school — Miles isn’t reflecting on the past, even though he pulled off one of the most amazing escapes in recent college football history.
“I have to be very honest with you,” he says. “I have always enjoyed working with the young men on this team. They have always played with great effort, and working with these guys and representing LSU has been easy to do. I have never felt like anything on the perimeter that was derogatory has been a distraction.”
Even if Miles has a laser-like focus that allows him to eliminate any outside noise, he still doesn’t stand on the sturdiest ground. He outlasted the posse this time, but should the Tigers stumble again — and at LSU, three losses are considered a stumble — he will be in danger once more, and it’s unlikely he’ll prevail again. There are still those in the school community who want a change, and they will be more prepared to affect one the next time.
The best way for Miles to thwart any efforts by those aligned against him is simple: The Tigers must find a way back to the top of the SEC West. That means overcoming the Crimson Tide, who have beaten LSU five straight times, including in the BCS title game in January 2012. A strong collection of returnees on both sides of the ball, headlined by Fournette (1,953 yards rushing, 22 TDs), helps. But much of LSU’s success will depend on whether junior quarterback Brandon Harris becomes more productive. Thanks to his inconsistent passing (53.8 percent completion rate), opponents played the vast majority of their defenders inside the hashmarks, making it more difficult for Fournette to find room.
“Brandon has shown more poise and is more confident under center,” Miles says. “He has always been a talented thrower. Now, he’s much more of a quarterback than he has ever been.”
The arrival of highly regarded coordinator Dave Aranda from Wisconsin should keep the defense strong, and the usual influx of fast, angry recruits will provide depth. The Tigers play seven home games — including one against the Tide — and have the potential for big things.
“I like our team,” Miles says. “If we can stay away from injuries, we’ll be in good shape.”
And so will the coach.
– By Michael Bradley
Donald Trump has made a surprising run to be the Republican nominee for President in 2016, and it’s no secret he knows how to utilize social media, specifically Twitter.
While general tweets about politics can create their own firestorm, Trump also has a collection of comments about sports. His sports interests are well publicized, as he played a key role in the USFL’s demise and recently tried to buy the Buffalo Bills.
After reading Trump’s Twitter history, he seems to have some terrible hot takes, bad scouting, and a lot of contradictory statements. Which, of course, we thought we'd share.
Here's a look at 15 that grabbed our attention:
1. It doesn't appear Donald has too good of an eye for quarterback talent:
Teams are making a big mistake not taking Johnny Manziel - he is going to be really good (and exciting to watch).— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 9, 2014
2. Only Muhammad Ali, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Hakeem Olajuwon...
Obama said in his speech that Muslims are our sports heroes. What sport is he talking about, and who? Is Obama profiling?— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 7, 2015
3. Donald tweets Penn State should suspend its team in 2012. And then takes a completely different tone a year later:
The Football program at Penn State should be suspended.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 13, 2012
The wimps that run Penn State should be forced to resign (and be sued) for the pathetic settlement they made and destruction of great legacy— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 17, 2013
4. Tim Tebow was a great college quarterback. It was clear he was not a starter in the NFL:
I just don't know why some of these NFL teams with lousy quarterbacks don't give Tim Tebow a chance - what do they have to lose?— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 29, 2013
5. The Jets are going to have a terrific season with Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow? They finished the season 6-10 and tied for last in the AFC East:
6. That's right, the beginning of the end for the NFL. Of course, Donald decided to keep tweeting and watching the NFL over the last two years and tried to buy the Bills in that same span:
The NFL has just barred ball carriers from using helmet as contact. What is happening to the sport? The beginning of the end.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 20, 2013
7. Manti Te'o and a fake controversy for the Heisman? Te'o was doing pretty good without any sympathy from voters and was already considered one of the top players in the nation:
I still say Te'o did this in order to get sympathy for the Heisman vote—thankfully he did not win.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 18, 2013
8. For the 2016 Super Bowl, Trump decided to pick both teams:
Donald Trump endorses Broncos, Peyton Manning in Super Bowl --> https://t.co/cOpliv8pWG— Yahoo Sports (@YahooSports) February 2, 2016
9. He seems to know a lot about legal issues and suing to get a favorable ruling...and Brady still lost versus the NFL:
Who ever heard of a legal conviction statement “more probable than not” against Tom Brady? Sue them, Tom, and make lots of $. @nfl— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 13, 2015
10. The NFL is definitely in trouble...according to Donald:
The NFL image is really tarnished! Now, if the sponsors start leaving and the ratings go down, the NFL will be in big trouble. Boring games!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 20, 2014
11. All of that time saved by not watching the NFL seemed to fuel that run to the White House:
I'm not going to be watching much NFL football anymore. Too time consuming, too boring, too many flags and too soft. Focus on other things!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 6, 2014
12. Donald seems to have trouble with the facts here. According to a report in Sports Illustrated, the NFL's ratings aren't hurting at all. In fact, they are growing:
Wow. @nfl ratings are down big league. Glad I didn't get the Bills. Rather be lucky than good.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 10, 2014
13. At least he's honest. Or didn't decide to pick both teams:
I picked seven Super Bowl winners in a row & would have been right last night had the refs thrown the flag.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 4, 2013
14. Sorry, Donald. Joe Flacco is not among the NFL’s top quarterbacks:
@MoeKharrazi I love all sports!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 29, 2013
When James Franklin arrived at Penn State in January 2014, one of his priorities was to replenish some of the optimism that had dwindled amid the many doomsday predications that followed the NCAA’s imposition of severe sanctions in 2012 and the abrupt departure of his predecessor, Bill O’Brien.
Franklin pledged to do whatever it took to get the entire commonwealth excited about Penn State football again. He would recruit the state’s best players. He would field a dynamic, entertaining team. He would embrace social media to promote the program, using tools that Joe Paterno shunned and that even O’Brien seemed to regard with contempt, once referring to them as “Spacebook and Tweeter.” And that was just the beginning. “If people ask us to blow up balloons at their kid’s birthday party in the backyard, we’ll do that,” he said at his introductory news conference.
It’s now been two-and-a-half years since he made those pledges, and during that time it has become clear that the challenge was more complicated than it seemed in his first giddy days on the job. Yes, Franklin and his staff needed to build some enthusiasm for a program that had fallen from the ranks of the nation’s elite during the last decade of Paterno’s reign. But they also needed to temper expectations in a way that acknowledged the personnel shortcomings they had inherited when they took over. As Franklin discovered, the expectations never really crater at a school that ranks eighth all-time in major-college victories. And when they go unrealized, a panicky feeling sets in.
This feature and more on Penn State are available in the Athlon Sports 2016 Big Ten Preview available now on newsstands and in our online store.
“It’s been our biggest challenge,” Franklin says. “I think it’s still our challenge moving forward, because there’s still work to be done. It’s something that, when you’re at a place like Penn State, you have to embrace. I love the fact that we have such high expectations, I do. I love that.
“I’ve heard from a number of people that I’ve been too positive,” he adds. “But I think there’s a fine line. We have to build excitement for the direction of the program and we have to build excitement for where we’re going, because we’re going there. There are signs of it all over the place. But as fans and as coaches and as players, it doesn’t always happen at the rate we want it to happen.”
It has perhaps been Franklin’s misfortune to coach in a conference where the sort of rapid transformation Nittany Lion fans desperately want has happened twice in the past four seasons — just not at Penn State. Ohio State went 12–0 in Urban Meyer’s first year on the job, while Michigan went 10–3 last fall in its first season under Jim Harbaugh. Those are the programs that serve as Penn State’s benchmarks, and when fans see them excel, they tend to ask: Why not us?
Here’s why not: Due to the NCAA penalties and the scandal that precipitated them, the Nittany Lions recruited only 19 players in 2012 and 17 in 2013, and not all of those prospects were Big Ten-caliber players. The team also lost nine players when the NCAA waived its requirement that transfers from Penn State sit out a year at their new schools.
Those shortfalls created holes all over the depth chart, but especially on the offensive front. When Franklin and his staff began examining the roster they had inherited, they found they had only nine scholarship linemen. One of those nine blew out his knee in spring practice, and the Lions went on to surrender 44 sacks while finishing last in the Big Ten in rushing yardage in 2014. Offensive line coach Matt Limegrover wasn’t at Penn State at the time — he was hired this past January to succeed Auburn-bound assistant Herb Hand — but he heard stories. “To try to run a program at the highest level with only nine scholarship linemen is almost downright scary,” he says.
The Lions were only marginally better last season, giving up 39 sacks and finishing 12th in the conference in rushing. So when the subject of Franklin’s 14–12 record comes up among Penn State followers, the conversation inevitably circles around to the offensive line.
Will Year 3 produce the turnaround for which those fans have been clamoring? Franklin is optimistic. “There’s reason for hope,” he says, and to bolster his case, he notes that Penn State now has six linemen with ample starting experience and a handful of three- and four-star prospects from the past two recruiting classes with the potential to push the upperclassmen. The Lions also have Limegrover, who previously served as offensive coordinator at Minnesota. And they have a fast-paced new scheme, masterminded by first-year offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead, that Limegrover has described as “very offensive line-friendly.”
But there’s also reason to be wary. The Lions will be inexperienced at quarterback for the first time since Franklin took over. They need to rebuild their defensive front after losing three starters. They didn’t get quite as much help from their most recent recruiting class as they had hoped, with six players decommitting in the months leading up to National Signing Day. And they lost a key player — linebacker Troy Reeder — in a wave of transfers that struck the team in January.
Even before all of those developments, Franklin found himself walking back one of the pledges he made during his introductory presser: He will not be attending your special event, so don’t ask him to save the date. “I think people understood what I was saying. But 10 percent of the people thought I was being literal,” he said prior to the 2015 season. Those people were “inviting me to birthday parties, weddings, things like that.”
As for the other pledges — to dominate the state in recruiting, to fill Beaver Stadium’s 107,282 seats on a regular basis, to do everything in his power to turn Penn State back into an elite program — those are still operative.
For all the talk of tempering expectations, Franklin remains an optimist at heart. “What we’re trying to do is to make very thoughtful decisions about Penn State, about the direction we’re going and how we want to build it,” he says, “and I feel really good about that.”
— By Matt Herb
Super Bowl or bust? That might seem dramatic, but it also rings true for the Cardinals this season. After winning the NFC West and advancing to the NFC Championship Game, the Cardinals should be satisfied with nothing less than playing in the final game of the season.
And why not? Carolina lost cornerback Josh Norman. Marshawn Lynch hung up his cleats in Seattle. Arizona, meanwhile, maintained the core of its team and added two important parts in pass-rush specialist Chandler Jones and guard Evan Mathis.
There’s also the realization that the Cardinals’ window is closing fast. Quarterback Carson Palmer is 36. Wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald will be 33 when the season begins. Defensive end Calais Campbell could leave in free agency after the season.
Arizona legitimately is the team to beat in the NFC. The key: Getting home field advantage throughout the playoffs so the NFC Championship Game will be played at University of Phoenix Stadium.
Truthfully, there’s only one significant question going forward: Can Palmer erase the memory of his brutal NFC Championship Game performance against Carolina when he threw four interceptions (he had six turnovers in all) and play big when Arizona needs him most?
|Head Coach||Bruce Arians|
|Record With Team||34-14|
|Asst. Head Coach/Offense||Tom Moore|
|Offensive Coordinator||Harold Goodwin|
|Defensive Coordinator||James Bettcher|
|Special Teams Coordinator||Amos Jones|
|Running Backs||Stump Mitchell|
|Wide Receivers||Darryl Drake|
|Tight Ends||Rick Christophel|
|Offensive Line||Larry Zierlein|
|Defensive Line||Brentson Buckner|
|Inside Linebackers||Larry Foote|
|Defensive Backs||Nick Rapone|
Palmer had terrific numbers during the regular season, and it’s fair to assume his injured right thumb affected him in the playoffs, but until he plays well on the big stage, there are going to be doubts about his ability to lead the Cardinals to the Super Bowl.
Other than that, there’s little not to like about Arizona’s offense. Third-round pick David Johnson emerged late last season as one of the best backs in the NFL. He’s big, he has breakaway speed and he’s a terrific receiver. A 1,000-yard rushing season and 50 catches aren’t out of the question. Veteran Chris Johnson, at this stage of his career, is an ideal backup. He had 814 yards in 11 games before going down with a fractured tibia injury against the 49ers.
The wide receiving corps is deep and versatile. Fitzgerald, now operating out of the slot, is still Palmer’s go-to-guy, and there’s been little drop-off in his skill level. Last year, he had 109 catches — his first with 100-plus since 2007 — and 1,215 yards. Michael Floyd can beat smaller cornerbacks to jump balls, and John Brown is the home-run threat; he averaged 15.4 yards per reception last season. The only quibble: Arizona still doesn’t have a tight end who can beat teams down the middle. Darren Fells has the athleticism, but he was targeted only 28 times last year because Palmer has so much confidence in his wideouts.
The offensive line is probably the weakest link offensively, but that unit got a big boost in the offseason with the signing of Mathis to play right guard. The question marks are at center and right tackle. Will rookie fourth-round pick Evan Boehm be ready to start at center? And can 2015 first-round draft pick D.J. Humphries, often criticized by coach Bruce Arians last year, handle right tackle? If the answer to both those questions is yes, the line will be fine. If not, it could compromise Arizona’s Super Bowl hopes.
How badly did the Cardinals need a premier pass rusher? Elder statesman Dwight Freeney led the team with eight sacks last year, and no one else had more than five. Enter Chandler Jones, who had 12.5 sacks for New England last year and gives Arizona the one dimension it was desperately missing defensively: someone to scare quarterbacks.
Now, with Jones, Campbell and first-round pick Robert Nkemdiche, Arizona can get pressure from its line and not have to blitz as much as it has in past seasons. Jones isn’t stout against the run, but the Cardinals will live with that shortcoming if he racks up double-digit sacks.
Arizona plays five defensive backs on almost every snap, but that’s a bit of a mis-perception, because natural safety Deone Bucannon lines up at inside linebacker and, despite his 220-pound frame, is a fierce defender against the run. The Cardinals aren’t blessed with great talent at linebacker, so in some ways Bucannon may be the defense’s most important player. It will be interesting to see if teams start attacking the Cardinals with jumbo packages and extra offensive linemen, trying to take advantage of Bucannon’s lack of size at inside linebacker.
The secondary could be the weak link of the defense this season. Arizona needs to find a cornerback who can hold his own opposite Patrick Peterson (Justin Bethel couldn’t do it late last season), and safety Tyrann Mathieu is coming off his second reconstructive knee surgery. Mathieu says he’ll start the opener against New England, but there has to be some question about his readiness.
If Mathieu has recovered, and if the Cardinals can find a competent No. 2 corner, this has a chance to be Arians’ best defense in his four seasons as coach.
The only thing holding Chandler Catanzaro back from becoming one of the league’s best placekickers is consistency. He was 28-of-31 on field-goal attempts last year, including 6-of-7 from 40 to 49 yards, but he also missed five extra points, a surprise given that he connected on every field-goal attempt inside 40 yards.
Punter Drew Butler doesn’t have the biggest leg, but he gets great hang time — only 25 of his 60 punts were returned last year — and he had 22 punts downed inside the 20-yard line compared to only six touchbacks.
Arizona’s return game could be in a state of flux. David Johnson was terrific returning kickoffs in 2015 — he averaged 27.2 yards per return and had a 108-yard return against Chicago — but he’ll be the No. 1 back this season. Arians might not want to risk his health returning kickoffs. Possible replacements include J.J. Nelson and Brown. Peterson likely will be the primary punt returner, but he hasn’t been as dynamic as he once was; he averaged 8.1 yards per return last year, and his longest return was only 38 yards. Arians could look for more explosiveness in his return game while also preserving Peterson.
The Cardinals aren’t a perfectly constructed team — they need a cornerback to step up opposite Peterson, and their offensive line remains a question mark — but general manager Steve Keim has built a deep, talented roster that should compete for a championship. And, in Arians, Arizona has a coach that gets the most out his players. If Palmer stays healthy — at his age and with his injury history that’s a big if — there’s no reason the Cardinals shouldn’t win at least 12 games. It’s amazing to think how far Arizona has come since its days at Sun Devil Stadium. Once a laughingstock of a franchise, it is now one of the best-run in the NFL. Super Bowl or bust? Absolutely.
Prediction: 1st in NFC West
New time. New town. New quarterback. But will they be the same old Rams? That’s the question as the franchise returns to Los Angeles after 21 seasons in St. Louis.
The logistics have been complicated, with the team holding spring OTAs and minicamps in one location, training camp in another and regular-season practices in a third. But once it comes to the football, the mission is straightforward. The Rams are counting on stout defense, a strong running game and improved quarterback play to end a streak of 12 consecutive non-winning seasons and 11 straight non-playoff campaigns.
The results could have a lot to say about whether coach Jeff Fisher is around in 2017. He quickly got the Rams back to respectability in his inaugural season in St. Louis (2012), but the program has been struck in neutral ever since. Not many coaches get to stick around after four straight losing seasons. Fisher doesn’t want to test his luck with a fifth.
History shows that a running back coming back from an ACL injury is usually better the second year after surgery. The Rams hope that’s the case with Todd Gurley, because he was better than expected his first season back, topping 1,000 yards in 13 games and earning AP Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. The hope is that Gurley has even more acceleration than he showed in 2015. He needs to stay healthy, because there’s a big drop-off behind him on the depth chart in the disappointing Tre Mason and the workmanlike Benny Cunningham.
|Head Coach||Jeff Fisher|
|Record With Team||27-36-1|
|Asst. Head Coach||Dave McGinnis|
|Asst. Head Coach-Offense/Tight Ends||Rob Boras|
|Passing Game Coordinator/Wide Receivers||Mike Groh|
|Defensive Coordinator||Gregg Williams|
|Special Teams Coordinator||John Fassel|
|Running Backs||Skip Peete|
|Offensive Line||Paul T. Boudreau|
|Defensive Line||Mike Waufle|
|Defensive Backs||Brandon Fisher, Dennard Wilson|
The line should be better, but you can expect growing pains because it’s still one of the league’s more inexperienced units. Two keys here: 1.) Left tackle Greg Robinson must progress from his disappointing 2015 season, which included way too many breakdowns in pass protection and way too many penalties. 2.) Guard Rodger Saffold, who has Pro Bowl potential in terms of strength and athleticism, needs to stay healthy. He has played a full 16 games only twice in six NFL seasons and has undergone shoulder surgery in each of the past two seasons.
At wide receiver, the team didn’t do much to address a glaring need for a difference-maker on the outside. Fourth-round pick Pharoh Cooper has potential, but he’s best suited for the slot. So it’s up to veteran Kenny Britt and Brian Quick to play better than ever on the outside. It was surprising to see the team even bring Quick back after a highly disappointing 2015 season coming off a severe shoulder injury. That leaves it up to Tavon Austin, who did score 10 touchdowns a year ago, to be at his elusive best on bubble screens, gadget plays and punt returns. For all of Jared Cook’s problems with consistency and drops, he averaged 47 catches for nearly 600 yards over the past three seasons. Whether it’s veteran Lance Kendricks or draft picks Tyler Higbee and Temarrick Hemingway, that production has to come from somewhere now that Cook is playing in Green Bay.
Fisher says he won’t play quarterback Jared Goff until he’s ready. But do you really trade up to No. 1 overall — and give away a boatload of draft picks in the process — to let a franchise quarterback sit? So look for Goff to be the opening-day starter. Veteran backup Case Keenum is long on intangibles and leadership, but short on arm strength and, to a degree, accuracy.
For the last several years, this group has shown flashes of great promise but has fallen short of expectations. Now in its third year under the tutelage of creative coordinator Gregg Williams, the Rams’ defense has a new look. Four starters from recent years are gone in cornerback Janoris Jenkins, free safety Rodney McLeod, middle linebacker James Laurinaitis and end Chris Long. The Rams willingly moved on from Laurinaitis and Long, the team’s longest-tenured players prior to their release in February. Injuries robbed Long of his effectiveness the past two seasons, and the Rams felt that Laurinaitis had lost a step in coverage and that it was time for a change. “Country strong” and one of the team’s emotional leaders, William Hayes has filled in admirably for Long the past two seasons and now becomes a full-time starter.
At linebacker, the key is Alec Ogletree’s ability to replace Laurinaitis in the middle, in terms of physical play and in making important pre-snap checks and adjustments and filling a leadership role. The Rams are betting that Mark Barron, who flourished in a hybrid linebacker-safety role last season, can do the same over a full 16 games as an undersized weak-side linebacker.
The front four should once again be formidable, particularly if two-time Pro Bowler Robert Quinn returns to form after missing half of last season with a back injury. Aaron Donald, the 2014 AP Defensive Rookie of the Year, is a difference-maker inside paired with former first-round pick Michael Brockers, who does a lot of the dirty work taking on extra blockers. The Rams also signed 2014 first-round pick Dominique Easley, who was released in April by New England. The former Patriot has struggled with injuries, but could be a real steal if he’s finally able to maximize on the potential that made him a high draft pick.
The secondary will have two new starters, with E.J. Gaines expected to replace the departed Jenkins at one corner. Gaines was a steady rookie surprise in 2014 then missed the entire ’15 season with a foot injury. Trumaine Johnson, who received the franchise tag in the offseason, must now step up as the team’s top corner after a breakout 2015 season in which he shared the NFC interception lead with seven. Johnson is playing with more confidence and a more physical style; he’s always had good ball skills. But free safety remains an issue with the departure of McLeod to Philadelphia in free agency. Maurice Alexander is one possibility, but his skill set is more suited to strong safety. There has been some talk of moving Lamarcus Joyner back to safety from nickel back.
The Rams have a gem in Johnny Hekker, already a two-time Pro Bowler after just four years in the league and a punter who combines distance with directional skills. Hekker is one of the rare punters who can consistently flip field position, and his passing exploits make him a threat on trick plays. The outlook is murkier when it comes to placekicker Greg Zuerlein, who has yet to fulfill the great promise he showed early in his rookie season of 2012. Zuerlein has great leg strength, and Fisher’s confident enough to use him from long distance. But his accuracy suffered a year ago, and this will be a key preseason for him to regain his touch.
Austin can be one of the league’s most dangerous punt return men, but he still needs to be more decisive and do a better job fielding short kicks. The Rams seemingly search for a new kickoff returner every year, but it always ends up being Cunningham, who isn’t a home-run threat by any means but always seems to get the ball out to the 25 or 30.
The ingredients are there to compete for a playoff berth given the Rams’ frontline talent — if they can get consistent quarterback play. But that’s a big “if” over a full season. Depth is a real issue at linebacker and defensive tackle. And heaven help these guys if something happens to Gurley. The momentum of a new home and the joy of having the NFL back in Los Angeles could carry the team to some early victories. It had that effect 21 years ago when the new home was St. Louis. But sooner or later the talent must take over. And once again there’s a fine line between success for these Rams and yet another losing season.
Prediction: 3rd in NFC West
The 49ers’ coaching carousel continues to turn at an alarming rate, and a once-dominant franchise that has won five Super Bowls appears to have lost its way. San Francisco will have its third coach in three years, going from Jim Harbaugh to Jim Tomsula and now Chip Kelly, who brings his warp-speed offense to the 49ers after being fired by the Philadelphia Eagles. Harbaugh was shoved out the door after going 49-22-1 (including postseason) and leading the 49ers to three NFC title games and one Super Bowl appearance over four seasons. The 49ers promoted defensive line coach Tomsula to replace Harbaugh, but that experiment failed quickly. Tomsula was fired after going 5-11 in his rookie season. Enter Kelly, who went 26-21 with one playoff season in three years.
San Francisco has lost a wealth of talent — including Patrick Willis, Justin Smith, Frank Gore, Mike Iupati, Aldon Smith and Vernon Davis — since its run of three straight trips to the NFC title game under Harbaugh. There are no signs that this is going to be a quick fix. The 49ers entered free agency with a ton of salary cap space, but GM Trent Baalke’s biggest signing was ex-Jacksonville guard Zane Beadles. “We haven’t done much,” Baalke said of free agency at the NFL owners meetings. “We’re a draft-and-develop team. That’s what we are.”
Kelly is known for his fast, cutting-edge attack, but he faces a huge challenge getting San Francisco’s offense up to speed. The 49ers averaged an NFL-worst 14.9 points per game last season. They ranked 31st in total offense, 29th in passing and 21st in rushing.
|Head Coach||Chip Kelly|
|Record With Team||0-0|
|Offensive Coordinator||Curtis Modkins|
|Defensive Coordinator||Jim O'Neil|
|Special Teams Coordinator||Derius Swinton II|
|Running Backs||Tom Rathman|
|Wide Receivers||Bob Bicknell|
|Tight Ends||Jeff Nixon|
|Offensive Line||Pat Flaherty|
|Defensive Line||Jerry Azzinaro|
|Outside Linebackers||Jason Tarver|
|Inside Linebackers||Joe Bowden|
|Defensive Backs||Jeff Hafley|
During their Super Bowl championship seasons, the 49ers had Hall of Fame quarterbacks Joe Montana and Steve Young. Kelly will have to make do with Blaine Gabbert and, barring a trade, Colin Kaepernick, who lost his starting job after eight games last season. Kaepernick asked for and received permission from the 49ers to seek a trade, but a deal to Denver collapsed when he refused to take a major pay cut. Kaepernick has spent most of his offseason recovering from left shoulder, right thumb and left knee surgeries. Gabbert was drafted No. 10 overall by Jacksonville in 2011 but nearly played his way out of the league. He was traded to the 49ers in 2014 to be their backup and threw seven passes that season. But last year he threw for 2,031 yards and 10 touchdowns with seven interceptions. He has the size, arm strength and athleticism that might work in Kelly’s system. Kaepernick has more speed and arm strength, but he lacks the passing accuracy and touch that Kelly likes.
The 49ers’ wide receiver and tight end corps won’t scare any opposing defensive coordinators. Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin, who was still a free agent as of mid-July, tied for the team lead in touchdowns last year with four. Boldin led the team with 69 catches for 789 yards. Smith ranked second with 33 catches for 663 yards. No other wide receiver or tight end had more than 30 catches. Surprisingly, Baalke took only one wide receiver in the draft, Aaron Burbridge, a sixth-round pick from Michigan State.
Kelly relies heavily on the run game, and he should have a healthy Carlos Hyde to carry the load. Hyde, who missed nine games last season with a foot injury, averaged 4.1 yards per carry over his first two NFL seasons. The question is whether the 49ers’ offensive line will open enough holes. Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Staley is still one of the league’s top linemen, but his supporting cast is in flux. Beadles and rookie Joshua Garnett, a first-round pick from Stanford, are expected to be the 49ers’ new starting guards. Trent Brown, a seventh-round pick last year from Florida, should get first crack at right tackle after a strong rookie season. Daniel Kilgore, who has battled injuries, will start at center. The 49ers lost guard Alex Boone to free agency. Former Pro Bowl tackle Anthony Davis, who sat out last season, has said he plans to play this year but had yet to apply to the league for reinstatement as of mid May.
Just three years ago the 49ers had one of the NFL’s elite defenses. Last year they ranked 29th in total defense, were 29th against the rush, 27th against the pass and 18th in points allowed. New defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil, who spent the past two seasons in the same role with Cleveland, faces a huge challenge. O’Neil will direct a young defense that had only one Pro Bowl player last season, inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman. He’ll also have to adjust to likely having his group on the field longer than any other defense in the NFL. Kelly’s offense in Philadelphia ranked last in time of possession over the past three seasons.
Bowman came back last season after missing a year while recovering from reconstructive knee surgery and led the NFL with 154 tackles. He’s the leader on a young defense that needs to grow up in a hurry. Outside linebacker Aaron Lynch showed signs of becoming a dominant player in his second season; he had 6.5 sacks, tying for the team lead with outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks.
Free safety Eric Reid, who made the Pro Bowl as a rookie three years ago, anchors an inexperienced but promising secondary that is loaded with talented safeties. The 49ers used a first-round pick on Reid in 2013, a first-round choice on safety Jimmie Ward in 2014 and a second-round pick on safety Jaquiski Tartt in 2015. Starting strong safety Antoine Bethea missed the final nine games last season with a torn pectoral muscle and could have competition for his job. Starting cornerback Tramaine Brock had a bounce-back season last year after an injury-plagued 2014. After missing his entire rookie season with a foot injury, cornerback Kenneth Acker started 13 games in 2015. He should get competition from Keith Reaser and Dontae Johnson, among others, for the starting job.
The 49ers are rebuilding what was once a dominant defensive line. One year after drafting Oregon defensive end Arik Armstead with the 17th overall pick, Baalke used the No. 7 choice on DeForest Buckner, another former Ducks defensive end. They should eventually wind up as bookends on the line in San Francisco’s 3-4 defense. Veterans Quinton Dial, Glenn Dorsey and Tony Jerod-Eddie, among others, will provide competition on a line that will need to take full advantage of its depth to keep from wearing down. Nose tackle Ian Williams played all 16 games last year but had surgery on his left leg during the offseason, putting his availability for the start of this season in doubt. Mike Purcell could fill that gap early.
Kicker Phil Dawson returns for his 18th NFL season after making 24-of-27 field-goal attempts last season. Bradley Pinion averaged 43.6 yards per punt and handled kickoff duties as a rookie last season after the 49ers drafted him in the fifth round. Bruce Ellington showed some explosiveness at times as the 49ers’ top punt and kickoff returner, but this is an area that needs improvement.
The 49ers have their third coach in three years and did little in the offseason to upgrade the talent on a team that went 5-11 in 2015. It’s been just four seasons since San Francisco reached the Super Bowl and lost 34-31 to Baltimore, but that seems like ancient history. If the 49ers finish .500 this season, Kelly should get some votes for Coach of the Year.
Prediction: 4th in NFC West
Two seasons removed from a Super Bowl victory, the Seahawks still hold several championship pieces — quarterback Russell Wilson, both kickers, receiver Doug Baldwin and much of a stifling defense that revolves around Richard Sherman, Michael Bennett and Bobby Wagner.
Nowhere to be found, however, are any of the starting offensive linemen who earned rings in New Jersey in 2014. Since that pinnacle moment, the Seahawks have gone through a total makeover up front. New faces across the offensive line were blamed for much of Seattle’s difficulties last season, which involved a slow start and didn’t involve a Super Bowl finish for the first time in three years. More new faces could bring added dysfunction this season.
While the Seahawks, under the direction of coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider, have been masters at finding elite talent where others don’t think to look — Wilson and Sherman come to mind — reconfiguring the offensive line again presents a significant challenge. Another season could depend on it.
The Seahawks have the steadily improving Wilson coming off a season in which he led the NFL in passer rating (110.1), set career highs in completion percentage (68.1) and yards per attempt (8.3), and went on a 24-touchdown pass, one-interception tear over seven games. Wilson has taken the Seahawks to the playoffs four times and to the Super Bowl twice. He has made great strides with standing in the pocket and continues to unnerve opponents with his improvisational scrambling. Wilson will need help in pivotal places on the offense following the retirement of workhorse running back Marshawn Lynch and the free-agent departures of seasoned left tackle Russell Okung and right guard J.R. Sweezy.
|Head Coach||Pete Carroll|
|Record With Team||60-36|
|Offensive Coordinator||Darrel Bevell|
|Defensive Coordinator||Kris Richard|
|Asst. Head Coach/Offensive Line||Tom Cable|
|Asst. Head Coach/Defense||Rocky Seto|
|Special teams Coordinator||Brian Schneider|
|Running Backs||Sherman Smith|
|Wide Receivers||Dave Canales|
|Tight Ends||Pat McPherson|
|Defensive Line||Travis Jones, Dwaine Board|
|Defensive Backs||Andre Curtis|
The second-most important player on the offensive side of the ball might be Garry Gilliam. The third-year player moves from right to left tackle. He’s big enough, measuring a rangy 6-foot-5 and 315 pounds, and athletic enough, well remembered around the league for catching a crucial 19-yard touchdown pass on a fake field goal against Green Bay in the 2015 NFC Championship Game. His drawbacks are his lack of a nasty streak, which makes him more of a reactionary player than an aggressor, and his limited experience as an NFL tackle — just 17 games as a starter. He returns with center Patrick Lewis and left guard Justin Britt. Lewis’ midseason insertion at center was credited with helping calm the Seahawks’ line in 2015; he demonstrated more of a flair for recognizing defenses and making proper play calls than his predecessor. Britt, who has bounced from right tackle to left guard, has no problem playing with attitude but has struggled at times with technique. Not surprisingly, the Seahawks drafted huge offensive linemen in Texas A&M’s Germain Ifedi in the first round and Boise State’s Rees Odhiambo in the third round to fill the glaring holes. The two rookies could become the starters at right guard and right tackle, respectively.
The Seahawks enter the season with nagging questions at running back. They hope that Thomas Rawls can bounce back from a broken ankle, regain his sensational rookie form and put people at ease in the post-Lynch era. Rawls had four games of 100 yards or more rushing. Averaging a hefty 5.6 yards per carry, he showed a knack for running up field with a purpose and staying on his feet after contact. Recognizing a need for depth here, the Seahawks drafted three backs, with Arkansas’ Alex Collins and Notre Dame’s C.J. Prosise the best bets to get on the field, in that order.
The receiving corps remains intact, with Jermaine Kearse and Baldwin back as veterans who work well with Wilson, Tyler Lockett supplying a previously missing deep threat, and Jimmy Graham and Luke Willson returning as reputable tight ends. Baldwin took his game to a high level last season, turning in a 78-catch, 1,069-yard, 14-TD performance. The team rewarded the former undrafted free agent in late June with a four-year contract extension worth $46 million ($24 million guaranteed). Baldwin's emergence has coincided with a steep decline in Graham’s production, some of which can be attributed to a serious knee injury he suffered last season. However, it’s unclear whether the former All-Pro can be the impact player he once was.
The Seahawks’ uneven season was no real fault of the defense: These guys were as stingy as ever around the end zone. For the fourth year in a row, Seattle led the NFL in points allowed per game (just 17.3) — a dominance unmatched during the Super Bowl era. Bennett gave this unit yet another elite player, taking his game up a notch as a highly disruptive defensive end. The defense once again appears formidable.
Above all, Seattle’s “Legion of Boom” secondary, the cornerstone of this productive group, is in much better shape approaching this season than last. A year ago, strong safety Kam Chancellor was a two-game contract holdout, free safety Earl Thomas returned from shoulder surgery as a less dominant player, and the team broke in a new cornerback who didn’t last the season. The Seahawks should get strong play from their safeties, and they made it an offseason priority to re-sign veteran cornerback Jeremy Lane, who overcame his own injury issues that limited him to just six games. They also reacquired Brandon Browner, a former starter who last played for the Seahawks in 2013 and will attempt to reclaim his corner job after coming off a subpar season in New Orleans. Sherman? He wasn’t as statistically dominant as in years past, but the gifted defender still showed he could be a lockdown corner when he had to be.
Fast and tough, Wagner and K.J. Wright are among the league’s best at their respective inside and outside linebacker positions. Wagner is considered one of the top two or three tacklers in the NFL, averaging 120 over his four seasons, and he’s a big reason the Seahawks have one of the league’s hardest defensive units to run against. The free-agent loss of Bruce Irvin, a hybrid linebacker/end, creates a sizeable opening, one the Seahawks hope to fill by using players in tandem: They’ve elevated reserve linebacker Mike Morgan and reacquired end Chris Clemons. A starter for the Seahawks’ Super Bowl-winning club, Clemons returns after two years in Jacksonville to serve as a role player as a pass rusher.
Once again in 2015 the Seahawks relied on the highly productive Steven Hauschka, who converted 93.5 percent of his field-goal attempts, and Jon Ryan, who averaged 45.5 yards per punt. The real boost, though, came from Lockett, who returned a kickoff and a punt each for touchdowns as a rookie and repeatedly supplied Seattle with great field position.
The Seahawks remain one of the NFL’s heavyweight teams. Their defense doesn’t give up much, and Wilson is extremely hard to contain. Seattle also has a more favorable schedule with fewer early games on the East Coast than usual. There’s a lot to like about these guys, but the bottom line is this: The Seahawks have serious questions across the offensive line. Can Gilliam become an adequate left tackle? Can the rookies make a smooth transition to the starting lineup? This team is likely playoff bound again, but considering the uncertainty up front, a Super Bowl return is probably too much to ask.
Prediction: 2nd in NFC West
As has been the case in recent seasons, the race for the top overall spot on fantasy football big boards is wide open. Last year, Le’Veon Bell’s two-game suspension resulted in owners of the No. 1 pick to at least think twice before taking the All-Pro running back.
This season Bell is back in the conversation but may not be the safest choice considering he’s returning from a serious knee injury. In fact, when the question “Who would you take with the No. 1 pick in a fantasy draft” was posed to several Athlon Sports editors and fantasy football contributors, only one said it would be Bell. Three other backs besides Bell got a vote but it was another Steeler at a different position who led the way. Read who each picked and why and see if you agree or disagree.
Antonio Brown for No. 1
While I’m certainly not a huge believer in the Zero RB Theory, Brown stands above all other players because of his consistency, age, offense, quarterback and the fact that no running back enters the 2016 season without a couple of questions surrounding him. Brown had nearly 200 targets last year and hasn’t missed a game since 2012. Whether Le’Veon Bell plays or doesn’t play, Brown gets his targets, yards and touchdowns. Not since the early ’90s, when Jerry Rice was at his peak, has a wide receiver been a serious No. 1 pick candidate. — David Gonos, SoCalledFantasyExperts.com
Antonio Brown for No. 1
I resisted last year, to my own detriment. Now it’s too clear to deny: Brown’s the guy. Heading into just his age-28 season, the Steelers’ leading man has paced the league in receptions for two straight years. He has caught at least five passes in 48 of 50 games since the start of 2013, including the playoffs. Brown has racked up 678 more receiving yards over the past three years than anyone else in the league. He delivered in 2015 despite losing Ben Roethlisberger for four games. Now Martavis Bryant’s suspension leaves targets on the field, and Le’Veon Bell’s questionable for Week 1. All the more reason for Pittsburgh — and you — to target Brown. — Matt Schauf, DraftSharks.com
Antonio Brown for No. 1
I know it’s a boring pick, but if you’re drafting No. 1 overall, do you really trust anyone else with the pick? All Brown does is produce, and most importantly, he’s consistent. Just look at his stats over the past three seasons — he just keeps getting better and better, and he’s still only 27. Last year he averaged 15.4 fantasy points per game (standard scoring), and with the Steelers’ high-octane offense, there is a very good chance that Brown breaks the all-time NFL single-season receptions mark of 143 and goes over 2,000 receiving yards. Picking Brown No. 1 overall should be the easiest decision anyone has to make in any fantasy draft this year. — Michael Horvath, AtlhonSports.com, fantasy football contributor
Antonio Brown for No. 1
Antonio Brown was my No. 1 pick last year and he remains so this year. With a healthier Le'Veon Bell back and Martavis Bryant facing a year-long suspension this once again opens the door for the most unstoppable wide receiver in the game. Receptions, yardage and touchdowns? Check. Check. Check. — Chris Meyers, AthlonSports.com fantasy football contributor
Adrian Peterson for No. 1
Last year, Peterson was arguably the No. 1 pick in fantasy drafts. In standard scoring, he finished second out of all running backs in terms of fantasy points (short by four to Devonta Freeman). With position scarcity at running back, it is important with the first pick to grab someone who is as close to a sure thing as possible. He doesn’t have the injury history of some of the other top backs (Le’Veon Bell, Jamaal Charles), and he is on a team in which he is the bell-cow back, something that is rare now. While the argument can be made to take a wide receiver with the first pick, the wide receiver position extends deeper than running back. — Sarah Lewis, AthlonSports.com fantasy football contributor
David Johnson for No. 1
This has to be the most wide-open draft board in the history of fantasy football. In a PPR league, I’d lean Antonio Brown or Julio Jones as my top pick. In a two-QB league, I’d lean Cam Newton or Aaron Rodgers with my first overall selection. But in traditional formats — and because dependable value at the position continues to be more difficult to pinpoint — I’d still go with a running back. I’m taking David Johnson over Le’Veon Bell and Todd Gurley — both of whom have injury or suspension histories. Only four players in all the NFL scored more TDs than Johnson’s 13 last year, and he did that in only five starts. He caught 36 passes and posted 1,038 yards from scrimmage. His all-around game as the feature back in a loaded offense gives Johnson my nod for the top pick. — Braden Gall, Athlon Sports
Le’Veon Bell for No. 1
I suppose it’s understandable for a serious knee injury (torn MCL) to give you pause here. But seeing as Bell was tweeting videos of himself dunking basketballs in April, I am going to go ahead and assume he will be ready to roll come September. And that makes this an easy choice. Maybe a repeat of his 2014 numbers (2,215 yards from scrimmage, 11 TDs) is unlikely. But last season in about five and a half games he still averaged 115 yards from scrimmage and scored three times — without injured Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey and without Ben Roethlisberger for four of those games. Bell is healthy again. Roethlisberger and Pouncey are healthy again. Bell’s numbers will be healthy again as well. — John Gworek, Athlon Sports
Todd Gurley for No. 1
Coming back from a torn ACL, Gurley didn’t play until Week 3, and he still finished third in the league in rushing. In fact, if you throw out the three games where he had fewer than 10 carries, you get 1,037 yards at a better than five yards per carry over 10 games. Extrapolate those numbers over a full season and it equals more than 1,600 yards rushing with about 21 carries per game. Given the fact the Rams took quarterback Jared Goff with the No. 1 overall pick, it’s safe to assume that whoever is under center will be handing the ball off to Gurley a lot. Defenses may know what’s coming, but that was the case last year, and Gurley was still productive. Imagine what he will do with even more touches this season. — Mark Ross, Athlon Sports
Talk about your seismic shifts. In the span of barely a month, the Broncos went from champagne-soaked, confetti-covered Super Bowl champions to just another NFL team in desperate search of a quarterback.
Peyton Manning took his ball and his slew of NFL records and went home, and his would-be successor, Brock Osweiler, bolted for Houston via free agency. With Mark Sanchez, he of ESPN butt-fumble infamy, keeping the seat warm for No. 1 draft pick Paxton Lynch, the Broncos find themselves a team in transition. But that doesn’t mean they can’t return to the playoffs. Manning’s 55 touchdown passes in 2013? That’s ancient history in Denver. Armed with the league’s most dominant edge rushers and an all-world secondary, the Broncos will go old school in 2016, grinding out time and yardage in the running game and letting their defense steal the ball and control the game. According to no less an authority than Cam Newton, it’s a formula for success, even in today’s pass-giddy NFL.
GM John Elway tried to pry Colin Kaepernick away from the 49ers, but, in the end, he settled for Sanchez and drafted Lynch. The Broncos’ coaches love Lynch’s arm strength and his ability to extend plays outside the pocket, but he doesn’t figure to put either on display much, if at all, this season. That leaves Sanchez, whose job will be to keep his hands on the ball, which will definitely be under the microscope following the surgery he had in May after injuring the thumb on his left (non-throwing) hand reportedly while lifting weights. Amazing as it seems for a team with a defense for the ages, the Broncos of 2015 finished minus-4 in turnovers, thanks to Manning’s league-worst 17 interceptions. They won’t tempt such fate again. Instead, they’ll rely on their running game and intermediate gains through the air.
|Head Coach||Gary Kubiak|
|Record With Team||12-4|
|Offensive Coordinator||Rick Dennison|
|Defensive Coordinator||Wade Phillips|
|Special Teams Coordinator||Joe DeCamillis|
|Running Backs||Eric Studesville|
|Wide Receivers||Tyke Tolbert|
|Tight Ends||Brian Pariani|
|Offensive Line||Clancy Barone|
|Defensive Line||Bill Kollar|
|Outside Linebackers||Fred Pagac|
|Defensive Backs||Joe Woods|
Gary Kubiak’s zone-blocking, run-oriented offense figures to create big chunks of yardage on the ground. Question is, who’ll be carrying the rock? The Broncos matched Miami’s offer sheet to retain C.J. Anderson, but he has yet to cobble together an injury-free, big-number season. Anderson will be challenged by Devontae Booker, a fourth-round steal from Utah who could emerge as this year’s top fantasy dark horse. Kubiak loves his one-cut-and-go style.
The good news for both is that Elway has patched up an offensive line that was among the worst in the league last season. He dipped into free agency for tackles Russell Okung and Donald Stephenson. If last year’s second-rounder, guard Ty Sambrailo, can bounce back from a season-ending injury, the line figures to be much more stable this time around.
Another huge plus for the offense: Former Ohio State tight end Jeff Heuerman, a third-rounder in 2015, is healthy. The coaches targeted Heuerman as a big factor in the passing game, only to see him blow out a knee on the first day of mini-camps. Look for him to emerge as a big-play receiver, taking some of the pressure off wideouts Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. Thomas will look to bounce back from a season defined as much by drops as touchdowns, and Sanders, arguably the best free-agent signee of the Elway era, is in a contract year.
Assuming you didn’t spend Super Sunday at the mall on a pre-Valentine’s Day shopping spree, you already know how dominant the Broncos’ pass rush is. Outside linebacker Von Miller is the single most dangerous edge rusher in the business, and his partner, future Hall of Famer DeMarcus Ware, is back for what could be his NFL swan song. But wait, there’s more. The Broncos have assembled nothing short of an embarrassment of riches on the corner. Backup outside linebackers Shane Ray and Shaquil Barrett would start and star for virtually every other NFL team.
There are questions on the defensive line in the aftermath of Malik Jackson’s free-agent exodus, but the coaches, specifically line coach Bill Kollar, believe rookie Adam Gotsis can step in and make an immediate impact. The Broncos still are waiting for nose tackle Sylvester Williams to play up to his status as a former No. 1 pick, but he’s at least serviceable.
The linebacking corps took a hit when Danny Trevathan hit the free-agent trail, but the team’s best inside backer, Brandon Marshall, is back and should be around for a while after signing a four-year, $32 million contract extension in June.
Then there’s the secondary. It doesn’t seem fair, a team with the Broncos’ pass rush having arguably the best corner tandem in the league. Chris Harris and Aqib Talib can cover with the best of them, and they’re ball hawks always in search of tipped balls or errant passes. Talib suffered a gunshot wound to his right leg in early June in an incident at a Dallas nightclub. While the injury isn’t believed serious it remains to be seen what charges Talib could be facing and any subsequent punishment from the league as a result.
Fortunately for the Broncos their cornerback depth goes beyond Harris and Talib. Former first-rounder Bradley Roby would be a fixture on most other teams, but in Denver he’s simply the best nickel back in the game. All three corners bring serious intangibles, too. They have a nasty streak that plays well against the run, not that the Broncos’ safeties, T.J. Ward and Darian Stewart, need much help in that department. Given the constant pressure applied by the edge rush, defensive coordinator Wade Phillips is comfortable taking Ward out of coverage and planting him in the box, making it virtually impossible to run against the Broncos.
Yes, the offense will rely on the defense to carry the load, but this group wouldn’t have it any other way.
When a team burns a draft pick on a punter, that’s not a good sign for the incumbent. That would be Britton Colquitt, once the highest-paid punter in the league who was forced to take a pay cut and, if he doesn’t perform in training camp, may be out of a job. The punting game figures to be a bigger factor for the Broncos this season than in recent years. With fewer big plays expected — or even attempted — in the passing game, the Broncos’ M.O. will be to control the ball with the running game, dominate and force turnovers on defense and win the field-position battle with the kicking game. Colquitt’s average kick in the past five seasons has dwindled from 47.4 yards to 43.6. If he doesn’t bounce back from another shaky season, the coaches won’t hesitate to give the gig to seventh-rounder Riley Dixon. Now for the good news: Kicker Brandon McManus is coming off an excellent season in which he converted 20 out of 20 inside the 40 and 5-of-7 from 50-plus.
Andre “Bubba” Caldwell signed with the Lions in free agency, leaving Sanders to handle return duties, at least for now. In a perfect world, a young player would emerge to return punts and relieve Sanders of some physical pounding.
Prediction: 2nd in AFC West
Kansas City closed 2015 on a team-record 10-game winning streak after a 1-5 start. The positive vibes even continued into the franchise’s least favorite month — January — with a 30-0 demolition of the Houston Texans during Wild Card weekend, the Chiefs’ first postseason victory since the winter of 1993-94.
It represented the club’s second playoff berth in three years under Andy Reid. But success led to noticeable staff upheaval for the first time in Reid’s AFC West tenure. Offensive coordinator Doug Pederson left for Philadelphia (and took quarterback Chase Daniel with him), with Brad Childress and Matt Nagy promoted to co-offensive coordinators in his stead.
On the plus side, more than a few familiar faces are back in the fold, including safety Eric Berry, who went from crushing cancer to cracking opposition receivers in miraculous time, and tailback Jamaal Charles, who tore his ACL in Week 5 against Chicago and returns to an offense that somehow managed to survive without him. With three out of the last four games scheduled for Arrowhead Drive — including a Christmas Day tussle with Denver — the Chiefs are poised (on paper) for another closing kick.
Kansas City went 11-1 in Charles’ absence and won its first playoff contest in a generation, showing that there might be life after No. 25. A transcendent talent — his 5.5 career average yards per carry ranks second among active players — and a red-zone magician when healthy, Charles turns 30 in December and is coming off his second major knee surgery in five years. Understudies Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware combined for 1,037 rushing yards and 11 TDs, and GM John Dorsey re-signed both, which means the Chiefs have serious depth — and, possibly, some very serious questions about their featured back going forward.
|Head Coach||Andy Reid|
|Record With Team||31-17|
|Asst. Head Coach/Wide Receivers||David Culley|
|Co-Offensive Coordinator||Brad Childress|
|Co-Offensive Coordinator||Matt Nagy|
|Defensive Coordinator||Bob Sutton|
|Special Teams Coordinator||Dave Toub|
|Running Backs||Eric Bieniemy|
|Tight Ends||Tom Melvin|
|Offensive Line||Andy Heck|
|Defensive Line||Britt Reid|
|Defensive Backs||Emmitt Thomas|
The legs that helped to pick up much of the slack with Charles’ absence belonged to quarterback Alex Smith, who set career highs at age 31 in rushes (84), rushing yards (498) and yards per carry (5.9) while continuing to move the chains and play it safe. Smart, athletic and risk-averse, Smith continues to give both his fans and critics fresh material.
The veteran built an almost instant rapport with new wideout Jeremy Maclin, who caught eight TDs (after the Chiefs had zero TDs from their wide receivers in 2014) and synced with Smith well enough to turn 49 of his 87 catches (56.3 percent) into first downs. The Chiefs raced to sign the former University of Missouri standout as their new No. 1 wideout, to the point the NFL accused the franchise of tampering in their contact during the ’15 free agency period, charges that cost the club a third-round pick this spring. Tight end Travis Kelce continues to improve his ball protection while remaining a matchup nightmare up the seam. The search for a consistent threat at the No. 2 wideout spot will likely continue through the late summer.
Left tackle Eric Fisher offered glimpses of the ceiling hoped for as the No. 1 overall pick in 2013 — enough that the Chiefs picked up his fifth-year option. Mitch Morse, a collegiate tackle, made a solid transition to NFL center and looks to be an anchor. Underrated Mitchell Schwartz signed as a free agent to shore up what had been a shaky rotation at right tackle. The number of sacks allowed dipped slightly last fall (from 49 to 46), although Smith’s legs have helped to cover for some of the unit’s shakier moments.
Bookend outside linebackers Justin Houston and Tamba Hali are both recovering from recent knee surgeries, casting doubt on the defense’s most assured asset — its pass-rushing prowess. Dorsey expects Houston to be back at full strength by training camp. Hali, who turns 33 in the fall, had surgery to repair a broken thumb and is coming off a season in which he failed to reach double digits in sacks (6.5) for the third time in four years. Houston’s health puts even more onus on former first-round selection Dee Ford, who took a decent step forward in his second season (four sacks) but will need to take another.
The Chiefs came out of the spring with fewer concerns at inside linebacker, save for Derrick Johnson’s age — the club’s all-time leading tackler turns 34 in November — and the matter of an eventual succession plan. Johnson missed all but the first two quarters of the 2014 season with a torn Achilles and spent last year playing as if he was making up for lost time (116 tackles, four sacks, two picks). Up front, the Chiefs lost one of their better veteran stoppers in defensive end Mike DeVito, who retired in April at age 31. Jaye Howard developed into a rotation standout in place of the injured Dontari Poe on the interior and a good partner with the underrated Allen Bailey at end (4.5 sacks).
Berry made a heartwarming return less than eight months after being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The Georgia native almost picked right back up where he left off (61 tackles, 10 passed defended, two interceptions) en route to a Pro Bowl (his fourth) and NFL Comeback Player of the Year honors. No. 29’s return solidifies a secondary that has to reload after veteran Sean Smith left for Oakland and safety Husain Abdullah retired. Marcus Peters was an impact rookie, picking off eight balls, breaking up 18 others and returning two picks for scores. He helped the Chiefs lead the AFC in turnover margin (plus-14). Smith’s departure opens a door for cornerback Phillip Gaines, who showed promise before falling to a season-ending knee injury after three games.
The Chiefs’ favorite returns weapon, speedster De’Anthony Thomas, is now a what-if; the former Oregon Duck (7.8 yards per punt runback) was placed on the reserve/non-football illness in late December. In the spring, Dorsey was reportedly shopping kick returner/running back Knile Davis (25.1 yards per return), who found himself marginalized largely to special-teams appearances despite Charles’ early-season injury. Maclin and Frankie Hammond can return punts in a pinch, and the drafting of return man Tyreek Hill might not portend well for the short-term futures of either Thomas or Davis. Veteran punter Dustin Colquitt (44.4 per attempt) still has the kind of leg you can set your watch to. And young kicker Cairo Santos is hoping for slightly less work and even more consistency.
Is it time for a new sheriff in the AFC West? The Chiefs seem poised to step into the divisional breach, although Denver’s defense will have something to say about that. If 2015’s schedule was weird and winding, with a November “home” game in London keeping the club away from Arrowhead for more than a month, then 2016’s dance card is more straightforward — though no less challenging. Smith and Johnson aren’t getting any younger, so time is of the essence. If the Chiefs can match the ball-hawking form they showcased the second half of last season, that time might be now.
Prediction: 1st in the AFC West
Coach Jack Del Rio took over a Raiders team last year that was coming off a 3–13 season and more than doubled that win total, finishing 7–9. The Raiders haven’t made the playoffs or finished above .500 since 2002 when they reached Super Bowl XXXVII and lost to Tampa Bay. But expectations are soaring in Oakland this year, and a return to the postseason and double-digit wins appear to be reasonable goals instead of pipe dreams.
Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie, who took the job in 2012, had a slow start but has hit his stride, adding elite talent through the draft and free agency. In 2014, he used the fifth overall pick for Khalil Mack, who had 15 sacks last year and earned All-Pro honors at defensive end and outside linebacker. McKenzie found a franchise quarterback in the second round that year, taking Derek Carr. He added wide receiver Amari Cooper last year with the fourth overall pick. Carr and Cooper joined Mack, running back Latavius Murray, fullback Marcel Reece and safety Charles Woodson, who has since retired, at the Pro Bowl.
McKenzie had a strong free-agent haul this year, adding offensive guard Kelechi Osemele, cornerback Sean Smith, outside linebacker Bruce Irvin and safety Reggie Nelson.
“On paper it looks great,” Carr said when the Raiders began their offseason workouts in Alameda. “We don’t want to be paper champs. We’ve got some good guys, but none of that matters unless we put the work in. Everything can look good in theory and in practice it all falls apart. As a leader of this team, I’m going to concentrate on pushing to get better every day.”
The Raiders made big strides on offense last season and should be even better this year in Carr’s third NFL campaign and second under offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave. The Raiders went from last in total offense to 24th, from 31st in scoring to 17th, from 26th in passing to 16th and from last in rushing to 28th. Carr took full advantage of an upgraded receiving corps, passing for 3,987 yards and 32 touchdowns with only 13 interceptions.
|Head Coach||Jack Del Rio|
|Record With Team||7-9|
|Offensive Coordinator||Bill Musgrave|
|Defensive Coordinator||Ken Norton Jr.|
|Special Teams Coordinator||Brad Seely|
|Running Backs||Bernie Parmalee|
|Wide Receivers||Rob Moore|
|Tight Ends||Bobby Johnson|
|Offensive Line||Mike Tice|
|Defensive Line||Jethro Franklin|
|Defensive Backs||Marcus Robertson|
Cooper became Oakland’s first 1,000-yard receiver since Randy Moss in 2005, grabbing 72 passes for 1,070 yards and six touchdowns. Michael Crabtree had 85 catches for 922 yards and nine touchdowns after signing as a free agent. Tight end Clive Walford, a third-round pick from Miami in 2015, was slowed by injuries early in the season but came on strong and appears ready for a bigger role. He reportedly suffered a gash to a knee in an ATV accident during the offseason but is expected to be ready for training camp. The Raiders have depth at the position with Lee Smith, who’s primarily a blocker, and Mychal Rivera, a skilled receiver.
The Raiders enter 2016 with what appears to be one of the NFL’s best offensive lines, a big, powerful group that McKenzie has put together through the draft and free agency. The Raiders re-signed left tackle Donald Penn and added Osemele, a former Raven. Guard Gabe Jackson, a third-round pick in 2014, has been a starter since Game 1 of his rookie season. McKenzie signed former Chiefs center Rodney Hudson as a free agent last season. Penn, Osemele, Jackson and Hudson are locks to start. Austin Howard, a free-agent pickup in 2014, and Menelik Watson, a second-round pick in 2013, will compete for the starting job at right tackle.
Murray rushed for 1,066 yards and six touchdowns and averaged 4.0 yards per carry in his first season as a full-time starter. He made strides, but the Raiders averaged only 91.1 rushing yards per game, and Murray had too many games in which he all but disappeared. DeAndre Washington, a fifth-round pick from Texas Tech, could give Oakland an explosive option on third downs.
Khalil Mack is already a superstar. He became the first player in NFL history last year to be named All-Pro at two positions — outside linebacker and defensive end. After having four sacks as a rookie, Mack racked up 15 last year, finishing second in the NFL behind Houston’s J.J. Watt (17.5). He’s been an extraordinary run stuffer since his rookie year, but Del Rio and defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. gave him more time as an edge rusher last season, and he took his game to another level.
Mack needs help, so McKenzie signed Irvin, Nelson and Sean Smith. He also re-signed outside linebacker Aldon Smith. Smith has 44 career sacks, but he is serving a one-year suspension for violating the NFL’s policy on substance abuse and won’t be eligible to be reinstated until mid-November. Irvin gives the Raiders another dangerous edge pass rusher to pair with Mack.
The Raiders boast a pair of big, physical tackles in Justin Ellis and Dan Williams, who came to the Raiders last season from Arizona as a free agent. They appeared to be set at right end with Mario Edwards Jr., a second-round draft pick last year, but his rookie season was cut short by a neck injury, and it’s not known whether he’ll be able to play this year.
Weak-side linebacker Malcolm Smith, a free-agent pickup last year, had a solid season, and second-year pro Ben Heeney likely will start at middle linebacker after taking veteran Curtis Lofton’s starting job midway through last season. Lofton was released in March.
The Raiders likely will have three new starters in the secondary, which lost Woodson, the heart and soul of the defense the past three seasons. McKenzie signed Nelson and Sean Smith as free agents and used a first-round pick on hard-hitting West Virginia safety Karl Joseph. All three likely will start along with cornerback David Amerson, the lone holdover. Nelson tied for the league lead in interceptions last season with eight and made the Pro Bowl for the first time. Smith gives the Raiders an upgrade at one corner spot. Amerson started 12 games after the Raiders claimed him off waivers on Sept. 22 from Washington, which drafted him in the second round in 2013. Former Eagles safety Nate Allen, who missed 11 games last season with a knee injury, could compete for a starting job if he’s healthy. TJ Carrie, who spent time at safety and cornerback last season, adds versatility and depth.
Punter Marquette King has become a valuable weapon for the Raiders since replacing Shane Lechler in 2013, and the team rewarded him with a five-year, $16.5 million contract. Last season he averaged 44.5 yards per punt with a franchise-record 40 downed inside the opponent’s 20. Kicker Sebastian Janikowski made 80.8 percent of his field-goal attempts (21-of-26), down from 86.4 percent (19-of-22) in 2014. But Janikowski, who turned 38 on March 2, still has a big leg. The Raiders didn’t return a punt or kickoff for a touchdown, but Taiwan Jones averaged 26.7 yards on 31 kickoff returns with a long of 70.
The Raiders won’t sneak up on anyone this year. If they can handle life in the spotlight, they have enough talent to end their 14-year playoff drought. They play three of their first four games on the road, including trips to New Orleans and Baltimore, and it will be crucial for them to get through that stretch without too much damage.
Prediction: 3rd in the AFC West
After the ugliness of the Chargers’ attempted move to Los Angeles, 2016 will be the most pivotal year in franchise history. After agreeing to stay in San Diego at least one more year rather than join the Rams in L.A., the Chargers are attempting to qualify a ballot initiative for the No. 8 election to raise hotel taxes to help pay for a $1.8 billion stadium-convention center annex. The Chargers will play eight games before Election Day.
Everyone knows that San Diego likes a winner, and the team is hoping a strong start will help convince voters to support its plan. Victory at the polls would solve the long, bitter attempt to replace aging Qualcomm Stadium. Defeat could hasten the Chargers’ exit, if they’re willing to play at the Los Angeles Coliseum for two seasons before joining the Rams in Inglewood in 2019.
It’s hard to imagine a team led by Philip Rivers finishing 4-12 and going winless in the AFC West, but that’s what happened. In short, everybody has to play better, starting with the line. The blocking was ineffective, and the starters couldn’t stay healthy. The Chargers didn’t select a left tackle in the draft, in part because they had given King Dunlap an extension a year ago and extended right tackle Joe Barksdale this offseason.
|Head Coach||Mike McCoy|
|Record With Team||22-26|
|Offensive Coordinator||Ken Whisenhunt|
|Defensive Coordinator||John Pagano|
|Special Teams Coordinator||Craig Aukerman|
|Running Backs||Ollie Wilson|
|Wide Receivers||Nick Sirianni|
|Tight Ends||John McNulty|
|Offensive Line||Jeff Davidson|
|Defensive Line||Giff Smith|
|Defensive backs||Ron Milus|
The Chargers will have to quickly solve the mystery of their 2015 first-round draft pick, running back Melvin Gordon, who failed to score a touchdown or record a 100-yard game before missing the final two games with a knee injury. Gordon reportedly underwent microfracture surgery on his knee in January but maintains he will be ready for preseason camp. Gordon showed flashes of the back he was at Wisconsin, but a lot of his problem was simply a lack of good blocking. Perhaps conveniently, the Chargers drafted his Badgers fullback, Derek Watt, the younger brother of Texans star J.J. Watt, hoping they could rekindle their college chemistry.
One training camp battle will be at center, where USC’s Max Tuerk, a third-round draft pick, and free-agent signee Matt Slauson are added to the mix with veterans Chris Watt and Trevor Robinson. Watt missed the second half of the season with a shoulder injury. Tuerk comes in after missing the Trojans’ final nine games with a knee injury. When he’s finished his rehab, he’ll join the competition for the starting spot.
The Chargers will benefit greatly from the return of star wide receiver Keenan Allen, who missed the final eight games with a lacerated kidney. How good is Allen? His 67 catches through eight games were the third-most in NFL history. Despite missing the final eight games, he still finished second on the team with those 67 catches, for 725 yards and four touchdowns. He was voted the team’s Offensive Player of the Year and in June signed a four-year contract extension worth $45 million.
While Allen returns, Rivers lost one of his favorite receivers when Malcom Floyd, a deep-ball threat, retired. San Diego will replace Floyd with Travis Benjamin. When Benjamin signed with the Chargers as a free agent from Cleveland, he said the main attraction was the chance to catch passes from Rivers. He’ll also be tapped to help bolster the return game.
San Diego has loaded up with tight ends, including drafting Arkansas’ Hunter Henry. Star tight end Antonio Gates was given a two-year contract extension, assuring that he will retire as a Charger. Gates is still pursuing that ever-elusive Super Bowl championship and is looking to play a full season after missing the first four games of 2015 due to a PED suspension.
After purging most of the offensive coaching staff, including offensive coordinator Frank Reich, the Chargers brought back Ken Whisenhunt as coordinator. Whisenhunt held that job with San Diego in 2013 before being hired as Tennessee’s head coach. He was fired by the Titans after a 1-6 start in 2015. During his first tenure as coordinator, Whisenhunt was instrumental in helping Rivers bounce back from a few rough seasons.
Whisenhunt also will get the chance to work with another of his former players in quarterback Zach Mettenberger, whom the Chargers claimed on waivers after the Titans released him in May. Mettenberger, who went 0-10 as the starter in Tennessee in 2014-15, will battle veteran Kellen Clemens for the backup job.
It’s out with safety Eric Weddle and in with defensive end Joey Bosa. The Chargers move on from their messy separation with Weddle, one of their undisputed leaders, and begin what they hope is a long run with Bosa giving them some long-lacking punch up front. While most observers thought the Chargers would use the No. 3 overall draft pick on a left tackle or a flashy pick such as Jalen Ramsey, they took Bosa, the former Ohio State star whose father, John, was a first-round pick of the Miami Dolphins in 1987. Bosa is described as being all football, all the time. He’ll be asked to do it all, from boosting the often-anemic pass rush to helping stop the run.
There are other reasons for optimism on defense. That hope centers around a young nucleus that includes cornerback Jason Verrett and linebackers Jerry Attaochu, Kyle Emanuel and yes, Manti Te’o. San Diego needs to continue the momentum developed on defense late in the season, when it did its job by holding division rivals Denver and Kansas City to 10 offensive points on consecutive Sundays, only to watch the offense fail to fire. Verrett has become one of the game’s top young ball-hawking corners, as evidenced by his interception of Kansas City’s Alex Smith that halted the quarterback’s streak of 312 attempts without a pickoff. Despite his small size, Verrett has more than held his own against opponents’ top wideouts. After his rookie season was cut short by injury, he benefited from a full 2015. Denzel Perryman and Attaochu need to continue to develop into the kind of thumpers that Donald Butler failed to be after he signed a long-term deal. Butler was released in the offseason.
The Chargers went the free-agent route to continue to punch up the defense, adding nose tackle Brandon Mebane and free safety Dwight Lowery, who has been penciled into the spot vacated by Weddle. The Chargers hope to get from Mebane the kind of disruptive force they really haven’t had inside since nose tackle Jamal Williams left after the 2009 season. Cornerback Brandon Flowers has to reappear after going MIA following a multi-year deal.
The Chargers have gotten younger — and cheaper — at punter and kicker. Mike Scifres, who had been with the team since 2003, was released after the Chargers drafted Drew Kaser out of Texas A&M. While hailing Scifres as perhaps the best punter in franchise history, the Chargers are moving on because of the veteran’s sub-par 2015 performance. Kaser joins fellow Aggie Josh Lambo, a younger and cheaper replacement in 2015 for Nick Novak. Lambo made 26-of-32 attempts, including a long of 54. He made 28-of-32 extra points.
The Chargers think so much of coach Mike McCoy that they gave him a contract extension through 2017 while firing most of his offensive staff. McCoy, known for his conservative bent and clock-management issues, is 22–26 in three seasons, with a playoff victory and loss in his rookie season of 2013. With only one playoff appearance in the last six seasons, the biggest improvement has to come in division play, where the Chargers have only two wins the last two years. If anything carries the Chargers to the playoffs, it will be the will of Rivers and Gates. Otherwise, this could be the Bolts’ last hurrah in San Diego.
Prediction: 4th in AFC West
At first Dan Quinn made it look too easy. The former Seattle defensive coordinator stepped straight from a Super Bowl defense to a 5–0 start as a rookie head coach. Every move made to fix the floundering Falcons worked — until nothing could go right.
The 2015 Falcons caught up with their problems in the back end of the season, becoming the seventh team since the merger to miss the playoffs after starting 5–0. As strong as Atlanta looked out of the gate, no one was immune down the stretch. Even three-time Pro Bowl quarterback Matt Ryan melted with a series of late-game turnovers.
Year 2 for Quinn is in some ways a reverse of the problem he was hired to fix for the franchise: Continue to improve a steadily rebuilding defense, and fix a crisis on offense. Whatever broke the formerly unflappable Ryan has to be addressed if Atlanta wants to find the playoffs.
Quinn is now more involved in the draft process, and there are bright spots — namely, Devonta Freeman and Julio Jones — but the Falcons have to build around their stars, something they’ve never succeeded at doing in the Thomas Dimitroff era. There’s no better example of “feast or famine” than 5–0 giving way to 3–8.
As a former defensive coordinator, Quinn was hired to overhaul a terrible Falcons defense. His choice for offensive coordinator may have temporarily broken the offense, though.
|Head Coach||Dan Quinn|
|Record With Team||8-8|
|Asst. Head Coach/Wide Receivers||Raheem Morris|
|Offensive Coordinator||Kyle Shanahan|
|Defensive Coordinator||Richard Smith|
|Special Teams Coordinator||Keith Armstrong|
|Running Backs||Bobby Turner|
|Tight Ends||Wade Harman|
|Offensive Line||Chris Morgan|
|Defensive Line||Bryan Cox|
|Secondary/Sr. Defensive Assistant||Marquand Manuel|
Kyle Shanahan overhauled Atlanta’s offensive line, installed the same zone-blocking system his father made famous in Denver, and the Falcons discovered their best rushing attack in years, led by Freeman (1,056 yards rushing, 11 TDs).
Everything clicked in September, but Ryan’s decision-making and late-game play dipped well below expectations. Ryan had four interceptions during the 5–0 start and 12 during the 3–8 finish. Atlanta lost five games by four points or fewer, and three of them — New Orleans, Tampa Bay and Indianapolis — ended in Ryan interceptions.
Critics point to Ryan’s lack of comfort in the new system, but killer turnovers came when he forced passes into coverage. This is the hottest debate among Falcons fans: Was Ryan’s 2015 a result of unfamiliarity with plays, a shaky offensive line or just a lot of bad decisions?
Jones is one of the league’s top playmakers and unquestionably Ryan’s top target, but then what? Depth is sketchy: Atlanta let Harry Douglas leave in 2015, and the Leonard Hankerson experiment was a bust. Future Falcons Ring of Honor inductee Roddy White clashed with Shanahan over targets, and the coordinator won a nasty locker room feud. White was cut, and in a thin market for receivers, free agent Mohamed Sanu was signed to a noticeably large $32.5 million deal for a clear-cut No. 2 receiver. Second-year wideout Justin Hardy will have to contribute after struggling in his rookie season. When healthy, Devin Hester has been a solid option in the slot but isn’t a reliable every-down receiver. Tight end Jacob Tamme has reinvigorated his career in Atlanta, thanks in part to Jones drawing the attention of defenses.
Free agent center Alex Mack might be the important signing of the offseason. He’ll bring instant stability to a position and unit that stumbled in transitioning to the zone concept. Atlanta’s front office has failed this position group the most, but Jake Matthews and Ryan Schraeder could emerge as one of the best tackle tandems in the league. Ryan has been sacked at least 30 times each of the last three years.
Freeman can be a true primary back if healthy, but he’ll need to be able to share carries with Tevin Coleman, who struggled with ball control in his rookie season. Coleman is a burner with breakaway ability but fumbled away big gains in three of Atlanta’s close losses. Whether it’s Coleman or someone else, the coaches need to trust a second option to preserve Freeman’s health: The Falcons averaged 129 rushing yards per game in their 6–1 start and 83 in the 2–5 collapse after their Nov. 15 bye. The wear of a full season is harder than ever on running backs.
Quinn’s overhaul of the Falcons defense didn’t yield much in Year 1: Atlanta managed only 19 sacks in 2015, dead last in the league. First-round pick Vic Beasley played with nagging injuries surrounded by temporary solutions who wore down or busted outright. That’s earned Beasley “bust” status among some media, but Falcons coaches are publicly excited about moving him around in different fronts to maximize his pass-rush ability.
Years of bad free-agent signings and scheme changes that preceded the current coaching staff have produced a “superstar-or-scrub” look to this defense, but if there’s a single point of focus, it’s most certainly the pass rush. Atlanta signed end Derrick Shelby in free agency, but he is valued more his for his ability to set the edge and work the run game. Legacy Falcon Grady Jarrett, son of famous Falcon Jessie Tuggle, will enter 2016 camp as the starting nose tackle after a surprising rookie year. Adrian Clayborn was re-signed to mirror Beasley at defensive end on passing downs, and Ra’Shede Hageman has shown flashes of brilliance at tackle — when he’s not fighting his coaches.
It’s easier to see improvement on the line, if only because the linebacking corps is still a mess. Justin Durant was a bust signing, and if Brooks Reed can’t overcome a groin injury and hold down the outside backer slot, he’ll likely be gone after this season. Courtney Upshaw was brought in to provide support against the run, and Atlanta drafted two speedy linebackers — LSU’s Deion Jones and Minnesota’s De’Vondre Campbell — to build depth and the athleticism a Quinn defense needs up the middle.
Desmond Trufant is secretly one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL, a secret likely to stay that way because of the lack of complementary pieces around him. The corner allowed a completion percentage below 60 percent for the third consecutive year, according to Pro Football Focus. Jalen Collins will sit for four games for a PED violation, meaning depth behind Robert Alford is scary thin. Atlanta used a first-round pick on Florida safety Keanu Neal to replace released veteran William Moore.
After a Pro Bowl season in 2014, the 33-year-old Hester enters 2016 on a one-year, $3 million deal, and Atlanta’s pick of UCLA receiver Devin Fuller could be the end of Hester’s Falcons career if he can’t show he’s fully recovered from a turf toe injury.
Matt Bryant is a legend, but the 41-year-old is coming off his worst season in years. Atlanta signed Texas kicker Nick Rose to compete in camp. Punter Matt Bosher is among the league’s best, averaging over a 40-yard net in each of the last four seasons.
Atlanta might have the largest distance between its floor and ceiling in the NFL. Quinn’s overhaul of the defense should create at least a marginal improvement in the pass rush. And if Ryan returns to form under Shanahan, the Falcons’ offense could carry them to a Wild Card berth. But if the defense can’t generate pressure, and Ryan can’t jell with his new offensive coordinator, Atlanta could win fewer than four games.
Prediction: 3rd in NFC South
Can the Carolina Panthers possibly be that good again? That’s the overriding question for a team that won 17 games in 2015, flirted with an undefeated regular season, employed the NFL’s Most Valuable Player and won the NFC Championship Game by an astonishing 34 points before falling to Denver in the Super Bowl.
It is hard to imagine another 15-1 regular season given the Panthers’ schedule, which starts with a Super Bowl rematch at Denver. But Carolina still has the league’s reigning MVP in Cam Newton and one of the NFL’s best defensive players in middle linebacker Luke Kuechly.
The Panthers let cornerback Josh Norman walk, but virtually every other key piece is back from a team that led the NFL in total points, interceptions and total takeaways last season. Carolina will clearly be the favorite to win the NFC South for the fourth year in a row and will have a decent shot at returning to the Super Bowl.
It all starts with Newton, who has emerged as one of the top players in the league. Even without his top receiver Kelvin Benjamin (torn ACL) in 2015, Newton accounted for 45 touchdowns (35 pass, 10 run) and directed the Panthers to an NFL-high 31.2 points per game. He gets Benjamin back this season, giving Newton one more big red-zone target on an offense that otherwise returns basically intact.
|Head Coach||Ron Rivera|
|Record With Team||47-32-1|
|Assistant Head Coach/Secondary||Steve Wilks|
|Offensive Coordinator||Mike Shula|
|Defensive Coordinator||Sean McDermott|
|Special Teams Coordinator||Bruce DeHaven|
|Running Game Coordinator||John Matsko|
|Running Backs||Jim Skipper|
|Wide Receivers||Ricky Proehl|
|Tight Ends||Pete Hoener|
|Offensive Line||Ray Brown|
|Defensive Line||Eric Washington|
What Newton did last season was spread the ball beautifully around an average corps of wide receivers. He will need to maintain that mentality in 2016, because the quarterback can understandably have a tendency to throw toward Benjamin or Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen in every difficult situation. Those two will remain Newton’s top targets, but wide receivers Ted Ginn (a career-high 10 TDs in 2015) and Philly Brown add the needed speed element. Second-year man Devin Funchess dropped too many balls as a rookie but came on late in the year and has a chance to start at the No. 2 receiver position.
The Panthers rushed for at least 100 yards in every game in 2015, and the most predictable part of every Carolina game is running back Jonathan Stewart getting the ball on the first offensive snap. The Panthers love to get Stewart — who made his first Pro Bowl in 2015 — going early. He is a hard, physical but somewhat injury-prone runner. The Panthers would like Cameron Artis-Payne to emerge as the clear No. 2 back in his second season out of Auburn, because there are typically going to be a couple of games that Stewart can’t play. Bowling ball fullback Mike Tolbert is an underrated receiver out of the backfield and good in short-yardage situations, although no one is better than Newton on third-and-1. Carolina’s greatest fear would be a season-ending injury to Newton; backup Derek Anderson is an accurate passer, but he doesn’t bring the running dimension that Newton does.
The offensive line benefits from Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil’s steady leadership and has a rising star in steamrolling guard Trai Turner. Left tackle Michael Oher enjoyed a career rebirth in 2015, which resulted in him signing a three-year contract extension on June 17 that is worth $21.6 million in new money ($9.5 million guaranteed). The weakest part of the line was obvious in the past Super Bowl, when right tackle Mike Remmers allowed Von Miller to have his way with Newton and turn the entire game with two strip-sacks that ultimately accounted for 15 of Denver’s 24 points. The Panthers believe Remmers is good enough to hold the fort, though, and plan to start him again.
The Panthers are pretty good everywhere, but the strength of their defense is No. 58 and No. 59. Thomas Davis and Kuechly form the best linebacker tandem in football, making one potential big gain after another evaporate with their side-to-side speed and instincts. While Kuechly has the better first step and recognizes what the opposing quarterback is trying to do as well as anyone, Davis plays on instincts and is a huge hitter. Both are strong in pass coverage (four INTs apiece in 2015) and never come off the field; Davis even played in the Super Bowl with a broken arm. Kuechly had offseason shoulder surgery but should be fine for training camp.
Carolina at first stuck a franchise tag on Norman and then let him walk in the offseason, a controversial move that will be debated throughout the year as the Panthers attempt to find a replacement. General manager Dave Gettleman picked three consecutive cornerbacks in the 2016 draft, and coach Ron Rivera may be forced start one of them. James Bradberry or Daryl Worley are the leading candidates but would have to beat out Robert McClain — a late-season pickup in 2015 who played decently throughout the playoff run. Bene Benwikere will inherit the No. 1 cornerback role, but the Panthers will play a lot of Cover-2 throughout the season to make sure their young and inexperienced corps doesn’t get exposed too badly. Nickel corner Brandon Boykin will help inside.
Where the Panthers put their money on defense is primarily in the front seven. “Big men allow you to compete,” Gettleman often says, quoting his former mentor Tom Coughlin, and so the Panthers are constantly restocking 320-pounders. Kawann Short has become a star — he had 11 sacks in 2015, which was a team record for a defensive tackle. He got a number of those because fellow tackle Star Lotulelei was taking on two blockers and doing a lot of the dirty work inside. Defensive end Charles Johnson did the Panthers a favor by re-signing with the team for substantially less money than he could have made elsewhere. No. 1 draft pick Vernon Butler and free-agent pickup Paul Soliai will join the rotation at tackle right away. Kony Ealy has been an off-and-on player in his career, but his upside is huge. Ealy’s three-sack, two-turnover game in the Super Bowl against Peyton Manning likely would have won him MVP honors had Carolina won.
Carolina is trying to save money in the defensive backfield, where Kurt Coleman and Tre Boston are both playing under modest contracts at safety. Boston is fast and Coleman is a ball hawk (seven INTs in ’15), but the secondary will need a strong pass rush to help it out in 2016.
Graham Gano has one of the NFL’s strongest legs and set a team record for points (146) in 2015, but the Panthers have to get better at protecting him. Four of Gano’s six misses last season were blocked. The Panthers will have a new punter — either Swayze Waters or former Charger Mike Scifres. Ginn is still fast and remains a fine punt returner, while backup running back Fozzy Whittaker is just an average kickoff returner. Long snapper J.J. Jansen is automatic.
Carolina hasn’t changed much from the team that made the last Super Bowl. As long as Newton and Kuechly stay healthy, it’s hard to imagine that the Panthers won’t make the playoffs. How far they go will depend on whether the revamped secondary can hold its own and if Newton can continue to be the best player on the field like he was for most of last season.
Prediction: 1st in NFC South
We know the New Orleans Saints can amass yards and points. What we don’t know is if they can stop anyone from doing the same.
Defense will once again determine the Saints’ season, as it seemingly has every year in the Sean Payton-Drew Brees era. The responsibility for improving the league’s 31st-ranked unit falls on Dennis Allen, the fifth defensive coordinator in Payton’s 11-year tenure. If he can push the right buttons and find a young edge rusher to provide consistent pressure on the perimeter, the Saints should start winning more of the shootouts they regularly wage on Sundays, because the offense once again looks dynamic.
Brees continues to defy defenses and Father Time. At 37, he’s coming off one of the best seasons of his stellar career and remains the Saints’ biggest offensive weapon. He does his best work before the snap, reading defenses and beating coverages with his quick release and uncanny accuracy. As long as the offensive line gives him time, another big season is in the works.
|Head Coach||Sean Payton|
|Record With Team||87-57|
|Asst. Head Coach/Linebackers||Joe Vitt|
|Asst. Head Coach/Tight Ends||Dan Campbell|
|Offensive Coordinator||Pete Carmichael|
|Defensive Coordinator||Dennis Allen|
|Special Teams Coordinator||Greg McMahon|
|Running Backs||Joel Thomas|
|Wide Receivers||John Morton|
|Offensive Line||Dan Roushar|
|Defensive Line||Bill Johnson|
|Defensive Backs||Aaron Glenn|
On paper, this looks like the best receiving corps Brees has had since 2011, when the Saints set NFL records. Brandin Cooks lacks the size to be a prototype No. 1, but he compensates with great speed, burst and elusiveness. Rookie Michael Thomas and tight end Coby Fleener are expected to step into the roles Marques Colston and Jimmy Graham previously filled in the Saints offense. They’ll work the seam and intermediate routes while Cooks and underrated Willie Snead operate on the perimeter. At 6'6", Brandon Coleman has the size to become a dangerous red-zone threat but needs to develop consistency.
Mark Ingram, C.J. Spiller, Tim Hightower and Travaris Cadet form a solid backfield by committee. Ingram is the primary weapon and has become a solid option in the passing attack. Spiller had a disappointing debut season after signing in free agency. If he can regain the burst and speed he showed with the Bills, he’ll be a big-play threat in the nickel offense.
This should be the season left tackle Terron Armstead finally earns his first Pro Bowl invite. He’s one of the most athletic tackles in the league and rarely gets beaten off the edge because of his long reach and quick feet. He’s the anchor up front. Center Max Unger and right tackle Zach Strief are smart, reliable veterans who will help bring along young guards Senio Kelemete and Tim Lelito. Former first-round pick Andrus Peat was a disappointment as a rookie but has the size and skill set to win one of the guard spots if either Kelemete or Lelito falters. Depth is a major question mark. The Saints can’t afford any injuries up front.
The Saints hope a full offseason under Allen’s direction and a handful of new starters will vault the team from the bottom of the league to at least mid-pack.
Everything comes down to the pass rush. Other than two-time Pro Bowler Cameron Jordan, the Saints don’t have any proven commodities at the NFL level. Someone — anyone — needs to emerge as a consistent pass rusher opposite Jordan for the Saints to become a legitimate playoff threat.
There are options. A quartet of young edge rushers led by third-year man Kasim Edebali and sophomores Hau’oli Kikaha, Obum Gwacham and Davis Tull has promise. Individually, none of the group might be a double-digit sack man, but that’s not necessary. The group just needs to provide enough consistent pressure off the edge to prevent opposing offenses from concentrating their pass-protection schemes on Jordan on the right side.
Kikaha showed playmaking promise as a rookie before being sidetracked with injuries. He doesn’t blow anyone away with his athletic ability but wins with relentless effort and instincts. Unfortunately, Kikaha could miss a significant amount of this season after injuring his knee during OTAs in June. Edebali and Gwacham are classic undersized, lanky speed rushers. Tull is the wild card. He is a tremendous all-around athlete who missed his entire rookie season with a shoulder injury.
Rookie defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins was regarded as the best interior pass rusher in the draft. He and free agent Nick Fairley will rotate at the 3-technique tackle spot next to run stuffer John Jenkins and are expected to complement Jordan outside.
If one of these young edge rushers can emerge on the left side and Rankins is the real deal, the Saints defense can take the next step and become a legitimate playmaking unit.
Veteran James Laurinaitis was signed to captain the linebacker corps in the middle and free promising second-year man Stephone Anthony to work the strong side. Look for Allen to blitz the athletic Anthony more from the second level. The Saints need veteran Dannell Ellerbe to stay healthy on the weak side. Craig Robertson was signed in free agency as insurance.
The secondary is the unit’s strength and has the potential to be one of the league’s best units if everyone can stay injury-free. Delvin Breaux is one of the most underrated cover corners in the league. The Saints are counting on the athletic former Canadian Football League star to take the next step and become a true lockdown cover man this season. If healthy, veteran Keenan Lewis is a solid No. 2. Kyle Wilson and 2015 draft picks Damian Swann and P.J. Williams will compete for the nickel and dime spots in sub packages. Athletic headhunter Kenny Vaccaro is coming off his best overall season at strong safety, and veteran Jairus Byrd returns at free safety. The Saints also welcome back veteran Roman Harper, who was the team’s second-round pick in 2006 and spent his first eight seasons in New Orleans before joining divisional rival Carolina as a free agent in ‘14.
As bad as the Saints defense has been in recent years, the special teams have been only marginally better. Other than the punting of Thomas Morstead, there’s been little consistency from any of the units. The Saints will enter a second consecutive season with an unsettled kicker situation. Veterans Kai Forbath and Josh Scobee will compete for the job. Forbath is consistent from short range and has the inside track after spending part of the 2015 season with the Saints. Scobee has a stronger leg but failed in stints with the Jaguars and Steelers. Morstead is looking for a rebound season after averaging a net of 40.7, his lowest since 2010. The diminutive but shifty Marcus Murphy has the speed and elusive running style to be one of the most dangerous return men in the league.
The Saints have finished no lower than sixth in total offense in each season of the decade-long Payton-Brees era and should once again rank among the league leaders. Defensively, the Saints should be improved, but how much remains the question. They don’t need to be dominant defensively. They just need to be decent and produce a few more big plays and stops. The offense is good enough to carry the Saints back into playoff contention in the ultra-competitive NFC, but they will go as far as their young, overhauled defense will take them. A Wild Card berth looks to be the ceiling, but the roster is perilously thin and inexperienced in spots, so the Saints must avoid adversity along the way.
Prediction: 2nd in NFC South
It’s hard to find fault with Jameis Winston’s body of work as a rookie. He passed for more than 4,000 yards and 22 touchdowns and rushed for six scores, earning Pepsi Rookie of the Year honors as voted by the fans. But Winston’s body? Well, that was another matter. When he got to the Pro Bowl, the Bucs quarterback looked pillowy compared to the hardened physiques of teammates such as Julio Jones and Russell Wilson.
“The first thing I learned is that everybody — they look the part,’’ Winston says. “I was like, ‘I’ve still got this college body. I’ve got to get this body right.’” So Winston hired Tim Grover, Michael Jordan’s trainer, and lost 18 pounds.
That realization was too late to save coach Lovie Smith. The biggest advocate for drafting Winston, Smith was fired after four straight losses to end a 6–10 season. “I was kind of down in the dumps because I was like what quarterback has been successful after they’ve lost their offensive coordinator, quarterback coach and head coach in the same year?” Winston says.
The Bucs promoted offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter to head coach to keep some continuity on offense. Winston’s waistline has shrunk, but expectations won’t be any lighter.
Koetter will still call the plays, but as head coach, he expects to be more aggressive in the passing game while still relying heavily on running back Doug Martin, the NFL’s second-leading rusher who signed a long-term contract as a free agent after rushing for more than 1,400 yards. Martin and backup Charles Sims combined for more than 2,700 yards from scrimmage in 2015. “I will say when you’re the head coach and you’re the play-caller, you have a license to be a little bit more aggressive,” Koetter says. “You are the head coach. You make your game plan and you stick to your game plan.”
|Head Coach||Dirk Koetter|
|Record With Team||0-0|
|Offensive Coordinator/Wide Receivers||Todd Monken|
|Defensive Coordinator||Mike Smith|
|Special Teams Coordinator||Nate Kaczor|
|Running Backs||Tim Spencer|
|Tight Ends||Jon Embree|
|Offensive Line||George Warhop|
|Defensive Line||Jay Hayes|
|Defensive Backs||Brett Maxie|
Winston’s first NFL pass was intercepted and returned for a touchdown by the Titans. But after a four-interception loss to Carolina in Week 4, Winston went more than a month without throwing a pick. “I kind of got spoiled a little at Florida State where I had a couple early turnovers, but I was able to bounce back and come back and lead us to a victory,” Winston says. “But every play matters in football in general, but especially in the pros.”
Winston still has solid targets in wide receivers Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins. The Bucs are hoping to get more from Evans, who has 2,257 yards receiving the past two seasons but was plagued with 11 drops last season, the most in the NFL. His touchdown receptions plummeted from 12 to three.
Jackson, at 33, still is productive when healthy, but two knee injuries limited him to 10 games, the fewest he’s ever played for the Bucs. Kenny Bell, a 2015 fifth-round pick who spent his rookie season on injured reserve, could emerge as the third wideout. Adam Humphries is a good option in the slot.
The tight end position would be deep if the Bucs could keep Seferian-Jenkins on the field. Knee and back injuries have sabotaged his first two seasons. Koetter would like to continue to tap into the chemistry between Winston and tight end Cameron Brate, who tied for second on the club with three TD catches.
The strength of the offense is the line, where left tackle Donovan Smith and right guard Ali Marpet shined as rookies. The Bucs added former Seahawks guard J.R. Sweezy in free agency to replace the retired Logan Mankins.
The reason for Smith’s firing, as much as anything, was the under-performing defense. The Bucs cleaned house and brought in all new coaches on that side of the football, starting with former Falcons head coach Mike Smith to run the defense.
Opposing quarterbacks completed 70 percent of their passes with 31 touchdowns against Tampa Bay in 2015, so the Bucs addressed two of their biggest needs: a pass-rushing defensive end and lockdown cornerback.
First, Tampa Bay signed Giants free-agent defensive end Robert Ayers, who had a career-high 9.5 sacks last season. Then they signed Dolphins cornerback Brent Grimes, who played for Smith in Atlanta. Grimes had 13 interceptions in three Pro Bowl seasons with Miami. The Bucs also used a first-round pick on Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves, who played high school football in Tampa. Hargreaves is only 5'10", but there’s no doubting the way he competes for the football.
Another key will be whether the careers of Johnthan Banks and Alterraun Verner can be resurrected after a revolving door of starters in the secondary last season.
The strength of the Bucs defense is their linebackers, with Lavonte David, who made his first Pro Bowl last season, and Kwon Alexander, who was second on the team in tackles despite missing the last four games after violating the league’s PED policy. Their speed is a weapon in coverage and against the run. The Bucs added Ravens free agent Daryl Smith, who has had more than 120 tackles in each of his past three seasons and will be a great mentor.
The Bucs need to show great improvement on the defensive line. They used a second-round pick on Eastern Kentucky defensive end Noah Spence, who has great bend and speed to get around the edge. He claims the drug issue that got him kicked out of Ohio State is behind him, and if so, he could be a great complement to four-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. Defensive end Jacquies Smith has been an effective pass rusher when healthy, but at 260 pounds, he can’t hold up against the run and is better off being used in passing situations.
The Bucs traded back into the second round to select Florida State placekicker Roberto Aguayo. It’s the highest a kicker has been drafted since Mike Nugent went to the Jets in the second round in 2005. Aguayo is the most accurate placekicker in NCAA history and has never missed a field goal from 40-yards or closer in his career. The Bucs are likely to have a new punter, having signed Jaguars free agent Bryan Anger to compete with Jacob Schum, who was 28th in the NFL with a 38.0-yard net average last season.
The return game will be in flux after Bobby Rainey signed a free-agent deal with the Giants. The Bucs will look to Sims to handle kickoff returns, while Bell and Humphries will be candidates to return punts.
Under Licht, the Bucs are building a strong foundation with young players acquired through the draft. Winston still has a lot of room for growth, particularly in his mechanics and decisions with the football. But his competitiveness is contagious, and the continuity with Koetter will speed up his development. Defensively, the Bucs are another draft away from being championship caliber, but Mike Smith will have them better prepared to face NFC South quarterbacks such as Newton, Drew Brees and Matt Ryan. The Bucs may still be a year away from contending for the NFC South title, but a .500 record is a reasonable goal.
Prediction: 4th in NFC South
If, eons from now, a time capsule were found buried somewhere in the American Midwest with the words “BIG TEN FOOTBALL OFFENSE” on it, one could argue that Michigan State’s game-winning drive against Iowa in the league championship last December would be the only film necessary for future generations to understand the ethos of B1G ball.
“Hey I’ll take a touchdown on the first play. I don’t think that any offensive coach would design a drive like this,” MSU co-offensive coordinator Jim Bollman says with a laugh. “But give credit to Iowa. It happened the way it did because of their defense playing so well to prevent the big, explosive plays.”
It’s easy to point to running back LJ Scott’s 40 yards on 14 carries as the signature effort: Once MSU found itself deep in Iowa territory, Connor Cook would only touch the ball to hand it off (except for one game-winning conversion, but we’ll get to that later).
As Bollman outlines below, Sparty started the drive with one philosophy and ended with an entirely different style of play-calling. And the difference in that sea change would come on a pass play following a penalty, not one of Scott’s nail-in-the-coffin runs.
1st and 10 at MSU 18
LJ Scott run for 6 yds.
The Spartans’ first play is a tone-setter for what’s to come: Scott goes off-tackle to the right side and pushes forward for extra yardage.
2nd and 4 at MSU 24
Cook pass incomplete to Macgarrett Kings Jr.
3rd and 4 at MSU 24
Cook pass complete to Josiah Price for 13 yds.
There are any number of keys to sustaining a 22-play drive, but Bollman harps on the execution of third-down play-calling. Predicting that Cook will drop back in the pocket, Iowa brings pressure from the outside. Instead he flicks a shovel pass inside to Price, who scoots past a wall of linemen for a big gain. Everyone is where they need to be, everyone executes.
“Thirteen yards on that call — that’s not an explosive play, that’s a shovel pass to a tight end,” Bollman says. “That was a timely call from our staff and great protection at the line of scrimmage.”
1st and 10 at MSU 37
Cook pass complete to Kings Jr. for 4 yds.
2nd and 6 at MSU 41
(7:55 left in 4th)
LJ Scott run for 3 yds.
Penalty, Offensive Holding (Jack Conklin)
2nd and 13 at MSU 34
R.J. Shelton run for 10 yds.
Michigan State sees its first of two penalties on the drive. Both times Sparty responds with big-play yardage — the reverse to Shelton is called specifically because of the long yardage situation, and it catches Iowa looking downfield.
3rd and 3 at MSU 44
Scott run for 4 yds.
After two plays — a Wildcat rush and a direct-snap reverse — with Cook away from the ball, MSU wants Iowa to think that Cook will pass on third-and-short. He instead gives to Scott, who extends for the first down after a huge block by Conklin.
1st and 10 at MSU 48
Scott run for 2 yds.
2nd and 8 at 50
Cook pass incomplete to Burbridge
Penalty, Illegal Touching (Burbridge) to the 50-yard line.
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3rd and 8 at 50
Cook pass complete to Burbridge for 16 yds.
Facing its longest third-down conversion, Michigan State calls one of Cook’s comfort food plays, a pass tree that puts Aaron Burbridge on a stop route down the sideline. MSU gets what it wants — single-man coverage with the safety too far to close — and Burbridge keeps a toe in bounds. But there’s a flag: Burbridge had previously stepped out of bounds. It’s illegal touching; MSU will have to replay the down.
“What we got next was just a giant, giant play,” Bollman says.
Undaunted, another one of Cook’s favorites is called. This time, Scott is motioned out of the backfield and next to Burbridge. This requires Iowa to bring a man over, and Burbridge splits the defenders on a streak, catching a perfect pass from Cook. “The motion was probably unique to that, but the play is something we’d run in similar situations throughout the year,” Bollman says.
The play converts a third down and crosses deep enough into Hawkeye territory to change the entire complexion of the drive — and the game.
“You’re always trying to score, obviously, but when the drive starts with about nine minutes, you’re trying to figure out how many more chances you’re going to get with your defense playing great. But then all of a sudden, you’re at the 50. I remember when we crossed midfield, there was a feeling of ‘Hey, this is it.’”
1st and 10 at IOWA 34
Connor Cook run for 7 yds.
2nd and 3 at IOWA 27
Scott run for 3 yds.
After Cook scrambles out of bounds under pressure, Michigan State is inside the Iowa 30 with its best momentum of the game. The only issue is the clock: At 4:58 remaining Sparty needs to grind, but down four they can’t afford to stall out and kick.
1st and 10 at IOWA 24
Scott run for 3 yds.
2nd and 7 at IOWA 21
Scott run for 6 yds.
3rd and 1 at IOWA 15
Scott run for 2 yds.
At this point, Scott and the offensive line have taken over the game, and Iowa’s hopes of a stop are bleeding out at a slow, deliberate pace.
“If you look past the third downs I think the next thing that jumps out is how consistent we ran the ball at that moment,” Bollman says. “It was better than we had all day, and that was the best thing that we could ask for. The ideal thing happened, and we knew that if we could get in the end zone and limit their time with the ball, we could win the game.”
1st and 10 at IOWA 13
Scott run for 3 yds.
Timeout IOWA, clock 02:09
“Now the goal was to get it into the end zone on the ground. Don’t throw it again, move the clock. We started to feel like we could do that the way we were running it. OK, we’d hit the big one to Burbridge. Run it in. Don’t throw it again.”
2nd and 7 at IOWA 10
Scott run for 5 yds.
Timeout IOWA, clock 02:04
Michigan State hasn’t seen the end zone all night, but a fearful Iowa is now forced to start burning timeouts as the two-minute mark approaches. Sparty has chewed up 2:56 on just 14 yards — the play-calling holds zero intent of deception, and it becomes a battle of wills in the running game.
“That’s us at the top of our game. When we’re doing things right, that’s Michigan State offense. We’ve been really high in time of possession over the last few seasons. We pride ourselves in that. It’s been special for us,” Bollman says.
3rd and 2 at IOWA 5
Scott run for no gain.
Timeout IOWA, clock 01:59.
As MSU draws closer to the goal, they go as jumbo as possible, turning center Jack Allen into a motion lead back to block for Scott. This isn’t the first time — Allen scored a touchdown earlier in the year vs. Penn State.
Between first-down conversions, Iowa timeouts and mandatory commercial breaks, the drive becomes very, very choppy for both teams. There are frequent stoppages of play. “You can look at both sides of that as advantage, but I think in that particular instance it was good for us because it gave our offensive linemen a rest. You can say it gave the defense the same rest, but with 22 plays of grinding it, that’s very, very different for players. You don’t condition for 22-play drives.”
4th and 2 at IOWA 5
Cook run for 2 yds.
Scott running inside wasn’t broke, so Sparty didn’t fix it. When Iowa did manage a third-down stop, Cook was tabbed as the runner because of how much the Hawkeye defensive ends were cheating to Scott. MSU had practiced option plays for Cook earlier in the week, and when the end followed the pitch man, Cook had enough space to convert.
1st and Goal at IOWA 3
Scott run for 2 yds.
2nd and Goal at IOWA 1
Scott run for no gain.
Timeout MSU, clock 00:33
“I think it’s fair to say that it was two different drives — before midfield and after,” Bollman says. “It was matter of purpose and attitude. We were focused on running that clock down, we really were. That’s not to say that in any of plays if a guy breaks a tackle and gets in the end zone you take that, but we were fortunate in the way it worked out.”
– By Steven Godfrey
Overcoming a 2–5 start, finishing 9-7 and winning the AFC South was not enough for the Texans in Bill O’Brien’s second season. Getting embarrassed by Kansas City 30-0 at home in the AFC Wild Card game convinced O’Brien and general manager Rick Smith that changing the complexion of the offense was vital. With a J.J. Watt-ignited defense ranking third in the NFL and boasting six starters drafted in the first or second round, Smith and O’Brien went to work on the other side of the ball. The transformation began at quarterback. In his two seasons, O’Brien had played nine quarterbacks and started seven. The game of musical chairs at the most important position on the team had to stop. Owner Bob McNair told Smith to do whatever he believed it would take to rectify the problem.
When Los Angeles and Philadelphia sacrificed a plethora of draft choices to get quarterbacks Jared Goff and Carson Wentz with the first two overall picks, the Texans were relieved it cost only money to pirate Brock Osweiler from Denver with a four-year, $72 million deal, including $37 million guaranteed. The early returns on Osweiler were positive in every respect.
O’Brien and offensive coordinator George Godsey, who calls the plays, like Osweiler’s size and toughness. They say he moves well for a quarterback who’s almost 6-foot-8 and looks more suited for a basketball court. He’s fearless in the pocket, works hard to learn the system, is a charismatic leader, has an above-average arm, makes almost every throw and works overtime to get better. The coaches want him to produce consistently and avoid turnovers. Houston’s quarterbacks last season combined for 28 touchdown passes and 12 interceptions. They’d settle for that kind of ratio from Osweiler in his first season.
|Head Coach||Bill O'Brien|
|Record With Team||18-14|
|Offensive Coordinator||George Godsey|
|Defensive Coordinator||Romeo Crennel|
|Special Teams Coordinator||Larry Izzo|
|Running Backs||Charles London|
|Wide Receivers||Sean Ryan|
|Tight Ends||John Perry|
|Offensive Line||Mike Devlin|
|Defensive Line||Anthony Weaver|
Once Osweiler signed, Smith turned his attention to adding talent and speed at running back and receiver to complement Pro Bowl receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who caught 111 passes for 1,521 yards and 11 touchdowns last season. With the signing of running back Lamar Miller in free agency and the drafting of receivers Will Fuller and Braxton Miller and running back Tyler Ervin, the metamorphosis has been stunning. With the influx of speed, the Texans should be able to run wide — not just between the tackles. They should be able to throw more routes down the field.
Lamar Miller brings game-changing speed and breakaway ability to the backfield. Alfred Blue returns to his well-suited backup role. Ervin and Akeem Hunt combine with Miller to give the Texans what may be the fastest backfield in the NFL.
The offensive line has to perform better than last season when injuries caused chaos up front as players switched positions out of desperation. Center Ben Jones and right guard Brandon Brooks left in free agency. They’ve been replaced by Nick Martin, a second-round pick who should slide in easily at center, and Jeff Allen, a free agent from Kansas City who helped beat the Texans twice last season. Left tackle Duane Brown, their best and most consistent lineman for years, is coming off surgery to repair a quad tendon and is hoping to be ready for the start of the season. Right tackle Derek Newton is a four-year starter who’s never been consistent as a pass protector. Left guard Xavier Su’a-Filo settled in last season after escaping O’Brien’s doghouse, and the Texans went 6–2 once he cracked the starting lineup for good.
Tight end wasn’t addressed during the offseason because the coaches like C.J. Fiedorowicz’s blocking and Ryan Griffin’s receiving.
Watt, who was voted NFL Defensive Player of the Year for the third time in five seasons, didn’t get any help in the offseason. He played through injuries, underwent three operations, and he’s ready to improve on last season, when he recorded 17.5 sacks, 50 quarterback hits, 29 tackles for a loss and eight deflections. Defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel moves him up and down the line trying to create mismatches. Nose tackle Vince Wilfork might have one more season in him as a run stuffer, but he’s no threat to get the quarterback. Rookie D.J. Reader and veterans Christian Covington, Brandon Dunn, Jeoffrey Pagan and Devon Still are competing for playing time.
Other than Watt, the strength of the defense is the linebackers. Whitney Mercilus registered 12 sacks and gave Houston a second pass rusher. He’s developed a variety of moves to get the quarterback. Jadeveon Clowney was injured too much and contributed only 4.5 sacks, but he played hard and did well against the run. John Simon, who starts on the strong side, is physical against the run and added five sacks. For the first time since 2011, inside linebacker Brian Cushing was able to start 16 games. He’s still a ferocious tackler and defensive leader, but he can’t chase plays the way he used to. Benardrick McKinney, a second-round pick last year, played well against the run and pass over the second half of last season. He’s a hard-nosed player who challenges linemen and showed some pass-rush skills and coverage ability.
For the sixth consecutive year, Kareem Jackson and Johnathan Joseph are the starting corners. They can play man or zone coverage. Joseph usually draws the best receiver. Jackson, who could transition to free safety later in his career, moves inside in nickel situations. Last year’s first-round pick, Kevin Johnson, is the first corner off the bench and plays outside. Johnson is the most physical player in the secondary. He can run and hit but must learn to not bite on so many moves and give up big plays. Free safety Andre Hal is developing into a ball hawk after making the move from corner. Strong safety is wide open with Quintin Demps, Eddie Pleasant and rookie K.J. Dillon competing for playing time.
The return game has been awful. The Texans are hoping Ervin, the rookie running back, can remedy that problem, especially on punt returns. Receiver Keith Mumphery was a decent kickoff returner last season. The coaches want a return game that can improve field position. The coverage teams were mediocre at best. Punter Shane Lechler, entering his 17th season, still gets distance but must improve his hang time. Maybe that’s no longer possible since he’ll be 40 when regular season begins. Kicker Nick Novak missed three field goals, all from the 50 and beyond. Novak re-signed, but the Texans also brought in undrafted free agent Ka’imi Fairbairn, the Lou Groza Award winner from UCLA. Snapper Jon Weeks, selected for the Pro Bowl, is the team’s best and most consistent special teams player.
With moves made in free agency and the draft, the Texans believe they’re in position to successfully defend their third AFC South title in five years. If Osweiler develops the way the coaches believe he will, and the infusion of speed pays off, and they don’t suffer too many debilitating injuries, they’re capable of winning their first playoff game since the 2012 season. The Texans still have too many questions to call them a Super Bowl contender, but they should remain in the hunt in the AFC South.
Prediction: 2nd in AFC South
Somehow, after so much fell apart amid Super Bowl expectations and the Indianapolis Colts were reduced to an 8–8 underachiever that missed the playoffs, the three men most responsible for the team’s fate returned even more resolute for 2016.
The most important is quarterback Andrew Luck, lost for nine games to back, shoulder, ribs, kidney and abdominal injuries. He’s healthy and anxious to prove he can be a three-time Pro Bowl star as opposed to a turnover machine. And after absorbing 375 hits in four seasons, Luck was ecstatic when the Colts used four draft picks on offensive linemen to ensure that No. 12 won’t continue to take such a beating. The good news for Luck continued into late June when he signed a five-year contract extension (his contract now covers six years) worth around $125 million, making him the highest-paid player in the NFL. The new deal includes $87 million in guaranteed money, the most ever for any player.
The other two happy campers are head coach Chuck Pagano and general manager Ryan Grigson. After rampant speculation both would lose their jobs, owner Jim Irsay gave Pagano a four-year contract and added three years to Grigson’s one remaining year. Much of Pagano’s coaching staff took the fall as nine new assistants were hired.
Despite the lack of a consistent rushing attack, a healthy Luck ensured that the Colts were a perennial playoff team. In his last start before being lost for the remainder of 2015, he defeated the eventual Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos. Irsay made it clear that the No. 1 offseason priority would be the offensive line, which the Colts first addressed with the first-round selection of center Ryan Kelly. While the right side still needs to be sorted out, enough pieces are in place to give Luck the best line he’s had since he was drafted with the No. 1 overall pick in 2012. Left tackle Anthony Castonzo returns as the anchor.
|Head Coach||Chuck Pagano|
|Record With Team||41-23|
|Offensive Coordinator||Rob Chudzinski|
|Defensive Coordinator||Ted Monachino|
|Special Teams Coordinator||Tom McMahon|
|Asst. Head Coach/Offensive Line||Joe Philbin|
|Running Backs||Jemal Singleton|
|Wide Receivers||Lee Hull|
|Tight Ends||Jim Hostler|
|Defensive Line||Gary Emanuel|
|Outside Linebackers||Brad White|
|Defensive Backs||Greg Williams|
Luck realizes he must be better at not taking unnecessary risks, especially extending plays too long and subjecting himself to hits. He should have more time to throw, and running back Frank Gore will have more space to run. Gore is 32 and entering his 12th NFL season, but he showed in a 967-yard season he could still be effective when not met by tacklers in the backfield.
Rob Chudzinski, who took over as play-caller for the fired Pep Hamilton during last season, returns and will implement a new playbook suited to getting the most out of Luck’s talents. Expect the Colts to spread the field with their speedy receivers, which opens the middle for tight ends in addition to providing running lanes. But Luck must cut down on his turnovers — he’s been intercepted 55 times and lost 14 of 32 fumbles in 55 regular-season games.
The Colts cut their losses with veteran wide receiver Andre Johnson after only one season as Donte Moncrief proved to be a more capable playmaker in his second season. Moncrief, Pro Bowl deep threat T.Y. Hilton and 2015 first-round pick Phillip Dorsett might be the fastest three pass catchers on one NFL team. Dorsett has star potential if he can stay healthy.
Tight end Dwayne Allen, a forgotten man with just 16 receptions because he was used as a blocker, received a four-year, $29.4-million contract and the promise to be utilized more effectively. The Colts expect to see the Allen who caught eight touchdown passes two seasons ago. Tight end Jack Doyle received a one-year tender and will get more snaps now that Coby Fleener has departed in free agency.
New coordinator Ted Monachino inherits a 3-4 defense devoid of pass rushers beyond franchise all-time sacks leader Robert Mathis, who enters a contract year at 35. The Colts surprisingly didn’t add an impact pass rusher in the draft — Grigson says players they targeted went too early and he wasn’t going to reach — so Monachino needs more production out of 33-year-old outside linebacker Trent Cole, who had just three sacks in his first Colts season and accepted a pay cut to return.
Expect the Colts to blitz more, which will stress those in coverage. Pro Bowl cornerback Vontae Davis is in his prime, but the secondary is a work in progress with cornerback Patrick Robinson, a free-agent addition who in six seasons with two previous teams hasn’t lived up to his first-round selection. Nickel back Darius Butler has been a playmaker in his four seasons but gets exposed when covering speedy receivers outside. He needs to stay in the slot. Second-year cornerback D’Joun Smith has yet to prove he’s a reliable pro.
Inside linebacker D’Qwell Jackson, the NFL’s second-leading tackler, enters his 11th season. He’s the glue that holds the unit together. Who plays next to him will be an open camp competition as Nate Irving, Sio Moore and fourth-round draft choice Antonio Morrison vie for snaps vacated by Jerrell Freeman, who departed in free agency. If healthy, Irving has the edge.
The Colts must be able to stop the run to get into third-and-long blitz situations. Oft-injured defensive tackle Arthur Jones is key. He missed last season and has started just three games since signing a five-year, $33-million deal to join the Colts in 2014. Jones agreed to a pay cut but can earn that money back in performance incentives.
Defensive end Kendall Langford played well in his first Colts season, tying Mathis for the team lead with seven sacks. Second-year nose tackle David Parry showed potential but could be pushed for playing time by fourth-round pick Hassan Ridgeway. Defensive end Henry Anderson was outstanding as a rookie until being lost after nine games to a knee injury. His eventual return will boost the run defense, but he had only one sack.
Ageless kicker Adam Vinatieri is still one of the game’s best, which is why the Colts re-signed the 43-year-old “Mr. Clutch” for two more years. He made 25-of-27 field goals, including four-of-five from 50-plus yards. Punter Pat McAfee is also among the elite in his profession and a touchback machine on kickoffs. He had surgery on his non-kicking leg in the offseason, but is expected to be ready for training camp. Long snapper Matt Overton has been to one Pro Bowl and completes a trio who take pride in being the “Fourth Down Army,” a slogan that adorns T-shirts. Who returns kicks will be an open camp competition, although wide receiver Quan Bray likely has the inside track.
Colts fans who remember the glory days with quarterback Peyton Manning should experience some deja vu this season. These Colts should score plenty of points, but they will give up their share, too. High-scoring shootouts are entertaining and will re-establish Luck as a star on the rise.
But unless the defense can figure out a way to pressure opposing passers, the Colts will have their share of games that come down to who has the ball last. They’ll win many of them because Vinatieri is arguably the greatest kicker in NFL history, but the formula typically doesn’t work in the playoffs against the league’s best defenses.
The Colts will be fun to watch, but they’re a year away from committing more draft picks to impact players on defense. And with Luck now signed to one of the biggest contracts in NFL history, it’s reasonable to assume that the team won’t have as much money to spend in free agency to shore up that defense.
Until the defense has the necessary playmakers, the Colts can go only so far come January.
Prediction: 1st in AFC South
A less patient owner would have cleaned house after the Jaguars lost five of their last six games. They didn’t protect the quarterback, didn’t run the football, didn’t rush the passer and didn’t create turnovers. But Shad Khan sees something in general manager Dave Caldwell and coach Gus Bradley: progress. Time is running out, though. Although Khan hasn’t made a public mandate for a specific number of wins to earn this administration a fifth year, he demands better results than the combined 12 wins over the last three years. The pressure is especially on Bradley after an offseason overhaul of a woeful defense.
Bradley is only the sixth coach in NFL history to have 13 or fewer wins in his first three years and be allowed to stick around. Of the previous five, Chuck Noll worked out in Pittsburgh with four Super Bowl titles, but the others never had a winning record. Can Bradley buck the trend? The Jaguars have been a laughingstock for most of this decade — five straight years with at least 11 losses. But maybe a turnaround is imminent. The Jaguars could have as many as six new starters on defense and have several foundational players on offense. The offense was greatly improved last year, and Bradley needs the defense to show similar improvement to save his job.
For the first time in several years, the Jaguars’ offense was watchable in 2015. Blake Bortles threw a franchise-record 35 touchdowns; receivers Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns both eclipsed 1,000 yards; tight end Julius Thomas had five touchdowns despite multiple injuries; and rookie running back T.J. Yeldon showed promise before missing the final three games with a knee injury. The Jaguars know what they’re going to get from Bortles, Robinson and Hurns — arguably the league’s top young pass-and-catch trio — and Thomas should be more effective with a full offseason and training camp working with Bortles.
|Head Coach||Gus Bradley|
|Record With Team||12-36|
|Asst. Head Coach-Offense/Offensive Line||Doug Marrone|
|Offensive Coordinator||Greg Olson|
|Defensive Coordinator/Defensive Line||Todd Wash|
|Special Teams Coordinator||Mike Mallory|
|Running Backs||Kelly Skipper|
|Wide Receivers||Jerry Sullivan|
|Tight Ends/Special Teams Assistant||Ron Middleton|
|Defensive Backs||DeWayne Walker|
But two areas need to improve: offensive line play and the running game. The Jaguars have allowed 122 sacks in the last two years, and they have been outside of the top 20 in rushing yards per game in each of the last five years. If the Jags can protect better, then longer-developing routes by Thomas and receiver Marqise Lee will become available, and Bortles won’t have to improvise as much. Run it better, and it opens up the play action for Bortles to throw downfield to Robinson and Hurns.
To that end, the Jaguars signed Pittsburgh left tackle Kelvin Beachum, Dallas guard Mackenzy Bernadeau and N.Y. Jets running back Chris Ivory. Beachum isn’t expected to practice until early August because of a knee injury, but he’ll likely take over for former No. 2 overall pick Luke Joeckel, who was last seen giving up five sacks to the Houston Texans. Bernadeau is a depth option. And Ivory, a 1,000-yard rusher last year, will team with Yeldon at tailback.
Obviously, the key is Bortles. Now a third-year player, he immediately clicked with offensive coordinator Greg Olson and quarterbacks coach Nathaniel Hackett, who seek his input with the game plan and give him latitude at the line of scrimmage. Bortles threw a league-high 18 interceptions last year, including two in the red zone; better decisions in the scoring area will allow him to take the next step.
Fans will need a game program to figure out who’s who. They’ll recognize the names — Dante Fowler, Jalen Ramsey, Myles Jack, Malik Jackson, etc. — but seeing them wearing Jacksonville helmets will be foreign. And those are just some of the new faces. After finishing next-to-last in points allowed, the Jags launched a needed overhaul.
Todd Wash was promoted from defensive line coach to coordinator. In free agency, Jackson (defensive tackle), Tashaun Gipson (free safety) and Prince Amukamara (cornerback) were signed; the draft produced Ramsey (cornerback) and Jack (linebacker). And the team will get Fowler (defensive end) and Sen’Derrick Marks (defensive tackle) back from injuries.
The Jaguars improved their rush defense last year, but they were unable to pressure the quarterback with a four-man rush, rarely got home with the blitz, couldn’t cover tight ends, couldn’t produce key turnovers and couldn’t stop teams on third down.
Wash is expected to tweak the flawed scheme to include more personnel packages instead of the standard four-man line regardless of the situation. And he will be more diverse with his pressures instead of Aaron Colvin blitzing from the slot or Paul Posluszny rushing from his middle linebacker spot. In addition to not having enough talent last year, the Jaguars were also predictable.
Fowler will be counted on to lead the pass rush. On first and second downs, strong-side end Jared Odrick and nose tackle Roy Miller are solid against the run. Jackson will take Marks’ starting spot, but the Jaguars envision them lining up beside each other on third down to provide a strong interior pass rush. At linebacker, Jack — who dropped into the second round because of a September 2015 knee injury — adds a speed and coverage combination the Jaguars haven’t had in years. Posluszny is the defensive quarterback, and weak-side backer Telvin Smith’s next step is producing more takeaways.
The secondary has been overhauled after intercepting just five passes. Cornerback Davon House had four of those and will play opposite Ramsey, who had surgery in late May to repair a small tear in the meniscus in his right knee. Amukamara will likely play the slot, and Colvin will provide depth after his four-game suspension to start the year. Gipson is a sideline-to-sideline player who is the Jaguars’ fifth free safety in four years. At strong safety, Johnathan Cyprien and James Sample will compete for the starting job.
The Jaguars solved their punt-return woes last year when they drafted Rashad Greene. He averaged 16.7 yards on 18 returns, including a 73-yard TD. In signing free agent Brad Nortman, they hope the punting has stabilized. Nortman, 26, is known for his directional punting and hang time. Jason Myers is back as the placekicker after an up-and-down season replacing Josh Scobee. Myers showed good leg strength on kickoffs but missed an NFL-high seven extra points. If he’s shaky again this year, his job could be in jeopardy. On kick returns, Denard Robinson will be pushed by Corey Grant and Nick Marshall. All three got a shot last year. The Jaguars haven’t returned a kickoff for a touchdown since 2007.
Can a season be made or broken in the opening month? It sure can in the NFL, and it sure might be for the Jaguars. Bradley’s first three teams limped out of the gate with records of 0–4, 0–4 and 1–3. This year’s start is critical. The Jaguars face Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers (home), San Diego’s Philip Rivers (away), Baltimore’s Joe Flacco (home) and Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck (London) in the opening four weeks. Salvage a split, and the Jaguars will possess something they’ve never had in the Bradley Era — early season momentum. Start poorly again and eventually finish with seven or fewer wins, and ownership would be justified in moving on from this coaching staff.
Prediction: 3rd in AFC South
The Tennessee Titans are rebuilding. That’s not exactly a revelation, since they have seemingly been rebuilding now for at least five years, trying to find the right combination of coach, general manager and quarterback. After multiple failures at all three spots, the Titans are basically starting over yet again — this time with Mike Mularkey as head coach, Jon Robinson as the new GM and Marcus Mariota as the new franchise quarterback. A couple of these aren’t exactly brand new — Mariota was drafted in 2015 and showed enough last season that the Titans hope to build around him; and Mularkey took over on an interim basis last year when Ken Whisenhunt was fired. But with Robinson at the controls, the Titans are hopeful that better fortunes may be on the horizon soon for a franchise that has sunk to the bottom.
Mariota showed in his rookie season the type of poise and ability to become a franchise quarterback. He threw for 2,818 yards with 19 touchdown passes to just 10 interceptions and completed 62 percent of his passes. Mariota’s numbers would have been even better had he not missed four games with two different knee injuries. And while he can still get better at operating the huddle and throwing deeper passes, Mariota showed enough to make the Titans believe he is the answer at QB. The Titans added journeyman Matt Cassel, who will serve as the back up to Mariota following the May 16 release of 2014 sixth-round pick Zach Mettenberger.
|Head Coach||Mike Mularkey|
|Record With Team||2-7|
|Asst. Head Coach/Defensive Coordinator||Dick LeBeau|
|Offensive Coordinator||Terry Robiskie|
|Special Teams Coordinator||Bobby April|
|Running Backs||Sylvester Croom|
|Wide Receivers||Bob Bratkowski|
|Tight Ends||Arthur Smith|
|Offensive Line||Russ Grimm|
|Defensive Line||Nick Eason|
Running back was a big issue for the Titans last year. Enter DeMarco Murray via trade and 2015 Heisman winner Derrick Henry via the draft. The Titans hope the Murray they are getting is closer to the 2014 version with Dallas and less like last year’s edition with Philadelphia. Henry’s arrival is further evidence that Mularkey prefers a pounding, physical running game. It also signals that the Titans are finished with most of last year’s unproductive quartet of Bishop Sankey, Antonio Andrews, Dexter McCluster and David Cobb.
Wide receiver remains a perpetual question mark, despite some middle-of-the-road additions at the position. Since the Titans don’t have much in the way of big-play candidates, the plan seems to be finding precise route runners with good hands. They signed one in free agent Rishard Matthews and drafted another in rookie Tajae Sharpe. The question is whether they can get the holdover receivers to buy in. Kendall Wright caught 94 passes in 2013, then slumped to 57 in 2014 and just 36 last year. Justin Hunter is running out of chances, and veteran Harry Douglas looked low on fuel last year. The wild card is Dorial Green-Beckham, who has all the tools to be a top receiver. He must get in top shape and also has to polish his route running and study habits. If that happens, receiver becomes a strength. If not, the search continues in 2017.
While wide receiver is in disarray, tight end is one of the deepest spots on the roster. Delanie Walker, a former 49ers backup, shows no sign of slowing down. He caught 94 passes in 2015 and was Mariota’s No. 1 option. That probably will continue to be the case as Walker signed a contract extension in May. Craig Stevens and Anthony Fasano are capable, veteran role players.
Of all their issues, the offensive line is the Titans’ top priority to fix. Tennessee gave up 54 sacks last season, worst in the league. Enter first-round pick Jack Conklin, who will start at right tackle, and new center Ben Jones, who comes over from Houston. Jones should provide leadership and remedy many of the protection and line call issues. On the left side, former first-round pick Taylor Lewan must clean up technique issues that contributed to his sloppy play. The Titans declined their option on right guard Chance Warmack, putting him on notice that 2016 is make or break. The left guard spot will be a wide-open training camp competition between Jeremiah Poutasi, Quinton Spain and rookie Sebastian Tretola. Byron Bell would have been a part of the battle but he was lost for the season after dislocating his ankle on the first day of OTAs in May.
Dick LeBeau takes full control of the Titans defense this year after sharing duties with Ray Horton last season. That means the Titans should do more blitzing and gambling on defense, giving opposing offenses more exotic looks in the process. The question is, do the Titans have the right personnel?
Their best player on defense is end Jurrell Casey, who is being moved around along the line to try and create confusion and mismatches, even going into a two-point stance in some instances. Casey is part of a line that is the strength of the defense and includes end DaQuan Jones, who can also fill in on the nose when needed. Al Woods returns to man the middle but will face a challenge from rookie Austin Johnson, who has pass rush skills inside and is more than just a guy to occupy a double team. Angelo Blackson and Karl Klug provide nice depth on the line, with Blackson rotating in as a run stuffer and Klug being a pass-rush specialist in sub-packages.
At linebacker, the Titans have undergone a major makeover behind their starters. Derrick Morgan and Brian Orakpo return as starters but will get a push from second-round pick Kevin Dodd, whose long and lean frame could make him a force as an edge rusher. Inside, the Titans have steady Avery Williamson and veteran Wesley Woodyard, who usually is out in the nickel. He could get a challenge from newcomers Sean Spence and Nate Palmer.
The Tennessee secondary gets a boost from the return of Jason McCourty, who played in just four games last year because of groin surgery. Opposite him, Perrish Cox must tackle better than last year. The other returning corners are all candidates to be replaced. Blidi Wreh-Wilson has been in position to make plays but seldom has made them. B.W. Webb was exposed at times, too. Free agents Brice McCain, a candidate for the nickel job, and Antwon Blake should jump ahead of them in the pecking order. Rookies LeShaun Sims and Kalan Reed may not be ready to make the jump but can help on special teams. At safety, the Titans brought in a smart tactician in Rashad Johnson, who should steady the back four by making the correct calls. Da’Norris Searcy started at strong safety but needs to make more impact plays. He could be challenged by rookie Kevin Byard. Of the other reserves, Daimion Stafford has value as a big hitter and is sometimes used as a mini-linebacker in certain sets.
Kicker Ryan Succop is reliable, but he must get more than 16 chances on field goals. (He made 14 of them.) Punter Brett Kern probably needs fewer chances after punting 88 times a year ago for a 47.4-yard average. The long snapper is Beau Brinkley, who toils in anonymity as a good long snapper should. In the return game, expect McCluster to have to fight back undrafted rookie Morgan Burns to hold on to the return job.
The rebuilding drags on for the Titans, but with Robinson and Mariota, perhaps the process is finally being accelerated. At the very least, 2016 offers more hope than the team has had in the past several years.