Articles By Athlon Sports
Locks of the Week
Bank on great teams outclassing good teams and terrible teams stumbling right out of the gate.
Saints (-3) at Falcons
Sean Payton’s Saints are 8–2 against Mike Smith’s Falcons, who struggle with an inferiority complex vs. NOLA.
49ers (-5) at Cowboys
There’s no D in Big D, which will be exploited by a San Fran squad that has been to three straight NFC title games.
Jets (-5) vs. Raiders
Oakland is riding a 12-game losing streak on the East Coast — 1 p.m. Eastern is 10 a.m. Pacific Time, after all.
Broncos (-7.5) vs. Colts
Peyton Manning will have his revenge, after losing 39–33 in his Indianapolis homecoming last season.
Eagles (-10) vs. Jaguars
Bet against the Jags every week until they move to London or start Blake Bortles, whichever comes first.
Straight Up Upsets
A pair of underrated road teams take on familiar foes for ready-made underdog specials.
Titans (+3) at Chiefs
New Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt had K.C.’s number last year as the Chargers OC, winning 41–38 in Week 12 and 27–24 in Week 17.
Bengals (+2) at Ravens
Granted, Cincy’s Andy Dalton has struggled with a 2–4 record, six TDs and 11 INTs against the Ravens.
Stay away from these games unless you’re a degenerate or a hometown homer who has to have action on all the action.
Buccaneers (-2.5) vs. Panthers
This could become a “Lock of the Week” if Cam Newton can’t play for the Cats.
Texans (-3) vs. Redskins
Poor RG3. His Texas homecoming could end in a head-on collision with J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney.
Rams (-4) vs. Vikings
Expect both teams to run as much as possible to avoid their respective liabilities at QB.
Patriots (-4.5) at Dolphins
If only Rob Gronkowski were full-strength for fist-pumping on South Beach.
Steelers (-6.5) vs. Browns
This feels like a lock, but the mighty Steel Curtain is more like a flimsy shower curtain these days.
Bears (-7) vs. Bills
A team that plays in Toronto sometimes visits a team coached by a two-time CFL Grey Cup champ.
Monday Night Moolah
Monday night time is the right time to double up the weekend’s winnings or bounce back from the weekend’s losses.
Lions (-5.5) vs. Giants
Which No. 1 overall pick QB can throw the most INTs on national TV? Nice try, Matthew. But it’s Eli.
Chargers (+3) at Cardinals (-3)
The Bolts will bring electricity to the Monday Night Football double-header nightcap.
The NFL is back, as the 2014 regular season kicks off Thursday night when Seattle opens defense of its Super Bowl crown at home against Green Bay. With the journey to Super Bowl XLIX set to begin, Athlon’s editors have made their predictions for how the upcoming season and postseason will play out.
The Seahawks are trying to do something that hasn’t been done in more than 10 years — win back-to-back Super Bowls — and as a whole, Athlon’s NFL’s pundits don’t seem to like their chances. Only two of the five editors polled even picked Seattle to make it back to the Super Bowl and even those two don't have them pullong off the rare repeat. On the other hand, three editors not only like Denver's odds of getting back to the Super Bowl, they also have the Broncos finishing the deal this time.
In addition to the predicted standings for every conference, Athlon’s editors also make their Wild Card (WC) picks as well as the respective conference championship game (CG) matchups and their best guess as to which teams will face off in Glendale, Arizona, on Feb. 1 with the Lombardi Trophy on the line.
Super Bowl XLIX
They say that hope springs eternal, but that’s really meant for baseball. In football, hope is false, more often than not. Parity in the NFL has made every team enter every season feeling like a contender, when the truth is that couldn’t be further from the truth.
So more than a few fan bases are in for a big fall – either immediately with a slow start, or slowly with a disappointing finish. There are only a few “power” teams left in the NFL. All the rest could go either way depending on a few factors. Sometimes it’s easier to see the truth from outside the fan base. So for those of you caught up in hope that your mediocre team is truly a contender, here’s a little reality check:
Here are five teams you think will be good, but they almost certainly won’t:
1. Carolina Panthers (12-4)
They had a brilliant, coming out party in 2013 and it looked like they had arrived, finally, as an NFC power and Cam Newton had taken a step toward being an elite quarterback. But now Newton is playing with a cracked rib and behind a shaky offensive line. And remember, they got rid of Steve Smith and pretty much all their wide receivers during the offseason.
Yes, their defense is terrific. They led the NFL with 60 sacks last season. And you can win a lot of games with a pass rush like that. But you can’t be a double-digit win team without scoring points. Also, defensive end Greg Hardy is staring at a suspension at some point, possibly as long as six games.
If he gets suspended for that long, and Newton’s injury lingers it could be a really long season. Even if everything works out, the Panthers could be in for a fall back to mediocrity, at least.
2. Kansas City Chiefs (11-5)
Everyone knew Andy Reid would turn around the Chiefs, but did anyone see 11 wins in his first season? Probably not, because it was unrealistic – as improbable, really as their 9-0 start. It’s also impossible, by the way, to ignore that their 9-0 start became a 2-5 finish, which may have been too big of a correction, but is still a sign of things to come.
This year they’re facing a brutal schedule and Reid will have to continue to make magic with quarterback Alex Smith and a surprisingly powerful running game behind an offensive line that lost three starters to free agency. That’s not usually a recipe for success. Also keep in mind that as the Chiefs swooned late, so did their pass rush which was as responsible as anything for their 9-0 start.
In a tough division where a lot of points are scored, it’s hard to imagine Reid can keep up with the roster he has – just like it was tough to imagine they could sustain it when they were undefeated in Week 10 last year.
3. Pittsburgh Steelers (8-8)
Back to back .500 seasons show they’re deep in mediocrity, but they always feel they have a chance because of the presence of Ben Roethlisberger. And maybe that’s true. But what else do the Steelers have? And shouldn’t everyone be at least a little alarmed by how awful the offense looked this summer?
The hope for more seems to hinge around the running back duo of Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount, assuming they don’t end up serving twin suspensions for their arrest on marijuana charges in August. It won’t help ease the burden that the loss of Jerricho Cotchery has thinned the wide receiver corps.
Unfortunately they’re going to need to score points just to get back to .500 again, because that defense, being rebuilt around youth, took a big step back last year and may be poised to step back again.
4. Chicago Bears (8-8)
Doesn’t it seem like every year the Bears are on the verge of contention and Jay Cutler is on the verge of being an elite quarterback? Yet the Bears haven’t been in the playoffs since 2010 and they’ve actually made it just once in the last seven seasons. So why all the optimism this year?
Jay Cutler is what he is, which is an erratic quarterback capable of elite play followed by mindless mistakes. Yes, they scored a lot of points last year (and Cutler was rewarded with a seven-year, $126 million extension). And they should again with the receiving duo of Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffrey.
But a bad defense last year is now without Julius Peppers and Henry Melton along their defensive line. They brought in Jared Allen to help replace them, though he doesn’t exactly bring young legs. Their secondary isn’t getting any younger either. Yes, if the defense is better and the offense is just as good, this finally could be the year the Bears return to prominence.
But when is the last time everything worked out that well in Chicago? And haven’t we heard all this before?
5. Atlanta Falcons (4-12)
Arguably the biggest disappointment of 2013 was the fall of the Falcons from the best team in the NFC to the worst – a stunning fall for a team that was loaded with weapons (at least on the offensive side of the ball). Now, in 2014, everyone seems to assume that last year’s collapse was an anomaly, that the Falcons are poised to bounce back big.
Granted the return to health of Julio Jones could be big, but take a look at the lines along both sides of the ball. They’re trying to patch things together and hoping it will work, but it doesn’t appear as if they’ll be able to generate a pass rush or stop one. That’s a problem because that’s where games are won and lost.
Maybe they’ll be able to score some points – though it’s important to factor in the retirement (for real this time) of tight end Tony Gonzalez. Yet with a questionable defense – that may be switching from a 4-3 to a 3-4 – it’s hard to imagine they’ll be able to score enough to vault them back into contention in the NFC. Mediocrity may be their ceiling, and that would be a disappointment again.
—By Ralph Vacchiano
It wasn’t just a bad day at the office. For the Broncos, Super Bowl XLVIII was a painful reality check, one that convinced them that all the offense in the world doesn’t necessarily translate to being the best team on the planet. Seattle was better that day, and San Francisco, the other big bully from the NFC, probably would have been, too. So, general manager John Elway and his lieutenants spent the offseason overhauling their defense, signing three big-ticket free agents — Aqib Talib, T.J. Ward and future Hall of Famer DeMarcus Ware — before using their No. 1 draft pick on Ohio State cornerback Bradley Roby.
For all the changes the Broncos have made, their bottom line remains the same: Vince Lombardi Trophy or bust. There may be a tomorrow with Peyton Manning under center; even if the Broncos win Super Bowl XLIX, Manning could return for an encore season. But Elway, who knows a little about playing quarterback on the back side of 30, isn’t counting on it. He wants to win, and right now.
It’s official. Manning called the right career audible when he decided to join the Broncos after being jettisoned by the Colts. Two years after sitting out the entire 2011 season, Manning threw a record 55 touchdown passes and won his fifth MVP award as the Broncos became the first-ever NFL team to eclipse the 600-point mark.
Manning will have several new weapons this year, including Montee Ball, who’ll replace Knowshon Moreno as the starting tailback, and wideouts Emmanuel Sanders and Cody Latimer. Moreno had more than his share of moments in a Denver uniform, including a 224-yard game vs. the Patriots, but Ball gives them a more durable back and a better bet to score near the goal line, where the short field can create issues in the passing game. Not that Ball is only a threat between the tackles. He’s flying under the radar after being a backup as a rookie, but he has big-play potential that could land him in multiple Pro Bowls. Ball underwent an emergency appendectomy in early August, but was back at practice two weeks later and is expected to be ready for Week 1.
Sanders, a free-agent signee from Pittsburgh, replaces Eric Decker, who signed with the Jets. The big news in the passing game, though, came on Day 2 of the draft, when the Broncos traded up in the second round to grab Latimer. With Sanders already on board with emerging superstar Demaryius Thomas, the addition of Latimer sends a clear message that Wes Welker’s days in Denver are numbered. Welker was his usual productive self in 2013, but concussions are becoming more of an issue, such as the one he sustained in the third preseason game. At this point, Welker is probably too high a risk to be counted on week in and week out.
With or without Welker, the Broncos possess a devastating crew of receivers who can move the chains and stretch the field. The rest of the crew includes tight end Julius Thomas, a college basketball player who has become arguably Elway’s best-ever draft pick.
Almost lost in the shuffle of the Broncos’ season: They did it with left tackle Ryan Clady sidelined for most of the year. Clady’s return this season has created a domino effect on the offensive line. Chris Clark, who replaced Clady, will move to right tackle, while incumbent Orlando Franklin will move to left guard in place of Zane Beadles, who left via free agency. Franklin isn’t happy about the move, what with tackles much more appreciated on payday than guards, but it makes all the sense in the world. Clark is the better pass-blocker, and Franklin’s forte is run-blocking — all the more reason to project big numbers for Ball in his second season.
The Broncos hoped to energize their pass rush, but they were shocked to find Ware available. With Ware on the edge, the Broncos may be able to match the kind of pressure the Seahawks and 49ers put on opposing quarterbacks. Ware had 19.5 sacks as recently as 2011, and at 32, he seemingly has a lot left in his tank.
But Ware’s production figures to be linked to the other main pass-rusher, Von Miller. Three years into his career, Miller already is at the crossroads. Will he return to being one of the most feared pass-rushers in the league, or will injuries and off-field issues overshadow his enormous talents? One more drug-related issue, and Miller will be suspended long-term. Not only that, but he’ll also be trying to bounce back from a knee reconstruction. So, in the end, the Broncos won’t know how formidable their pass rush will be until they see how healthy Miller is. Ware and a healthy Miller coming off the corner would be a devastating tandem.
Linebackers Wesley Woodyard and Shaun Phillips departed via free agency, but Denver was in good shape with Danny Trevathan, the team’s leading tackler last season, ready to take over. That was until Trevathan fractured his knee during training camp, sidelining him until the middle of October, at minimum. Nate Irving is expected to start in the middle with Brandon Marshall (not the former Bronco wide receiver who's now in Chicago) and fifth-round pick Lamin Barrow among the candidates to fill in for Trevathan.
The defensive line has some depth issues, what with 2012 second-rounder Derek Wolfe experiencing career-threatening health issues last season, but tackles Terrance Knighton and Sylvester Williams, last year’s first-rounder, could be a terrific tandem in the middle. Williams started slowly, but after an offseason in the weight room, he could take a giant career leap.
The Broncos had hoped to re-sign cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, but when he asked for serious money, they shifted gears and came away from free agency with Talib. The Broncos were also looking for a physical presence at safety and they got it with Ward, a Pro Bowler with the Browns in 2013. With Talib pounding on receivers in bump coverage, and with Ward providing a linebacker-like presence in the middle of the field, the Broncos figure to be much more physical than they were last season.
With Trindon Holliday gone via free agency, the coaches will use training camp to figure out how to divvy up the kickoff and punt return duties. Veteran Andre Caldwell figures to return kickoffs, and Sanders, Welker and Roby will get a look as punt returners, though Welker’s concussion issues make him a long shot.
The kicking game is in great shape with Matt Prater and Britton Colquitt. Altitude or no altitude, Prater is as good as they come, having made 14-of-15 attempts from 40 yards and beyond last season, including 6-of-7 from 50-plus. Translation: All Manning has to do is rack up two or three first downs on a typical drive and the Broncos are all but a lock to score. Colquitt? His steady production usually tilts the field-position battle the Broncos’ way. Not that he’s as busy as he once was: Colquitt punted 65 times in 2013 compared to 101 in 2011, the year before Manning’s arrival.
Prater will have to sit out the first four games of the season for a violation of the NFL’s substance abuse program. Rookie Mitch Ewald was in training camp, but the Broncos also traded a conditional seventh-round draft choice next year to the Giants for fellow rookie Brandon McManus. The waiver wire is another option if the team decides to sign a veteran kicker to fill in during Prater's absence.
The Broncos are in a unique position among NFL teams. They aren’t trying to keep pace with the rest of the league. As long as Manning is under center, their competition will come from only a handful of teams, most notably the Seahawks, 49ers and Patriots. While Denver’s offense is in a class by itself, the Broncos haven’t been as physical as the elite teams in the NFC. They could be this season, but, in the end, they’re relying on Miller to regain his status as one of the league’s best players. If he does, they could be throwing a parade in downtown Denver. If not, they may still have enough to get back to the Super Bowl. The question remains: Can they win it?
PREDICTION: 1st in AFC West
Richard Sherman will tell you that he’s the best cornerback in the NFL, and he has a new four-year $57 million contract to confirm it. Earl Thomas, with his four-year, $40 million extension, acknowledges he has no apparent equal at safety. Russell Wilson says he wants to be the league’s greatest quarterback of all time. With all of this confidence bubbling over, it’s hard to deny the Seahawks anything these days.
Collectively, these guys are coming off one of the most dominant seasons in recent times — including a 35-point Super Bowl victory over Denver after losing three games by a combined 15 points — thinking they can do this all again.
Just eight of 47 previous teams have repeated as Super Bowl champions, none during the past decade — all unable to cope with winner’s complacency, personnel changes or major injuries. Yet Seattle, after boasting the second-youngest Super Bowl roster (26.4 years), building a star-studded defense (led by its secondary) and retaining all of its major contributors (six Pro Bowl players), has no shortage of swagger when addressing this challenge.
“One of the things that happens every so often is teams have a big fallout after they win the Super Bowl,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll says. “We’re not in that situation.”
Any major adjustments for this team will come on offense, where the Seahawks must replace two starting linemen and their leading receiver. This doesn’t raise any red flags for a couple of reasons: 1) These positions regularly have been in a state of flux, and 2) Wilson.
Returning for his third season, Wilson has defied every obstacle presented to him at quarterback: Too short, sophomore slump, too young to win a Super Bowl. He makes everyone around him better with his decision-making, elusiveness and deceptively strong arm while running the Seahawks’ zone-read offense in a masterful manner. He’s a proven winner, capturing 28 of 37 games as the starter, including four of five in the postseason.
With 52 TD passes in his brief career, Wilson has done this without a marquee receiver at his disposal. He may finally have one, provided Percy Harvin can stay healthy after sitting out most of his first season in Seattle with a hip injury. Limited to three games, two in the playoffs, Harvin offered a glimpse of what he could do in the Super Bowl with an 87-yard kickoff return for a score and 30-yard run. He brings a huge boost of speed to the offense. Harvin will share receiving duties with the highly efficient Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse, plus top draft pick Paul Richardson, who possesses Harvin-like speed.
Marshawn Lynch has been a rushing fiend for three consecutive seasons, piling up more than 4,500 rushing yards and 39 total touchdowns in that time, postseason included. But there is good reason to be wary of him now. The hard-nosed runner affectionately known as Beast Mode has more than 1,800 career carries under his belt, leaving him susceptible to sudden performance falloff that comes with being an overused NFL running back. Seattle will ride Lynch as long as it can, likely spelling him more and more with Robert Turbin.
Considerable patchwork needs to be done on the line, which is anchored by two-time Pro Bowl center Max Unger and one-time Pro Bowl left tackle Russell Okung, both mobile players who open a lot of holes. Vacancies must be filled at left guard and right tackle, where part-time starters James Carpenter and second-round pick Justin Britt are the leading candidates. Carpenter, a former No. 1 pick, hasn’t been the dominant player envisioned by the Seahawks because he can’t stay healthy and lacks speed. Draftee Garrett Scott might be an option for each opening with his size and athleticism. Oddly enough, left guard has resembled an open tryout every year.
No position area across the NFL is as star-studded as the Seahawks’ sensational secondary, nicknamed “The Legion of Boom.” Safety Kam Chancellor, Thomas and Sherman each enjoyed Pro Bowl seasons and huge postseason moments, and there’s no reason to expect anything less in 2014. Byron Maxwell proved to be an able cover corner and became the fourth wheel for this group after original “Boom” member Brandon Browner was suspended for drug-related offenses. Browner signed with New England in the offseason.
The Seattle linebacking corps, more functional than flashy, returns intact with Bruce Irvin, Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright as starters. Irvin, a converted defensive end, is a superb pass-rusher, while Wagner and Wright are solid against the run. The secondary allows them to take chances. An added bonus is having Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith back them up.
Unfortunately, the Seahawks were forced to sacrifice a chunk of their defensive depth, particularly across the front wall, in order to pay for the headliners. Aging starters Red Bryant and Chris Clemons and reserve Clinton McDonald were deemed expendable and signed on with other teams. Seattle still puts a fierce front four on the field with rising star Michael Bennett, plus Cliff Avril, Brandon Mebane and Tony McDaniel, but it no longer has a proven second wave.
The Seahawks defense was an absolute monster in 2013, ranking No. 1 in the NFL in total defense (273.6 ypg), passing defense (172.0 ypg), points allowed (14.4 ppg), takeaways (39), interceptions (28), turnover differential (plus-20) and opposing QB passer rating (63.4). It will be hard to duplicate that dominance.
Automatic readily sums up the Seahawks’ special teams. Placekicker Steven Hauschka was rewarded with a big contract extension after he connected on 33-of-35 field goals, hitting all three of his attempts over 50 yards. Jon Ryan, a career 44.8-yard punter, downed 28 kicks inside the 20. Harvin, counting his Super Bowl score, has run six kickoffs back for touchdowns in his NFL career. Kearse will move from kickoffs to punt returns.
The Seahawks spent much of the offseason taking bows and renegotiating contracts. Unlike the year before, they didn’t engage much in the free-agent market or instigate any big trades. Once the roster churn was over, they had 10 notable contributors to the title run depart for other teams and often bigger paydays. Which raises a pertinent question: Did the franchise give up too much manpower and break up its uncanny chemistry? The answer likely is no — as long as mainstays such as Wilson, Sherman and Thomas are interspersed throughout the lineup, with a healthy Harvin complementing them. Seattle will attempt to become just the eighth different franchise (Pittsburgh has done it twice) to repeat as Super Bowl champs. Only the Patriots have won consecutive NFL titles in the new millennium. The Seahawks, with so much talent still on their side, appear fully capable of joining the elite repeat club.
PREDICTION: 1st in NFC West
Mike McCarthy not only issued the proclamation: He told everyone how they should write it, too.
“We’re going to be a better defense this year,” the Green Bay Packers coach announced after the draft in May. “You can write that in big letters.”
Well, if you insist. THE PACKERS ARE GOING TO BE A BETTER DEFENSE THIS YEAR.
This was more than just bluster by the head coach. If the Packers are going to return to the Super Bowl after winning three straight division titles — but managing just one playoff victory — in the three years since they won Super Bowl XLV, McCarthy knows it’s imperative that their defense, which ranked tied for 24th in scoring (26.8 ppg) and 25th in yards allowed (372.3 ypg), must improve. While he kept veteran coordinator Dom Capers, McCarthy has been more involved in the defense, scaling back the playbook, trying to use more personnel groupings but fewer schemes.
To improve the personnel, GM Ted Thompson signed veteran defensive end Julius Peppers. Released by Chicago in a cost-cutting move, the 34-year-old Peppers will play a hybrid end/outside linebacker position. The club also re-signed three key defensive free agents (No. 1 cornerback Sam Shields, pass-rusher Mike Neal and nose tackle B.J. Raji) and picked four defensive players in the draft, led by first-round pick Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, a safety from Alabama, at No. 21.
Whether the changes in approach and personnel allow McCarthy to deliver on his promise could very well decide the Packers’ 2014 fate.
It’s hard to imagine the Packers, who’ve done so much right in building a perennial contender, bungling a position worse than they did the backup quarterback spot last year. And wouldn’t you know it, for the first time in two decades, they lost their starting quarterback for an extended period of time when Aaron Rodgers suffered a fractured left collarbone. The team wound up starting four quarterbacks, and only the re-signing of Matt Flynn, Rodgers’ backup from 2008-11, saved the season. Rodgers’ history of durability — he’d missed only one start due to injury before last season — should mean a return to form as one of the league’s top quarterbacks, and with Flynn and Scott Tolzien in the fold from Day 1 of the offseason program, the Packers should be better prepared if disaster strikes again.
If Rodgers does stay healthy, the offense could reach unprecedented heights because the Packers finally have a potent run game to pair with their aerial attack, thanks to running back Eddie Lacy, who ran for 1,178 yards. Because Lacy suffered a concussion one carry into a Week 2 game vs. Washington and missed the following week, and Rodgers broke his collarbone on the opening series against Chicago on Nov. 4, the pair played only six full regular-season games together. If both stay healthy, defenses won’t be able to play constant two-shell coverages to prevent Rodgers’ big-play passes as they did in 2012, and they won’t be able to load the box with eight or nine defenders as they did last year against Lacy when Rodgers was out. If Lacy does get nicked, the Packers have depth. They re-signed James Starks and get DuJuan Harris back from injury. Johnathan Franklin, last year's fourth-round pick was released in June when it was determined the neck injury he suffered in 2013 would prevent from continuing his football careeer.
Two years ago, the Packers were so deep at receiver that the franchise’s all-time leader in catches and receiving yards, an aging Donald Driver, was relegated to sixth on the depth chart. Now, it’s Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and some youngsters. Nelson is coming off career highs in receptions (85) and yards (1,314), while Cobb missed 10 games with a leg injury. Nelson signed a four-year, $39 million contract extension in July and Cobb has said he's ready to prove he's worthy of his own lucrative deal. After them, it’s third-year man Jarrett Boykin, who stepped up with Cobb out (49 catches, 681 yards), as the No. 3, then a mix of unproven returnees and draft picks, led by second-rounder Davante Adams.
Jermichael Finley’s career-threatening neck injury and spinal fusion surgery put his future in doubt and left the Packers vulnerable at tight end. While Andrew Quarless, who took over after Finley’s injury, was re-signed, McCarthy’s offense is optimized when it has a big, athletic pass-catching tight end. If the Packers don’t have Finley, McCarthy will have to get creative.
For the fourth time in four years, the Packers will have a different opening-day starter at center. Rookie Corey Linsley appears to be the guy, largely due to a knee fracture suffered by JC Tretter in the third preseason game. Tretter is expected to miss several weeks. Linsley will be sandwiched by proven veteran guards Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang. McCarthy has always stressed the importance of the center position in adjustments at the line of scrimmage, so there could be some growing pains or the coaching staff may have to shuffle positions. Second-year left tackle David Bakhtiari figures to only get better, while Bryan Bulaga moves back to right tackle after finishing each of the past two seasons on injured reserve. Besides Tretter's injury, the line must also function with out key reserve Don Barclay, who tore his ACL early in training camp.
The team has selected five defensive linemen in the past three drafts. After a ho-hum rookie year, 2013 first-round pick Datone Jones must make a big jump in Year 2, as Mike Daniels (a line-leading 6.5 sacks) did last season. B.J. Raji was brought back on a one-year, $4 million prove-it deal and slated to start at nose tackle, but he is likely out for the season after tearing his biceps in the third preseason game.
Star outside linebacker Clay Matthews broke his right thumb twice and had two surgeries to correct it — the second being more invasive. The Packers’ defense simply isn’t the same without Matthews. If healthy, he and Peppers might have a field day. Inside, steady A.J. Hawk remains the unit’s leader after showing a much-needed spike in big plays (five sacks, one interception, one forced fumble) last season.
The addition of Clinton-Dix should not only solidify a position where departed M.D. Jennings started 17 games, but he should also help Morgan Burnett, whose first season after signing a four-year, $24.75 million extension was a disappointment. Clinton-Dix figures to be the center fielder more often than Burnett. At cornerback, re-signing Shields (four years, $39 million) was offseason priority No. 1. Tramon Williams’ second-half renaissance last year re-solidified the position.
Veteran kicker Mason Crosby followed his worst NFL season with his best, making 33-of-37 field-goal attempts (89.2 percent), while Tim Masthay has become one of the league’s top cold-weather punters. The return game remains up in the air, though Micah Hyde was a godsend after return specialist Jeremy Ross was prematurely cut.
The Pack won’t be a chic Super Bowl pick, and that’s how Rodgers likes it. “They’re going to be talking about Seattle and Denver and New England and some of these teams that rebuild and reload,” Rodgers says. “We kind of like it when we’re a little bit of an afterthought. That makes us dangerous.” Look for the Packers to win their fourth straight North crown, and if they can lick their annual injury epidemic, they’ll be in the title conversation.
PREDICTION: 1st in NFC North
While the Patriots were among the NFL’s elite in 2013 with a 12–4 record and No. 2 seed in the AFC, they were clearly a notch below the Seahawks, Broncos and 49ers. Have they done enough in the offseason to get back into the Super Bowl title discussion that they were clearly in the middle of from 2010-12?
Adding Darrelle Revis after Aqib Talib departed qualifies as an upgrade at the all-important cornerback position. The other major “additions” are really just Pro Bowl-quality players getting healthy. The Pats did not have Jerod Mayo, Vince Wilfork or Rob Gronkowski for their playoff run. Should all three be 100 percent, and if Tom Brady continues to win his battle with Father Time (he will be 37 on opening day), the Super Bowl will once again be a realistic goal.
The Patriots have plenty of certainties on offense — Brady at quarterback, five starters returning on the offensive line, Julian Edelman heading the wide receiver corps — but there is one rather large unknown: the health of Gronkowski. The tight end tore his ACL against Cleveland in Week 14 and underwent surgery on Jan. 9. Gronkowski could be active by the time the Patriots open the season at Miami, but given the $53 million investment the team made in the former second-round pick, look for him and the team to be extra cautious. After playing in every game his first two years, Gronkowski has played in just 18 due to wrist, back and knee issues since signing his big deal in 2012. When he plays, the Patriots’ offense thrives, with No. 87 racking up 42 TDs in 50 regular-season games. When he is out, Brady loses a major weapon. New England added Tampa Bay tight end Tim Wright on Aug. 26 in a trade that sent long-time starting left guard and six-time Pro Bowler Logan Mankins to the Buccaneers. The Patriots also received the Bucs' fourth-round pick next year for Mankins, who was New England's first-round choice back in 2005.
Not that Brady isn’t used to making do with what’s available. Gronkowski, pass-catching running back Shane Vereen and wide receiver Danny Amendola all missed chunks of time due to injury last season. Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez also departed in the offseason (for very different reasons). So how did the Pats do? Brady had his lowest passer rating (87.3) since 2003 and fewest touchdowns (25) since 2006. However, the Pats still managed to finish third in the NFL in scoring at 27.8 points per game.
The Patriots enjoyed unexpected production out of LeGarrette Blount, who led the team in rushing nine times, including an electrifying 166-yard, four-touchdown effort in a playoff win over the Colts. Blount signed with Pittsburgh in the offseason, leaving the Pats with familiar faces Steven Ridley and Vereen as the main running backs. Ridley’s fumble troubles sent him to the sidelines for portions of last season, but many believe he is the most talented back on the roster and should be able to ring up over 1,000 yards like he did in 2012. Vereen racked up 54 catches (including postseason) despite missing eight games with a broken wrist.
Is Brady losing a step? Perhaps, but he has proven time and again that he can produce when given suitable weapons at the skill positions. If his prime targets remain healthy in 2014, don’t be surprised if he is in the discussion for a third MVP trophy.
The biggest storyline in the offseason was the acquisition of Revis days after Talib signed with Denver. Talib was a critical piece of the Patriots’ defense for one-and-a-half seasons, but it can be argued that the Pats upgraded at the position with Revis. Despite still recovering from a torn ACL early in 2013, Revis started all 16 games with the Bucs and reached his fifth Pro Bowl. Revis, only 29, is one of the best corners in the game and should give coach Bill Belichick the same options Talib did in terms of taking away an opponent’s top receiver.
The Patriots also signed Seahawks cornerback Brandon Browner, who will miss the first four games due to a drug suspension. Browner is a physical corner who will be a candidate to start opposite Revis or even possibly slide over to play some safety. The added depth will only help a back line that ranked ninth in opposing QB rating in 2013.
The front seven will welcome back two cornerstones in Mayo (linebacker) and Wilfork (defensive tackle). Mayo missed the final 12 games (including playoffs) with a torn pectoral muscle, while Wilfork missed the final 14 after tearing his Achilles. Both should be 100 percent, though at age 32, there is concern whether Wilfork will be able to regain the form that earned him Pro Bowl invites from 2009-12. The Pats spent their first-round draft pick on interior lineman Dominique Easley, who missed most of his final year at Florida with a torn ACL.
Up front, the Patriots traded for former Packer Jerel Worthy during training camp. Green Bay's second-round pick in 2012, the hope is that Worthy can serve as a third rusher to spell Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich.
Two second-year players will be taking on critical roles on the Patriots defense. Jamie Collins could potentially be a three-down linebacker after coming on strong toward the end of his rookie season. Collins was brought along slowly last year, but his athleticism really showed in the playoff win over the Colts when he had six tackles, a sack and an interception. Collins, Mayo and Dont’a Hightower will form a top-flight linebacking corps.
At strong safety, Duron Harmon is slated to replace Steve Gregory. Harmon backed up Gregory in 2013 and saw starter’s minutes during a three-game stretch in which there was no noticeable drop-off. With Devin McCourty at the other safety and Revis and Alfonzo Dennard or Browner at the corners, Harmon’s contributions could mean the difference between an elite secondary and an above-average secondary.
Stephen Gostkowski connected on a career-best 93 percent of his field goals in 2013 and led the league with 38 successful attempts. He is 19-of-21 in playoff games. Second-year punter Ryan Allen had a nondescript rookie season (16th in net punting, 10th in balls inside the 20). Edelman is the NFL’s active leader in yards per punt return (12.3) and has averaged over 10 yards per return in all five seasons in the league. Josh Boyce is the leading candidate to return kickoffs.
Have the Patriots improved enough to pass the Broncos and represent the AFC in the Super Bowl? With the return of Mayo and Wilfork, plus the additions of Revis and Browner, the defense looks much improved. As far as the offense goes, Gronkowski’s health will be a big factor, as well as Ridley’s ability to hold on to the ball. The Patriots will not be as explosive as they were in the Randy Moss/Welker days, but with Brady at the helm, you can count on a top-10 offense. With Brady signed through 2017, the expectation is that the Brady/Belichick era has four years remaining. Pressure is mounting to win that fourth Super Bowl trophy and first since 2004. The regular-season success of the past decade has been remarkable, but disappointing finishes in the playoffs have taken some shine off this run.
PREDICTION: 1st in AFC East
How much heartbreak can a team take and keep pushing for the Super Bowl? The 49ers are about to find out. The 49ers’ Super Bowl hopes died last season with a crushing 23–17 loss in the NFC Championship Game to the Seattle Seahawks. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s first-down pass from the Seahawks’ 18 to Michael Crabtree was tipped by cornerback Richard Sherman in the end zone and intercepted by Malcolm Smith with under a minute left. Two years ago the 49ers suffered a 34–31 Super Bowl loss to Baltimore as their final drive ended with three straight Kaepernick incomplete passes from the Ravens’ 5-yard line. Three years ago the 49ers reached the NFC title game in coach Jim Harbaugh’s rookie season but lost 20–17 in overtime to the New York Giants.
“It’s like Sisyphus, all the way to the top and then the season ends and the boulder rolls all the way back to the bottom,” Harbaugh said in March. “Then we’re pushing again. We’re going to start pushing that rock, that boulder, see if we can get it to the very top.”
After their painful loss to Seattle, the 49ers had an offseason filled with front-office controversy and troubling off-the-field incidents. There were reports of a feud between Harbaugh and general manager Trent Baalke and questions about Harbaugh’s future with the team. Time could be running out for Harbaugh to lead the 49ers to the top of the NFL’s mountain.
After ranking 30th in passing last season at a dismal 186.2 yards per game, the 49ers appear ready to climb at least into the middle of the pack and have a more balanced overall offense. They re-signed wide receiver Anquan Boldin, who led the team with 85 catches for 1,179 yards and seven touchdowns in his first season as a 49er, and traded for Buffalo Bills wide receiver Stevie Johnson, who had three straight 1,000-yard receiving seasons from 2010-12. What’s more, the 49ers should have a healthy Crabtree — Kaepernick’s favorite receiver — from the outset. Last year, Crabtree missed the first 11 games with a torn Achilles tendon. In Boldin, Crabtree, Johnson and explosive tight end Vernon Davis, Kaepernick has four quality targets. Wideout Brandon Lloyd, a free-agent pickup, would make five, if he earns a job. All the 49ers are lacking is an experienced speed receiver to stretch the field.
In his first full season as a starter last year, Kaepernick averaged only 199.8 yards passing per game with 21 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Kaepernick has one of the NFL’s best fastballs, but he needs to improve his accuracy and his ability to read defenses in order to become an elite quarterback. He is already one of the NFL’s most dangerous running quarterbacks. Although offensive coordinator Greg Roman cut back on the number of read-option plays, Kaepernick still rushed for 524 yards in the regular-season and 243 more in the playoffs.
Frank Gore rushed for over 1,000 yards last season for the third straight year and seventh time in his career, but he averaged a career-low 4.1 yards per carry. Gore keeps himself in remarkable shape, and his passion for the game hasn’t waned. But he turned 31 in May, and the 49ers will likely reduce his load by giving more carries to rookie Carlos Hyde and and possibly Marcus Lattimore, who spent his rookie season recovering from a knee injury. Kendall Hunter was part of the equation until he tore his ACL during training camp.
Gore will run behind one of the NFL’s top offensive lines that returns four starters — tackles Joe Staley and Anthony Davis and guards Mike Iupati and Alex Boone. Center Daniel Kilgore is expected to replace Jonathan Goodwin.
The 49ers still boast one of the NFL’s most dominant defenses, featuring stars such as Pro Bowl linebacker Patrick Willis and lineman Justin Smith, but a few cracks have appeared in what once was an all but impenetrable defensive wall.
One year after losing free safety Dashon Goldson as a free agent, the 49ers parted ways with three more defensive backs who started during their 2012 Super Bowl season. Strong safety Donte Whitner signed with Cleveland; cornerback Tarell Brown signed with the Raiders; and cornerback Carlos Rogers was cut to clear salary cap room and joined Brown in Oakland.
The 49ers signed ex-Colts strong safety Antoine Bethea as a free agent to replace Whitner. Bethea and free safety Eric Reid, coming off a Pro Bowl rookie season, should form a solid tandem. Tramaine Brock, who impressed while starting seven games for an injured Brown last season, is slated to open this season as a starter. But the 49ers have no proven candidates to start opposite Brock or at nickel cornerback, a role that Rogers owned. Chris Culliver appears to be the leading candidate to win a starting job at corner despite missing last season with a knee injury. He also raised red flags when he was arrested after a hit-and-run incident involving a bicyclist during the offseason. Safety Jimmie Ward, the team’s top draft pick, will likely fill the nickel role, covering receivers in the slot.
Willis, Smith and outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks, coming off his first Pro Bowl season, anchor a defense that ranked fourth against the run last season. But inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman suffered a gruesome left knee injury during the NFC title game. Bowman will start the season on the PUP list, meaning he will miss at least the first six games, and it's still unclear whether he’ll return as the dominant force he’s been the past three seasons. Michael Wilhoite is expected to fill in until Bowman recovers. Outside linebacker Aldon Smith, who had a combined 33.5 sacks in 2011 and 2012, could face NFL suspension after two arrests for DUIs as well as a felony weapons charge stemming from a wild party at his home in June 2012. He was also arrested this offseason at Los Angeles International Airport when he allegedly became belligerent and told a TSA officer that he had a bomb. Last year Smith entered a facility for substance abuse and missed five games.
San Francisco also will be without the services of tackle Glenn Dorsey, who tore his biceps during training camp, for an extended period of time. Dorsey has already had surgery to repair the damage and the team is hopeful he will be able to return at some point this season. A free-agent addition prior to last season, the 49ers have been so pleased with what Dorsey has already brought that they signed him to a two-year contract extension after he suffered the biceps injury.
In placekicker Phil Dawson and punter Andy Lee, the 49ers have one of the NFL’s strongest kicking tandems. Dawson, a former Brown, had a stellar first campaign as a 49er, earning a two-year contract extension. He made 32-of-36 field goals, including a team-record 27 straight. Lee averaged 48.2 yards per punt, third best in the NFL, with a net of 41.7, which ranked fourth. Running back LaMichael James averaged 10.9 yards per punt return and 26.8 yards per kickoff return last season. The question is whether James will be on the roster when the season begins. He’s unhappy over his lack of playing time, reportedly wants to be traded and was sidelined early on in training camp by a dislocated elbow.
The 49ers still have enough talent to make another Super Bowl run, but they have plenty of reasons to be concerned. If the 49ers don’t unseat reigning Super Bowl champion Seattle in the NFC West, they’ll have to battle again for a wild card spot. Last year’s wild card run included three road games, ending with the heartbreaking loss at Seattle.
PREDICTION: 2nd in NFC West
If the Indianapolis Colts are guilty of anything the past two seasons, it’s that they’ve won too fast since being resurrected. Eleven wins in each regular season and a playoff victory over Kansas City in January erased memories of the 2–14 implosion in 2011. And so, familiar expectations from the Peyton Manning era have quickly returned — it’s Super Bowl or bust for quarterback Andrew Luck and company. The rest of the AFC South has been mired in mediocrity or worse, which leaves the Colts as the team to beat once again. But division titles aren’t enough. General manager Ryan Grigson and head coach Chuck Pagano enter their third season with the understanding that nobody remembers playoff qualifiers who exit in January. It’s about getting to February.
Luck has passed for more yards in his first two seasons (8,196) than any quarterback in NFL history, thriving despite a shaky offensive line and sputtering run game. Grigson, a former O-lineman, didn’t need to be reminded that the line is still a No. 1 priority, considering that Luck has been sacked 73 times.
An obvious question is: Who will play center? Samson Satele was jettisoned with one year remaining on his contract, too expensive and underwhelming. Khaled Holmes, a fourth-round pick last year, couldn’t get on the field. Grigson insists the Colts will start with Holmes. They drafted Ohio State All-America tackle Jack Mewhort presumably to play guard. An addition that's even more important considering the season-ending quadriceps injury suffered by fellow guard and potential center candidate Donald Thomas. Mewhort and second-year right guard Hugh Thornton will both need to perform right away.
Inquiring minds wonder if this is running back Trent Richardson’s last chance to prove he was worth the 2014 first-round pick Grigson sent to Cleveland last year. The former No. 3 overall selection — after Luck and Robert Griffin III — averaged just 2.9 yards per carry and was a step slow. The Colts considered the alternatives and re-signed veteran Ahmad Bradshaw, lost after three games to a neck injury. The team was hopeful to get Vick Ballard, steady as a rookie in 2012, back after he missed last season with a knee injury, but he tore his Achilles early in training camp. It’s hard to believe Richardson will suddenly blossom, but Ballard's already out for the season and Bradshaw has had trouble staying healthy. It's possible someone else emerges, but don’t be surprised if Bradshaw gets most of the workload.
Wide receiver Reggie Wayne has been a leader, but he’s coming off knee surgery that shortened last season to seven games. At 35 and entering the final year of his contract, Wayne has to return to some semblance of his six-time Pro Bowl form. He’s looked strong in rehab. Hakeem Nicks has something to prove after the Colts took a one-year chance on the ex-Giants target. T.Y. Hilton emerged as a go-to player, but the idea is to share the wealth and not be forced to rely on an undersized speedster. Tight end Dwayne Allen is back after missing almost all of last season with a hip injury. He scraped the surface of his talent as a rookie and could have a breakout year. Third-year pro Coby Fleener is a decent tight end, not flashy but reliable.
While the Colts were ninth in points allowed at 21 per game, coordinator Greg Manusky’s unit had issues getting stops. Expect inside linebacker D’Qwell Jackson (Cleveland) and defensive end Arthur Jones (Baltimore) to shore up the 26th-ranked run defense. Jackson is a tackling machine in the mold of Colts’ top tackler Jerrell Freeman. Jones is versatile and can play anywhere on the line.
The Colts paid big bucks to bring back cornerback Vontae Davis, who excels at the press coverage this 3-4 scheme requires. While effective as a shutdown corner, he’s also been inconsistent. The Colts are paying him $39 million over four years to be one of the NFL’s best cover guys. On the other side, injury-prone Greg Toler lived up to his reputation with just seven starts. When Davis and Toler were on the field together, the 13th-ranked pass defense was effective. But depth is an issue with Josh Gordy and Darius Butler vying for playing time at nickel. They’ve made plays, but they’ve been burned, too.
Robert Mathis, at 33, is still one of the game’s elite pass-rushers. But the Colts will be without the league’s reigning sack champion (19.5) for the first four games of the season due to a league-mandated suspension. With or without Mathis, the Colts need more help rushing the quarterback. Outside linebacker Bjoern Werner, the 2013 first-round pick, got hurt early and struggled. He’ll get every opportunity to rack up sacks, considering that outside linebacker Erik Walden is more suited to stopping the run. Mindful of a lack of pass-rush depth, Grigson used a fifth-round pick on Ball State outside linebacker Jonathan Newsome, who had 16.5 sacks in 23 games for the Cardinals. At best, he’s a situational pass-rusher.
The Colts didn’t keep safety Antoine Bethea, so there’s a hole next to hard-hitting LaRon Landry. Expect Delano Howell, undrafted in 2012, to get the first crack at free safety, provided the neck injury he sustained during training camp doesn't turn out to be too serious. Howell was reliable in six games last season before injuring his foot. Special teams ace Sergio Brown might also get a look and veteran Mike Adams has been added to the mix as well.
Pagano was a defensive coordinator in Baltimore, so nothing less than marked improvement is the expectation. But if the Colts struggle again against the run and don’t have a consistent pass rush, the scheme unravels.
Kicker Adam Vinatieri and punter/kickoff specialist Pat McAfee were re-signed. While Vinatieri is 41, he was given a two-year contract after showing he still has the leg for long kicks (4-of-6 from 50-plus) and is accurate (35-of-40 overall). McAfee has a strong leg and is excellent on kickoffs and as a holder. Long-snapper Matt Overton is back after going to his first Pro Bowl.
The Colts have struggled to find successful returners — not so much on punts where Hilton has excelled, but on kickoffs. It’s been a revolving door for years. Reserve running back Daniel Herron, wide receiver Griff Whalen and undrafted rookie Loucheiz Purifoy are among the candidates to likely get the first opportunities this season, especially if the coaching staff decides to lessen Hilton's workload.
So many “ifs” suggest that the Colts aren’t quite there yet for a Super Bowl run. But don’t count them out. Despite past injuries and ineffectiveness at key spots, they’re a resilient bunch that rallies around Pagano and often overachieves. The simplified synopsis is this team will go as far as Luck can take them if he gets help. Luck pressed in the playoffs, hence his seven interceptions, but he took better care of the ball in his second season and improved his completion percentage. The run game has to be better and his pass-catchers only need to be reliable for the Colts to field one of the best offenses. That takes some of the pressure off the defense, but this team won’t get to the AFC title game or Super Bowl without stops. It can’t be a carbon copy of so many Manning teams that just tried to outscore opponents.
PREDICTION: 1st in AFC South
Expectations are high in San Diego after the Chargers rallied to return to the playoffs following a three-year absence. Fans mostly like what they see in coach Mike McCoy and GM Tom Telesco, who took over after Norv Turner and A.J. Smith were fired following the 2012 season. Of course, the road to the Super Bowl goes through division rival Denver, which beat the Chargers in the divisional round. San Diego didn’t exactly charge into the playoffs, but its four-game December winning streak was the difference as Miami and Baltimore faltered. Although McCoy made some glaring mistakes as a rookie coach, he and Telesco have changed the mindset at Chargers Park.
McCoy was right. Philip Rivers didn’t need to be fixed. Everyone else around him needed to get better. That’s why the Chargers remain Rivers’ team, whether he’s throwing to Keenan Allen or Antonio Gates or handing off to Ryan Mathews. Rivers will turn 33 in December, when he hopes to again be leading a late-season run that will get the Bolts into the postseason. After two rough seasons, the franchise quarterback adjusted to McCoy’s quicker-tempo offense and had one of the best statistical seasons of his 10-year NFL career. He completed a team-record, career-best and NFL-leading 69.5 percent of his passes for 4,478 yards and 32 touchdowns, with just 11 interceptions. Frank Reich has been promoted to offensive coordinator after Ken Whisenhunt was hired as head coach at Tennessee, and Reich is expected to continue to run the offense that has Rivers dropping back only three steps before throwing. The Chargers also sometimes run a no-huddle.
Besides Rivers’ resurgence, the most pleasant surprise for the Chargers was Allen’s emergence. The third-round draft pick didn’t even play in the season opener but was a starter by the third game. Showing a remarkable knack for getting separation from defenders, he went on to catch 71 passes for 1,046 yards and eight touchdowns. He goes into this season holding down one starting spot. The Chargers are waiting to find out if Malcom Floyd will return after he sustained a scary, season-ending neck injury in the season’s second game. Gates remains motivated, in part because some outsiders have written him off as being over the hill. He’ll be 34 by opening day, yet he’s coming off a 77-catch season that led the Bolts. The Chargers are excited about his backup, third-year pro Ladarius Green.
Mathews heads into the final year of his rookie contract. If this season is like last year, when he ran for a career-best 1,255 yards and scored six touchdowns, the Chargers will be trying to figure out a way to keep him. Mathews played in all 16 regular-season games for the first time and avoided the kind of major injuries that sidelined him in previous years. Little Danny Woodhead will once again provide a nice change of pace and he signed a two-year extension prior to the start of training camp.
The Chargers didn’t have a bruiser to replace Mathews when he went out of the playoff game at Denver, so they signed free agent Donald Brown, who was Indianapolis’ first-round draft pick in 2009, and used their sixth-round draft pick on Arizona State’s Marion Grice.
The offensive line isn’t nearly the mystery it was last offseason. Coach Joe D’Alessandris has his players ready to move around if needed. King Dunlap has settled in at left tackle, and the unit is anchored by center Nick Hardwick, who’s entering his 11th season. D.J. Fluker settled in at right tackle during his rookie season, though he also made three starts at left tackle.
Only three NFL teams had pass defenses more porous than San Diego’s, which is why Telesco used his first two draft picks and three of the first four on defensive players. First-round pick Jason Verrett is expected to start at cornerback opposite Shareece Wright. Second-round pick, outside linebacker Jerry Attaochu, and fourth-round pick, nose tackle Ryan Carrethers, will at the very least be in the rotation if they don’t earn a starting job.
The focus is on competing with Peyton Manning and the Broncos. Denver won two of the three games between the teams last year, including in the divisional round of the playoffs.
If anything, the Chargers will have fresh legs in the secondary. Verrett is only 5'10" but is tough and confident, and cornerback Steve Williams, a fifth-round pick in 2013, is ready to go after missing last year with a training camp injury. San Diego also signed Pro Bowl cornerback Brandon Flowers after he was released by Kansas City in June as a salary cap casualty.
The Chargers certainly have the makings of a tough defense. One of their first offseason moves was to re-sign one of their own, inside linebacker Donald Butler, before he could hit the free-agent market. Butler is a thumper who helps set the tone and wanted to stay in San Diego rather than try to collect a big paycheck elsewhere. Butler plays next to Manti Te’o, who will be looking to build on a solid rookie season. There were times early last season when Te’o always seemed to be a step behind, but he came on late and was sixth on the team in tackles. He’s still waiting to make a big signature play, be it an interception, sack or fumble recovery.
The Chargers will find out if outside linebacker Dwight Freeney has anything left. He returns for the final year of a two-year contract after missing most of 2013 with a quadriceps injury. The Chargers are looking to Freeney to help tutor Attaochu, a rookie linebacker who is expected to add speed on the edge of San Diego’s 3-4 defense. Attaochu set Georgia Tech’s career sacks record with 31.5. San Diego’s defense came on late in the year, coinciding with the return of outside linebackers Jarret Johnson and Melvin Ingram from injuries.
Carrethers could be the nose tackle the Chargers have been looking for since Jamal Williams left after the 2009 season. Carrethers was San Diego’s fifth-round pick, cited by Telesco for his “uncommon production” in 2013 at Arkansas State, when he had 93 tackles, including eight for a loss.
The Chargers remain in good hands with kicker Nick Novak, punter Mike Scifres and long-snapper Mike Windt. Novak set a team record with a 91.9 percent conversion rate, 34-of-37. He was 11-of-11 from beyond 40 yards. Scifres had the highest percentage in the NFL of punts inside the 20, 53.6 (30-of-56). Seventh-round draft pick Tevin Reese wasn’t part of Baylor’s return game, but he’ll be given the chance with the Chargers.
The Chargers certainly are capable of returning to the playoffs, but they’re going to have their hands full. With a killer schedule, they don’t have room for the kind of mystifying losses they had last year. The Chargers did win at Kansas City and Denver, both in the season’s second half. Yet they needed about four miracles down the stretch, not to mention having to go overtime at home to beat the Chiefs’ backups in the season finale in order to make the playoffs. The Chargers spent most of December scoreboard-watching because of a midseason slump. They can’t push their luck like that this year, or they’ll be staying home in January.
PREDICTION: 2nd in AFC West
The Cardinals’ goal this year is simple but also extraordinary: Become the first team in NFL history to turn the Super Bowl into a home game. Super Bowl XLIX will be played Feb. 1 in University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, and the Cardinals believe they’ve put together a team that can topple the pecking order in the NFC.
That’s a tough task given that they’re in the same division as the two best teams in the conference, Seattle and San Francisco. But there’s no question that Arizona is trending in the right direction under second-year coach Bruce Arians and general manager Steve Keim.
Keim has proven to be an astute judge of talent both in the draft and free agency, and Arians, who likes to think of himself as the “cool uncle,” has the players’ trust and respect.
It was the Cardinals’ bad luck last season to finish 10–6 and not make the playoffs while Green Bay finished 8–7–1 and hosted a playoff game. Maybe the football gods owe Arizona one this season. Like, say, a home game in February.
It all begins, or ends, with quarterback Carson Palmer. There are times when Palmer looks like he’s color-blind — he threw 22 interceptions in 2013 — but he’s tough, and he throws a great deep ball, a prerequisite in Arians’ offense. It’s too late for Palmer, 34, to again be an elite quarterback in the league, but he can be effective. The key is to avoid too many games like he had against Seattle last year, when he completed just 13-of-25 passes and was intercepted four times. The Cardinals accept that Palmer is going to have an off Sunday or two — he has so much confidence in his arm that he sometimes forces throws, leading to picks. But as long as the good outweighs the bad, the team can live with the inconsistency.
Palmer should have a cleaner pocket from which to operate — he was sacked 41 times last season — because the Cardinals have dramatically upgraded their offensive line, particularly on the left side. Left tackle has been a problem spot for years, but the Cardinals signed free agent Jared Veldheer to a five-year deal after the Raiders inexplicably didn’t franchise tag the 27-year-old. Jonathan Cooper, the team’s top pick last year and the seventh overall selection, will be plugged into the left guard spot after missing all of last season with a broken leg. He has Pro Bowl potential. If there’s a question mark up front, it’s at right tackle, where the Cardinals don’t have a ready replacement for Eric Winston.
Like many teams, the Cardinals have gone to a committee at running back, and they have an ideal combo in second-year pros Andre Ellington and Stepfan Taylor. Ellington was a revelation as a rookie. He’s a home-run hitter — the best comparison is a younger version of Darren Sproles — who averaged 5.5 yards per rush and has the potential to wow you every time he touches the ball. But, at 5'9" and 199 pounds, Ellington can’t handle a heavy workload. That’s where Taylor comes in. The Stanford product is a more effective inside rusher, and he’ll allow the Cardinals to limit Ellington’s carries to 15 or so per game.
The running game will serve as an appetizer to Arians’ love for the deep passing game. Don’t be surprised if this is the year Michael Floyd supplants Larry Fitzgerald as the team’s No. 1 receiver. Floyd had more receiving yards (1,041) than Fitzgerald (954) last year. Fitzgerald, who will turn 31 in late August, is simply not as dominant as he once was. The Cardinals needed a third receiver after losing Andre Roberts to Washington, and they filled the void by signing Ted Ginn, who had 36 catches and five touchdowns last year with Carolina.
When at full strength, the Cardinals have one of the best defenses in the NFL. They ranked sixth in total defense last year, first in rushing defense and allowed just 20.3 points per game. Unfortunately, injuries and other circumstances have already significantly impacted this unit's depth chart.
The biggest blow came on Aug. 18 when veteran defensive end Darnell Dockett tore the ACL in his right knee during a training camp practice. Dockett enjoyed a bounce-back year under coordinator Todd Bowles last season. Now even more of the burden will fall on fellow end Calais Campbell, who plays at a Pro Bowl level, even if he is snubbed by the voters every year. Nose tackle Dan Williams likely will never live up to his draft position (26th pick overall in 2010), but he’s become an effective player who can disrupt the inside running game. The team also added veteran defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga on a one-year deal to take Dockett's roster spot.
If there’s a concern defensively, it’s at linebacker. Karlos Dansby was the team’s best player last year, but he left for bigger dollars in Cleveland. Inside linebacker Daryl Washington was expected to anchor the defense in Dansby's absence, but he has been suspended for all of 2014 for another violation of the NFL's substance-abuse policy. Additionally, fellow veteran John Abraham, who led the team with 11.5 sacks in 2013, could be facing league discipline stemming from a DUI incident in June. Arizona does have 2013 second-round pick Kevin Minter waiting in the wings, but he's dealing with a strained pectoral muscle. The bottom line is that more than one player will have to step up in order for this group to be effective.
If there is a silver lining for this defense, it's in the secondary. Arizona has two shutdown corners in Patrick Peterson and free-agent signee Antonio Cromartie and a dynamic playmaking free safety in Tyrann Mathieu. Mathieu likely will miss most of training camp as he recovers from knee surgery, but Arizona expects him back early in the season. Peterson, a first-team All-Pro last season, signed a five-year, $70 million ($48 million guaranteed) contract extension in late July that made him the highest-paid cornerback in the NFL.
The Cardinals addressed their glaring need for a big, physical strong safety with the first-round selection of Deone Bucannon. Tight ends killed the team last year, but Arizona believes the 6'1", 208-pound Bucannon can limit that damage and, over time, become the reincarnation of Adrian Wilson.
The Cardinals should have one of the best special teams units in the NFL. The only question mark enterting the season is at placekicker. Despite connecting on 30 of 36 field goal attempts last season, Arizona cut veteran Jay Feely near the end of training camp. That leaves the kicking duties to undrafted rookie Chandler Cantanzaro, who was one of college football's most productive kicker during his tenure at Clemson. Punter Dave Zastudil is one of the best in the business at placing the ball inside the 20, and gunner Justin Bethel made the Pro Bowl last year for his coverage skills. The big offseason addition was Ginn, who will replace Peterson on punt returns and give Arizona some much-needed explosiveness on kick returns. Ginn averaged 12.2 yards per punt return and 23.8 yards per kick return in 2013.
If they were in any other division and they were completely healthy, the Cardinals would be considered a sure-fire playoff team. At full strength, they have one of the best defenses in the NFL, their offense should benefit from the upgraded offensive line, and Palmer should be more effective now that he’s had a season to digest Arians’ offensive system. But, of course, the Cardinals reside in the NFC West, home of the Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers and much-improved St. Louis Rams. That combined with the personnel losses on defense have made what was already a tough road to the postseason that much more difficult. It’s hard to imagine these Cardinals being able to take that next step and supplant both the Seahawks and 49ers — unless both those teams suffer an important long-term injury of their own. Arizona's best option would be to earn one of the Wild Card berths, but remember the Cardinals went 10-6 last season and didn't get in.
PREDICTION: 3rd in NFC West
Three straight trips to the playoffs have produced nothing but disappointment, topped by last January’s 27–10 loss at home against San Diego. The Bengals have improved their record each of the last three regular seasons, going from 9–7 in 2011 to 10–6 in 2012 and then 11–5 while winning the AFC North title last season, but that’s little consolation to an organization that hasn’t won a postseason game in 23 years. The core remains intact, but the Bengals did little in the offseason outside of the draft when it came to adding frontline players. That sends the message that head coach Marvin Lewis and the front office believe the pieces are in place to get over that playoff barricade. The question remains how much longer the Bengals can stay with a cast that has repeatedly stumbled when the calendar turns to January.
Quarterback Andy Dalton has been good enough to win Player of the Week and Player of the Month honors, and he’s been bad enough to lose in the playoffs. Hue Jackson is the new offensive coordinator, replacing Jay Gruden, who left to take over as Washington’s head coach, and it’s Jackson’s job to get more out of Dalton. Jackson hopes to do so by asking less of Dalton. His 586 passing attempts equaled a franchise record, but his 61.9 completion percentage is lower than the team needs. While he set franchise records for yards (4,296) and touchdowns (33), Dalton also threw a career-high 20 interceptions. He had at least one pass picked off in 12 of the team’s 17 games, including the playoffs, and threw multiple interceptions in six games. Despite his postseason struggles, the team signed Dalton to a six-year, $115 million contract extension in early August, seemingly cementing his status as Cincinnati's franchise quarterback.
As the Bengals ask Dalton to do less, they must simultaneously improve the efficiency of their run game. BenJarvus Green-Ellis is a workmanlike back, but Giovani Bernard is going to get the ball more in his second season. Second-round draft choice Jeremy Hill is going to play sooner than later; he’s a younger, more explosive version of Green-Ellis.
The backs will get the focus, but the offensive line needs to improve its push. Andrew Whitworth will slide back out to play left tackle after the loss of Anthony Collins to Tampa Bay in free agency. Center is up for grabs after the Bengals released Kyle Cook in the offseason. Fourth-round pick Russell Bodine will push veteran Mike Pollak for the job. With left guard Clint Boling recovering from a torn ACL, Pollak could wind up starting in his place while Bodine takes over at center. Boling is a good candidate to start the season on IR and then be brought back after Week 8. The Bengals lack depth should Whitworth or right tackle Andre Smith go out.
Marvin Jones has become a dangerous No. 2 receiver opposite A.J. Green, who is the focus of attention for every defense the Bengals face. Like Dalton, Green is guilty of not playing his best in the postseason. He’s added about 10 pounds of muscle in his upper body this offseason with the hopes of taking his considerable production (260 catches for 3,833 yards and 29 touchdowns in three seasons) to a higher level. According to ProFootballFocus.com, Green has had 21 dropped passes the last two seasons after dropping just five passes as a rookie in 2011. A hot start from Green may be needed even more since Jones will likely miss the first month of the regular season after breaking a bone in his foot during training camp. Jones' absensce presents an opportunity for Mohamed Sanu or Brandon Tate to step up or perhaps tight ends Tyler Eifert and Jermaine Gresham to become more of a factor in the passing game.
Linebacker Vontaze Burfict led the NFL in tackles last season. The secondary has six players who entered the league as first-round draft picks. But it’s the defensive line that drives everything the Bengals do on this side of the ball. Paul Guenther moves from linebackers coach to defensive coordinator, taking over for Mike Zimmer, now the head coach in Minnesota. The philosophy and system won’t change much. The Bengals still want to stop the run first and get after the passer with their front four as much as possible without having to blitz. There will be as many as eight players rotating throughout the game without much drop-off.
The return of All-Pro defensive tackle Geno Atkins from a torn ACL is the most significant upgrade from a season ago. The Bengals still finished ranked No. 3 in yards allowed and tied for fifth in points allowed without Atkins for the final two months of the season. Brandon Thompson played well in his absence but doesn’t command double teams the way Atkins does. Carlos Dunlap has always had a combination of size, arm length and speed that made one take notice, and now he’s playing every down with greater consistency and a higher motor. Michael Johnson isn’t on the other side of him now after signing with Tampa Bay as an unrestricted free agent. Wallace Gilberry tied with Dunlap for the team lead in sacks (7.5) and will start at the right end spot, with second-year player Margus Hunt seeing increased playing time.
Burfict has gone from draft castoff to Pro Bowler in two seasons and he was rewarded by the team with a four-year, $20 million contract extension. He gets to the ball fast and is a sure tackler when he gets there. He stays on the field in nickel packages, which is vital these days as teams increasingly utilize multiple-receiver sets. Vinny Rey proved he belonged on the field last season when he stepped in for an injured Rey Maualuga and produced, including a three-sack game at Baltimore. He’s a little undersized but holds up well against the run. Maualuga is better against the run than he is in coverage. Emmanuel Lamur missed all of last season with a shoulder injury. His return should help in the nickel.
The secondary added another talented piece with the first-round selection of cornerback Darqueze Dennard. It was a pick with an eye toward the future, but Dennard has the ability to play right away. Leon Hall is coming back from a second Achilles tear in two years. This one is his left leg as opposed to the right one he injured in 2011. Hall turns 30 in December. Adam Jones and Reggie Nelson will each be 31 in the first month of the season, while Terence Newman will turn 36. Dre Kirkpatrick, the team’s first pick in 2012, has shown some flashes of ability but is far too inconsistent. The Bengals are still waiting for him to take playing time away from one of the veteran corners. Safety George Iloka will start next to Nelson in the back end.
Punter Kevin Huber returns from suffering a broken jaw and a hairline fracture of cervical vertebrae on a hit from Pittsburgh linebacker Terence Garvin. His ability to pin opponents inside the 20 without touchbacks (24-to-4 ratio in 2013) is his biggest attribute. Kicker Mike Nugent made 18-of-22 field goals last season, including 3-of-4 from 50-plus yards. Brandon Tate hasn’t always been a fan favorite, but all he’s done in three seasons is become the franchise leader in kickoff return average and second in punt return average.
The Bengals can win the division again, and it won’t be a shock if they do, but at some point their best players have to show up when the calendar turns to January. The talent is present to make a deep run in the postseason and challenge for a conference title. It falls heavily upon the shoulders of Dalton, Green and the defense to make that happen.
PREDICTION: 1st in AFC North
The goal for the New Orleans Saints is a straightforward albeit difficult one: Secure home-field advantage in the postseason. Easier said than done in the brutally competitive NFC, which has produced four of the past five Super Bowl champions. Still, it’s imperative for the schizophrenic Saints, who were 8–0 at the Superdome in the 2013 regular season and 3–5 on the road. In the postseason during the Sean Payton/Drew Brees era, they are 4–0 at home and 1–4 on the road. It’s no coincidence that the Saints’ lone Super Bowl title came in 2009 when they played host to the NFC Championship Game. Since then, three of the Saints’ four seasons have ended on the West Coast with playoff losses at Seattle and San Francisco. Somehow, the Saints need to win enough games in the regular season to secure home-field edge in the playoffs and force their competition to visit them in January rather than vice versa.
As long as the crafty Brees is under center and the aggressive Payton is on the sideline, the Saints are going to gain yards and score points at a high rate. Brees will turn 36 in January, making him the third-oldest quarterback in the NFL, but he remains as prolific as ever. Only Peyton Manning passed for more than Brees’ 5,162 yards and 39 touchdowns in 2013.
While Brees remains one of the truly elite quarterbacks in the game, there are legitimate concerns about the rest of the offense. The line yielded 37 sacks last season, the most in the Brees/Payton era. The staff believes the late-season promotion of athletic Terron Armstead to left tackle will be a big part of the solution. The Saints are counting on Armstead to blossom after a full offseason in the club’s strength and conditioning program. Right tackle Zach Strief was re-signed to protect Brees’ other flank. He engulfs opponents with his massive 6'7" frame, but speed rushers can sometimes give him trouble for the same reason. The strength of the unit is inside, where Pro Bowl guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs form a powerful tandem to anchor the pass protection. The Saints will open the season with a new center. The staff is high on Tim Lelito, a former undrafted free agent who will try to make the switch from guard. Depth is a concern up front.
Depth isn’t the problem in the Saints’ receiving corps — production is. Backs and tight ends caught 63 percent of Brees’ passes last season, mainly because his receivers struggled to get open. Then again, when you have a freakishly talented tight end like Jimmy Graham, it’s hard not to look his way. Graham has usurped Marques Colston as Brees’ go-to man in the red zone and should again rank among the league leaders in catches and touchdowns. The steady Colston remains a reliable target on third down, but injuries have taken their toll on the ninth-year veteran. The Saints hope speedy rookie Brandin Cooks can add some much-needed explosiveness to the receiving corps. He led FBS schools with 32 catches of 20 or more yards as a junior. He will compete with second-year receiver Kenny Stills for the starting spot opposite Colston and play a featured role in Payton’s nickel packages. Stills should build on his surprisingly productive rookie season (32 catches with a team-high 20.0 yards per catch).
The Saints’ backfield will continue to employ a running back-by-committee approach, partly by strategic design and partly out of necessity. It’s make-or-break year for Mark Ingram. The former Heisman Trophy winner showed signs of promise down the stretch in 2013 and led the club with a 4.9-yards-per-carry average, but the Saints tellingly did not pick up the fifth-year option on his contract, rendering him a free agent after this season. He should be motivated for a big season and needs it. If Ingram slips, look for Khiry Robinson to assume his carries. The former free agent from West Texas A&M has a rare combination of power and shiftiness. Pierre Thomas is the top option in Payton’s nickel and two-minute offense.
Injuries forced coordinator Rob Ryan to scrap his 3-4 scheme for a 4-2-5 alignment, and the Saints responded with one of the most remarkable turnarounds in the league. A year removed from allowing the most yards in a season in NFL history, the Saints ranked fourth in total defense, primarily because of their imposing young line. End Cameron Jordan and outside linebacker/end hybrid Junior Galette form one of the best pass-rush tandems in the league. Both are quick and explosive off the edge. The unit’s unsung hero is towering end/tackle Akiem Hicks, who collapses the pocket with his powerful bull rushes. Brodrick Bunkley and John Jenkins anchor against the run at nose tackle. Their dirty work allows linebackers Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne the freedom to roam and make tackles sideline to sideline.
The overhauled secondary is led by cornerback Keenan Lewis and safeties Jairus Byrd and Kenny Vaccaro. Lewis thrived in Ryan’s bump-and-run system and emerged as a shutdown corner in his first season in New Orleans. More often than not, teams choose to throw away from his side of the field. The Saints paid big money to lure Byrd to New Orleans in free agency. The hope is that he’ll produce more takeaways with his instincts and playmaking ability in center field. Vaccaro lacks Byrd’s ball skills but is the perfect complement with versatility and physical intimidation.
Veteran Champ Bailey has the inside track for the starting spot opposite Lewis. The Saints are hoping to squeeze a final productive season or two out of the future Hall of Famer. Former first-round pick Patrick Robinson, Corey White and second-round draft pick Stanley Jean-Baptiste will compete for the nickel and dime spots. All have the rangy size Ryan loves.
The Saints are a mixed bag here. Punter/kickoff specialist Thomas Morstead is one of the best in the league. His powerful right leg accounts for scores of hidden yards each game. Veteran kicker Shayne Graham is solid if not spectacular as he enters his 14th season. The return units are dying for a spark. Cooks and Travaris Cadet will get the first crack at punt and kickoff return duties, respectively.
The Saints are the class of the NFC South. Their young defense should only improve in its second season under Ryan, and the offense remains the most prolific in the division. A fifth playoff berth in six seasons looks certain, but the Saints must find a way to overcome NFC kingpins Seattle and San Francisco out West. The Saints hold one major advantage in the potential competition for home-field advantage: The NFC South is a cupcake festival compared to the NFC West gauntlet. If the Saints can win enough games to earn home-field advantage in the playoffs, they’ll be a threat to represent the NFC in Super Bowl XLIX. But that’s a big “if.” Otherwise, the 49ers and Seahawks remain a slight cut above the Saints in the NFC.
PREDICTION: 1st in NFC South
We all know the Gunner Kiel story — he was a high-profile recruit that led a short, yet illustrious career at Columbus East High School (IN), verbally committed and de-commited to both Indiana and LSU, signed with Notre Dame and then transferred to Cincinnati.
Now a redshirt sophomore, Kiel has finally found stable ground with the Bearcats. Nevertheless, having never taken a college snap—not to mention just 16 starts in high school—his expectations have skyrocketed over the last nine months.
And for what reason?
Cincinnati has been picked as the favorite to win the American Athletic Conference this season, despite returning only 13 starters to a team that fell short of preseason expectations in 2013. Most of this rides on Kiel; if he competes at the level that most of everyone believes he’s capable of, then the Bearcats should take the AAC by storm. But if he is another Brendon Kay, then UC’s chances are decreased significantly and an eight-win season is imminent.
It’s a gamble, really—there’s so much uncertainty that goes along with Kiel’s hype that it’s almost absurd to think he can step in and be the best quarterback Cincinnati has ever had (which is pretty much the consensus at this point).
We can thank his recruiting profile for these lofty expectations. At 6-foot-4, 210 pounds and a rocket arm, Kiel was a five-star prospect coming out of high school and the No. 1-rated pro-style quarterback. He had a 98.6 247Sports Composite rating and offers from anywhere you could think of.
The only quarterback from his class that was considered a better recruit (for a lack of a better term) was Jameis Winston, and, well, you know how he’s turned out. Winston was given a 99.1 rating, meaning there’s supposed to be a difference of .5 between the two quarterbacks’ overall abilities.
What is .5? A touchdown? One less interception? A few more completed passes? According to these ratings—which everyone abides by nowadays, even coaches—Gunner Kiel is comparable to the reigning Heisman winner, national champion and future top-10 selection in the NFL draft (probably).
It doesn’t stop there, either.
There are some pretty big names from that 2012 recruiting class that have already made a name for themselves in the collegiates, and all were rated lower than Kiel: Trevor Knight, Maty Mauk, and Wes Lunt were among that list.
Knight threw for 348 yards and four touchdowns in a colossal upset over Alabama in last season’s Sugar Bowl, and has positioned Oklahoma for a College Football Playoff run in 2014.
Mauk took over for the injured James Franklin mid-season, throwing 10 touchdowns in four starts as Missouri went on to play for the SEC Championship.
Lunt had strong moments as a true freshman for Oklahoma State in 2012 before transferring to Illinois, where he was named the starter just a few short days ago.
And then there of course are names like Cyler Miles (Washington), Chad Kelly (Clemson), Chad Voytik (Pittsburgh), Travis Wilson (Utah), and Tommy Armstrong (Nebraska), who are all projected to have strong performances in 2014, but were all rated lower than Kiel.
On top of everything, Cincinnati owns the 95th most difficult schedule in the country, according to Phil Steele. The Bearcats play a strong non-conference schedule with road games at Ohio State (albeit, no Braxton Miller) and Miami (Fla.), but avoid UCF in AAC play and get both ECU and Houston at home.
It doesn’t help that Kiel went 17-of-22 for 300 yards in the first half of Cincinnati’s spring game in April. That’s quite exceptional by anyone’s standards, especially during a time when the defense is generally ahead of the offense when it comes to chemistry and knowing the terminology. It’s also the equivalent to an NFL preseason game, in which other words means close to nothing.
Realistically, Kiel isn’t going to replicate the kind of success Jameis Winston had in his first year as a starter with Florida State. However, if he can be as productive as Tony Pike was back in the Brian Kelly days—or even slightly better, for the sake of his billing—then Cincinnati will be good. Really good.
We’ll find out when Kiel takes his first-ever college snap as the Bearcats take on Toledo on Sept. 12 in the season opener.
Written by Tyler Waddell of AACFootballFever.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler_Waddell and @AAC_FB_Fever
Instead of dismissing a substandard season as an aberration, the Ravens have devoted considerable resources to trying to regain their former status as an annual playoff squad. One year after winning the Super Bowl, the Ravens missed the playoffs, as a lackluster offense was the primary culprit for the regression. The Ravens ranked 29th in total offense and 30th in rushing offense as their streak of five consecutive seasons of making the playoffs under coach John Harbaugh ended. “Our players are more motivated than ever,” Harbaugh says. “It’s just not acceptable.”
So, the Ravens hired a new offensive coordinator in Gary Kubiak along with signing five-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Steve Smith and two-time Pro Bowl tight end Owen Daniels. They also held onto tight end Dennis Pitta and left tackle Eugene Monroe with $32 million and $37.5 million contracts, respectively. With the financial emphasis on fixing the offense, the Ravens hope they’ve done enough to get back to the postseason. “It’s fair to say it’s a failure because our goal is to be one of the top 12,” owner Steve Bisciotti said after last season. “If 8–8 is a failure, I hope it’s a long time before I feel worse than this.”
Quarterback Joe Flacco didn’t live up to the expectations that accompany a blockbuster $120.6 million contract as he threw a franchise-record 22 interceptions. It was an uncharacteristic season for the Super Bowl XLVII MVP. Some of the biggest priorities for the Ravens are providing Flacco with more time to throw and getting him into a comfort zone. “It’s a new year, a new beginning and a chance to do new things,” Flacco says. “I think we’ve got a good team and an offense that can put up some numbers.”
That’s where Steve Smith could become the key to a potential offensive turnaround. The Ravens brought him in to work in tandem with Torrey Smith and Pitta, who missed all but four games last season due to a fractured, dislocated hip. Steve Smith has a toughness and veteran savvy that’s been absent from the offensive huddle since Baltimore unloaded Anquan Boldin to the San Francisco 49ers in a trade following a contract dispute. Torrey Smith should have more room to operate as a deep threat with Steve Smith and Pitta working underneath in the middle of the field. Daniels’ knowledge of Kubiak’s offense from their days with the Texans, along with his sound hands and route-running, should be invaluable. Marlon Brown is more than just a red-zone threat, but he did catch seven touchdowns as an undrafted free agent last year.
The running game remains an area of concern because a heavier, hobbled Ray Rice stumbled to a 660-yard season in which he lacked tackle-breaking capabilities and his trademark elusiveness. He played as heavy as 225 pounds. He’s now down to 210 pounds, which should help him regain his Pro Bowl form. Rice had a serious off-field issue this offseason in which he was arrested and charged with aggravated assault for a domestic violence incident involving his girlfriend (now wife). Rice was suspended two games by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, and now faces even more pressure to step up, both on and off of the field. Backup Bernard Pierce is expected to carry the load in Rice's absence, but Pierce had his own struggles last season and is coming off rotator cuff surgery. The Ravens are going to give rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro, a 230-pound small-school standout, a long look during training camp.
The return of Monroe, an athletic, polished tackle, for a full season after being acquired in October should give Flacco a better shot at remaining upright. They’ve upgraded at center by trading for Jeremy Zuttah, who replaces Gino Gradkowski after the latter struggled as a starter last season. Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda is a constant gritty presence. Right tackle is a question mark with Rick Wagner getting a shot at winning the job. If he falters, the Ravens could sign a veteran or shift left guard Kelechi Osemele to right tackle. Osemele is well ahead of schedule in his rehabilitation from back surgery that sidelined him last year.
Middle linebacker Daryl Smith is one of the most underrated defenders in the NFL. Smith remains fast in pursuit, sharp in pass coverage and is a good blitzer, contributing 123 tackles, three interceptions and five sacks last year. Former Alabama star C.J. Mosley is the frontrunner to start next to Smith at inside linebacker. Outside linebacker Terrell Suggs made the Pro Bowl for the sixth time, but the Ravens want to see him become more productive for the entire season after watching him wear down last year. In a situational pass-rusher role, Elvis Dumervil delivered 9.5 sacks before an ankle injury slowed him down. Courtney Upshaw unselfishly stuffs blockers and sets the edge at strong-side outside linebacker.
The defensive line is in transition with Arthur Jones leaving in free agency. Rookie Timmy Jernigan is competing with Brandon Williams and Kapron Lewis-Moore to take over Jones’ versatile role. The Ravens will need Pro Bowl nose tackle Haloti Ngata to be even more disruptive inside. Defensive end Chris Canty was far too quiet in his first season in Baltimore. Fourth-round draft pick Brent Urban was expected to be a part of the rotation, but he tore his ACL in training camp and is out for the season.
The Ravens exercised a fifth-year option for 2011 first-round pick Jimmy Smith, who has emerged as one of the better young cornerbacks in the game. Lardarius Webb was starting to get back his quickness and trust his surgically repaired knee by the end of last season and should be back to full strength. Safety is an area of concern. The Ravens are hoping to move Matt Elam back to his natural strong safety position to capitalize on his aggressiveness. To be able to make this move, either rookie Terrence Brooks or veteran Darian Stewart needs to prove to be capable at free safety. Nickel back is being contested between Chykie Brown and Asa Jackson after Corey Graham signed with the Buffalo Bills. Like most NFL defenses, the Ravens don’t have the luxury of having three starting-caliber cornerbacks. The team signed veteran Aaron Ross in June, but he tore his Achilles during training camp. Baltimore then turned to Will Hill, a former teammate of Ross' with the Giants who was released by New York after it was announced Hill would be suspended for the first six games of the season for another violation of the league's substance-abuse policy. Secondary depth could be an issue for the Ravens, especially early on.
Pro Bowl kicker Justin Tucker emerged as a budding star last season with his clutch performances, including a franchise-record 61-yarder to beat the Detroit Lions. Tucker has become a reliable scoring weapon with his ability to hit long-distance field goals. Jacoby Jones remains an explosive threat as a return man, helping the Ravens beat the Minnesota Vikings in the snow with a kickoff return for a touchdown last season. Sam Koch was rumored to be on thin ice due to his salary-cap figure, but Harbaugh has insisted that the veteran punter is safe.
The Ravens look like they’re primed for a bounce-back season. While it’s unclear if they’re as talented as the division rival Cincinnati Bengals, this team, at the least, is probably headed back to the playoffs as a wild card qualifier. The schedule isn’t overly demanding, and the Ravens have a proven winning coach in Harbaugh.
PREDICTION: 2nd in AFC North
In the high-speed world of Chip Kelly football — where players are encouraged to get nine hours of sleep a night, drink their individually engineered energy shakes without question and endure eardrum-slicing music during “training” — success is measured not just by wins and losses but also by style points. The Birds must not just defeat their opponents; they must impose their will through tempo. They must create havoc.
Year 2 of Kelly’s regime promises more jet-fueled offensive success and some games in which the Eagles appear to be working at a connection rate much faster than their opponents. The question is whether 2014 will feature an improvement on Kelly’s debut, when the Eagles overcame a 3–5 start to finish 10–6, or if the rest of the NFL catches on to the team’s outscore-’em philosophy and controls games by beating up on an overworked Philadelphia defense.
From the moment the Birds smacked Washington in the face during the first half of their debut, they employed the same lightning-fast attack that Kelly favored while in the college ranks. One would suspect the 2014 Eagles would be even more capable of shredding defenses, thanks to a greater familiarity with the system. Their one loss, however, is a big one. DeSean Jackson, who caught a team-leading 82 passes for 1,332 yards and nine scores last year, was cut loose, leaving the Eagles’ receiving corps thin and somewhat inexperienced. But Kelly believes in the power of tempo and his ability to create matchup advantages, and fans must hope that can overcome the loss of a gamebreaker on the outside.
Triggering it all will be third-year quarterback Nick Foles, who took over for Michael Vick midway through last year and tossed 27 TD passes against just two picks. Foles may not be Kelly’s ideal at the position given his lack of foot speed, but he makes good decisions, delivers the ball on time and doesn’t turn it over. Now, he must improve his ability to avoid sacks while continuing to complete a high percentage of passes (64.0 percent in 2013). Vick is gone, and former Jets starter Mark Sanchez has assumed the backup role, with second-year man Matt Barkley in the hole. Should Foles regress, the Eagles are in some trouble.
Kelly hopes Jackson’s departure is offset by the return of Jeremy Maclin from a torn ACL that forced him to miss all of 2013. Maclin is a reliable target but hardly the deep weapon Jackson can be. Riley Cooper overcame some self-induced stupidity to have his best season and was rewarded with a fat — and some say undeserved — contract. He is now expected to be a prime target, rather than a complement. Rookies Jordan Matthews and Josh Huff will be expected to make immediate contributions, with the 6'3", 212-pound Matthews likely to be ready sooner.
Although veteran tight end Brent Celek showed signs of slowing down last year, Zach Ertz demonstrated great promise and should become a more valuable part of the passing game.
LeSean McCoy returns after a season (1,607 yards, nine TDs) that established him among the league’s elite backs. McCoy thrived in Kelly’s spread system and was often stronger at the end of games, despite a career-high and NFL-best 314 carries. When healthy, he is one of the best. Former Saints all-purpose standout Darren Sproles has joined the team and will be expected to spell McCoy but also see heavy work in the passing game and help as a returner.
The line returns intact after a great 2013 season that featured no serious injuries and tremendous continuity. Left tackle Jason Peters remains one of the best in the business, and guard Evan Mathis emerged as a standout. Jason Kelce has become one the league’s more reliable pivots, while Todd Herremans is comfortable at guard, and second-year right tackle Lane Johnson should build on a solid debut. There isn’t a lot of quality depth, which could be tested early given Johnson's four-game suspension for violating the NFL's policy on the use of performance-enhancing drugs, but the front five is stout.
The Eagles did little during the offseason to bolster a unit that finished 29th in total defense. Safety Malcolm Jenkins was signed from New Orleans, but he won’t help much against the run. Top draft pick Marcus Smith addresses the need for an edge-rusher in the team’s 3-4, but he isn’t likely to be a starter right away. The other additions are backups, mid-to-late-round rookies and special teams players. Part of the problem is personnel, but Kelly’s insistence on playing offense at 100 miles per hour means less possession time and more pressure on the D.
The three-man front had its moments last year but isn’t a fire-breathing unit. Ends Fletcher Cox and Cedric Thornton can stuff the run, but neither is a pass-rushing specialist, and it’s too early to determine whether second-year nose man Bennie Logan will be the plug in the middle the team needs. Backup end Vinny Curry can get to the quarterback on occasion.
Smith’s arrival promises no immediate salvation for an ordinary group of linebackers. Trent Cole had trouble adjusting to life as an outside man after a career as a 4-3 end, while his counterpart on the other side, Connor Barwin, has his moments but is not a consistent standout. Kelly hopes Smith can be a situational pass-rusher as a rookie and mature into a full-time player.
Inside, veteran DeMeco Ryans showed he could handle work in a 3-4 better than he did while with Houston. If nothing else, he provides energy and leadership. Third-year man Mychal Kendricks has sideline-to-sideline speed and plenty of potential but needs to be more consistent.
Jenkins’ arrival should help a secondary that was vulnerable last year. He’ll team with Nate Allen in a back line that won’t scare many people. Second-year man Earl Wolff can provide help in reserve. Cary Williams, Brandon Boykin and Bradley Fletcher are not great cover men, but they comprise a relatively solid crew that could get some help from former Dolphin Nolan Carroll.
Punter Donnie Jones had a great 2013, averaging 44.9 yards per kick, and was rewarded with a new contract. Placekicker Alex Henery did not have a similar glowing season, struggling a bit from beyond 40 yards and failing to kick off deep consistently. The loss of Jackson hurts the return game, and Kelly is hoping Sproles can be a weapon in that area. Another potential option could be running back/return specialist Kenjon Barner, who Kelly coached at Oregon and the Eagles acquired from Philadelphia on Aug. 19 for a conditional 2015 seventh-round pick.
The Eagles are the favorites in the NFC East almost by default, thanks to problems in Washington and New York and the Cowboys’ history of self-destruction. The question is whether Philadelphia can be more than a first-round playoff participant. That will depend on whether the offense continues to crackle and even surpasses last year’s efficiency. Foles must grow at quarterback, and the outside weapons have to produce. It can’t just be about the scheme. The defense could improve, thanks to the development of the younger players, but it will never be a raging outfit, at least not in this iteration. The Eagles are contenders, but the level of achievement depends on whether they can outstrip the league’s efforts to slow them down.
PREDICTION: 1st in NFC East
Baseball has sabermetrics. Basketball has KenPom’s efficiency rankings. What does football have?
When it comes to advanced analytics, the game of football has lagged behind the other major American sports. Additionally, the college game trails well behind the more powerful (and better resourced) NFL.
That hasn’t stopped stat wizard Bill Connelly from introducing the college football world to advanced statistics. Athlon Sports brought in the accomplished author and statistician to help our readers become smarter and better football fans and the response has been exciting to say the least.
Connelly provided Athlon Sports’ magazines with a myriad of interesting, illuminating and critical advanced stats for every Big 5 team in the nation. Here are the Big 12’s best.
Baylor defensed (intercepted or broke up) 82 passes in 13 games, the most of any major conference team and fifth in all of FBS. The Bears were also 12th in the nation in tackles for a loss with 99. Defensive coordinator Phil Bennett has crafted an aggressive, physical defense that forces mistakes as opponents grow desperate to keep up with the explosive Baylor offense. It worked in 2013.
Iowa State: 6.3
Iowa State’s offense has never been particularly impressive under Paul Rhoads, but the typically salty defense struggled in 2013. Iowa State allowed 6.3 yards per play against Big 12 opponents, worst in the league. Run defense was the primary culprit, but it was bad combination with an offense that averaged just 4.7 yards per play in Big 12 play (ninth).
Kansas wasn’t particularly good at creating scoring opportunities, but the Jayhawks were even worse at converting opportunities into points. They averaged just 3.1 points per trip inside the opponent’s 40 in conference play in 2013. Nobody else averaged under 3.6. Meanwhile, Big 12 opponents averaged 4.6 points per trip inside the 40 against the Jayhawks, ninth in the conference.
Kansas State: 6.9
Kansas State’s offense averaged 6.9 yards per play on first down in 2013, 15th in the country. The first-down run was just effective enough to set up a strong downfield passing game, especially in the second half of the season; the Wildcats averaged at least 16.0 yards per completion in five of their last seven games.
Oklahoma didn’t allow many big plays in 2013, but the Sooners did allow some enormous ones. Oklahoma allowed just 155 plays of 10 or more yards — a respectable 20th in the country — but allowed 14 of 40 or more, tied for 80th. Ten of the 14 came via pass, which certainly isn’t surprising given the conference.
Oklahoma State: 3.3
Oklahoma State allowed just 3.3 points per trip inside its 40-yard line in 2013, fifth in the country. Field goals are failures for an offense — more often than not a sign of a missed opportunity — and the Cowboys held opponents to basically a field goal per trip.
TCU allowed just 4.8 yards per play to Big 12 opponents in 2013, barely behind Oklahoma State (4.75) and Baylor (4.78) for third in the league. The defense has been as successful as the Horned Frogs could have hoped in moving to perhaps the most explosive offensive conference in the country, but the offense, beset with injuries and attrition, has not kept up its end of the bargain.
In 15 games with David Ash as its primary quarterback, Texas has averaged 6.4 yards per play and gone 11–4. Without him, the Longhorns have averaged 4.9 yards per play and gone 6–5. Defensive struggles played a large role in Texas’ fall to 8–5 in 2013, but Ash’s injury troubles were as or more important.
Texas Tech: 4.7
The Red Raider defense did reasonably well in limiting big plays in 2013, but they struggled to stiffen when points were on the line. In Big 12 play, Texas Tech allowed 4.7 points per trip inside the 40, worst in the conference. A few more forced field goals will go a long way.
West Virginia: -5.6
When West Virginia’s offense failed, it failed quickly. The Mountaineers were terribly inefficient on offense and had no return game to help them out. The result: a drastic field position disadvantage. WVU had a minus-5.6 field position margin (average starting field position: 28.7; opponents’ average: 34.3), losing ground on nearly every possession and eventually giving in.
A year ago Bears general manager Phil Emery and new coach Marc Trestman spent the offseason rebooting an offense that was one of the NFL’s worst.
The results were impressive. The Bears jumped from No. 28 to No. 8 in total yards, from No. 28 to No. 3 in yards per play, from No. 29 to No. 5 in passing yards and from No. 27 to No. 4 in sack percentage allowed.
This year the attention of the front office and the coaching staff was focused on a defense that was an embarrassment in 2013. No defense in the NFL was worse last year in rushing yards, average gain per rushing play and total yards per play allowed. The Bears also allowed a franchise-worst 478 points. The problems began up front, so the top three free-agent signings were all defensive ends, and four of their first five draft picks addressed defensive weaknesses.
The goal was to keep intact a unit that scored more points than any team except the Broncos. Mission accomplished. Quarterback Jay Cutler was given a seven-year, $126 million extension, guaranteeing that he’ll be running the attack for the foreseeable future. The hope is that with the security of a lucrative long-term deal, in addition to the most productive wide receiver tandem in the NFC and a multi-talented Pro Bowl running back, Cutler will finally join the elite class of quarterbacks. Not that Cutler was bad last year. His 89.2 passer rating was the highest of his eight seasons. But 12 players had higher passer ratings, including his backup, Josh McCown, who was almost 20 points higher at 109.0. McCown is the only significant contributor from last year who is gone, signed by the Buccaneers. That leaves veterans Jordan Palmer and Jimmy Clausen and sixth-round rookie David Fales to compete for backup roles.
In Trestman’s first year, the Bears threw the ball 94 more times than they did in Lovie Smith’s final season. That shouldn’t change with targets like 6'4", 230-pound Brandon Marshall and 6'3", 216-pound Alshon Jeffery creating mismatches all over the field. Both players were voted to the Pro Bowl, and deservedly so. Marshall caught 100 balls for 1,295 yards and 12 touchdowns. Jeffery piled up 1,421 yards on 89 catches with seven touchdowns and 16.0 yards per catch. Matt Forté had career bests of 74 catches, 594 receiving yards and 1,339 rushing yards. Throw in tight end Martellus Bennett’s 65 catches and 759 yards, and it makes sense that the Bears will continue to chuck it all over the lot. Last year’s No. 3 receiver, Earl Bennett, was cut, but the team was hopeful 2013 seventh-round pick Marquess Wilson would emerge during training camp to claim that role. Unfortunately, Wilson fractured his left clavicle and he is expected to miss a few games, at minimum. The Bears signed veteran Santonio Holmes, who will compete with journeymen Josh Morgan and Domenik Hixon for the remaining wide receiver spots.
The rebuilt O-line played a major role in facilitating the aerial circus. With new starters in four of five spots, the sack total dipped from 44 to 30 despite the increase in pass attempts. It helped tremendously that the Bears started the same five players at the same positions for all 16 games. That included first-round pick Kyle Long at right guard and fifth-round pick Jordan Mills at right tackle. The other new starters were free-agent additions Jermon Bushrod at left tackle and Matt Slauson at left guard. They all merged impressively under the leadership of center Roberto Garza, who re-signed for one year, his 14th. Versatile Eben Britton saw extensive playing time as a sixth offensive lineman in an alignment the Bears used frequently. If the 35-year-old Garza starts to show his age — he hasn’t yet — Brian de la Puente was signed in free agency to step into that role.
The Bears waived good-bye to eight-time Pro Bowl end Julius Peppers, who signed with the rival Packers after showing up on film only occasionally last season — not nearly enough to justify has $18 million price tag. Tackle Henry Melton is gone as well. But the Bears’ D-line should be improved this year. They signed three starting-caliber ends in free agency, including former Viking Jared Allen, who had 11.5 sacks last season. Allen is 32, but that’s two years younger than Peppers, and he’ll be paid about half of what Peppers would have made. Allen has traditionally played a higher percentage of snaps than almost every NFL D-lineman. But he won’t have to carry such a heavy load, since the Bears also signed former Raider Lamarr Houston, one of the NFL’s best run-defenders among ends, and ex-Lion Willie Young, who still has upside at 28. Jeremiah Ratliff and Stephen Paea are the probable starters inside, but the Bears hope to use a rotation, which should include Nate Collins and rookies Will Sutton and Ego Ferguson.
Emery has said that seven-time Pro Bowler Lance Briggs is the only linebacker guaranteed to start. D.J. Williams was signed a year ago to succeed Brian Urlacher, but a chest injury ended his season after six games. He was re-signed for one more year but will have to hold off a challenge from 2013 second-round pick Jon Bostic, who got nine starts last year and showed flashes but also was prone to rookie mistakes. Last year’s 16-game starter on the strong side, James Anderson, was not re-signed. But Shea McClellin is moving from end to linebacker, and the hope is he will provide another pass-rush threat from his new spot.
The Bears hope to get another year at cornerback from the tandem of Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings. The 6'2" Tillman is invaluable for his ability to handle the league’s biggest receivers, while the feisty 5'8" Jennings plays bigger than his size. Both players are tough in run support, but Tillman missed half of last season with a triceps injury and he’s 33. That’s why the Bears used their first-round pick on cornerback Kyle Fuller, who should be the nickel until taking over for Tillman. Safety was a mess last year. Strong safety Major Wright was allowed to leave in free agency. Free safety Chris Conte, who may not be 100 percent healthy for the start of training camp after shoulder surgery, will have to play a lot better than he did last year to keep his job. The Bears added four safeties in free agency — Ryan Mundy, M.D. Jennings, Adrian Wilson and Danny McCray — but fourth-round pick Brock Vereen could wind up starting.
There are several candidates to replace Devin Hester, maybe the greatest return specialist of all time, including receivers Hixon, Chris Williams, running back Shaun Draughn and Darius Reynaud, who was signed halfway through training camp. The Bears will also have a new punter after Adam Podlesh was cut. The favorite is sixth-round draft pick Pat O’Donnell. Robbie Gould is the third-most accurate placekicker in NFL history and has hit 16-of-19 from 50 yards or farther in the past five years.
If the remaking of the defense comes close to matching the success that similar efforts had on the offense last year, the Bears will be back in the playoffs for the first time since 2010 and just the second time in eight years.
PREDICTION: 2nd in NFC North
The “nuclear” option — removing Scott Pioli as general manager and Romeo Crennel as coach and jettisoning the entire stable of quarterbacks — turned the Kansas City Chiefs into Godzilla in 2013, a Cinderella with teeth. The franchise buried arguably the worst season in team history (2–14) in 2012 by rebounding to a historic, cathartic 11–5 record and an AFC Wild Card berth last fall. The Chiefs rolled to a 9–0 start and became the first NFL team in the modern era to open a season with nine straight victories after winning two or fewer games the year before. Even a deflating 45–44 loss at Indianapolis in the first round of the playoffs couldn’t take all the shine off of coach Andy Reid’s and general manager John Dorsey’s first full season at the wheel. What was supposed to be a transition year instead turned into something magical. But with a slate in 2014 that is the NFL’s seventh-toughest, that magic could be hard to recapture, at least in the short term.
When Reid was hired, many Chiefs fans worried that the pass-happy coach might be the worst thing to happen to running back Jamaal Charles. They aren’t worried anymore. Whether Charles was lined up in the backfield, in the slot, or even out wide, Reid made it a point to get the ball into the hands of Kansas City’s best playmaker, who led all NFL backs in rushing touchdowns (12) and total scores (19).
Reid and Dorsey blew up roughly half the roster left from 2012, but the positional changeover was most dramatic under center, where every incumbent was off the roster by the end of August. Alex Smith, acquired from San Francisco for two second-round picks, picked right back up where he left off in 2012, throwing for 23 touchdowns while setting the Chiefs’ single-season rushing record by a quarterback with 431 yards on the ground. His numbers and efficiency improved dramatically over the final six weeks of the season, and Smith feels even more comfortable with a second full year of running Reid’s West Coast scheme.
If there was a criticism of the Chiefs’ new ace signal-caller, it was the strength of his arm and propensity for check-downs and dumps. In Smith’s defense, the downfield passing game was hindered by a rash of injuries at tight end, a staple of Reid’s offenses, and the aging of star wideout Dwayne Bowe, who at 29 posted the worst full regular season of his NFL career. Bowe also is suspended for the season opener against Tennessee for a violation of the NFL's substance-abuse policy. The weapons available to Smith this fall are largely the same as they were last season — and the starters at receiver, Bowe and Donnie Avery (40 catches in 2013), are a year older. If there’s a silver lining, it’s the expected return to health of the club’s top two tight ends, Anthony Fasano and second-year man Travis Kelce. Another bonus: Rookie speed merchant De’Anthony Thomas, a former track star at Oregon, is expected to be used as a hybrid slotback/tailback type, much the way the departed Dexter McCluster thrived this past fall.
But the biggest challenge for Smith is navigating behind a reconfigured offensive line. The Chiefs lost three starters to free agency, including left tackle Branden Albert. Former No. 1 pick Eric Fisher, who played an injury-marred and inconsistent right tackle as a rookie last year, has been penciled in as Albert’s replacement, while super-sub Donald Stephenson is expected to hold down Fisher’s old spot on the right side.
After years of wandering, the Chiefs found their identity early and ran with it — an aggressive, attacking, man-press, 3-4 defensive front that was beloved in Kansas City. Through the first six games of the season, the Chiefs recorded 31 sacks and were on a pace to push the ’84 Bears’ single-season record of 72. But as the opponents and signal-callers improved over the final seven weeks of the regular season, the sacks started to dry up.
The pieces remain in place for another strong unit, starting with a spine up the middle that’s built around three Pro Bowlers: nose tackle Dontari Poe, linebacker Derrick Johnson and safety Eric Berry. Poe shed more than 20 pounds after a so-so rookie season, recording 4.5 sacks while emerging as an every-down defensive lineman and one of the league’s top disruptive forces. Johnson, who’ll turn 32 in November, remains one of the steadier tacklers in the AFC. After a bounce-back season that saw him run two interceptions back for touchdowns, Berry could be slotted in at either his familiar strong safety slot or try his hand at replacing the departed Kendrick Lewis at free safety. Reid and coordinator Bob Sutton are excited to see what second-year man Sanders Commings can do at safety after a broken collarbone wiped out his rookie season entirely. The Chiefs re-signed Husain Abdullah as a special teams ace and nickel back and figure to give him the first long look as a candidate to replace Lewis in the lineup.
But the defense will probably go, as it did last autumn, as the players on the edge go — the outside linebackers who rush the passer and the cornerbacks who are often left to cover one-on-one. The quarterback-seeking combo of outside linebackers Justin Houston and Tamba Hali was among the best in the NFL last year, combining for 22 sacks, but both missed significant time over the second half of the season to injuries. When Houston and Hali are at full speed, the Chiefs are dangerous defensively, but when they’re hurt or absent, things can get ugly. Reid and Dorsey sought to remedy that in the draft by selecting former Auburn defensive end Dee Ford late in the first round.
Dorsey likes tall corners who can motor, and he drafted 6'1" Phillip Gaines to join a rotation that includes 6'3" Sean Smith, 6'2" Marcus Cooper and 6'0" Ron Parker.
Under the guidance of new coordinator Dave Toub and then-assistant Kevin O’Dea, Kansas City’s special teams units went from an NFL non-factor to one of the league’s most potent — two punt returns for touchdowns, two kick returns for touchdowns and a new NFL single-season record for the highest kickoff return average (29.9). Punter Dustin Colquitt will be looking to complement the Chiefs’ aggressive defense again after dropping 40.2 percent of his efforts inside the opposition’s 20-yard-line last fall. Kicker Ryan Succop was less of a sure thing, but he’ll get plenty more opportunities and has Reid’s trust. The Chiefs’ return game was a revelation last fall — and with Thomas or CFL import Weston Dressler likely to replace McCluster on punts, a team strength just might have gotten even stronger.
The Chiefs were expected to bounce back in a big way in their first season under Reid and Dorsey, but last season’s nine-win improvement exceeded even the most optimistic expectations. The pass rush should still be excellent, the quarterback slot is stabilized (for now), and Charles is arguably the best all-around tailback in the AFC. But a brutal schedule and a slew of free-agent losses point to a small step back before the Chiefs push forward again.
PREDICTION: 3rd in AFC West
Baseball has sabermetrics. Basketball has KenPom’s efficiency rankings. What does football have?
When it comes to advanced analytics, the game of football has lagged behind the other major American sports. Additionally, the college game trails well behind the more powerful (and better resourced) NFL.
That hasn’t stopped stat wizard Bill Connelly from introducing the college football world to advanced statistics. Athlon Sports brought in the accomplished author and statistician to help our readers become smarter and better football fans and the response has been exciting to say the least.
Connelly provided Athlon Sports’ magazines with a myriad of interesting, illuminating and critical advanced stats for every Big 5 team in the nation. Here are the Pac-12’s best.
Coaches always preach staying in “third-and-manageable” situations for young or limited quarterbacks. Arizona personified this quest; the average third down for the Wildcats averaged only 5.8 yards to go, fourth-lowest in the country. That allowed them to pull off a third-down conversion rate of 47.2 percent (19th) and kept quarterback B.J. Denker out of obvious passing situations.
Arizona State: 37.6
Arizona State allowed only a 37.6 percent success rate in Pac-12 games in 2013. Success Rate is an efficiency measure that determines each play a success or failure, an on-base percentage for football, and ASU’s defense was the opposite of a bend-don’t-break unit. For the second straight year, the Sun Devils recorded more than 100 tackles for a loss as well.
The Golden Bears allowed 87 plays of 20 yards or more in 2013, easily the most in FBS and 36 more than it allowed in 2012. In fact, only one other team (UTEP at 81) allowed more than 80 last season. Big plays were especially problematic in conference play; the Golden Bears allowed 7.0 yards per play to Pac-12 opponents, in essence turning every Pac-12 offense into Oregon’s.
Colorado’s defensive output improved by more than a yard per play in 2013, from 7.11 per play in 2012 to 6.08. But the Buffaloes still ranked just 101st in the category and allowed 6.7 per play against Pac-12 opponents.
Only four offenses ranked in the nation’s top 10 in yards per play, points per trip inside the 40, and success rate (an efficiency measure that determines each play a success or failure): Florida State, Auburn, Ohio State, and Oregon.
Oregon State: -1.17
On a per-play basis, Oregon State was an average Pac-12 team in league games, gaining 6.1 yards per play (fourth in the conference) and allowing 6.1 (ninth). But the balance shifted when the goal line was within reach. Oregon State averaged just 3.96 yards per trip inside the opponent’s 40 (10th), while opponents averaged 5.13 points (12th). That’s an awful margin of minus-1.17 points per trip, 10th in the Pac-12.
Despite its reputation, Stanford’s offense was consistent and explosive in 2013; the Cardinal averaged 6.4 yards per play in conference games, second in the Pac-12 behind just Oregon. Only twice all year did the Cardinal average under 5.4 yards per play (4.7 vs. Washington, 4.8 vs. Oregon), and on four occasions they averaged better than 7.0 per play.
Score one for UCLA’s coverage units. The Bruins ranked 16th in net punting, 17th in opponent kick return average, and 24th in touchback percentage on kickoffs. That, and a strong turnover margin gave UCLA one of the best field position teams in the country — on average, Bruin possessions started at the 33.06 and opponents’ started at the 26.53. The plus-6.53 yard margin was fifth-best in the country.
Good offenses are both explosive and efficient. USC’s offense generated plenty of big plays in 2013 — 206 plays gained at least 10 yards (tied for 36th in the country) — but fell drastically behind schedule at times. The average USC third down required 7.8 yards to go, 117th in the country and far too much for a young quarterback like Cody Kessler to consistently overcome.
No defense had a worse set of butter fingers than Utah’s. On average, a team intercepts about 22 percent of its overall passes defended (interceptions plus pass break-ups); Utah, however, defended a solid 55 passes in 2013 but intercepted only three, 5.5 percent (worst in FBS). A normal ratio would have resulted in about nine more interceptions in a season that saw the Utes lose three games by seven or fewer points.
Bishop Sankey was one of the nation’s best short-yardage backs in 2013; he scored 20 touchdowns and was a primary reason why Washington finished with a 49 percent third-down conversion rate (12th in the country) and averaged 4.84 points per trip inside the opponent’s 40-yard line (18th). The Huskies were also pretty stiff on defense, for that matter, allowing just 3.83 points per trip (26th).
Washington State: 3
Washington State managed only three rushes of more than 20 yards in 2013, the smallest number in the country. Conference mate Oregon averaged more than that per game. Granted, the Cougars also attempted fewer rushes than anybody else, but 1.2 percent of WSU rushes (three of 243) went for 20-plus yards, the third-worst rate in the country.
Mike Tomlin all but reached for a red challenge flag before interrupting a question on the Steelers trying to return to the playoffs after consecutive 8–8 seasons. “Getting to the postseason is not my goal,” the Steelers head coach said in March at the NFL owners meetings. “My goal is to win the world championship.”
Achieving the goal — or at least making a serious run at it — has become more difficult than it was in Tomlin’s early years with the Steelers. Only a handful of core players remain from the teams that played in three Super Bowls and won two of them from 2005-10. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger always gives the Steelers a chance, and the offense really came together in the second half of 2013. But a defense that is in transition slipped appreciably last season. And reinforcements and improvement from second-year players such as outside linebacker Jarvis Jones are vital if the Steelers are going to play with the kind of defensive swagger that has long been their hallmark.
Roethlisberger, who celebrated his 32nd birthday in March, is still playing at a high level, and the Steelers gave him more ownership of the offense than ever in the second half of last season.
Offensive coordinator Todd Haley loosened the reins on the no-huddle attack, and Roethlisberger thrived while calling the plays and directing the offense like the seasoned veteran he has become. As a result, fans are no longer dissecting the relationship between Roethlisberger and the similarly strong-willed Haley, and the no-huddle attack is now a staple of the offense after the Steelers averaged 28.2 points in their final nine games last season.
Le’Veon Bell rescued an abysmal ground attack after missing the first three games of 2013 with a foot injury. The Steelers like everything about Bell, who broke Franco Harris’ Steelers rookie record for yards from scrimmage (1,259). Bell’s running style is a blend of patience and power, and he catches the ball well and is also adept at picking up blitzing linebackers. LeGarrette Blount will ease some of the burden on Bell, and ultra-fast rookie Dri Archer offers a complement to the two bruising backs in front on him on the depth chart. Pittsburgh's backfield depth could be tested at some point now that Bell and Blount are reportedly facing marijuana-related charges stemming from an Aug. 20 traffic stop. The charges (one count of possession for each as well as driving under the influence for Bell) are misdemeanors, but given NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell's track record, it's certainly not out of the question that Bell and Blount will end up sitting out a game or two at some point this season.
Pro Bowler Antonio Brown leads a receiving corps that took an unexpected hit in free agency when productive veteran Jerricho Cotchery signed with the Carolina Panthers. The Steelers need 2013 third-round pick Markus Wheaton to emerge after a hand injury limited him to 157 snaps last season. Rookie Martavis Bryant gives the Steelers a tall and speedy wide receiver, a dimension that the offense has lacked. Tight end Heath Miller should become a bigger part of the passing game now that he has fully recovered from reconstructive knee surgery.
The offensive line should be a strength with all five starters returning, including Maurkice Pouncey. The Pro Bowl center missed all but eight snaps last season after tearing the ACL in his right knee, and he is the unquestioned leader of the line as well as its best player. The Steelers’ most significant offseason acquisition may have been the hiring of offensive line coach Mike Munchak. A Pro Football Hall of Fame guard, Munchak is considered one of the best line coaches in the business. Left tackle Kelvin Beachum summed up the hiring of the former Tennessee Titans head coach in two words: “Instant credibility.”
The Steelers have gotten drastically younger on this side of the ball as strong safety Troy Polamalu and cornerback Ike Taylor are the only projected starters over the age of 30. How much better the Steelers will be after an infusion of speed due to additions such as inside linebacker Ryan Shazier and free safety Mike Mitchell remains to be seen.
The defense regressed noticeably in 2013 as the Steelers struggled to stop the run and failed to put consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Only five teams had fewer than the 34 sacks the Steelers managed, their lowest total since 1990, and the pass rush all starts with their outside linebackers. Jason Worilds came into his own last season, and he played so well that the Steelers kept the fifth-year veteran and released LaMarr Woodley. The Steelers need a similar jump from Jones, their first-round pick in 2013. Jones started eight games but managed just one sack as he too often was thinking instead of just playing, something that is common for rookies in Dick LeBeau’s complex defense. Jones is expected to be among the most improved Steeler after getting stronger during the offseason. The former Georgia All-American had better be, as the Steelers have little at outside linebacker behind him and Worilds.
Mitchell, who had a breakout season in 2013 for the Carolina Panthers, makes the Steelers younger and faster in the secondary. The Steelers should be fine at safety, assuming Polamalu stays healthy for a second consecutive season, but there are questions at cornerback. Taylor has ceded the designation of No. 1 cornerback to Cortez Allen, and the Steelers have to hope Taylor still has something left after teams repeatedly picked on the veteran last season.
Defensive end Cameron Heyward leads a line that is in transition. Heyward also came into his own in 2013, leading the Steelers in quarterback pressures while playing well against the run. A combination of Cam Thomas and rookie Stephon Tuitt will have to get the job done at the end spot opposite Heyward, and Steve McLendon has to make strides at nose tackle. The Steelers have little in the way of proven depth along their defensive line.
Shaun Suisham returns after missing just two field goals last season, though both came in a deflating loss at Oakland. The Steelers, meanwhile, hope free-agent signee Adam Podlesh performs well enough to stop them from cycling through punters. Consistency at a position that is crucial in the battle for field position has too often eluded them during Tomlin’s tenure.
Archer gives the Steelers a home-run threat as a kickoff returner, and he is likely to relieve Brown of his duties as the primary punt returner. Brown excels in this area of the game as well, but the Steelers would like to keep him fresh and minimize his exposure to big hits. Brown could be used as a situational specialist with Archer handling the bulk of the returns.
The Steelers haven’t missed the playoffs for three consecutive seasons since 1998-2000. Tomlin is safe even if that happens — the Steelers are exceedingly patient with their head coaches — but there better be a sense of urgency this season. Roethlisberger and an offense that came into its own in the second half of last season are reasons for hope. So too is a favorable schedule in which the Steelers don’t play west of the Mississippi River. If the defense makes enough strides, the Steelers could win 10 or more games. If it continues to decline or sustains injuries at key positions, the Steelers could be staring at a third straight 8–8 season.
PREDICTION: 3rd in AFC North
The Carolina Panthers shocked almost everyone with their success in 2013 — a 12–4 regular season, an NFC South championship, their first playoff berth in five years and a slew of postseason awards.
To maintain and increase that success, however, they will need to get quick contributions from a number of newcomers — especially on the offensive side.
In 2013, Carolina won for three reasons: The Panthers’ sterling defense ranked No. 2 in the NFL behind only Seattle; quarterback Cam Newton had the best season of his career; and coach Ron Rivera located his inner gambler and became “Riverboat Ron.”
The defense is paced by a front seven that returns largely intact. It includes middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, who was the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2013, and defensive ends Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson, who combined for 26 sacks last season. The secondary is the only real question mark on a defense that should be the Panthers’ primary strength in 2014.
The player who scored Carolina’s only TD in a 23–10 playoff loss to San Francisco — wide receiver Steve Smith, who also holds virtually all the team’s reception records — was surprisingly released. He now plays for the Baltimore Ravens. Newton’s offensive line and all-new receiving corps are both questionable, and how well new players fill those positions may determine Carolina’s fate.
Everything starts with Newton, who is coming off a season in which he set career highs in passing TDs (24), completion percentage (61.7) and passer rating (88.8). More important, the quarterback who wasn’t great in the clutch in his first two seasons was exceptional in the final two minutes of games in 2013, leading the Panthers to four come-from-behind wins. Newton had offseason ankle surgery in March — his left ankle had obviously limited his mobility toward the end of the year — but should be ready for training camp. He says he plans to take more “ownership of the offense” this season, and he will need to step into the leadership void vacated by Smith.
The Panthers will keep allowing Newton to run 6-8 times per game because he’s such a good scrambler, but they mostly want him to throw the ball downfield instead of taking off. The questions are: Who will he throw it to most, and will he have time to throw it at all?
The Panthers lost their top four wide receivers in the offseason and have replaced them with No. 1 draft pick Kelvin Benjamin and veterans Jerricho Cotchery, Tiquan Underwood and Jason Avant. None of the vets is considered a No. 1 receiver. The Panthers hope Benjamin can grow into one, but that would be a tall order for a rookie. Underwood will be the speedster, Benjamin the best threat at the goal line (he’s 6'5", 241) and Cotchery and Avant the crafty possession receivers.
Newton’s favorite target likely will be sure-handed tight end Greg Olsen, one of the NFL’s better pass-catchers and one of the two players Newton looked to (Smith was the other) most of the time last season when in trouble in the pocket.
The offensive line is iffy. Jordan Gross retired after playing left tackle for years, so there’s a gaping hole there. The Panthers have moved Byron Bell from right tackle to left tackle, but Bell’s feet may not be quick enough to handle the position. Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil will be asked to do a lot of leading by example. He likely will have youngsters on either side of him at guard — rookie Trai Turner may start right away at right guard. Right tackle Nate Chandler is a converted defensive lineman who may struggle, but he does have good athleticism.
The Panthers like to consider themselves a running team, and they have invested a whole lot of money and draft picks in a corps of good tailbacks. The top two — DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart — are aging, though, and Stewart in particular has a hard time staying healthy. Williams remains the Panthers’ best breakaway threat. Mike Tolbert is a fan favorite and a bulldozer near the goal line who can play tailback or fullback.
The Panthers used their franchise tag this season on Greg Hardy to make sure the 15-sack defensive end from 2013 didn’t get away. And despite having Johnson (11 sacks) on the other side, they still spent their second-round pick on another pass-rusher in Missouri’s Kony Ealy. “You can’t have too many pass-rushers,” GM Dave Gettleman says. “It’s impossible.”
The Panthers led the NFL with 60 sacks in 2013. Hardy and Johnson were so effective as bookends because the middle of the opponent’s offensive line was often pushed back into the quarterback’s face by Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short, who each had exemplary rookie seasons at defensive tackle. They will be counted on for even more production this season. Colin Cole, Dwan Edwards and Mario Addison are all solid D-line backups.
The Panthers' depth up front could be tested early considering the possibility of Hardy being suspended by the league following a domestic incident in July. Hardy was charged and subsequently convicted on two counts of domestic violence and was sentenced to 18 months probation (a 60-day jail term was suspended). An appeal by Hardy's lawyer is possible, which would put his probation on hold, but it's still possible that Hardy could be suspended by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, especially given the precedent that was set in regards to Ray Rice's situation.
Kuechly is flanked by strong-side linebacker Thomas Davis, who has come back from three ACL surgeries to play some of his best football. He is as fast as Kuechly and gives Carolina a second playmaker at linebacker. While Davis and Kuechly rarely come off the field, weak-side linebacker Chase Blackburn is a run-stopper who is replaced in passing situations. Second-year linebacker A.J. Klein is rapidly improving and could take Blackburn’s spot.
The secondary has been retooled and will be attacked until it proves itself. The Panthers hope strong safety Roman Harper and free safety Thomas DeCoud have a couple of good years left. Cornerback Melvin White was an undrafted rookie free agent only a year ago, and corner Antoine Cason is new to the team, too. Charles Godfrey, trying to make the switch from safety to cornerback, may help in the slot but also might be released if he doesn’t catch on fast.
One of the strongest parts of the Panther team is led by kicker Graham Gano, who made 24-of-27 field goals last season, led the NFL with a 79.7 touchback percentage on kickoffs and was rewarded with a new contract. Punter Brad Nortman set team records for gross and net punting average. The Panthers will need to find a new returner to replace Ted Ginn. Second-year running back Kenjon Barner was expected to get the first shot, but he was traded on Aug. 19 to Philadelphia, where he will be reunited with his coach at Oregon, Chip Kelly. The Panthers will receive a seventh-round pick in next year's draft if Barner remains on the Eagles' 46-man, active roster for at least four games.
Carolina should be in almost every game due to its defense and its two franchise-level players (Newton and Kuechly). But will the Panthers be able to score enough? Carolina’s offensive line is vulnerable, and a standout wide receiver will need to emerge early. How well the secondary handles itself against the likes of Drew Brees and Matt Ryan will be the final factor in determining whether this team can repeat its NFC South championship of a year ago.
PREDICTION: 2nd in NFC South
The NFL season is two weeks away. The college football season is a week away.
That means this week high school football has the spotlight to itself. ESPN will air a handful of featured national games this weekend as a kickoff to the Friday Night Lights.
Among the national top-25 teams in action this weekend on national TV include Rock Hill (S.C.) Northwestern against in-state foe Byrnes, Hoover (Ala.) against Miami Central and Buford (Ga.) against Jacksonville (Fla.) Trinity Christian.
Beyond those three teams, here are the top 25 teams you should keep an eye on for 2014:
Rankings and game breakdowns for every state are available in the Athlon Sports' High School Football Preview.
1. Fort Lauderdale (Fla.) St. Thomas Aquinas
Last season: 10-3
St. Thomas is a private school that draws from the talent-rich populations of Broward and North Dade counties, two of the top football-producing counties in the country. The influx of star power this year is greater than ever. Top players like running back Jordan Scarlett, cornerback Rashard Causey and defensive end Brandon Boyce, all seniors, and junior wide receiver Sam Bruce all transferred from cross-town University School and dropped a surplus of wealth in coach Rocco Casullo’s lap.
2. Hoover (Ala.)
Last season: 15-0
The Bucs ended their time at the 6A level with two straight state titles and will hope to carry that momentum into the newly formed 7A division this fall. Despite losing Alabama signee Marlon Humphrey on defense, the Bucs may have their most talented senior class in years this fall, including pass-rushing demons Christian Bell and Darrell Williams on defense and running back Bradrick Shaw on offense.
3. Allen (Texas)
Last season: 16-0
Allen rolled to its second consecutive state championship in convincing fashion a year ago behind all-everything quarterback Kyler Murray. He’s back for a third season along with most of the Allen offense, which could put up record-breaking numbers in 2014. If there is a concern, it’s on defense, where graduation hit the Eagles hard. Allen has won 27 consecutive games heading into the 2014 season.
4. Plantation (Fla.) American Heritage
Last season: 15-1
The top two teams in the state will open the season in a big-time battle of Broward County’s best at the Miami Dolphins’ home stadium. Gifted do-everything quarterback Torrance Gibson leads the way for Heritage, and last year no team could corral the athletic playmaker, who led the Patriots to the Class 5A crown.
5. Cedar Hill (Texas)
Last season: 14-2
Cedar Hill avenged its 2012 loss to Katy in the Div. II title game with a win over the Tigers in the 2013 title matchup. Senior wide receiver DaMarkus Lodge will look to lead a repeat charge in 2014.
6. Katy (Texas)
Last season: 15-1
Katy fell just short of a second straight title last year, losing to Cedar Hill in the 5A Division II title game. That’s the bad news. The good news is that 2013 was supposed to be a rebuilding year. With a talented defense and running back Rodney Anderson — an Oklahoma commit — returning, the Tigers appear to be loaded.
7. Lakewood (Ohio) St. Edward
Last season: 11-2
Coach Rick Finotti has made this program the envy of the state. After coming up a field goal shy of the D-I state final in 2013, the Eagles are loaded and poised to navigate the season unscathed as they did in 2010. The key will be the play of a fresh-faced O-line.
8. Bellevue (Wash.)
Last season: 14-0
No longer just one of the top programs in the West, this national power will be gunning for its 12th state title since 2001. Junior quarterback Justus Rogers is a dual threat and will had the ball to Sam Richmond behind an always-stout offensive line.
9. Concord (Calif.) De La Salle
Last season: 14-1
The Spartans of the Bay Area have been a dominant program since 1979 when Bob Ladouceur took over as coach. Ladouceur stepped down following the 2012 season but is back as an assistant to Justin Alumbaugh. De La Salle has gone 413–26–3 over the past 35 years with 22 consecutive North Coast Section titles and eight state title game appearances in the eight years it’s been held, with five titles. The Spartans are again dominant on both lines of scrimmage, led by Kahlil McKenzie, Drew Sullivan and Boss Tagaloa. How new QB Anthony Sweeney adjusts will be the key.
10. Bellflower (Calif.) St. John Bosco
Last season: 16-0
The Braves in 2013 capped their finest season as the best team in the history of Southern California, according to the Los Angeles Times, with a State Open Division title win over storied De La Salle, 20–14. Bosco returns UCLA-commit QB Josh Rosen (3,200 yards, 39 TDs) and 2,000-yard rusher Sean McGrew to run behind D-I prospects Matthew Katnik and Zach Robertson. Ten D-I signees have graduated, but scores of newcomers are ready.
11. Clifton (Va.) Centreville
Last season: 15-0
The Wildcats are expected to welcome back 15 starters from a dominating team that last season won the program’s first state championship since 2000. A pair of two-way standouts — running back/defensive back A.J. Turner and wide receiver/defensive back Charles Tutt — return after helping Centreville win the Group 6A state title. The Wildcats went 15–0 and finished with a average margin of victory of 34 points per game.
12. Gardena (Calif.) Juniperro Serra
Last season: 13-1
Players come, they graduate and new ones come in, including new QB prospects in Khalil Tate and Caleb Wilson, a 6-5 transfer from Georgia. Running back Malik Roberson returns for a program that has become a scholarship factory.
13. Powder Springs (Ga.) McEachern
Last season: 11-3
A Cobb County school hasn’t won a state championship in the highest classification since Marietta in 1967. The Indians have a shot after losing in the state semifinals in 2013, but the non-region schedule — featuring North Gwinnett, Buford, Lovejoy and Peachtree Ridge — is brutal. Running back Taj Griffin is an all-state candidate, and Chuma Edoga is one of the best lineman prospects in America. A dominant defensive lineman was a hallmark of the championship runs by Grayson and Norcross over the past three years. The Indians have one in Julian Rochester, one of the top junior recruits in Georgia.
14. Lafayette (La.) Acadiana
Last season: 14-1
Any team that rushed for 634 yards and scored 77 points in the state championship game should probably start the ensuing season at No. 1 regardless, but the Wreckin’ Rams deserve to be here anyway. The Wreckin’ Rams have five players on the Athlon Sports preseason all-state and could easily have more. Coach Ted Davidson’s squad is favored to make it back to the Class 5A championship game in 2014. The Rams have an intriguing early out-of-state test against Shades Valley (Ala.).
15. Las Vegas Bishop Gorman
Last season: 13-2
Head coach Tony Sanchez has built a national power and distanced the Gaels from the rest of the state, with no losses to a Nevada team since 2008. The passing game gets a boost from transfer wide receiver Cordell Broadus.
16. Anaheim (Calif.) Servite
Last season: 6-6
A.J. Gass takes over as head coach at his alma mater for one of the power programs on the West Coast. The Friars will score with duel-threat QB Travis Waller, who will work behind linemen Tommy Garcia and Clayton Johnston, and the defense returns seven starters.
17. Buford (Ga.)
Last season: 15-0
Buford went undefeated in 2013 and won a ninth state championship since 2001. The state’s winningest program, however, moves up to Class AAAA, a two-classification jump from where it competed in 2011.
18. Bentonville (Ark.)
Last season: 11-2
The defending Class 7A state champions return a solid nucleus, led by gifted junior quarterback Kasey Ford and senior defensive lineman Javier Carbonell. Senior placekicker Bennett Moehring is a weapon as well.
19. Philadelphia St. Joseph’s Prep
Last season: 12-3
The defending state champions bring back a large number of starters on both sides of the ball. Skill players Olamide Zaccheaus, D’Andre Swift and John Reid anchor the team along with linemen Jon Runyan and Jake Strain.
20. Miramar (Fla.)
Last season: 12-1
The Patriots could be deeper than the 2011 state runner-up squad. Tyrek Cole (a Florida State commit) provides leadership for new coach Mat Strout, who takes over for Damon Cogdell, now at West Virginia. The Patriots could face Apopka for the 8A title.
21. South Jordan (Utah) Bingham
Last season: 14-0
One of the state’s most consistent powers, this program looks poised to repeat as 5A state champion. While the offensive line needs a facelift, the Miners tend to reload there. Quarterback Kyle Gearig is a dual threat, and the defense should be strong again behind linebacker Daniel Langi.
22. DeSoto (Texas)
Last season: 14-1
DeSoto is 28–2 the past two seasons, with both losses coming in the semifinals to Allen. As always, the Eagles will have plenty of speed to bring to the table on both sides of the ball.
23. Jersey City (N.J.) St. Peter’s Prep
Last season: 10-2
St. Peter’s Prep looks set to make a push toward its first No. 1 statewide ranking in 20 years. The Marauders have the best player in New Jersey in five-star defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick, an Alabama commit, and arguably the state’s best quarterback in Penn State commit Brandon Wimbush, along with receiver/defensive back Corey Caddle, linebacker Jordan Fox and defensive tackle David Tolentino.
24. Folsom (Calif.)
Last season: 14-1
The Bulldogs have emerged as the second best team in Northern California behind De La Salle, the only team to defeat them in each of the past two seasons. Few teams in the country score like Folsom, led by QB Jake Browning, who is closing in on 11,000 career yards and 200 touchdowns. Lineman leaders include Cody Creason and Sam Whitney.
25. Rock Hill (S.C.) Northwestern
Last season: 15-0
The defending State 4A Division II Champions will have a new quarterback for the season after graduating South Carolina Varsity’s Mr. Football, Mason Rudolph (Oklahoma State). But coach Kyle Richardson’s proven system is in place and the Trojans return the state’s most exciting skills player in wide receiver Dupree Hart. A tough non-region schedule will prepare the Trojans for the playoffs, and they should be the favorite again in 2014.
The AFC South was the only division in the NFL last season with three teams that finished with a losing record. Reigning division champion Indianapolis went 11-5, while Houston, Jacksonville and Tennessee combined for a 13-35 mark. With the Texans and Titans under new leadership and the Jaguars still rebuilding, there’s little debate, if any, that the Colts are heavy favorites to repeat as AFC South champs. So if the Colts are No. 1, which team is best positioned to challenge them or, at the very least, produce better results on the field in 2014?
In order to get an accurate assessment of how the AFC South breaks down entering the 2014 season, Athlon asked NFL scouts to talk anonymously about the Texans, Colts, Jaguars and Titans.
Note: These scouting reports come directly from NFL scouts and do not necessarily reflect the views of Athlon's editorial staff.
“No way this organization should have only won two games last year, but it just goes to show how quarterback play and turnovers override everything else.” …
“Gary Kubiak did not survive, so Bill O’Brien was brought in to fix the QB situation over the long haul and that’s why they chose Jadeveon Clowney No. 1 overall in the draft.” …
“When healthy, the Texans have enough skill with Andre Johnson, DeAndre Hopkins and Arian Foster to pose some matchup problems, however, the right side of the offensive line and tight end positions need upgrades for them to compete at a high level again.” …
“O’Brien and GM Rick Smith signed Ryan Fitzpatrick for this year and drafted Tom Savage (Pittsburgh) in the fourth round, but the success of the QB spot will dictate how long this team stays down.” …
“The defense stays in the 3-4 and shifts from Wade Phillips to Romeo Crennel, both old-school pros that believe the players should be self-motivated, which makes for an interesting watch on Clowney.” …
“J.J. Watt is one of the best players in the entire league and has no trouble competing on a down-to-down basis.” …
“The Texans signed Jerrell Powe from KC to help at NT and drafted Louis Nix III (Notre Dame) as a reinforcement.” …
“Brian Cushing is a great player when healthy, but has missed 20 games over the past two years. Whitney Mercilus must step up opposite of Clowney and Brooks Reed may become the third LB on the outside and inside.” ...
“The secondary has been an Achilles heel since the Texans entered the league, maybe Kareem Jackson can improve, but he’s average and Johnathan Joseph wasn’t the same guy here as he was in Cincinnati.” …
“They drafted D.J. Swearinger as a strong safety and added Kendrick Lewis, who has never been able to run, so they are speed deficient in the back end.” …
“The biggest questions surrounding the Texans are the idea of a franchise QB and O’Brien’s ability to change the mentality of this team that some around the league questioned in terms of persistent toughness.” …
“Most around the league are envious of GM Ryan Grigson who had the good fortune of being able to pick QB Andrew Luck in his first draft, but he also picked a quality coach in Chuck Pagano and this organization has a chance to be competitive for a long time.” …
“The true test for Grigson and Pagano will be putting enough pieces in place around Luck and strengthening their defense in order to be in the Super Bowl conversation.” …
“Luck is legitimately a generational-level QB, look at what he has done in his first two seasons without a full complement of players around him and a defense that has been hit-and-miss.” …
“The offense should get a boost with the return of Reggie Wayne, TE Dwayne Allen and Ahmad Bradshaw from season-ending injuries, and the club is very hopeful that a full offseason with Trent Richardson will unlock the abilities he showed as an All-American talent at Alabama.” …
“In truth, the offensive line is average at best with Anthony Castonzo and Gosder Cherilus being middle-tier performers at the tackle positions. Indy let Samson Satele go, so there is a ton of pressure on center Khalid Holmes who was a fourth-round pick in 2013.” …
“Defensively, DE Arthur Jones and LB D’Qwell Jackson are the two significant pieces added during free agency. Jones is a favorite of Pagano and Jackson was a consistent performer in bad circumstances at Cleveland.” …
“Bjoern Werner, their first-round pick from a year ago, needs to come through in a big way in order to provide some pass rush opposite of Robert Mathis. Mathis has had an amazing career and actually had his best year in 2013 with 19.5 sacks.” …
“Up front, keep an eye on Montori Hughes, he has the needed size/athleticism to potentially breakout in 2014.” …
“They lost FS Antwuan Bethea to the 49ers and the safety spot appears to be the weakest position on the roster.” …
“Vontae Davis re-signed, Greg Toler returns and Darius Butler has always had cover ability, but this is a thin group, too.” …
“Again, as long is Luck is healthy and they get positive play out of the players that are returning from injury, this team should contend for the Super Bowl on an annual basis.” …
“Head coach Gus Bradley’s enthusiasm and leadership was put to the test in 2013 because the Jaguars had the least-talented team in the entire NFL. They have the right ownership and front office (Shad Khan and GM Dave Caldwell) in place to steer the ship through this reclamation project.” …
“Offensively, Chad Henne is in place as the bridge QB, which will allow them to sit No. 3 overall draft pick Blake Bortles as a rookie. He will be developed the old-fashioned way and this should really pay dividends for the Jags in the end.” …
“Prior to the draft, this offense was very short on talent, but Luke Joeckel should become a legit left tackle, Marcedes Lewis still has something left and Cecil Shorts is as competitive as any WR in the league.” …
“I loved the selection of USC WR Marquise Lee and Penn State WR Allen Robinson, both should become future starters.” …
“They signed OG Zane Beadles from Denver and RB Toby Gerhart from Minnesota to provide more stability along the OL and in the backfield.” …
“Jacksonville should be able to compete more quickly on the defensive side of the football. They added Chris Clemons, Red Bryant and Ziggy Hood to the front, to go along with incumbents Tyson Alualu and Sen’Derrick Marks.” …
“Paul Posluszny is very steady on the inside, but this LB group lacks a real difference-maker.” …
“Two 2013 rookies, corner Dwayne Gratz and safety Johnathan Cyprien have pro futures, but again, this is another area of this team that needs to be upgraded.” …
“Owner Khan is taking the correct approach in letting Bradley and Caldwell reshape this roster, and with six wins or so in 2014, the momentum should build for the future. This division is not all that great, so they can make a move as soon as this year.” …
“After 31 years as a player and coach, the Titans’ organization made the difficult decision to move away from Mike Munchak as head coach. GM Ruston Webster recruited offensive-minded Ken Whisenhunt really hard, because everyone’s fate is tied to the play of Jake Locker.” …
“On paper and in a snapshot, Locker has everything a team would want in a legitimate NFL signal-caller. However, on the field, his accuracy is inconsistent and his injury history has kept him from becoming their present and long-term answer at the position.” …
“Tennessee grew weary of RB Chris Johnson and parted ways with him in early April. Washington RB Bishop Sankey was their second-round choice and with Shonn Greene, Jackie Battle and Leon Washington, they have enough talent and depth there to make this work.” …
“Delanie Walker and Craig Stevens form a nice complementary duo at tight end and Kendall Wright has emerged as the best of an adequate group of receivers.” …
“Justin Hunter is a young prospect that could breakout in 2014 with more passes directed his way.” …
“They added Dexter McCluster and it will be interesting to see how he is utilized in this offense.” …
“The offensive line has always been a focus for the Titans and they drafted Michigan OT Taylor Lewan in the first round, despite there not being a pressing need with Michael Roos being a long-time veteran. Brian Schwenke, Andy Levitre and Chance Warmack form one of the best interior line units in the AFC, but newly signed Michael Oher could be the weakest link up front as the right tackle replacement for David Stewart.” …
“Ray Horton takes over as the defensive coordinator, so the Titans will shift from their traditional 4-3 and move to the 3-4. Shaun Phillips and Wesley Woodyard were both signed from Denver and should pair off well with Akeem Ayers and Colin McCarthy [Editor’s note: McCarthy suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in the second preseason game] .”…
“This scheme may hurt Derrick Morgan, but could help Kamerion Wimbley who re-structured his deal, so there are always unintended consequences when changing defensive philosophies.” …
“They did not retain Alterraun Verner and that puts big pressure on Blidi Wreh-Wilson and Jason McCourty. The back end seems secure with Bernard Pollard and Michael Griffin.” …
“Barring injuries, if Whisenhunt can make a huge difference with Locker, this team is ahead of Houston and Jacksonville and could challenge for a playoff berth. Otherwise, the Titans will be in search of a franchise QB in 2015 or potentially turning the reins over to sixth-round pick Zach Mettenberger from LSU.” …
Baseball has sabermetrics. Basketball has KenPom’s efficiency rankings. What does football have?
When it comes to advanced analytics, the game of football has lagged behind the other major American sports. Additionally, the college game trails well behind the more powerful (and better resourced) NFL.
That hasn’t stopped stat wizard Bill Connelly from introducing the college football world to advanced statistics. Athlon Sports brought in the accomplished author and statistician to help our readers become smarter and better football fans and the response has been exciting to say the least.
Connelly provided Athlon Sports’ magazines with a myriad of interesting, illuminating and critical advanced stats for every Big 5 team in the nation. Here are the Big Ten’s best.
Every time Illinois and a Big Ten opponent traded possessions, the Illini basically gave up 8.4 yards. The Illini had by far the worst field position margin in conference play; their average possession started at their 24.8 while opponents started at the 33.3, a margin of minus-8.4 yards. It’s hard to win when the field is constantly tilted in your opponent’s favor.
Indiana’s defense gave up by far the most yards per play in Big Ten games in 2013 (7.4), but if it’s possible, the Hoosiers’ defense actually got even worse near the goal line. They allowed 5.3 points per trip inside their 40-yard line, easily 12th in the conference. The offense ranked second at 4.8 points per trip, but the defense was far too much of a sieve and did the offense no favors.
Iowa was able to raise its scoring output by a touchdown per game (from 19.3 points to 26.3) in 2013, in part because the Hawkeyes were great at creating third-and-manageable situations. The average Iowa third down required only 5.9 yards to go, fifth-lowest in the country. It’s not a coincidence that Iowa’s third-down conversion rate also improved, from 36.4 percent to 43.8.
Big plays are important, and Maryland’s offense generated quite a few of them – the Terrapins gained 20 or more yards 73 times last fall. But you still have to gain 10 yards every four plays, and efficiency was a problem. Success Rate is an efficiency measure that determines each play a success or failure, an on-base percentage for football; Maryland’s success rate was just 38.9 percent, 96th in the country.
With such a shaky running game, it felt like every pass quarterback Devin Gardner attempted came on third-and-8. That actually wasn’t far from the truth: the average Michigan third down required 8.0 yards to go, 121st in the country. That makes the Wolverines’ 39.2 percent third-down conversion rate (75th in the country) actually seem rather impressive.
Michigan State: 3.8
Against the first three FBS opponents on the schedule, the Spartan offense averaged only 3.8 yards per play; for a full season, that average would have ranked 123rd out of 125 FBS teams. But State committed to Connor Cook at quarterback, and eventually it paid off. In their final 10 games, the Spartans averaged 5.7 yards per play and 29.6 points per game, more than enough for the MSU defense.
Minnesota quarterbacks took a few too many sacks in 2013. Philip Nelson and Mitch Leidner were sacked on 9.3 percent of their pass attempts; only two FBS teams had worse rates (Kentucky and Pittsburgh). You can get away with negative plays if you’re getting the ball downfield, and Nelson and Leidner did average 14.1 yards per completion, but this was still far too high.
Nebraska’s defense made a lot of aggressive plays in 2013; the Huskers recorded 93 tackles for a loss (17th in the country) and defended 54 passes (66th) and came up big on third downs by holding opponents to a 31.0 percent conversion rate (sixth-lowest). This level of successful aggression is impressive considering the Huskers allowed 6.3 yards per play on first down, 97th in the country.
Northwestern went 1–4 in games decided by one possession in 2013, a 0.200 win percentage. From 2007-12, the Wildcats win percentage in such games was 0.676 (25–12). Be it sudden regression to the mean in the luck department, total randomness, or something else, fortunes changed drastically for Pat Fitzgerald’s squad.
Ohio State: 4.5
Ohio State allowed an average of 4.5 points per trip inside its 40-yard line in conference play. That ranked the Buckeyes ninth in the Big Ten. The Ohio State offense was predictably great at cashing in on scoring opportunities — its 5.2 points per trip led the conference — but the defense gave away a lot of those gains. It was the story of the Buckeyes’ season.
Penn State: 48
Penn State managed only 48 plays of 20 or more yards from scrimmage in 2013, 95th in the country. This was down from 53 in 2012. The Nittany Lions were reasonably efficient considering the youth at quarterback, but there weren’t enough big plays to create easy scores, and if you have to sustain drives, you are likely to make a mistake at some point.
Purdue was perhaps the worst third-down team in the country. The offense ranked 119th in third-down conversions, and the defense ranked 124th. But the damage was done mostly on first and second downs: the offense averaged 7.9 yards to go on third downs (119th) while the defense averaged 5.7 (dead last in FBS). On third down, the Boilermakers simply performed as dictated by first and second.
When you’ve got shaky quarterback play — and to be sure, a 55 percent completion rate with 21 touchdowns to 20 interceptions could certainly be considered shaky — the last thing you want to do is put them in uncomfortable down-and-distance situations. But Rutgers couldn’t avoid third-and-long; the Scarlet Knights averaged 8.0 yards to go on third down, 123rd in the country.
Almost nobody controlled the ground like Wisconsin. S&P+ is a comprehensive play-by-play measure at Football Outsiders that measures explosiveness and efficiency and adjusts for the quality of the opponent, and in Rushing S&P+, the Badgers ranked fifth on offense and ninth on defense. Alabama was the only other team to rank in the top 10 on both sides of the ball.