Articles By Athlon Sports
Conference media days are upon us, meaning we have a brand new batch of coach quotes to dissect and preseason rankings to dispute on the Athlon Sports Cover 2 Podcast. On this week’s episode:
• What should we make of Nick Saban’s comments about his players receiving NFL Draft grades before the Sugar Bowl? Is this excuse-making or a sign that Saban has new challenges in preserving the Alabama dynasty.
• We discuss why the “SEC is overrated” talk out of SEC media days is overrated.
• We discuss impressive players from Georgia, and why the college game needs more of guys like Chris Conley and Malcolm Mitchell.
• TCU was an overwhelming favorite in the Big 12 media picks. We talk why that shouldn’t be quite as clear cut, and not just because Baylor is our pick in the league.
• Then, an age-old question: Cow or pig?
• Finally, a new segment that requires your participation: Kids’ Sports Questions. In the first installment, we seriously answer an 11-year-old’s question about Canadian basketball.
A change in the weather was brewing across the state of Virginia last November, on Black Friday at Virginia Tech’s Lane Stadium. The heat was about to dissipate on Virginia’s Mike London, and be turned up on Tech’s Frank Beamer.
With 2:55 left in the annual battle for the Commonwealth Cup, Virginia took a 20–17 lead. The Cavaliers appeared on the verge of beating the Hokies for the first time in a decade, qualifying for a bowl game, and easing the pressure on London.
Just two days before, London had received a vote of confidence from athletic director Craig Littlepage, who announced that the long-embattled coach would be back in 2015, no matter the outcome. To some, it seemed premature. But with the game winding down and Virginia on top, Littlepage looked prescient.
A Virginia win wasn’t to be, however. The Hokies moved 75 yards in just three plays to stun the Cavaliers and establish the coaching narratives for the 2015 season, in both Blacksburg and Charlottesville.
Tech’s win extended Beamer’s bowl streak to 22 years and quieted some of the growing skepticism about his fitness to continue to lead what he’d built in 28 years with the Hokies. After a victory over Cincinnati in the Military Bowl, athletic director Whit Babcock broke a season-long silence and clarified where things stood with the 68-year-old coach.
The bottom line was that Babcock was satisfied with Beamer’s plan for reversing a three-year decline and returning to ACC title contention. As the leader in FBS wins among active coaches, Beamer had earned the right to try to turn things around.
“We have high expectations here, and the guy who’s our coach created them,” Babcock told reporters.
Beamer certainly did, playing for the national title in 1999, winning at least 10 games in every season from 2004-11, and claiming four ACC titles during that stretch. The Hokies are 22–17 the past three seasons, though, and have entered a delicate phase in their aging coach’s tenure. Could an icon have lost his edge? Overstayed his welcome? Babock emphasized that there was “never a day” in the 2014 season when Beamer’s job was in jeopardy. But he and Beamer agree that improvement is needed — and soon.
“There were no ultimatums issued, no magic numbers issued,” Babcock says. “I support Coach, and I think we’re going to be a lot better next year.”
Littlepage expressed similar sentiments when announcing that London would be back. He said he’d seen signs of progress in “many areas” in 2014.
“I trust the plan Mike has in place and believe his leadership provides the best opportunity for Virginia football to be successful in the future,” he said.
Clearly, it’s a crucial season for both of the Commonwealth’s ACC coaches. But the similarities end there. Beamer is on firmer ground and seems better positioned to write his own ending. For London, this year is make or break.
Babcock says he wanted to see if Beamer was “ready to get back in the saddle and dig” after a wearying up-and-down season. The coach had throat surgery in December, leaving the day-to-day work of bowl preparation to his assistants and coaching the Military Bowl from the press box.
Beamer lost his voice for a bit, but not his drive. He said he was back to full strength for spring practice and feeling refreshed.
“When you get out there and you’re not a part of it, you kind of start thinking how much you want to be a part of it,” he said in his pre-spring press conference.
Last season was humbling and exasperating. At times — like after a 30–6 loss to Miami — Beamer appeared to be campaigning for his job, citing his team’s youth and pointing to brighter days ahead. The same team that beat eventual national champ Ohio State lost six of its next nine, including four out of five at home, and bottomed out in a 6–3 double-overtime defeat at Wake Forest in which the offense scratched out a season-low 254 yards.
The Hokies were decimated by injuries on both sides of the ball. Tailbacks Shai McKenzie and Trey Edmunds went down, as did cornerback Brandon Facyson and defensive tackle Luther Maddy.
Still, the defense held up better. An offense that struggled all year took much of the blame. The Hokies ranked 96th in total offense and 98th in turnovers lost and sacks allowed. Quarterback Michael Brewer was inconsistent, the offensive line was often ineffective and big plays were scarce.
Third-year offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler has promised improvement, saying that this is the season when familiarity should kick in, and a leap forward can happen.
With most of last year’s offense back, the Hokies could indeed be better. Beamer is counting on it. Despite last season’s struggles, he called the Military Bowl win one of his proudest moments at Tech, considering the adversity the team faced.
As for Beamer’s long-term plans, Babcock says he and the coach have not discussed much beyond 2015. Beamer’s contact runs through 2019, when he’ll be 72.
“We’ll know it when we know it,” is all Babock will say about a possible retirement date for Beamer.
London hasn’t earned the luxury of leaving on his own terms. After finishes of 4–8, 2–10 and 5–7, his stay on the proverbial hot seat enters its third season. The Cavaliers were 2:55 away from changing the storyline, at least for one offseason. Virginia couldn’t close things out, however, either in the game or the season. A 4–2 start provided hope that a program dogged by inconsistency and meltdowns at inopportune times might have turned a corner. But Virginia went 1–5 in the final six games, and old questions about the Cavaliers’ preparation and London’s game management surfaced again.
A late drive in a loss at Duke got mired in miscommunication, with a harried timeout, and then a delay of game penalty. A week later vs. North Carolina, Virginia blew a coverage on a routine pass route, was caught napping on an onside kick, and set up the Tar Heels’ winning field goal with a penalty for having 12 players on the field.
The usual distracting chatter followed Virginia into November. Littlepage’s statement didn’t do much to quiet it, and London missed an opportunity in Blacksburg on a frigid Friday night.
“I feel very thankful and humble about the fact that I’ll be the head coach of this team next season,” he said prior to spring practice. “You can speak to the players about how they felt. I’m very indebted to President (Teresa) Sullivan and Craig Littlepage, and very respectful of the job that I have to do.”
Lauded for his ability to connect with players as a recruiter, London retains the loyalty of the team. When the heat was on last year, many players said they considered him a father figure and were playing to save his job.
“He’s a genuine guy,” cornerback Demetrious Nicholson says. “He sticks to his word. His door is always open to talk about anything. He has that great relationship with players that makes you want to play for him.”
London’s teams have done well in the classroom and the community. He’s a one-man wave of positivity, always stressing the bigger picture of life and education and rarely letting any pressure he’s feeling show — perhaps because he’s known real pressure outside the gridiron.
Before he got into coaching, he worked as a detective in Richmond, Va. One night, a suspect whom London had cornered in an alley after a chase pointed a gun at his head. The man pulled the trigger, but the gun didn’t go off.
Years later, London donated bone marrow to help save the life of his then-7-year-old daughter, who had a rare blood disorder.
That’s not to say he downplays the importance of what happens between the lines.
“It’s important that we win football games,” he says. “It’s important that we perform.”
Heading into his sixth season overall, and his third with a revamped staff, London insists that the team is on the right path. The administrators who granted him another year did him no favors with the schedule, however. With UCLA, Boise State and Notre Dame on the slate, the challenge is daunting.
With significant losses from last year’s team on both sides of the ball, a window may have closed on the best chance to turn things around. And with just two years remaining on his contract, the cost of buying London out won’t be as steep as it’s been the past two years.
Nicholson says the players have learned to ignore the chatter about their coach’s uncertain status.
“We don’t really worry about whether Coach is getting fired,” he says. “We just focus on our goals at hand and trying to take care of business.”
Unless Virginia greatly exceeds expectations, players will have to spend another long season trying to tune out the noise.
-by Ed Miller, the Virginian-Pilot
Once among the perennial elite, the Dolphins have been largely irrelevant for quite a while now, without a playoff win since Dec. 30, 2000. While the fans are long past impatient, owner Stephen Ross leaned toward a youth movement in the offseason. “I wouldn’t want to be getting old veterans to win that year and then get back to where we were,” Ross says. “I want to build something that is going to be a dynasty that people want to see year in and year out.”
That’s not to say Ross spent the past several months sitting idle. Yes, he kept his embattled coach, Joe Philbin, and Philbin kept both of his coordinators, Bill Lazor on offense and Kevin Coyle on defense. But the front office was overhauled, with former Jets executive Mike Tannenbaum hired to oversee an operation that still includes general manager Dennis Hickey. And the team may have as many as 10 new starters, including the prize of the free-agent market, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, who signed a six-year, $114 million contract with nearly $60 million guaranteed. “This is obviously a great day,” Suh said at his introductory press conference. “And there’s obviously many more to come after that.”
How soon? We’ll see.
It got largely lost due to the team’s lack of overall progress, but the Dolphins did make gains on offense last season, with their best yardage ranking (14th) since 2008 and best points ranking (11th) since 2001, which happen to be the franchise’s last two playoff seasons.
They should make more strides, now that Lazor has had more than a year to implement his schemes — with some use of the read option — and increase the unit’s tempo, something that didn’t occur as planned last season. Much of that will fall on Ryan Tannehill, who seems to be a quarterback on the rise. That’s one of the reasons the Dolphins rewarded him with a six-year contract extension in May that could be worth as much as $96 million and is guaranteed to pay him no less than $45 million. “The good news is he’s gotten better every year,” Philbin says.
That’s supported by the statistics, as the third-year player posted his highest passer rating (92.8) largely due to a dramatic increase in completion percentage (60.4 to 66.4). And yet, his yards-per-completion continued its decline, from 11.7 as a rookie to 11.0 in his second season to 10.3 in his third. While it wise for the Dolphins to play to his strengths, Tannehill still needs to become more accurate with his deep throws to make the Dolphins a truly dynamic attack.
He won’t be trying to connect with Mike Wallace anymore. After two expensive and uneven seasons, Wallace was sent to Minnesota to make way for a younger, cheaper core. Miami will have three receivers in their regular rotation who are under 24 years old, including Kenny Stills, a speedy import from New Orleans who had 63 catches on 85 targets last season, compared to 67 on 115 for Wallace.
Stills’ presence on the outside, along with the development of first-round pick DeVante Parker, should allow Jarvis Landry and new tight end Jordan Cameron to exploit the middle. As a rookie, the hard-working Landry showed terrific instincts and good hands, catching 84 passes, albeit for just 9.0 yards per catch. That number should increase, if Tannehill can sit back in the pocket a little longer — he took 46 sacks, down 12 from the previous season but still too high. It’s remarkable that Tannehill has started every game in three straight seasons.
Branden Albert solidified the left tackle spot prior to a season-ending knee injury, so his return to full health is critical. With Albert, center Mike Pouncey (newly signed to a lucrative extension) and right tackle Ja’Wuan James (coming off a good rookie season), Miami appears settled at three spots. The guard spots are in flux; the Dolphins may need fourth-round rookie Jamil Douglas to step in immediately.
They’ll be blocking for Lamar Miller, who had some ups and downs after taking over as the primary ball carrier. Miller, however, finished strong with 270 yards in the season’s final two weeks. Now the question is whether he can handle an even greater load; he averaged 5.1 yards per carry but never had more than 19 attempts. There’s questionable depth at the position.
Coming off a tumultuous season — with players questioning the coordinator (Coyle) — the Dolphins invested heavily in Suh to instill some fear in opposing offenses. While he’s created controversy with some of his on-field antics, there’s never been any question about Suh’s ability, not only to disrupt running and passing plays but also to make his teammates better. A few of his teammates are already pretty good, notably defensive ends Cameron Wake (57.5 sacks over the past five seasons) and Olivier Vernon (18 sacks over the past two seasons), cornerback Brent Grimes (coming off two straight Pro Bowls) and safety Reshad Jones (who had a bounce-back year). And defensive tackle Earl Mitchell should be a solid complement to Suh, holding up blockers and helping to stuff the run.
But plenty of others will need to exceed expectations for the Dolphins to improve from their 2014 rankings (20th in points, 12th in yardage). That starts with the entire linebacker group. Koa Misi is serviceable in the middle, and Jelani Jenkins was a positive surprise as a fourth-round pick in 2013. But there’s no clear playmaker in the group, especially after the Dion Jordan experiment failed. Jordan, the No. 3 pick in the 2013 draft, was a disappointment for two seasons and will miss the 2015 campaign due to a failed drug test.
In the secondary, veteran safety Louis Delmas returns after ACL surgery, and either Jamar Taylor or Will Davis will need to emerge as a consistent complement to Grimes at corner to allow newcomer Brice McCain play the nickel. Miami allowed opposing quarterbacks to compile an 89.7 passer rating last season, with 27 touchdowns and 14 interceptions — not the league’s worst, but not contender material.
Two seasons into his NFL career, Caleb Sturgis still hasn’t cemented his status, not after making 77.5 percent of his field-goal attempts, including 20-of-33 from 40 yards or more. If he’s not better, he’ll likely be replaced. Brandon Fields didn’t have his best season, with his lowest percentage (36.2) of punts inside the 20-yard-line since 2009, and he was in danger of being released prior to restructuring his contract. Landry was the primary punt and kickoff returner last season and — a couple of hiccups aside — did decent work. Ideally, though, the Dolphins would like more of a burner at those spots to save Landry for his receiving duties. So that search will continue.
The Dolphins have been stuck in the middle, or just below, for so long that it’s hard to predict anything better than a .500 finish. But if Tannehill can make another leap, and Suh can energize what was at times a listless defense, there’s potential here to squeak out 10 wins. Philbin may need that many to retain his job, even though Ross signed the coach to an extension through 2016 to remove the perception of lame-duck status. “There has to be improvement,” Ross added, after the announcement. “I’m looking to make the playoffs, and I think Joe is looking to make the playoffs.” Otherwise, this team may look even more different in 2016.
Prediction: 3rd AFC East
While it’s not as simple as overhauling the front office, coaching staff and secondary, the Jets this offseason made plenty of moves in the right direction as they try to put last season’s 4–12 misery behind them. New GM Mike Maccagnan was aggressive in free agency, as he upgraded the Jets’ beleaguered defensive backfield. So far, new head coach Todd Bowles has brought a more businesslike approach to the organization than his predecessor, Rex Ryan.
The Jets did some great things under Ryan. They made the AFC Championship Game in each of his first two seasons, 2009 and 2010. But they haven’t made the playoffs since, and they are 26–38 during this four-year slide, with zero winning records.
But there’s still a nagging question surrounding this team: For as promising as the Jets’ new secondary looks, their quarterback situation is still a giant question mark. Can they overcome that and be a legitimate factor in 2015?
The Jets should be able to run the ball. That hasn’t been an issue in recent seasons. Power running back Chris Ivory is still around. He has rushed for 833 and 821 yards, respectively, in his two seasons with the team. And the Jets added Stevan Ridley in free agency, though you have to wonder if he can return to his old form after last season’s torn ACL and MCL. The Jets still lack a back with breakaway speed.
A bigger issue for this team is the passing game. The past three seasons, the Jets ranked 32nd, 31st and 30th in the NFL in passing offense. Nowhere to go but up, right? In two seasons, quarterback Geno Smith has 41 turnovers, including 34 interceptions. It is time for him to take a step forward with his decision-making in 2015.
The Jets traded for Ryan Fitzpatrick in the offseason, and he will compete for the starting job with Smith. Fitzpatrick is competent enough, but if he beats out Smith in training camp — or replaces him during the season — the Jets will be in the market for a quarterback after this season, as they will almost certainly dump Smith.
Trading for Brandon Marshall this offseason gives the Jets a big-bodied wide receiver who can be a red-zone threat, even if he isn’t as effective overall as he was earlier in his career. Marshall had a streak of seven straight seasons with at least 1,000 yards receiving snapped last fall. The Jets have been pitiful in the red zone recently, ranking 32nd, 27th and 25th in the NFL the past three seasons in red-zone efficiency.
The Jets’ second-round draft pick, Ohio State’s Devin Smith, is a deep-threat receiver, and maybe nothing more. But he could help stretch the field and force defenses to play more honest coverage against Marshall and Eric Decker.
The secondary was, by far, the Jets’ biggest defensive shortcoming last season. Maccagnan went out and signed two new cornerbacks — familiar faces Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie — and acquired a free safety, Marcus Gilchrist. The latter should allow second-year pro Calvin Pryor (last year’s first-round pick) to play closer to the line of scrimmage as a strong safety, where he is most comfortable. Maccagnan also signed corner Buster Skrine in free agency.
Between the revamped secondary and the already strong defensive line, the Jets have a chance to be one of the NFL’s top defenses. Sheldon Richardson and Muhammad Wilkerson are two of the league’s best young defensive linemen. Then the Jets saw USC defensive lineman Leonard Williams (maybe the best overall player in the draft) fall into their lap with the No. 6 pick, which creates an issue for Bowles: How does he deploy all these linemen? It’s a good problem to have, especially since Richardson is suspended the first four games for a violation of the league’s substance-abuse policy.
A bigger issue for the Jets comes at the edge rusher/outside linebacker spot in their 3-4 defense. Strong-side linebacker Calvin Pace turns 35 in October. Backup rush linebacker Jason Babin, a pass-rushing specialist, is already 35. The Jets would love for Quinton Coples, their 2012 first-round pick, to develop as a rush linebacker. But he has disappointed so far in his career. He has 16.5 sacks in three seasons, with a high of 6.5 last fall.
The Jets’ defense wasn’t terrible last season under Ryan. The unit finished sixth in the league in yards allowed but was 24th in points allowed and 26th in red-zone defense. Having a better secondary — and a dominant corner like Revis — should help improve those latter two stats.
Nick Folk is back as the Jets’ kicker and Ryan Quigley returns as the punter. This will be Folk’s sixth year with the Jets, and Quigley’s third season. Folk wasn’t as good last season (32-of-39 on field goals) as he was in 2013 (33-of-36), though three of his misses last season came on kicks of 50 yards or longer. Quigley last season ranked 14th in the NFL (45.9-yard average), after ranking 17th in 2013 (45.5).
Worth noting: The Jets this season will have a different special teams coach for the fourth straight year, as longtime special teams coach Bobby April arrives, following Thomas McGaughey, Ben Kotwica and Mike Westhoff, a special teams coaching pioneer. Receiver Jeremy Kerley seems likely to return punts again, though the Jets have options there, just as they do at the kickoff return spot. It will be interesting to see if they give Smith, their blazing-fast rookie receiver, a shot on kickoff returns. He dabbled in them during his time at Ohio State.
You can’t win in today’s NFL unless you have at least competent quarterback play. And there have been plenty of times over the past two seasons when Smith has looked totally incompetent under center. In fact, it’s been a long time since the organization has enjoyed steady, reliable play at the most important position on the field.
So that’s what it boils down to for these Jets: Unless Smith takes a step forward in 2015, or Fitzpatrick performs well as his replacement, it’s hard to envision this team being anything better than average.
Yes, the defense has a chance to be elite, with stars such as Revis and Wilkerson and Richardson. Yes, the Jets should be able to run the ball well, presuming their aging — but still not yet crumbling — offensive line holds up. But without a better passing game, the Jets will probably hover around 7–9 to 9–7. The latter wouldn’t be all that bad for a team coming off 4–12 with a rookie head coach. Either way, look for the Jets to be in the hunt for a playoff spot entering December. This team isn’t going to start 1–8 like last year’s group did.
Keep an eye on the final three games, though — at Dallas, home against New England and at Buffalo. With a playoff spot potentially on the line, those challenges could prove too daunting for a team in transition.
Prediction: 4th in AFC East
When coach Doug Marrone up and quit on the team on New Year’s Eve, the Buffalo Bills were doing what they always do: leading the NFL in dysfunction. Marrone was on the job just two years and had led the team to a 9–7 finish, Buffalo’s best in a decade but still not good enough to end a 15-year playoff drought.
But just when it seemed to be business as usual, new owner Terry Pegula and second-year general manager Doug Whaley began making blockbuster moves all over the place. It began with the hiring of Rex Ryan, jettisoned by the rival New York Jets, to replace Marrone. It reached a fever pitch when a trade was swung with the Philadelphia Eagles to acquire running back LeSean McCoy.
“Is this thing on? Because it’s going to be on,’’ blurted the colorful Ryan into the microphone.
Whether Buffalo has improved on offense enough to complement one of the league’s top defenses remains to be seen. But Team Dysfunction has finally gotten its act together.
The Bills have lacked true star power on this side of the ball, but things are turning. The McCoy acquisition vastly upgraded the club’s moribund rushing game that fell to 25th in the NFL at 92.6 yards per game as veteran Fred Jackson and the departed C.J. Spiller (New Orleans) battled injuries. As a team, the Bills set a franchise record for fewest rushing yards in a 16-game season with 1,482.
McCoy, just 27, had 1,319 yards on 312 attempts all by himself for the Eagles. With 9,074 combined career yards and 54 touchdowns, he is an elite talent with workhorse stamina for whom teams will have to game-plan.
Without the McCoy deal, along with the signing of Pro Bowl fullback Jerome Felton, Ryan’s proclamation of “ground and pound’’ would amount to ground chuck. Now the Bills — under new coordinator Greg Roman, who rode Frank Gore with the San Francisco 49ers — can complement the quarterback with a running game that can dictate tempo.
Oh yes, quarterback. The Bills will hold a wide-open competition for the job among 2013 first-round pick EJ Manuel, savvy veteran Matt Cassel, picked up in a trade with Minnesota, and free agent Tyrod Taylor.
For Manuel, who was benched after a month in favor of the departed Kyle Orton, this is a crossroads. Unless he’s the clear-cut best player through the preseason, Ryan and Roman will be more than content to have Cassell game-manage their run-based attack. Cassell, 31, led 10-win teams in New England and Kansas City in the past, and his 96-to-70 TD-to-interception ratio for his career has to be respected.
But don’t get the impression Buffalo will be all run and no fun. The Bills receiving corps is young and dynamic, led by last year’s rookie sensation Sammy Watkins, who set team rookie marks for catches (65) and yards (982), and second-year man Robert Woods. The well-traveled Percy Harvin was also added to the mix, and Chris Hogan is an emerging talent. The tight end position received a huge boost as well with the signing of Miami free agent Charles Clay, who will give the Bills many matchup advantages downfield.
The line will remain a bit unsettled through the summer but figures to shake itself out just fine. Free agent guard Richie Incognito, who spent a year in exile after “Bullygate’’ in Miami, brings attitude and toughness to a unit that produced just seven rushing TDs and yielded 39 sacks. The other guard spot is up for grabs, but there is no shortage of candidates, including rookie John Miller. Underrated center Eric Wood will man the middle for a seventh season.
In 2014, the Bills ranked fourth in yards allowed (312.2), behind only Seattle, Detroit and Denver. They also ranked fourth in points allowed (18.1), first in sacks (54), third in takeaways (30), third in pass defense and first in third-down efficiency.
That makes for a pretty tough encore for new coordinator Dennis Thurman, who came over with Ryan from the Jets. But it is one Buffalo — given its wealth of talent — is capable of.
It all starts up front where the Bills feature not one, not two, but three Pro Bowl linemen: Mario Williams, Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams. With Jerry Hughes, who was re-signed as a free agent, Buffalo is able to generate immense pressure on opposing quarterbacks without having to blitz much; those four combined for 39.5 of the team’s NFL-leading 54 sacks in 2014. Things are so good at this position, the backups could start for other teams, although Dareus will miss the season opener after being suspended for violating the league’s policy on substance abuse.
Ryan is known as a 3-4 proponent, but in truth, he matches his scheme to his personnel, so the Bills will feature a lot of four-man looks (disguised as three-man). Mario Williams and Hughes can play off the line as outside linebackers as well.
Depth in the front seven is one reason Buffalo was able to deal star middle linebacker Kiko Alonso, who missed last season with a knee injury, to the Eagles for McCoy. The linebacker corps features young talents in Preston Brown, who led the team in tackles as a rookie with 109, and Nigel Bradham, who had 104. Ty Powell, Randell Johnson and rookie sixth-round pick Tony Steward will battle it out for playing time.
In the secondary, the Bills lost starters Jairus Byrd and Da’Norris Searcy the past two years in free agency but still have plenty on hand. The corner spots are manned by former first-round picks Stephon Gilmore and Leodis McKelvin, who combined for seven interceptions last year. McKelvin was having a strong season until sitting out the final six games with a broken ankle. Stepping in superbly was veteran Corey Graham, a free-agent signee who finished with a team-high 15 passes defended.
Aaron Williams, a 2011 second-round pick and former corner, has blossomed at strong safety and chipped in 76 tackles and five pass breakups. Third-year man Duke Williams will get the nod to replace Searcy at the free spot. Overall depth in the secondary remains a team strength, led by the likes of Ron Brooks, Nickell Robey and Bacarri Rambo, who intercepted Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers twice in a game last year. Things got even better when Buffalo spent its top pick in the draft on Florida State cornerback Ronald Darby.
Placekicker Dan Carpenter set a franchise record with 34 field goals. The former Miami Dolphin has embraced the challenging weather conditions of Ralph Wilson Stadium. With Jordan Gay handling kickoffs, Carpenter can focus solely on the uprights. Punter Colton Schmidt was an August waiver find, and the California native also found an unlikely home, averaging 42.9 yards an effort with 31 dropped inside the 20. Return specialist Marcus Thigpen returns to handle punts and kickoffs.
Ryan is the biggest coaching hire in Buffalo since Chuck Knox in the late 1970s, and expectations are high that the NFL’s longest playoff drought will come to an end at 15 seasons. Nobody’s toppling New England in the AFC East as long as Tom Brady is slinging passes, and landing a wild-card spot will take at least 10 wins. But the Bills got to nine last year and could finally knock down the door.
Prediction: 2nd in AFC East
Ohio State assistant Tony Alford was so giddy at the thought of being Ezekiel Elliott’s new position coach that he temporarily misplaced his filter.
When asked this spring what it will be like to go from Notre Dame to the role of running backs coach at OSU, Alford immediately retorted, “I don’t know. Is it pretty easy to drive a Lexus after you’ve been driving a Volkswagen?”
Alford then gulped and recalled he had several topflight skill players under his tutelage at ND the past six years.
“Those guys are really good players, too,” he said. “But in all seriousness, it certainly helps to come here and have great players around and some guys who really understand how to work.”
The Buckeyes backfield will have its usual array of ball-toting talent this fall, including emerging weapon Curtis Samuel and true freshman Mike Weber among those who can line up behind any one of OSU’s proven quarterbacks, all major running threats in their own right.
But without question, the outlook for the rushing game is blinding primarily because Elliott is revved up for his junior season and projects to be even more dangerous, if that’s possible.
Last year was a breakout season of gridiron-shredding proportions as the 6’0”, 225-pounder raced for 1,878 yards — 696 of them coming at season’s end as the Buckeyes flogged Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game and stunned both Alabama and Oregon in the first College Football Playoff.
Taking over the tailback spot admirably for the departed Carlos Hyde, Elliott racked up six 100-yard games in the regular season but apparently was just getting started. He set the tone for the eye-opening postseason with an early 81-yard touchdown gallop against the Badgers. That led to a 220-yard rushing day that paced a 59–0 annihilation of UW.
Elliott topped that performance with 230 yards and two TDs — including a clinching 85-yarder — on just 20 carries in the 42–35 win over No. 1 Alabama. He then destroyed Oregon with 246 yards and four scores to put the Buckeyes on the college football mountaintop.
Afterward, OSU head coach Urban Meyer labeled Elliott a “monster,” but also praised the youngster’s humility.
“I love Zeke because he’s very humble, he comes from a great family, and he understands the offensive line deserves the credit,” Meyer said in the interview room. “However, he’s the most underrated back in America. He’s the most post-contact-yards guy I’ve ever been around, and on top of that he’s a great human being. We get him for at least one more year, so I can’t wait.”
Elliott averaged 6.8 yards per carry and played through all of the grabs and rakes from Oregon defenders. Even when it was clear Elliott was the focal point, the Ducks couldn’t slow him down, let alone stop him. His 36 rushing attempts set a career high.
Elliott capped Ohio State’s final drive of the season with a 1-yard plunge into the end zone. That completed a sophomore season in which he threatened Eddie George’s school-record 1,927 yards set in the Heisman Trophy-winning season of 1995. The St. Louis-area product passed all-time greats Archie Griffin (1,695 in 1974) and Keith Byars (1,764 in 1984) during the Oregon game, and his 246 yards tied the third-best single-game output in OSU history.
It was such a dreamy campaign that it even awed Elliott’s biggest supporter — his father.
“That first long run against Wisconsin, that’s when it really hit me,” says Stacy Elliott. “I had tears in my eyes and remember thinking, ‘Boy, Ezekiel has arrived.’ I was blown away.”
Stacy was an outside linebacker at Missouri, where he met his wife, Dawn, a track standout at the school. Despite their affinity for their alma mater, neither pushed Ezekiel to follow in their footsteps.
“I’ve involved my parents in all my big decisions in life, but they always try to act as a guide for me,” Ezekiel Elliott says. “They never told me to go to school where they went. They wanted me to figure it out for myself.”
Still, Elliott agonized before becoming one of the last to commit to Meyer’s highly rated 2013 recruiting class.
One of Elliott’s many pursuers was Alford, who was still at Notre Dame at the time. The coach says his mouth was agape when watching 2014 OSU game film, although he always expected Elliott would be successful because of his family dynamic.
“When I watched Zeke and his family and they would sit on the couch, his mom would reach over and she would pat him on his knee,” Alford says. “He would turn and hug his dad. He would goof around with his sisters. That shows you they had a lot of admiration and love and respect in that household.”
Further proof that Ezekiel is from good stock: His 16-year-old sister, Lailah, is the John Burroughs High School record holder in the triple jump and an AAU national qualifier in several events, and 9-year-old Aaliyah also is an adept jumper and sprinter.
Still, the genial Ezekiel is an original who marches to a different drummer. He opted for a pink cast after he underwent a second surgery on his left wrist following the season. When the Buckeyes were honored at a Cincinnati Reds game, Elliott vowed to wear a Cardinals cap but instead didn’t attend because he would have missed a class.
Elliott’s flamboyance certainly has been well received. Fans flock to him in public locales. The Columbus Zoo recently named a baby penguin “Zeke” in his honor.
“People have told me they are naming their dogs and even their children after him, so that’s crazy,” Stacy says.
In a recent interview, Dawn described her son as “a bit goofy.” Teammates agree.
“Zeke’s different, but that’s my dude,” safety Vonn Bell says. “I’ll go to war with him every time.”
And when it’s time to make a play ...
“The switch goes on,” Alford says. “And that’s what you want when they click that helmet. You want to see his eyes change. That’s who you want to coach. That’s what I want to coach.”
Elliott gave hints of his explosiveness as a freshman while averaging 8.7 yards per carry. Still, followers of the program paid more attention to hotshot H-back Dontre Wilson of Texas with the belief that he was the key to turning OSU into a big-play offense.
“What a lot of people don’t know is Ezekiel is just as fast as Dontre,” Stacy says.
At John Burroughs High School, Elliott not only toasted football defenders with regularity, but he also captured four state championships in track as a senior by besting the field in the 100-meter dash, 200m, 110m high hurdles and 300m hurdles.
And there’s some grit behind the sizzle.
Elliott actually was sick the entire week of the national championship game. He also played the entire season with a cast and pin implanted into his fractured wrist.
“I couldn’t switch hands; I couldn’t really punch with it,” he says. “I couldn’t really do much. I was pretty handicapped.”
Elliott’s heroic feats and video-game-like production in the College Football Playoff inspired elite recruits such as Weber, a Detroit product, and class of 2016 New Jersey phenom Kareem Walker to commit to Ohio State.
But this fall, the pigskin will go into Elliott’s belly — even if that belly is now covered up due to a new NCAA equipment restriction banning crop tops some are calling “the Elliott Rule.”
“The NCAA has its rules and it’s our job to abide by them,” Elliott says with a wink, even though he signed a petition with more than 10,000 signatures asking the rule to be tossed out.
The day after Ohio State’s spring game, Elliott flew to New York City to attend a ceremony as a finalist for the Sullivan Award. It’s very possible he will return to the Big Apple at the end of the year as a top candidate for another prestigious award — the Heisman Trophy.
“I’m not very surprised by Ezekiel’s success,” his father says, “because he works hard and he doesn’t choke up — he competes. But the Heisman talk and all that kind of stuff, that’s been amazing.”
-by Jeff Rapp, SportsRappUp.com
Twenty years have passed since the Cowboys last raised the Vince Lombardi Trophy. They have had only nine winning seasons since, with a 158–146 regular-season record and a 3–8 postseason mark. Yet, Jerry Jones has never lost faith.
This year begins no differently, although the Cowboys owner actually has reason to believe. The team has turned the momentum from last season into real, live Super Bowl hopes. The Cowboys saw a healthy Tony Romo for the first time in three offseasons. They welcome back the same offensive and defensive coordinators for the first time in four years. The league’s best offensive line returns intact. They helped their defense with some offseason additions. “I like the future of this team,” Jones says.
There’s nothing like the present, though.
The Cowboys believe as long as they have Romo, they have a chance. Romo underwent two back surgeries in two years, and last season he missed a game with two fractures in his transverse process. But he entered the offseason fully healed. Despite throwing for only 3,705 yards, Romo had one of the best seasons of his career with a 12–3 record, 34 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He led the league in completion percentage (69.9), yards per attempt (8.5), passer rating (113.2) and game-winning drives (five), putting his name in the MVP conversation. The Cowboys insist that Romo, 35, has a few good years left. They sought to upgrade their backup quarterback situation, but it appears Brandon Weeden will once again be the No. 2 signal caller.
The Cowboys took pressure off Romo last season by running the ball 508 times (vs. 506 pass plays). They’ll continue that approach in 2015, even though the league’s leading rusher, DeMarco Murray, left for Philadelphia in free agency. The only change likely comes in how many carries the rushing leader gets. Running back-by-committee appears likely with Joseph Randle, Darren McFadden, Lance Dunbar and Ryan Williams competing for roster spots, playing time and carries. Randle showed signs last season as Murray’s primary backup, averaging 6.7 yards per carry, but he had only 51 attempts. McFadden, the No. 4 overall pick in 2008, gets a new start with a new team after seven injury-plagued seasons in Oakland. He played a full 16-game season for the first time in his career in 2014.
Jason Witten, 33, made his 10th Pro Bowl in 2014. Now in his 13th season, he shows no signs of slowing down. Witten remains Romo’s security blanket, and the tight end ranked second on the team in catches (64) and receiving yards (703) last season.
Dez Bryant became one of the top receivers in the NFL last season, earning All-Pro honors with 88 catches for 1,320 yards and 16 touchdowns. The Cowboys applied the franchise tag to Bryant in the offseason, and the two parties have been unable to hash out a long-term contract. Bryant has hinted at the possibility of holding out, even if this means missing regular season games. If it remains unresolved by the time training camp opens, Bryant’s contract situation will no doubt be a hot topic and it remains to be seen if this will develop into a team-wide distraction.
Outside of Bryant,Terrance Williams had stretches where he disappeared, but he averaged 16.8 yards per catch and caught eight touchdowns. Romo trusted Cole Beasley as much as Bryant on third down, and Beasley won the job as the third receiver and a new payday at the end of the season.
Having used three first-round picks on offensive linemen since 2011, the Cowboys have built arguably the league’s best line. Zack Martin, who had never played guard until the Cowboys moved him there after drafting him 16th overall last year, earned Pro Bowl honors as a rookie. He was joined by former first-rounders Travis Frederick (center) and Tyron Smith (left tackle) in the all-star game. The Cowboys kept their line intact by re-signing right tackle Doug Free to a three-year, $15 million deal and left guard Ron Leary to a one-year, $585,000 deal. They drafted Chaz Green in the third round to replace swing tackle Jermey Parnell and signed La’el Collins as a free agent after the projected first-rounder went undrafted due to some legal issues.
The Cowboys’ biggest offseason move was the signing of defensive end Greg Hardy. Dallas had only 28 sacks last season; Hardy had double-digit sacks in 2012 and ’13 but played only one game last season before going on the commissioner’s exempt list. Hardy's original 10-game suspension for conduct detrimental to the league was reduced to four games upon appeal. The Cowboys also drafted talented pass-rusher Randy Gregory in the second round, as this defense looks to get more pressure on opposing quarterbacks. DeMarcus Lawrence, who missed nine games with a broken foot as a rookie last season, will start at left end. Jeremy Mincey, Jack Crawford and Ben Gardner, who spent his rookie season on injured reserve, will compete for playing time in the team’s rotation. The Cowboys moved Tyrone Crawford from defensive end to the three-technique last season and were happy with the results. He had three sacks and was solid against the run. Nick Hayden re-signed to play the nose. Terrell McClain also will see playing time in the defensive tackle rotation.
Sean Lee has missed 34 games in his five-year career, including all 16 games last season after tearing the ACL in his left knee on the first day of OTAs. Lee, who has two 100-tackle seasons and 11 career interceptions, will move from middle linebacker to the weak side, the most important linebacker position in the Tampa 2. The Cowboys re-signed Rolando McClain to man the middle, but he will miss the first four games of the season for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy. Anthony Hitchens, who started at all three linebacker positions among 11 starts as a rookie, leads the candidates at strong-side linebacker. McClain
The Cowboys tried to shore up their cornerback position before the 2012 season when they signed Brandon Carr and traded up in the draft to select Morris Claiborne. But Carr hasn’t lived up to the contract, and the Cowboys are expected to ask him to take a pay cut, which could lead to his release. Claiborne missed 12 games last season with a ruptured patellar tendon in his left knee. Even when healthy, Claiborne has done nothing to give the Cowboys an indication that he ever will develop into a shutdown corner. Orlando Scandrick has become the team’s most reliable player at the position, but he did not participate in voluntary offseason workouts while seeking a raise. The Cowboys drafted Byron Jones with their first-round pick and expect him to play a big role as a rookie. Starting safeties J.J. Wilcox and Barry Church rarely make game-changing plays but rarely give up big plays and are sure tacklers.
Dan Bailey ranks as the second-most accurate placekicker in NFL history, converting 89.8 percent of his career kicks. He has nine game-winning kicks, including five in overtime, in his career. Dallas re-signed punter Chris Jones, who had a 39.8 net average last season, though Australian Tom Hornsey will compete for the job. The Cowboys will go into training camp looking for return specialists to replace Dwayne Harris.
Jason Garrett kept his job with an unexpected playoff run last season; he’ll be expected to produce even more this season. The Cowboys kept defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli and offensive play-caller Scott Linehan. The addition of Hardy should help the pass rush, but a big question remains about how the Cowboys will replace Murray. They should contend for the division title, but the NFC title still might be a few more good players away.
Prediction: 1st in NFC East
When Stanford hired Jim Harbaugh for the 2007 season, the move was hardly considered a stroke of genius. It was hardly even the biggest coaching move of the year.
That year, Nick Saban was hired at Alabama, Butch Davis returned to the college game at North Carolina, Dennis Erickson returned to a big-time program at Arizona State.
Move forward eight seasons, and hardly a day seems to go by when now-Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh isn’t in the news for one reason or another. He hasn’t coached a game at his alma mater, but he’s already shaken up the Big Ten and national scene.
Will a championship follow? Perhaps. Harbaugh has already won the title for Summer 2015. Here’s how:
April 24: Harbaugh vs. the SEC
In the absence of (actual) conference realignment drama or a controversial Heisman-winning quarterback, the biggest ongoing news story of the summer months surrounded satellite camps.
Big Ten coaches, starting with Penn State’s James Franklin, had poked this bear before, conducting camps for high school athletes in SEC territory. Harbaugh, though, became the focal point this summer, inviting two coaches from “every football playing college in AMERICA” to Exposure U in Ann Arbor.
Harbaugh invited coaches restricted from working a camp outside of a 50-mile radius — i.e. SEC and ACC coaches — to serve as a keynote speaker.
May 15: Harbaugh demonstrates proper inflation
PeruBall 2015 - Padre Joe assures proper PSI HaHa pic.twitter.com/0YYHFy70Zh— Coach Harbaugh (@CoachJim4UM) May 15, 2015
We’re sure this is all in good fun and not a shot at a fellow Michigan quarterback who happens to be a four-time Super Bowl champ and the center of Deflategate.
Either way, Harbaugh tweaked the Patriots and Tom Brady with this tweet from his annual mission trip to Peru.
June 5: Harbaugh goes shirtless
Overheard in Prattville: "Let's see Nick Saban do that." More video of Harbaugh running around without a shirt. pic.twitter.com/L7RorjW0iL— Alex Scarborough (@AlexS_ESPN) June 5, 2015
Once Harbaugh actually got around to hosting his satellite camp in the backyard of Alabama and Auburn at Prattville High outside of Montgomery, he ensured the moment went viral.
On the hot June afternoon, Harbaugh ditched his long sleeve Michigan T-shirt and joined the high schoolers in a made-up game of Peru Ball.
June 8: Paul Finebaum? Never Heard of Him
There’s not a ton of reason for the Michigan coach and ex-Wolverines QB who spent his entire head coaching career in the state of California should know much of anything about Paul Finebaum.
Nonetheless, the exchange between an Alabama high school coach and a perplexed Harbaugh regarding the nationally syndicated voice of Southern sports is another reminder Harbaugh lives in a different world than the rest of us.
June 17: Jim Harbaugh’s America
Not surprisingly, no SEC coaches took up Harbaugh’s offer to serve as keynote speaker at Exposure U. Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, though, did.
At the event, USA Today’s George Schroeder got this gem of a quote:
“In my America, you’re allowed to cross state borders. That’s the America I know.”
June 20: Lil Wayne is a fan
Michigan managed to get a signed jersey in the hands of Lil Wayne, which can never be a bad thing in recruiting.
July 1: An interview gone wrong
In my experience of participating in interviews, I've found it takes 2 to produce a clunker! I'll take 50% responsibility 4 this clunker.— Coach Harbaugh (@CoachJim4UM) July 1, 2015
Anyone who has ever interview Jim Harbaugh knows the process can be a mixed bag. He can be golden — see the “in my America” quote — or he can be completely disinterested, as he was on national radio with ESPN’s Colin Cowherd.
There’s only so much that even the most patient bosses can take, and it appears that Giants ownership is finally reaching its limit. Last season was a disaster. They’ve now suffered back-to-back losing seasons for the first time under Tom Coughlin. In the three years since they won Super Bowl XLVI, they haven’t made the playoffs once.
That is the failure that hovers over the Giants’ 2015 season. And any thought that John Mara still has patience with Coughlin and GM Jerry Reese was erased with his last answer in his season-ending press conference. He was asked if 2015 would be a “win or else proposition” for many of his employees.
“I don’t think that’s an unfair statement,” Mara said.
And so it begins. It’s either the end of the Coughlin era, or the Giants’ long-awaited return to prominence. And there seems to be very little room in between.
Considering all the questions hovering over Eli Manning heading into last season, his 2014 was remarkable. Last summer, he was answering questions about his injured ankle, the 27 interceptions he threw the year before, and his ability to learn a new offense for the first time in his career. In his 11th season, Manning threw for 4,410 yards and 30 touchdowns and had career high 63.1 completion percentage. His answer was one of his finest statistical seasons as he led the Giants’ offense back into the top 10.
This year they’re aiming higher — much higher — because they believe they have an offensive arsenal that compares to any team in the league. Start with the incomparable Odell Beckham Jr., the receiver who became an overnight superstar as a rookie. In 12 games he had what would’ve been a great season for most receivers in 16 games (91-1,305-12), and he did it despite being the Giants’ only viable option at times.
This season, Beckham expects to be flanked by former Pro Bowl receiver Victor Cruz, whom the Giants hope will make a full recovery from the knee injury suffered last season. And the inconsistent but dangerous Rueben Randle will be better off as the No. 3. Randle had a career-high 938 receiving yards, but his yards per catch dipped from 14.9 to 13.2, and he scored only three touchdowns. Manning also will now have a running back to throw to out of the backfield — ex-Patriot Shane Vereen — which is supposed to be a very key component in offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo’s plan. Vereen caught 52 passes last year for New England.
The key to all this, though, is the offensive line, which could give the running game a boost and give Manning more time to find his targets. They believe they’ll be better because guard Geoff Schwartz, last year’s big free agent, will be back after an injury-plagued season. They also drafted big Ereck Flowers, who should take over at right tackle, which would allow Justin Pugh to move inside to guard.
The Giants have the potential to have their best line — and best offense — since their Super Bowl team.
It’s "Back to the Future" for the Giants after yet another disastrous defensive performance last season under now-ex-defensive coordinator Perry Fewell. There was no doubt whom Coughlin was going to tab as Fewell’s replacement — the popular Steve Spagnuolo, who was the Giants’ defensive coordinator in 2007 and 2008 and was the architect of the plan that beat the undefeated Patriots in Super Bowl XLII.
Of course, “Spags” had a loaded team back then that included Hall of Fame defensive end Michael Strahan and a stable of young, talented pass rushers. This time around his cupboard is much more bare. The Giants’ entire pass rush hinges on defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, who got the “franchise” tag this offseason. He had a brief resurgence at the end of last season, but it could’ve been the by-product of playing some bad teams.
The team applied the franchise tag to its best defender in the offseason and reportedly had offered Pierre-Paul a $60 million contract extension, but that was before he seriously injured his hands in a July 4th fireworks accident. The damage includes the amputation of his right index finger as well as multiple fractures to his right thumb. Right now, JPP is expected to play this season, but this incident has definitely brought his future with the team back to the forefront, as he has yet to sign his one-year franchise tender, which would pay him $14.8 million this season, and the Giants have since pulled their contract offer.
Spagnuolo will bring an aggressive, attacking scheme that his players will love. He will find ways to utilize promising defensive end Damontre Moore, who is a pass-rush specialist but struggles against the run. He will bring corners and safeties on frequent blitzes, which will help a secondary that has some big question marks (corners Prince Amukamara and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie are coming off injury-plagued seasons, and with Antrel Rolle gone the safety spot looks like a big, black hole).
The key to making that work, though, is the presence of one premier pass rusher to get most of the offense’s attention, and to shrug off that attention and still make his presence felt. Pierre-Paul used to be able to do that. And the Giants’ defense could be very good if he’s the old “JPP” again.
The Giants haven’t had to worry about their kicker (Josh Brown) or punter (Steve Weatherford) the last few years. Brown is as accurate as any kicker in the league, and Weatherford — who battled through painful torn ligaments in his ankle last season — is a coach’s dream, at least when he’s healthy. The coverage teams on kicks and punts were even improved last season.
It’s the Giants’ return game that’s been dreadful, which is why they over-spent on Dwayne Harris, a virtually unknown Cowboys receiver/returner. The hope is that he’ll bring the speed and explosiveness they’ve been missing in their return game since they had a healthy Domenik Hixon. It also allows them to keep Beckham off of special teams, because until Harris arrived, Beckham was looking like their only option.
Harris — who also could be a terrific gunner on punt coverage teams — will still need solid play in front of him, and the Giants think they’ve found a small army of good special teamers both in free agency and in recent draft classes. It didn’t go unnoticed that some of their free-agent additions, such as linebackers Jonathan Casillas and JT Thomas, are good special teamers too. The Giants’ beleaguered unit needs as much help as it can get.
The Giants would never use injuries as an excuse, but how can you not factor that in when thinking about how much better they’ll be this year? They had injuries along their offensive and defensive lines, lost their previous No. 1 receiver (Cruz), their middle linebacker (Jon Beason), their top corner (Amukamara), their nickel corner (Walt Thurmond) and, for a time, their No. 1 running back (Rashad Jennings). No wonder the Giants finished 6–10.
But here’s the thing: They still had a top-10 offense, and there were at least four winnable games where a little luck and health might have made a difference.
That’s why they’re primed for a bounce-back year. They are essentially getting their 2014 free-agent class back, along with their ’15 class. They are adding help to free the unstoppable Beckham from double-teams. They’ve added a better defensive coordinator who’ll bring in a more successful scheme. Barring another onslaught of injuries, this team should be much improved and remain in the hunt in the NFC East.
Prediction: 3rd in NFC East
Chip Kelly’s short tenure as Philadelphia’s coach has been anything but dull. It’s too early to tell if the many changes Kelly has made will pay off in postseason success, but there can be no denying the interest the team has created. In a town starving for good news in the light of the horrible play of the Phillies, Sixers and Flyers, the Eagles’ offseason personnel binge was a welcome diversion from the carnage afflicting the city’s other professional teams.
Now in his third year with the Birds, Kelly is completely in charge of the team on and off the field. The team is all his, and if some have been turned off by the decisions he’s made, Kelly frankly doesn’t care. He has a plan, and as one of the rare NFL coaches who also handles the personnel end of the business, he is in a unique position to carry it out. After two straight seasons of 10 wins — but no playoff success — the Philadelphia community is expecting more in 2015. It’s up to Kelly to prove that he knows what he’s doing.
The star of the Eagles’ offense is the scheme, which features a high-speed, run-first spread attack designed to leave opponents panting and confused. It worked well last year, since Philadelphia was fifth in the league in total offense, third in points per game and ninth in rushing. But thanks to a few significant offseason moves, there is no guarantee the Eagles will be able to replicate that success. Further, the success that top defenses — Seattle, San Francisco, Indianapolis included — had against Philadelphia last year may have created a blueprint for 2015 opponents.
The biggest change is at running back, where LeSean McCoy is off to Buffalo after rushing for 2,926 yards the past two seasons. By the end of last year, there were whispers that Kelly wasn’t happy with his featured back, who at times waited for a hole to emerge, rather than sticking his foot in the ground and powering straight ahead. That’s why the Eagles signed DeMarco Murray, who rushed for 1,845 yards and 13 scores — both tops in the league — last year for Dallas. Murray is more of a plant-and-cut guy, and Kelly likes that. He won’t get 392 carries, though, like he did last year, thanks to the arrival of Ryan Mathews from San Diego and the return of versatile Darren Sproles, although Mathews missed a big part of 2014 with a foot injury.
If Murray plays like he did last year, it will make life easy for new quarterback Sam Bradford, whom the team acquired in a trade with St. Louis. Although there were rumors the Birds were going to trade the team for Marcus Mariota, no deal happened, and Bradford is under center, so long as he doesn’t get injured again. Now on his third ACL, Bradford has played a total of seven games the past two seasons. If healthy, he can be accurate and productive, although he has limited potential to run from the zone read. Inconsistent Mark Sanchez will back him up.
For the second straight year, the Eagles lost a top-shelf receiver. After 2013, DeSean Jackson departed. Now, they will do without Jeremy Maclin (85 catches, 10 TDs), who signed with Kansas City. His loss hurts a receiving corps that now needs big contributions from second-year man Jordan Matthews, who has potential but isn’t a No. 1-type, disappointing Riley Cooper, veteran pick-up Miles Austin and rookie Nelson Agholor of USC. Agholor, the team’s first-round draft pick, is a Maclin clone who has good quickness and ball skills but won’t force opponents to double-team him. Tight end Brent Celek is a warrior, but he saw his production drop last year, so it’s time for third-year man Zach Ertz to develop into a major contributor.
The Eagles didn’t address the offensive line in the draft, but that’s not the worst thing in the world. Left tackle Jason Peters is still one of the best around, and center Jason Kelce is an All-Pro candidate. Right tackle Lane Johnson is solid but not yet a standout. There will be a new starter at left guard, as Evan Mathis was somewhat surprisingly released in June. Allen Barbre, who was slated to start at right guard before Mathis was released, will likely switch sides, while the other guard slot probably won’t be settled until the end of training camp, if not later.
Kelly’s offensive philosophy puts tremendous stress on the defense, and last year that was not a good thing. The Eagles finished 28th in the league in total D, tied for 22nd in points allowed and 31st against the pass. There have been some big changes made on the back end, but there remains no guarantee the unit can hold up against better opposition.
The trade for McCoy netted inside linebacker Kiko Alonso, who had 87 solo tackles and four interceptions in 2013 but missed all of last year with a torn ACL. If healthy, he is a downhill playmaker. If not, the Eagles are in trouble. The team re-upped inside man DeMeco Ryans, who tore his Achilles tendon in the eighth game of 2014 and could struggle getting back to top form. Mychal Kendricks spent the offseason upset about his contract and Alonso’s arrival, but if he plays hard, he can be a difference maker.
Sack man Connor Barwin and Brandon Graham are the main outside threats in Bill Davis’ 3-4, and it is up to Graham — who showed flashes last year — to play consistently. The Birds hope third-round pick Jordan Hicks can provide good depth inside, while second-year man Marcus Smith, the Eagles’ first-round pick last year, is still waiting to make his first NFL tackle.
The Eagles’ secondary was horrible last year, and fans welcomed the departures of Bradley Fletcher and Cary Williams. Philadelphia will use former Seattle corner Byron Maxwell on one side and hope he wasn’t aided by the presence of Richard Sherman opposite him in the Emerald City. New addition Walter Thurmond could play on the other side, but he is more of a slot corner, as is holdover Brandon Boykin. By midseason, second-round pick Eric Rowe could have the job. Malcolm Jenkins is tough at free safety, but there is a hole next to him.
Up front, left end Fletcher Cox should be a Pro Bowler, while big Bennie Logan is a drain plug in the middle, and Cedric Thornton is a solid end.
The Eagles lucked into something good when they acquired Cody Parkey, who made 32-of-36 kicks last year, including 4-of-4 from 50 and beyond. Punter Donnie Jones averaged 43.8 yards per kick last year, a number that needs to improve. Agholor adds excitement to the return game, and Sproles is a threat to go the distance at all times.
This is a tough team to read because there are so many variables due to injury. If Bradford is healthy, the offense should be potent, thanks to Murray, but there are big concerns at wide receiver. The secondary is better (how could it be worse?), but the Eagles still need Alonso and Ryans to make healthy returns in order to make the second line of defense potent.
The Eagles will continue to try to outscore people, and while that works against some teams, it isn’t good enough against the NFC’s best.
Prediction: 2nd in NFC East
If 2014 showed the Washington Redskins in a state of anchorless drift — toggling between three quarterbacks, losing five games by 20 or more points and beset by the dysfunction and intrigue that have come to define the Daniel Snyder era — the 2015 version, at least in theory, will emphasize stability.
For Year 2 of Jay Gruden’s tenure as head coach, the team hired a proven personnel man, in Scot McCloughan, to be its GM — and more important, gave him full autonomy on personnel moves. The Redskins also announced early in the offseason that Robert Griffin III would be the starting quarterback — ending any controversy before it could begin.
The draft brought an emphasis on size and volume, as the team amassed 10 picks and earned widespread praise in the industry for its strategy. But having won just seven games the past two seasons, and with one winning season since 2007, this probably won’t be a speedy turnaround.
For a coach who came in with a reputation as an offensive savant, Gruden’s first year steering the Redskins’ offense was a disaster. The quarterback position became a revolving door of mediocrity, and the three starters — Griffin, Kirk Cousins and Colt McCoy — were sacked a staggering total of 58 times. Meanwhile the running game, behind top back Alfred Morris, regressed from the year before. Morris, in his third year, saw his carries, yards and yards per carry decline for the second straight year.
But Gruden and McCloughan ended the QB controversy early in the offseason by not only naming Griffin the starter but also picking up his costly option for 2016 — a surprising show of confidence. Then they set about building Griffin a better offensive line. They used three of their 10 draft picks on offensive linemen — including their top pick, fifth overall, on Iowa tackle Brandon Scherff, who is expected to start on the right side, opposite veteran Trent Williams. They also used a third-round pick to take running back Matt Jones out of Florida, a big, punishing runner.
With DeSean Jackson (a league-leading 20.9 yards per reception), Pierre Garçon and Andre Roberts as wideouts and Jordan Reed at tight end, the Redskins have solid skill-position targets for Griffin. The key in 2015 will be protecting him better. If he gets sacked at a rate of roughly four per game, as he did in 2014, it will be another long year.
But despite — or perhaps because of — the faith the Redskins showed in him, this will be a pivotal season for Griffin. If he has any hope of recapturing the dynamism he showed as a rookie in 2012 (if that is even possible after two injury-plagued seasons), it needs to happen in 2015. Griffin has always been big on personal mottos, from 2012’s “Know Your Why” to 2013’s “All In For Week One” to 2014’s “This Is For Us.” But after absorbing copious amounts of criticism for his penchant for oversharing with the media and on his own social-media accounts, Griffin has been determined to scale back in both regards. That may explain why, for a 2015 motto, he appears to be going with, “Talk Small and Play Big.”
With Cousins and McCoy both expected to be on the roster again, Gruden probably won’t wait long to pull the trigger on a quarterback change if Griffin doesn’t play big.
The Redskins have almost totally revamped a defense that badly needed revamping. Change started at the top, when the team parted ways with embattled coordinator Jim Haslett and tabbed Chargers linebackers coach Joe Barry as his replacement. Next, the Redskins severed ties with pass rusher Brian Orakpo, who never developed into the dominant player the team envisioned when it picked him in the first round of the 2009 draft.
The leader of Barry’s defense now is unquestionably outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan, who established himself as arguably the best in the NFC East with 13.5 sacks and five forced fumbles in 2014. To build around Kerrigan, the Redskins turned both to free agency (linemen Stephen Paea and Terrance Knighton, and defensive backs Jeron Johnson and Chris Culliver) and the draft, where they used two of their top six draft picks on linebackers — Mississippi State’s Preston Smith, who could become Orakpo’s replacement on the edge, and tackling machine Martrell Spaight of Arkansas.
McCloughan also turned to his past in bolstering the defensive line and secondary, signing lineman Ricky Jean-Francois and trading for two-time Pro Bowl free safety Dashon Goldson, both of whom he selected in the draft at previous stops.
It is possible, when it all shakes out, that the Redskins could have six new starters on defense, a staggering number — until you realize how bad this unit was in 2014.
It’s difficult to recall a time when the Redskins’ special teams were anything other than abysmal. It’s no wonder the team targeted this area in their draft haul of 10 picks, taking, among others, a potential return man (wide receiver Jamison Crowder), a core coverage man (safety Kyshoen Jarrett) and at least two other players who could have immediate impacts on special teams (linebacker Spaight and receiver Evan Spencer). Otherwise, most of the major players from 2014 — punter Tress Way, kicker Kai Forbath, long snapper Nick Sundberg and primary return man Roberts — all return in 2015. The most immediate question will be whether Crowder, the fourth-round pick, supplants Roberts as the top punt-return man. Don’t be surprised as well if Forbath, an accurate kicker but one lacking in length, finds himself fending off a challenger for his job in training camp.
In previous Redskins seasons, management may have chosen to blow up the franchise by ditching Griffin, trading away picks to move up in the draft and nab the latest flavor-of-the-month phenom signal-caller. To their credit, McCloughan and Gruden avoided that temptation and did exactly the opposite — doubling down on Griffin as their starting quarterback, trading down in the draft to stockpile extra picks and emerging with some new cornerstone players and a lot of added depth.
As before, so much of the offensive success comes down to keeping Griffin healthy and on his feet. If the newly rebuilt offensive line is as solid as the Redskins hope, that will be much easier to envision, and may even deliver a boost to a running game that hasn’t been the same since Griffin stopped being a significant running threat himself.
Defensively, there will be new looks both up front and in the secondary. With Orakpo gone and veteran cornerback DeAngelo Hall likely fighting to keep his job in training camp, the very soul of the defense is in the process of being transformed — which, if you know anything about the Redskins, can only be seen as a good thing.
This probably isn’t a team that can challenge the Cowboys and Eagles atop the division in 2015, but even a finish somewhere around .500 — which is entirely
Prediction: 4th in NFC East
The frustration had been building, and when Christian Hackenberg bounced a short pass to Bill Belton on 3rd-and-10 in the third quarter of Penn State’s Big Ten opener against Northwestern, it finally boiled over.
Belton jabbed a finger at Hackenberg’s chest as the offense retreated to the sideline. The two players exchanged words, Hackenberg stalked off and legions of lip-reading Penn State fans watching at home tried to figure out what they’d just seen. Was it, as Hackenberg said afterward, “just the emotions of the game,” a game the Nittany Lions went on to lose, 29–6? Or was it something more, a window into the Lions’ mindset as they coped with the ongoing fallout from an array of NCAA sanctions, the loss of several key offensive players to graduation and another top-to-bottom coaching overhaul, the program’s second in a two-year span?
Whatever it was, Hackenberg was at the center of it. He had enjoyed a magnificent debut season, winning Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors in 2013. But his sophomore season was an endurance test, marred by incompletions, interceptions, confrontations and, most of all, sacks. The conciliatory tweets that he and Belton traded the night of the Northwestern game had a nothing-to-see-here-folks tone to them, but when that episode was followed by a heated exchange between Hackenberg and offensive coordinator John Donovan during a 20–19 loss to Maryland, it was easy to draw a different conclusion.
Looking back, Hackenberg concedes that last season “was tough mentally on me.” But the tensions that flared up last fall have long since cooled, and he insists that the difficulties he went through have only toughened him up. If that sounds like revisionist history, well, Hackenberg concedes that, too. “You look at those experiences, and some will say, ‘That kid has no reason but to say that it was a terrible experience.’ But for me, I loved it. It was one of those things that pushed me to the brink where I’ve never really been pushed before at this level.”
Hackenberg says the challenges Penn State faced last season strengthened his relationship with the coaching staff, and the feeling appears to be mutual, as coach James Franklin has defended his quarterback throughout the offseason.
Related: More on Penn State is avaialble in the Athlon Sports 2015 Big Ten Football Preivew Magazine
“Last year, Christian spent most of his time solving problems, running from problems, taking a lot of criticism, which I’m really, really defensive about,” Franklin says. “To be honest with you, looking back at it, I’m a little angry that he faced some of the criticism he did. I don’t know if it was fair, just or realistic.”
That criticism was rooted in a couple of preconceptions that gained currency after Franklin’s hiring but have since received some pushback.
The first was that Hackenberg didn’t fit the system Franklin and Donovan wanted to run. He had been recruited by Bill O’Brien in the hope that he could be developed into a great drop-back passer a la Tom Brady, whom O’Brien had coached as an offensive assistant with the New England Patriots. As his freshman season drew to a close — he passed for 339 yards and four touchdowns in a 31–24 road upset of 14th-ranked Wisconsin — those hopes seemed to be coming true.
But when O’Brien left for the Houston Texans a month later, Penn State replaced him with Vanderbilt’s Franklin, and the quick take was that the Lions’ new coach preferred a dual-threat QB. The Commodores’ starting quarterback for most of the 2013 season had been Austyn Carta-Samuels, whose reputation, to the extent that he had one at a Northeastern school located far from SEC country, was as a run-pass guy. Same went for his predecessor, Jordan Rodgers, who was the Commodores’ second-leading rusher in 2011 with 420 yards. With Franklin in charge at Penn State, it seemed logical to assume that those players personified the new QB template.
But look deeper into Franklin’s résumé, and the picture becomes cloudier. Carta-Samuels may have developed a reputation as a runner before transferring from Wyoming, but he completed 68.7 percent of his passes for 2,268 yards as a senior at Vanderbilt. Likewise, Rodgers was primarily a passer as a senior, completing just under 60 percent of his attempts for 2,539 yards. Franklin had also worked with Danny O’Brien at Maryland and Josh Freeman at Kansas State, two quarterbacks known more for their arms than their legs.
At Penn State, he’s already gotten a verbal commitment from Jake Zembiec of Rochester, N.Y., one of the top drop-back passers in the Class of 2016. If Zembiec sees himself as a good fit with the Lions, it’s because the quarterback’s job in Franklin’s ideal offense is to “get us into the best play and distribute the ball to our playmakers, and every once in a while pull the ball down and take a six-yard sack and turn it into a six-yard gain.”
That’s Hackenberg’s game, too. So why did he struggle so much last year if the system was able to accommodate his strengths? Maybe because of another preconception that proved to be off-base: that the Lions had enough manpower to overcome the loss of five offensive starters to graduation and injury. They didn’t. Not by a long shot.
Allen Robinson had left a huge void after accounting for 40 percent of Penn State’s receptions in 2013, and with the second-leading pass catcher in school history off to the NFL, Penn State turned to sophomore Geno Lewis and freshmen DaeSean Hamilton, Chris Godwin and Saeed Blacknall. After a strong start, the young wideouts faded in Big Ten play, failing to get much if any separation against defenses that were focused on stopping the pass.
Even more troublesome was the performance of the offensive line. Only one of Penn State’s first-teamers had ever started a college game prior to opening day, and two of its top three guards had been playing on the defensive line only a few months earlier. The result: a Big Ten-worst 44 sacks and countless pressures and knockdowns.
In the end, Hackenberg’s completion rate went from 58.9 percent as a freshman to 55.8 last fall. His touchdown-to-interception ratio went from 20-to-10 to 12-to-15. He did throw for 2,977 yards, 22 more than he’d thrown for the year before, but he also attempted 92 more passes than he had in 2013.
The offense’s overall decline contributed to a four-game Big Ten losing streak, and there were times when the frustration showed. One of the reasons that Donovan was on the sideline for part of the season rather than in the booth was because he felt he needed to be a real presence for Hackenberg rather than just a voice in a headset. Sometimes, even that didn’t work.
“He’s just a competitive guy who gets his juices flowing,” Donovan says. “He can get frustrated at times. (The coaching staff) gets it. There are certain ways you have to handle yourself because you know the camera’s on you and the team’s looking at you. You can’t always show frustration. There are times where you have to be who you are and show your emotions, but there are times where you have to understand that you’ve got to keep it in check and handle (the emotions), too. He’s learning that, and he will just keep getting better.”
Hackenberg ended the season with one of his best games, passing for 371 yards, four TDs and no interceptions in a 31–30 overtime victory over Boston College in the Pinstripe Bowl. The line gave up only two sacks, and his young receivers also came up big, as Hamilton, Lewis and Godwin caught seven passes apiece. It may have been the last game of the 2014 season, but for Hackenberg, who looked rejuvenated after a taking a month to recover from all the punishment he’d absorbed, the Pinstripe Bowl may in some ways have been the first game of the 2015 season.
“I think this year we’re so much more comfortable with what we’re doing and understanding the expectations,” he says. “We’re going be able to focus on us now and not on outside factors, whatever they may have been in the past, making sure that we’re the best team we can be. If that happens, all the rest will take care of itself.”
By Matt Herb, BlueWhiteIllustrated.com
Having watched the Jaguars win seven games during the first two years of the Dave Caldwell-Gus Bradley Era, owner Shad Khan wouldn’t have been faulted this offseason if he had publicly mandated a specific number of wins for 2015. A regime’s third season is usually prove-it-or-else time. But he has bypassed that request at every turn.
Still, Khan clearly expects more. More wins. More close games. More touchdowns. More takeaways. And he made his thoughts known when addressing fans in mid-February: “We owe (fans) better results on game day. I know that. Dave knows that. Gus knows that.”
Knowing that, Caldwell (the general manager) and Bradley (the coach) went to work. They shook up the coaching staff. They signed a slew of free agents, six of whom are expected to start. And they added an eight-player draft class that will feature at least two opening-day starters.
The Jaguars reacted accordingly to a 3–13 season in which they didn’t score much (league-low 15.6 points per game), couldn’t run it (a misleading 21st), and didn’t protect the passer (league-high 71 sacks allowed).
In are offensive coordinator Greg Olson, offensive line coach Doug Marrone, tight end Julius Thomas, right tackle Jermey Parnell, center Stefen Wisniewski, running back T.J. Yeldon, slot receiver Rashad Greene and, potentially, left guard A.J. Cann. All of the changes are geared toward giving quarterback Blake Bortles every chance to be successful. In 14 games last year, Bortles showed an ability to extend plays (by sliding around the pocket) and equal parts athleticism/smarts by rushing for 419 yards without taking any major hits. The guy is a playmaker. The Jaguars need him to be a difference-maker.
The Jaguars hope that the newcomers, combined with the development of players such as left tackle Luke Joeckel and the second-year receiving trio of Allen Robinson, Marqise Lee and Allen Hurns, can help Bortles produce an offensive revival. Joeckel has spent the offseason adding lower- and upper-body strength so he can more effectively smash opponents in the run game and hold up against them in the passing game. Houston has J.J. Watt, Tennessee has Brian Orakpo and Indianapolis has Trent Cole. Joeckel must be ready to face each of them twice within the AFC South.
Watch out for Robinson. He was on his way to 75 catches before being shut down after Game 10 with a foot injury. He’s not a blazer, but he knows how to find the first-down marker and the openings in zone coverage. The Jaguars prefer to keep Robinson, Lee and Hurns on the outside, which created a need to draft Greene, a prolifically productive player at Florida State (school-record 270 catches) who will play in the slot.
Success for the Jaguars’ offense will also center around three newcomers: Thomas, who had 24 touchdown catches the last two years for Denver and gives the Jaguars a red-zone component they’ve lacked for years; Parnell, who was a spot starter for Dallas but was given big money ($14.5 million guaranteed) to solidify a position that has been leaky for most of this decade; and Yeldon, the 36th overall pick who had two 1,000-yard rushing years at Alabama.
The Jaguars were similarly flawed on defense last year, finishing 27th against the run and tied for last in interceptions (six). And the changes weren’t subtle. During the opening hours of free agency, defensive end Jared Odrick, outside linebacker Dan Skuta, cornerback Davon House and free safety Sergio Brown were signed to contracts worth a combined $32.1 million guaranteed. And then the Jaguars drafted pass rusher Dante Fowler Jr., free safety James Sample and defensive tackle Michael Bennett.
Fowler, though, tore his left ACL in the team’s first rookie minicamp practice and is out for the season. That leaves Odrick as the key newcomer up front. He will play the strong-side end spot, and the Jaguars hope he can be a better all-around producer than Red Bryant was last year. At the weak-side spot without projected starter Fowler, the rotation will include Chris Clemons, Andre Branch and Ryan Davis. Inside, Sen’Derrick Marks has developed into a productive, every-down tackle, but is rehabilitating from a late December ACL injury. Although ahead of schedule in late April, the guess is that the Jaguars will bring him along slowly so he can be ready for Week 1. But it’s likely he will see his playing time reduced while he works back into shape. The other starter, Roy Miller, is also coming off knee surgery but is expected to be full-go for camp.
The loss of Fowler could have a crippling effect on the Jaguars’ pass rush. Bradley and coordinator Bob Babich don’t call many blitzes (less than 20 percent in 2015), relying on a four-man rush to provide pressure. That may not be the best strategy this year.
Linebacker depth is a concern. The starters are set entering camp — Paul Posluszny in the middle, Skuta on the strong side and Telvin Smith on the weak side. But the Jaguars, who didn’t address the position in the draft, are in trouble if they have injury issues. Skuta and Smith are intriguing for different reasons. Skuta can rush the passer on third down, and Smith is simply around the football at all times. A key is Posluszny’s health. He missed the last half of 2014 with a torn chest muscle.
This is a huge season for strong safety Johnathan Cyprien, now in his third year in the league. “It’s time,” defensive backs coach DeWayne Walker says. Time for Cyprien to change games. Time for him to create turnovers. Time for him to be noticed. The Jaguars hope that settling on Brown or Sample at free safety will create more opportunities for Cyprien to play in the box. House was signed from Green Bay to bring experience to the cornerback spot, where he’ll lead Demetrius McCray, Aaron Colvin and Dwayne Gratz. Colvin could be the best of them. An ACL injury dropped him to the fourth round last year, but he played the final six games and showed flashes of being a playmaker in coverage.
Kicker Josh Scobee, punter Bryan Anger and long snapper Carson Tinker will return for their 12th, fourth and third seasons, respectively, with the Jaguars. Scobee was 17-of-20 last year on field goals from under 50 yards, and Anger posted a net average of 39.6 yards. Where this unit will undergo some change is in the return game. Ace Sanders has had two years to give the punt return game a spark and hasn’t produced. The candidates to replace him are Tandon Doss (out last year with an ankle injury) and Greene, the rookie receiver. Running back Denard Robinson will get the first shot on kickoff returns.
This entire season hinges on the Jaguars’ offense in general and the team’s early-season offense in particular. Can the players, chiefly Bortles, get up to speed with Olson’s offense? Can second-year receivers Robinson, Lee and Hurns take steps forward in their progress? Can Yeldon and Thomas emerge as much-needed playmakers? If all of that happens, a jump from three wins to maybe .500 could be in the offing.
Prediction: 3rd in AFC South
“We’re close,” he said, despite evidence to the contrary. Heads shook in disbelief. Close to what?
It’s not just last January that sticks in the scarred psyches of this franchise and fans. It’s the previous January at Foxborough, Mass., as well, when the Colts were run over 43–22 by the Patriots in an AFC Divisional playoff rout.
The Colts have won 11 regular-season games in three consecutive years, and they’ve advanced one round farther in each of the past two postseasons. But they’ve been unable to survive the Patriots games. The defending Super Bowl champions visit Indianapolis again in 2015. If the Colts are going to take that next step, they must dethrone the champs, not just on Oct. 18 but in January.
Quarterback Andrew Luck is coming off his best Pro Bowl season yet after leading the NFL with 40 touchdown passes. He’s got what is probably the best supporting cast in his four seasons with the additions of running back Frank Gore and wide receiver Andre Johnson and the first-round draft selection of wide receiver Phillip Dorsett to go with Pro Bowl wide receiver T.Y. Hilton and the tight end tandem of Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener.
Luck spoke at the outset of offseason training activities about improving red-zone efficiency and cutting down on turnovers. He had 22 of the team’s 31 giveaways, almost double his number from the previous season. The Colts ranked 12th in touchdowns scored when driving inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. While 42-year-old kicker Adam Vinatieri is still a reliable three-point option, the NFL’s No. 6 scoring offense — at 28.6 points per game — could have put up more.
This next offense could be one of the league’s best, presuming Luck (100 sacks taken in three seasons) has time to spread the ball around to a receiving corps that improved despite 14-year star Reggie Wayne not being re-signed. Hilton and Dorsett are speed burners. Johnson, the Houston Texans’ all-time receiving leader, is determined to prove he has something left. The 33-year-old target provides size and experience. Gore, 32, is also motivated to show there’s still life left in his legs. Johnson and Gore came to Indianapolis because they thought the Colts gave them the best shot at an elusive Super Bowl ring. And they link that objective to Luck.
Four losses to the Patriots during the three-year era of general manager Ryan Grigson and head coach Chuck Pagano have been by an average of 29 points. New England has scored 189 points, 47.3 per game, in those blowouts. So while the Colts own the AFC South Division and have progressed to near the top of the league in status, they have to figure out a way to stop or least reduce points scored by the Patriots.
Outside linebacker Trent Cole arrived via free agency from Philadelphia and should team with franchise all-time sack leader Robert Mathis to form one of the best league’s best pass-rush tandems. That is, if Mathis can get healthy. He missed all of last season due to a four-game suspension and Achilles tendon tear. The Colts’ 3-4 pass rush could still be formidable if Mathis needs time to find his stride. Outside linebacker Jonathan Newsome led the team with 6.5 sacks as a rookie, and outside linebacker Erik Walden had six.
But the problem in playoffs past started with run defense. The Patriots ran for 177 yards and three scores last time, after 234 yards and six rushing TDs the year before. Defensive end Kendall Langford comes over from St. Louis and should be a solid run stuffer. Defensive tackle Arthur Jones needs to stay healthy — he started just three of nine games due to an ankle injury. The Colts traded up in the fifth round to draft Stanford nose tackle David Parry, evidence that the team isn’t sold on Josh Chapman and/or Montori Hughes as the only run-plugging answer. Stanford defensive end Henry Anderson was drafted in the third round and was considered by many to be a steal, given his high-motor ability to get consistent backfield penetration in college.
Inside linebacker Nate Irving was signed away from Denver to provide a stronger run-stopping option inside. While D’Qwell Jackson and Jerrell Freeman are tackling machines, Freeman is better suited for pass defense, blitzing and using his speed to run down ball carriers. The cornerback trio of Vontae Davis, Greg Toler and nickel back Darius Butler returns, but safety is a concern. Mike Adams, 34, made his first Pro Bowl last season. Dwight Lowery comes over from Atlanta, and hard-hitting Clayton Geathers was drafted in the fourth round. So the defense still has questions entering training camp.
Vinatieri, punter/kickoff specialist/holder Pat McAfee and long snapper Matt Overton might be the league’s best triumvirate. Vinatieri made 30-of-31 field goals. He didn’t miss until the season finale. McAfee boomed an NFL-best 70 touchbacks (on kickoffs) and was third in net punting average at 42.8 yards. Overton is almost always on the mark with his snaps. Dorsett is expected to get a crack at returning. The Colts were tied for second in kickoff returns but 26th in punt returns. Josh Cribbs was released a day after Dorsett was drafted. Dorsett impressed the Colts with his Hilton-like speed — he ran a 4.33 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine, then 4.27 and 4.29 at his pro day.
If Irsay is to be proven prophetic and the Colts have enough to exorcise Patriots demons, a lot has to go their way. Home-field advantage throughout the playoffs would be a start. Good health, including Mathis and along the offensive line, would be key. It’s possible but unlikely that everything will go according to plan. It almost never does.
The offense should be undeniably potent. There’s just too much talent, and Luck is a star on the rise. The Colts will pile up points. The question is defense. It must be more like the team that stopped Peyton Manning and Denver on the road in the playoffs to have any chance against the Patriots. Granted, Manning was playing on one leg due to an injury, but the Colts didn’t allow a touchdown after the first quarter. That game has Irsay believing his team is close.
Irsay spoke after the draft about how he expected the Colts to win at least two Super Bowls during the Luck era. The 55-year-old owner is haunted by the regret of a Manning era that produced only one Super Bowl win. Irsay has said that the Colts should have won more with their previous franchise quarterback. Irsay’s expectation is to win back-to-back titles at some point. He considers such an accomplishment a testament to greatness. The next round of Patriots games awaits. Maybe the Colts have what it takes, finally, to be great. That’s a big maybe.
Prediction: 1st in AFC South
The Tennessee Titans hope that Year 2 of the Ken Whisenhunt regime will be markedly better than Year 1. In Whisenhunt’s first season as head coach, the Titans bottomed out, going 2–14 and losing their final 10 games.
And while the sparse crowds at LP Field — now Nissan Stadium — reflected just how far this franchise has fallen, it might not be the worst thing in the long run. Sinking to such low depths allowed the Titans to finally embrace a rebuild after several years of treading water with middle-of-the-pack records and no playoff appearances. Beginning with the drafting of 2014 Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota to build around at quarterback, the Titans could have real hope for the future for the first time in a number of years, though it may take some time for that hope to be realized.
By drafting Mariota second overall, the Titans are banking that the former Duck can be a bird of a different feather when it comes to transitioning from Oregon’s hurry-up spread offense to a conventional pro-style scheme. Mariota has the physical skills, and the Titans were impressed most by his football acumen throughout the draft process. Still, there are basic components of playing the position — from the simplest things such as taking the snap under center and calling plays in the huddle to more complex components such as progressions — that will take time to master. Whisenhunt, who was rigid with scrambling quarterback Jake Locker a year ago, has promised to be more flexible to accommodate Mariota, who has already been penciled in as the starter over Zach Mettenberger.
At running back, the Titans appear to be in flux. Bishop Sankey, a second-round pick a year ago, disappointed with only 569 yards rushing, and veteran Shonn Greene was released in June, as the team appears willing to give fifth-round pick David Cobb every opportunity to handle the “big back” role. Sankey didn’t seem to have an extra gear as a rookie, while Greene was injured and inconsistent in two years in Tennessee. The wild card in the running back room is Dexter McCluster, signed to a free-agent deal a year ago and then wasted as the Titans never found a role for him. A Sankey/Cobb combination is probably what the Titans are hoping for as the season opens.
In the receiving corps, the Titans have done their best to upgrade a lackluster cast. Kendall Wright’s production dipped to just 57 catches after 94 in 2013, and Justin Hunter remains an enigma. The organization still believes Hunter has the talent to be an elite receiver, but he simply hasn’t shown the swagger that top-flight receivers display on the field. Enter second-round pick Dorial Green-Beckham, who seems to have plenty of that to go with a 6'5", 237-pound frame. Green-Beckham, a likely top-10 pick without his off-field issues, boldly says his goal is to score at least 10 touchdowns as a rookie. The Titans signed two former 1,000-yard receivers in free agency, adding Harry Douglas and Hakeem Nicks with the hope that both can bounce back after their production dropped dramatically in 2014.
Currently, the best weapon among the receivers is tight end Delanie Walker, the best free-agent signing of the Ruston Webster era as GM. Walker led the Titans with 63 catches for a franchise-record 890 yards receiving by a tight end. Not bad, considering that three different quarterbacks started last year. The Titans added journeyman Anthony Fasano as a free agent, in large part because Craig Stevens and Taylor Thompson (released in June) were both injured last year.
The offensive line’s lone bright spot was 2014 first-round pick Taylor Lewan, who became a starter after Michael Roos was injured (and later retired). Right guard Chance Warmack, the 2013 first-round pick, finally started to show promise by year’s end. Other than those two, it was a disaster. Left guard Andy Levitre, who signed a $46.8 million free-agent deal in 2013, was too often handled at the point of attack and was plagued by penalties as well. Center Brian Schwenke, who has been average in his two years, finished the year on injured reserve. The Titans used seven different tackles a year ago, thanks to injuries. None of them was effective. Starter Michael Oher struggled and was released. The Titans did bring back Byron Stingily to compete with free-agent signee Byron Bell, who played poorly in Carolina last year. The Titans hope that third-round pick Jeremiah Poutasi can claim a spot in camp.
The biggest move of the offseason for the defense wasn’t a player but a coach. Legendary defensive mind Dick LeBeau, a long-time friend of Whisenhunt, comes over after parting ways with the Steelers. Ray Horton still has the title of defensive coordinator, but LeBeau is calling the shots. Personnel-wise, the Titans needed upgrades after ranking 27th overall defensively and allowing 373 yards per game in 2014. Other than adding rookie Angelo Blackson on the defensive line, the Titans kept the status quo among the front three, where end Jurrell Casey is by far the best player. Nose tackle Sammie Hill is adequate, and Ropati Pitoitua, on the other end, is a decent run stopper, but not much as a pass rusher. End Karl Klug was re-signed and is a solid role player.
The Titans needed help at outside linebacker and signed Redskins free agent Brian Orakpo, who will help if he can stay healthy. They re-upped Derrick Morgan, who made a decent transition last year from 4-3 defensive end to 3-4 linebacker. Avery Williamson, a 2014 fifth-round pick, was a nice find with 79 tackles. He will start alongside Zach Brown, lost for the year in Week 1 with torn pectoral in 2014. That drops veteran Wesley Woodyard into a reserve role.
The secondary got a makeover in the offseason. Safety Bernard Pollard, who missed most of last year with an Achilles injury, popped off about the organization and was released. Da’Norris Searcy was imported from Buffalo to take his place. He will start alongside Michael Griffin, who has lost a step but still plays OK if there is sufficient talent around him. At cornerback, Jason McCourty is solid on one side, and Perrish Cox comes over from the 49ers as an upgrade over Blidi Wreh-Wilson, who struggled badly last year in coverage. Nickel back Coty Sensabaugh is so-so, but the Titans seem to like young backup safeties Marqueston Huff and Daimion Stafford, who could contribute in certain sub-packages.
The Titans made sure to re-sign reliable kicker Ryan Succop (19-of-22 on field goals), who came to the team after being cut by the Chiefs last year. Solid punter Brett Kern and long snapper Beau Brinkley received contract extensions as well. With Leon Washington not re-signed, McCluster should claim return duties. Seventh-round receiver Tre McBride or veteran Jacoby Ford could be options as well.
The Titans have a long way to go before they can return to respectability. They have chosen Mariota to lead them there. The talented quarterback passes the eye test and has the smarts to give the Titans their first franchise quarterback since Steve McNair. But it will probably take some time as he adjusts to an NFL offense. Expect the Titans to be better in 2015, but they’re probably still another offseason away from contending.
Prediction: 4th in AFC South
Coach Bill O’Brien knows he can’t expect the kind of improvement the Texans made in his first season, but it doesn’t mean they can’t challenge Indianapolis for the AFC South title and compete for a wild-card berth. Despite playing four quarterbacks and starting three, the Texans improved by an NFL-best seven victories to 9–7 and missed the playoffs on the last Sunday of the season. They added 13 veteran free agents and seven draft choices in an effort to increase firepower on both sides of the ball. They let go of the best player in franchise history, receiver Andre Johnson, and it better not backfire. They could have as many as eight new starters, including five on a defense that improved dramatically during a 4–1 finish that teased a football-crazed city that hasn’t had a team advance as far as the AFC Championship Game since the Oilers after the 1979 season.
If the Texans won nine games with three different starting quarterbacks, imagine what they’re capable of accomplishing if they develop stability at the most important position.
Ryan Fitzpatrick (Jets) and Case Keenum (Rams) were traded, and they took eight of the nine victories with them. In the first two starts of his career, Ryan Mallett was 1–1 but underwent season-ending surgery on a torn pectoral muscle. His competition is Brian Hoyer, a journeyman who went 7–6 as a starter in Cleveland last season. Like Mallett, Hoyer played for O’Brien and offensive coordinator George Godsey in New England. Hoyer, the most mobile of the group, has just 17 games of starting experience, but that’s 15 more than Mallett. Last year’s fourth-round pick, cannon-armed Tom Savage, is still watching and learning.
Whoever wins the job will miss Johnson, who was released and signed with AFC South rival Indianapolis after 12 exceptional seasons in Houston. DeAndre Hopkins emerged as a bona fide No. 1 go-to guy in 2014 with terrific ball skills and excellent hands. Opposite Hopkins, the Texans might take a receiver-by-committee approach. They have more candidates than the Republican party in third-round pick Jaelen Strong, veteran free agents Cecil Shorts and Nate Washington and holdovers Keshawn Martin and Damaris Johnson.
The coaches also need more production from the tight ends. Starter Garrett Graham and backups C.J. Fiedorowicz and Ryan Griffin combined for 32 catches. All have their strengths and weaknesses. Solving the quarterback issue might help the tight ends’ productivity.
O’Brien and Godsey like to run the ball as much as possible. Arian Foster, who battled a hamstring injury, and rookie Alfred Blue combined for almost 1,800 yards rushing and scored 16 touchdowns. The coaches need to do a better job of managing Foster’s touches. They used him as a receiver a lot, including in the slot, because he has such superb hands; but that exposed him to more punishment. Blue, a between-the-tackles runner entering his second season, should be able to take some of that load off Foster.
New offensive line coach Mike Devlin earned an impressive reputation with the Jets as someone who makes his players more physical and technically sound. As a group, the line played well, but individually, only right guard Brandon Brooks could pound his chest. He’s a mauler with nifty feet, and he’s improved every season. With long-time center Chris Myers having been released, Ben Jones moves from left guard. Xavier Su’a-Filo, last year’s second-round pick, should replace Jones. They need to develop depth they can count on, especially in the interior of the line.
Did the defense finally figure out coordinator Romeo Crennel’s complicated system down the stretch, or was the impressive performance on that side of the ball an aberration? During their 4–1 stretch drive, they ranked fourth in points allowed, second in total defense and first in third-down conversions. Overall, the Texans set a franchise record by forcing an NFL-high 34 turnovers one season after they recorded 11, the fewest since the merger in 1970. Can the defense keep up that pace, especially if it has four or five new starters?
The most famous new face belongs to mammoth nose tackle Vince Wilfork, coming off another Super Bowl victory with New England. He plans to settle in next to J.J. Watt. Wilfork is supposed to tie up two blockers and stuff the run before turning over the pass rush to younger players such as Watt, the two-time Defensive Player of the Year.
Crennel used Watt in inventive ways — moving him up and down the line — but he needs help from the infirmary. Outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney, who missed much of his rookie season with a knee injury, is coming along nicely from microfracture surgery, but he’s got a long way to go to be ready for the opener against Kansas City. When he gets back on the field, no one has a clue about how effective he can be or if he can stay healthy.
Inside linebacker Brian Cushing played most of last season, but he wasn’t the same three-down player he was before he underwent two knee surgeries. The coaches are hoping he’s regained his speed and agility.
It would elevate the defensive performance if outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus improved on last season’s career-low five sacks. He’s a weak-side rusher who must be more productive. He’s moving to the other side to take on tight ends. He sets the edge well and can drop into coverage, but he has to be more physical at the point of attack.
There’s been a revolving door at safety but not at cornerback, where Johnathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson are together for a fifth consecutive season. They play hard against the run, cover well and are seasoned veterans. Kevin Johnson, the first-round pick, should be the nickel corner.
One of the biggest free-agent acquisitions was free safety Rahim Moore. The coaches wanted more of a centerfielder, and Moore had four interceptions for Denver last season. He’s got range and brains and needs to become the captain of the secondary in place of Kendrick Lewis, who bolted for Baltimore after Moore was signed.
There was nothing special about the Texans’ special teams last season, though kicker Randy Bullock (30-of-35 field goals, 130 points) and punter Shane Lechler (46.3-yard gross, 38.7 net) aren’t the problem. O’Brien is threatening to use starters if coverage and returns don’t improve. In a reserve role at Philadelphia, Chris Polk returned only 11 kickoffs but averaged 30.9 yards, including a 102-yard touchdown. Ideally, he makes the roster in the backfield and becomes a weapon on kickoff returns. If not, receivers Damaris Johnson and Martin can compete for the return job. Neither deserves it. The only thing the Texans can count on is long snapper Jon Weeks, who does an outstanding job.
Missing the playoffs on the last day of the season means fans and media — as well as owner Bob McNair — are expecting the Texans to make the playoffs. It’s a reasonable expectation, but it won’t be realistic if they suffer injuries where they lack quality depth. This is a well-coached team with a lot of talent and a favorable schedule that has a good chance to improve on last season’s nine victories.
Prediction: 2nd in AFC South
Mike Gundy sat in his office, admiring the framed jerseys of the six first-round NFL Draft picks of his time at Oklahoma State. He considered, too, where they came from.
“Four of them weren’t even recruited,” Gundy said.
Not coveted prospects, carrying the sparkling five-star status that every prep player desires. Not the talk of recruitniks on National Signing Day. “The other guys,” Gundy said, “they weren’t very highly recruited. For that reason, I don’t put a lot of stock in recruiting rankings.”
Perhaps not, and Gundy has a strong track record of making more out of less in terms of prospect perceptions, evident in the jersey wall decorations adorning his office: Brandon Pettigrew, Russell Okung, Dez Bryant, Justin Blackmon, Brandon Weeden and Justin Gilbert.
Still, others are taking stock of Big 12 recruiting as a whole, coming off a February in which the conference lagged significantly in the rankings. That stock watch is trending down.
Moreover, the Big 12 hasn’t claimed a national championship since 2005, and it hasn’t played for one since 2009. It found itself shut out of the first College Football Playoff, failing to land even one of the four spots to conclude last season. Maybe some concern is in order?
This Feature and More are Available in the 2015 Athlon Sports Big 12 Preview Magazine
Don’t expect anyone in the Big 12 to cop to such a stance. No coach ever met a recruiting class — his recruiting class — that he couldn’t gush over publicly. Case in point, Iowa State’s Paul Rhoads, whose class was ranked No. 9 in the Big 12 and No. 70 nationally by the 247Sports Composite, just ahead of Kansas, which was recruiting with a just-hired head coach:
“We had a great finish with the class of 2015,” Rhoads said on Signing Day. “In previous years, we pretty much had a full understanding of where we were by the middle of January. With this particular class, we were in a lot of fights in the last two weeks leading up to Signing Day. We closed in tremendous fashion. We picked up much-needed size, physical explosiveness on both lines, great skill in the backfield and overall numbers that were necessary for success in 2015.”
Critique of Big 12 recruiting doesn’t focus on Iowa State, but rather the league’s regular contenders. Even there, you’ll find warning signs. Texas was the only Big 12 team to crack the 247Sports Composite top 10, and that was at No. 10. Oklahoma came in at No. 15. From there, it was a major drop-off to Texas Tech at No. 31. The rest: No. 35 West Virginia, No. 36 Baylor, No. 39 Oklahoma State, No. 40 TCU, No. 53 Kansas State, No. 70 Iowa State and No. 72 Kansas.
Big 12 teams signed but nine of the 247Sports Composite’s top 100 players and three of the top 70.
|247Sports Composite Top 100|
Equally troubling is the league’s performance in the fertile recruiting landscape of Texas, where the Longhorns and Sooners have long dominated and the rest of the Big 12 has scored strong as well. But in February, the conference pulled only two of the Lone Star State’s top 10, while 26 of the top 50 — the state’s premium prospects — fled to other conferences, 21 to the SEC. It appears to be a trend, too, with the SEC plucking five of the top 10 prospects in 2014. The Big 12 managed signatures from only 23 of the top 50 that year. The SEC also grabbed three of the state’s five-star recruits.
“Three years from now, look at the signing class and see how those kids are playing,” says West Virginia assistant coach Joe DeForest, long considered one of the Big 12’s top recruiters. “That’s when you know.”
The hope come 2018 may be that it’s not too late.
Of course, that’s assuming the outside recruiting analysts are to be taken seriously. Coaches, for the most part, suggest otherwise.
“It’s about, what does the film say, first and foremost,” says Oklahoma assistant Jay Boulware. “Once you identify a guy on tape, then you go out and see what he looks like physically, in person. Can he play at this level physically? If those two things check out, then it doesn’t matter whether, excuse my language, some reporter has labeled this kid as a four- or five-star. What matters is what we see as coaches. I can look at a guy like Dimitri Flowers, who is here and was a three-star. He’s a true freshman who is playing for us on Saturdays. That’s big. That’s not one of the top-notch guys in the country. I don’t care where I’ve been, that kid will be playing for us anywhere. He’s that type of player.”
That’s the evaluation side of the recruiting process from a coaching standpoint; a trained-eye standpoint. Not just stopwatches and bench-presses, but other measurables, along with intangibles, too. “It’s not just talent,” DeForest says. “There has to be a personality fit as well.”
During Gundy’s run, Oklahoma State has signed just one high school recruit who received a five-star ranking by any of the recruiting services, running back Herschel Sims out of Abilene, Texas. Sims got in trouble, was dismissed and is now at Abilene Christian, after also washing out at Lamar.
“I will say this,” Gundy says, “five-star guys, they’re pretty accurate because they’re easy to identify. Just like McDonald’s All-Americans in basketball, most times they’re pretty good. There’s only so many of them.
“You don’t see many five-stars in football, so most of them have been pretty accurate. We had one; didn’t pan out.”
|247Sports Top 100 Recruits Signed by the Big 12|
The Cowboys have made their rise in the Big 12 on the backs of players they evaluated differently than others. To an extent, so have Baylor and TCU, who have accounted for the past two Big 12 championships, winning with 3-star recruits at quarterback — Bryce Petty for the Bears and Trevone Boykin for the Horned Frogs — both of whom have been All-Big 12 and Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year.
Mack Brown recruited supposedly elite classes almost annually to Texas yet was fired amid complaints about his evaluation skills. In 2012, Texas ranked second nationally in recruiting, and OU was No. 12. Yet no player in that Longhorns class has played on a conference title team. Instead, it’s been TCU and Baylor, who ranked No. 29 and No. 26, respectively, that year, who have upped the ante in the league with their cast of three-stars.
“I’ve been at West Virginia now going on my fourth year,” DeForest says. “I’ve coached two Freshman All-American safeties, the Lou Groza Award finalist, an All-American kick returner, an All-American punt returner. But those guys weren’t all that in the recruiting world.
“Karl Joseph was a ‘Mike’ linebacker in high school in Orlando, Fla. Now he’s one of the best safeties in the country. Josh Lambert had nothing in the way of a scholarship offer until I got there in January and we were in dire need of a kicker. Two years later, he’s a Lou Groza Award finalist.”
Related: 2015 Big 12 Preview and Picks
The second part of the evaluation equation: development.
Even five-star players need to be developed, no matter how college-ready they seem. But for teams like TCU, Baylor, OSU, West Virginia and Kansas State — Bill Snyder is considered the king of player development — molding players is their calling card.
When Snyder’s 2014 class actually made a ripple in the recruiting rankings, the coach hardly sounded any trumpets. “I think it is a good class,” Snyder says. “How will it rank? Who knows? A bunch of those guys are ranked extremely high by ESPN. There are 13 of our guys who are ranked, at their position, in the top 44 of the country. Some of them are high school; some of them are community college. You know me. That doesn’t mean a whole lot to me. That doesn’t mean it will be a great class or a bad class or anything else. … It will prove itself out.”
The Horned Frogs have ranked higher than No. 30 in the 247Sports Composite rankings only once — they came in at No. 29 in 2012.
“I really think it’s about player development. I think it’s about fit and player development,” DeForest says. “I don’t think rankings mean anything. The people who get caught up in that are the fans. The coaches don’t. Now, some coaches have bonuses tied up in it, if you get a top-10 class, you get a bonus, things like that.
“Social media, rankings, the fact that ESPN is doing an entire day on it — on Signing Day — I think it’s gotten out of hand. That’s my opinion. But I do think that coaches who get ‘two-stars’ and develop them into three-year starters at the Division-I level and give them an opportunity to go to the NFL, those are the coaches who are lot more valuable.”
Boulware sees it similarly. And he finds value in a very specific style of player. “There are a lot of guys that go off press clippings,” Boulware says. “It means something to their staff to have a top-five or top-10 recruiting class. That’s nice. I get it. What matters to me is winning football games and winning football games with the right people.
“The guys that fit into our program, good character young men that physically have all the tools and the things that we look for, if they have those, that’s who we’re going after.”
-by John Helsley, NewsOK.com
Who will Tiger Woods date next, now that he has broken up with Lindsey Vonn?
— Jessica S., Scottsdale, Ariz.
For those so inclined, gambling website Paddy Power recently placed odds on Tiger’s next girlfriend. Ex-wife Elin Nordegren (7/1) leads the field, which is logical since she is the mother of his two children, Sam and Charlie. Then again, there’s a reason Elin went through a $100-million divorce with Tiger. After that, singer Nicole Scherzinger (12/1), model Irina Shayk (16/1) and actress Cameron Diaz (16/1) are the leading ladies. There are a few eyebrow-raising long shots, including Lindsay Lohan (25/1), Rihanna (33/1), Danica Patrick (33/1), Jennifer Aniston (40/1), Britney Spears (50/1) and Pippa Middleton (100/1). Don’t bet on it.
On the Fourth of July, onlookers will watch in amazement during the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest, as competitive eaters scarf down dozens of dogs in an Independence Day tradition unlike any other. We spoke with the event’s eight-time defending champ Joey Chestnut, 31, a man whose career consumption numbers are staggering: 69 hot dogs in 10 minutes, a world-record 182 chicken wings in 10 minutes and 390 shrimp in a single sitting just because he could.
Here are his secrets to success:
Qualify to Conquer
“It takes close to 30 hot dogs to advance in a Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest qualifier. If you want to do this, keep a food diary and pay attention to how your body responds to how much you’re eating. It’s not about all that you can eat; it’s about making your body work for you for those 10 minutes.”
Fast, Then Furious
“I follow a very strict diet. The day after every practice, I eat yogurt and a salad and then I go into fasting, drinking only water. When I was young I thought I didn’t need a diet, but I do my best the thinner I am. I swim every day in my pool. …
“I’ve done this for nine years, and I’ve slowly built up my tolerance. During the competitive season in the summer, I follow a cycle where I practice every fourth day and then I fast for two days. My practices mimic the competitions. If I’m preparing for the hot dog contest, I try to eat 60 hot dogs in 10 minutes.”
“I’ll fast three days before an event, and during that time I’ll drink three to six gallons of water a day. It’s very much a cleanse to make sure I go into the competition empty. The day of the event I’ll drink a small amount of water and some coffee. …
“Water helps the food settle down deep in my stomach. Soaking the bun also makes swallowing faster. I don’t ever worry about liquid capacity. I’ve found the more liquid I consume, the easier it is to digest the food.”
No Pain, No Gain …
“Like how runners hit that wall, I do feel the point when my body tells me to stop. I’m pretty good at ignoring that feeling. I even have ‘Ignore Feelings’ written on my mirror at home. I accept that it is going to hurt, and that makes it easier to push through it.”
… No Fear
“Like a professional swimmer can’t imagine choking on water during a race, I can’t imagine choking on hot dogs. It looks like I’m not chewing, but I’m chewing just enough to swallow.”
—by Matt McCue
Just like last year, Athlon Sports' 2015 NFL Preview magazine includes NFL player rankings at every position. The rankings in the magazine are provided by Dan Shonka of Ourlads' NFL Scouting Services, a company that's been in the football talent evaluation business for more than three decades.
Seattle's quest for a second straight Super Bowl title came up painfully short, but it wasn't due to the efforts of the league's best secondary. The Legion of Boom is a big reason for the Seahawks' two-year reign (and counting) in the NFC, a group headlined by a trio of All-Pros in cornerback Richard Sherman (No. 2) and safeties Earl Thomas (No. 1) and Kam Chancellor (No. 3). Whether Sherman or Darrelle Revis is the NFL's top shutdown cornerback is up for debate, but what's not is how important Seattle's defensive backs are to the team's success. While the consecutive Super Bowl appearances should be enough to back this up, consider that Sherman (left elbow), Thomas (dislocated left shoulder), and Chancellor (left knee) each played through an injury on Super Sunday and came just a last-second Russell Wilson interception shy of beating Tom Brady and the Patriots.
Rankings courtesy of Ourlads' NFL Scouting Services
2015 NFL Player Rankings: Cornerbacks
1. Darrelle Revis, N.Y. Jets
The All-Pro shutdown corner is back with the Jets on a five-year, $70 million deal after picking up a Super Bowl ring with New England.
2. Richard Sherman, Seattle
The All-Pro selection was the least-targeted cornerback in the NFL last season. One of the most competitive and rangy corners, he challenges every ball in his area.
3. Chris Harris Jr., Denver
A versatile, skilled outside corner who can also play in the slot or at safety, Harris earned a Pro Bowl invite last season thanks to his standout ball skills.
4. Vontae Davis, Indianapolis
After a trade from the Dolphins to the Colts, Davis’ career as a top coverage corner took off and earned him a Pro Bowl invitation in 2014.
5. Patrick Peterson, Arizona
After diagnosis and treatment of diabetes, he was back winning his share of one-on-one battles with the league’s elite receivers.
6. Joe Haden, Cleveland
Haden is tough in run support and a good open-field tackler. The five-year veteran totaled 73 tackles, 20 passes defended and three interceptions in 2014.
7. Sean Smith, Kansas City
His length helps him in press coverage, and he has become more technique conscious. Due to a DUI conviction, Smith likely will be suspended for the first two games.
8. Aqib Talib, Denver
Talib earned back-to-back Pro Bowl invitations with New England and Denver, finishing last season with 16 passes defended, four interceptions and two touchdowns.
9. Desmond Trufant, Atlanta
One of the top young corners in the game, Trufant has good short-area quickness and takes a direct line to the ball with no false steps.
10. Alterraun Verner, Tampa Bay
Verner should be a perfect fit in Lovie Smith’s Cover 2. He does a good job rerouting receivers with his quick feet and reactions.
11. Rashean Mathis, Detroit
12. Orlando Scandrick, Dallas
13. Corey Graham, Buffalo
14. Byron Maxwell, Philadelphia
15. Antonio Cromartie, N.Y. Jets
16. Darius Slay, Detroit
17. Brandon Flowers, San Diego
18. Chris Culliver, Washington
19. Kareem Jackson, Houston
20. Tim Jennings, Chicago
21. Xavier Rhodes, Minnesota
22. Tramon Williams, Cleveland
23. Brent Grimes, Miami
24. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, N.Y. Giants
25. Johnathan Joseph, Houston
26. Prince Amukamara, N.Y. Giants
27. Stephon Gilmore, Buffalo
28. William Gay, Pittsburgh
29. Lardarius Webb, Baltimore
30. Perrish Cox, Tennessee
2015 NFL Player Rankings: Safeties
1. Earl Thomas, Seattle
A defensive leader who has become a perennial All-Pro-caliber player.
2. Eric Weddle, San Diego
Consistently mentioned with the game’s top free safeties, Weddle earned his fifth All-Pro selection in 2014 and is a standout special teams player.
3. Kam Chancellor, Seattle
A cornerstone of the Seahawks’ defense as the secondary’s physical tone-setter, Chancellor played through a torn MCL in the Super Bowl.
4. Glover Quin, Detroit
A big-time coverage safety who can cover deep or play the nickel, Quin led the NFL with seven interceptions.
5. Tashaun Gipson, Cleveland
Second in the league with six interceptions, Gipson also defended eight passes and returned one pick for a touchdown.
6. Harrison Smith, Minnesota
Smith has emerged as one of the best young safeties in the league. The former Golden Domer had 92 tackles and five interceptions.
7. Devin McCourty, New England
The corner-turned-safety is one of the league’s most dependable players. McCourty is smart and athletic and has unlimited coverage range.
8. Antoine Bethea, San Francisco
After finishing with 14 passes defended (including four INTs), Bethea has been an underrated safety with the general public but not the league’s receivers.
9. Mike Adams, Indianapolis
In his first season with the Colts, Adams reached his first career Pro Bowl at age 33. He intercepted five passes and forced two fumbles last season.
10. Reshad Jones, Miami
The big-hitting safety also plays the ball well in the air. He was responsible for 80 tackles and seven passes defended along with three interceptions in 2014.
11. Jairus Byrd, New Orleans
12. Donte Whitner, Cleveland
13. George Iloka, Cincinnati
14. Malcolm Jenkins, Philadelphia
15. Reggie Nelson, Cincinnati
16. Patrick Chung, New England
17. Michael Griffin, Tennessee
18. Morgan Burnett, Green Bay
19. Robert Blanton, Minnesota
20. T.J. Ward, Denver
21. Antrel Rolle, Chicago
22. Dawan Landry, Free Agent
23. William Moore, Atlanta
24. Da’Norris Searcy, Tennessee
25. Will Hill, Baltimore
26. Calvin Pryor, N.Y. Jets
27. Darian Stewart, Denver
28. Danieal Manning, Free Agent
29. James Ihedigbo, Detroit
30. Nate Allen, Oakland
Just like last year, Athlon Sports' 2015 NFL Preview magazine includes NFL player rankings at every position. The rankings in the magazine are provided by Dan Shonka of Ourlads' NFL Scouting Services, a company that's been in the football talent evaluation business for more than three decades.
Not surprisingly, when it comes to the NFL's top linebackers, the list starts with the likes of Luke Kuechly, Justin Houston and Lavonte David. The first two were All-Pros last season, not to mention the fact that Kuechly already has a Defensive Player of the Year award on his resume and Houston came just a half-sack shy of Michael Strahan's single-season record in 2014. And while David may not have the same accolades as his peers, all he's done is average 143 tackles through his first three seasons. But there's also plenty of depth at this position too, whether it come in the form of veterans like Von Miller, Terrell Suggs and DeAndre Levy or younger players like Jaime Collins, Bobby Wagner, Khalil Mack and C.J. Mosley.
Rankings courtesy of Ourlads' NFL Scouting Services
2015 NFL Player Rankings: Inside Linebackers
(Editor's note: San Francisco's NaVorro Bowman, who missed all of 2014, does not appear in this year's rankings because of lingering concerns over the health of his surgically repaired knee.)
1. Luke Kuechly, Carolina
Kuechly is the poster guy for competitive, instinctive and intense linebacker play. Last season, he was selected to his second career Pro Bowl and led the NFL in tackles. He’s started all 48 games in his career.
2. Dont’a Hightower, New England
Hightower is a physical run stuffer with the strength and ability to shed quickly at the point of attack. Most important, he made the key tackle on Marshawn Lynch at the 1-yard line in the Super Bowl.
3. Jamie Collins, New England
An ascending player who is getting more efficient every year, Collins has long arms and big hands, which help him shed blocks with his combination of power and speed.
4. Bobby Wagner, Seattle
A Pro Bowl performer, Wagner has top-level instincts and good overall technique. He is quick to read and react, has good range and takes productive angles in pursuit.
5. Sean Lee, Dallas
Lee is a competitor who doesn’t get fooled. He’s versatile enough to play inside or outside in the 4-3, but the Cowboys will start him on the outside in hopes of keeping him healthy and on the field.
6. Kiko Alonso, Philadelphia
Like Lee, Alonso missed last season due to a torn ACL. That didn’t stop Philadelphia from acquiring the former Oregon Duck for LeSean McCoy. In 2013, Alonso was second in the AP NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year voting.
7. Brian Cushing, Houston
When healthy, Cushing is an All-Pro-caliber player, gaining such honors in 2009 and 2011. In 2014 — his first season in the last three in which he played more than seven games — Cushing started 14 games and totaled 72 tackles.
8. Mychal Kendricks, Philadelphia
Despite missing four games with a calf injury last season, Kendricks is averaging 88 tackles per season. The instinctive playmaker was in on 75 tackles, one sack and three forced fumbles last season.
9. Daryl Smith, Baltimore
A free-agent steal for the Ravens in 2013, Smith is known for consistent, instinctive and intense play. For the past two years the sideline-to-sideline performer has averaged more than 125 tackles per season.
10. Karlos Dansby, Cleveland
The 11-year veteran is recognized league-wide as an instinctive and productive defensive leader. He is one of only two players heading into the 2015 season with at least 30 career sacks and 10 career interceptions.
11. Brandon Marshall, Denver
12. Preston Brown, Buffalo
13. Lawrence Timmons, Pittsburgh
14. Demario Davis, N.Y. Jets
15. C.J. Mosley, Baltimore
16. Koa Misi, Miami
17. Avery Williamson, Tennessee
18. Craig Robertson, Cleveland
19. DeMeco Ryans, Philadelphia
20. David Harris, N.Y. Jets
2015 NFL Player Rankings: 3-4 Outside Linebackers
1. Justin Houston, Kansas City
A first-team All-Pro in 2014, Houston has 48.5 sacks in his four-year career. Only J.J. Watt has disrupted more dropbacks since 2011.
2. Von Miller, Denver
A nightmare for edge-blocking tackles, tight ends and backs, Miller has a knack and desire to excel working to the quarterback. In his four-year career he has 49 sacks, including 14 last season.
3. Terrell Suggs, Baltimore
The Ravens’ all-time leader in sacks added 12 more in 2014. He’s an explosive athlete who has had a pattern of yearly production from college through pro football.
4. Elvis Dumervil, Baltimore
A fast-twitch athlete who works through blocks, Dumervil had 17 sacks in his 2014 All-Pro season. The prolific edge rusher has 90 sacks between his Denver stint and two years with the Ravens.
5. Clay Matthews, Green Bay
After a temporary move to inside linebacker, Matthews arguably had his best season with the variety of assignments. A five-time Pro Bowl selection.
6. Paul Kruger, Cleveland
A relentless high-motor defender who recorded 11 sacks in 2014, Kruger has been a productive asset since signing as an unrestricted free agent in 2013. He displays a sudden punch and spin move with an upfield burst.
7. Connor Barwin, Philadelphia
The versatile and athletic edge rusher was in on 64 tackles including 14.5 sacks, tied with Buffalo’s Mario Williams for fourth in the league.
8. Pernell McPhee, Chicago
McPhee had a combined 38 quarterback knockdowns and hurries in 2014.
9. Brandon Graham, Philadelphia
Last season, Graham recorded 13.5 tackles for a loss, four forced fumbles and 18 QB hurries.
10. Ryan Kerrigan, Washington
Kerrigan racked up 13.5 sacks in 2014 and has never missed a start in his four-year pro career. He is consistent and nonstop in his play.
11. Julius Peppers, Green Bay
12. Derrick Morgan, Tennessee
13. Jason Babin, N.Y. Jets
14. James Harrison, Pittsburgh
15. Chandler Jones, New England
16. Tamba Hali, Kansas City
17. Trent Cole, Indianapolis
18. Rob Ninkovich, New England
19. Brooks Reed, Atlanta
20. Whitney Mercilus, Houston
2015 NFL Player Rankings: 4-3 Outside Linebackers
1. Lavonte David, Tampa Bay
A tackling machine with natural and instinctive ability to recognize and react to run or pass, David was third in the league with 146 tackles.
2. Khalil Mack, Oakland
An athletic linebacker who can dip his shoulder, penetrate into the backfield and pressure the quarterback, Mack started all 16 games as a rookie and had 76 total tackles.
3. DeAndre Levy, Detroit
Levy is an athletic linebacker who can play square, work through traffic and run in space. Only Luke Kuechly had more tackles than Levy’s 151 last season.
4. Thomas Davis, Carolina
An aggressive and explosive hitter, Davis has worked through three ACL surgeries during his career to become one of the league’s best linebackers. He’s totaled over 100 tackles for the third year in a row.
5. K.J. Wright, Seattle
A productive tackler who is instinctive and physical, Wright is better in a confined area. He’s a multi-scheme athlete who totaled 107 tackles in 2014.
6. Anthony Barr, Minnesota
Barr has a good combination of length and take-off edge speed. He can beat an offensive tackle with athletic ability and double moves. In 12 games as a rookie, Barr registered 70 tackles, four sacks, two forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries.
7. Jelani Jenkins, Miami
Jenkins is instinctive with a nose for the ball and has all the tools for a coverage linebacker. He made 110 tackles and forced two fumbles in 14 starts last fall.
8. Bruce Carter, Tampa Bay
Carter is a fluid athlete who can cover a lot of ground. Agile through traffic and with no hold up in pursuit, Carter has the speed to run with backs and tight ends in coverage.
9. Nigel Bradham, Buffalo
Versatile enough to play any of the positions in any scheme, Bradham is an athletic linebacker who can cover a tight end. He has good closing speed in pursuit. He was in on 104 tackles and defended six passes.
10. Danny Lansanah, Tampa Bay
An overnight success after being in the league off and on since 2008, Lansanah started 11 games in 2014 and recorded 82 tackles and three interceptions, two returned for TDs.
11. Justin Durant, Atlanta
12. Philip Wheeler, San Francisco
13. Vincent Rey, Cincinnati
14. Alec Ogletree, St. Louis
15. Sio Moore, Oakland
16. Anthony Hitchens, Dallas
17. Chad Greenway, Minnesota
18. Emmanuel Lamur, Cincinnati
19. Bruce Irvin, Seattle
20. Telvin Smith, Jacksonville
The bleeding never stopped. The Falcons blew a 17-point lead at home in the 2012 NFC Championship Game and, two full seasons later, still haven’t recovered. An offensive line thin on talent suffered a collection of season-ending injuries in two consecutive offseasons. Julio Jones, easily the most talented player on the roster, was lost in 2013 to a broken foot. Tony Gonzalez, the greatest tight end in NFL history, retired after a frustrating 4–12 year that was supposed to be a last run at the Super Bowl. A defense built on bending instead of breaking shattered beyond repair, and a hasty personnel change did nothing to fix both lines in 2014.
From 2008-12, the Atlanta Falcons under Mike Smith and GM Thomas Dimitroff were a blueprint for stability and success. Matt Ryan became a franchise quarterback, and the organization posted back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in history. But since that so-close title run, the Falcons have imploded, winning 10 games in two years. Smith became the fall guy, due in large part to the defensive-minded head coach’s stubborn control of a league-worst unit. Accordingly, owner Arthur Blank has now turned to Seattle defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, architect of back-to-back Super Bowl defenses under Pete Carroll.
Entering 2013, the franchise seemed a tweak or two away from its first Super Bowl title. Entering 2014, conventional wisdom wrote off a stunning collapse as an extreme bout with Murphy’s Law. There’s no clear prognosis now: Atlanta has to rebuild its defense almost from scratch while finding a way to keep Ryan alive and productive.
The cautionary tale of almost any NFL failure is that no matter what, you can’t win without an elite quarterback throwing to consistent playmakers. The Falcons have one of the most consistent quarterbacks in the league and perhaps its best wide receiver. The problem — and the cold truth for Falcons fans — is that after that, there’s not much else.
Ryan, Jones and Roddy White: Even in the worst stretch of the Smith era, that battery remained reliable (when healthy). What 2014 exposed is that just about everything else has imploded around the Pro Bowl trio since the 2012 playoff run.
Expect an entirely new running game under new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. His 2014 Browns were fourth in the league in rushing touchdowns, while the Falcons’ 1,498 rushing yards were the 22nd-rated attack in Football Outsiders’ offensive efficiency metrics. Atlanta will shift to a zone-blocking scheme, emphasizing fast and mobile linemen breaking open holes for an overhauled trio of backs.
Porous line play and Steven Jackson’s career twilight hindered play-calling. Now rookie Tevin Coleman (2,036 yards and 15 TDs last year at Indiana) and Devonta Freeman will be expected to read blocks and break upfield. Still buried on the depth chart is the dangerous Antone Smith (10.3 yards per carry in two seasons as a backup). Smith has broken TD runs of 48 and 50 yards and could explode under Shanahan.
If Atlanta can run the ball with more efficiency and create balance, Ryan won’t have to force throws and risk turnovers. It’s hard to criticize Ryan’s increase in interceptions post-2012, as he’s been sacked 75 times in two years of 1,279 pass attempts. The unbalanced pass/run ratio has damaged the perception of Ryan as an elite quarterback.
Shanahan’s a creative play-caller, but simply bumping the run game up to mediocre will free Jones and White more than any schematic. Free agent Leonard Hankerson and rookie Justin Hardy will complement one of the best receiving tandems in the league. While veteran Jacob Tamme isn’t Gonzalez, he’s more reliable as a weapon than blocking tight end Levine Toilolo.
Quinn has carte blanche with an awful defense — 27th in scoring, 21st in rushing, and last in passing and third-down conversions — so any experimentation is welcome.
The end of the Smith era brought rumblings of discord between the staff and front office, with the beleaguered pass rush at the heart of the matter. Smith and former DC Mike Nolan wanted to stop the run to force the pass, while Dimitroff longed for a prototypical pass rusher. Quinn’s influence over the 2015 draft was inarguable, and Vic Beasley will almost certainly start at LEO, the end/linebacker weak-side rush position Seattle uses to great effect.
If Shanahan merely has to adjust and balance, Quinn and new defensive coordinator Raheem Morris have to perform a complete overhaul, and must do so with misfit parts. Smith and Nolan flirted with a transition to 3-4 looks in 2014, adding big bodies such as Paul Soliai and Ra’Shede Hageman to a rickety, aging 4-3 depth chart. The hybrid look was a total bust, and teams converted an astounding 46.8 percent of third downs.
Aside from Beasley, it’s anyone’s guess who makes the Opening Day front seven and how they’ll position exactly. Hageman and former undrafted rookie middle linebacker Paul Worrilow might be the only returning names, as Quinn and Dimitroff pulled in a host of former Seahawks and other free agents who are a better fit for the new style. Former Tampa Bay defensive end Adrian Clayborn will likely start opposite Beasley, and former Cowboy Justin Durant is the favorite to replace the departed Sean Weatherspoon at weak-side linebacker.
Desmond Trufant isn’t going anywhere, though: The third-year corner has quietly developed into one of the best in the league at his position. His size makes him a “Quinn guy,” and the Falcons drafted Jalen Collins, another long, aggressive corner to groom as his counterpart. Free safety is a question mark, but veteran William Moore is expected to have recovered from multiple injuries and should reclaim the job at strong safety.
A dramatic overhaul in philosophy and execution is needed. There is literally nowhere to go but up, and that’s the best news possible.
Devin Hester might be the best free-agent signing of Dimitroff’s career. The veteran was supposed to help bolster the Falcons’ return game and instead lit the entire special teams and receiving corps on fire. Hester led the league in total kickoff return yardage (1,128, the only player to go over 1,000 last season thanks to an awful Falcons scoring defense) and averaged 13.3 yards per catch as a viable rotation receiver. Until Jones’ deal is extended, Matt Bryant’s new contract extension is easily the most important bit of front office business in 2015. Bryant hit 29-of-32 field goals and was perfect inside of 50 yards as he’s remained one of the league’s elite clutch kickers. Punter Matt Bosher’s career 41.3-yard net average has made him one of the most reliable at his position.
It’s a distant memory now, but the Falcons were a possession away from locking up a Super Bowl trip two seasons ago. While it’s hard to classify any team with elite quarterback play as a true rebuilding effort, the Falcons’ long and horrific decline on defense might qualify them regardless of Ryan. Quinn has the bones of a terrific offense waiting on a defensive miracle, which is what he’ll have provided if Atlanta makes the playoffs in 2015.
Prediction: 3rd in NFC South
In 2014, the Carolina Panthers did something no other team in the NFC South had done before — they repeated as division champs.
Now in 2015 they will try to extend that streak to three years, relying once more on a standout defense that is the strength of the team.
In the offseason, the Panthers tried to get faster and to get quarterback Cam Newton some help for an offense that often struggled a year ago. They hope to avoid the awful start they had in 2014, when they began the season 3–8–1 and looked likely to earn a top-10 draft pick. They then ripped off five straight wins — four in the regular season and one in the playoffs over Arizona — before falling to Seattle on the road in a divisional playoff game.
The Panthers let troubled defensive end Greg Hardy leave for Dallas in free agency, but they still have the best middle linebacker in the game in Luke Kuechly. Newton and Kuechly are the faces of the franchise and will again determine much of the team’s fortunes in 2015.
The Panthers will remain a run-first offense in 2015. In the final five weeks of the 2014 regular season, Carolina ran for more yards than any other NFL team and went 4–1. That is the blueprint again this season. Bulldozer Jonathan Stewart will get the majority of the carries now that franchise leader DeAngelo Williams has been released. Newton is the Panthers’ second-best running threat — he has always been a dual-threat quarterback, although he is trying to be smarter about not taking as many hits. Fullback Mike Tolbert regressed in 2014 but will be counted on in short-yardage situations. Rookie Cameron Artis-Payne will contend with scatback Fozzy Whittaker for many of the carries that Stewart doesn’t get.
The most notable change on the offensive line comes at left tackle, where Michael Oher was signed to replace Byron Bell at one of the Panthers’ problem positions. Oher was unsuccessful at his last stop in Tennessee, but the Panthers believe he still has enough in the tank to protect Newton. Center Ryan Kalil anchors the unit with professionalism and calm.
As for the passing game, it has to get more explosive. Tight end Greg Olsen and wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin each caught 1,008 yards worth of passes in 2014 — the first time since 1999 the Panthers had two 1,000-yard receivers. They will be the primary targets for Newton again this season. Olsen is a Pro Bowler who catches everything; Benjamin has some problems with drops but also has a knack for the spectacular.
But neither Olsen nor Benjamin are deep threats. The Panthers had success with Ted Ginn Jr. in that role in 2013, and after he disappointed in Arizona in 2014, they have re-signed him to do the same thing. Second-round draft pick Devin Funchess will play a lot early at the other wideout, but he’s a big receiver with medium speed, similar to Benjamin. Corey Brown also will be counted on to run some deep routes, and Stephen Hill will get a chance, too. Second tight end Ed Dickson has good hands and, like Olsen, signed a new deal in the offseason.
As for Newton, he remains an incredible athlete and has become a much better leader. But he still has occasional problems with his accuracy and throwing mechanics. Unlike 2014, however, Newton has been healthy throughout the offseason, which should help. The Panthers also showed their commitment to their franchise quarterback by signing Newton to a five-year, $103.8 million contract extension in early June.
It starts with the linebackers — Carolina believes it may have the best tandem in the game in Kuechly and Thomas Davis. Those two never come off the field, and they chase down so many plays from sideline to sideline that potential 20-yard gains for the opposition are often getting turned into 4-yard plays. Kuechly’s form tackling should be studied by every youth football player.
Shaq Thompson, the team’s first-round draft pick, is a versatile athlete (he also gained 456 yards as a running back in his last year at Washington) who may start at weak-side linebacker right away over A.J. Klein — if Thompson can show he has the strength to get off blocks.
The defensive front loses Hardy, but it didn’t have the erratic defensive end for 15 games in 2014, either, due to a domestic violence issue. Second-year end Kony Ealy will need to step up his game to help replace Hardy, with Wes Horton and Mario Addison also helping out. The other defensive end, Charles Johnson, is winding down his career but is still a bull-rushing force when single-blocked. Defensive tackle Star Lotulelei was not a star in 2014 after a great rookie year, and the Panthers need a more consistent performance from him in his third season. Kawann Short may be poised for a breakout season at the other defensive tackle spot.
The secondary was the team’s weak spot for most of last season and remains a little iffy. Cornerback Josh Norman is emerging as one of the best cover corners in the NFC, but the second corner spot may need to be filled by Charles “Peanut” Tillman if he can still run fast enough to do it. Bene Benwikere is more naturally suited to the nickel cornerback role and will play there. Safety Roman Harper has lost a step but is still crafty. Free safety Tre Boston has speed but makes too many youthful mistakes.
Carolina is one of only three NFL teams to boast a top-10 defense in each of the past three seasons (Seattle and San Francisco are the others). If the Panthers are going to make the playoffs again, they will need a fourth straight year in the top 10.
Carolina took a step back in 2014 on special teams, and it cost the team several times. Most notably, the Panthers had two punts blocked — and both ended up going for Minnesota touchdowns in a nasty loss to the Vikings. General manager Dave Gettleman made a point in the offseason of signing several players who will be contributors on the coverage and return units and also brought back Ginn to return punts. Kicker Graham Gano had the best touchback percentage in the league last season (77.2) and has such a strong leg that a 65-yard field goal is not out of the question — although he did miss a couple of key field goals last year. Punter Brad Nortman and long snapper J.J. Jansen are solid.
The Panthers are fortunate to play in a division without a great team, and the early part of the schedule looks soft enough that they should start at least 3–1. An Oct. 18 road trip to Seattle — the team that has been the Panthers’ bugaboo ever since Russell Wilson arrived — will be critical.
Newton’s play will be as important as ever, but the Panthers also need at least one more playmaker on offense and hope Funchess can be that guy. A stout defense will keep Carolina in nearly every game. This is a team that should contend for a third straight playoff berth but will need to improve offensively if it is going to advance far in the postseason.
Prediction: 2nd in NFC South
As long as Drew Brees is the quarterback, the Saints will always have a shot to win the NFC South and make the playoffs. But rivals have passed the Saints in other areas, and it all caught up to them in 2014. Team officials realized they couldn’t continue to rely on Brees to simply outscore opponents with his dazzling passing skills. So they conducted an eyebrow-raising roster overhaul in the offseason in an effort to bolster their aging offensive line and flagging defense. The Saints are counting on more new faces than they have in a long time and are something of a mystery team in the NFC race.
The names change, but the production should remain prolific. Even without Jimmy Graham and Kenny Stills, look for the Saints to continue to rank among the league leaders in yards and points. Since coach Sean Payton and Brees arrived in 2006, the Saints have finished no worse than sixth in total offense and 12th in scoring offense. At 36, Brees has started to show signs of age, but he’s still highly effective when not asked to do too much and given time in the pocket to find his receivers. Look for Brees to spread the ball around more without the dynamic Graham in the lineup. The Saints have no one on the roster with Graham’s physical skill set, and his absence will challenge Payton’s play-calling creativity, especially in the red zone, where an alley-oop to Graham meant an automatic six points the past few seasons.
The Saints are high on athletic third-year tight end Josh Hill. He showed big-play ability in a limited role last season, when five of his 14 receptions went for touchdowns. Speedy Brandin Cooks was extremely productive as a rookie before breaking his thumb. He’ll be called on to produce more explosive plays with Graham and Stills gone. Young veterans Nick Toon, Joe Morgan, Seantavius Jones and Brandon Coleman will compete for spots in the rotation.
Until the passing attack sorts itself out, Brees can lean on a reliable run game that ranked ninth in the NFL in average yards per carry (4.5). With Mark Ingram, C.J. Spiller and Khiry Robinson in the backfield, the running game should be a strength. Ingram is coming off his finest season as a pro and is firmly entrenched as the lead back. Spiller was signed in free agency to play the satellite back role in which Reggie Bush and Darren Sproles excelled from 2006-13. The powerful Robinson is one of the most difficult backs in the league to tackle.
All of this firepower will go for naught if the offensive line doesn’t improve. The unit had been one of the most consistent in the NFL over the years but started to show its age last season. Brees was sacked 29 times and often hurried into crucial interceptions. To that end, the Saints acquired veteran center Max Unger in the Graham trade and selected tackle Andrus Peat in the first round of the NFL Draft. Peat is probably a year away from seeing the field, with the athletic Terron Armstead and the underrated Zach Strief bookending the line at tackle. But Unger, a former Pro Bowler, will be an immediate upgrade at center. Right guard is the lone question mark. Former undrafted free agent Tim Lelito will get the first crack to replace Ben Grubbs. He’ll need to stay healthy, because there is little experience behind him.
Whatever pixie dust coordinator Rob Ryan had in his glorious debut season, he ran out of in 2014 as the Saints plummeted from No. 4 to No. 31 in total defense. Payton has given him the chance to right the ship but brought in former Raiders head coach and Broncos defensive coordinator Dennis Allen to assist him. The Saints were plagued by blown coverage assignments and alignment errors early last season and never recovered.
The top offseason priority will be improving the play of the team’s talented but underperforming defensive line. Ends Akiem Hicks and Cameron Jordan are both due for rebound seasons after disappointing in 2014. Hicks has the physical skills to dominate opponents but is frustratingly inconsistent. He could be facing a make-or-break season. Likewise, Jordan failed to make enough big plays, but the team still decided to sign him to a five-year contract extension in June that could be worth up to $60 million. The team’s best pass rusher, outside linebacker Junior Galette, was rewarded with a four-year, $40 million contract early in 2014, then lost the trust of team officials because of off-field transgressions. He has explosive burst but is undersized and can be overpowered at the point of attack. Brodrick Bunkley and John Jenkins form a powerful one-two punch at nose guard.
The linebacker unit needs work. Three rookies and veterans Anthony Spencer and Dannell Ellerbee were acquired in the offseason in an effort to bolster the unit. Only veteran David Hawthorne, who replaces Curtis Lofton as the play-caller inside, appears locked into a starting spot. Rookie sparkplug Hau’oli Kikaha will platoon with veteran Parys Haralson on the strong side. The staff loves his intensity and pass-rush ability. Hulking rookie Stephone Anthony is the kind of physical thumper Ryan has longed for since he arrived in 2013. He’ll compete with Ellerbe at the other inside spot.
The return to health of veteran free safety Jairus Byrd will go a long way toward improving the leaky secondary. The former Pro Bowler should be motivated for a big season after his injury-riddled debut in New Orleans. His center field skills free up Kenny Vaccaro to play the joker role in which he thrived as a rookie.
The No. 2 cornerback spot riddled the Saints last season, and they hope veteran free agent Brandon Browner can fill the role opposite Keenan Lewis. The success of Ryan’s scheme relies on strong press coverage.
There’s an army of candidates but few proven commodities beyond Browner and Lewis. Rookies P.J. Williams and Damian Swann will compete with former Jets first-round washout Kyle Wilson for the nickel spot. CFL import Delvin Breaux is the sleeper in the group. Second-year men Brian Dixon and Stanley Jean-Baptiste are also in the mix.
Thomas Morstead remains one of the most consistently productive punters and kickoff specialists in the league. He’s the strength of an otherwise nondescript special teams group. Jalen Saunders and rookie Marcus Murphy will try to spice up the club’s moribund return units. The Saints haven’t returned a punt or a kickoff for a touchdown since 2011. Veteran placekicker Shayne Graham had his struggles last season, but the team stuck with the 14-year veteran. He was re-signed to a one-year deal in February, but the Saints terminated his contract in May, seemingly handing the kicking job to strong-legged Dustin Hopkins, who has yet to even appear in a regular season game.
Look for the Saints to bounce back from their disappointing 2014 campaign. How far back remains to be seen. The best thing they have going for them is the mediocre competition in the NFC South. If the defensive changes work, the Saints can resume their winning ways and challenge the Falcons and Panthers for the division title. But there are more questions than answers on both sides of the ball, and a lot of things will have to fall into place for them to regain their status as title contenders in the NFC. They’ll be competitive as usual but are a cut below the conference’s elite.
Prediction: 1st in NFC South
The morning of the NFL Draft, Bucs general manager Jason Licht took a walk around the team’s three practice fields completely at peace with the decision to select Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston with the No. 1 overall pick.
“It’s like your wedding day,” Licht says. “Without the cold feet.’’
For better or worse — and some would lean toward the latter — the Bucs’ fortunes and those of Licht and coach Lovie Smith are married to Winston, one of the most polarizing picks in modern NFL Draft history. A civil suit stemming from allegations of a sexual assault for which Winston was never charged, along with a series of relatively minor acts of immaturity, follow the mercurial former Seminole to the NFL.
But the Bucs' decision-makers are more than satisfied with Winston’s character after doing research that included conducting exhaustive interviews of more than 75 people.
“If he wasn’t a good guy, we wouldn’t have used a first pick on him,” Licht says.
On the field, Winston has few peers. He went 26–1 as a starting quarterback at Florida State, and he won the Heisman Trophy and a national championship.
“I would just ask our fans to give him a chance,” Smith says.
The Bucs believe Winston is a transformational quarterback who will eventually put them on equal footing with the other gunslingers in the NFC South — the Saints’ Drew Brees, the Falcons’ Matt Ryan and the Panthers’ Cam Newton.
Winston is a plug-and-play talent who comes from a pro-style offense. He can check protections, read the defense and get through all the progressions. Perhaps more impressive, Winston can make any throw on the field.
The key is whether the Bucs can find a way to protect him. Tampa Bay allowed 52 sacks last season, tied for the third-most in the NFL. That’s why Licht invested a pair of second-round picks on Penn State left tackle Donovan Smith and guard Ali Marpet from Division III Hobart College. Both are projected to start as rookies. But the Bucs must get better performances from holdovers such as center Evan Dietrich-Smith, guard Logan Mankins and tackle Demar Dotson.
Winston does have 6-5 targets in Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson, a pair of 1,000-yard receivers. Evans was a Rookie of the Year candidate despite missing most of the offseason with a hamstring strain. He had a monster three-game stretch in November in which he caught 21 passes for 458 yards and five touchdowns. Second-year tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins missed the final four games of 2014 with a back injury but shows the ability to get downfield. He caught 21 passes for 221 yards but is capable of much more.
The Bucs decided not to pick up the fifth-year option on running back Doug Martin, who has played only 17 games in the last two years after rushing for 1,454 yards and 11 touchdowns as a rookie. Martin doesn’t seem to be versatile or physical enough to fit Smith’s preference of running style, but at least he will be motivated in a contract year. The Bucs plan to increase the workload for Charles Sims, who missed the first half of his rookie season with an ankle injury. He showed more promise as pass catcher than runner. Licht attempted to upgrade the speed and athleticism on offense, beginning with the two linemen and Nebraska receiver Kenny Bell.
One of the biggest additions to the Bucs attack is offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, who hung 56 points on Smith last season while operating the Falcons offense. Smith and the Bucs were dealt a setback with the loss of offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford, who never returned after a heart procedure, but Koetter is more than a stopgap replacement, and he has a spread-the-field passer in Winston like he had in Matt Ryan.
But make no mistake. The offense will develop as quickly as Winston does.
The Bucs struggled in the first year of Smith’s Tampa 2 scheme. After six weeks, opponents were averaging 34 points per game. That prompted the beginning of an overhaul that will continue through 2015.
The foundation is defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who led the team with 8.5 sacks, and linebacker Lavonte David, who has the distinction of being an All-Pro (2013) before making a Pro Bowl. McCoy needs help and got some with the waiver claim of Jacquies Smith, who had 6.5 sacks in seven starts last season. The Bucs traded a fifth-round pick to the Lions for defensive end George Johnson, giving them another edge rusher to complement McCoy.
The Bucs also changed their philosophy in free agency. They pulled off the Band Aid by cutting high-priced free agent busts — such as Michael Johnson after only one season — and replaced them on defense with players who have a history of success in Smith’s defense or the Tampa 2 scheme.
Safety Chris Conte and defensive tackle Henry Melton both played for Smith in Chicago. Looking for more playmaking ability at middle linebacker, the Bucs signed former Cowboy Bruce Carter, who had five interceptions last season. They used a fourth-round pick on LSU linebacker Kwon Alexander, another run-and-hit machine with speed.
The secondary is solid with cornerbacks Alterraun Verner and Johnathan Banks. Banks led the team with four interceptions, and Verner, a former fourth-round pick of the Titans, was an under-the-radar free-agent acquisition last offseason. In addition to the rangy Conte, the Bucs believe the future is bright for strong safety Bradley McDougald, who took over following the trade of Mark Barron to the Rams. Tampa Bay also claimed former Houston Texans safety D.J. Swearinger off of waivers in May. A 2013 second-round pick, Swearinger made 22 starts for the Texans, but struggled last season.
Smith’s teams in Chicago were known for winning games on special teams. That’s hardly been the case in Tampa Bay, which struggled to settle on a kick returner. That’s why they drafted Utah’s Kaelin Clay, who had four returns for touchdowns last season to lead college football. The punt and kickoff return jobs are his to lose. Punter Michael Koenen is in the final year of his contract that pays him $3.75 million. But his pay didn’t match his production as he ranked 29th with a 37.1-yard net average and the team claimed former Cleveland punter Spencer Lanning off waivers in early June to create competition for the job. The Bucs’ placekicking game is solid behind Patrick Murray, who was 5-of-6 from 50-plus yards, including a long of 55. Overall, Murray made 20-of-24 field goals but is capable of more. The kick coverage teams should be improved with the addition of some athletic linebackers and receivers who have specialized as gunners such as Bell.
Winston has the talent and confidence to be a frontrunner for Rookie of the Year. But until the Bucs improve around him, he won’t be enough to make them real contenders in the NFC South. The season opener against the Titans and Marcus Mariota offers a juicy storyline. But Winston has to be dedicated on and off the field to make this gamble pay off.
Prediction: 4th in NFC South
(Winston photo at top courtesy of Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Web site)