Articles By Athlon Sports
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.
The Tennessee Titans are turning the page to a new chapter in franchise history. The 2014 season marks the first year since the Houston Oilers franchise was founded in 1960 that K.S. “Bud” Adams will not be calling the shots. The longest-tenured owner in NFL history died at age 90 in October. While ownership of the team remains in the hands of Adams’ immediate family, Tennessee has gone outside the Oilers-Titans family tree to hire the 17th head coach in franchise history — and only the second coaching change since the franchise planted roots in Nashville and became the Titans in 1999, the year of the “Music City Miracle” run to Super Bowl XXXIV.
Unlike predecessors Jeff Fisher (1994-2010) and Mike Munchak (2011-13), new coach Ken Whisenhunt was not promoted from within. The 52-year-old Whisenhunt was arguably the top free-agent coach on the market after coordinating the San Diego Chargers’ fifth-ranked offense (compared to the Titans’ 22nd-ranked unit) last season. Prior to that, the former tight end — who played seven seasons in the NFL with the Atlanta Falcons, Washington Redskins and New York Jets — served as coach of the Arizona Cardinals, leading the Redbirds to a Super Bowl XLIII loss against his former team, the Pittsburgh Steelers. Before six seasons in the desert from 2007-12, Whisenhunt coached in Pittsburgh from 2001-06 and was the offensive coordinator for the Super Bowl XL champions.
Whisenhunt won a Super Bowl with a 23-year-old Ben Roethlisberger and lost the big game with a 37-year-old Kurt Warner. Now fans in Nashville hope their new quarterback guru can just make the playoffs with 26-year-old Jake Locker, who enters the final year of his rookie deal after being the No. 8 overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft. Locker has not lived up to his “face of the franchise” expectations — throwing for a combined 3,432 yards, 18 TDs and 15 INTs with a 58.0 completion percentage, along with 446 rushing yards, three rushing TDs and five lost fumbles over a total of 18 starts in 2012-13. Locker’s 2013 season was cut short after seven games due to a Lisfranc injury in his foot. In 2012, the Washington product missed five games with a non-throwing shoulder injury.
Keeping Locker upright and on the field is priority No. 1. And after years of subpar line play under Hall of Fame O-lineman Munchak, the Titans have invested heavily in the front five during the past two offseasons. It was too little, too late to save Munchak, who is now the offensive line coach in Pittsburgh. But this year’s line should be among the best in the game, as the team’s past two first-round draft picks, guard Chance Warmack (No. 10 overall pick in 2013) and rookie tackle Taylor Lewan (No. 11 in 2014), join former Pro Bowl left tackle Michael Roos and guard Andy Levitre (80 consecutive starts), giving Tennessee legitimate star power up front.
Chris Johnson, the third-leading rusher (7,965 yards) in Oilers-Titans franchise history — behind Eddie George and Earl Campbell — was allowed to leave as a free agent and signed with the Jets. The runner once known as CJ2K will be replaced by second-round pick Bishop Sankey (1,870 yards and 20 TDs at Washington in ’13) and Shonn Greene, who had two 1,000-yard seasons before managing just 295 yards in his first year in Tennessee.
Offensive coordinator Jason Michael and game-day play-caller Whisenhunt will have a variety of options in the passing game — with Nate Washington and Justin Hunter providing vertical threats downfield while Kendall Wright and Delanie Walker work the middle. Triple-threat Dexter McCluster will be a wild card as a receiver-runner-returner jack of all trades.
Defensive coordinator Ray Horton is transforming the Titans from a base 4-3 defense to a hybrid 3-4 scheme. Horton played 10 seasons as a defensive back in the NFL and coached alongside Whisenhunt in both Pittsburgh and Arizona, including 2011-12 as the defensive coordinator. Last season, Horton coordinated the ninth-ranked Cleveland Browns’ stop-unit. The 54-year-old defensive boss inherits plenty of talent in Tennessee. But even the powers that be aren’t exactly sure where all of the pieces to the puzzle will fit just yet.
Jurrell Casey was one of the worst Pro Bowl snubs from last season. But there were few players on the big island of Oahu better than the Titans’ 305-pound big man, who had 10.5 sacks and commanded constant double teams in his third season out of USC. Health permitting, the 24-year-old Casey will make plenty of Pro Bowl trips in the future. He will anchor the defense. And although much has been made of Tennessee’s switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4 under Horton, the new coach’s scheme will allow Casey to remain a disruptive 3-technique tackle. Former Steeler Al Woods and 6'4", 328-pound Sammie Hill should man the all-important nose tackle position. Rookie DaQuan Jones, 6'8" Ropati Pitoitua and overachiever Karl Klug bring versatility and depth to the D-line rotation.
Derrick Morgan appears to be the odd man out. A traditional 4-3 end, Morgan — a former first-round pick with 16.5 sacks in four seasons — does not have an obvious fit in the new hybrid 3-4 defense.
There’s upside off the edge at linebacker, where Akeem Ayers, Shaun Phillips, Kamerion Wimbley and possibly Morgan will pin their ears back to rush the passer. Inside, Zach Brown, Wesley Woodyard will look to stuff the run and shoot the gaps. Unfortunately, the injury bug struck Colin McCarthy once again, as he suffered a shoulder injury in the second preseason game. He underwent surgery and is out for the season.
The secondary will miss cornerback Alterraun Verner, who had five INTs and a pick-six in his final season in Tennessee before signing with Tampa Bay as a free agent. Jason McCourty is a proven corner, but Blidi Wreh-Wilson and Coty Sensabaugh must step up. Center fielder Michael Griffin and sledgehammer Bernard Pollard bring stability to the safety spots.
“M-M-M-My Bironas!” will no longer be played over the speakers at LP Field following the departure of Rob Bironas. The kicking game will be uncertain for the first time since 2005. Punter Brett Kern returns for his sixth season in Tennessee. Game-breaking return specialist Leon Washington is one of the best in the business, with a record-tying eight career kick return touchdowns.
Munchak posted a 6–12 division record in three seasons against a relatively weak AFC South. Whisenhunt must reverse that trend if the Titans are to return to relevance. All eyes will be on Locker, who is in a make-or-break season. If Locker can stay healthy and the new-look defense gels early, the Titans could earn their first trip to the playoffs since 2008. If not, Whisenhunt could be looking for a new QB to mentor heading into 2015.
PREDICTION: 2nd in AFC South
Jim Caldwell believes he was brought to Detroit, replacing the fired Jim Schwartz last winter, to win a championship. And not two or three years down the road, either. “I believe the time is now,” the Lions’ new head coach announced at his introductory press conference. Time ran out on his predecessor, though, as the Lions coughed up a division lead and a shot at Detroit’s first home playoff date in 20 years by losing six of their last seven games in confounding fashion. Now the pressure’s on Caldwell and his revamped staff — particularly offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi — to harness Matthew Stafford’s potential at quarterback and demand accountability from a talented roster that couldn’t seem to get out of its own way in 2013.
The Lions doubled down on their investment in Stafford last summer, signing the former No. 1 overall pick to a three-year, $53 million extension that runs through 2017. But after his erratic play down the stretch helped turn a 6–3 start into a 7–9 finish, essentially giving away the NFC North title, much of the team’s offseason decision-making seemed to revolve around the franchise quarterback.
Stafford, entering his sixth NFL season, already owns most of the Lions’ franchise passing records. And after some questioned his durability early in his career, he has started 49 consecutive games, including the Lions’ lone playoff berth in 2011. But Stafford’s 14 turnovers and a 54.4 percent completion rate in the final seven games last season raised new concerns about both his decision-making and his mechanics. “The good news is that he’s not broken,” Lombardi says. “That much is clear.”
What’s also clear is the Lions are intent on helping him succeed. A year after signing all-purpose back Reggie Bush to bolster the offense, they went out and added receiver Golden Tate, a free agent coming off a career-best season with Seattle.
Then the Lions spent the No. 10 overall pick in the draft on an athletic, pass-catching tight end. Lombardi envisions the same role for Eric Ebron in Detroit as the one Jimmy Graham fills in the Saints’ offense, while former first-round pick Brandon Pettigrew returns as more of an in-line blocker and safety valve. The Lions brought back Kris Durham and Kevin Ogletree, and still are hoping Ryan Broyles can return from a third ACL surgery in three years. Sixth-round pick T.J. Jones, a sure-handed route technician, has a real chance to be the slot receiver.
All of them, of course, are complementary pieces to Calvin Johnson, who had another hugely productive season despite playing much of 2013 with knee and finger injuries that required offseason surgery. Ideally, more receiving help will mean less punishment for Megatron, too.
Bush will continue to work in tandem with Joique Bell. The pair became the first teammates in NFL history to top 500 yards rushing and receiving in the same season. And a young offensive line that was one of last year’s bright spots returns intact. Guard Larry Warford showed Pro Bowl potential in his first season, while 2012 first-round pick Riley Reiff held his own at left tackle. The Lions believe they’ve solidified the right tackle spot with long-levered LaAdrian Waddle, who started eight games last year as an undrafted rookie. Dominic Raiola is back for a 14th season at center, but the Lions drafted his likely successor in Travis Swanson.
The Lions made strides on defense in 2013, ranking first in the NFL in both third-down and red-zone defense. But they were 28th in sacks and 21st in forced turnovers, and with few changes in personnel, they’re counting on marked improvement.
A suspect secondary remains exactly that, especially after the front office balked at adding a potential starter there on the first two days of the draft. One projected starter at cornerback was expected to be Chris Houston, who endured a confidence-sapping finish to last season marred by a toe injury that required surgery in May. The team, however, decided to cut its losses and released Houston in June, a little more than a year after signing him to a five-year, $25 million contract. The other starting corner, Darius Slay, will try to rebound from an up-and-down rookie effort. No surprise, then, the Lions brought back aging vet Rashean Mathis, who played better than Houston and Slay last season and ended up making 13 starts. Bill Bentley proved himself a capable nickel back but has yet to prove he can stay healthy enough to be counted on. Rookie Nevin Lawson is a scrappy, tough candidate to play inside as well, while Jonté Green and Chris Greenwood are 2012 draft projects entering make-or-break years in Detroit.
The Lions did add one new piece to the secondary in free-agent strong safety James Ihedigbo, who played for new coordinator Teryl Austin in Baltimore. He’s a solid run-stopper to complement versatile Glover Quin, but depth behind them might be a concern.
Austin’s new scheme will feature a different look from the front seven. The wide-nine technique is gone, though one defensive end still will be asked to pin his ears back and rush the passer from the open side opposite the tight end. Presumably, that’ll be Ziggy Ansah, who had eight sacks in 12 starts as a rookie. Devin Taylor, a rangy 6'7" athlete, also fits into the plans after making big strides as a rookie. Jason Jones, who missed almost all of last season with a knee injury, is penciled in as the other starting end. But inside is where the strength of this defensive line is, with All-Pro Ndamukong Suh and former first-round pick Nick Fairley.
One way to improve the sack total is with blitzing linebackers, and that’s one reason the Lions traded up to snare BYU’s Kyle Van Noy in the second round of the draft. A big-play machine in college, Van Noy should win the starting strong-side job over Ashlee Palmer, who’s better suited as a backup and special teams ace. Sure-tackling Stephen Tulloch holds down the middle, while DeAndre Levy — coming off a breakout season (six INTs) — handles the weak-side duties.
Detroit used its final draft pick in May on Boston College’s Nate Freese, who went 20-for-20 on field-goal attempts as a senior. That completes an overhaul in the kicking game, as the Lions spent a fifth-round pick in 2013 on punter Sam Martin, who ranked 10th in the NFL in net punting as a rookie. Tate excelled as a punt returner in Seattle, but the Lions finally found a game-breaking special teams threat last season in Jeremy Ross. He took over the job at midseason and was one of the NFL’s best return men in the second half, highlighted by his two-TD effort — one kickoff, one punt — in a snowstorm in Philadelphia.
Most coaching changes come with a grace period. And Caldwell’s quiet leadership and even-keeled approach will be welcomed. But in Detroit, there’s an urgency to win now. And with so much salary cap space tied up in a handful of stars, the roster is largely set. The onus is on Stafford and the new staff to make this an elite offense, and a playoff team.
PREDICTION: 3rd in NFC North
A man for all seasons — if all of those seasons happen to be football — Jon Gruden is a Super Bowl-winning coach, the lead analyst on ESPN’s Monday Night Football telecasts and the source material for comedian Frank Caliendo’s hilarious over-the-top impression, which is highlighted by fake play-calls like “tarantula” and “albacore 3 Y quesadilla.”
Athlon Sports caught up with Coach Gruden, who hasn’t coached since 2008 but remains the hottest free-agent visor on the market. The soon-to-be 51-year-old brought his trademark intensity, laser-beam death stare and plenty of sizzling takes to preview the upcoming 2014 NFL season.
Was Super Bowl XLVIII the beginning of a Seahawk dynasty?
JG: “I think they’re still a great team. The way they finished the season put an exclamation point on that. I mean, they buried Denver. They met every challenge presented to them. Their defense showed they can stop any offensive attack in football. They got better and better. And their quarterback is electrifying. He is a difference-maker, and they are blessed to have one of the most unique quarterbacks in football right now.”
Can the Broncos bounce back from being buried and make another Super Bowl run?
JG: “Oh, no question. They added some interesting pieces. And a lot of people forget the amount of injuries Denver had heading into the Super Bowl. If Von Miller and Ryan Clady can come back, if DeMarcus Ware can play like he once did in Dallas a few years ago, if Aqib Talib is healthy, they can be much better than a year ago. We all know that Peyton Manning and that offensive attack is going to score points, but they have to get those injured guys back to playing status.”
Will the Cowboys and Tony Romo ever live up to their promise?
JG: “One thing I like about Dallas is they have an outstanding offensive line. From left tackle to right tackle it’s a very good offensive line. So they’re able to run it and they’re able to pass protect. If Romo is healthy I think Dallas will be a team that can possess the ball, keep their defense off the field and win a few games. But they’ve got to play much better on defense. They were a far cry from Cowboys defenses of the past. They’ve got to find a way to stop some people. They’re going to struggle on defense.”
How will your brother’s first season as the head coach of the Washington Redskins go?
JG: “If (Robert) Griffin can fit into that scheme, and with the arrival of DeSean Jackson, they have some really good skill players. I don’t think their offensive line is as deep or proven as Dallas’ or Philadelphia’s, but they do have some firepower at the skill positions. But their defense has got to play better, particularly in the secondary. They gave up way too many big plays.”
Who are some sleeper teams to watch this year?
JG: “It’s so hard to predict from year to year. You’d like to say Cincinnati could jump into the mix this year. Chicago is a team that is on the cusp. Green Bay with Julius Peppers playing opposite Clay Matthews, that’s exciting.”
What can we expect from Johnny Football in Cleveland?
JG: “I think it depends on a couple of things. You’ve got to remember he’s a blank slate. He still has two years of college eligibility left. So hopefully he doesn’t get rushed into it too quickly. But they don’t have a lot of marquee players at the skill positions. They have an unknown as their feature back. With the Josh Gordon situation they have some obscure receivers. They don’t have a great supporting cast at this time. And I don’t know what Kyle Shanahan wants to do with that offense. What will he be able to run if Johnny Manziel is at quarterback?”
What rookie is most likely to have a major impact this season?
JG: “I really like the kid the Saints drafted, Brandin Cooks out of Oregon State. I think when you get Sean Payton and Drew Brees involved and they’re committed to making a young player successful, I think good things are going to be in store. I’m going to be surprised if he doesn’t have 1,000 yards receiving. That’s saying a lot for a young receiver. Most rookies don’t gain 1,000 yards their first year in the league. I really like that kid a lot. I think he’s got a chance to make a huge splash on the scene.”
What can we expect from Megatron, Calvin Johnson?
JG: "I think he's got a chance to have four or five more great years. I saw Jerry Rice do it. Jerry took great care of himself. These receivers, if they take care of themselves off the field throughout the years, they can sustain it. And I've seen him do it. It's just going to be a matter of how does Calvin Johnson respond to a new offense? Remember, he's had Linehan down there for some time. He's got to react to new formations and new audibles and things of that nature. Hopefully Golden Tate can take some pressure off of him. But I don't think the best way to judge Calvin Johnson is just through the statistics. I think it's time for Detroit to take a step forward and start winning some crunch time games in December."
What teams do you have your eye on to make a serious run at Super Bowl XLVIX?
JG: “I like where we finished the season last year. Seattle, they’ve lost some good players, but they’ve mostly kept it intact. I like where they are at the top of the NFC, there’s no question about it. And in the AFC I like Denver and I like the New England Patriots. I’m anxious to see Darrelle Revis and Bill Belichick on the same team. With Brandon Browner, after his suspension is over, they have the ability to challenge some receivers on the outside, to play like they did when they had Asante Samuel and Ty Law. I think the acquisition of those two corners could put New England right back into the Super Bowl. That’s a good way to go. Instead of making a bunch of crazy predictions, I’m going to stay with some really good, hot stock. How’s that?”
Winners of 10 of the last 11 division titles, the AFC East has been dominated by New England ever since Bill Belichick and Tom Brady joined forces in 2001. This is not expected to change in 2014 either, not with Darrelle Revis joining the secondary and Rob Gronkowski back to jumpstart the passing attack. So if the Patriots are the heavy favorite to finish first, how will the rest of this division shake out? Will Buffalo or New York take a step forward behind their second-year quarterbacks or did Miami make the right moves in free agency to be a threat this fall?
In order to get an accurate assessment of how the AFC East shapes up entering the 2014 season, Athlon asked NFL scouts to talk anonymously about the Bills, Dolphins, Patriots and Jets.
Note: These scouting reports come directly from NFL scouts and do not necessarily reflect the views of Athlon's editorial staff.
“With the passing of owner Ralph Wilson, the Bills’ future will be discussed endlessly outside the football part of the organization. Regardless of what people say, this circumstance is always a distraction to a degree.” …
“Doug Marrone quietly did a solid job as a first-year NFL head coach in 2013 and Buffalo has more talent than meets the eye.” …
“Offensively, everything begins and ends with their QB play. EJ Manuel was selected in the first round of the 2013 draft and flashed the ability to be a long-term answer, but showed enough negatives to leave the question open at this point.” …
“Buffalo was 29th in the league in third down conversions (34.0 percent) and that is an area of much-needed improvement.” …
“There is enough skill around the QB to make for an effective offense. C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson work well together and Anthony Dixon was signed from the 49ers.” …
“TE Scott Chandler was brought back and he is a dependable target. Buffalo traded their 2015 first-round pick to move up in the draft to get Sammy Watkins. With his addition, this is a nice mix of wide receiver styles in the form of Robert Woods, T.J. Graham and Marquise Goodwin.” …
“The offensive line does not have a superstar, but LT Cordy Glenn, OC Eric Wood and RG Kraig Urbik are functional starters. Chris Williams was lured from St. Louis to plug in at left guard.” …
“Nathanial Hackett is the offensive coordinator and is a coach worth tracking in the future, especially if he can coax the best out of Manuel.” …
“Jim Schwartz, the former head coach of the Lions, takes over as defensive coordinator and he is expected to stay as aggressive as his predecessor, Mike Pettine.” …
“Defensively, Marcell Dareus had a breakout year and Kyle Williams is one of the most underrated players in the league.” …
“Mario Williams, Manny Lawson and Jerry Hughes combined for 27 sacks and should provide the outside pass rush for this team.” …
“The Bills lost Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd to New Orleans, however, Aaron Williams was retained, Da’Norris Searcy has extensive experience and the coaches have high hopes for Duke Williams and Jonathan Meeks.” …
“This team has enough ability to legitimately get into the fight with Miami and the NY Jets for second place in the AFC East, but almost everything will hinge on the play of the quarterback.” …
“And make no mistake about it, this current administration took a big swing in the draft to either save their jobs with a new owner or slash-and-burn their way out the door.” …
“The Dolphins demonstrated their dysfunction on and off the field in 2013. While the locker room fiasco unfolded in front of the nation, Richie Incognito became the ‘face’ of the franchise and Jonathan Martin left the building.” …
“Upstairs, former GM Jeff Ireland and VP Dawn Aponte had their own turf battles going and owner Stephen Ross ultimately sided with her, leading Ireland to step down.” …
“Meanwhile, somehow head coach Joe Philbin survived despite two late-season losses and the Wells report that spotlighted his lack of awareness and his staff’s poor judgment in diffusing the Incognito/Martin situation.” …
“Ultimately, Dennis Hickey, who was likely to be fired from the Bucs by their new GM Jason Licht, emerged as the Miami GM after a protracted interviewing process led by Ross and Aponte.” …
“Now to the football, Ryan Tannehill did not get much help last year. Miami’s OL composed of bullies and tough guys allowed 58 sacks and never generated much room for an ordinary set of running backs. Center Mike Pouncey is the only returning starter in 2014.” …
“Hickey made a splash in free agency by signing Branden Albert and Shelley Smith for the line and probably over-drafted Ja’Wuan James in the first round, but to completely repair an entire OL is nearly impossible with other pressing needs, too.” …
“After Dustin Keller went down with a knee injury during the preseason, the tight end position was essentially handled by H-back Charles Clay. Clay is an underrated performer and maybe the most reliable teammate Tannehill has had over the past two seasons.” …
“The Dolphins signed Knowshon Moreno from Denver and he should help in a big way primarily through his pass protection skills. With an entirely new OL, he can serve as Tannehill’s personal protector and that should be a major help in 2014.” …
“Mike Wallace will probably never live up to the contract he received last year because he is a vertical, one-trick pony. He can really run, but most of his effectiveness comes on take-off routes and WR screens. He thrived in Pittsburgh because of the culture there and the people around him. Without that same kind of structure, he does not have the discipline needed to be a legit No. 1 receiver.” …
“On the defensive line, Randy Starks returns and they signed Earl Mitchell from Houston. They have to figure out how to get more production from 2013 No. 3 overall pick Dion Jordan.” …
“The linebackers were over-paid, under-produced and have now been re-shuffled into different roles under DC Kevin Coyle.” …
“Brent Grimes stayed off the market, but one of their young corners has to come through opposite of him, because Cortland Finnegan is not a long-term answer.” …
“The safeties are ordinary, so the pass rush is vital for them to hold up.” …
“Rebuilding both the OL and DL is tough to do in one offseason.” …
“This team can be competitive again, but I just don’t see enough blue-chip talent across the board to think they make the playoffs in 2014.” …
New England Patriots
“As long as Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are paired together, the Patriots will always be the front-runners of the AFC East. Through the Patriots’ most savvy draft picks to their worst personnel choices, this duo seems to be able to overcome most any set of circumstances.” …
“As long as Brady can get ample time and avoid too many pocket hits, he can still carve people up from the pocket. No QB in the league plays with as much poise and confidence as Brady.” …
“There were growing pains with rookie WRs Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins, but both made key plays in 2013, and Julian Edelman emerged to catch 100-plus passes after stepping in for the departed Wes Welker.” …
“Danny Amendola is quite capable, however, his injury history showed up again in ’13, when he missed four games.” ...
“New England thinks that newly acquired WR Brandon LaFell (from the Panthers) has yet to reach his potential and can do so in their system.” …
“The one-two punch of Steven Ridley and Shane Vereen gives them great versatility on offense because both players can do multiple jobs. Brandon Bolden is likely to be the inside run replacement for LaGarrette Blount who ended up in Pittsburgh.” …
“The Pats need a counterpart to Rob Gronkowski at tight end and would love to see D.J. Williams come through as a potential pass-catcher. In the meantime, Michael Hoomanawanui is consistent and gives NE a viable end-of-line blocker.” …
“Barring injury, the OL can get the job done with Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer (coming back from injury) manning the tackle spots and Logan Mankins, Ryan Wendell and Dan Connelly on the inside.” …
“On defense, Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia run a hybrid scheme that allows them to exploit the rush/drop skills of Jamie Collins and Rob Ninkovich.” …
“New England should get a big boost up the middle of their D with the return of Vince Wilfork (coming back from Achilles rupture) and Jerod Mayo, a team leader and their most productive defender.” …
“It remains to be seen what they can get out of first-round choice Dominique Easley who suffered torn ACLs in both knees at Florida.” …
“They made a huge splash in free agency with the addition of Darrelle Revis. Because of his man-to-man skills, expect more pressure calls up front and more safety help to Alfonzo Dennard in the back end.” …
“Their offense will carry the load again in 2014, but with Revis on board and Mayo and Collins maximizing their talents at the linebacker level, there is a confidence in Foxboro that the Pats have enough pieces in place to go win the Super Bowl.” …
New York Jets
“The media is way off when it comes to the relationship between GM John Idzik and head coach Rex Ryan. They have quietly found compromise on a number of issues and actually work well together. Now, that doesn’t mean that there is no pressure on Rex, but this team finished 8-8 after many pundits felt they were one of the worst outfits in the entire league during preseason.” …
“Everyone with the Jets has a ton riding on Geno Smith, but he really needs a lot of help when it comes to their tight ends and receivers.” …
“Michael Vick was signed to push Smith and even take over if he struggles again in camp or down the stretch, but he has played 16 games one time in his career.” …
“Eric Decker was signed from Denver and he will be an upgrade, but he is only a No. 2 in reality. Stephen Hill is one-dimensional and will never be a complete receiver, while Jeremy Kerley will flash a play, but he is difficult for a QB to find in traffic.” …
“The offensive line is a strength and, if they can stay healthy, maybe this team will be able to run the football better in 2014. Breno Giacomini comes from Seattle and replaces Austin Howard at RT with D’Brickashaw Ferguson and Nick Mangold still being in the top third of the league at their positions.” ...
“Chris Johnson was cut from the Titans and the Jets are hoping he has something left in the tank to go along with Chris Ivory and Bilal Powell.” …
“The defensive line may be the most dominant in the NFL with Sheldon Richardson and Muhammad Wilkerson being legit forces in their front seven. NT Damon Harrison is one of the most underrated defensive lineman in the AFC.” …
“The biggest issue is the Jets’ lack of pressure from the outside. Quinton Coples is out of position as a hybrid OLB/DE and Calvin Pace is a middle-of-the-pack edge rusher.” …
“David Harris has been a consummate pro during his career, but Demario Davis has emerged as the best LB on the roster, he is fast to the football and explosive when he gets there.” …
“The Jets have lost Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie over the past two offseasons, so they are banking heavily on Dee Milliner to live up to his No. 9 overall draft status from 2013. Dimitri Patterson was inked from Miami because Kyle Wilson has been so disappointing in his career.” …
“They added hard-hitting Calvin Pryor from Louisville in the draft, but in some ways, they now have four strong safety-types in the back end and that’s not good in this era of ‘space’ football. Dawan Landry and Antonio Allen are better coming up than going back and Jaiquawn Jarrett is the same way.” …
“Rex Ryan didn’t get enough credit for getting this group to 8-8, because it is truly amazing they won that many games.” …
“If Geno Smith responds in his second year with offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg and some new additions, expect the Jets to battle for second in the division and a playoff berth.” …
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 ACC’s best.
Boston College: 26
Despite his stature, running back Andre Williams’ strength was in big plays. He gained at least 20 yards on a carry 26 times in 2013, easily the best in the nation. But efficiency was an issue; the Eagles managed just a 38.0 percent success rate — an efficiency measure that determines each play a success or failure; that ranked 105th in the country.
Success Rate is an efficiency measure that determines each play a success or failure, an on-base percentage for football; Clemson’s defense allowed a 34.0 percent success rate in 2013, fifth-lowest in the country. But the breakdowns that did occur were significant: Clemson allowed 11 plays of more than 50 yards (107th in the country) and 28 of more than 30 (81st).
Duke reached the ACC title game in 2013 despite a bend-don’t-break defense that bent a bit too much. The Blue Devils allowed 6.8 yards per play on first down, 110th in the country. They also allowed 210 plays of at least 10 yards (116th). When they leveraged opponents into passing downs, they got more successfully aggressive, but passing downs were few and far between.
Florida State: 39.5
Florida State’s scoring margin was an incredible plus-39.5 in 2013. Granted, playing Bethune-Cookman and Idaho in non-conference (combined score: 134–20) helped, but the Seminoles’ scoring margin in ACC games was still plus-39.0. Against teams that finished with winning records? Plus-33.3. No matter how you slice it, Florida State dominated in 2013 like few teams ever have.
Georgia Tech: 4.9
One benefit to an option offense is that you really don’t have to change your play-calling when you get near the goal line. Georgia Tech averaged 4.9 points per trip inside the opponent’s 40-yard line, 15th in the country. Meanwhile, the Yellow Jackets were also solid at shutting drives down — they allowed 3.9 points per trip inside their 40, 38th in the country.
Louisville’s defense improved dramatically in 2013, as evidenced most clearly by the Cardinals’ ability to close drives before the end zone. They allowed only 3.0 points per trip inside their 40-yard line, second in the country and first among major-conference teams. Meanwhile, the offense averaged a healthy 4.8 points per trip, 20th.
Miami averaged a healthy 6.9 yards per play against ACC opponents, second in the conference behind Florida State. The problem was that the defense gave back most of those gains, allowing 6.2 per play, 13th. Big plays were the culprit: the Hurricanes allowed 211 gains of 10-plus yards overall, 117th in the country.
NC State: 3.3
The average FBS team averaged 4.2 points per trip inside its opponent’s 40-yard line in 2013. NC State, however, averaged only 3.3 points per trip, 116th in the country. It got even worse in conference play; the Wolfpack averaged 3.0 points per trip, worst in the ACC.
North Carolina: 7.6
North Carolina’s offense was exciting despite youth in 2013; however, when things went wrong, they went wrong quickly. Despite ranking a solid 48th in yards per play, the Tar Heels averaged 7.6 yards to go on third downs, 108th in the country.
Of the 33 fumbles that took place in Pittsburgh games (11 by the Panthers, 22 by opponents), Pitt recovered only 11 of them, 33.3 percent. Fumble recovery rates are mostly random, and only one team (Akron at 31.4 percent) recovered a lower percentage. With an average recovery rate, Pittsburgh would have fallen on six to seven more loose balls in a season that saw them lose two games by a touchdown or less.
Led by Marquise Spruill’s 14.5, Orange linebackers recorded 41 tackles for a loss in 2013, even more than the 39 they recorded in 2012. The defense as a whole improved from allowing 5.7 yards per play in 2012 to 5.3 in 2013; unfortunately, the offense regressed from 6.0 to 5.1 in that same span.
Virginia was in no way efficient, averaging just 4.9 yards per play on first down (109th in the country) with a 38.0 percent third-down conversion rate (85th). But the Cavaliers’ biggest problem was a total lack of big-play ability. The offense gained 20 or more yards in a play just 34 times in 2013, 121st in the country. Virginia averaged better than 4.8 yards per play in just four of 12 games.
Virginia Tech: 8.3
Nobody leveraged opponents into passing downs more effectively than Virginia Tech did. Opponents faced an average of 8.3 yards to go on third down against the Hokies’ defense, the highest average in the country.
Wake Forest: -6.4
An offense prone to three-and-outs and a shaky return game produced the worst field position averages in the ACC. In conference play, Wake Forest’s average starting field position was its 26.6, and its opponents’ average was the 33.0. The minus-6.4 margin was easily 14th of 14 teams; only Virginia (minus-5.4) and NC State (minus-4.6) came within 3.5 yards of that average.
College football is well-represented in the Twitterverse by people who know the game intimately and aren't afraid to tell you about it. We took our annual look at the lengthy list of CFB-oriented Twitter accounts and whittled them down to 100 that are definitely worth a follow.
Times and technology change, and these tweeting all-stars are sure to entertain, educate and occasionally enrage. Let us know your favorites (and anyone we missed).
Get to know the new college football playoff and who is in the mix for the title. This is the official account, so be sure to follow on Tuesday evenings when the official rankings are released.
@ESPNCFB (2) and @CollegeGameDay (3)
We probably don’t need to tell you why to follow ESPN’s college football channels, but these are good places to start if you’re a Twitter newbie.
Whoa Nelly, just the news and only the news. No retweets or interaction, just links to all the roster moves and important nuggets from around the country.
@cbfowler (4) and @ESPN_ReceDavis (5)
A pair of total pros who anchor ESPN's college football coverage night and day. Take a moment to welcome Fowler to his spot on ABC’s game of the week on Saturday night.
“Sources” McMurphy is in his second season with the Mothership as a leader in breaking news.
The veteran ESPNer is a must-follow for features on the Dot Com and his guests on the aptly named ESPN College Football Podcast.
Travis Haney is on the national beat, though most of his work is behind the ESPN Insider paywall. He drops enough knowledge from his travels on Twitter to entice readers to fork over a few more bucks to the Worldwide Leader.
A must-follow during Saturday’s action if you’re interested in a deep dive into the numbers.
10 days until full slate of CFB games; Alabama has won 10 national titles during the poll era (since 1936), most of any FBS team— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) August 18, 2014
ESPN Conference Bloggers (10)
It’s tough to pick out one, but this is a good place to start to follow your favorite team or league: @ESPN_ACC, @ESPN_BigTen, @ESPN_Big12, @ESPN_Pac12Blog and @ESPN_SEC. Go for a deeper dive with all 29(!) of ESPN’s blog contributors.
@DennisDoddCBS (11) remains the veteran columnist of the staff that has added newshounds @JFowlerCBS (12) and @JonSolomonCBS (13) in recent years. After a tumultuous summer covering union efforts, autonomy and Ed O’Bannon, we’re sure they’re glad to get back to covering games.
News, notes and a little sarcasm from @TomFornelli, @Chip_Patterson and @JerryHinnen
Staples can break down the difference between a cookout and a BBQ and talk offensive line play. @LindsayRaeSI (16) and @BrianHamiltonSI (17) are recent arrivals.
Campus Union (16)
@ZacEllis and @martinrickman maintain SI’s news and notes blog. Follow rickman if you have an aversion to capital letters.
in @finebaum interview musburger has discussed: -katherine webb -betting lines -eminem -the musburger drinking game sec network is amazing— martin rickman (@martinrickman) August 15, 2014
Bill Simmons isn’t a lover of college football, but he’s stocked his longform site some quality folks including @HollyAnderson (17) and @MattRHinton (18).
College football Twitter is full of sarcasm and hot takes. Chris Brown at Smart Football and Grantland keeps us all in line with his Xs and Os-heavy feed.
Fox Sports has become a player in college football coverage online with two ace hires of @BFeldmanCFB (20) and @slmandel (21). And for an — ahem, edgier take — there’s @ClayTravisBGID (22).
I can't wait until SEC fans start calling the network "biast." Probably already happening.— Clay Travis (@ClayTravisBGID) August 14, 2014
The newspaper is more than infographics and that ubiquitous dot. USA Today hits all spots with old-school reporting and column-writing with @GeorgeSchroeder (23) and @DanWolken (24) and new-school #viral and #social content with @ForTheWin (25).
By now, @PaulMyerberg (26) has wrapped up his exhaustive team-by-team previews, but he’s still a must-follow during the year.
Other National Voices
@MattHayes_SN (27) is a long-time Sporting News columnist. Beware: He may or may not be sold on the Playoff. On the other hand, there’s Death to the BCS author @DanWetzel (28), who takes a victory lap this season. He’s still an ace columnist and key figure on Yahoo’s investigative wing.
If you want to see whose style we borrowed for this column, make sure you give @YahooForde (29) a read every week for his Forde-Yard Dash.
@RalphDRussoAP (30) is a student of the history of the game but also the ace on current events you’d expect from the Associated Press.
Miss anything during the college football Saturday? @MattBrownCFB’s (31) “The Professor” wrap-up is mandatory on Sunday morning.
The folks at Crystal Ball Run don’t have a BCS crystal ball trophy to chase in the playoff era, so they’ve moved their independent college football blog to @TheStudentSect (32).
@KevinOnCFB (34) and the staff at College Football Talk gather all the news of the day so you don’t have to.
Spencer Hall live tweeting “Big Dumb Will Muschamp Football” is only part of the fun.
The college football editor at SB Nation never runs out of clever quips about the goings on in college football.
SB Nation’s longform/investigative reporter Steven Godfrey also describes himself as a “white trash sommelier.” So there’s that.
Sarcastic college football observations, Oregon fandom, ‘90s trivia and food. Especially food.
Rubenstein’s co-host on the @SolidVerbal podcast will have another year of public discomfort watching Notre Dame football.
We’re glad to know that going public hasn’t diminished Ryan Nanni’s sophisticated brand of heckling.
Prolific Tweeter gets to watch his beloved Louisville Cardinals go for Round 2 with Bobby Petrino. This time, without a Big East Coast Bias to defend.
Arizona State changes uniforms every so often to give Todd Graham the sensation of coaching somewhere new (I realize I'm in a glass house).— Mark Ennis (@MarkEnnis) August 18, 2014
No list of SB Nation contributors would be complete with mentioning extensive local coverage from the West Coast with @PacificTakes (42), the MAC with @HustleBelt (43), the non-Power 5 leagues with @UnderdogDynasty (44) and Texas A&M/GIFs with @GBHunting and @CuppyCup (45).
Adam Kramer bills himself as "Founder and gatekeeper of Kegs ‘n Eggs. Lead College Football Writer for Bleacher Report. Advocate of FAT GUY TOUCHDOWNS, #MACtion and Las Vegas tomfoolery." Tomfoolery, indeed.
Bleacher Report's lead writer for all things SEC, Sallee will fill your Twitter feed with reactions and analysis all over the Southeast.
Follow for updates from Bleacher Report’s video guru. Stay for his views on TV.
NFL.com has recently entered the college football media sphere with a bit of a draft focus. Follow @BryanDFischer (49), @ChaseGoodbread (50) and @MikeHuguenin (51) for knowledge galore.
Bo Pelini’s doppelganger is all legit now that the real Bo has acknowledged his presence. Hasn’t dulled Faux Pelini’s act, though.
Remember when the Big 12 almost collapsed? The Fake Dan Beebe does. He’d be bitter, but he’s enjoying #buyoutlife. No one taunts the current and former Big 12 membership better.
If you’re going to follow a fake coach and a fake former Big 12 commissioner, might as well follow a real person Tweeting on behalf of an anthropomorphic duck.
Speaking of Oregon, Paul Lukas is a must-follow to keep up with the changing looks, not just from Eugene, but all over.
Not ready to delve completely in the Reddit world? Dip a toe in by following their college football subreddit on Twitter. Highlights are #MSPaintMonday and #MSExcelThursday.
@awfulannouncing and @myoder84 (57)
Did someone say something stupid on TV? Want to know those SEC Network assignments? Hate preseason polls? Awful Announcing is the place.
@bubbaprog and @cjzero (58)
Deadspin’s Tim Burke and the independent C.J. Fogler are masters of locating and creating all those videos of great plays or images of sideline moments. You won’t miss a thing following these two.
If your team is being broadcast sometime or somewhere, Matt Sarzyniak knows.
Bringing the Knowledge
A writer for SB Nation’s Football Study Hall, Bill Connelly is college football’s top advanced statistics guru. Follow Connelly, an Athlon contributor in the 2014 annuals, for statistical insight like no other.
No one knows Heisman trends quite like Chris Huston. Think your favorite player has a chance at the award? Ask Huston first.
During the season, Pete Roussel follows what coaches are saying and doing like none other, but he’s indispensable once the coaching carousel starts for his nuggets from the top of college football to Division II grad assistants.
Scott Roussel (Pete’s brother) runs a competing site full of coaching scuttlebutt. Between the two of them, you won’t miss a hiring or firing from around the college football world.
A former compliance director at Loyola Marymount, John Infante is the most knowledgable voice in the media when it comes to the gargantuan NCAA rulebook.
Coaches and Players
Good to know that a move to Penn State hasn’t diminished the best coach, assistant or otherwise, to follow on Twitter.
Most coaches’ Twitter accounts are pretty standard — inspirational quotes, excitement for the season and so forth. Les, of course, does things a little differently.
Watch closely and a DM intended for a Florida recruit may end up in your timeline. Number sign oops.
Tickets for free tweet lessons?#???????— Will Muschamp (@CoachWMuschamp) July 30, 2014
Georgia wide receiver and Star Wars fan-filmmaker Chris Conley is one of the brightest and most insightful players in the game.
Big Picture Topics
You only need to follow Hruby for 10 minutes to learn the former Sports on Earth columnist (and Georgetown professor) won’t be working for the NCAA anytime soon.
I always laugh at debates and surveys - "should college athletes be paid?" We don't have those debates about dentists or college janitors.— Patrick Hruby (@patrick_hruby) June 11, 2014
Kristi Dosh handles all the business news from college athletics. Want to follow the money? Follow Dosh.
College football will have its first gay active player less than a year after Michael Sam became the first openly gay player taken in the draft. Zeigler is the leading voice for LGBT issues in sports, and as a result, gets first dibs on coverage.
Around the SEC
One word. One long syllable: PAAAAAWWWWWWL.
Tony Barnhart, Mr. College Football himself, returns to his home at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution but you can also find him on the SEC Network.
@CecilHurt and @MattScalici (74)
Two generations and two outlets on the Alabama beat. Hurt from the Tuscaloosa News can turn a phrase with the best of the old-school columnists. Scalici is a multimedia workhorse in the AL DOT COM network.
A news aggregator that’s all things SEC. Not affiliated with the SEC, but this feed probably should be on the payroll.
Saturday Down South’s Jon Cooper analyzes SEC football from top to bottom and left to right — predictions, depth chart news, practice reports and player rankings.
A radio host in Knoxville and writer with MrSEC.com, Ward brings SEC news from around the Southeast with a Tennessee bent.
Around the ACC
Patrick Stevens has his finger on the pulse of the ACC but knows his way around the national scene, too.
Stay in tune with the defending national champions with the long-time Rivals site.
Teel graduated from James Madison and has worked for the Daily Press in Virginia for more than 30 years. No one has seen more change in the league than Teel ... and maybe Mike Krzyzewski.
Around the Big Ten
Big Ten Network (81)
@BTNDaveRevsine, @BTNTomDienhart and @BTNBrentYarina are as entrenched in Big Ten knowledge as anyone.
Greenstein brings a bit of a Northwestern bent as a Chicago Tribune writer, but he covers the whole league.
Callahan is as entrenched as anyone with the Nebraska program from top to bottom.
“Consigliere” of the Ohio State fan site ElevenWarriors.com, Ramzy Nasrallah might need a kind word or two following the Braxton Miller news.
Buckeye fans, relax. It's going to be fine. Joe Bauserman has looked great in practice.— Ramzy Nasrallah (@ramzy) August 19, 2014
Around the Big 12
Columnist and analyst from Fox Sports Southwest has an informed view on every team around the Big 12. Even Kansas
His last name is finger. His avatar is a finger. He covers Texas.
Players Texas can least afford to lose, factoring in depth behind them: 1. David Ash; 2. Quandre Diggs; 3. Kent Perkins; 4. Marcus Johnson.— Mike Finger (@mikefinger) August 10, 2014
At least Allen Kenney, an Oklahoma fan, is honest with his audience.
Around the Pac-12
The Los Angeles Times writer covers everyone in the Pac-12, of course with a focus on UCLA and USC.
Another venerable voice from Pac-12 land with views and news from Stanford and Cal.
Opinions on the Oregon schools from the never-shy Oregonian columnist.
Shane Dale’s Twitter handle and book are named after the Arizona-Arizona State rivalry, so you’ll know what you’re going to get.
A senior writer with ESPN’s Recruiting Nation, Crabtree has covered recruiting more than just about anyone. A great follow for the big picture in college football’s second season.
ESPN’s top eye for college football prospects is good at interacting with readers with #AskLoogs hashtag. Go ahead and ask him about a player or issue.
A national analyst at 247Sports, Simmons is knee-deep in recruiting knowledge from evaluations to commitments.
A former Rivals and current 247 analyst, Niebuhr is as active on Twitter as anyone. You won’t miss anything in recruiting on his feed.
Another can’t-miss voice from the 247 stable. He’s their National Recruiting Director and happy to take questions from readers.
Mike Farrell is simply the Godfather of recruiting. Trust us, that’s what his Twitter bio says.
Rivals.com’s recruiting expert out West.
No look at recruiting would be complete without someone keeping an eye on the state of Texas. Jason Howell is Rivals’ guy for the Lone Star State.
Scout has made a renewed push in the recruiting market, and Brandon Huffman is their lead guy.
Last but not least...
Giants management is nothing if not patient. Sweeping changes have almost never been encouraged or forced. Longtime and popular players could always count on loyalty from the team.
But after missing the playoffs four times in the last five seasons — a streak made worse by last season’s 0–6 start — everyone’s patience is out the window. Most of the offensive coaching staff was fired or reassigned to help fix what co-owner John Mara called a “broken” offense. Defensive captain Justin Tuck was allowed to leave without a fight, despite coming off one of his finest seasons. And the Giants spent more than $116 million on free agents in an uncharacteristic spending spree. A sign of desperation? In a way, yes.
“We want to take notice that we haven’t made the playoffs in the (few) years, and we don’t want that to be our trend,” GM Jerry Reese says. “That bothers me. I’m sure it bothers our ownership as well.”
Who knows what ownership will do — and who will be safe — if the trend continues. But the Giants sure did get aggressive to try to ensure that won’t be the case.
It’s hard to completely blame Eli Manning for the disaster that was the Giants’ offense last season, though it’s hard to absolve him, too. His career-high 27 interceptions were absurd, but a lot of it could be traced to the pounding he took behind the terrible offensive line and some questionable efforts and performances by his receivers. That’s why the Giants’ top priority this offseason was getting Manning some reliable help.
Did they? That’s debatable. They did sign guard Geoff Schwartz, one of the top linemen on the free-agent market, but the rest of their line is a question mark. They have a center who hasn’t played in two seasons (J.D. Walton), a left tackle coming off a bad leg and knee injury (Will Beatty) and will have a new starting right guard following Chris Snee's retirement prior to the start of training camp.
At least they got Manning some weapons. Free agent Rashad Jennings is a powerful and underrated runner. The team is hoping that either veteran Peyton Hillis or fourth-round pick Andre Williams can serve as a complement to Jennings now that David Wilson has been advised to retire from football due to concerns about the condition of his surgically repaired neck. Rueben Randle moves to the No. 1 receiver role, replacing the departed Hakeem Nicks, who played like he had one injured leg out the door last season. And the Giants’ top pick of the draft, rookie Odell Beckham Jr. out of LSU, could be the steal of the first round.
But the biggest change is the one that should help the most. Gone is offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride and his complicated — and some would say stale — offensive scheme. He’s been replaced by the younger Ben McAdoo, a disciple of Mike McCarthy in Green Bay, who is installing what is believed to be a West Coast-style, up-tempo attack. The early reviews from players were raves, especially from Manning, who admits to being “energized” by learning a new offense for the first time in his career. Assuming Manning is fully recovered from April surgery on his left ankle, the hope is that it will make him play better, too.
Was it a mirage or a miracle? Despite an 0–6 start last season and a disastrous offense and special teams, the Giants’ defense ranked eighth in the NFL last year. And they did it without much of a pass rush and with questions in their secondary. How? In large part because of the leadership of Jon Beason, they said.
Things seemed to change when Beason came over from Carolina in October in a steal of a deal for a seventh-round pick. The defense suddenly had a leader. The communication improved. They no longer looked like they were playing multiple schemes on the same play. That’s why the Giants made re-signing Beason their offseason defensive priority.
But they didn’t stop there. Knowing they had some bad coverage breakdowns, they spent wildly on their secondary, adding cornerbacks Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Walt Thurmond and safety Quintin Demps, producing what Thurmond believes can be “one of the best secondaries in the league.” They even got Beason some help in the linebacking corps with the addition of Jameel McClain.
The whole key to how good this defense can be, though, is the health of Jason Pierre-Paul, who played through a recovery from back surgery last season as well as an injured shoulder. He says he’s healthy now and looking to regain his 2011 form (when he had 16.5 sacks). And the Giants will need that since they let Tuck go after an 11-sack season.
If the Giants can generate a pass rush with all the back-end help, this could be one of the best defenses in the NFL. Without a pass rush, though, they may have nothing but problems.
It feels like it’s been years since the Giants had a dominant kick returner. The truth is it’s been years since they had even a decent one. Now it seems their cupboard is overflowing with players who can do special things with kickoffs and punts.
First they signed Demps, who figures to be the best punt returner they’ve had in years. But then they trumped that by bringing in the dangerous and speedy Trindon Holliday, who likely is the best kickoff returner they’ve had since Ron Dixon in the early 2000s. And then they drafted Beckham, a speedy and elusive receiver known to do special things on special teams, too.
It was interesting that the Giants didn’t fire their special teams coordinator, Tom Quinn, during the offseason purge, as many suspected they would. Instead they gave him tools to work with. As for the rest of his special teams, the Giants’ unit is as solid as they come. Punter Steve Weatherford didn’t have his finest season, but he’s only 31 and in phenomenal shape and has been mostly reliable. Kicker Josh Brown is 35, but he’s still accurate and reliable (nailing 88.5 percent of his kicks last year) and strong enough to nail a 52-yarder. And Zak DeOssie remains one of the finest long-snappers in the league.
The 7–9 season may have been miserable, but the silver lining was the 7–3 finish after the horrific start. And that came despite all the team’s issues.
If Manning is better, the Giants can’t help but be improved, and he should have the tools and the time to make that happen. There are still questions along the offensive line, but it’s stocked now with depth and NFL-quality players. And despite a glaring hole at tight end, Manning should have more weapons at his disposal than he had last year.
Pair that with a defense that should be much better, and this has all the makings of a bounce-back year for the Giants. The NFC East is no longer loaded, so it’s not hard to see the Giants win 10 games and the division. And if Manning regains his form and Pierre-Paul regains his health — admittedly two big ifs — the Giants have the potential to be real contenders.
PREDICTION: 2nd in NFC East
The Jets have missed the playoffs for three straight seasons — during which time they’ve gone 8–8, 6–10 and 8–8 again last season — but owner Woody Johnson and general manager John Idzik decided to bring coach Rex Ryan back for a sixth season.
Ryan, despite an extension, is essentially coaching for his job again in 2014. If the Jets are to make the playoffs — which would significantly help Ryan’s case — they must improve their passing offense and passing defense. Those units ranked 31st and 22nd in the NFL, respectively, last season.
Some of the passing offense issues last year were due to rookie Geno Smith’s struggles. But he didn’t have a lot of weapons to work with. He has more now. The Jets’ pass defense is rebuilding, with the release of veteran cornerback Antonio Cromartie and the first-round draft selection of safety Calvin Pryor.
The Jets have a strong running game that is perhaps stronger now. They have one of the best defensive lines in the NFL. If they can shore up their passing game issues, on both sides of the ball, they could be a playoff contender in 2014.
The Jets went out and got the best free agent receiver available, Eric Decker. But is he enough of a speedy, downfield threat to be a No. 1 receiver? Plus, how much were his stats in Denver a product of Peyton Manning? All of that remains to be seen.
Instead of drafting a receiver in the first round, the Jets supplemented their passing game with several other pieces. They drafted a tight end in the second round, Jace Amaro, who was basically a receiver in college. They added speed to their backfield by signing running back Chris Johnson, who has always been a receiving threat.
You have to wonder how much Johnson has left. He will be 29 in September, and he has 1,742 NFL carries on his body. He played last season with a torn meniscus in his knee and had the least productive year of his career. The Jets won’t need to lean on him. They can use his speed, presuming he still has it, as a complement to running back Chris Ivory’s power.
Despite all of these additions, the offense’s success — or lack thereof — will largely hinge on whether Smith can make better decisions in his second season. His numbers last season were dreadful (12 touchdowns and 21 interceptions), and the Jets signed Michael Vick this offseason to push him. But they would prefer for Smith to win the job.
Under Ryan, the Jets have regularly fielded a strong defense. But the past two seasons, they ranked 25th and 30th in the NFL in yards gained and 29th and 28th in points scored. Throw in Mark Sanchez, and over the past three seasons, the Jets’ starting quarterbacks have combined for 57 interceptions. Until all those numbers improve, the Jets won’t be a playoff team.
First, the good news: The Jets have a prodigious defensive line led by end Muhammad Wilkerson and tackle Sheldon Richardson. Wilkerson, arguably the Jets’ best player on either side of the ball, has an absurd combination of size (6'4", 315 pounds) and speed that makes him a pass-rushing terror (10.5 sacks last year). Richardson shows elite agility for a 294-pound player. On his way to winning NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year last season, he also rushed for two touchdowns in goal-line situations.
The Jets could use more production from rush outside linebacker Quinton Coples (4.5 sacks last year, 5.5 the year before as a rookie). But their defensive front is solid and the team also added veteran Jason Babin, who has collected 45 sacks over the last four seasons, to the mix early in training camp.
The issues come in the secondary. Cornerback Dee Milliner looked lost at times last year as a rookie and could miss the season opener due to a high ankle sprain. Cromartie, battling a hip injury, couldn’t defend deep balls. The Jets failed to land an elite free agent corner to replace him. They got only Dimitri Patterson, who will be 31 this season and has never proven himself as a consistent starter.
The Jets need to hope their safeties — and Pryor in particular — can cover up for their corners. Pryor’s ability to hit and stop the run is unassailable. But can he cover slot receivers and tight ends in the NFL? The Jets had better hope so. Pryor will likely challenge Antonio Allen — a seventh-round pick in 2012 — for a starting spot. Allen also had to learn cover skills in the NFL, since he was an outside linebacker in college.
Like Smith, Milliner is under tremendous pressure in Year 2 to live up to his potential. Milliner is now the No. 1 corner. He will get the toughest assignments. He closed strong last year and was named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month for December. The Jets need him to keep it up.
The Jets bring back both kicker Nick Folk and punter Ryan Quigley. Folk benefited last season from a lighter midweek workload during practice. Under the Jets’ previous special teams coordinator, Mike Westhoff, Folk was required to kick far more often during the week than he would have liked. Westhoff retired after the 2012 season, and Folk cut back his kicking under 2013 coordinator Ben Kotwica. Folk had the best season of his career in 2013, as he made 91.7 percent of his kicks. Kotwica left during the offseason to take a special teams coordinator job with the Redskins, and the Jets replaced him with Thomas McGaughey. Expect Folk’s lighter routine to continue under McGaughey.
Between free agency and the draft, the Jets gave McGaughey plenty of special teams speed. Jacoby Ford, a free-agent receiver, figures to be the new return man. A couple of undersized drafted players — receiver Jalen Saunders and inside linebacker Jeremiah George — could become immediate contributors on coverage units. The Jets struggled in that area last year. They ranked 27th in the NFL in average punt return yards allowed.
This is not a Super Bowl contender, and the roster does not even seem as talented as Ryan’s first two Jets teams, which made back-to-back AFC Championship Game appearances in 2009 and 2010. But these Jets don’t need to reach the doorstep of the Super Bowl to help Ryan’s job security. Making the playoffs alone would be a start.
It won’t be easy. From Weeks 2-7, the Jets face six brutally efficient passing offenses — Green Bay, Chicago, Detroit, San Diego, Denver and New England. Last season, those teams ranked sixth, fifth, third, fourth, first and 10th in the NFL in passing yards, respectively.
If the offense isn’t clicking early in the season — since it might have to score a bunch of points to win those games — the Jets could be out of the playoff race by the time they reach their bye in Week 11. But if Smith, Decker and Johnson prove to be a successful combination, look for the Jets to battle for a playoff spot well into December.
PREDICTION: 2nd in AFC East
NFC East champion Philadelphia was the only team in the division to finish with a winning record last season. Now that defensive coordinators have had an offseason to study Chip Kelly’s offense, will the Eagles have as much success in 2014 or will there be a new No. 1? Between Dallas, New York and Washington, which team is best positioned to challenge the Eagles’ divisional supremacy and contend for a playoff spot?
In order to get an accurate assessment of how the NFC East looks entering the 2014 season, Athlon asked NFL scouts to talk anonymously about the Cowboys, Giants, Eagles and Redskins.
Note: These scouting reports come directly from NFL scouts and do not necessarily reflect the views of Athlon's editorial staff.
“The truth is the Cowboys have won when Jerry Jones hired Jimmy Johnson and Bill Parcells and allowed them to run the football part of the organization. Barry Switzer lived off the gas that was left in the tank by Jimmy and Wade Phillips kept it afloat to a degree after Bill left. The 136-136 won/loss record since 1996 says it all, a mediocre team that is marketed as well as any professional organization in all of sports.” …
“In recent years, they have been so cap-strapped that there is little that could be done via free agency and their drafts have only been marginally productive.” …
“Tony Romo gets all the blame, but in reality, he hasn’t gotten much help from his run game or defense. He’s coming off back surgery and that’s always tricky, however, all indications are that he will be fine for 2014.” …
“DeMarco Murray was injury-prone at OU and that trend has continued in Dallas, as he has missed 11 of 48 career games. When healthy, he is capable and provides some cover for Romo.” …
“Jason Witten continues to be a solid pro, but he has slowed down some in terms of run-after-the-catch, so the Cowboys are really hoping that last year’s second- rounder, Gavin Escobar, will take a huge step forward this year.” …
“Say what you will about Dez Bryant, but it does appear that he has matured on and off the field and is an absolute house to cover and tackle when he is engaged and into the game. Terrance Williams had an excellent rookie campaign and was a great value choice in the third round last spring. Dwayne Harris would be the slot if the season started tomorrow.” …
“On the offensive line, Tyron Smith enters his fourth season and has developed nicely into a prominent left tackle. The Travis Frederick pick was criticized at the time, however, he had a good rookie year and should only get better in the future. Doug Free has found a home at RT. Expect first round pick Zack Martin to find a starting role at one of the guard spots with the possibility of playing tackle, if necessary.” …
“Use any adjective to describe it, but ugly may be at the top of the list when it comes to describing the Cowboys’ defense in 2013. Wow, was this group bad and the stats don’t lie either: 32nd in yardage allowed, 26th in points allowed and 29th in third-down conversions.” ….
“Monte Kiffin was re-assigned and one of his pupils, Rod Marinelli, was brought in to be the coordinator.” …
“They added Henry Melton from Chicago, but he is coming off a knee injury and the rest of this defensive line may be as anonymous as any in the league.” …
“Second-round pick DeMarcus Lawrence (Boise State) is being counted on heavily to pressure the QB in 2014.” …
“Sean Lee is a nice player, but he has suffered through some injury situations [Editor’s note: Lee is out for the season after tearing his ACL during OTAs in May], while Bruce Carter has yet to his athletic potential and Justin Durant is on his third team.” …
“Dallas has not gotten the return-on-investment hoped for at the cornerback positions. Brandon Carr signed for huge money from Kansas City, but is not a shutdown corner, and Mo Claiborne was probably over drafted at No. 6 in 2012, based on the way he has played in the past two years.” …
“The corners actually look OK when compared to the safeties. Barry Church has made himself into a player from being undrafted and J.J. Wilcox has only played defense for two seasons, so there is an upside to him.” …
“This defense has so far to go against the run and pass that if they can improve just slightly, it could take some wear off Romo and maybe give the organization a legit shot of getting over the hump and into the playoffs.” ...
New York Giants
“In many ways without changing the GM and head coach, the Giants moved away from their conservative philosophy and fired coaches and delved into free agency heavily to try and shake up their own franchise.” …
“Tom Coughlin got rid of long-time offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride and hired Ben McAdoo from Green Bay to call plays, while rather than waiting on the draft, GM Jerry Reese was active in signing at least 10 significant free agents.” …
“Still, the bottom line here is the play of Eli Manning. His 27 interceptions led the league and the turnover margin killed any chance of this team making the playoffs a year ago.” …
“McAdoo will install a more disciplined attack based on timing and reads and that adjustment may rejuvenate Manning mentally and physically.” ....
“Odell Beckham, Jr. was their first-round pick and he is really a good player. Along with Victor Cruz and Reuben Randle, they can now get a threat to all parts of the field.” …
“in 2013, with the line struggling up front, defenses could double those two and still squeeze off the run game. Will Beatty has been a disaster at LT, Chris Snee has gotten old [Editor’s note: Snee retired prior to the start of training camp.] and Justin Pugh had his rookie season ups-and-downs. They signed Geoff Schwartz from KC to help secure the inside of the pocket, but OGs are not game-changers.” …
“Defensive coordinator Perry Fewell has lost some of his luster, but it’s primarily been because of Jason Pierre-Paul’s lack of production due to injuries. They need him to return to form, in addition to Damontre Moore or newly acquired Robert Ayers to provide some pass rush from the opposite side.” …
“The linebacker unit is a collection of average players and they inked Jameel McClain from the Ravens despite his neck injury in December.” …
“It’s Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to the rescue at corner and that is surprising because of his struggles with the Eagles back in 2011 and ’12. Prince Amukamara was over-drafted, so he will never be a lockdown corner. Walter Thurmond was brought in from Seattle as a third corner. In the meantime, Antrel Rolle is arguably the best player on the team right now.” …
“Two Super Bowls will buy a GM and head coach almost as much time as they want, but there is no question that 2014 is an important year for Coughlin and Reese and almost all of the results will come from the right arm of Eli Manning, because this team is really average everywhere else.” …
“Many in the NFL felt the Chip Kelly experiment would be a boom-or-bust proposition, and so far, it’s been a big hit.” …
“Kelly managed the Riley Cooper situation during camp with the aplomb of a veteran pro coach and then had complete buy-in on his innovative scheme that resulted in the Eagles being second in total offense.” …
“it’s now obvious that offensive line play is a huge key for them, because they essentially locked up all five starters through the 2016 season and then released Pro Bowl receiver DeSean Jackson on March 28. The reaction from the players was surprising, but not a shock, they know the deal on DJax, he can be petulant, but make up for it on Sundays. Then again, despite his career-best numbers, he disappeared at times and is a WR at 5-10/175 that has to be ‘schemed’ open, unlike the classic 6’-/215 No. 1 receiver.” …
“Jeremy Maclin returns from an ACL, Cooper was inked to a five-year deal and Jordan Matthews (Vanderbilt) and Josh Huff (Oregon) are expected to contribute as rookies this year.” …
“Brent Celek has always been under-appreciated and Zach Ertz really showed up during the back half of the season.” …
“With the trade for Darren Sproles, combined with the skill set of LeSean McCoy, Kelly can really get creative with his 12 and 22 personnel groupings.” …
“And all of this is said without even mentioning Nick Foles who replaced Michael Vick and threw 27 touchdowns against only two interceptions. Foles surprised even his proponents with his sterling play in 2013.” The question will be how much opposing defenses adjust and take away some of his strengths after an offseason of evaluation.” …
“Regardless, for the Eagles to advance beyond the first round of the playoffs, it’s all about their defense. The front seven has been reshaped into a 3-4 with Fletcher Cox and Mychal Kendricks being two young players to really build around. Cox began to take to the scheme down the stretch and Kendricks is as explosive of a linebacker that is currently in the league.” …
“Trent Cole has tapered off some over the last three campaigns and Connor Barwin is actually better against the run than as a pass-rusher, which equated to the Eagles drafting OLB Marcus Smith (Louisville) in the first round.” …
“The secondary is their biggest weakness and that’s because of shaky play on the outsides and in the deep middle. Bradley Fletcher is ‘just a guy’ and Cary Williams thinks he’s better than he is, which can be a problem when trying to play within the system.” …
“Brandon Boykin had a terrific season as the nickelback and the Eagles signed Malcolm Jenkins as a veteran safety with some coverage ability. Eagles’ insiders feel good about Earl Wolff, and again, some of their defensive problems go back to a lack of pass rush.” …
“Now that the league’s coordinators have had a chance to study this Eagles offense, Kelly will have to show his adaptability in creating new ways to sustain the kind of success they enjoyed last year, but he earned a ton of respect within the league a season ago.” …
“It’s not a small thing that the Redskins fired the Shanahans, but kept GM Bruce Allen and defensive coordinator Jim Haslett, because it keeps a semblance of continuity within the organization and puts the focus on repairing Robert Griffin III as a long-term NFL quarterback.” …
“Allen tapped into his Gruden tree and hired Jay as the new head coach and the person most responsible for turning around RGIII.” …
“One of the biggest moves of the offseason occurred when the NFC East rival Eagles released DeSean Jackson. It didn’t take Washington long to get him in their building and on the roster. With Pierre Garcon coming off a career year and Andre Roberts signing in March, this will be a versatile set of wide receivers.” …
“If TE Jordan Reed can return from injury, Griffin should have ample opportunity to spread the football around in Gruden’s offensive system.” …
“Alfred Morris probably takes a step back in this scheme, but he is capable and a workhorse style of ball-carrier.” …
“If the game was 7-on-7, the Redskins would be near the top of the league, unfortunately, it does take an offensive line and that is a major concern. Trent Williams can certainly play, but Shawn Lauvao had problems in Cleveland and Kory Lichtensteiger will be shifted to center from OG. Chris Chester is OK at right guard and Tyler Polumbus is a tall, stiff right tackle that is only ordinary.” …
“Defensively, this unit struggled for much of the 2013 season. They added Jason Hatcher from the Cowboys in free agency, but need much more from Jarvis Jenkins and others along the front.” …
“Outside linebackers Ryan Kerrigan and Brian Orakpo must get untracked this year for them to have any shot of getting off the field on third down. Perry Riley is underrated on the inside and Darryl Sharpton was inked from Houston, but the loss of London Fletcher will be significant.” …
“That’s why Ryan Clark was brought in from Pittsburgh and the hope is he can coordinate things in the back end and help develop Phillip Thomas and/or Bacarri Rambo. DeAngelo Hall is now 30, but can still play some, while David Amerson is a Cover 2-style corner with length. They should be worried about their Sub package slot corners.” …
“Inside the Beltway, it’s all about RGIII getting a full offseason and adapting to Gruden’s system. If that happens and no major injuries occur, this team can compete in the NFC East. In the meantime, the RGMe-to-MeSean Show will be one to watch.” ...
Baseball has sabermetrics. Basketball has KenPom’s efficiency rankings. What does football have?
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 SEC’s best.
Despite two late-season losses in 2013, Alabama has still had an incredible run over the last six seasons, going 72–9 with six top-10 finishes. But most of those nine losses have a common thread: pass defense. When Alabama loses, opponents complete 69.7 percent of their passes at 12.2 yards per completion. In Alabama wins, opponents complete 49.8 percent of their passes at 10.8 yards per completion.
Success Rate is an efficiency measure that determines each play as a success or failure, an on-base percentage for football. Arkansas’ defensive success rate in conference play was 52.6, easily the worst in the SEC. Only one other defense allowed a Success Rate higher than 47.2 percent (Kentucky at 49.8). New defensive coordinator Robb Smith inherits the least efficient personnel in the league.
Gus Malzahn’s offense averaged 5.1 points per trip inside the opponent’s 40-yard line. That ranked third in the country behind only Ohio State (5.6) and Florida State (5.5). Meanwhile, the Tigers’ defense ranked 41st in the same category, allowing only 3.9 points per trip.
The only thing more frustrating than struggling to move the ball is struggling to capitalize on the rare opportunities you create. Florida averaged just 3.5 points per trip inside the opponent’s 40 in 2013, 112th in the country. Despite rushing more than 40 times per game, Florida scored just 14 rushing touchdowns. Only 22 teams scored fewer, and only two averaged more rushing attempts per game.
Georgia’s field position margin in conference play was minus-2.6 — the Bulldogs’ average drive started at their 28.5, while opponents’ started at the 31.1. Georgia’s defense struggled to force three-and-outs, and the Bulldogs got next to nothing from the return game. Small disadvantages can add up in a season that features four losses by five or fewer points.
The Wildcats averaged just 4.4 yards per play in SEC games in 2013, last in the conference; the only team with almost as bad an offense (Florida at 4.7) balanced that out with solid defensive play. Kentucky was not so lucky, allowing 6.8 yards per play. The resulting minus-2.4-yard margin per play was by far the worst in the SEC.
Of the 37 fumbles that took place in LSU games in 2013 (22 by opponents, 15 by LSU), the Tigers recovered only 13, 35.1 percent of them. Based on fumbles and pass deflections, LSU should have had about a plus-7 turnover margin. Instead, it was plus-0; even worse, it was minus-3, with three fumbles lost, in the Tigers’ three losses, two of which came by three points.
Mississippi State: -18
Mississippi State played five teams that finished ranked in 2013. Average score: Opponent 32, Bulldogs 14, an average scoring margin of minus-18. The good news was that the Bulldogs went 7–1 against teams that finished unranked, though turnover luck may have played a role in that.
Mizzou ran 40.7 percent of the time on passing downs. To take pressure off of the passing games, offensive coordinator Josh Henson frequently used 3rd-and-5 or 2nd-and-9 as running downs. Once the pressure was diffused and opponents had to continue to respect the run, the Tigers found easy opportunities from their spread; last year’s top four receivers — Dorial Green-Beckham, Marcus Lucas, L’Damian Washington, and Bud Sasser — all averaged at least 8.5 yards per target on passing downs. DGB averaged 10.3.
Ole Miss: -3.4
Ole Miss averaged 6.0 yards per play in 2013 and allowed just 5.3; the plus-0.8 margin ranked 35th in the country. But thanks to field position issues, the Rebels had to gain more yards on a given drive just to catch up. Their field position margin was minus-3.4, 101st in the country — on average, they started at their 26.6 (113th) while opponents started at the 30.0. The special teams unit is often culpable in situations like this.
South Carolina: 5.0
While the Gamecocks were certainly better than opponents at just about any yard line, they derived significant advantages near both goal lines. They averaged 5.0 points per trip inside the opponent’s 40, eighth in the country; meanwhile, they allowed only 3.7 points per opponent’s trip, 13th. The resulting plus-1.3 point margin per trip was fifth-best in FBS.
Tennessee allowed 6.1 yards per play in 2013, 100th in the country. In SEC play, the Vols allowed 6.1 per play, 10th in the conference. Run defense was the culprit; the Vols ranked 23rd in Passing S&P+, a comprehensive play-by-play measure at Football Outsiders that measures explosiveness and efficiency and adjusts for the quality of the opponent. But they were only 74th in Rushing S&P+.
Texas A&M: 4.9
As iffy as Texas A&M’s defense was, it got worse with its back against the wall. The Aggies allowed 4.9 points per trip inside their 40 yards line in 2013, 115th in the country. The offense averaged 5.0 points per trip, which ranked 11th; that means that the A&M defense was able to almost turn any opponent into the A&M offense when points were on the line.
When Vanderbilt’s defense made stops, it did so quickly. The Commodores forced enough three-and-outs and turnovers that the offense’s average starting field position was its 33.3, seventh-best in the country. In conference play, the Commodores’ average was first. Unfortunately, an often ineffective offense (80th in yards per play) gave away a lot of those gains.
The one thing Peyton Manning wanted most is the one thing he didn’t do. He broke so many records, shattered so many expectations last season. Then the Seattle Seahawks defense shattered his championship dreams.
When the 43–8 beat-down in Super Bowl XLVIII was over, and the Seahawks had lowered their “Legion of Boom” defense on what might have been the best offense the NFL has ever known, Manning was left with an empty feeling, despite all he had accomplished. He set records for, among other things, single-season passing touchdowns (55) and passing yards (5,477). The 76 touchdowns and 606 points scored by the Broncos were NFL records, too.
But at age 38, it remains all about the ring for the man who is arguably the greatest quarterback of his generation. And after the devastating way last season ended, it’s left some wondering if there’s any way he can do it again.
“If it was anyone else, you’d say there’s no way, especially after the way it ended,” says one NFL executive. “But do you really want to bet against Peyton Manning?”
The Broncos are attempting to do what no team has done since the 1972 Miami Dolphins — win the Super Bowl one year after losing it. No Super Bowl loser has even made it back to the Super Bowl the following year since the 1993 Buffalo Bills.
“You have to kind of re-establish your identity of the 2014 team,” Manning says. “The 2013 team, it was a good season in a lot of ways. There is no question it did not end the way we wanted it to, but we have to find a way to build off that and take a step further — try to finish.”
Manning’s legacy is secure, but even he knows what another championship could do. His Super Bowl — in which he went 34-of-49 for 280 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions — added fuel to his critics’ fire. That’s why even though John Fox lauded Manning for “maybe the most productive season in the history of the league a year ago,” he made sure to add that for the Broncos, “all the eggs are in the basket for ’14, and we’re doing everything we can to bring that championship back here to Denver.”
“With Peyton, there is no question, you never know how much longer he’s going to be around,” adds Broncos VP John Elway. “So in the mind, there is some urgency.”
That’s why they need Manning to produce another miracle. He led the Broncos to the Super Bowl just two years after neck surgery nearly ended his career prematurely. Now he needs to do it again, before his career finally runs out of time.
—by Ralph Vacchiano
Almost every softball team has one guy who seems to swing effortlessly and drive the ball over the fence. Well, it’s time for you to be that guy. To help you become your team’s “Sultan of Swat,” we talked to Team USA Softball star (and power hitter) Brian Wegman to get his advice on how to hit the long ball.
Biceps are Overrated
“When I first started playing, I wanted the beach muscles, so my workout plan was all about the biceps, triceps and chest. By my fourth year, I switched to core training with more deadlifts, squats, lower back and abs. The total body strength has really helped me with my power.”
“Being able to use your body weight and the explosion of your swing together is what separates a good swing from a great one. My hips will start to go forward before my hands move. By the time I start my swing, I’ve already transferred approximately 65 percent of my body weight from my back leg to my front leg.”
“Swinging up at a high-arc pitch is a common error. If you miss the center of the ball and hit the top half of it, the ball will go down. However, if you keep a line drive swing you can more easily hit the bottom half of a softball, which creates backspin, distance and carry.”
Wait for It
“I have no problem swinging at the first pitch, but it has to be my kind of pitch. If it’s not, I will let it go by, even if I take an outside strike.”
—By Billy Brown
Many NFL teams adopt a “playoffs or bust’’ mentality, but how many actually live it? With the franchise for sale and its future uncertain following the death of team founder Ralph C. Wilson Jr., in March, the Buffalo Bills seem to be going for broke.
How the front office, coaching staff and players want to honor their departed patriarch is clear. “It’s one word: win,’’ president and CEO Russ Brandon says. “The only thing Mr. Wilson was focused on was winning.’’
Unfortunately for the franchise and its fans, the Bills have missed the playoffs for a league-high 14 consecutive seasons.
Employing an aggressive attitude to pay tribute to Wilson and stop this dubious streak, Brandon and general manager Doug Whaley made a series of bold free-agent moves and trades, none larger than sending a 2015 first-round pick to Cleveland to move up five spots in the draft and select the top wide receiver available in Clemson’s Sammy Watkins.
The Bills have made it clear that they are all in with EJ Manuel as their starting quarterback. Not only did they hand him the top playmaker in the draft in Watkins, but they also added blocking depth and didn’t draft another quarterback to compete with him.
Manuel, the only first-round QB in 2013, set a Bills rookie record with 11 touchdown passes. But he missed six games with knee injuries, raising questions about his durability. If he’s not healthy, he won’t have a chance to fulfill his potential as a franchise quarterback. With his size, arm strength and work ethic, all the tools are there.
Manuel and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett will have a true No. 1 receiver in Watkins. The Bills did not have a player in the NFL’s top 50 in receptions as veteran Stevie Johnson, since traded to San Francisco, proved incapable of giving Manuel a dominant game-changing target. Watkins, who had 240 career receptions and set 23 school records at Clemson, has the potential to be that guy. He has elite ability to go up and snare passes and make things happen after the catch, and he instantly upgrades Buffalo’s 28th-ranked passing game.
With Watkins drawing coverage, Robert Woods, the first Bills rookie with 40 catches since Lee Evans in 2004, figures to blossom, as does second-year pro Marquise Goodwin. The wild card is former Buc Mike Williams, who is looking to salvage his career under Doug Marrone, his college coach at Syracuse. Former Orange star Rob Moore is Marrone’s new receivers coach.
Tight end remains a pedestrian position with no real playmakers, but Buffalo continues to field one of the NFL’s most potent rushing attacks, led by Fred Jackson’s between-the-tackles power and C.J. Spiller’s speed to the outside. They combined for 1,823 yards. A draft weekend trade with Philadelphia for Bryce Brown was a major upgrade in depth.
Buffalo’s line is led by top center Eric Wood and left tackle Cordy Glenn, who figures to be better in his third season in the league. Overall, however, things regressed in 2013 with Buffalo allowing 48 sacks and converting just 34 percent of its third downs. That’s thrown some jobs open for competition. St. Louis free agent Chris Williams will get a chance to win the starting left guard spot from Doug Legursky, and giant-sized rookies Cyrus Kouandjio (second round) and Seantrel Henderson (seventh round) will push veteran Erik Pears at right tackle.
The Bills lost highly respected coordinator Mike Pettine, who was hired by the Browns as their head coach. But Marrone reacted quickly, signing Jim Schwartz, the ex-Detroit Lions head coach, to run his defense and hiring two other strong defensive assistants in Pepper Johnson (defensive line) and Fred Pagac (linebackers). Pettine ran a hybrid 3-4 scheme, which failed to solve Buffalo’s run-stopping problems but greatly improved its pass rush. Led by three players with 10 sacks or more, the Bills set a club record with 57 sacks and led the AFC. On the back end, Buffalo recorded 23 interceptions, second-most in the league.
Schwartz favors a 4-3 alignment but won’t try to fix what’s not broken and will incorporate some of Pettine’s ideas that favored Buffalo’s personnel so well. The Bills had 41 sacks from defensive linemen, led by Mario Williams (13), Kyle Williams (10.5), Jerry Hughes (10) and Marcell Dareus (7.5). In Schwartz’s scheme, strong-side linebacker Manny Lawson (4.0 sacks) will play end while solid backups Alan Branch and Corbin Bryant kick inside to tackle. Their value to the team will rise depending on the fate of Dareus, who is facing a league suspension after being arrested in Alabama on felony drug charges.
A big part of Buffalo’s pass-rush success is solid cover corners, and the team returns two strong ones in Stephon Gilmore and Leodis McKelvin, two former first-round picks. McKelvin justified his four-year, $17 million deal with his best season. Free agent Corey Graham from Baltimore adds great depth and versatility.
The big loss was letting Pro Bowl free safety Jairus Byrd ($54 million deal with Saints) depart in free agency. Byrd is one of the NFL’s great ball-hawks and will be missed. Da’Norris Searcy has talent and will have his first chance to start full time. Aaron Williams, converted from corner, found a home at strong safety and returns to man that spot.
The Bills need greatly improved play from their linebacker corps, especially considering the season-ending ACL injury Kiko Alonso suffered during a workout in July. Alonso led the team with 159 tackles and added four interceptions last season in a sparkling rookie debut. Nigel Bradham, Alonso's potential replacement as a starter, will miss the season opener for a violation of the league's substance-abuse policy. Free agent Brandon Spikes, one of the game’s best run-stoppers, will man the middle. Spikes, who signed a one-year, $3-million deal, wore out his welcome in New England and is motivated to land a long-term contract. Giants free agent Keith Rivers will get a chance to nail down an outside position.
Former Dolphin Dan Carpenter, who signed as a free agent, turned one of the best seasons in Bills’ kicking history into a four-year, $9 million contract. Carpenter converted 33-of-36 field-goal attempts, including 4-of-6 from beyond 50 yards. In a surprising move, the Bills retained career punting leader Brian Moorman, 38, who rejoined the club last October. Moorman averaged just 36.6 net yards, and his 41.2-yard average ranked among the worst in the league. He’ll have to hold off Jake Dombrowski to win the job in camp. Goodwin returns to man kickoff return duties — he averaged 21.9 yards — and McKelvin will handle punts again.
Flipping 6–10 to 10–6 will take more consistency from the offense and better run play by the defense. Ultimately, it’s on Manuel to take this opportunity, stay healthy and prove he’s the franchise quarterback the team needs so desperately. With no first-round pick in 2015 and a future new owner to impress, there is immense pressure on Manuel and the front office to win now.
PREDICTION: 3rd in AFC East
In their first two years on the job, coach Jeff Fisher and GM Les Snead have brought the Rams back to respectability, a commendable achievement in itself given the sad state of the franchise when they arrived in 2012. All along, they’ve pointed to Year 3 of their rebuilding project — the 2014 season — as the year to get over the hump. The year to end what is now a string of 10 straight seasons without a winning record. The year the blockbuster “RGIII Trade” with Washington would bear its last fruit. Well, here we are. The selection of offensive lineman Greg Robinson represented the last piece of property gained in return for giving the Redskins the right to draft quarterback Robert Griffin III. It’s time to see results in St. Louis.
The Rams were forced to start a backup quarterback for more than half of the 2013 season and played nine top-10 defenses, yet they still scored their most points since 2006. But the bar has been set pretty low. They need to find another field goal here, another touchdown there to push their way into the postseason. The approach to that task involves two potential risks — sticking with Sam Bradford at quarterback and standing pat at wide receiver in a draft in which Sammy Watkins was there for the taking. Those are the kinds of decisions that can lead to contract extensions if they work, but pink slips if they don’t.
Bradford was headed to a career year statistically when he suffered a season-ending knee injury in Game 7 at Carolina. He was nearly at full strength during OTAs, so his status for the regular-season opener is not in question. His group of pass-catchers — wideouts, tight ends and running backs included — needs to provide more help by minimizing drops and doing a better job of creating separation. Chris Givens failed to make a leap after a strong rookie season. He caught only 34 passes for 569 yards last season. Tavon Austin, a 2013 first-round pick, needs to polish his craft in every area, and the coaching staff must do a better job of utilizing his skills. Brian Quick is talented but has yet to catch more than 18 passes in a season. Kenny Britt, signed as a free agent, had flashes of brilliance during his five years with the Titans but lacked consistency and had difficulty staying out of trouble. Tight end Jared Cook, another former Titan drafted by Fisher, had a career-high 51 catches in his first season with the Rams, but he too needs to be more consistent.
The Rams are well stocked at running back, with third-round draft pick Tre Mason, the former Auburn star, joining Zac Stacy, Benny Cunningham, and Isaiah Pead. The addition of Robinson in the draft provides power to an offensive line that must grind out yards on the ground and keep Bradford from hitting the ground.
The Rams already had arguably the best defensive end tandem in the league in Robert Quinn and Chris Long. Now they’re adding the best interior pass-rusher in the 2014 draft in tackle Aaron Donald. And let’s not forget what could be the biggest offseason addition of all — Gregg Williams as the Rams’ new defensive coordinator. This was supposed to happen a couple of seasons ago when Fisher first took the job. But less than two months after being hired by Fisher during the 2011-12 offseason, Williams was suspended by the league for a year for his role in the “Bountygate” scandal in New Orleans. That led to a falling out between Fisher and Williams, one that included Fisher’s ouster of Williams’ son Blake after the ’12 season. But the two long-time friends patched things up in January, and two years later Williams finally gets to work his magic on the St. Louis defense.
The cornerstone will be that defensive line, which also includes two solid tackles in Michael Brockers and Kendall Langford, plus a superb utility man in end William Hayes. The Rams have five first-round picks in their front seven.
The linebacker corps returns all three starters in James Laurinaitis (middle), Alec Ogletree (weak side) and Jo-Lonn Dunbar (strong side). Ogletree had a strong rookie year and has big-play potential. Laurinaitis remains dependable, durable and productive.
Williams will earn his pay trying to get the secondary up to snuff. The entire unit has only 71 games’ worth of NFL starting experience. Starting corners Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson remain raw and mistake-prone. And at safety, starters T.J. McDonald (strong) and Rodney McLeod (free) are far from finished products. It’s not going to work unless the entire secondary cuts down on mistakes and does a better job avoiding big plays. Rookie LaMarcus Joyner, who will play nickel back, must make an instant contribution.
The Rams are close to becoming one of the best special teams units in the league. Fewer penalties and a little more juice in the return game can make that happen. Austin has flashes of brilliance on punt returns as evidenced by a long TD against Indianapolis and a TD called back against Dallas last year. He’s a slithery change-of-direction demon who needs just a little daylight to make a lot happen. Meanwhile, the Rams have been searching for a dynamic kickoff returner since the days of Tony Horne and the Greatest Show on Turf. There is no clear-cut favorite for that job, and it’s a certainty there will be auditions throughout the preseason. Cunningham, a backup running back, doesn’t look or run like a classic kickoff returner, but he has shown a knack for at least providing decent field position.
Punter Johnny Hekker and placekicker Greg Zuerlein are developing into a consistent, productive pair. Hekker has that rare combination of hang time, distance and directional skill, setting an NFL record for net punting (44.2 yards) a year ago. Zuerlein was nearly automatic in ’13, avoiding the midseason slump of his rookie campaign. He’s got one of the league’s strongest legs.
Improvement is needed at wide receiver and tight end. An offensive line that includes three players with recent injury histories — Jake Long, Rodger Saffold and Scott Wells — needs to stay healthy. It’s shaping up as a make-or-break year for Bradford, who’s had injury issues of his own in two of his four Rams seasons. There’s nothing but inexperience in the secondary and next to no depth at linebacker. OK, the D-line has the makings of “great.” Still that’s a lot of “ifs” for what figures to be the youngest team in the NFL for the third consecutive season. And in case you’ve forgotten, the Rams reside in the toughest neighborhood of all, the NFC West. Throw in a non-division schedule that includes Denver, Kansas City, and Philadelphia — all playoff teams from a year ago — and the Rams may need more than a GPS tracker to find the postseason.
PREDICTION: 4th in NFC West
Historically known as the domain of defenses like the Monsters of the Midway and the Purple People Eaters, the NFC North may be changing its image. Now home to Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford and Jay Cutler and a host of explosive playmakers, the division boasted three of the NFL’s top offenses in 2013. The Packers have been the top dog the past three seasons and are considered the favorites again this year. But both the Bears and Lions are hoping offseason changes will allow them to close the gap. And then there’s Minnesota, which has the best running back in the league in Adrian Peterson and is hoping it drafted its next franchise quarterback in Teddy Bridgewater.
In order to get an accurate assessment of how the four NFC North teams are shaping up heading into the 2014 season, Athlon asked NFL scouts to talk anonymously about the Bears, Lions, Packers and Vikings.
“The Bears saw the results of hiring offensive-minded Marc Trestman when Jay Cutler was having a productive year before a series of injuries occurred and Josh McCown stepped in and actually played even more efficiently.” …
“Chicago has an excellent set of offensive skill players with Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery on the outside with Martellus Bennett at TE and Matt Forté in the backfield.” …
“Their line got a huge boost from rookies Kyle Long and Jordan Mills after they had signed Jermon Bushrod in free agency.” …
“If they can get any sort of improvement from the defense, the Bears should compete for NFC honors. Defensive coordinator Mel Tucker is well respected around the league, but in all honesty, his statistics at Cleveland, Jacksonville and last year, have left some wondering about his future as a potential NFL head coach.” …
“Still, they were derailed by injuries and have since released Julius Peppers. However, a full makeover is underway with the additions of Jared Allen and Lamarr Houston. Allen has plenty left in the tank and Houston was often overlooked as a dependable starter in Oakland.” …
“DTs Ego Ferguson (LSU) and Will Sutton (Arizona State) were picked in the second and third rounds and the linebackers have to stay healthy despite their age (D.J. Williams and Lance Briggs).” …
“Tim Jennings has coaxed a ton out of his body to become a long-time pro, while [Charles] Peanut Tillman is nearing the end as a starting corner. Hence, the selection of CB Kyle Fuller (Virginia Tech) in the first round.” …
“The safeties won’t strike fear in anybody, so this entire secondary will need to be overhauled over the next two years.” …
“In a sentence, the Bears should be spectacular on offense, and if Tucker and Co. can turn things around defensively, this team has a chance to have a special year.” …
“After the Lions faltered down the stretch of the 2013 season with the division title in sight, the organization fired Jim Schwartz and hired Jim Caldwell. Caldwell has two tasks: to improve the consistency of Matthew Stafford and eliminate the on-field discipline issues that have plagued this team over the past five seasons.” …
“Stafford and Calvin Johnson have posted bigger numbers than any tandem since 2008, but they still added Golden Tate to the mix as an alternative, different style of receiver than Megatron. Kris Durham is a favorite of Stafford, despite his lack of all-out speed and athleticism.” …
“Brandon Pettigrew was retained, but that didn’t keep them from taking Eric Ebron with the No. 10 pick. The Lions got great mileage out of undrafted free agent Joseph Fauria who caught 10 touchdown passes as a rookie.” …
“Reggie Bush was everything advertised as a runner and receiver and the club likes the idea of pairing him off with Joique Bell.” …
“The offensive line is adequate with Riley Reiff at left tackle, Dominic Raiola in the middle and Larry Warford coming off a very secure rookie campaign.” …
“Teryl Austin takes over as the defensive coordinator and Detroit certainly has one of the best fronts in the entire league. Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley, Ziggy Ansah and Jason Jones all have significant talent and watch for Devin Taylor to reveal himself as a quality young prospect this year.” …
“The linebackers are undersized with Stephen Tulloch leading the way as a tackler.” …
“Austin recruited James Ihedigbo from the Ravens, but between he and Glover Quin, not sure they are good enough back there.” …
“On the corners, Rashean Mathis returns for another year, despite Detroit drafting Darius Slay in the second round a year ago.” …
“Chris Houston’s toe injury has been problematic during the offseason [Editor’s note: Houston was released by the team in June], so they also drafted Nevin Lawson (Utah State) to add depth on the edge.” …
“Turnovers and the ability to make critical plays at critical times will determine if Caldwell is a successful hire.” …
“Caldwell is charged with turning this group of underachievers into division winners, and for that to happen, he will need stellar performances from Stafford and a defense that will be tested at all levels in the NFC North." ...
Green Bay Packers
“Somehow without Aaron Rodgers for seven games, the Packers made the playoffs. Give credit to coach Mike McCarthy and GM Ted Thompson who have both quietly put together a solid record of leadership and success.” …
“Rodgers is at the top of his game and has performed through quite a bit of adversity over the past two seasons. Neither the offensive line nor receivers are what he had earlier in his career, but the running game is better with Eddie Lacy.” …
“Some Alabama insiders felt Lacy had more talent than Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson, and they were proven right with his 1178 yards as a rookie.” …
“Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb are both very good players and they added Davante Adams from Fresno State in the second round.” …
“David Bakhtiari is just OK as the left tackle, so they need Bryan Bulaga to return from injury in order to bolster their edge protection. J.C. Tretter projects well to center, but actually played LT at Cornell and spent most of 2013 on IR. All-Pro guard Josh Sitton can help him in that transition.” …
“On defense, Dom Capers seems to have lost some of his 3-4 magic, however, that may be more of a talent issue.” …
“Mike Daniels has become a dependable pro and they need Datone Jones to make big progress in his second year. B.J. Raji was brought back on a one-year deal, but he has to play better.” …
“A.J. Hawk has never made the splash plays of a top 5 pick and Brad Jones is only an adequate NFL starter. Clay Matthews is the best player on their D and the Packers signed Julius Peppers to rush from the opposite side, but no one has any idea how Capers will plug him into their system.” …
“Sammie Shields was deservedly extended in March, but Tramon Williams is on the other side of it, so Casey Hayward or Micah Hyde could push for a starting role this year.”…
“The safety play was atrocious last season and was their biggest need in the offseason. The Packers selected Alabama’s Ha Ha Clinton-Dix with the 21st pick of the first round and he is an athletic centerfielder.” …
“As long as Rodgers is healthy, this team will always have a chance to compete, but if Green Bay wants to talk Super Bowl, they must get production from Peppers and play at a much higher level along both lines of scrimmage.” …
“The Vikings are the NFC version of the Bills in that they have put together a solid, playoff-contending roster, but the QB position is the big issue here. GM Rick Spielman has at least a partial miss with Christian Ponder, but that didn’t prevent them from taking Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater at the end of the first round.” …
“They hired Mike Zimmer to fix an underachieving defense.” …
“Offensively, they literally have a blue-chip caliber talent in every position group except QB. Adrian Peterson is still the best RB in the game, Matt Khalil is one of the best young tackles in the league, Kyle Rudolph is a quality TE and Cordarrelle Patterson has incredible upside. With that said, Zimmer hired Norv Turner as his offensive coordinator to either fix Ponder and/or Matt Cassel and develop Bridgewater.” …
“Jared Allen moved to the Bears after the Vikings opted to retain a younger Everson Griffen and sign DT Linval Joseph from the Giants. Shariff Floyd is a major key to a defensive turnaround, he has to be more consistent and provide an interior pass rush against the QBs in this division.” …
“The linebackers are good enough when healthy, but Chad Greenway, Matt Mauti and Gerald Hodges have all missed time in the past, therefore, their original first round pick, UCLA’s Anthony Barr, will be expected to play and contribute this year.” …
“Maybe the weakest part of this roster is the secondary. Chris Cook signed with the 49ers, but Xavier Rhodes and Josh Robinson are the incumbent returners who will compete with Panthers’ signee Captain Munnerlyn.” …
“The safeties are just ordinary with SS Jamarca Sanford and FS Hunter Smith patrolling the deep part of the field…
“If this organization can figure out the QB and Zimmer can fix the D, the Vikings may in fact have a positive future after all.” …
The Cowboys lost two of the best players off a defense that was one of the worst in NFL history. Their quarterback underwent a second back surgery in eight months. They named a third offensive play-caller and a third defensive coordinator in three years. Their head coach is in the final year of his contract.
Rebuilding? Did someone say rebuilding?
“You don’t rebuild with (Tony) Romo,” owner Jerry Jones says. “The firepower we have on offense and where we are with our running backs and our receivers, you don’t rebuild with an offense that’s got the capability we’ve got.”
The Cowboys’ attack will feature Romo, tight end Jason Witten, receiver Dez Bryant, running back DeMarco Murray and a much-improved offensive line. They give Jones his hope. The Cowboys, however, have retooled their defense out of necessity. They believe that gives them a chance to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2009. Although the Cowboys went only 30–34 combined the past four seasons, they haven’t stopped believing at the team’s Valley Ranch headquarters.
Romo missed the win-or-go-home season finale against the Eagles. But the Cowboys expect their franchise quarterback, whom they guaranteed $55 million before the start of last season, to fully recover from the herniated disc he played through against Washington in Week 16. Dallas still is building its title hopes around Romo, who they consider younger than his 34 years since he didn’t play much his first two seasons. The Cowboys signed Brandon Weeden, the No. 22 overall pick of the Browns two years ago, as a backup plan more than as a developmental prospect since he turns 31 this season.
Murray finally became the workhorse the Cowboys thought he could be when they drafted him in the third round in 2011. He rushed for the third-most yards in the NFL in the final eight games of last season and finished the year with 1,121 yards and his first Pro Bowl berth. The Cowboys love Lance Dunbar’s explosiveness, but at 5'8", 188, he hasn’t shown he can withstand the punishment of consistent work. He played in only nine games last season because of injuries. The Cowboys drafted Joseph Randle in the fifth round last year to be Murray’s primary backup, but his development was delayed by thumb surgery in the offseason.
Witten, 32, continues to rank as one of the league’s best at his position. The Cowboys used a second-round pick on Gavin Escobar in 2013, but coaches said all season he needed to get bigger and stronger before he could help. James Hanna was used more.
Bryant enters a contract year after catching 93 passes for 1,233 yards and 13 touchdowns. Dallas selected Terrance Williams in the third round last year, with plans to groom him eventually to start opposite Bryant. That time is now. After Williams caught 44 passes for 736 yards and five touchdowns, the Cowboys felt comfortable in releasing Miles Austin. Dwayne Harris, Cole Beasley and 2014 fifth-round draft pick Devin Street will compete for time.
The offensive line was much improved, allowing only 35 sacks and paving the way for a rushing attack that averaged 4.5 yards per carry. Left tackle Tyron Smith became the team’s first Pro Bowl offensive lineman since 2010 and the team rewarded him handsomely with a massive eight-year contract extension that includes $40 million in guaranteed money and locks him up through 2023. The Cowboys shored up the interior by drafting center Travis Frederick in the first round last year, and he became one of the best in the league at his position as a rookie. The Cowboys also were satisfied with the play of left guard Ron Leary in his first season as a starter, and veteran right tackle Doug Free improved from 2012. They expect to replace right guard Mackenzy Bernadeau with versatile 2014 first-round pick Zack Martin.
Dallas released defensive end DeMarcus Ware, the club’s all-time sack leader, because his production no longer matched his salary. Defensive tackle Jason Hatcher, who led the team last season with 11 sacks, left for Washington in free agency. End Anthony Spencer did re-sign with the Cowboys, but he could struggle to regain his form after undergoing microfracture knee surgery. George Selvie, a street free agent signed last July when Spencer first injured his knee, returns at left end after recording seven sacks last season. Free-agent signee Jeremy Mincey and second-round pick DeMarcus Lawrence were scheduled to compete for the right end spot, but that was before the rookie broke his foot early in training camp. He is expected to miss the first month of the regular season, at minimum. Newcomer Henry Melton, who had 15.5 sacks in four seasons in Chicago, replaces Hatcher at the three-technique. Nick Hayden, who had 44 tackles and 16 quarterback pressures, returns at the nose, although Tyrone Crawford, who missed last season with a torn Achilles, will compete for the job.
When Sean Lee is healthy, he is one of the top inside linebackers in football. Staying on the field, however, has been a problem, as evidenced by the 18 games he has already missed in his four-year career. Unfortunately, he will only add to this total due to a torn ACL Lee suffered during OTAs in late May. The Cowboys sent a sixth-round pick in next year's draft to Baltimore for linebacker Rolando McClain in hopes of filling Lee's spot. The eighth overall pick of the 2010 NFL Draft out of Alabama, McClain has been a disappointment to this point and hasn't played a down since the 2012 season. Released by Oakland last offseason, McClain signed with Baltimore only to announce his retirement a month later. Back in the game, Dallas hopes the best is yet to come from the former unanimous All-American and Butkus Award recipient.
Kyle Wilber started the year at defensive end, but he found a home at strong-side linebacker. The move was necessitated by veteran linebacker Justin Durant’s hamstring injury in a Nov. 10 game. The Cowboys want more production from the weak-side spot, where Bruce Carter was a major disappointment in his third season.
The Cowboys thought they shored up their cornerback position before the 2012 season when they signed free-agent Brandon Carr to a five-year, $50.1 million deal, and traded up in the draft to select Morris Claiborne with the sixth overall pick. But Carr struggled and Claiborne lost his starting job to nickel back Orlando Scandrick last season. Claiborne has missed seven games in his two seasons because of injuries, and he has failed to show much playmaking ability. He could get a chance to re-establish his status as a starter, however, since Scandrick will have to sit out the first four games due to a violation of the league's policy on the use of performance-enhancing drugs. The Cowboys drafted B.W. Webb in the fourth round last year, but he had a forgettable rookie season. Dallas likes its safeties, believing it has long-term starters in free safety Barry Church and strong safety J.J. Wilcox.
Kicker Dan Bailey has become Mr. Reliable, converting 90.8 percent of his field goals in three seasons with eight game-winners. Chris Jones stayed healthy and completed his first full season as the team’s punter, averaging 44.8 yards on 77 punts with a 39.1 net. Harris has solved the Cowboys’ return game, becoming one of the game’s most dangerous specialists.
Dallas has played for the division title in the final game each of the past three seasons, losing all three win-or-go-home finales to finish 8–8 each time. Jones, the ever-optimistic owner, believes the Cowboys have upgraded their defense enough to make them a contender this season. It’s hard to see on paper. They lost Hatcher and Ware and added Melton via free agency and Lawrence in the draft. Coach Jason Garrett likely will need to reach the playoffs to save his job, and it’s hard to envision this team getting to the postseason.
PREDICTION: 3rd in NFC East
There are collapses, and then there are the 2013 Texans, whose supposed offseason fine-tuning of the roster disintegrated into 14 consecutive losses and the NFL’s worst record at 2–14. Head coach Gary Kubiak didn’t survive to season’s end. The coaching staff was overhauled with Penn State’s Bill O’Brien hired as the new boss. O’Brien knows something about picking up the pieces after taking over for Joe Paterno in 2012 amid the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State. Quarterback Matt Schaub’s decline prompted a March trade to Oakland for a sixth-round draft pick. Injuries and a lack of mental toughness in close games — nine losses by a touchdown or less — victimized the defending two-time AFC South champions. The upside is that the Texans can’t get much worse. They’re healthy and still have talent. The rebuild began with several free-agent signings and 10 draft choices, most notably No. 1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney.
The addition of free-agent quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick provides a veteran presence, but the reality is this is his third team in as many years and fifth in a 10-year career. He’ll provide experience, but the Texans will need him to groom an heir apparent, possibly rookie Tom Savage, a fourth-round pick out of Pittsburgh. Fitzpatrick will be asked to make the smart plays, not turn it over and rely on the run game. Turnovers are the concern. He’s averaged 16.5 interceptions the past four seasons.
O’Brien is also listed as offensive coordinator. Expect to see some wrinkles from his New England days as an assistant to Bill Belichick, formations with multiple tight ends and no fullbacks. Four of the O-line starters return, including two-time Pro Bowl tackle Duane Brown, but pass protection was an issue. Expect a combination of zone and man blocking schemes under new offensive line coach Paul Dunn. The obvious emphasis will be to get the most out of running back Arian Foster, who played just half of last season and underwent back surgery. He’s still just 28, so there’s no reason to believe he can’t revert to 2012 form, when he produced a league-leading 17 touchdowns. Free-agent signee Andre Brown, who has had his share of injuries, was believed to be the leading candidate to serve as the No. 2 tailback, but he and Dennis Johnson were cut a few weeks into training camp. This opens up an opportunity for either Dennis Johnson, who was the team's third-leading rusher last season, or sixth-round pick Alfred Blue to seize the backup job. The team also signed veterans Ronnie Brown and William Powell to add to the backfield competition during camp.
Seven-time Pro Bowl receiver Andre Johnson turns 33 before camp, but he delivered 109 catches for 1,407 yards and five TDs in 2013. The problem is, without another capable receiver — at least one with speed — opposing teams will double Johnson to minimize his production. Last year’s No. 1 pick, wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, had 52 catches for 802 yards but didn’t finish strong. Look for Hopkins’ numbers to improve and for him to be a more frequent target in the red zone. That would take a lot of the pressure off of Johnson. Too often in the past, opponents could sit on fade routes to Johnson inside the 20-yard line. Keshawn Martin and DeVier Posey provide depth, and both will be given every opportunity to contribute more. The Texans will use three tight ends, sometimes on the field at the same time. Garrett Graham has the potential for a breakout season. He and Ryan Griffin are talented pass-catchers. Third-round pick C.J. Fiedorowicz is a solid blocker with decent hands.
Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips was replaced by Romeo Crennel, a five-time Super Bowl winner who inherits a defense that generated a league-low seven interceptions and recovered just four fumbles. Crennel will change the 3-4 scheme by asking linemen to play two gaps. The previous expectation was to cover one gap and get up the field. The Texans were No. 3 in pass defense, but just 23rd in stopping the run and tied for 24th in points allowed. Crennel has one of the NFL’s best defensive ends in J.J. Watt, who has 36.5 sacks in his three-year career. But that number dropped from 20.5 to 10.5 last season as teams forced him to beat constant double-teams. Houston tied for 29th with just 32 sacks. Expect Watt to line up at different positions. The other end likely will be Jared Crick, a third-year pro who plays with a high motor. Rookie Jeoffrey Pagan is coming off shoulder surgery but could push Crick. Rookie third-round pick Louis Nix III will be counted on at nose tackle.
Clowney has the kind of freakish athleticism and pass-rush skills to make life easier for Watt. Clowney’s official position will be outside linebacker, but Crennel will use him in a variety of ways depending on the game situation. Whitney Mercilus had seven sacks in his first season as a starting outside linebacker. Brooks Reed moves inside next to Brian Cushing, a defensive leader who has missed 20 games the past two seasons due to injuries. Keeping Cushing on the field as an every-down linebacker is vital.
Cornerbacks Johnathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson return for their fourth season starting together. Joseph typically covers the opponent’s best receiver but has been inconsistent. Jackson has made strides but still gets hit with too many penalties. Depth is a concern. Former second-round pick Brandon Harris has yet to live up to his selection. He likely will become the nickel back. Strong safety D.J. Swearinger and free safety Shiloh Keo are back, but expect them to be pushed by free-agent additions Chris Clemons and Kendrick Lewis.
Punter Shane Lechler turns 38 during camp but is still one of the NFL’s elite with a 47.6-yard average last season and 34 punts inside the 20. Placekicker Randy Bullock made 26-of-35 field goals in his first season, though four of the misses were from 50 yards or more. Martin is an excellent kickoff returner with a 26.3-yard average, but he managed just 8.8 yards per punt return, primarily because of bad blocking. The Texans need to improve on kick coverage. They were 28th in both kickoff return average (25.7) and punt return average (12.3).
The lack of a quality quarterback in a league that requires superior play at the position will hold this team back at times. Fitzpatrick will show flashes, but with the great plays come the demoralizing ones. Still, Foster, Johnson, Watt, Cushing and hopefully Clowney give this team building blocks to bounce back to respectability. If healthy, Foster is too talented to have another subpar season. Clowney and Watt should be a headache for opposing offensive lines. Teams that run the ball and can play defense are always competitive. There will be more close games, and expect Houston to win its share of them this time.
The Texans are fortunate to be in the AFC South, where Tennessee and Jacksonville are also in rebuilding modes and have similar quarterback concerns. It’s a bit too optimistic to expect a worst-to-first rebirth and unseating of defending champion Indianapolis. But Texans fans have reason to expect progress. As far-fetched as it may seem, considering last year’s debacle, finishing around .500 isn’t out of the realm of possibility.