Articles By Athlon Sports
The Tennessee Titans hope that Year 2 of the Ken Whisenhunt regime will be markedly better than Year 1. In Whisenhunt’s first season as head coach, the Titans bottomed out, going 2–14 and losing their final 10 games.
And while the sparse crowds at LP Field — now Nissan Stadium — reflected just how far this franchise has fallen, it might not be the worst thing in the long run. Sinking to such low depths allowed the Titans to finally embrace a rebuild after several years of treading water with middle-of-the-pack records and no playoff appearances. Beginning with the drafting of 2014 Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota to build around at quarterback, the Titans could have real hope for the future for the first time in a number of years, though it may take some time for that hope to be realized.
By drafting Mariota second overall, the Titans are banking that the former Duck can be a bird of a different feather when it comes to transitioning from Oregon’s hurry-up spread offense to a conventional pro-style scheme. Mariota has the physical skills, and the Titans were impressed most by his football acumen throughout the draft process. Still, there are basic components of playing the position — from the simplest things such as taking the snap under center and calling plays in the huddle to more complex components such as progressions — that will take time to master. Whisenhunt, who was rigid with scrambling quarterback Jake Locker a year ago, has promised to be more flexible to accommodate Mariota, who has already been penciled in as the starter over Zach Mettenberger.
At running back, the Titans appear to be in flux. Bishop Sankey, a second-round pick a year ago, disappointed with only 569 yards rushing, and veteran Shonn Greene was released in June, as the team appears willing to give fifth-round pick David Cobb every opportunity to handle the “big back” role. Sankey didn’t seem to have an extra gear as a rookie, while Greene was injured and inconsistent in two years in Tennessee. The wild card in the running back room is Dexter McCluster, signed to a free-agent deal a year ago and then wasted as the Titans never found a role for him. A Sankey/Cobb combination is probably what the Titans are hoping for as the season opens.
In the receiving corps, the Titans have done their best to upgrade a lackluster cast. Kendall Wright’s production dipped to just 57 catches after 94 in 2013, and Justin Hunter remains an enigma. The organization still believes Hunter has the talent to be an elite receiver, but he simply hasn’t shown the swagger that top-flight receivers display on the field. Enter second-round pick Dorial Green-Beckham, who seems to have plenty of that to go with a 6'5", 237-pound frame. Green-Beckham, a likely top-10 pick without his off-field issues, boldly says his goal is to score at least 10 touchdowns as a rookie. The Titans signed two former 1,000-yard receivers in free agency, adding Harry Douglas and Hakeem Nicks with the hope that both can bounce back after their production dropped dramatically in 2014.
Currently, the best weapon among the receivers is tight end Delanie Walker, the best free-agent signing of the Ruston Webster era as GM. Walker led the Titans with 63 catches for a franchise-record 890 yards receiving by a tight end. Not bad, considering that three different quarterbacks started last year. The Titans added journeyman Anthony Fasano as a free agent, in large part because Craig Stevens and Taylor Thompson (released in June) were both injured last year.
The offensive line’s lone bright spot was 2014 first-round pick Taylor Lewan, who became a starter after Michael Roos was injured (and later retired). Right guard Chance Warmack, the 2013 first-round pick, finally started to show promise by year’s end. Other than those two, it was a disaster. Left guard Andy Levitre, who signed a $46.8 million free-agent deal in 2013, was too often handled at the point of attack and was plagued by penalties as well. Center Brian Schwenke, who has been average in his two years, finished the year on injured reserve. The Titans used seven different tackles a year ago, thanks to injuries. None of them was effective. Starter Michael Oher struggled and was released. The Titans did bring back Byron Stingily to compete with free-agent signee Byron Bell, who played poorly in Carolina last year. The Titans hope that third-round pick Jeremiah Poutasi can claim a spot in camp.
The biggest move of the offseason for the defense wasn’t a player but a coach. Legendary defensive mind Dick LeBeau, a long-time friend of Whisenhunt, comes over after parting ways with the Steelers. Ray Horton still has the title of defensive coordinator, but LeBeau is calling the shots. Personnel-wise, the Titans needed upgrades after ranking 27th overall defensively and allowing 373 yards per game in 2014. Other than adding rookie Angelo Blackson on the defensive line, the Titans kept the status quo among the front three, where end Jurrell Casey is by far the best player. Nose tackle Sammie Hill is adequate, and Ropati Pitoitua, on the other end, is a decent run stopper, but not much as a pass rusher. End Karl Klug was re-signed and is a solid role player.
The Titans needed help at outside linebacker and signed Redskins free agent Brian Orakpo, who will help if he can stay healthy. They re-upped Derrick Morgan, who made a decent transition last year from 4-3 defensive end to 3-4 linebacker. Avery Williamson, a 2014 fifth-round pick, was a nice find with 79 tackles. He will start alongside Zach Brown, lost for the year in Week 1 with torn pectoral in 2014. That drops veteran Wesley Woodyard into a reserve role.
The secondary got a makeover in the offseason. Safety Bernard Pollard, who missed most of last year with an Achilles injury, popped off about the organization and was released. Da’Norris Searcy was imported from Buffalo to take his place. He will start alongside Michael Griffin, who has lost a step but still plays OK if there is sufficient talent around him. At cornerback, Jason McCourty is solid on one side, and Perrish Cox comes over from the 49ers as an upgrade over Blidi Wreh-Wilson, who struggled badly last year in coverage. Nickel back Coty Sensabaugh is so-so, but the Titans seem to like young backup safeties Marqueston Huff and Daimion Stafford, who could contribute in certain sub-packages.
The Titans made sure to re-sign reliable kicker Ryan Succop (19-of-22 on field goals), who came to the team after being cut by the Chiefs last year. Solid punter Brett Kern and long snapper Beau Brinkley received contract extensions as well. With Leon Washington not re-signed, McCluster should claim return duties. Seventh-round receiver Tre McBride or veteran Jacoby Ford could be options as well.
The Titans have a long way to go before they can return to respectability. They have chosen Mariota to lead them there. The talented quarterback passes the eye test and has the smarts to give the Titans their first franchise quarterback since Steve McNair. But it will probably take some time as he adjusts to an NFL offense. Expect the Titans to be better in 2015, but they’re probably still another offseason away from contending.
Prediction: 4th in AFC South
Coach Bill O’Brien knows he can’t expect the kind of improvement the Texans made in his first season, but it doesn’t mean they can’t challenge Indianapolis for the AFC South title and compete for a wild-card berth. Despite playing four quarterbacks and starting three, the Texans improved by an NFL-best seven victories to 9–7 and missed the playoffs on the last Sunday of the season. They added 13 veteran free agents and seven draft choices in an effort to increase firepower on both sides of the ball. They let go of the best player in franchise history, receiver Andre Johnson, and it better not backfire. They could have as many as eight new starters, including five on a defense that improved dramatically during a 4–1 finish that teased a football-crazed city that hasn’t had a team advance as far as the AFC Championship Game since the Oilers after the 1979 season.
If the Texans won nine games with three different starting quarterbacks, imagine what they’re capable of accomplishing if they develop stability at the most important position.
Ryan Fitzpatrick (Jets) and Case Keenum (Rams) were traded, and they took eight of the nine victories with them. In the first two starts of his career, Ryan Mallett was 1–1 but underwent season-ending surgery on a torn pectoral muscle. His competition is Brian Hoyer, a journeyman who went 7–6 as a starter in Cleveland last season. Like Mallett, Hoyer played for O’Brien and offensive coordinator George Godsey in New England. Hoyer, the most mobile of the group, has just 17 games of starting experience, but that’s 15 more than Mallett. Last year’s fourth-round pick, cannon-armed Tom Savage, is still watching and learning.
Whoever wins the job will miss Johnson, who was released and signed with AFC South rival Indianapolis after 12 exceptional seasons in Houston. DeAndre Hopkins emerged as a bona fide No. 1 go-to guy in 2014 with terrific ball skills and excellent hands. Opposite Hopkins, the Texans might take a receiver-by-committee approach. They have more candidates than the Republican party in third-round pick Jaelen Strong, veteran free agents Cecil Shorts and Nate Washington and holdovers Keshawn Martin and Damaris Johnson.
The coaches also need more production from the tight ends. Starter Garrett Graham and backups C.J. Fiedorowicz and Ryan Griffin combined for 32 catches. All have their strengths and weaknesses. Solving the quarterback issue might help the tight ends’ productivity.
O’Brien and Godsey like to run the ball as much as possible. Arian Foster, who battled a hamstring injury, and rookie Alfred Blue combined for almost 1,800 yards rushing and scored 16 touchdowns. The coaches need to do a better job of managing Foster’s touches. They used him as a receiver a lot, including in the slot, because he has such superb hands; but that exposed him to more punishment. Blue, a between-the-tackles runner entering his second season, should be able to take some of that load off Foster.
New offensive line coach Mike Devlin earned an impressive reputation with the Jets as someone who makes his players more physical and technically sound. As a group, the line played well, but individually, only right guard Brandon Brooks could pound his chest. He’s a mauler with nifty feet, and he’s improved every season. With long-time center Chris Myers having been released, Ben Jones moves from left guard. Xavier Su’a-Filo, last year’s second-round pick, should replace Jones. They need to develop depth they can count on, especially in the interior of the line.
Did the defense finally figure out coordinator Romeo Crennel’s complicated system down the stretch, or was the impressive performance on that side of the ball an aberration? During their 4–1 stretch drive, they ranked fourth in points allowed, second in total defense and first in third-down conversions. Overall, the Texans set a franchise record by forcing an NFL-high 34 turnovers one season after they recorded 11, the fewest since the merger in 1970. Can the defense keep up that pace, especially if it has four or five new starters?
The most famous new face belongs to mammoth nose tackle Vince Wilfork, coming off another Super Bowl victory with New England. He plans to settle in next to J.J. Watt. Wilfork is supposed to tie up two blockers and stuff the run before turning over the pass rush to younger players such as Watt, the two-time Defensive Player of the Year.
Crennel used Watt in inventive ways — moving him up and down the line — but he needs help from the infirmary. Outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney, who missed much of his rookie season with a knee injury, is coming along nicely from microfracture surgery, but he’s got a long way to go to be ready for the opener against Kansas City. When he gets back on the field, no one has a clue about how effective he can be or if he can stay healthy.
Inside linebacker Brian Cushing played most of last season, but he wasn’t the same three-down player he was before he underwent two knee surgeries. The coaches are hoping he’s regained his speed and agility.
It would elevate the defensive performance if outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus improved on last season’s career-low five sacks. He’s a weak-side rusher who must be more productive. He’s moving to the other side to take on tight ends. He sets the edge well and can drop into coverage, but he has to be more physical at the point of attack.
There’s been a revolving door at safety but not at cornerback, where Johnathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson are together for a fifth consecutive season. They play hard against the run, cover well and are seasoned veterans. Kevin Johnson, the first-round pick, should be the nickel corner.
One of the biggest free-agent acquisitions was free safety Rahim Moore. The coaches wanted more of a centerfielder, and Moore had four interceptions for Denver last season. He’s got range and brains and needs to become the captain of the secondary in place of Kendrick Lewis, who bolted for Baltimore after Moore was signed.
There was nothing special about the Texans’ special teams last season, though kicker Randy Bullock (30-of-35 field goals, 130 points) and punter Shane Lechler (46.3-yard gross, 38.7 net) aren’t the problem. O’Brien is threatening to use starters if coverage and returns don’t improve. In a reserve role at Philadelphia, Chris Polk returned only 11 kickoffs but averaged 30.9 yards, including a 102-yard touchdown. Ideally, he makes the roster in the backfield and becomes a weapon on kickoff returns. If not, receivers Damaris Johnson and Martin can compete for the return job. Neither deserves it. The only thing the Texans can count on is long snapper Jon Weeks, who does an outstanding job.
Missing the playoffs on the last day of the season means fans and media — as well as owner Bob McNair — are expecting the Texans to make the playoffs. It’s a reasonable expectation, but it won’t be realistic if they suffer injuries where they lack quality depth. This is a well-coached team with a lot of talent and a favorable schedule that has a good chance to improve on last season’s nine victories.
Prediction: 2nd in AFC South
Mike Gundy sat in his office, admiring the framed jerseys of the six first-round NFL Draft picks of his time at Oklahoma State. He considered, too, where they came from.
“Four of them weren’t even recruited,” Gundy said.
Not coveted prospects, carrying the sparkling five-star status that every prep player desires. Not the talk of recruitniks on National Signing Day. “The other guys,” Gundy said, “they weren’t very highly recruited. For that reason, I don’t put a lot of stock in recruiting rankings.”
Perhaps not, and Gundy has a strong track record of making more out of less in terms of prospect perceptions, evident in the jersey wall decorations adorning his office: Brandon Pettigrew, Russell Okung, Dez Bryant, Justin Blackmon, Brandon Weeden and Justin Gilbert.
Still, others are taking stock of Big 12 recruiting as a whole, coming off a February in which the conference lagged significantly in the rankings. That stock watch is trending down.
Moreover, the Big 12 hasn’t claimed a national championship since 2005, and it hasn’t played for one since 2009. It found itself shut out of the first College Football Playoff, failing to land even one of the four spots to conclude last season. Maybe some concern is in order?
This Feature and More are Available in the 2015 Athlon Sports Big 12 Preview Magazine
Don’t expect anyone in the Big 12 to cop to such a stance. No coach ever met a recruiting class — his recruiting class — that he couldn’t gush over publicly. Case in point, Iowa State’s Paul Rhoads, whose class was ranked No. 9 in the Big 12 and No. 70 nationally by the 247Sports Composite, just ahead of Kansas, which was recruiting with a just-hired head coach:
“We had a great finish with the class of 2015,” Rhoads said on Signing Day. “In previous years, we pretty much had a full understanding of where we were by the middle of January. With this particular class, we were in a lot of fights in the last two weeks leading up to Signing Day. We closed in tremendous fashion. We picked up much-needed size, physical explosiveness on both lines, great skill in the backfield and overall numbers that were necessary for success in 2015.”
Critique of Big 12 recruiting doesn’t focus on Iowa State, but rather the league’s regular contenders. Even there, you’ll find warning signs. Texas was the only Big 12 team to crack the 247Sports Composite top 10, and that was at No. 10. Oklahoma came in at No. 15. From there, it was a major drop-off to Texas Tech at No. 31. The rest: No. 35 West Virginia, No. 36 Baylor, No. 39 Oklahoma State, No. 40 TCU, No. 53 Kansas State, No. 70 Iowa State and No. 72 Kansas.
Big 12 teams signed but nine of the 247Sports Composite’s top 100 players and three of the top 70.
|247Sports Composite Top 100|
Equally troubling is the league’s performance in the fertile recruiting landscape of Texas, where the Longhorns and Sooners have long dominated and the rest of the Big 12 has scored strong as well. But in February, the conference pulled only two of the Lone Star State’s top 10, while 26 of the top 50 — the state’s premium prospects — fled to other conferences, 21 to the SEC. It appears to be a trend, too, with the SEC plucking five of the top 10 prospects in 2014. The Big 12 managed signatures from only 23 of the top 50 that year. The SEC also grabbed three of the state’s five-star recruits.
“Three years from now, look at the signing class and see how those kids are playing,” says West Virginia assistant coach Joe DeForest, long considered one of the Big 12’s top recruiters. “That’s when you know.”
The hope come 2018 may be that it’s not too late.
Of course, that’s assuming the outside recruiting analysts are to be taken seriously. Coaches, for the most part, suggest otherwise.
“It’s about, what does the film say, first and foremost,” says Oklahoma assistant Jay Boulware. “Once you identify a guy on tape, then you go out and see what he looks like physically, in person. Can he play at this level physically? If those two things check out, then it doesn’t matter whether, excuse my language, some reporter has labeled this kid as a four- or five-star. What matters is what we see as coaches. I can look at a guy like Dimitri Flowers, who is here and was a three-star. He’s a true freshman who is playing for us on Saturdays. That’s big. That’s not one of the top-notch guys in the country. I don’t care where I’ve been, that kid will be playing for us anywhere. He’s that type of player.”
That’s the evaluation side of the recruiting process from a coaching standpoint; a trained-eye standpoint. Not just stopwatches and bench-presses, but other measurables, along with intangibles, too. “It’s not just talent,” DeForest says. “There has to be a personality fit as well.”
During Gundy’s run, Oklahoma State has signed just one high school recruit who received a five-star ranking by any of the recruiting services, running back Herschel Sims out of Abilene, Texas. Sims got in trouble, was dismissed and is now at Abilene Christian, after also washing out at Lamar.
“I will say this,” Gundy says, “five-star guys, they’re pretty accurate because they’re easy to identify. Just like McDonald’s All-Americans in basketball, most times they’re pretty good. There’s only so many of them.
“You don’t see many five-stars in football, so most of them have been pretty accurate. We had one; didn’t pan out.”
|247Sports Top 100 Recruits Signed by the Big 12|
The Cowboys have made their rise in the Big 12 on the backs of players they evaluated differently than others. To an extent, so have Baylor and TCU, who have accounted for the past two Big 12 championships, winning with 3-star recruits at quarterback — Bryce Petty for the Bears and Trevone Boykin for the Horned Frogs — both of whom have been All-Big 12 and Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year.
Mack Brown recruited supposedly elite classes almost annually to Texas yet was fired amid complaints about his evaluation skills. In 2012, Texas ranked second nationally in recruiting, and OU was No. 12. Yet no player in that Longhorns class has played on a conference title team. Instead, it’s been TCU and Baylor, who ranked No. 29 and No. 26, respectively, that year, who have upped the ante in the league with their cast of three-stars.
“I’ve been at West Virginia now going on my fourth year,” DeForest says. “I’ve coached two Freshman All-American safeties, the Lou Groza Award finalist, an All-American kick returner, an All-American punt returner. But those guys weren’t all that in the recruiting world.
“Karl Joseph was a ‘Mike’ linebacker in high school in Orlando, Fla. Now he’s one of the best safeties in the country. Josh Lambert had nothing in the way of a scholarship offer until I got there in January and we were in dire need of a kicker. Two years later, he’s a Lou Groza Award finalist.”
Related: 2015 Big 12 Preview and Picks
The second part of the evaluation equation: development.
Even five-star players need to be developed, no matter how college-ready they seem. But for teams like TCU, Baylor, OSU, West Virginia and Kansas State — Bill Snyder is considered the king of player development — molding players is their calling card.
When Snyder’s 2014 class actually made a ripple in the recruiting rankings, the coach hardly sounded any trumpets. “I think it is a good class,” Snyder says. “How will it rank? Who knows? A bunch of those guys are ranked extremely high by ESPN. There are 13 of our guys who are ranked, at their position, in the top 44 of the country. Some of them are high school; some of them are community college. You know me. That doesn’t mean a whole lot to me. That doesn’t mean it will be a great class or a bad class or anything else. … It will prove itself out.”
The Horned Frogs have ranked higher than No. 30 in the 247Sports Composite rankings only once — they came in at No. 29 in 2012.
“I really think it’s about player development. I think it’s about fit and player development,” DeForest says. “I don’t think rankings mean anything. The people who get caught up in that are the fans. The coaches don’t. Now, some coaches have bonuses tied up in it, if you get a top-10 class, you get a bonus, things like that.
“Social media, rankings, the fact that ESPN is doing an entire day on it — on Signing Day — I think it’s gotten out of hand. That’s my opinion. But I do think that coaches who get ‘two-stars’ and develop them into three-year starters at the Division-I level and give them an opportunity to go to the NFL, those are the coaches who are lot more valuable.”
Boulware sees it similarly. And he finds value in a very specific style of player. “There are a lot of guys that go off press clippings,” Boulware says. “It means something to their staff to have a top-five or top-10 recruiting class. That’s nice. I get it. What matters to me is winning football games and winning football games with the right people.
“The guys that fit into our program, good character young men that physically have all the tools and the things that we look for, if they have those, that’s who we’re going after.”
-by John Helsley, NewsOK.com
Who will Tiger Woods date next, now that he has broken up with Lindsey Vonn?
— Jessica S., Scottsdale, Ariz.
For those so inclined, gambling website Paddy Power recently placed odds on Tiger’s next girlfriend. Ex-wife Elin Nordegren (7/1) leads the field, which is logical since she is the mother of his two children, Sam and Charlie. Then again, there’s a reason Elin went through a $100-million divorce with Tiger. After that, singer Nicole Scherzinger (12/1), model Irina Shayk (16/1) and actress Cameron Diaz (16/1) are the leading ladies. There are a few eyebrow-raising long shots, including Lindsay Lohan (25/1), Rihanna (33/1), Danica Patrick (33/1), Jennifer Aniston (40/1), Britney Spears (50/1) and Pippa Middleton (100/1). Don’t bet on it.
On the Fourth of July, onlookers will watch in amazement during the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest, as competitive eaters scarf down dozens of dogs in an Independence Day tradition unlike any other. We spoke with the event’s eight-time defending champ Joey Chestnut, 31, a man whose career consumption numbers are staggering: 69 hot dogs in 10 minutes, a world-record 182 chicken wings in 10 minutes and 390 shrimp in a single sitting just because he could.
Here are his secrets to success:
Qualify to Conquer
“It takes close to 30 hot dogs to advance in a Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest qualifier. If you want to do this, keep a food diary and pay attention to how your body responds to how much you’re eating. It’s not about all that you can eat; it’s about making your body work for you for those 10 minutes.”
Fast, Then Furious
“I follow a very strict diet. The day after every practice, I eat yogurt and a salad and then I go into fasting, drinking only water. When I was young I thought I didn’t need a diet, but I do my best the thinner I am. I swim every day in my pool. …
“I’ve done this for nine years, and I’ve slowly built up my tolerance. During the competitive season in the summer, I follow a cycle where I practice every fourth day and then I fast for two days. My practices mimic the competitions. If I’m preparing for the hot dog contest, I try to eat 60 hot dogs in 10 minutes.”
“I’ll fast three days before an event, and during that time I’ll drink three to six gallons of water a day. It’s very much a cleanse to make sure I go into the competition empty. The day of the event I’ll drink a small amount of water and some coffee. …
“Water helps the food settle down deep in my stomach. Soaking the bun also makes swallowing faster. I don’t ever worry about liquid capacity. I’ve found the more liquid I consume, the easier it is to digest the food.”
No Pain, No Gain …
“Like how runners hit that wall, I do feel the point when my body tells me to stop. I’m pretty good at ignoring that feeling. I even have ‘Ignore Feelings’ written on my mirror at home. I accept that it is going to hurt, and that makes it easier to push through it.”
… No Fear
“Like a professional swimmer can’t imagine choking on water during a race, I can’t imagine choking on hot dogs. It looks like I’m not chewing, but I’m chewing just enough to swallow.”
—by Matt McCue
Just like last year, Athlon Sports' 2015 NFL Preview magazine includes NFL player rankings at every position. The rankings in the magazine are provided by Dan Shonka of Ourlads' NFL Scouting Services, a company that's been in the football talent evaluation business for more than three decades.
Seattle's quest for a second straight Super Bowl title came up painfully short, but it wasn't due to the efforts of the league's best secondary. The Legion of Boom is a big reason for the Seahawks' two-year reign (and counting) in the NFC, a group headlined by a trio of All-Pros in cornerback Richard Sherman (No. 2) and safeties Earl Thomas (No. 1) and Kam Chancellor (No. 3). Whether Sherman or Darrelle Revis is the NFL's top shutdown cornerback is up for debate, but what's not is how important Seattle's defensive backs are to the team's success. While the consecutive Super Bowl appearances should be enough to back this up, consider that Sherman (left elbow), Thomas (dislocated left shoulder), and Chancellor (left knee) each played through an injury on Super Sunday and came just a last-second Russell Wilson interception shy of beating Tom Brady and the Patriots.
Rankings courtesy of Ourlads' NFL Scouting Services
2015 NFL Player Rankings: Cornerbacks
1. Darrelle Revis, N.Y. Jets
The All-Pro shutdown corner is back with the Jets on a five-year, $70 million deal after picking up a Super Bowl ring with New England.
2. Richard Sherman, Seattle
The All-Pro selection was the least-targeted cornerback in the NFL last season. One of the most competitive and rangy corners, he challenges every ball in his area.
3. Chris Harris Jr., Denver
A versatile, skilled outside corner who can also play in the slot or at safety, Harris earned a Pro Bowl invite last season thanks to his standout ball skills.
4. Vontae Davis, Indianapolis
After a trade from the Dolphins to the Colts, Davis’ career as a top coverage corner took off and earned him a Pro Bowl invitation in 2014.
5. Patrick Peterson, Arizona
After diagnosis and treatment of diabetes, he was back winning his share of one-on-one battles with the league’s elite receivers.
6. Joe Haden, Cleveland
Haden is tough in run support and a good open-field tackler. The five-year veteran totaled 73 tackles, 20 passes defended and three interceptions in 2014.
7. Sean Smith, Kansas City
His length helps him in press coverage, and he has become more technique conscious. Due to a DUI conviction, Smith likely will be suspended for the first two games.
8. Aqib Talib, Denver
Talib earned back-to-back Pro Bowl invitations with New England and Denver, finishing last season with 16 passes defended, four interceptions and two touchdowns.
9. Desmond Trufant, Atlanta
One of the top young corners in the game, Trufant has good short-area quickness and takes a direct line to the ball with no false steps.
10. Alterraun Verner, Tampa Bay
Verner should be a perfect fit in Lovie Smith’s Cover 2. He does a good job rerouting receivers with his quick feet and reactions.
11. Rashean Mathis, Detroit
12. Orlando Scandrick, Dallas
13. Corey Graham, Buffalo
14. Byron Maxwell, Philadelphia
15. Antonio Cromartie, N.Y. Jets
16. Darius Slay, Detroit
17. Brandon Flowers, San Diego
18. Chris Culliver, Washington
19. Kareem Jackson, Houston
20. Tim Jennings, Chicago
21. Xavier Rhodes, Minnesota
22. Tramon Williams, Cleveland
23. Brent Grimes, Miami
24. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, N.Y. Giants
25. Johnathan Joseph, Houston
26. Prince Amukamara, N.Y. Giants
27. Stephon Gilmore, Buffalo
28. William Gay, Pittsburgh
29. Lardarius Webb, Baltimore
30. Perrish Cox, Tennessee
2015 NFL Player Rankings: Safeties
1. Earl Thomas, Seattle
A defensive leader who has become a perennial All-Pro-caliber player.
2. Eric Weddle, San Diego
Consistently mentioned with the game’s top free safeties, Weddle earned his fifth All-Pro selection in 2014 and is a standout special teams player.
3. Kam Chancellor, Seattle
A cornerstone of the Seahawks’ defense as the secondary’s physical tone-setter, Chancellor played through a torn MCL in the Super Bowl.
4. Glover Quin, Detroit
A big-time coverage safety who can cover deep or play the nickel, Quin led the NFL with seven interceptions.
5. Tashaun Gipson, Cleveland
Second in the league with six interceptions, Gipson also defended eight passes and returned one pick for a touchdown.
6. Harrison Smith, Minnesota
Smith has emerged as one of the best young safeties in the league. The former Golden Domer had 92 tackles and five interceptions.
7. Devin McCourty, New England
The corner-turned-safety is one of the league’s most dependable players. McCourty is smart and athletic and has unlimited coverage range.
8. Antoine Bethea, San Francisco
After finishing with 14 passes defended (including four INTs), Bethea has been an underrated safety with the general public but not the league’s receivers.
9. Mike Adams, Indianapolis
In his first season with the Colts, Adams reached his first career Pro Bowl at age 33. He intercepted five passes and forced two fumbles last season.
10. Reshad Jones, Miami
The big-hitting safety also plays the ball well in the air. He was responsible for 80 tackles and seven passes defended along with three interceptions in 2014.
11. Jairus Byrd, New Orleans
12. Donte Whitner, Cleveland
13. George Iloka, Cincinnati
14. Malcolm Jenkins, Philadelphia
15. Reggie Nelson, Cincinnati
16. Patrick Chung, New England
17. Michael Griffin, Tennessee
18. Morgan Burnett, Green Bay
19. Robert Blanton, Minnesota
20. T.J. Ward, Denver
21. Antrel Rolle, Chicago
22. Dawan Landry, Free Agent
23. William Moore, Atlanta
24. Da’Norris Searcy, Tennessee
25. Will Hill, Baltimore
26. Calvin Pryor, N.Y. Jets
27. Darian Stewart, Denver
28. Danieal Manning, Free Agent
29. James Ihedigbo, Detroit
30. Nate Allen, Oakland
Just like last year, Athlon Sports' 2015 NFL Preview magazine includes NFL player rankings at every position. The rankings in the magazine are provided by Dan Shonka of Ourlads' NFL Scouting Services, a company that's been in the football talent evaluation business for more than three decades.
Not surprisingly, when it comes to the NFL's top linebackers, the list starts with the likes of Luke Kuechly, Justin Houston and Lavonte David. The first two were All-Pros last season, not to mention the fact that Kuechly already has a Defensive Player of the Year award on his resume and Houston came just a half-sack shy of Michael Strahan's single-season record in 2014. And while David may not have the same accolades as his peers, all he's done is average 143 tackles through his first three seasons. But there's also plenty of depth at this position too, whether it come in the form of veterans like Von Miller, Terrell Suggs and DeAndre Levy or younger players like Jaime Collins, Bobby Wagner, Khalil Mack and C.J. Mosley.
Rankings courtesy of Ourlads' NFL Scouting Services
2015 NFL Player Rankings: Inside Linebackers
(Editor's note: San Francisco's NaVorro Bowman, who missed all of 2014, does not appear in this year's rankings because of lingering concerns over the health of his surgically repaired knee.)
1. Luke Kuechly, Carolina
Kuechly is the poster guy for competitive, instinctive and intense linebacker play. Last season, he was selected to his second career Pro Bowl and led the NFL in tackles. He’s started all 48 games in his career.
2. Dont’a Hightower, New England
Hightower is a physical run stuffer with the strength and ability to shed quickly at the point of attack. Most important, he made the key tackle on Marshawn Lynch at the 1-yard line in the Super Bowl.
3. Jamie Collins, New England
An ascending player who is getting more efficient every year, Collins has long arms and big hands, which help him shed blocks with his combination of power and speed.
4. Bobby Wagner, Seattle
A Pro Bowl performer, Wagner has top-level instincts and good overall technique. He is quick to read and react, has good range and takes productive angles in pursuit.
5. Sean Lee, Dallas
Lee is a competitor who doesn’t get fooled. He’s versatile enough to play inside or outside in the 4-3, but the Cowboys will start him on the outside in hopes of keeping him healthy and on the field.
6. Kiko Alonso, Philadelphia
Like Lee, Alonso missed last season due to a torn ACL. That didn’t stop Philadelphia from acquiring the former Oregon Duck for LeSean McCoy. In 2013, Alonso was second in the AP NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year voting.
7. Brian Cushing, Houston
When healthy, Cushing is an All-Pro-caliber player, gaining such honors in 2009 and 2011. In 2014 — his first season in the last three in which he played more than seven games — Cushing started 14 games and totaled 72 tackles.
8. Mychal Kendricks, Philadelphia
Despite missing four games with a calf injury last season, Kendricks is averaging 88 tackles per season. The instinctive playmaker was in on 75 tackles, one sack and three forced fumbles last season.
9. Daryl Smith, Baltimore
A free-agent steal for the Ravens in 2013, Smith is known for consistent, instinctive and intense play. For the past two years the sideline-to-sideline performer has averaged more than 125 tackles per season.
10. Karlos Dansby, Cleveland
The 11-year veteran is recognized league-wide as an instinctive and productive defensive leader. He is one of only two players heading into the 2015 season with at least 30 career sacks and 10 career interceptions.
11. Brandon Marshall, Denver
12. Preston Brown, Buffalo
13. Lawrence Timmons, Pittsburgh
14. Demario Davis, N.Y. Jets
15. C.J. Mosley, Baltimore
16. Koa Misi, Miami
17. Avery Williamson, Tennessee
18. Craig Robertson, Cleveland
19. DeMeco Ryans, Philadelphia
20. David Harris, N.Y. Jets
2015 NFL Player Rankings: 3-4 Outside Linebackers
1. Justin Houston, Kansas City
A first-team All-Pro in 2014, Houston has 48.5 sacks in his four-year career. Only J.J. Watt has disrupted more dropbacks since 2011.
2. Von Miller, Denver
A nightmare for edge-blocking tackles, tight ends and backs, Miller has a knack and desire to excel working to the quarterback. In his four-year career he has 49 sacks, including 14 last season.
3. Terrell Suggs, Baltimore
The Ravens’ all-time leader in sacks added 12 more in 2014. He’s an explosive athlete who has had a pattern of yearly production from college through pro football.
4. Elvis Dumervil, Baltimore
A fast-twitch athlete who works through blocks, Dumervil had 17 sacks in his 2014 All-Pro season. The prolific edge rusher has 90 sacks between his Denver stint and two years with the Ravens.
5. Clay Matthews, Green Bay
After a temporary move to inside linebacker, Matthews arguably had his best season with the variety of assignments. A five-time Pro Bowl selection.
6. Paul Kruger, Cleveland
A relentless high-motor defender who recorded 11 sacks in 2014, Kruger has been a productive asset since signing as an unrestricted free agent in 2013. He displays a sudden punch and spin move with an upfield burst.
7. Connor Barwin, Philadelphia
The versatile and athletic edge rusher was in on 64 tackles including 14.5 sacks, tied with Buffalo’s Mario Williams for fourth in the league.
8. Pernell McPhee, Chicago
McPhee had a combined 38 quarterback knockdowns and hurries in 2014.
9. Brandon Graham, Philadelphia
Last season, Graham recorded 13.5 tackles for a loss, four forced fumbles and 18 QB hurries.
10. Ryan Kerrigan, Washington
Kerrigan racked up 13.5 sacks in 2014 and has never missed a start in his four-year pro career. He is consistent and nonstop in his play.
11. Julius Peppers, Green Bay
12. Derrick Morgan, Tennessee
13. Jason Babin, N.Y. Jets
14. James Harrison, Pittsburgh
15. Chandler Jones, New England
16. Tamba Hali, Kansas City
17. Trent Cole, Indianapolis
18. Rob Ninkovich, New England
19. Brooks Reed, Atlanta
20. Whitney Mercilus, Houston
2015 NFL Player Rankings: 4-3 Outside Linebackers
1. Lavonte David, Tampa Bay
A tackling machine with natural and instinctive ability to recognize and react to run or pass, David was third in the league with 146 tackles.
2. Khalil Mack, Oakland
An athletic linebacker who can dip his shoulder, penetrate into the backfield and pressure the quarterback, Mack started all 16 games as a rookie and had 76 total tackles.
3. DeAndre Levy, Detroit
Levy is an athletic linebacker who can play square, work through traffic and run in space. Only Luke Kuechly had more tackles than Levy’s 151 last season.
4. Thomas Davis, Carolina
An aggressive and explosive hitter, Davis has worked through three ACL surgeries during his career to become one of the league’s best linebackers. He’s totaled over 100 tackles for the third year in a row.
5. K.J. Wright, Seattle
A productive tackler who is instinctive and physical, Wright is better in a confined area. He’s a multi-scheme athlete who totaled 107 tackles in 2014.
6. Anthony Barr, Minnesota
Barr has a good combination of length and take-off edge speed. He can beat an offensive tackle with athletic ability and double moves. In 12 games as a rookie, Barr registered 70 tackles, four sacks, two forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries.
7. Jelani Jenkins, Miami
Jenkins is instinctive with a nose for the ball and has all the tools for a coverage linebacker. He made 110 tackles and forced two fumbles in 14 starts last fall.
8. Bruce Carter, Tampa Bay
Carter is a fluid athlete who can cover a lot of ground. Agile through traffic and with no hold up in pursuit, Carter has the speed to run with backs and tight ends in coverage.
9. Nigel Bradham, Buffalo
Versatile enough to play any of the positions in any scheme, Bradham is an athletic linebacker who can cover a tight end. He has good closing speed in pursuit. He was in on 104 tackles and defended six passes.
10. Danny Lansanah, Tampa Bay
An overnight success after being in the league off and on since 2008, Lansanah started 11 games in 2014 and recorded 82 tackles and three interceptions, two returned for TDs.
11. Justin Durant, Atlanta
12. Philip Wheeler, San Francisco
13. Vincent Rey, Cincinnati
14. Alec Ogletree, St. Louis
15. Sio Moore, Oakland
16. Anthony Hitchens, Dallas
17. Chad Greenway, Minnesota
18. Emmanuel Lamur, Cincinnati
19. Bruce Irvin, Seattle
20. Telvin Smith, Jacksonville
The morning of the NFL Draft, Bucs general manager Jason Licht took a walk around the team’s three practice fields completely at peace with the decision to select Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston with the No. 1 overall pick.
“It’s like your wedding day,” Licht says. “Without the cold feet.’’
For better or worse — and some would lean toward the latter — the Bucs’ fortunes and those of Licht and coach Lovie Smith are married to Winston, one of the most polarizing picks in modern NFL Draft history. A civil suit stemming from allegations of a sexual assault for which Winston was never charged, along with a series of relatively minor acts of immaturity, follow the mercurial former Seminole to the NFL.
But the Bucs' decision-makers are more than satisfied with Winston’s character after doing research that included conducting exhaustive interviews of more than 75 people.
“If he wasn’t a good guy, we wouldn’t have used a first pick on him,” Licht says.
On the field, Winston has few peers. He went 26–1 as a starting quarterback at Florida State, and he won the Heisman Trophy and a national championship.
“I would just ask our fans to give him a chance,” Smith says.
The Bucs believe Winston is a transformational quarterback who will eventually put them on equal footing with the other gunslingers in the NFC South — the Saints’ Drew Brees, the Falcons’ Matt Ryan and the Panthers’ Cam Newton.
Winston is a plug-and-play talent who comes from a pro-style offense. He can check protections, read the defense and get through all the progressions. Perhaps more impressive, Winston can make any throw on the field.
The key is whether the Bucs can find a way to protect him. Tampa Bay allowed 52 sacks last season, tied for the third-most in the NFL. That’s why Licht invested a pair of second-round picks on Penn State left tackle Donovan Smith and guard Ali Marpet from Division III Hobart College. Both are projected to start as rookies. But the Bucs must get better performances from holdovers such as center Evan Dietrich-Smith, guard Logan Mankins and tackle Demar Dotson.
Winston does have 6-5 targets in Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson, a pair of 1,000-yard receivers. Evans was a Rookie of the Year candidate despite missing most of the offseason with a hamstring strain. He had a monster three-game stretch in November in which he caught 21 passes for 458 yards and five touchdowns. Second-year tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins missed the final four games of 2014 with a back injury but shows the ability to get downfield. He caught 21 passes for 221 yards but is capable of much more.
The Bucs decided not to pick up the fifth-year option on running back Doug Martin, who has played only 17 games in the last two years after rushing for 1,454 yards and 11 touchdowns as a rookie. Martin doesn’t seem to be versatile or physical enough to fit Smith’s preference of running style, but at least he will be motivated in a contract year. The Bucs plan to increase the workload for Charles Sims, who missed the first half of his rookie season with an ankle injury. He showed more promise as pass catcher than runner. Licht attempted to upgrade the speed and athleticism on offense, beginning with the two linemen and Nebraska receiver Kenny Bell.
One of the biggest additions to the Bucs attack is offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, who hung 56 points on Smith last season while operating the Falcons offense. Smith and the Bucs were dealt a setback with the loss of offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford, who never returned after a heart procedure, but Koetter is more than a stopgap replacement, and he has a spread-the-field passer in Winston like he had in Matt Ryan.
But make no mistake. The offense will develop as quickly as Winston does.
The Bucs struggled in the first year of Smith’s Tampa 2 scheme. After six weeks, opponents were averaging 34 points per game. That prompted the beginning of an overhaul that will continue through 2015.
The foundation is defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who led the team with 8.5 sacks, and linebacker Lavonte David, who has the distinction of being an All-Pro (2013) before making a Pro Bowl. McCoy needs help and got some with the waiver claim of Jacquies Smith, who had 6.5 sacks in seven starts last season. The Bucs traded a fifth-round pick to the Lions for defensive end George Johnson, giving them another edge rusher to complement McCoy.
The Bucs also changed their philosophy in free agency. They pulled off the Band Aid by cutting high-priced free agent busts — such as Michael Johnson after only one season — and replaced them on defense with players who have a history of success in Smith’s defense or the Tampa 2 scheme.
Safety Chris Conte and defensive tackle Henry Melton both played for Smith in Chicago. Looking for more playmaking ability at middle linebacker, the Bucs signed former Cowboy Bruce Carter, who had five interceptions last season. They used a fourth-round pick on LSU linebacker Kwon Alexander, another run-and-hit machine with speed.
The secondary is solid with cornerbacks Alterraun Verner and Johnathan Banks. Banks led the team with four interceptions, and Verner, a former fourth-round pick of the Titans, was an under-the-radar free-agent acquisition last offseason. In addition to the rangy Conte, the Bucs believe the future is bright for strong safety Bradley McDougald, who took over following the trade of Mark Barron to the Rams. Tampa Bay also claimed former Houston Texans safety D.J. Swearinger off of waivers in May. A 2013 second-round pick, Swearinger made 22 starts for the Texans, but struggled last season.
Smith’s teams in Chicago were known for winning games on special teams. That’s hardly been the case in Tampa Bay, which struggled to settle on a kick returner. That’s why they drafted Utah’s Kaelin Clay, who had four returns for touchdowns last season to lead college football. The punt and kickoff return jobs are his to lose. Punter Michael Koenen is in the final year of his contract that pays him $3.75 million. But his pay didn’t match his production as he ranked 29th with a 37.1-yard net average and the team claimed former Cleveland punter Spencer Lanning off waivers in early June to create competition for the job. The Bucs’ placekicking game is solid behind Patrick Murray, who was 5-of-6 from 50-plus yards, including a long of 55. Overall, Murray made 20-of-24 field goals but is capable of more. The kick coverage teams should be improved with the addition of some athletic linebackers and receivers who have specialized as gunners such as Bell.
Winston has the talent and confidence to be a frontrunner for Rookie of the Year. But until the Bucs improve around him, he won’t be enough to make them real contenders in the NFC South. The season opener against the Titans and Marcus Mariota offers a juicy storyline. But Winston has to be dedicated on and off the field to make this gamble pay off.
Prediction: 4th in NFC South
(Winston photo at top courtesy of Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Web site)
The bleeding never stopped. The Falcons blew a 17-point lead at home in the 2012 NFC Championship Game and, two full seasons later, still haven’t recovered. An offensive line thin on talent suffered a collection of season-ending injuries in two consecutive offseasons. Julio Jones, easily the most talented player on the roster, was lost in 2013 to a broken foot. Tony Gonzalez, the greatest tight end in NFL history, retired after a frustrating 4–12 year that was supposed to be a last run at the Super Bowl. A defense built on bending instead of breaking shattered beyond repair, and a hasty personnel change did nothing to fix both lines in 2014.
From 2008-12, the Atlanta Falcons under Mike Smith and GM Thomas Dimitroff were a blueprint for stability and success. Matt Ryan became a franchise quarterback, and the organization posted back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in history. But since that so-close title run, the Falcons have imploded, winning 10 games in two years. Smith became the fall guy, due in large part to the defensive-minded head coach’s stubborn control of a league-worst unit. Accordingly, owner Arthur Blank has now turned to Seattle defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, architect of back-to-back Super Bowl defenses under Pete Carroll.
Entering 2013, the franchise seemed a tweak or two away from its first Super Bowl title. Entering 2014, conventional wisdom wrote off a stunning collapse as an extreme bout with Murphy’s Law. There’s no clear prognosis now: Atlanta has to rebuild its defense almost from scratch while finding a way to keep Ryan alive and productive.
The cautionary tale of almost any NFL failure is that no matter what, you can’t win without an elite quarterback throwing to consistent playmakers. The Falcons have one of the most consistent quarterbacks in the league and perhaps its best wide receiver. The problem — and the cold truth for Falcons fans — is that after that, there’s not much else.
Ryan, Jones and Roddy White: Even in the worst stretch of the Smith era, that battery remained reliable (when healthy). What 2014 exposed is that just about everything else has imploded around the Pro Bowl trio since the 2012 playoff run.
Expect an entirely new running game under new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. His 2014 Browns were fourth in the league in rushing touchdowns, while the Falcons’ 1,498 rushing yards were the 22nd-rated attack in Football Outsiders’ offensive efficiency metrics. Atlanta will shift to a zone-blocking scheme, emphasizing fast and mobile linemen breaking open holes for an overhauled trio of backs.
Porous line play and Steven Jackson’s career twilight hindered play-calling. Now rookie Tevin Coleman (2,036 yards and 15 TDs last year at Indiana) and Devonta Freeman will be expected to read blocks and break upfield. Still buried on the depth chart is the dangerous Antone Smith (10.3 yards per carry in two seasons as a backup). Smith has broken TD runs of 48 and 50 yards and could explode under Shanahan.
If Atlanta can run the ball with more efficiency and create balance, Ryan won’t have to force throws and risk turnovers. It’s hard to criticize Ryan’s increase in interceptions post-2012, as he’s been sacked 75 times in two years of 1,279 pass attempts. The unbalanced pass/run ratio has damaged the perception of Ryan as an elite quarterback.
Shanahan’s a creative play-caller, but simply bumping the run game up to mediocre will free Jones and White more than any schematic. Free agent Leonard Hankerson and rookie Justin Hardy will complement one of the best receiving tandems in the league. While veteran Jacob Tamme isn’t Gonzalez, he’s more reliable as a weapon than blocking tight end Levine Toilolo.
Quinn has carte blanche with an awful defense — 27th in scoring, 21st in rushing, and last in passing and third-down conversions — so any experimentation is welcome.
The end of the Smith era brought rumblings of discord between the staff and front office, with the beleaguered pass rush at the heart of the matter. Smith and former DC Mike Nolan wanted to stop the run to force the pass, while Dimitroff longed for a prototypical pass rusher. Quinn’s influence over the 2015 draft was inarguable, and Vic Beasley will almost certainly start at LEO, the end/linebacker weak-side rush position Seattle uses to great effect.
If Shanahan merely has to adjust and balance, Quinn and new defensive coordinator Raheem Morris have to perform a complete overhaul, and must do so with misfit parts. Smith and Nolan flirted with a transition to 3-4 looks in 2014, adding big bodies such as Paul Soliai and Ra’Shede Hageman to a rickety, aging 4-3 depth chart. The hybrid look was a total bust, and teams converted an astounding 46.8 percent of third downs.
Aside from Beasley, it’s anyone’s guess who makes the Opening Day front seven and how they’ll position exactly. Hageman and former undrafted rookie middle linebacker Paul Worrilow might be the only returning names, as Quinn and Dimitroff pulled in a host of former Seahawks and other free agents who are a better fit for the new style. Former Tampa Bay defensive end Adrian Clayborn will likely start opposite Beasley, and former Cowboy Justin Durant is the favorite to replace the departed Sean Weatherspoon at weak-side linebacker.
Desmond Trufant isn’t going anywhere, though: The third-year corner has quietly developed into one of the best in the league at his position. His size makes him a “Quinn guy,” and the Falcons drafted Jalen Collins, another long, aggressive corner to groom as his counterpart. Free safety is a question mark, but veteran William Moore is expected to have recovered from multiple injuries and should reclaim the job at strong safety.
A dramatic overhaul in philosophy and execution is needed. There is literally nowhere to go but up, and that’s the best news possible.
Devin Hester might be the best free-agent signing of Dimitroff’s career. The veteran was supposed to help bolster the Falcons’ return game and instead lit the entire special teams and receiving corps on fire. Hester led the league in total kickoff return yardage (1,128, the only player to go over 1,000 last season thanks to an awful Falcons scoring defense) and averaged 13.3 yards per catch as a viable rotation receiver. Until Jones’ deal is extended, Matt Bryant’s new contract extension is easily the most important bit of front office business in 2015. Bryant hit 29-of-32 field goals and was perfect inside of 50 yards as he’s remained one of the league’s elite clutch kickers. Punter Matt Bosher’s career 41.3-yard net average has made him one of the most reliable at his position.
It’s a distant memory now, but the Falcons were a possession away from locking up a Super Bowl trip two seasons ago. While it’s hard to classify any team with elite quarterback play as a true rebuilding effort, the Falcons’ long and horrific decline on defense might qualify them regardless of Ryan. Quinn has the bones of a terrific offense waiting on a defensive miracle, which is what he’ll have provided if Atlanta makes the playoffs in 2015.
Prediction: 3rd in NFC South
In 2014, the Carolina Panthers did something no other team in the NFC South had done before — they repeated as division champs.
Now in 2015 they will try to extend that streak to three years, relying once more on a standout defense that is the strength of the team.
In the offseason, the Panthers tried to get faster and to get quarterback Cam Newton some help for an offense that often struggled a year ago. They hope to avoid the awful start they had in 2014, when they began the season 3–8–1 and looked likely to earn a top-10 draft pick. They then ripped off five straight wins — four in the regular season and one in the playoffs over Arizona — before falling to Seattle on the road in a divisional playoff game.
The Panthers let troubled defensive end Greg Hardy leave for Dallas in free agency, but they still have the best middle linebacker in the game in Luke Kuechly. Newton and Kuechly are the faces of the franchise and will again determine much of the team’s fortunes in 2015.
The Panthers will remain a run-first offense in 2015. In the final five weeks of the 2014 regular season, Carolina ran for more yards than any other NFL team and went 4–1. That is the blueprint again this season. Bulldozer Jonathan Stewart will get the majority of the carries now that franchise leader DeAngelo Williams has been released. Newton is the Panthers’ second-best running threat — he has always been a dual-threat quarterback, although he is trying to be smarter about not taking as many hits. Fullback Mike Tolbert regressed in 2014 but will be counted on in short-yardage situations. Rookie Cameron Artis-Payne will contend with scatback Fozzy Whittaker for many of the carries that Stewart doesn’t get.
The most notable change on the offensive line comes at left tackle, where Michael Oher was signed to replace Byron Bell at one of the Panthers’ problem positions. Oher was unsuccessful at his last stop in Tennessee, but the Panthers believe he still has enough in the tank to protect Newton. Center Ryan Kalil anchors the unit with professionalism and calm.
As for the passing game, it has to get more explosive. Tight end Greg Olsen and wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin each caught 1,008 yards worth of passes in 2014 — the first time since 1999 the Panthers had two 1,000-yard receivers. They will be the primary targets for Newton again this season. Olsen is a Pro Bowler who catches everything; Benjamin has some problems with drops but also has a knack for the spectacular.
But neither Olsen nor Benjamin are deep threats. The Panthers had success with Ted Ginn Jr. in that role in 2013, and after he disappointed in Arizona in 2014, they have re-signed him to do the same thing. Second-round draft pick Devin Funchess will play a lot early at the other wideout, but he’s a big receiver with medium speed, similar to Benjamin. Corey Brown also will be counted on to run some deep routes, and Stephen Hill will get a chance, too. Second tight end Ed Dickson has good hands and, like Olsen, signed a new deal in the offseason.
As for Newton, he remains an incredible athlete and has become a much better leader. But he still has occasional problems with his accuracy and throwing mechanics. Unlike 2014, however, Newton has been healthy throughout the offseason, which should help. The Panthers also showed their commitment to their franchise quarterback by signing Newton to a five-year, $103.8 million contract extension in early June.
It starts with the linebackers — Carolina believes it may have the best tandem in the game in Kuechly and Thomas Davis. Those two never come off the field, and they chase down so many plays from sideline to sideline that potential 20-yard gains for the opposition are often getting turned into 4-yard plays. Kuechly’s form tackling should be studied by every youth football player.
Shaq Thompson, the team’s first-round draft pick, is a versatile athlete (he also gained 456 yards as a running back in his last year at Washington) who may start at weak-side linebacker right away over A.J. Klein — if Thompson can show he has the strength to get off blocks.
The defensive front loses Hardy, but it didn’t have the erratic defensive end for 15 games in 2014, either, due to a domestic violence issue. Second-year end Kony Ealy will need to step up his game to help replace Hardy, with Wes Horton and Mario Addison also helping out. The other defensive end, Charles Johnson, is winding down his career but is still a bull-rushing force when single-blocked. Defensive tackle Star Lotulelei was not a star in 2014 after a great rookie year, and the Panthers need a more consistent performance from him in his third season. Kawann Short may be poised for a breakout season at the other defensive tackle spot.
The secondary was the team’s weak spot for most of last season and remains a little iffy. Cornerback Josh Norman is emerging as one of the best cover corners in the NFC, but the second corner spot may need to be filled by Charles “Peanut” Tillman if he can still run fast enough to do it. Bene Benwikere is more naturally suited to the nickel cornerback role and will play there. Safety Roman Harper has lost a step but is still crafty. Free safety Tre Boston has speed but makes too many youthful mistakes.
Carolina is one of only three NFL teams to boast a top-10 defense in each of the past three seasons (Seattle and San Francisco are the others). If the Panthers are going to make the playoffs again, they will need a fourth straight year in the top 10.
Carolina took a step back in 2014 on special teams, and it cost the team several times. Most notably, the Panthers had two punts blocked — and both ended up going for Minnesota touchdowns in a nasty loss to the Vikings. General manager Dave Gettleman made a point in the offseason of signing several players who will be contributors on the coverage and return units and also brought back Ginn to return punts. Kicker Graham Gano had the best touchback percentage in the league last season (77.2) and has such a strong leg that a 65-yard field goal is not out of the question — although he did miss a couple of key field goals last year. Punter Brad Nortman and long snapper J.J. Jansen are solid.
The Panthers are fortunate to play in a division without a great team, and the early part of the schedule looks soft enough that they should start at least 3–1. An Oct. 18 road trip to Seattle — the team that has been the Panthers’ bugaboo ever since Russell Wilson arrived — will be critical.
Newton’s play will be as important as ever, but the Panthers also need at least one more playmaker on offense and hope Funchess can be that guy. A stout defense will keep Carolina in nearly every game. This is a team that should contend for a third straight playoff berth but will need to improve offensively if it is going to advance far in the postseason.
Prediction: 2nd in NFC South
As long as Drew Brees is the quarterback, the Saints will always have a shot to win the NFC South and make the playoffs. But rivals have passed the Saints in other areas, and it all caught up to them in 2014. Team officials realized they couldn’t continue to rely on Brees to simply outscore opponents with his dazzling passing skills. So they conducted an eyebrow-raising roster overhaul in the offseason in an effort to bolster their aging offensive line and flagging defense. The Saints are counting on more new faces than they have in a long time and are something of a mystery team in the NFC race.
The names change, but the production should remain prolific. Even without Jimmy Graham and Kenny Stills, look for the Saints to continue to rank among the league leaders in yards and points. Since coach Sean Payton and Brees arrived in 2006, the Saints have finished no worse than sixth in total offense and 12th in scoring offense. At 36, Brees has started to show signs of age, but he’s still highly effective when not asked to do too much and given time in the pocket to find his receivers. Look for Brees to spread the ball around more without the dynamic Graham in the lineup. The Saints have no one on the roster with Graham’s physical skill set, and his absence will challenge Payton’s play-calling creativity, especially in the red zone, where an alley-oop to Graham meant an automatic six points the past few seasons.
The Saints are high on athletic third-year tight end Josh Hill. He showed big-play ability in a limited role last season, when five of his 14 receptions went for touchdowns. Speedy Brandin Cooks was extremely productive as a rookie before breaking his thumb. He’ll be called on to produce more explosive plays with Graham and Stills gone. Young veterans Nick Toon, Joe Morgan, Seantavius Jones and Brandon Coleman will compete for spots in the rotation.
Until the passing attack sorts itself out, Brees can lean on a reliable run game that ranked ninth in the NFL in average yards per carry (4.5). With Mark Ingram, C.J. Spiller and Khiry Robinson in the backfield, the running game should be a strength. Ingram is coming off his finest season as a pro and is firmly entrenched as the lead back. Spiller was signed in free agency to play the satellite back role in which Reggie Bush and Darren Sproles excelled from 2006-13. The powerful Robinson is one of the most difficult backs in the league to tackle.
All of this firepower will go for naught if the offensive line doesn’t improve. The unit had been one of the most consistent in the NFL over the years but started to show its age last season. Brees was sacked 29 times and often hurried into crucial interceptions. To that end, the Saints acquired veteran center Max Unger in the Graham trade and selected tackle Andrus Peat in the first round of the NFL Draft. Peat is probably a year away from seeing the field, with the athletic Terron Armstead and the underrated Zach Strief bookending the line at tackle. But Unger, a former Pro Bowler, will be an immediate upgrade at center. Right guard is the lone question mark. Former undrafted free agent Tim Lelito will get the first crack to replace Ben Grubbs. He’ll need to stay healthy, because there is little experience behind him.
Whatever pixie dust coordinator Rob Ryan had in his glorious debut season, he ran out of in 2014 as the Saints plummeted from No. 4 to No. 31 in total defense. Payton has given him the chance to right the ship but brought in former Raiders head coach and Broncos defensive coordinator Dennis Allen to assist him. The Saints were plagued by blown coverage assignments and alignment errors early last season and never recovered.
The top offseason priority will be improving the play of the team’s talented but underperforming defensive line. Ends Akiem Hicks and Cameron Jordan are both due for rebound seasons after disappointing in 2014. Hicks has the physical skills to dominate opponents but is frustratingly inconsistent. He could be facing a make-or-break season. Likewise, Jordan failed to make enough big plays, but the team still decided to sign him to a five-year contract extension in June that could be worth up to $60 million. The team’s best pass rusher, outside linebacker Junior Galette, was rewarded with a four-year, $40 million contract early in 2014, then lost the trust of team officials because of off-field transgressions. He has explosive burst but is undersized and can be overpowered at the point of attack. Brodrick Bunkley and John Jenkins form a powerful one-two punch at nose guard.
The linebacker unit needs work. Three rookies and veterans Anthony Spencer and Dannell Ellerbee were acquired in the offseason in an effort to bolster the unit. Only veteran David Hawthorne, who replaces Curtis Lofton as the play-caller inside, appears locked into a starting spot. Rookie sparkplug Hau’oli Kikaha will platoon with veteran Parys Haralson on the strong side. The staff loves his intensity and pass-rush ability. Hulking rookie Stephone Anthony is the kind of physical thumper Ryan has longed for since he arrived in 2013. He’ll compete with Ellerbe at the other inside spot.
The return to health of veteran free safety Jairus Byrd will go a long way toward improving the leaky secondary. The former Pro Bowler should be motivated for a big season after his injury-riddled debut in New Orleans. His center field skills free up Kenny Vaccaro to play the joker role in which he thrived as a rookie.
The No. 2 cornerback spot riddled the Saints last season, and they hope veteran free agent Brandon Browner can fill the role opposite Keenan Lewis. The success of Ryan’s scheme relies on strong press coverage.
There’s an army of candidates but few proven commodities beyond Browner and Lewis. Rookies P.J. Williams and Damian Swann will compete with former Jets first-round washout Kyle Wilson for the nickel spot. CFL import Delvin Breaux is the sleeper in the group. Second-year men Brian Dixon and Stanley Jean-Baptiste are also in the mix.
Thomas Morstead remains one of the most consistently productive punters and kickoff specialists in the league. He’s the strength of an otherwise nondescript special teams group. Jalen Saunders and rookie Marcus Murphy will try to spice up the club’s moribund return units. The Saints haven’t returned a punt or a kickoff for a touchdown since 2011. Veteran placekicker Shayne Graham had his struggles last season, but the team stuck with the 14-year veteran. He was re-signed to a one-year deal in February, but the Saints terminated his contract in May, seemingly handing the kicking job to strong-legged Dustin Hopkins, who has yet to even appear in a regular season game.
Look for the Saints to bounce back from their disappointing 2014 campaign. How far back remains to be seen. The best thing they have going for them is the mediocre competition in the NFC South. If the defensive changes work, the Saints can resume their winning ways and challenge the Falcons and Panthers for the division title. But there are more questions than answers on both sides of the ball, and a lot of things will have to fall into place for them to regain their status as title contenders in the NFC. They’ll be competitive as usual but are a cut below the conference’s elite.
Prediction: 1st in NFC South
Just like last year, Athlon Sports' 2015 NFL Preview magazine includes NFL player rankings at every position. The rankings in the magazine are provided by Dan Shonka of Ourlads' NFL Scouting Services, a company that's been in the football talent evaluation business for more than three decades.
When it comes to the NFL's top defenders, the list starts with Houston Texans All-Pro defensive end J.J. Watt. Now a two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year honoree, Watt's jaw-dropping athleticism and big-play ability was on full display last season, as he not only terrorized quarterbacks, he also helped his own put points on the board thanks to his three touchdown catches as a situational tight end. While Watt is clearly the cream of the crop right now, he's not the only defensive linemen that is getting paid handsomely for his efforts either. Ndamukong Suh, the No. 1 defensive tackle, inked a record-breaking six-year contract with the Miami Dolphins this offseason that could be worth more than $114 million and is guaranteed to play the former Lion nearly $60 million.
Rankings courtesy of Ourlads' NFL Scouting Services
2015 NFL Player Rankings: 3-4 Defensive Ends
1. J.J. Watt, Houston
A unanimous All-Pro, Watt has never missed a game in his four-year career, recording 51.5 sacks in the past three years.
2. Sheldon Richardson, N.Y. Jets
The 2013 AP NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year built on his first season by registering 67 tackles and eight sacks.
3. Muhammad Wilkerson, N.Y. Jets
Wilkerson has played in 61 games since he was drafted four years ago and has collected 237 career tackles and 24.5 sacks.
4. Calais Campbell, Arizona
Campbell is a wiry and strong player at the point of attack and has the speed to run a play down from behind.
5. Fletcher Cox, Philadelphia
A battler from snap to whistle, Cox takes good angles in both long and short pursuit and has good use of hands at the point of attack.
6. Justin Smith, San Francisco
This relentless and tenacious warrior announced his retirement in May, so his inclusion on this list is more a tip of the cap for Smith's impressive 14-year career.
7. Cameron Heyward, Pittsburgh
An explosive player with innate strength, the fifth-year pro has put together back-to-back solid seasons.
8. Haloti Ngata, Detroit
Detroit acquired Ngata, a nine-year veteran and five-time Pro Bowler, this offseason to offset the loss of Ndamukong Suh.
9. Mike Daniels, Green Bay
One of the top disruptors in the league, Daniels is undersized for a 3-4 defensive end, but he’s quick and resourceful in his play.
10. Jurrell Casey, Tennessee
The four-year veteran is a productive, quick and high-effort competitor. Casey refuses to stay blocked and has the burst to close and finish a play.
11. Jason Hatcher, Washington
12. Ray McDonald, Free Agent
13. Timmy Jernigan, Baltimore
14. Corey Liuget, San Diego
15. Tommy Kelly, Free Agent
16. Cory Redding, Arizona
17. Cedric Thornton, Philadelphia
18. Jared Crick, Houston
19. Vinny Curry, Philadelphia
20. Desmond Bryant, Cleveland
2015 NFL Player Rankings: 4-3 Defensive Ends
1. Cameron Wake, Miami
The 2014 Pro Bowl selection has the hand strength and leverage to control the blocker and stack the run. Wake finished 2014 with 11.5 sacks and three forced fumbles.
2. Michael Bennett, Seattle
Bennett plays with strength and leverage and sets the edge of the defense with good lateral quickness. He has elevated his total game over the past five years.
3. Junior Galette, New Orleans
The long-armed edge pass rusher has an explosive first step. A good athlete with exceptional change-of-direction ability, Galette has 22 sacks the past two years.
4. Ezekiel Ansah, Detroit
A talented and disruptive high-effort athlete, Ansah controls the blocker with his long arms and big hands. He elevated his overall game his second season.
5. Jason Pierre-Paul, N.Y. Giants
The speed rusher takes advantage of his long arms and huge hands. He finished the season with 77 tackles and 12.5 sacks.
6. Everson Griffen, Minnesota
Griffen has outstanding lateral quickness with a relentless burst to the quarterback. An explosive leverage player, Griffen had 12 sacks last season.
7. Charles Johnson, Carolina
A productive pass rusher with the ability to stop the run, Johnson has quick feet with his outside rush or inside charge. Has 52.5 sacks in the last five years.
8. Cliff Avril, Seattle
Avril has explosive first-step quickness and uses his long arms to set the edge in the run game. Avril has recorded 13 sacks the past two years.
9. Mario Williams, Buffalo
A Pro Bowl pass rusher who can turn speed to power on a rush. He has sudden first-step quickness and covers a lot of ground quickly.
10. Robert Quinn, St. Louis
The 2014 Pro Bowler possesses natural hand, foot and lateral quickness. He refuses to stay blocked and can slip and accelerate off a block.
11. Chris Long, St. Louis
12. Robert Ayers, N.Y. Giants
13. William Hayes, St. Louis
14. Jerry Hughes, Buffalo
15. Carlos Dunlap, Cincinnati
16. Jeremy Mincey, Dallas
17. Justin Tuck, Oakland
18. Olivier Vernon, Miami
19. Jared Allen, Chicago
20. DeMarcus Ware, Denver
21. Cameron Jordan, New Orleans
22. Anthony Spencer, New Orleans
23. George Johnson, Tampa Bay
24. Jonathan Massaquoi, Tennessee
25. Lamarr Houston, Chicago
26. O’Brien Schofield, Atlanta
27. Derek Wolfe, Denver
28. C.J. Wilson, Oakland
29. Jarius Wynn, Buffalo
30. Greg Hardy, Dallas
2015 NFL Player Rankings: Defensive Tackles
1. Ndamukong Suh, Miami
A new arrival with the Dolphins, Suh has recorded 239 tackles including 36 sacks from the inside at defensive tackle.
2. Marcell Dareus, Buffalo
A Pro Bowl selection after a 10-sack season, Dareus is a long-armed power player who doesn’t stay blocked.
3. Gerald McCoy, Tampa Bay
The five-year veteran has catlike quickness, good agility and body control to work his way through traffic. He excels as a one-gap penetrator.
The relentless, slippery leverage player has good flexibility to dip and bend. The 2014 AP Defensive Rookie of the Year had nine sacks and 48 total tackles.
5. Kyle Williams, Buffalo
He missed 11 games due to injury in 2011, but other than that, he has been a tireless blue-collar worker Bills fans appreciate.
6. Johnathan Hankins, N.Y. Giants
Hankins plays hard inside out to the perimeter and has good lateral quickness and change of direction.
7. Kawann Short, Carolina
Playing in front of NFL tackling leader Luke Kuechly, Short absorbs blocks and gets upfield push in the pass game.
8. Stephen Paea, Washington
With his strength and leverage, Paea is tough to block one-on-one. He gains an advantage with his first-step quickness.
9. Terrance Knighton, Washington
This wide-bodied pocket presser was just what the doctor ordered for Washington to stop the inside running game.
10. Jared Odrick, Jacksonville
A free-agent signee, Odrick is projected to play inside in a four-man front. He’s a disruptive player who gets upfield pressure.
11. Vince Wilfork, Houston
12. Sharrif Floyd, Minnesota
13. Brandon Williams, Baltimore
14. Jay Ratliff, Chicago
15. Tyrone Crawford, Dallas
16. Sen’Derrick Marks, Jacksonville
17. Geno Atkins, Cincinnati
18. Star Lotulelei, Carolina
19. Damon Harrison, N.Y. Jets
20. Henry Melton, Tampa Bay
21. Dan Williams, Oakland
22. Nick Fairley, St. Louis
23. Tyrunn Walker, Detroit
24. Jonathan Babineaux, Atlanta
25. Linval Joseph, Minnesota
26. Clinton McDonald, Tampa Bay
27. Michael Brockers, St. Louis
28. Kevin Williams, Free Agent
29. Bennie Logan, Philadelphia
30. Tom Johnson, Minnesota
“That’s a play. That’s not an offense,” Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson says. “We might run the actual triple option a few times a game.”
A year ago, Johnson was a favorite atop annual lists of coaches on the hot seat, in part because of a contract extension squabble with his employer, but also for his adherence to the option offense. The chatter around college football circles was that Johnson might even step down.
That didn’t happen. What did happen: Another season of 300-plus rushing yards per game, a top-15 scoring offense, a win over rival Georgia, an appearance in the ACC title game and a victory over Mississippi State in the Orange Bowl to cap an 11-win season. Now Johnson and the Yellow Jackets enter 2015 as the favorites to repeat in the ACC Coastal Division. What hot seat?
Related: ACC 2015 Predictions
“It’s the misperception,” Johnson says. “People in the media or coaches want to say things to create an advantage for them. If you’re giving up a bunch of points and yards, best way out is to say ‘We don’t see anything like that offense,’ and ‘You can’t recruit to it,’ and ‘We only had a few days to prepare for it.’”
Podcast: Preseason College Football Playoff Preview
No matter the current trend in college football offenses — spread option, hurry-up no-huddle, Air Raid — Johnson simply doesn’t care. He’s not changing. When asked why people denounce his offense for its “deception” while concepts like the zone read are celebrated for confusing defensive fronts, Johnson shrugs.
“You’d have to define who ‘people’ are,” he says. “I think that truthfully. ‘They’ve’ just had a hard time stopping it.”
This feature and a four-page preview of Georgia Tech are available in the 2015 ACC Preview
Due in large part to the effectiveness of the offense, Johnson has guided one of the most consistently strong programs in the nation since making the move from Navy in 2008. Under Johnson, Tech has finished lower than second in the Coastal Division only once in seven years. The Yellow Jackets have averaged 8.3 wins per season, and seven of the 10 best offensive years in school history have come under his watch.
That’s why Johnson believes critics attack the triple option … er, Johnson’s run-based option offense … on a false premise. And he bristles.
“There’s always been a misnomer about all our cut blocks,” he says. “It’s just (B.S.). If anybody wants to watch the tape, do we cut on the backside? Yeah, just like 50 percent of the teams in college football. But if you talk about it enough, you can get it outlawed; (and then) you don’t have to play against it.”
Johnson’s disposition matches his coaching scheme perfectly: Unconcerned with your opinion. When a young Johnson showed up in Hawaii as the new offensive coordinator in 1987, a quarterback named Ken Niumatalolo heard his teammates start to grumble.
“The communication was tough at first,” Niumatalolo says. “Here’s this guy with a thick Southern drawl and us with our Pidgin English accents. Still, you could tell he was an incredibly intelligent man who believed in what he was teaching.”
Johnson remembers that first season well: “That’s OK, they couldn’t understand me, and I couldn’t pronounce their names.”
Niumatalolo knew why Johnson had come to install the run-option: Despite having NFL-level talent at key positions, the Warriors had grossly underperformed. In six of the next eight seasons, Hawaii would finish as a top-20 offense nationally.
“That’s when I was sold (on) the offense.” Niumatalolo says. “In that first year, I’m asking myself, ‘How does he take a team that lost key guys and we got better as an offense?’ There was no doubt in my mind it worked having played for him.”
Niumatalolo joined Johnson’s staff at Navy after his playing days and took over as head coach in 2007 when Johnson was hired at Georgia Tech. “If anyone had any doubts at all, the early ’90s here at the Academy changed that,” Niumatalolo says. “Week in and week out, being undersized and going against people we had no business playing. … I’d just look across the sidelines in certain games and think we were going to get beaten badly, then you’d ask yourself ‘How are we scoring points on these guys?’ You just couldn’t help it.”
Current Army head coach Jeff Monken is a Johnson disciple who learned the offense while on the staff at Navy from 2002-07. “My first impression was that it worked,” Monken says. “It worked, and we could always adjust to what a defense offered. We didn’t find a situation we couldn’t work to overcome, regardless of the perception of talent on the field.”
Despite Johnson’s growing success as a head coach — first at I-AA Georgia Southern, where he won multiple national championships, then at Navy — critics still refused to believe that he would win in a major conference. And if he stole a few games grinding on opponents, he certainly wouldn’t be able to recruit Division I-caliber players.
“Never been a problem,” Johnson says. “We’ve never had an issue recruiting players. That’s just a myth.”
Every time Denver Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas catches a Peyton Manning touchdown pass, it helps Johnson combat negative recruiting from rival coaches at that specific position.
“When we got here, Demaryius was buried on the depth chart in a pro-style offense,” Johnson says. “We asked him to block, showed him what he could achieve. The proof is out there — look at Stephen Hill. Yet now coaches in our league are telling recruits if they want catch any passes (not to come here), and we’ve had more receivers go to the (NFL) than his program. Recruiting is about the player, not the offense. You do have to find the right player for this system. And I do think that there are players out there who, if you asked, ‘Do you want to catch 100 passes or do you want to win?’ there’s some that just want to catch passes.”
So if Johnson has proven that offensive efficiency and recruiting haven’t suffered while running an option attack at the game’s highest level, why aren’t more schools running this offense? After all, there are plenty of programs running the hurry-up, spread attacks that former high school coaches Art Briles and Gus Malzahn introduced into college football in the last decade.
Monken believes others have taken notice and incorporated the concepts to the point that they are not that unique anymore.
“I’m not sure there’s a tactical advantage anymore because there’s some form of option in so many offenses,” Monken says. “So many schools have so many good athletes that are so well coached. I think that while it’s very effective, I don’t buy into that there’s a tremendous advantage anymore.”
But Johnson and his two former assistants, Monken and Niumatalolo, are alone in proudly announcing their intentions to use the “run-based option” at the FBS level. It may be hard to sell what many perceive as old-school football to fans, but Johnson knows that fans respond to winning more than anything.
“Fans learn to understand,” he says. “I think we had an identity at Georgia Southern. The kids believed in it, and the fans believed in it. No one was more disappointed than their fans when they got away from (the offense) after we left.
“But that’s just football. By the time I left Hawaii, fans were sick of it. They kept complaining about wanting to pass the football. Then years later when June (Jones) has them going run-and-shoot, I hear fans saying they wished they’d run the ball more.”
The fans at Georgia Tech might be singing a different tune in the future, but for now, the vast majority of Yellow Jacket faithful are just fine with Johnson’s option-based attack.
After all, who doesn’t like to win?
–By Steven Godfrey, SB Nation
The Johnny Manziel Circus came to Baton Rouge in late November 2013 promising all sorts of offensive fireworks. And, if LSU fans were lucky, perhaps the notorious Texas A&M quarterback would pull some kind of reality TV stunt, like trying to paint Mike the Tiger maroon.
Instead of Johnny Football fun, those assembled were treated to an old-style game of ball control by the home team. LSU dumped the Aggies, 34–10, running up a 40:19–19:41 time of possession advantage en route to 517 total yards. In an attempt to slow down the A&M spread scheme, Tigers offensive coordinator Cam Cameron instructed QB Zach Mettenberger to be as deliberate as possible when triggering the LSU attack.
“I said to Zach, ‘Run the offense, but don’t snap the ball until there is one second left on the play clock,’” Cameron says. “Johnny Manziel didn’t really get to play that much.”
A&M averaged 73.4 plays per game during the ’13 season but ran just 59 in the loss to the Tigers. It’s possible LSU could have still beaten the Aggies by trying to match the visitors on their fastbreak terms, but that’s not how things are done in Baton Rouge. LSU is committed to defense first, and its offense is designed to work with the other side of the ball to make sure the Tigers minimize the advantages opposing attacks can gain.
Related: SEC 2015 Predictions
When personnel questions at key offensive positions arise, as they did in 2014 when LSU had to replace its primary quarterback, top rusher and two best receivers, the team can’t rely on its tricky scheme to keep the cascade of points going. The 2013 Tigers finished 10–3 and had a 3,000-yard passer (Mettenberger), a 1,400-yard rusher (Jeremy Hill) and a pair of 1,000-yard receivers (Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr.). None of those players could be found on the ’14 roster, and LSU dropped to 8–5 behind an attack that fell from tied for 23rd in the country in scoring to a deadlock for 73rd place and an offense that fell from 35th to 77th in total yards per game. Cameron admits that “every year can be different,” but the one constant is LSU’s overriding commitment to being a strong defensive team, first and foremost.
“We play complementary offense,” he says. “Our defense plays lights out, and we recruit great punters. (Head coach Les Miles’) philosophy is that we play team offense and team football.”
Critics of the 2014 Tigers said that they were more like half a team, thanks to their offensive travails. Heading into 2015, the question is whether the Tigers will be able to contend in the ultra-competitive SEC West, or if their offense will once again sputter, as it did last year, when LSU tied for fourth in the division. The one thing we can count on is that there will be no dramatic changes in scheme as a result of last year’s slump. The Tigers will try to run a two-back offense, provided they have a suitable fullback. If that doesn’t work out, Cameron will look at his crop of tight ends, in the hopes of finding a group that allows him to be versatile at that position. But he isn’t going to spread ’em out, let it rip and try to score 60 a game.
“Our plan offensively is to win the game,” he says. “When we’re three touchdowns up, we’re not looking to make it seven touchdowns. We‘re looking to hammer you and control the clock. The mindset we want to have is that we don’t always have to have the pedal to the floor.”
This Feature and a Six-Page Preview of LSU are Available in the 2015 Athlon Sports SEC Preview
Like just about every offensive coach in college football, Cameron would like to have the kind of quarterback depth Ohio State enjoyed during its national title run. He doesn’t just want to declare a winner in the competition for the starting job under center; he wants to have two starters, the better to foster daily competition and protect against injury. Two years ago, Mettenberger tore his ACL in the Tigers’ season finale against Arkansas. Anthony Jennings, a freshman at the time, relieved him and rallied the Tigers to a win and then played wire to wire in a bowl win over Iowa.
But Jennings was erratic last year. The Tigers couldn’t throw the ball reliably and had to rely too much on Leonard Fournette and the ground attack. LSU ran it more than twice as often as it threw last year, an imbalance that must improve.
“It comes down to more accuracy and ball security,” Jennings says. “Elite quarterbacks win championships at the NFL level and the college level. If I get to that level, I think our offense can get to that level.”
Jennings had a tough 2014 season, completing 48.9 percent of his attempts and giving opponents little concern about the Tigers passing attack. When his backup, true freshman Brandon Harris, took his turn as a regular, LSU was hammered, 41–7, at Auburn. For the year, LSU averaged 162.9 passing yards per game, good for 114th in the nation. Given the team’s inability to throw, it is a borderline miracle Fournette was able to average 5.5 yards per carry against defenses that had everybody but the mascot in the box. If Jennings can produce more this year, Fournette might go for 2,000 yards and blast his way into Heisman consideration.
“Anthony can control the game, and he knows where everybody belongs,” Fournette says. “He’s a great quarterback and a better person.”
Fournette’s endorsement of Jennings is nice, but fans aren’t interested in whether the quarterback is an Eagle Scout. They want him to put pressure on opponents through the air. Cameron has said that he needs to do a better job tailoring the offense to Jennings’ talents, which sometimes is a coach’s code for the fact that the player in question isn’t able to run the complete scheme.
It didn’t help last year that the receiving corps was younger than the average boy band. This year, the wideouts will be more experienced, Fournette is five pounds lighter and much more confident — “I understand the game better,” he says. “I know where my cuts are and what the blocking scheme is.” — but the key to LSU’s success is whether Jennings can be more efficient.
He threw only seven interceptions last year, but he was sacked 22 times and was often indecisive. Even though the Tigers scored 51 points combined in their final two games — after managing a total of 23 in their previous three — there is a lot of work to do.
“Last year, I wasn’t completing enough passes for Coach Cameron to put me in position to throw a lot,” Jennings says.
Both Jennings and Harris were highly regarded dual-threat quarterbacks in high school, but neither was seen as a pure pocket passer. Without an air-raid style offense, it will always be difficult for LSU to land a top-shelf thrower. The Tigers will use four- and five-wide formations on occasion, but with a stated goal of controlling the ball on the ground in order to support a stout defense, it’s tough to attract top quarterback talent.
Miles can sell Mettenberger’s development — he started six games for the Titans last year as a rookie — but the roster of LSU quarterbacks over the years isn’t all that overwhelming, and 18-year olds aren’t likely to be swayed by Bert Jones’ exploits during the early ’70s.
So, it’s up to Cameron to find a way to make Jennings and Harris into productive passers within an LSU scheme that wants to score points but is more interested in stifling opponents. The Tigers will mix tempo, vary formations and feature the run. “We are a smash-mouth football team,” Jennings says. Even in 2013, when Mettenberger had a strong year, the Tigers still ran it 197 more times than they threw it.
There’s nothing wrong with that. Oregon had 170 more rushing attempts than throws last year. Alabama ran it 116 more times than it tossed the ball. And national champ Ohio State had a whopping 281 more plays on the ground than through the air. The difference is that each of those teams was far more accurate and efficient than Tigers through the air, creating a balance that made them difficult to defend. In a division that keeps getting better — and is devoting more money than ever to defensive coordinators — LSU simply must improve its offense or find itself continuing to win eight or nine games a year, something that isn’t good enough in Baton Rouge.
“We’re rebuilding some things,” Cameron says. “We’re looking at what Anthony and Brandon can do, and we’re reshaping our offensive line (which loses two starters). The bottom line is that we want to run the football, and we still believe in the play-action pass.”
That may not be enough to keep ’em cheering in Eugene, but for LSU, it’s just fine.
Provided the quarterbacks can do their share.
–by Michael Bradley
Although often unheralded, a strong offensive line is an extremely valuable, and equally rare, commodity in the NFL. Take Dallas for example. What does having the No. 1 tackle (Tyron Smith) and No. 2 guard (Zack Martin) and center (Travis Frederick) get you? How about the league's second-ranked rushing offense, which also led in time of possession, for a team that won 12 games and the NFC East division title. And while DeMarco Murray, the reigning rushing champion, is no longer a Cowboy, whoever gets the carries this season should be well-positioned for success running behind arguably the league's No. 1 line.
Rankings courtesy of Ourlads' NFL Scouting Services
2015 NFL Player Rankings: Tackles
1. Tyron Smith, Dallas
Physically, he has it all with his extra-long arms, huge hands, strength and athletic ability. He seals the play side with good technique and rare lateral quickness. He is equally skilled as a run blocker or pass protector.
2. Joe Thomas, Cleveland
He has an outstanding combination of size, athletic ability and a gritty style of play. Demonstrates explosiveness and power in the run game.
3. Joe Staley, San Francisco
A Pro Bowl talent who is highly competitive and works to finish his blocks with a nasty streak.
4. Jason Peters, Philadelphia
He has anchored the Eagles’ offensive line since being acquired in a trade from Buffalo in 2009.
5. Andrew Whitworth, Cincinnati
He is heading into his 10th year in the league as a physical tackle who can manhandle defensive ends and tackles with his hand strength.
6. Lane Johnson, Philadelphia
An ascending tackle who has started 28 straight games for the Eagles after being drafted in the first round in 2013. A physical and aggressive right tackle.
7. Sebastian Vollmer, New England
A native of Germany, Vollmer has become more of a technique player rather than a mauler in the run game.
8. Jared Veldheer, Arizona
Signed as an unrestricted free agent a year ago from Oakland and has been a huge upgrade on the left side of the Cardinals’ line.
9. Duane Brown, Houston
A natural athlete with long arms and big hands for the left tackle position. Good body control and balance.
10. Kelvin Beachum, Pittsburgh
A good athlete who plays square and has an explosive punch. A top-level technique player who plays with confidence.
11. Donald Penn, Oakland
12. Branden Albert, Miami
13. Anthony Castonzo, Indianapolis
14. Ricky Wagner, Baltimore
15. Will Beatty, N.Y. Giants
16. Bryan Bulaga, Green Bay
17. Zach Strief, New Orleans
18. Trent Williams, Washington
19. Derek Newton, Houston
20. Doug Free, Dallas
2015 NFL Player Rankings: Guards
1. Marshal Yanda, Baltimore
Uses his hands well to control the defender. He is the total package of run blocker, pass protector, football instincts, functional strength and hell-bent-for-leather finisher.
2. Zack Martin, Dallas
Made the transition from college tackle to pro guard. Under the tutelage of line coach Bill Callahan (now with the Redskins), Martin took his blue-collar work ethic and talent to another level.
3. T.J. Lang, Green Bay
An intense and competitive blocker who plays square with balance and leverage. Aggressive off the snap and finishes his target with good head position and leg drive.
4. Evan Mathis, Free Agent
Has a reputation as a consistent competitor who battles hard every play. He is an efficient position blocker with good first-step quickness. Was a surprise cut by Philadelphia head coach Chip Kelly earlier this month.
5. Kelechi Osemele, Baltimore
He has elevated his game under line coach Juan Castillo. The wide-bodied road grader has the physical tools to lock up a defensive tackle.
6. Mike Iupati, Arizona
A powerful man with a wide, athletic body, he plays with a good base and competitive streak. Controls the defender with strong hands and an explosive punch.
7. Joel Bitonio, Cleveland
Uses his hands to seal the inside gap from a defender’s penetration. Physical and strong on down blocks.
8. Brandon Brooks, Houston
Has a thick and powerful body and can manhandle a pass rusher if he maintains his knee bend and leverage.
9. Ronald Leary, Dallas
The former undrafted free agent plays with a good power base to position and wall off a defender in the run game.
10. John Greco, Cleveland
A smart and instinctive player who is very technique-conscious. Keeps his hands inside the frame and controls his target.
11. Josh Sitton, Green Bay
12. Kevin Zeitler, Cincinnati
13. Brandon Linder, Jacksonville
14. Kyle Long, Chicago
15. Orlando Franklin, San Diego
16. Andrew Norwell, Carolina
17. Clint Boling, Cincinnati
18. Chance Warmack, Tennessee
19. Larry Warford, Detroit
20. David DeCastro, Pittsburgh
2015 NFL Player Rankings: Centers
1. Nick Mangold, N.Y. Jets
The durable and dependable pivot has an explosive punch that stuns a defender. Plays with good technique and strong hands.
2. Travis Frederick, Dallas
A power player who gets push in the run game. Has demonstrated the size and strength to neutralize a nose tackle or drive down a gap defender.
3. Alex Mack, Cleveland
The leader of the Browns’ offensive line was well on his way to an All-Pro selection when he went down with a broken fibula in October.
4. Rodney Hudson, Oakland
He is undersized by NFL standards but plays with quickness and agility. Especially effective as a zone blocker, getting to the second level where he seals off linebackers and cuts off pursuit.
5. John Sullivan, Minnesota
Plays with light feet in pass protection yet can anchor versus a power rusher. He has the size, strength, balance and base to control a defensive lineman.
6. Jason Kelce, Philadelphia
A classic zone-blocking center who is athletic with good technique and footwork. Quick to redirect and change direction.
7. Max Unger, New Orleans
A strong drive blocker with nifty feet in the run game. Plays with a solid punch, lockout and foot quickness in pass protection.
8. Ryan Kalil, Carolina
He is an intense and sound technician who is physical and aggressive in his play.
9. Kory Lichtensteiger, Washington
A tough and physical throwback blocker who works to finish his blocks. Plays with quick hands and good technique.
10. Maurkice Pouncey, Pittsburgh
Earned an All-Pro selection in 2014 and is recognized in league circles as an athletic center who plays with attitude and aggression.
11. Chris Myers, Free Agent
12. Jeremy Zuttah, Baltimore
13. Corey Linsley, Green Bay
14. Evan Dietrich-Smith, Tampa Bay
15. Stefen Wisniewski, Jacksonville
16. Bryan Stork, New England
17. Eric Wood, Buffalo
18. Luke Bowanko, Jacksonville
19. Samson Satele, Free Agent
20. Russell Bodine, Cincinnati
A triathlon is one of the benchmarks for measuring fitness in the endurance realm. Combining distance swimming, cycling and running, the sport requires at least a moderate mastery of all three disciplines. A full-distance triathlon (a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, and 26.2-mile run) might be too much for the average weekend warrior, but a shorter distance like a sprint (0.5-mile swim, 12-mile bike ride, 3.1-mile run) or an Olympic distance (.96-mile swim, 25-mile bike, 6.2-mile run) is a very reasonable item for your fitness bucket list.
To get you ready, we got some insightful tips from Jesse Kropelnicki, managing director and professional athlete coach at OutRival Racing, a Texas-based endurance sport training service for numerous Ironman champions and professional racers.
“You’ll need about 10-12 weeks for the average person with some sporting background to train for a sprint, 16 weeks for someone who doesn’t,” Kropelnicki says. Pick a local race about three months out, so you have a deadline, then go to work on the three disciplines.
“It’s all about frequency,” he says. “Get in three bikes, swims and runs (per week), even if they’re all equal distance.” If you run 30 minutes three times, ride an hour three times, and swim a half hour three times a week, you’ll be ready by the time race day comes around.
Go Above and Beyond
As you get closer to race day, ramp up the following formula from Kropelnicki: “As a general rule, you should be able to triple the swim yards, ride eight thirds of the bike distance, and run seven thirds of your run distance in at least two weeks in the previous six weeks coming up to the race.” That means for a sprint tri, swim a total of 1.5 miles, bike a total of 32 miles, and run 7 miles in the weeks approaching your race. “Those are the benchmarks to say that durability won’t be the limiter,” he says.
Don’t Worry About Long Sessions
“The biggest mistake beginners make is putting in a long session,” he says. “Especially in the run.” Doing a long run, then doing it again after a two-day layoff, will allow your muscles to tighten up and set you up for an injury on your next run, even though you’re swimming and cycling on that two-day break.
“A good rule of thumb is to never have one run that makes up more than 35 percent of your weekly mileage,” he says. “A lot of runners will do two 45-minute runs and then a two-hour run, and that just crushes them.”
Grab a Bite
About 2.5 hours before the start of the race, Kropelnicki recommends fueling up with food. Here’s his go-to pre-race meal.
0.5 - 2.0 cups of unsweetened applesauce, depending on size of athlete
1 bottle of PowerBar Ironman Perform
1 scoop of whey protein in 2 - 3 oz. of water
—by Billy Brown
Whether you’re going to work or hitting the gym, you’re usually heading out the door in a hurry. Too often that means skipping breakfast, which most nutritionists agree is a bad idea. “Skipping can lead to several unwanted side effects, including a sluggish metabolism, loss of lean muscle and overeating at night,” says Cynthia Sass, sports nutritionist for the New York Yankees and New York Rangers.
With a little pre-planning and a well-stocked fridge, there’s no reason to leave your house hungry when you’re in a rush. We asked Sass to recommend some quick meals that’ll get you ready for a busy day ahead.
Loading up on sausage on your way to the gym is a terrible idea. “Keep protein and fat low if you’re going to be getting your heart rate up within an hour of eating,” Sass says. Stick with nutrient-rich carbs to fuel your workout, like oatmeal drizzled with a little organic honey and a sliced banana (prep time: about 5 minutes). Don’t even have five minutes? Sass recommends a bowl of organic corn flakes with a little almond milk (about 2 minutes).
A mad dash
Already late? No problem, Sass says. Grab a to-go cup and fill it with ¾-1 cup organic nonfat Greek yogurt. Add a dash of cinnamon, some fruit (Sass recommends a chopped apple or pear, cut pineapple or berries), some cooked chilled quinoa for protein and nuts or seeds (such as chopped walnuts, almonds or sunflower seeds) for some good, filling fats (about 2 minutes). Don’t have quinoa lying around? Throw in some raw or toasted rolled oats.
Expecting a late lunch
If you’re not going to be eating lunch for a while, 10 minutes and a few eggs can go a long way. “Sauté your favorite veggies (like tomato, onion, mushrooms and spinach) in a little organic low sodium vegetable broth and Italian herb seasoning,” Sass says. “Then add one whole organic egg and three whites and scramble.” Some black beans and avocado on the side will provide additional protein and fat to keep you going well into the afternoon.
It’s a good idea to have a quick smoothie recipe ready to go if you sleep through your alarm. “One of my favorite simple smoothies is vanilla almond milk, frozen cherries, almond butter, protein powder (either pea protein or organic, grass-fed whey) or nonfat organic Greek yogurt, a handful of fresh spinach, and a dash of cinnamon,” Sass says. Blend until smooth, then drink it on your way to work.
How to Make It
1/2 - 3/4 cup vanilla almond milk
3/4 - 1 cup frozen cherries
1-2 tbsp almond butter
1 scoop protein powder,
or 3/4 - 1 cup nonfat organic
1 cup fresh spinach
A dash of cinnamon
—by Billy Brown
The Broncos, coming off a 12-win season and their fourth consecutive AFC West title, may well win another 12 games and another AFC West title. But then, in the Mile High City, where the local NFL team’s standards rest considerably higher than the city limits, it isn’t about the regular season. And it isn’t about the playoffs, either. It’s about winning a Super Bowl, period, end of conversation. Question is, are the Broncos any closer to doing it this season than they were in their three previous seasons with Peyton Manning under center? By all accounts, they’re not as talented as years past, with a handful of impact players having left via free agency. But general manager John Elway, having cleaned house after last year’s one-and-done fiasco in January, is hopeful that the new coaching staff, headlined by head coach Gary Kubiak and defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, can give the 39-year-old Manning one last chance at feeling the confetti.
The media has had a field day speculating how Manning will fare in Kubiak’s zone-blocking, run-oriented offense. While only time will tell how good a fit the two will be for each other, this much is safe to say: Manning will go into this season considerably healthier than he ended the last one. He was altogether ordinary in the latter stages of the 2014 season, throwing 17 touchdown passes and 12 interceptions in the final nine regular-season games, leading to speculation that Father Time was fast approaching in his rear-view mirror. Four words: Don’t count on it. Manning’s problems were more a function of a tear in his right quadriceps and a decimated offensive line that gave him little time to throw. Manning, in fact, agreed to return for a fourth season only after receiving assurances that the issues on the offensive line would be addressed.
Unfortunately, one of the issues the Broncos will have to deal with yet again is the absence of All-Pro left tackle Ryan Clady, who tore his ACL during OTAs in May. Clady missed nearly all of the 2013 season because of a Lisfranc injury. Clady’s loss will put even more pressure on second-round pick Ty Sambrailo and veteran free agent pick-up Ryan Harris, as Chris Clark figures to serve as Clady’s replacement at left tackle once again. Harris is no stranger to the Broncos, having made 34 starts in 46 games for them from 2007-10, and also played for Kubiak in Houston in 2012-13. Last season, Harris served as the Chiefs’ starting right tackle.
But even assuming that the offensive line will be improved, Manning doesn’t figure to put up the same type of passing numbers that long ago assured him a bronze bust in Canton. Kubiak has a long history of producing huge numbers in the running game, with relatively unheralded talents such as Terrell Davis, Mike Anderson and Arian Foster becoming fantasy league studs in his offense. Now it’s C.J. Anderson’s turn to see how productive he can be behind Kubiak’s zone-blocking schemes. Anderson, undrafted out of Cal in 2013, began last season as a blip on the depth chart and finished it in the Pro Bowl. After logging 17 carries in the Broncos’ first seven games, he rolled for 648 yards in the final six.
Not that Manning won’t remain the focal point of the offense. He threw 39 touchdown passes in 2014 and could approach that number again. He’ll have to do it without tight end Julius Thomas, who wasn’t presented with a serious contract offer after catching 12 touchdown passes in 2014. Thomas signed with Jacksonville, leaving newcomer Owen Daniels as the main pass-catching threat at tight end. Then there’s wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, a mercurial talent who refused to attend the team’s offseason workouts or Manning’s annual passing camp at Duke University after being slapped with the franchise tag. If you’re looking for an X-factor, there you have it. If the two sides can’t agree on a long-term contract, Thomas’ attitude issues could be a divisive factor in what could be Manning’s final NFL season. No such issues are in play with wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, who clicked with Manning from the earliest moments of 2014. Sanders caught 101 balls, 10 fewer than Thomas.
If Kubiak and his staff can revamp the offensive line, and if Thomas buys in, there’s no reason to believe the Broncos won’t have one of the league’s most lethal offenses.
Phillips, by his own admission, was “a lousy head coach’’ in his previous life. But if there were a Hall of Fame for assistant coaches, the 68-year-old Phillips would be a lock. The man has a way of making rock stars out of pass rushers, having worked with the likes of Reggie White, DeMarcus Ware, Rickey Jackson and J.J. Watt. The Broncos’ pass rush was sporadic last season, but with Phillips and No. 1 draft choice Shane Ray in the equation, that figures to change. Ware racked up 60.5 sacks in four seasons while playing in Phillips’ 3-4 scheme in Dallas. He should be good for double digits again coming off the corner opposite Von Miller, who needs a big season to solidify his case for a possible $100-million contract.
Ray will be in the mix mostly as a nickel pass rusher, but his role could expand as the season wears on. The defensive line has its share of question marks, particular on the nose, where 2013 first-rounder Sylvester Williams, a prototypical 4-3 tackle, has been challenged by the coaches to step up — or else. The Broncos’ blueprint calls for Bill Kollar, one of most respected defensive line coaches in the business, to solidify things up front.
All in all, Phillips and his staff have a lot of nice pieces with which to work, including a handful of Pro Bowlers. “This is probably the best situation defensively that I’ve come into,’’ says Phillips. The starting corners, Aqib Talib and Chris Harris, form one of the top tandems in the business, and Bradley Roby, the 2014 first-rounder, had an exceptional rookie season. While having three quality corners is a basic necessity for a Super Bowl contender in today’s NFL, it’s conceivable that Roby could shift to free safety after the free-agent departure of Rahim Moore. Add hard-hitting safety T.J. Ward to the mix, and the Broncos’ secondary should be among the best in the business. If the pass rush improves as Phillips’ history suggests it will, the Broncos could improve significantly over last season’s 25 forced turnovers, which tied for 13th in the league.
The Broncos are one of the few NFL teams that can afford to burn two roster spots on kickers. Veteran Connor Barth, who made 15-of-16 field-goal attempts in 2014, doesn’t have the leg to consistently produce touchbacks in the altitude, so Brandon McManus figures to handle kickoffs. Punter Britton Colquitt is coming off a mediocre season, but his roster spot is all but guaranteed. The coaches will consider a cast of seemingly thousands as return candidates, with Sanders a possibility as a punt returner and Omar Bolden and Andre Caldwell in the picture as kickoff returners. Elway and his staff didn’t draft a college player with a significant history in the return game, but a handful of rookies will get a look. Yes, there are a number of candidates to sift through, but look for new special-teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis to get the most out of the return game.
For a team coming off a Super Bowl appearance, there was a lot of unrest surrounding the 2014 Broncos. Sure enough, when they came up short in the playoffs, Elway didn’t waste any time blowing up the coaching staff. The presence of Kubiak and a veteran staff represents a breath of fresh air for the players, who are anxious to buy in to the new approach. Assuming Manning stays healthy, there’s no reason to believe the Broncos won’t win the West and be a factor in the playoffs. To win the Super Bowl, though, they’ll need to be on a roll, not an emotional downswing as they were last season, when the playoffs arrive.
Prediction: 1st in AFC West
Almost every conversation concerning the Chargers eventually veers to the question of whether they will move to the Los Angeles area beginning with the 2016 season. While the City of San Diego has never been this motivated to try to come up with a realistic plan to build a replacement for aging Qualcomm Stadium, the Chargers have never been this close to bolting up the freeway to L.A.
While the contentious issue plays out between team ownership and City Hall, general manager Tom Telesco and coach Mike McCoy are trying to stay focused on how to improve on last year’s mostly unsatisfying performance. The Chargers finished third in the AFC West for the second straight year and missed the playoffs for the fourth time in five seasons.
While stars Philip Rivers, Antonio Gates and Eric Weddle return, there’s a lot of room for improvement for a team that has gone 19–15 in two seasons under McCoy, including a playoff win and loss after the 2013 season.
Most of the pre-draft buzz surrounding the Bolts was a rumor that they would trade Rivers to the Tennessee Titans in order to draft Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota. Rivers is entering the final season of his contract and has expressed reservations about moving to the Los Angeles area — if that’s what the team decides to do. The Bolts didn’t trade Rivers, so he’ll be back for his 10th season as starter. Rivers is coming off an up-and-down season that ended when he was sacked seven times in a lackluster loss at Kansas City in the season finale that knocked the Bolts out of playoff contention.
As L.A. rumors began to swirl, Telesco worked on two areas that hurt the Chargers in 2014 — a shaky offensive line and an unproductive running game. He re-signed left tackle King Dunlap, who had a big 2014 season protecting Rivers’ blind side, and brought in free agent guard Orlando Franklin. Five different guys snapped the ball to Rivers last year, including Chris Watt, who heads into camp as the starter after getting valuable experience as a rookie.
Telesco spent heavily to move up just two spots in the first round of the draft to take Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon, who led college football with an astounding 2,587 rushing yards in 2014. Gordon will replace Ryan Mathews, whose five years in San Diego included too few Pro Bowl appearances and too many injuries and fumbles. The slashing Gordon is expected to help take the pressure off Rivers, who had a second strong season since McCoy arrived as coach.
The Chargers should be in great shape at running back, if they can stay healthy. Branden Oliver returns after stepping in as a rookie to fill in while Mathews was injured. He ended up leading the Chargers with 582 yards and three touchdowns. Third-down back Danny Woodhead returns after missing much of last season with a leg injury. In 2013, his first season with the Chargers, he rushed for 429 yards and caught 76 passes for 605 yards.
Rivers’ top targets — Antonio Gates, Keenan Allen and Malcom Floyd — will be supplemented by the addition of receiver/returner Jacoby Jones and Stevie Johnson. Gates, entering his 13th season, caught 69 passes and scored 12 touchdowns (one off his career high) last season.
The Chargers have to get more production out of their defensive line, pass rush and, specifically, inside linebacker Donald Butler. The Chargers had only 26 sacks last year, one of the weakest efforts in the NFL. At the very least, the two guys who led the team are back, defensive end Corey Liuget (4.5) and outside linebacker Melvin Ingram (4.0). Still, the Chargers have to come up with more pressure against opposing quarterbacks. They also need to get Butler back to his hard-hitting ways after he practically disappeared once he signed a long-term contract. Butler did finish third on the team with 73 tackles, but he didn’t play with the same impact he had in previous years.
There are some bright spots. Liuget had a breakout season, and the Chargers will look for even bigger things from the former first-round draft pick, especially after signing him to a five-year contract extension in early June. He had some impact plays — he recovered two fumbles, one for a touchdown in a comeback win at San Francisco, and forced two more, including one on a strip-sack that linebacker Andrew Gachkar returned for a touchdown against the Rams. Inside linebacker Manti Te’o continues to develop and had a solid second season. He finally had his first big impact play when he intercepted a pass — off Tom Brady, no less. The Chargers look for him to continue to develop, particularly in pass coverage.
Weddle stayed away from early offseason workouts, feeling disrespected because the team hasn’t offered a contract extension. He’s still growing his beard, vowing not to shave until the Chargers have won the Super Bowl. He will team with third-year pro Jahleel Addae, who started five games in 2014, and Jimmy Wilson. A San Diego native who went to Point Loma High School, Wilson signed with the Chargers as a free agent after spending his first four NFL seasons with Miami.
The Chargers remain in good hands in this department with kicker Nick Novak and punter Mike Scifres, and they’ve added Jones to the mix as a kick returner. Eddie Royal left as a free agent, leaving Allen to handle punt returns. Novak had another strong season, making 22-of-26 field-goal attempts (84.6 percent). He ranks second in franchise history with an 86.3 field-goal percentage. His franchise-record streak of 32 consecutive field goals came to an end on Nov. 16 against Oakland when he missed from 48 yards, his first miss in just more than a year. However, he bounced back and hit a season-long 52 yarder. In a home game against New England on Dec. 7, Novak had to fill in as the team’s punter for the first time in his career after Scifres suffered a shoulder injury. Novak hadn’t punted in a game since high school, but he averaged 40 yards on six attempts with a long of 51 and one punt inside the 20. It was the first time since 2003 that someone other than Scifres had punted for the Bolts. San Diego could use a little more juice in the return game, and Jones, who has 10 career special teams touchdowns including a memorable 108-yard kickoff return in Super Bowl XLVII, could provide it.
Rivers and the Chargers know exactly where they have to improve — in games against AFC West foes. The Chargers were swept by both the Denver Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs last year, beating only the lowly Oakland Raiders in the division. A lackluster effort at Kansas City in the finale, against backup quarterback Chase Daniel, cost the Chargers a playoff spot and had people wondering about their focus and motivation. A return to the playoffs isn’t out of the question, especially with the addition of Gordon, but another third-place finish is just as likely.
Prediction: 3rd in AFC West
It’s been 13 seasons since the Raiders made the playoffs and that long since they finished above .500. Bill Callahan led them to an 11–5 regular-season record in 2002 and to Super Bowl XXXVII, where they were crushed by Tampa Bay and former Oakland coach Jon Gruden. The next year the Raiders went 4–12 and Callahan was fired. Since then, Norv Turner, Art Shell, Lane Kiffin, Tom Cable, Hue Jackson, Dennis Allen and Tony Sparano have tried but failed to resurrect a once-dominant franchise that has won three Super Bowls overall but none in the past 31 seasons. Enter former Jacksonville Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio, a Bay Area native who will try to lead the team back to respectability and, ultimately, prominence in the NFL.
“I’m really not spending a whole lot of time worrying about what was,” Del Rio said at the NFL Scouting Combine. “I’m really focused on what needs to be going forward. We’re going to have a very competitive mentality throughout our organization in everything we’re doing.”
Del Rio spent the past three seasons as defensive coordinator for the Denver Broncos, who won the AFC West last season, finishing nine games ahead of the Raiders. That’s a huge gap to close, and the Raiders had hoped to gain ground after entering free agency with more than $60 million in salary cap space. Owner Mark Davis said he was ready to back up the Brinks truck and spend big money to land big-name free agents, but the Ndamukong Suhs and DeMarco Murrays of the free-agent world went elsewhere. So Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie spread the money out among a group of solid, less expensive players, including center Rodney Hudson, middle linebacker Curtis Lofton and defensive tackle Dan Williams.
The Raiders ranked last in total offense, last in rushing, 26th in passing and 31st in scoring. New offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave faces a huge challenge, but at least McKenzie got him a true No. 1 receiver, taking Alabama’s Amari Cooper with the fourth overall choice in the draft. Former 49er Michael Crabtree will likely start alongside Cooper, giving second-year quarterback Derek Carr two sure-handed targets who know how to get open. Shortly after the draft, Oakland released wide receiver James Jones, who led the team with 73 catches last season. Rod Streater and Andre Holmes, a pair of big, young receivers, should compete for playing time. Tight end Mychal Rivera is coming off a 58-catch second season, but Clive Walford, a third-round pick from Miami, could wind up starting because he’s a solid receiver who can also block, which is not Rivera’s strong suit.
Musgrave, who spent last season as quarterbacks coach for Chip Kelly in Philadelphia, plans to use some of Kelly’s warp-speed spread attack. That should help Carr, who thrived in an up-tempo offense at Fresno State. Carr started all 16 games as a rookie. He passed for 21 TDs with 12 interceptions, and was sacked only 24 times. But Carr averaged just 5.5 yards per pass, lower than any other quarterback with a top-40 passer rating. That number should improve now that he has a year’s experience in the NFL and more weapons on the field.
Running back Latavius Murray appears ready to become the Raiders’ No. 1 running back after Darren McFadden left as a free agent and Maurice Jones-Drew retired. The 6'3", 225-pound Murray rushed for 424 yards and two TDs on 82 carries for the season and started the final three games. Roy Helu Jr. will give Oakland a change of pace out of the backfield, and Trent Richardson will try to ignite his NFL career in what could be his last chance. Pro Bowl fullback Marcel Reece will likely be used in a variety of roles in Musgrave’s scheme to take better advantage of his receiving and running skills.
The Raiders’ offensive line gave Carr decent protection but opened too few holes for running backs last season. The addition of Hudson and the further development of second-year left guard Gabe Jackson could help Oakland’s power running game. Left tackle Donald Penn had a strong season last year after signing with Oakland as a free agent. Austin Howard, a former Jet, started at right guard last year in his first season as a Raider, but he’ll move to right tackle, his best position, and battle Menelik Watson for the job. The starting job at right guard could come down to a battle between veteran Khalif Barnes and rookie Jon Feliciano.
The Raiders ranked 21st in total defense last season and gave up 28.2 points per game, more than any other team in the NFL. New defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. and Del Rio have plenty of work to do just to make the defense respectable, let alone dominant. They have a nice building block in outside linebacker Khalil Mack, who had a superb rookie season after being taken with the fifth-overall pick in the draft. Mack was a monster against the run, and the Raiders believe he can become a game-changing pass rusher, too. He had only four sacks as a rookie. The Raiders should have a stronger and deeper linebacker corps after adding Lofton, who will start between Mack and Sio Moore or and ex-Seahawks outside linebacker Malcolm Smith. Miles Burris was released just days after the Raiders drafted a pair of linebackers.
Free safety Charles Woodson, who turns 39 in October, led the Raiders in tackles (110) and interceptions (four) and will play his 18th NFL season, giving Oakland’s defense an unquestioned leader. Nate Allen, a free-agent pickup from Philadelphia, should start alongside Woodson at strong safety. The question is whether the Raiders will have enough quality cornerbacks. They are counting heavily on D.J. Hayden having a breakthrough campaign after two injury-plagued seasons. Hayden, a first-round pick in 2013, could be paired with T.J. Carrie, who had a strong rookie season last year after being drafted in the seventh round.
The Raiders had just 22 sacks last season, and defensive end Justin Tuck led the team with five. They desperately need to generate more pass-rush pressure, but McKenzie did little in free agency or the draft to boost Oakland’s pass rush. Defensive end Mario Edwards Jr., a second-round pick from Florida State, had only eight career sacks. So it will be largely up to Mack and Tuck to get to the quarterback.
Kicker Sebastian Janikowski, 37, didn’t get much work last season, but he made 19-of-22 attempts, including a 57-yarder, after going 21-of-30 in 2013. The Raiders would like to reduce punter Marquette King’s workload. He punted 109 times last season, averaging 45.2 yards with a net average of 40.0 in his second year since replacing Shane Lechler. Carrie handled most of the punt return duties last year, averaging 7.5 yards with no touchdowns. Taiwan Jones, a speedster who suffered a season-ending foot injury in the opener last year, could give the Raiders a dangerous kickoff return man if he’s healthy. The team also signed Trindon Holliday, who has returned a total of six punts and kickoffs for touchdowns in his career, in early June.
After back-to-back solid drafts, the Raiders have raised their talent level and added some solid building blocks, particularly Mack, Cooper and Carr. They won three of their final six games last season, and a .500 season this year is not out of the question. That will depend on how quickly the team adapts to yet another coaching change.
Prediction: 4th in the AFC West
At 39, after 17 years of absorbing blindside hits and carrying the weight and fate of two franchises on his shoulders, is it any surprise that Peyton Manning is tired? He’s tired, all right. Tired of answering all those questions about his age.
NFL history is littered with cautionary tales of quarterbacks who were highly productive into their mid-30s, only to lose the race with Father Time as they approached 40. So how will Manning fare in this, his 18th season of working on Sundays?
“You can’t lump them all into the same category,” says Manning, when asked about all those other 39-year-old quarterbacks. “I think there are young 39s and old 39s. I’m in that young group, for sure. It’s all about trying to do your job no matter how old you are, whether you’re a 22-year-old rookie coming in or not. I guess I have to answer questions about it, but I’m not interested in talking about how old I am.”
That age-old saying about being only as old as you feel? Now that’s what Manning is talking about. Like Bob Seger, he has turned the page on a disappointing, if not depressing 2014 season, and is ready to rock ’n’ roll.
There’s no denying how ugly Manning’s third season in Denver was. Sure, the Broncos won 12 games and their fourth straight AFC West title. But they didn’t just lose their one and only playoff game. With their season on the line, they didn’t bother to show up. Instead, they imploded under the weight of personal agendas, with several players and coaches running for their professional lives the moment the final anticlimactic seconds ticked away.
Manning ended the season with a torn right quadriceps, a sizeable dent in his ego, and a major career decision to make: To return or not to return? That was the question. Or at least that was the storyline among the media. Truth is, Manning was never serious about walking away.
It happens every spring. Manning, in a personal rite of passage, sets aside his emotions and soldiers on in preparation for another season. It’s in his DNA. It’s what he does, who he is, how he’s wired. The myth and the legend can wait. He still wants to be The Man. Whether retirement is off on the horizon or just over the dashboard, he’s going to keep the pedal to the metal and compete.
Oh, and let the record show that a new coaching staff, headlined by former Broncos offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak and several assistants with long-time ties to the organization, has only served to rejuvenate him more than usual. It isn’t just apparent. It’s blatantly obvious to everyone who’s seen Manning sweating it out behind the scenes at the Broncos’ suburban Denver training facility.
“He’s still got a lot of juice in him,” says Broncos wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders. “For everyone, last year was a disappointment. But at the same time, it’s a new year so everyone is rejuvenated. It’s the same thing with Peyton. You talk about a guy who understands that the clock is ticking for him. He loves this game. I’ve never seen a guy who loves the game of football as much as he loves it. That passion and that spark is there.”
Duke head coach David Cutcliffe, Manning’s offensive coordinator back in the day at the University of Tennessee, wasn’t sure what to expect when Manning arrived in Durham, N.C., for his annual offseason passing camp. But Cutcliffe told nationally syndicated radio host Jim Rome that Manning was a “boatload of energy and enthusiasm.”
Why shouldn’t Manning be excited? He has fielded countless questions about how he’ll fit into Kubiak’s zone-blocking, run-oriented offense that requires the quarterback to make plays outside the pocket, foreign territory for Manning. But all those questions miss the fundamental point. Fact is, Manning and everyone else in the Broncos organization needed a change.
After three years of Super Bowl or bust, former head coach John Fox had run his course in Denver. Emotions were frayed, and game-planning sessions were giving way to travel itineraries. In the days preceding the Broncos’ 24–13 playoff loss to Indianapolis, both coordinators, Jack Del Rio and Adam Gase, were off interviewing for head coaching jobs. On the morning of the game, a national television report linked Fox to the head coaching job in Chicago.
Add a handful of starters with one eye on their playbooks and another on free-agent paydays, and the Broncos were anything but focused to make a second straight Super Bowl run. The day after the loss, Fox was gone. Three days later, he was hired by the Bears amid speculation — which Fox denies, but no one in the Broncos’ organization is buying — that he leaked his interest in the job because of Elway’s refusal to give him a contract extension. Del Rio, meanwhile, became head coach of the Raiders, and Gase joined Fox as offensive coordinator in Chicago.
If last season was filled with friction in Denver, this year will be defined by the excitement over the hiring of Kubiak, who served as Elway’s roommate and backup for nine years and later was Mike Shanahan’s offensive coordinator from 1995-2005 before leaving to become head coach of the Houston Texans. After leaving Houston he had settled in as offensive coordinator in Baltimore, telling teams he wasn’t interested in interviewing for head coaching positions. And then all heaven broke loose: The Broncos job became available.
“This is a game changer,” says Kubiak. “It’s as simple as that. This is where I got my start. This is home for me. I can’t wait to just go out there and fight the fight and believe in this city, this team and this organization. I was standing there with them when they won their last championship, and that’s what we all work for.”
“I know what Gary Kubiak is about,” Elway says. “I had a chance to play with him and play for him. I know his philosophies and I know what he can do. I know his goals are the same as mine, and that’s to win and win world championships. He’s a Denver Bronco. He knows the culture of this organization. He knows the culture of this building.”
And he isn’t alone. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips had the same job in Denver from 1989-92 before serving as the Broncos’ head coach from 1993-94. Offensive coordinator Rick Dennison played linebacker for the Broncos and was an assistant coach on Shanahan’s staff before joining Kubiak in Houston. Then there’s special teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis, who has become one of the most respected assistants in the league after cutting his teeth on father-in-law Dan Reeves’ Broncos staffs more than 20 years ago.
Phillips doesn’t renovate defenses, he resurrects them. To wit: The 1988 Broncos had perhaps the worst defense of the Reeves era. One year later, with Phillips orchestrating the defense, they played in the Super Bowl. The 2003 San Diego Chargers finished 4–12. After hiring Phillips, they won 12 games and finished atop the AFC West. The Texans were 6–10 before Kubiak hired Phillips, whereupon they made their first-ever playoff appearance.
Phillips faces a different type of challenge in Denver. The Broncos return a handful of Pro Bowlers on the defensive side of the ball. Granted, statistics can lie in today’s NFL, but the Broncos finished third in the league in 2014 in overall defense. The challenge, then, isn’t to resurrect the defense so much as take it to the next level. That, of course, being the stuff of Super Bowl champions.
“I was a lousy head coach, but I’m a pretty good defensive coordinator,” says Phillips, who came out of retirement to rejoin Kubiak in Denver. “That’s what I do well. I just wanted to get back to doing that and I couldn’t be happier. This is probably the best situation, defensively, that I’ve come into. … Normally they have a bad year and they’ve brought me in as defensive coordinator. This team has a lot of talent on defense, but we’re going to do better.”
Twelve wins and four consecutive division championships, and the song remains the same in Denver: What have you done for us lately? Welcome to life in the Rockies with Manning under center. Ever since the five-time MVP’s arrival in March 2012, the Broncos have been a one-trick pony with one singular goal, one primary purpose, one reason for being. As Fox discovered, getting to the Super Bowl isn’t good enough.
Elway knows what Manning is going through, having walked in those shoes in a previous professional life. It’s remarkable, the similar paths the two have taken. Elway was the first pick in the 1983 draft, 15 years before the Colts selected Manning No. 1. Elway, like Manning, received more than his share of criticism before finally winning a Super Bowl. Elway spent 16 seasons with the same franchise, two more than Manning. During his Hall of Fame career, Elway engineered 35 fourth-quarter comebacks and 46 game-winning drives. And how many did Manning have on his résumé when he signed with the Broncos? Thirty-five comebacks and 46 game-winning drives.
Elway won Super Bowls at age 37 and 38 despite an assortment of injuries, including a deteriorating left knee that ultimately led to replacement surgery. How did he do it? With Terrell Davis behind him in the backfield grinding out huge clumps of yards in Shanahan’s system, the same one employed by Kubiak. Now comes C.J. Anderson, who emerged from the shadows last season — 17 carries in the Broncos’ first seven regular-season games, 648 rushing yards in their final six — to earn a Pro Bowl berth. In Elway’s mind, the threat of Anderson breaking loose for big plays in Kubiak’s offense can do for Manning what Davis did for him.
“Peyton could fit in this offense very easily,” says Elway. “It’s a very helpful offense. It’s a lot more dependent on balance so Peyton is hopefully not going to have to throw the ball 50 or 55 times. As an older quarterback, it’s a perfect system to be in. It’s really a great system for any quarterback, but I think it’s even more helpful the older you get.”
It’s not like Manning will morph into a game manager or one of those other catch phrases that describe your basic mediocre quarterback. He’s coming off a season in which he threw 39 touchdown passes, a career year for most quarterbacks, and undoubtedly would have had more if he hadn’t struggled down the stretch with the quad injury. If he’s going to win that elusive second Super Bowl, it will be in Denver, with Elway and another former quarterback, Kubiak, forming the foundation of his support system.
Ask him about adjusting to Kubiak’s offense, and Manning has to suppress a laugh.
“I like to think I’m pretty versatile, believe it or not,” says Manning, smirk completely intact. “I feel like I can execute whatever plays the coach calls. … You’re always looking into learning football. Whether you’ve got changes or you’re doing the same thing, you’re always learning out there. As soon as you stop learning, something is not going right. So I’m looking forward to learning Coach Kubiak’s philosophies and trying to do my part as a quarterback. I’m looking forward to the process.”
Says Kubiak: “We’re going to do what he does best. Obviously, if we run the ball well, which we plan on doing, we’re going to move the quarterback (out of the pocket) at some point. … He’s been very excited. He’s been challenged. He said that to me a couple of times: ‘I’m challenged again. I’m having to learn new stuff because I’ve been doing this for so long.’ I think that’s good for all of us no matter how long you’ve been in the league.”
Now about all those other 39-year-old quarterbacks. Elway, at 38, is the oldest starting quarterback ever to win a Super Bowl. Since 1983, only two quarterbacks 39 or older — Phil Simms and Brett Favre — have won playoff games. Some 39-year-olds, most notably Favre and Warren Moon, have put up nice numbers, but quarterbacks that old typically are stopgaps. They’re starters by default because their teams couldn’t find a younger alternative. Now comes Manning, who’ll try to lead the new-look Broncos to a Super Bowl victory with his 40th birthday on the horizon.
No-huddle offense, meet the no-time-to-waste offense.
“With Peyton, obviously there isn’t much he can add to his legacy,” says Elway. “As I told him, ‘You don’t have to throw for another yard and you don’t need to throw another touchdown pass because your legacy is going to be one of the all-time greats as it is.’ Where he can really add to his legacy is to win a Super Bowl.”
-By Jim Armstrong
The only team with wins over both the AFC and NFC champions on its résumé in 2014? That would be Andy Reid’s Kansas City Chiefs, who, despite a confounding slew of injuries and suspensions, tended to play up — or down — to just about every opponent last fall. Lose to Tennessee at home, then crush New England; top Miami and Buffalo on the road, then lose at Oakland. Which explains the end result: A roller-coaster, schizophrenic 9–7 campaign.
A healthy Jamaal Charles would get 2015 off on the right foot. As would a happy Justin Houston, who put together perhaps the quietest 22-sack season — a half-sack short of Michael Strahan’s NFL record — in modern NFL history, a run for the ages overshadowed by the monster campaign of J.J. Watt. But a slate that features just seven true home games — a Nov. 1 date with Detroit is being played in London — only makes a challenging schedule that much tougher to navigate.
Charles says he was never more “frustrated” as a pro than last fall, but the Pro Bowl back still accounted for 1,324 yards, averaged 5.0 yards per carry and totaled 14 touchdowns — nine rushing — on one good leg. Not much was done to upgrade the position behind backup Knile Davis, who could see more work to limit the wear and tear on Charles.
Quarterback Alex Smith signed a big-money extension before the start of the regular season that set him within his peers but also put him the squarely in the sights of some Chiefs fans who see that cash as better splashed elsewhere. Still one of the smarter and most accurate (65.3 percent completion rate in 2014) passers in the game, Smith has, on paper, as many toys to play with as he’s ever had in Kansas City. Chase Daniel is gaining street cred as one of the NFL’s top backups, and he’s paid like it ($3.75 million base salary in 2015).
The Chiefs became the first team since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger to go an entire regular season without a touchdown thrown to a wideout. Jeremy Maclin, signed away from Philadelphia to replace aging Dwayne Bowe, is expected to change all that, and quickly. Second-year target Albert Wilson found his groove over the final third of 2014; incoming draftee Chris Conley has crazy tools; and veteran Jason Avant, a former teammate of Maclin’s and a longtime Reid protégé, knows this offense back to front. Tight end Travis Kelce (862 receiving yards, five touchdowns) was a revelation in his first full active season; if he keeps his temper and ball security in check, Kelce could be the best tight end to put on a Chiefs uniform since Tony Gonzalez was traded out of town in 2009.
A succession of injuries and Eric Fisher’s bum shoulder forced general manager John Dorsey to piece together a makeshift offensive line last fall, and it showed, as the total sacks allowed jumped from 41 to 49 while Smith spent many Sundays running for his life. The addition of Ben Grubbs (Saints) and Paul Fanaika (Cardinals) should stabilize the interior blocking, but center Rodney Hudson, now with Oakland, could be sorely missed.
Things you can count on: death, taxes and four grinding quarters each week from nose tackle Dontari Poe. The Memphis native led all NFL interior defensive linemen in snaps played for a second straight year, rolling up a career-best six sacks in the process. Poe should benefit from the return of veteran end Mike DeVito, one of two defensive starters to suffer a season-ending Achilles tendon tear in a Week 1. DeVito’s injury allowed the club to get longer looks at Allen Bailey (five sacks) and Jaye Howard (one sack) at end in defensive coordinator Bob Sutton’s 3-4 scheme. With DeVito and former reserve Mike Catapano reportedly healed up, the Chiefs have strength, depth and flexibility up front.
Stalwart linebacker Derrick Johnson was the other veteran to tear an Achilles in the home opener, and the unit never quite recovered from the loss of its spiritual leader — especially against the run, where the Chiefs seemed to really wear down after early November. Like DeVito, Johnson said in the spring that he felt at least 80 percent of the way back. Even at that he is a more reliable anchor in the middle than super subs Josh Mauga and James-Michael Johnson, special-teams contributors who were forced to carry the rope in No. 56’s absence. Mauga was re-signed and is expected to have the inside track and a starting spot, but don’t be surprised if rookies Ramik Wilson and D.J. Alexander work their way into specific packages.
Rather than pout over the failure to land a long-term contract, Houston took his grief out on opposing quarterbacks, stringing together a career-best in sacks and affirming his status as one of the most exciting pass rushers in the game. Contract issues still loomed in the spring, though, and the former Georgia star bristled when the Chiefs slapped the franchise tag on him in March, staying away from the start of the voluntary spring OTAs. Houston’s outside linebacker bookend, Tamba Hali, saw his production slip (11 sacks in 2013; six last fall) but endeared himself to Chiefs fans by taking a pay cut rather than trying to force his way onto the open market via a release. First-round pick Dee Ford was a non-factor during the first half of 2014 but could take on more snaps (and responsibility) if the 31-year-old Hali fades.
As stunning as the Johnson/DeVito injuries were, it was nothing compared to the shocking news of late November, when Pro Bowl safety Eric Berry was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma, ending an injury-plagued season on a somber note. While expected to make a full recovery, Berry may not be healthy enough to return to football fitness before the start of the regular season. With that in mind, the Chiefs signed veteran Tyvon Branch from Oakland and re-upped with journeyman Ron Parker, who can slot into any role in Sutton’s secondary but seemed to excel as a safety. Cornerback Sean Smith is coming off his best season (18 pass breakups) in Kansas City but was expected to receive a multi-game suspension for this fall because of a drunk-driving incident dating back to last summer.
De’Anthony Thomas was drafted to change games with his legs, and the speedster didn’t disappoint as a rookie, averaging 11.9 yards per punt return with a touchdown and 30.6 yards per kickoff return. Thomas is a perfect complement to Davis, who has run a kickoff back for a score twice now in two seasons. After an impressive spring and summer, rookie kicker Cairo Santos beat out veteran Ryan Succop and rebounded from a terrible regular-season debut to hit 25-of-30 field-goal attempts and 8-of-12 from 40 yards or longer. Punter Dustin Colquitt (44.6 yards per boot) is the locker room’s resident grey beard, having survived five coaches and three GMs since joining the club in 2005.
Peyton Manning is fading, but he’s 13–1 against the Chiefs; as long as he’s at the controls, the Broncos probably aren’t going anywhere. A schedule that pairs the Chiefs with the NFC North doesn’t do them many favors, nor does getting stuck away from Arrowhead Stadium from Halloween to Thanksgiving. But three of the final four games are winnable and at home, and the locker room believes in Reid. If an answer is found at center and if Kelce stays healthy, the Chiefs should be primed to chase a playoff berth again.
Prediction: 2nd in the AFC West
In the last two seasons, one Oklahoma team went 11–2 and upset Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. Another went 8–5 and got offensive coaches fired. According to the statistical profile, one of those teams was better and it wasn’t the one hoisting a bowl trophy.
Let’s take a closer look.
Football Outsiders F/+ ratings are an opponent-adjusted look at per-play and per-drive efficiency. They take into account the components that go into winning in the long term, and they can frequently differ from poll rankings or teams’ records because they, like most systems of computer ratings, look at what is most sustainable and controllable.
From 2006-12, Oklahoma ranked in the F/+ top 10 every year, peaking at second in 2008 and otherwise oscillating between sixth and ninth. In 2013, the Sooners stumbled to 23rd, but in 2014, they bounced up to 19th.
“Years of nearly elite play, followed by a stumble in 2013 and a slight rebound.” That’s exactly how you remember Oklahoma’s recent football history, right? No? You’re more inclined to remember the actual results (improvement to 11–2 in 2013, followed by a preseason top-5 ranking and a collapse to 8–5)? Of course you are.
Perhaps no blue-blood program has seen its stats and narratives disagree more in recent times than Bob Stoops’ Sooners. Part of this is the Sooners’ own fault. Of their 28 losses since 2006, 13 have been by double digits, and six have been by at least 28 points. Since Nick Saban took over in 2007, Alabama has lost by double digits only four times and has never lost by more than 14. And until the Rose Bowl embarrassment against Oregon in January, Florida State had made it almost five full seasons without losing by more than 11.
Be it a product of iffy motivation or smoke-and-mirror disguises of potential problems, Oklahoma doesn’t stumble — the Sooners fall down a manhole. We remember their failures more because of the significance of them.
At the same time, randomness has played a huge role in how we perceive the last decade or so of the Stoops era. And it has completely impacted the narratives surrounding the Sooners’ 2013 “rise” and their 2014 “collapse.”
In 2013, Oklahoma fell to 23rd in the F/+ ratings because it couldn’t stop the run and, until the out-of-nowhere dominance of Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, its offense couldn’t do anything at a particularly elite level. The Sooners gave up a total of 510 rushing yards and averaged just 3.9 yards per play in losses to Texas and Baylor. They gave up huge per-carry rushing averages against Notre Dame, West Virginia and Oklahoma State, too, and their offense was average at best against ULM, West Virginia and Kansas. But they continued to survive — 16–7 over West Virginia, 20–17 over TCU and 38–30 over Texas Tech. And when they improved late, they still had a chance to play for some high stakes. And then the luck kicked in.
No matter how much we want to convince ourselves that there is skill in recovering fumbles or that you create your own breaks, that is only so true. If your guys run a lot and stay near the ball carrier, you’ll have more bodies available when a fumble hits the ground. And playing a certain aggressive style on defense can lead to more forced fumbles and passes defensed (and therefore more opportunities for turnovers and lucky bounces). But you don’t control it nearly as much as you want to.
So when Oklahoma recovered nine of nine fumbles in the Kansas State, Oklahoma State and Alabama games, there was no way to spin that beyond, “That was amazingly lucky.” On a per-play basis, the Sooners were outgained in all three games — Kansas State averaged 7.3 yards per play to OU’s 6.5; OSU gained 5.7 to OU’s 4.9 and Alabama averaged 7.9 to OU’s 5.8. That Oklahoma won all three of these games by at least nine points was a combination of timely play, fortitude and pure, unadulterated luck of the bounce. And in 2013, Oklahoma proved it was a resilient, lucky team, not one destined for a national title run.
In 2014, however, luck reverted for the Sooners in a way that it hadn’t since 2009, when they lost four games by a combined 12 points. After a 4–0 start that included easy wins over what would prove to be solid Louisiana Tech (F/+ ranking: 35th) and Tennessee (24th) teams, the Sooners fell to an awesome TCU squad by four in Fort Worth. The per-play yardage was nearly even (TCU 6.01, OU 5.91), and OU won the turnovers battle, 3-to-2, but randomness played a role. First, TCU’s Trevone Boykin fumbled near the OU goal line, and his teammate Cliff Murphy recovered it for a touchdown. Then, Paul Dawson picked off a Trevor Knight pass early in the fourth quarter and returned it 41 yards for a go-ahead score.
Two weeks later, OU suffered what might have been the most random, unlikely loss in the 2014 season. The Sooners outgained Kansas State by 148 yards and created eight scoring opportunities (first downs inside the opponent’s 40) to KSU’s four. But Michael Hunnicutt, an otherwise solid placekicker, missed an extra point, a 32-yard field goal, and, in the closing minutes, a 19-yard chip shot. That was seven nearly automatic points off of the board. Plus, Knight’s only interception of the game came from his end zone and resulted in a 5-yard pick-six. The game featured 14 rather fluky points, and OU lost by one.
The Oklahoma State loss was perhaps even less expected. Despite losing star rusher Samaje Perine to injury, the Sooners held a 35–21 lead with five minutes to play, and OSU was attempting a comeback with a freshman quarterback. But Mason Rudolph connected twice with Brandon Sheperd, first for 14 yards, then for a 43-yard score, to cut the Sooner lead to 35–28. Then, after an OU interception all but iced the game, the Sooners punted from OSU territory with under a minute left. Stoops elected to re-kick after a running-into-the-kicker penalty, presumably to kill more time and perhaps pin OSU a little bit deeper, but with just under a minute left, Jed Barnett kicked a returnable ball to Tyreek Hill, who returned the punt 92 yards for the game-tying score. Following another missed Hunnicutt field goal — this one from 44 yards — OSU made a 21-yarder and stole a win.
In 2013, Oklahoma recovered 68 percent of all fumbles. In 2014, the Sooners recovered 39 percent. In 2013, they went 8–0 in games decided by 15 or fewer points. In 2014, they lost three games by eight combined points. The dis-spiriting losses to Baylor (48–14 in Norman) and Clemson (40–6 in the Russell Athletic Bowl) proved that the Sooners were not an elite team, but 2013’s late-season luck set an unfair bar. And when Oklahoma failed to meet that bar, the demands for change set in.
Barring any further changes, Stoops will take the field in September with four new assistants on the staff. That OU hasn’t produced a top-10 finish (in the F/+ rankings) for two years running suggests change might not be a bad thing, but demanding change, in part, because of fluky losses to Oklahoma State and Kansas State made no more sense than building OU into a title contender because of fluky 2013 wins against the same teams.
Our perceptions and reactions are based off of wins and losses. Players get rings because of them. Coaches get promotions and pink slips because of them. This makes sense, of course. If our team wins because of fumbles luck, we don’t say “Yeah, but that didn’t really count” afterward. We celebrate, just as we vent after losses. But stats can sometimes remind us just how fickle football can be.
-By Bill Connelly, Football Study Hall/SB Nation
While the Rob Gronkowski vs. Jimmy Graham debate is sure to pick back up this season, there was no doubt that Gronk was the best tight end in the league last season. Following his injury-plagued 2013 in which he played in just seven games, Gronkowski made it through the 2014 campaign injury free and posted some mighty impressive numbers along the way. Graham was no slouch himself, catching 10 touchdown passes, but some nagging injuries limited his big plays, as he averaged a career-low 10.5 yards per catch. This season, while Gronk will team up with Tom Brady once again to wreak havoc, Graham will be catching passes from Russell Wilson instead of Drew Brees, as the big target looks to add a new element to Seattle's offense in its quest for a third straight trip to the Super Bowl.
Rankings courtesy of Ourlads' NFL Scouting Services
2015 NFL Player Rankings: Tight Ends
1. Rob Gronkowski, New England
The huge red-zone target with long arms made it through the 2014 season injury-free. He corralled 82 passes for 1,124 yards, averaging 13.7 yards per catch, and scored 12 times.
2. Jimmy Graham, Seattle
Fought through a shoulder injury in 2014 but still came up with 85 catches good for 889 yards and 10 touchdowns. He will have a new role in Seattle as a blocker, as well as a featured receiver.
3. Jason Witten, Dallas
Has caught 943 passes in his 12-year career, good for 10,502 yards and 57 touchdowns. He also has played in 187 straight games.
4. Greg Olsen, Carolina
Was second only to Gronkowski in tight end receiving yards with 1,008. Has played in 126 consecutive games, the second-longest streak in the NFL among active tight ends.
5. Martellus Bennett, Chicago
Led all tight ends with 90 catches, averaging just over a first down per reception at 10.2 yards. He broke Hall of Famer Mike Ditka’s single-season record for most catches by a Bears tight end.
6. Travis Kelce, Kansas City
Showed good run-after-catch ability, gaining 20 yards or more on 15 of his 67 catches. For a big man, he has the speed to get vertical down the field.
7. Dwayne Allen, Indianapolis
Allen and teammate Coby Fleener became the first tight end duo on the same team to each record eight touchdowns in a season. He’s a versatile athlete who can play fullback, wide receiver and in the slot.
8. Zach Ertz, Philadelphia
A dependable pass catcher who is smart and athletic. Effective blocker when on the move. Productive with 58 catches for 702 yards.
9. Virgil Green, Denver
A natural hand catcher with speed. Demonstrated good-enough ball skills and athletic ability that the Broncos decided to let Julius Thomas go in free agency.
10. Julius Thomas, Jacksonville
Signed with Jacksonville as an unrestricted free agent. Became the first tight end in NFL history to catch at least 12 touchdown passes in consecutive seasons.
11. Antonio Gates, San Diego
12. Delanie Walker, Tennessee
13. Heath Miller, Pittsburgh
14. Charles Clay, Buffalo
15. Jared Cook, St. Louis
16. Owen Daniels, Denver
17. Coby Fleener, Indianapolis
18. Jermaine Gresham, Free Agent
19. Vernon Davis, San Francisco
20. Larry Donnell, N.Y. Giants
When the Clemson offensive coaches meet, Robbie Caldwell has to feel a little bit out of place, even if he has been coaching the Tiger offensive line for four seasons.
Leading the meeting is likely to be Jeff Scott or Tony Elliott, the program’s new co-coordinators and each a former Clemson wide receiver. Tight ends coach Danny Pearman played the position for the Tigers. Graduate assistants Tyler Grisham and Thomas Austin wore the Orange.
Caldwell went to Furman. It’s in South Carolina, but that’s not the same.
So, what happens during the meetings? Perhaps the other coaches make Caldwell bring coffee and donuts every day. They could force him to sing “Hail the Purple and White,” the Furman fight song. Or maybe “Tiger Rag,” the Clemson battle hymn, would be more appropriate. Do they speak in code around him? Grill him about school traditions, like the $2 bill?
“He’s been here longer than a lot of the other coaches have,” Elliott says about Caldwell. “Plus he has a daughter at Clemson. He belongs.”
It’s unlikely any program in the country has so many of its alumni coaching on one side of the ball. And while Caldwell no doubt feels comfortable amidst all of those Tigers, it will be interesting to see how he and the others handle the departure of former coordinator Chad Morris — now the boss at SMU — and the dual ascensions of Elliott and Scott to the vacant spot. Clemson’s attacks under Morris were extremely potent, and one of the more interesting stories heading into the 2015 season is how well Scott and Elliott, in their new co-coordinator roles, will be able to replicate Morris’ success.
In 2012, the Tiger offense was ninth nationally in total yards (512.7 ypg) and sixth in scoring (41.0 ppg). The following season, Clemson was again ninth in total offense (508.5 ypg) and tied for eighth in scoring (40.2 ppg). That performance earned Morris AFCA National Assistant Coach of the Year honors. Although the losses of weapons such as wideout Sammy Watkins and quarterback Tajh Boyd caused a drop in the Tigers’ 2014 production, Morris remained a man in demand, and the Mustangs hired him last Dec. 1, leaving Clemson coach Dabo Swinney with a decision to make. He stayed in-house, elevating Scott, who had been the Tigers’ receivers coach, and Elliott, who handled the running backs.
Related: Buy the 2015 ACC Preview Magazine
“This has been my plan for a while,” Swinney says. “It’s one of the easiest decisions I have had to make. The last four years, we have had a lot of success, and Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott are huge reasons why. They are incredibly bright young coaches who know what we do and love Clemson. It’s an easy fit.”
But that doesn’t mean it’s an easy job. No coach in Clemson history has won more games during a four-year period than has Swinney. But there is a sense that his strong assistant coaching staff, led by Morris and defensive coordinator Brent Venables, has been largely responsible for his success. Losing Morris, who had been one of the hottest assistants in the country, could interrupt that success.
No pressure, Jeff and Tony. Just keep cranking out units that score 40 points per game, and everything will be all right.
“Every coach knows they are judged by wins and losses and how the offense does,” Scott says. “When you move up the ladder and get coordinator titles, the expectations go up.
“We want to perform better than any Clemson offense has performed.”
• • •
Morris gets the awards, the attention, the opportunity to resurrect SMU’s flagging fortunes — and a fat contract to do. But during any given week over the past four seasons, he had a lot of help. Scott, Elliott and the rest of the Clemson offensive staff didn’t just focus on their positions. They had significant roles in developing gameplans.
For instance, Scott, the wideouts coach at Clemson for four of his seven years on the staff, was involved in deciding which passing plays the Tigers would use on first and second downs. He also decided which deep throws would work best against specific opponents and helped put together the offensive options on third-and-long situations. During games, Scott would make suggestions to Morris about when to try long shots.
“Coach Morris did a good job of delegating gameplan responsibilities among the other four coaches in the (offensive) room,” says Scott, the son of former South Carolina head coach and Clemson assistant Brad Scott. “This isn’t a huge transition.”
Elliott was in charge of studying opponents’ blitz packages and devising pickup strategies for the running backs, whom he coached for the past four seasons at Clemson. He also decided which plays would comprise the first- and second-down ground package. During games, he would recommend running plays to Morris.
Both coaches expect to have a similarly collaborative effort in the coming seasons. The process worked well in the Tigers’ 40–6 rout of Oklahoma in the Russell Athletic Bowl that gave Swinney his fourth straight season with at least 10 wins. Although Clemson managed a modest 387 total yards, much of the second half was spent protecting the giant lead it had amassed in the first 30 minutes. Elliot and Scott, who were teammates and stretching partners during their time at CU, worked well together during the month leading up to the game and expect similar harmony moving forward.
Related: Clemson 2015 Preview and Prediction
“We complement each other well,” says Elliott, who has a degree in industrial engineering. “There are no egos involved. We want to put young men into position to succeed. It’s not going to be about me or Jeff.
“We are battle tested together. When you play with someone, you develop a bond that’s deep. When we get put into tough situations that we have to get through, the foundation of our friendship will help.”
Elliott will spend game days in the booth, where he is most comfortable, and will make the final decision on playcalling. Scott is more comfortable on the field, especially since he will continue to coach the receivers and needs to be close to the action to manage substitutions. The concept of co-coordinators has been gaining some steam in college football of late. TCU went to that model last season, and Ed Warinner and Tim Beck are splitting the position at Ohio State. Florida State, Mississippi State and Michigan State were among 2014’s top teams that employed the concept, so it’s not like Swinney was doing something outrageous when he elevated Elliott and Scott.
Since the two spent the past four years working under Morris and learning how he implemented the system, there is limited risk. Granted, it’s impossible to tell how their playcalling will work out and if they can maintain production with an offense that will include plenty of new faces. But Swinney hasn’t done this hastily.
“Four years ago, it wasn’t the right time for (Elliott and Scott) to be coordinators,” he says. “But I knew it was coming. Those guys are more than ready now.”
Scott and Elliott will direct an offense that hopes to have DeShaun Watson back as its primary triggerman. Watson underwent surgery for a partially torn ACL in December but expects to be ready for fall practice. In eight games last year (Watson missed three due to a broken bone in his throwing hand), the true freshman completed 67.9 percent of his passes for 1,466 yards and 14 TDs with only two interceptions. He also ran for 200 yards and five scores. He is perfect for the Tigers system and will have a bunch of talented skill players around him. Wayne Gallman (769 rushing yards, four TDs) leads a deep stable of backs, and Artavis Scott (76 catches, eight TDs) and Mike Williams (57 catches, six TDs) are back on the outside.
“I feel the same way I felt last year under Coach Morris,” Watson says. “I’m comfortable with the offense. I want to go out each game and get a W, get a lot of points, score touchdowns and play with a fast tempo. I want to spread the ball around so everybody gets the chance to make plays.”
Sounds like the Clemson way. Elliott and Scott are ready to keep the good times going, and they have plenty of Orange support in the meeting room — even from Caldwell.