Articles By Athlon Sports
College football is well-represented in the Twitterverse by people who know the game intimately and aren't afraid to tell you about it. We took our annual look at the lengthy list of CFB-oriented Twitter accounts and whittled them down to 100 that are definitely worth a follow.
Times and technology change, and these tweeting all-stars are sure to entertain, educate and occasionally enrage. Let us know your favorites (and anyone we missed).
Get to know the new college football playoff and who is in the mix for the title. This is the official account, so be sure to follow on Tuesday evenings when the official rankings are released.
@ESPNCFB (2) and @CollegeGameDay (3)
We probably don’t need to tell you why to follow ESPN’s college football channels, but these are good places to start if you’re a Twitter newbie.
Whoa Nelly, just the news and only the news. No retweets or interaction, just links to all the roster moves and important nuggets from around the country.
@cbfowler (4) and @ESPN_ReceDavis (5)
A pair of total pros who anchor ESPN's college football coverage night and day. Take a moment to welcome Fowler to his spot on ABC’s game of the week on Saturday night.
“Sources” McMurphy is in his second season with the Mothership as a leader in breaking news.
The veteran ESPNer is a must-follow for features on the Dot Com and his guests on the aptly named ESPN College Football Podcast.
Travis Haney is on the national beat, though most of his work is behind the ESPN Insider paywall. He drops enough knowledge from his travels on Twitter to entice readers to fork over a few more bucks to the Worldwide Leader.
A must-follow during Saturday’s action if you’re interested in a deep dive into the numbers.
10 days until full slate of CFB games; Alabama has won 10 national titles during the poll era (since 1936), most of any FBS team— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) August 18, 2014
ESPN Conference Bloggers (10)
It’s tough to pick out one, but this is a good place to start to follow your favorite team or league: @ESPN_ACC, @ESPN_BigTen, @ESPN_Big12, @ESPN_Pac12Blog and @ESPN_SEC. Go for a deeper dive with all 29(!) of ESPN’s blog contributors.
@DennisDoddCBS (11) remains the veteran columnist of the staff that has added newshounds @JFowlerCBS (12) and @JonSolomonCBS (13) in recent years. After a tumultuous summer covering union efforts, autonomy and Ed O’Bannon, we’re sure they’re glad to get back to covering games.
News, notes and a little sarcasm from @TomFornelli, @Chip_Patterson and @JerryHinnen
Staples can break down the difference between a cookout and a BBQ and talk offensive line play. @LindsayRaeSI (16) and @BrianHamiltonSI (17) are recent arrivals.
Campus Union (16)
@ZacEllis and @martinrickman maintain SI’s news and notes blog. Follow rickman if you have an aversion to capital letters.
in @finebaum interview musburger has discussed: -katherine webb -betting lines -eminem -the musburger drinking game sec network is amazing— martin rickman (@martinrickman) August 15, 2014
Bill Simmons isn’t a lover of college football, but he’s stocked his longform site some quality folks including @HollyAnderson (17) and @MattRHinton (18).
College football Twitter is full of sarcasm and hot takes. Chris Brown at Smart Football and Grantland keeps us all in line with his Xs and Os-heavy feed.
Fox Sports has become a player in college football coverage online with two ace hires of @BFeldmanCFB (20) and @slmandel (21). And for an — ahem, edgier take — there’s @ClayTravisBGID (22).
I can't wait until SEC fans start calling the network "biast." Probably already happening.— Clay Travis (@ClayTravisBGID) August 14, 2014
The newspaper is more than infographics and that ubiquitous dot. USA Today hits all spots with old-school reporting and column-writing with @GeorgeSchroeder (23) and @DanWolken (24) and new-school #viral and #social content with @ForTheWin (25).
By now, @PaulMyerberg (26) has wrapped up his exhaustive team-by-team previews, but he’s still a must-follow during the year.
Other National Voices
@MattHayes_SN (27) is a long-time Sporting News columnist. Beware: He may or may not be sold on the Playoff. On the other hand, there’s Death to the BCS author @DanWetzel (28), who takes a victory lap this season. He’s still an ace columnist and key figure on Yahoo’s investigative wing.
If you want to see whose style we borrowed for this column, make sure you give @YahooForde (29) a read every week for his Forde-Yard Dash.
@RalphDRussoAP (30) is a student of the history of the game but also the ace on current events you’d expect from the Associated Press.
Miss anything during the college football Saturday? @MattBrownCFB’s (31) “The Professor” wrap-up is mandatory on Sunday morning.
The folks at Crystal Ball Run don’t have a BCS crystal ball trophy to chase in the playoff era, so they’ve moved their independent college football blog to @TheStudentSect (32).
@KevinOnCFB (34) and the staff at College Football Talk gather all the news of the day so you don’t have to.
Spencer Hall live tweeting “Big Dumb Will Muschamp Football” is only part of the fun.
The college football editor at SB Nation never runs out of clever quips about the goings on in college football.
SB Nation’s longform/investigative reporter Steven Godfrey also describes himself as a “white trash sommelier.” So there’s that.
Sarcastic college football observations, Oregon fandom, ‘90s trivia and food. Especially food.
Rubenstein’s co-host on the @SolidVerbal podcast will have another year of public discomfort watching Notre Dame football.
We’re glad to know that going public hasn’t diminished Ryan Nanni’s sophisticated brand of heckling.
Prolific Tweeter gets to watch his beloved Louisville Cardinals go for Round 2 with Bobby Petrino. This time, without a Big East Coast Bias to defend.
Arizona State changes uniforms every so often to give Todd Graham the sensation of coaching somewhere new (I realize I'm in a glass house).— Mark Ennis (@MarkEnnis) August 18, 2014
No list of SB Nation contributors would be complete with mentioning extensive local coverage from the West Coast with @PacificTakes (42), the MAC with @HustleBelt (43), the non-Power 5 leagues with @UnderdogDynasty (44) and Texas A&M/GIFs with @GBHunting and @CuppyCup (45).
Adam Kramer bills himself as "Founder and gatekeeper of Kegs ‘n Eggs. Lead College Football Writer for Bleacher Report. Advocate of FAT GUY TOUCHDOWNS, #MACtion and Las Vegas tomfoolery." Tomfoolery, indeed.
Bleacher Report's lead writer for all things SEC, Sallee will fill your Twitter feed with reactions and analysis all over the Southeast.
Follow for updates from Bleacher Report’s video guru. Stay for his views on TV.
NFL.com has recently entered the college football media sphere with a bit of a draft focus. Follow @BryanDFischer (49), @ChaseGoodbread (50) and @MikeHuguenin (51) for knowledge galore.
Bo Pelini’s doppelganger is all legit now that the real Bo has acknowledged his presence. Hasn’t dulled Faux Pelini’s act, though.
Remember when the Big 12 almost collapsed? The Fake Dan Beebe does. He’d be bitter, but he’s enjoying #buyoutlife. No one taunts the current and former Big 12 membership better.
If you’re going to follow a fake coach and a fake former Big 12 commissioner, might as well follow a real person Tweeting on behalf of an anthropomorphic duck.
Speaking of Oregon, Paul Lukas is a must-follow to keep up with the changing looks, not just from Eugene, but all over.
Not ready to delve completely in the Reddit world? Dip a toe in by following their college football subreddit on Twitter. Highlights are #MSPaintMonday and #MSExcelThursday.
@awfulannouncing and @myoder84 (57)
Did someone say something stupid on TV? Want to know those SEC Network assignments? Hate preseason polls? Awful Announcing is the place.
@bubbaprog and @cjzero (58)
Deadspin’s Tim Burke and the independent C.J. Fogler are masters of locating and creating all those videos of great plays or images of sideline moments. You won’t miss a thing following these two.
If your team is being broadcast sometime or somewhere, Matt Sarzyniak knows.
Bringing the Knowledge
A writer for SB Nation’s Football Study Hall, Bill Connelly is college football’s top advanced statistics guru. Follow Connelly, an Athlon contributor in the 2014 annuals, for statistical insight like no other.
No one knows Heisman trends quite like Chris Huston. Think your favorite player has a chance at the award? Ask Huston first.
During the season, Pete Roussel follows what coaches are saying and doing like none other, but he’s indispensable once the coaching carousel starts for his nuggets from the top of college football to Division II grad assistants.
Scott Roussel (Pete’s brother) runs a competing site full of coaching scuttlebutt. Between the two of them, you won’t miss a hiring or firing from around the college football world.
A former compliance director at Loyola Marymount, John Infante is the most knowledgable voice in the media when it comes to the gargantuan NCAA rulebook.
Coaches and Players
Good to know that a move to Penn State hasn’t diminished the best coach, assistant or otherwise, to follow on Twitter.
Most coaches’ Twitter accounts are pretty standard — inspirational quotes, excitement for the season and so forth. Les, of course, does things a little differently.
Watch closely and a DM intended for a Florida recruit may end up in your timeline. Number sign oops.
Tickets for free tweet lessons?#???????— Will Muschamp (@CoachWMuschamp) July 30, 2014
Georgia wide receiver and Star Wars fan-filmmaker Chris Conley is one of the brightest and most insightful players in the game.
Big Picture Topics
You only need to follow Hruby for 10 minutes to learn the former Sports on Earth columnist (and Georgetown professor) won’t be working for the NCAA anytime soon.
I always laugh at debates and surveys - "should college athletes be paid?" We don't have those debates about dentists or college janitors.— Patrick Hruby (@patrick_hruby) June 11, 2014
Kristi Dosh handles all the business news from college athletics. Want to follow the money? Follow Dosh.
College football will have its first gay active player less than a year after Michael Sam became the first openly gay player taken in the draft. Zeigler is the leading voice for LGBT issues in sports, and as a result, gets first dibs on coverage.
Around the SEC
One word. One long syllable: PAAAAAWWWWWWL.
Tony Barnhart, Mr. College Football himself, returns to his home at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution but you can also find him on the SEC Network.
@CecilHurt and @MattScalici (74)
Two generations and two outlets on the Alabama beat. Hurt from the Tuscaloosa News can turn a phrase with the best of the old-school columnists. Scalici is a multimedia workhorse in the AL DOT COM network.
A news aggregator that’s all things SEC. Not affiliated with the SEC, but this feed probably should be on the payroll.
Saturday Down South’s Jon Cooper analyzes SEC football from top to bottom and left to right — predictions, depth chart news, practice reports and player rankings.
A radio host in Knoxville and writer with MrSEC.com, Ward brings SEC news from around the Southeast with a Tennessee bent.
Around the ACC
Patrick Stevens has his finger on the pulse of the ACC but knows his way around the national scene, too.
Stay in tune with the defending national champions with the long-time Rivals site.
Teel graduated from James Madison and has worked for the Daily Press in Virginia for more than 30 years. No one has seen more change in the league than Teel ... and maybe Mike Krzyzewski.
Around the Big Ten
Big Ten Network (81)
@BTNDaveRevsine, @BTNTomDienhart and @BTNBrentYarina are as entrenched in Big Ten knowledge as anyone.
Greenstein brings a bit of a Northwestern bent as a Chicago Tribune writer, but he covers the whole league.
Callahan is as entrenched as anyone with the Nebraska program from top to bottom.
“Consigliere” of the Ohio State fan site ElevenWarriors.com, Ramzy Nasrallah might need a kind word or two following the Braxton Miller news.
Buckeye fans, relax. It's going to be fine. Joe Bauserman has looked great in practice.— Ramzy Nasrallah (@ramzy) August 19, 2014
Around the Big 12
Columnist and analyst from Fox Sports Southwest has an informed view on every team around the Big 12. Even Kansas
His last name is finger. His avatar is a finger. He covers Texas.
Players Texas can least afford to lose, factoring in depth behind them: 1. David Ash; 2. Quandre Diggs; 3. Kent Perkins; 4. Marcus Johnson.— Mike Finger (@mikefinger) August 10, 2014
At least Allen Kenney, an Oklahoma fan, is honest with his audience.
Around the Pac-12
The Los Angeles Times writer covers everyone in the Pac-12, of course with a focus on UCLA and USC.
Another venerable voice from Pac-12 land with views and news from Stanford and Cal.
Opinions on the Oregon schools from the never-shy Oregonian columnist.
Shane Dale’s Twitter handle and book are named after the Arizona-Arizona State rivalry, so you’ll know what you’re going to get.
A senior writer with ESPN’s Recruiting Nation, Crabtree has covered recruiting more than just about anyone. A great follow for the big picture in college football’s second season.
ESPN’s top eye for college football prospects is good at interacting with readers with #AskLoogs hashtag. Go ahead and ask him about a player or issue.
A national analyst at 247Sports, Simmons is knee-deep in recruiting knowledge from evaluations to commitments.
A former Rivals and current 247 analyst, Niebuhr is as active on Twitter as anyone. You won’t miss anything in recruiting on his feed.
Another can’t-miss voice from the 247 stable. He’s their National Recruiting Director and happy to take questions from readers.
Mike Farrell is simply the Godfather of recruiting. Trust us, that’s what his Twitter bio says.
Rivals.com’s recruiting expert out West.
No look at recruiting would be complete without someone keeping an eye on the state of Texas. Jason Howell is Rivals’ guy for the Lone Star State.
Scout has made a renewed push in the recruiting market, and Brandon Huffman is their lead guy.
Last but not least...
Giants management is nothing if not patient. Sweeping changes have almost never been encouraged or forced. Longtime and popular players could always count on loyalty from the team.
But after missing the playoffs four times in the last five seasons — a streak made worse by last season’s 0–6 start — everyone’s patience is out the window. Most of the offensive coaching staff was fired or reassigned to help fix what co-owner John Mara called a “broken” offense. Defensive captain Justin Tuck was allowed to leave without a fight, despite coming off one of his finest seasons. And the Giants spent more than $116 million on free agents in an uncharacteristic spending spree. A sign of desperation? In a way, yes.
“We want to take notice that we haven’t made the playoffs in the (few) years, and we don’t want that to be our trend,” GM Jerry Reese says. “That bothers me. I’m sure it bothers our ownership as well.”
Who knows what ownership will do — and who will be safe — if the trend continues. But the Giants sure did get aggressive to try to ensure that won’t be the case.
It’s hard to completely blame Eli Manning for the disaster that was the Giants’ offense last season, though it’s hard to absolve him, too. His career-high 27 interceptions were absurd, but a lot of it could be traced to the pounding he took behind the terrible offensive line and some questionable efforts and performances by his receivers. That’s why the Giants’ top priority this offseason was getting Manning some reliable help.
Did they? That’s debatable. They did sign guard Geoff Schwartz, one of the top linemen on the free-agent market, but the rest of their line is a question mark. They have a center who hasn’t played in two seasons (J.D. Walton), a left tackle coming off a bad leg and knee injury (Will Beatty) and will have a new starting right guard following Chris Snee's retirement prior to the start of training camp.
At least they got Manning some weapons. Free agent Rashad Jennings is a powerful and underrated runner. The team is hoping that either veteran Peyton Hillis or fourth-round pick Andre Williams can serve as a complement to Jennings now that David Wilson has been advised to retire from football due to concerns about the condition of his surgically repaired neck. Rueben Randle moves to the No. 1 receiver role, replacing the departed Hakeem Nicks, who played like he had one injured leg out the door last season. And the Giants’ top pick of the draft, rookie Odell Beckham Jr. out of LSU, could be the steal of the first round.
But the biggest change is the one that should help the most. Gone is offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride and his complicated — and some would say stale — offensive scheme. He’s been replaced by the younger Ben McAdoo, a disciple of Mike McCarthy in Green Bay, who is installing what is believed to be a West Coast-style, up-tempo attack. The early reviews from players were raves, especially from Manning, who admits to being “energized” by learning a new offense for the first time in his career. Assuming Manning is fully recovered from April surgery on his left ankle, the hope is that it will make him play better, too.
Was it a mirage or a miracle? Despite an 0–6 start last season and a disastrous offense and special teams, the Giants’ defense ranked eighth in the NFL last year. And they did it without much of a pass rush and with questions in their secondary. How? In large part because of the leadership of Jon Beason, they said.
Things seemed to change when Beason came over from Carolina in October in a steal of a deal for a seventh-round pick. The defense suddenly had a leader. The communication improved. They no longer looked like they were playing multiple schemes on the same play. That’s why the Giants made re-signing Beason their offseason defensive priority.
But they didn’t stop there. Knowing they had some bad coverage breakdowns, they spent wildly on their secondary, adding cornerbacks Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Walt Thurmond and safety Quintin Demps, producing what Thurmond believes can be “one of the best secondaries in the league.” They even got Beason some help in the linebacking corps with the addition of Jameel McClain.
The whole key to how good this defense can be, though, is the health of Jason Pierre-Paul, who played through a recovery from back surgery last season as well as an injured shoulder. He says he’s healthy now and looking to regain his 2011 form (when he had 16.5 sacks). And the Giants will need that since they let Tuck go after an 11-sack season.
If the Giants can generate a pass rush with all the back-end help, this could be one of the best defenses in the NFL. Without a pass rush, though, they may have nothing but problems.
It feels like it’s been years since the Giants had a dominant kick returner. The truth is it’s been years since they had even a decent one. Now it seems their cupboard is overflowing with players who can do special things with kickoffs and punts.
First they signed Demps, who figures to be the best punt returner they’ve had in years. But then they trumped that by bringing in the dangerous and speedy Trindon Holliday, who likely is the best kickoff returner they’ve had since Ron Dixon in the early 2000s. And then they drafted Beckham, a speedy and elusive receiver known to do special things on special teams, too.
It was interesting that the Giants didn’t fire their special teams coordinator, Tom Quinn, during the offseason purge, as many suspected they would. Instead they gave him tools to work with. As for the rest of his special teams, the Giants’ unit is as solid as they come. Punter Steve Weatherford didn’t have his finest season, but he’s only 31 and in phenomenal shape and has been mostly reliable. Kicker Josh Brown is 35, but he’s still accurate and reliable (nailing 88.5 percent of his kicks last year) and strong enough to nail a 52-yarder. And Zak DeOssie remains one of the finest long-snappers in the league.
The 7–9 season may have been miserable, but the silver lining was the 7–3 finish after the horrific start. And that came despite all the team’s issues.
If Manning is better, the Giants can’t help but be improved, and he should have the tools and the time to make that happen. There are still questions along the offensive line, but it’s stocked now with depth and NFL-quality players. And despite a glaring hole at tight end, Manning should have more weapons at his disposal than he had last year.
Pair that with a defense that should be much better, and this has all the makings of a bounce-back year for the Giants. The NFC East is no longer loaded, so it’s not hard to see the Giants win 10 games and the division. And if Manning regains his form and Pierre-Paul regains his health — admittedly two big ifs — the Giants have the potential to be real contenders.
PREDICTION: 2nd in NFC East
The Jets have missed the playoffs for three straight seasons — during which time they’ve gone 8–8, 6–10 and 8–8 again last season — but owner Woody Johnson and general manager John Idzik decided to bring coach Rex Ryan back for a sixth season.
Ryan, despite an extension, is essentially coaching for his job again in 2014. If the Jets are to make the playoffs — which would significantly help Ryan’s case — they must improve their passing offense and passing defense. Those units ranked 31st and 22nd in the NFL, respectively, last season.
Some of the passing offense issues last year were due to rookie Geno Smith’s struggles. But he didn’t have a lot of weapons to work with. He has more now. The Jets’ pass defense is rebuilding, with the release of veteran cornerback Antonio Cromartie and the first-round draft selection of safety Calvin Pryor.
The Jets have a strong running game that is perhaps stronger now. They have one of the best defensive lines in the NFL. If they can shore up their passing game issues, on both sides of the ball, they could be a playoff contender in 2014.
The Jets went out and got the best free agent receiver available, Eric Decker. But is he enough of a speedy, downfield threat to be a No. 1 receiver? Plus, how much were his stats in Denver a product of Peyton Manning? All of that remains to be seen.
Instead of drafting a receiver in the first round, the Jets supplemented their passing game with several other pieces. They drafted a tight end in the second round, Jace Amaro, who was basically a receiver in college. They added speed to their backfield by signing running back Chris Johnson, who has always been a receiving threat.
You have to wonder how much Johnson has left. He will be 29 in September, and he has 1,742 NFL carries on his body. He played last season with a torn meniscus in his knee and had the least productive year of his career. The Jets won’t need to lean on him. They can use his speed, presuming he still has it, as a complement to running back Chris Ivory’s power.
Despite all of these additions, the offense’s success — or lack thereof — will largely hinge on whether Smith can make better decisions in his second season. His numbers last season were dreadful (12 touchdowns and 21 interceptions), and the Jets signed Michael Vick this offseason to push him. But they would prefer for Smith to win the job.
Under Ryan, the Jets have regularly fielded a strong defense. But the past two seasons, they ranked 25th and 30th in the NFL in yards gained and 29th and 28th in points scored. Throw in Mark Sanchez, and over the past three seasons, the Jets’ starting quarterbacks have combined for 57 interceptions. Until all those numbers improve, the Jets won’t be a playoff team.
First, the good news: The Jets have a prodigious defensive line led by end Muhammad Wilkerson and tackle Sheldon Richardson. Wilkerson, arguably the Jets’ best player on either side of the ball, has an absurd combination of size (6'4", 315 pounds) and speed that makes him a pass-rushing terror (10.5 sacks last year). Richardson shows elite agility for a 294-pound player. On his way to winning NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year last season, he also rushed for two touchdowns in goal-line situations.
The Jets could use more production from rush outside linebacker Quinton Coples (4.5 sacks last year, 5.5 the year before as a rookie). But their defensive front is solid and the team also added veteran Jason Babin, who has collected 45 sacks over the last four seasons, to the mix early in training camp.
The issues come in the secondary. Cornerback Dee Milliner looked lost at times last year as a rookie and could miss the season opener due to a high ankle sprain. Cromartie, battling a hip injury, couldn’t defend deep balls. The Jets failed to land an elite free agent corner to replace him. They got only Dimitri Patterson, who will be 31 this season and has never proven himself as a consistent starter.
The Jets need to hope their safeties — and Pryor in particular — can cover up for their corners. Pryor’s ability to hit and stop the run is unassailable. But can he cover slot receivers and tight ends in the NFL? The Jets had better hope so. Pryor will likely challenge Antonio Allen — a seventh-round pick in 2012 — for a starting spot. Allen also had to learn cover skills in the NFL, since he was an outside linebacker in college.
Like Smith, Milliner is under tremendous pressure in Year 2 to live up to his potential. Milliner is now the No. 1 corner. He will get the toughest assignments. He closed strong last year and was named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month for December. The Jets need him to keep it up.
The Jets bring back both kicker Nick Folk and punter Ryan Quigley. Folk benefited last season from a lighter midweek workload during practice. Under the Jets’ previous special teams coordinator, Mike Westhoff, Folk was required to kick far more often during the week than he would have liked. Westhoff retired after the 2012 season, and Folk cut back his kicking under 2013 coordinator Ben Kotwica. Folk had the best season of his career in 2013, as he made 91.7 percent of his kicks. Kotwica left during the offseason to take a special teams coordinator job with the Redskins, and the Jets replaced him with Thomas McGaughey. Expect Folk’s lighter routine to continue under McGaughey.
Between free agency and the draft, the Jets gave McGaughey plenty of special teams speed. Jacoby Ford, a free-agent receiver, figures to be the new return man. A couple of undersized drafted players — receiver Jalen Saunders and inside linebacker Jeremiah George — could become immediate contributors on coverage units. The Jets struggled in that area last year. They ranked 27th in the NFL in average punt return yards allowed.
This is not a Super Bowl contender, and the roster does not even seem as talented as Ryan’s first two Jets teams, which made back-to-back AFC Championship Game appearances in 2009 and 2010. But these Jets don’t need to reach the doorstep of the Super Bowl to help Ryan’s job security. Making the playoffs alone would be a start.
It won’t be easy. From Weeks 2-7, the Jets face six brutally efficient passing offenses — Green Bay, Chicago, Detroit, San Diego, Denver and New England. Last season, those teams ranked sixth, fifth, third, fourth, first and 10th in the NFL in passing yards, respectively.
If the offense isn’t clicking early in the season — since it might have to score a bunch of points to win those games — the Jets could be out of the playoff race by the time they reach their bye in Week 11. But if Smith, Decker and Johnson prove to be a successful combination, look for the Jets to battle for a playoff spot well into December.
PREDICTION: 2nd in AFC East
NFC East champion Philadelphia was the only team in the division to finish with a winning record last season. Now that defensive coordinators have had an offseason to study Chip Kelly’s offense, will the Eagles have as much success in 2014 or will there be a new No. 1? Between Dallas, New York and Washington, which team is best positioned to challenge the Eagles’ divisional supremacy and contend for a playoff spot?
In order to get an accurate assessment of how the NFC East looks entering the 2014 season, Athlon asked NFL scouts to talk anonymously about the Cowboys, Giants, Eagles and Redskins.
Note: These scouting reports come directly from NFL scouts and do not necessarily reflect the views of Athlon's editorial staff.
“The truth is the Cowboys have won when Jerry Jones hired Jimmy Johnson and Bill Parcells and allowed them to run the football part of the organization. Barry Switzer lived off the gas that was left in the tank by Jimmy and Wade Phillips kept it afloat to a degree after Bill left. The 136-136 won/loss record since 1996 says it all, a mediocre team that is marketed as well as any professional organization in all of sports.” …
“In recent years, they have been so cap-strapped that there is little that could be done via free agency and their drafts have only been marginally productive.” …
“Tony Romo gets all the blame, but in reality, he hasn’t gotten much help from his run game or defense. He’s coming off back surgery and that’s always tricky, however, all indications are that he will be fine for 2014.” …
“DeMarco Murray was injury-prone at OU and that trend has continued in Dallas, as he has missed 11 of 48 career games. When healthy, he is capable and provides some cover for Romo.” …
“Jason Witten continues to be a solid pro, but he has slowed down some in terms of run-after-the-catch, so the Cowboys are really hoping that last year’s second- rounder, Gavin Escobar, will take a huge step forward this year.” …
“Say what you will about Dez Bryant, but it does appear that he has matured on and off the field and is an absolute house to cover and tackle when he is engaged and into the game. Terrance Williams had an excellent rookie campaign and was a great value choice in the third round last spring. Dwayne Harris would be the slot if the season started tomorrow.” …
“On the offensive line, Tyron Smith enters his fourth season and has developed nicely into a prominent left tackle. The Travis Frederick pick was criticized at the time, however, he had a good rookie year and should only get better in the future. Doug Free has found a home at RT. Expect first round pick Zack Martin to find a starting role at one of the guard spots with the possibility of playing tackle, if necessary.” …
“Use any adjective to describe it, but ugly may be at the top of the list when it comes to describing the Cowboys’ defense in 2013. Wow, was this group bad and the stats don’t lie either: 32nd in yardage allowed, 26th in points allowed and 29th in third-down conversions.” ….
“Monte Kiffin was re-assigned and one of his pupils, Rod Marinelli, was brought in to be the coordinator.” …
“They added Henry Melton from Chicago, but he is coming off a knee injury and the rest of this defensive line may be as anonymous as any in the league.” …
“Second-round pick DeMarcus Lawrence (Boise State) is being counted on heavily to pressure the QB in 2014.” …
“Sean Lee is a nice player, but he has suffered through some injury situations [Editor’s note: Lee is out for the season after tearing his ACL during OTAs in May], while Bruce Carter has yet to his athletic potential and Justin Durant is on his third team.” …
“Dallas has not gotten the return-on-investment hoped for at the cornerback positions. Brandon Carr signed for huge money from Kansas City, but is not a shutdown corner, and Mo Claiborne was probably over drafted at No. 6 in 2012, based on the way he has played in the past two years.” …
“The corners actually look OK when compared to the safeties. Barry Church has made himself into a player from being undrafted and J.J. Wilcox has only played defense for two seasons, so there is an upside to him.” …
“This defense has so far to go against the run and pass that if they can improve just slightly, it could take some wear off Romo and maybe give the organization a legit shot of getting over the hump and into the playoffs.” ...
New York Giants
“In many ways without changing the GM and head coach, the Giants moved away from their conservative philosophy and fired coaches and delved into free agency heavily to try and shake up their own franchise.” …
“Tom Coughlin got rid of long-time offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride and hired Ben McAdoo from Green Bay to call plays, while rather than waiting on the draft, GM Jerry Reese was active in signing at least 10 significant free agents.” …
“Still, the bottom line here is the play of Eli Manning. His 27 interceptions led the league and the turnover margin killed any chance of this team making the playoffs a year ago.” …
“McAdoo will install a more disciplined attack based on timing and reads and that adjustment may rejuvenate Manning mentally and physically.” ....
“Odell Beckham, Jr. was their first-round pick and he is really a good player. Along with Victor Cruz and Reuben Randle, they can now get a threat to all parts of the field.” …
“in 2013, with the line struggling up front, defenses could double those two and still squeeze off the run game. Will Beatty has been a disaster at LT, Chris Snee has gotten old [Editor’s note: Snee retired prior to the start of training camp.] and Justin Pugh had his rookie season ups-and-downs. They signed Geoff Schwartz from KC to help secure the inside of the pocket, but OGs are not game-changers.” …
“Defensive coordinator Perry Fewell has lost some of his luster, but it’s primarily been because of Jason Pierre-Paul’s lack of production due to injuries. They need him to return to form, in addition to Damontre Moore or newly acquired Robert Ayers to provide some pass rush from the opposite side.” …
“The linebacker unit is a collection of average players and they inked Jameel McClain from the Ravens despite his neck injury in December.” …
“It’s Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to the rescue at corner and that is surprising because of his struggles with the Eagles back in 2011 and ’12. Prince Amukamara was over-drafted, so he will never be a lockdown corner. Walter Thurmond was brought in from Seattle as a third corner. In the meantime, Antrel Rolle is arguably the best player on the team right now.” …
“Two Super Bowls will buy a GM and head coach almost as much time as they want, but there is no question that 2014 is an important year for Coughlin and Reese and almost all of the results will come from the right arm of Eli Manning, because this team is really average everywhere else.” …
“Many in the NFL felt the Chip Kelly experiment would be a boom-or-bust proposition, and so far, it’s been a big hit.” …
“Kelly managed the Riley Cooper situation during camp with the aplomb of a veteran pro coach and then had complete buy-in on his innovative scheme that resulted in the Eagles being second in total offense.” …
“it’s now obvious that offensive line play is a huge key for them, because they essentially locked up all five starters through the 2016 season and then released Pro Bowl receiver DeSean Jackson on March 28. The reaction from the players was surprising, but not a shock, they know the deal on DJax, he can be petulant, but make up for it on Sundays. Then again, despite his career-best numbers, he disappeared at times and is a WR at 5-10/175 that has to be ‘schemed’ open, unlike the classic 6’-/215 No. 1 receiver.” …
“Jeremy Maclin returns from an ACL, Cooper was inked to a five-year deal and Jordan Matthews (Vanderbilt) and Josh Huff (Oregon) are expected to contribute as rookies this year.” …
“Brent Celek has always been under-appreciated and Zach Ertz really showed up during the back half of the season.” …
“With the trade for Darren Sproles, combined with the skill set of LeSean McCoy, Kelly can really get creative with his 12 and 22 personnel groupings.” …
“And all of this is said without even mentioning Nick Foles who replaced Michael Vick and threw 27 touchdowns against only two interceptions. Foles surprised even his proponents with his sterling play in 2013.” The question will be how much opposing defenses adjust and take away some of his strengths after an offseason of evaluation.” …
“Regardless, for the Eagles to advance beyond the first round of the playoffs, it’s all about their defense. The front seven has been reshaped into a 3-4 with Fletcher Cox and Mychal Kendricks being two young players to really build around. Cox began to take to the scheme down the stretch and Kendricks is as explosive of a linebacker that is currently in the league.” …
“Trent Cole has tapered off some over the last three campaigns and Connor Barwin is actually better against the run than as a pass-rusher, which equated to the Eagles drafting OLB Marcus Smith (Louisville) in the first round.” …
“The secondary is their biggest weakness and that’s because of shaky play on the outsides and in the deep middle. Bradley Fletcher is ‘just a guy’ and Cary Williams thinks he’s better than he is, which can be a problem when trying to play within the system.” …
“Brandon Boykin had a terrific season as the nickelback and the Eagles signed Malcolm Jenkins as a veteran safety with some coverage ability. Eagles’ insiders feel good about Earl Wolff, and again, some of their defensive problems go back to a lack of pass rush.” …
“Now that the league’s coordinators have had a chance to study this Eagles offense, Kelly will have to show his adaptability in creating new ways to sustain the kind of success they enjoyed last year, but he earned a ton of respect within the league a season ago.” …
“It’s not a small thing that the Redskins fired the Shanahans, but kept GM Bruce Allen and defensive coordinator Jim Haslett, because it keeps a semblance of continuity within the organization and puts the focus on repairing Robert Griffin III as a long-term NFL quarterback.” …
“Allen tapped into his Gruden tree and hired Jay as the new head coach and the person most responsible for turning around RGIII.” …
“One of the biggest moves of the offseason occurred when the NFC East rival Eagles released DeSean Jackson. It didn’t take Washington long to get him in their building and on the roster. With Pierre Garcon coming off a career year and Andre Roberts signing in March, this will be a versatile set of wide receivers.” …
“If TE Jordan Reed can return from injury, Griffin should have ample opportunity to spread the football around in Gruden’s offensive system.” …
“Alfred Morris probably takes a step back in this scheme, but he is capable and a workhorse style of ball-carrier.” …
“If the game was 7-on-7, the Redskins would be near the top of the league, unfortunately, it does take an offensive line and that is a major concern. Trent Williams can certainly play, but Shawn Lauvao had problems in Cleveland and Kory Lichtensteiger will be shifted to center from OG. Chris Chester is OK at right guard and Tyler Polumbus is a tall, stiff right tackle that is only ordinary.” …
“Defensively, this unit struggled for much of the 2013 season. They added Jason Hatcher from the Cowboys in free agency, but need much more from Jarvis Jenkins and others along the front.” …
“Outside linebackers Ryan Kerrigan and Brian Orakpo must get untracked this year for them to have any shot of getting off the field on third down. Perry Riley is underrated on the inside and Darryl Sharpton was inked from Houston, but the loss of London Fletcher will be significant.” …
“That’s why Ryan Clark was brought in from Pittsburgh and the hope is he can coordinate things in the back end and help develop Phillip Thomas and/or Bacarri Rambo. DeAngelo Hall is now 30, but can still play some, while David Amerson is a Cover 2-style corner with length. They should be worried about their Sub package slot corners.” …
“Inside the Beltway, it’s all about RGIII getting a full offseason and adapting to Gruden’s system. If that happens and no major injuries occur, this team can compete in the NFC East. In the meantime, the RGMe-to-MeSean Show will be one to watch.” ...
Baseball has sabermetrics. Basketball has KenPom’s efficiency rankings. What does football have?
When it comes to advanced analytics, the game of football has lagged behind the other major American sports. Additionally, the college game trails well behind the more powerful (and better resourced) NFL.
That hasn’t stopped stat wizard Bill Connelly from introducing the college football world to advanced statistics. Athlon Sports brought in the accomplished author and statistician to help our readers become smarter and better football fans and the response has been exciting to say the least.
Connelly provided Athlon Sports’ magazines with a myriad of interesting, illuminating and critical advanced stats for every Big 5 team in the nation. Here are the SEC’s best.
Despite two late-season losses in 2013, Alabama has still had an incredible run over the last six seasons, going 72–9 with six top-10 finishes. But most of those nine losses have a common thread: pass defense. When Alabama loses, opponents complete 69.7 percent of their passes at 12.2 yards per completion. In Alabama wins, opponents complete 49.8 percent of their passes at 10.8 yards per completion.
Success Rate is an efficiency measure that determines each play as a success or failure, an on-base percentage for football. Arkansas’ defensive success rate in conference play was 52.6, easily the worst in the SEC. Only one other defense allowed a Success Rate higher than 47.2 percent (Kentucky at 49.8). New defensive coordinator Robb Smith inherits the least efficient personnel in the league.
Gus Malzahn’s offense averaged 5.1 points per trip inside the opponent’s 40-yard line. That ranked third in the country behind only Ohio State (5.6) and Florida State (5.5). Meanwhile, the Tigers’ defense ranked 41st in the same category, allowing only 3.9 points per trip.
The only thing more frustrating than struggling to move the ball is struggling to capitalize on the rare opportunities you create. Florida averaged just 3.5 points per trip inside the opponent’s 40 in 2013, 112th in the country. Despite rushing more than 40 times per game, Florida scored just 14 rushing touchdowns. Only 22 teams scored fewer, and only two averaged more rushing attempts per game.
Georgia’s field position margin in conference play was minus-2.6 — the Bulldogs’ average drive started at their 28.5, while opponents’ started at the 31.1. Georgia’s defense struggled to force three-and-outs, and the Bulldogs got next to nothing from the return game. Small disadvantages can add up in a season that features four losses by five or fewer points.
The Wildcats averaged just 4.4 yards per play in SEC games in 2013, last in the conference; the only team with almost as bad an offense (Florida at 4.7) balanced that out with solid defensive play. Kentucky was not so lucky, allowing 6.8 yards per play. The resulting minus-2.4-yard margin per play was by far the worst in the SEC.
Of the 37 fumbles that took place in LSU games in 2013 (22 by opponents, 15 by LSU), the Tigers recovered only 13, 35.1 percent of them. Based on fumbles and pass deflections, LSU should have had about a plus-7 turnover margin. Instead, it was plus-0; even worse, it was minus-3, with three fumbles lost, in the Tigers’ three losses, two of which came by three points.
Mississippi State: -18
Mississippi State played five teams that finished ranked in 2013. Average score: Opponent 32, Bulldogs 14, an average scoring margin of minus-18. The good news was that the Bulldogs went 7–1 against teams that finished unranked, though turnover luck may have played a role in that.
Mizzou ran 40.7 percent of the time on passing downs. To take pressure off of the passing games, offensive coordinator Josh Henson frequently used 3rd-and-5 or 2nd-and-9 as running downs. Once the pressure was diffused and opponents had to continue to respect the run, the Tigers found easy opportunities from their spread; last year’s top four receivers — Dorial Green-Beckham, Marcus Lucas, L’Damian Washington, and Bud Sasser — all averaged at least 8.5 yards per target on passing downs. DGB averaged 10.3.
Ole Miss: -3.4
Ole Miss averaged 6.0 yards per play in 2013 and allowed just 5.3; the plus-0.8 margin ranked 35th in the country. But thanks to field position issues, the Rebels had to gain more yards on a given drive just to catch up. Their field position margin was minus-3.4, 101st in the country — on average, they started at their 26.6 (113th) while opponents started at the 30.0. The special teams unit is often culpable in situations like this.
South Carolina: 5.0
While the Gamecocks were certainly better than opponents at just about any yard line, they derived significant advantages near both goal lines. They averaged 5.0 points per trip inside the opponent’s 40, eighth in the country; meanwhile, they allowed only 3.7 points per opponent’s trip, 13th. The resulting plus-1.3 point margin per trip was fifth-best in FBS.
Tennessee allowed 6.1 yards per play in 2013, 100th in the country. In SEC play, the Vols allowed 6.1 per play, 10th in the conference. Run defense was the culprit; the Vols ranked 23rd in Passing S&P+, a comprehensive play-by-play measure at Football Outsiders that measures explosiveness and efficiency and adjusts for the quality of the opponent. But they were only 74th in Rushing S&P+.
Texas A&M: 4.9
As iffy as Texas A&M’s defense was, it got worse with its back against the wall. The Aggies allowed 4.9 points per trip inside their 40 yards line in 2013, 115th in the country. The offense averaged 5.0 points per trip, which ranked 11th; that means that the A&M defense was able to almost turn any opponent into the A&M offense when points were on the line.
When Vanderbilt’s defense made stops, it did so quickly. The Commodores forced enough three-and-outs and turnovers that the offense’s average starting field position was its 33.3, seventh-best in the country. In conference play, the Commodores’ average was first. Unfortunately, an often ineffective offense (80th in yards per play) gave away a lot of those gains.
The one thing Peyton Manning wanted most is the one thing he didn’t do. He broke so many records, shattered so many expectations last season. Then the Seattle Seahawks defense shattered his championship dreams.
When the 43–8 beat-down in Super Bowl XLVIII was over, and the Seahawks had lowered their “Legion of Boom” defense on what might have been the best offense the NFL has ever known, Manning was left with an empty feeling, despite all he had accomplished. He set records for, among other things, single-season passing touchdowns (55) and passing yards (5,477). The 76 touchdowns and 606 points scored by the Broncos were NFL records, too.
But at age 38, it remains all about the ring for the man who is arguably the greatest quarterback of his generation. And after the devastating way last season ended, it’s left some wondering if there’s any way he can do it again.
“If it was anyone else, you’d say there’s no way, especially after the way it ended,” says one NFL executive. “But do you really want to bet against Peyton Manning?”
The Broncos are attempting to do what no team has done since the 1972 Miami Dolphins — win the Super Bowl one year after losing it. No Super Bowl loser has even made it back to the Super Bowl the following year since the 1993 Buffalo Bills.
“You have to kind of re-establish your identity of the 2014 team,” Manning says. “The 2013 team, it was a good season in a lot of ways. There is no question it did not end the way we wanted it to, but we have to find a way to build off that and take a step further — try to finish.”
Manning’s legacy is secure, but even he knows what another championship could do. His Super Bowl — in which he went 34-of-49 for 280 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions — added fuel to his critics’ fire. That’s why even though John Fox lauded Manning for “maybe the most productive season in the history of the league a year ago,” he made sure to add that for the Broncos, “all the eggs are in the basket for ’14, and we’re doing everything we can to bring that championship back here to Denver.”
“With Peyton, there is no question, you never know how much longer he’s going to be around,” adds Broncos VP John Elway. “So in the mind, there is some urgency.”
That’s why they need Manning to produce another miracle. He led the Broncos to the Super Bowl just two years after neck surgery nearly ended his career prematurely. Now he needs to do it again, before his career finally runs out of time.
—by Ralph Vacchiano
Almost every softball team has one guy who seems to swing effortlessly and drive the ball over the fence. Well, it’s time for you to be that guy. To help you become your team’s “Sultan of Swat,” we talked to Team USA Softball star (and power hitter) Brian Wegman to get his advice on how to hit the long ball.
Biceps are Overrated
“When I first started playing, I wanted the beach muscles, so my workout plan was all about the biceps, triceps and chest. By my fourth year, I switched to core training with more deadlifts, squats, lower back and abs. The total body strength has really helped me with my power.”
“Being able to use your body weight and the explosion of your swing together is what separates a good swing from a great one. My hips will start to go forward before my hands move. By the time I start my swing, I’ve already transferred approximately 65 percent of my body weight from my back leg to my front leg.”
“Swinging up at a high-arc pitch is a common error. If you miss the center of the ball and hit the top half of it, the ball will go down. However, if you keep a line drive swing you can more easily hit the bottom half of a softball, which creates backspin, distance and carry.”
Wait for It
“I have no problem swinging at the first pitch, but it has to be my kind of pitch. If it’s not, I will let it go by, even if I take an outside strike.”
—By Billy Brown
Many NFL teams adopt a “playoffs or bust’’ mentality, but how many actually live it? With the franchise for sale and its future uncertain following the death of team founder Ralph C. Wilson Jr., in March, the Buffalo Bills seem to be going for broke.
How the front office, coaching staff and players want to honor their departed patriarch is clear. “It’s one word: win,’’ president and CEO Russ Brandon says. “The only thing Mr. Wilson was focused on was winning.’’
Unfortunately for the franchise and its fans, the Bills have missed the playoffs for a league-high 14 consecutive seasons.
Employing an aggressive attitude to pay tribute to Wilson and stop this dubious streak, Brandon and general manager Doug Whaley made a series of bold free-agent moves and trades, none larger than sending a 2015 first-round pick to Cleveland to move up five spots in the draft and select the top wide receiver available in Clemson’s Sammy Watkins.
The Bills have made it clear that they are all in with EJ Manuel as their starting quarterback. Not only did they hand him the top playmaker in the draft in Watkins, but they also added blocking depth and didn’t draft another quarterback to compete with him.
Manuel, the only first-round QB in 2013, set a Bills rookie record with 11 touchdown passes. But he missed six games with knee injuries, raising questions about his durability. If he’s not healthy, he won’t have a chance to fulfill his potential as a franchise quarterback. With his size, arm strength and work ethic, all the tools are there.
Manuel and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett will have a true No. 1 receiver in Watkins. The Bills did not have a player in the NFL’s top 50 in receptions as veteran Stevie Johnson, since traded to San Francisco, proved incapable of giving Manuel a dominant game-changing target. Watkins, who had 240 career receptions and set 23 school records at Clemson, has the potential to be that guy. He has elite ability to go up and snare passes and make things happen after the catch, and he instantly upgrades Buffalo’s 28th-ranked passing game.
With Watkins drawing coverage, Robert Woods, the first Bills rookie with 40 catches since Lee Evans in 2004, figures to blossom, as does second-year pro Marquise Goodwin. The wild card is former Buc Mike Williams, who is looking to salvage his career under Doug Marrone, his college coach at Syracuse. Former Orange star Rob Moore is Marrone’s new receivers coach.
Tight end remains a pedestrian position with no real playmakers, but Buffalo continues to field one of the NFL’s most potent rushing attacks, led by Fred Jackson’s between-the-tackles power and C.J. Spiller’s speed to the outside. They combined for 1,823 yards. A draft weekend trade with Philadelphia for Bryce Brown was a major upgrade in depth.
Buffalo’s line is led by top center Eric Wood and left tackle Cordy Glenn, who figures to be better in his third season in the league. Overall, however, things regressed in 2013 with Buffalo allowing 48 sacks and converting just 34 percent of its third downs. That’s thrown some jobs open for competition. St. Louis free agent Chris Williams will get a chance to win the starting left guard spot from Doug Legursky, and giant-sized rookies Cyrus Kouandjio (second round) and Seantrel Henderson (seventh round) will push veteran Erik Pears at right tackle.
The Bills lost highly respected coordinator Mike Pettine, who was hired by the Browns as their head coach. But Marrone reacted quickly, signing Jim Schwartz, the ex-Detroit Lions head coach, to run his defense and hiring two other strong defensive assistants in Pepper Johnson (defensive line) and Fred Pagac (linebackers). Pettine ran a hybrid 3-4 scheme, which failed to solve Buffalo’s run-stopping problems but greatly improved its pass rush. Led by three players with 10 sacks or more, the Bills set a club record with 57 sacks and led the AFC. On the back end, Buffalo recorded 23 interceptions, second-most in the league.
Schwartz favors a 4-3 alignment but won’t try to fix what’s not broken and will incorporate some of Pettine’s ideas that favored Buffalo’s personnel so well. The Bills had 41 sacks from defensive linemen, led by Mario Williams (13), Kyle Williams (10.5), Jerry Hughes (10) and Marcell Dareus (7.5). In Schwartz’s scheme, strong-side linebacker Manny Lawson (4.0 sacks) will play end while solid backups Alan Branch and Corbin Bryant kick inside to tackle. Their value to the team will rise depending on the fate of Dareus, who is facing a league suspension after being arrested in Alabama on felony drug charges.
A big part of Buffalo’s pass-rush success is solid cover corners, and the team returns two strong ones in Stephon Gilmore and Leodis McKelvin, two former first-round picks. McKelvin justified his four-year, $17 million deal with his best season. Free agent Corey Graham from Baltimore adds great depth and versatility.
The big loss was letting Pro Bowl free safety Jairus Byrd ($54 million deal with Saints) depart in free agency. Byrd is one of the NFL’s great ball-hawks and will be missed. Da’Norris Searcy has talent and will have his first chance to start full time. Aaron Williams, converted from corner, found a home at strong safety and returns to man that spot.
The Bills need greatly improved play from their linebacker corps, especially considering the season-ending ACL injury Kiko Alonso suffered during a workout in July. Alonso led the team with 159 tackles and added four interceptions last season in a sparkling rookie debut. Nigel Bradham, Alonso's potential replacement as a starter, will miss the season opener for a violation of the league's substance-abuse policy. Free agent Brandon Spikes, one of the game’s best run-stoppers, will man the middle. Spikes, who signed a one-year, $3-million deal, wore out his welcome in New England and is motivated to land a long-term contract. Giants free agent Keith Rivers will get a chance to nail down an outside position.
Former Dolphin Dan Carpenter, who signed as a free agent, turned one of the best seasons in Bills’ kicking history into a four-year, $9 million contract. Carpenter converted 33-of-36 field-goal attempts, including 4-of-6 from beyond 50 yards. In a surprising move, the Bills retained career punting leader Brian Moorman, 38, who rejoined the club last October. Moorman averaged just 36.6 net yards, and his 41.2-yard average ranked among the worst in the league. He’ll have to hold off Jake Dombrowski to win the job in camp. Goodwin returns to man kickoff return duties — he averaged 21.9 yards — and McKelvin will handle punts again.
Flipping 6–10 to 10–6 will take more consistency from the offense and better run play by the defense. Ultimately, it’s on Manuel to take this opportunity, stay healthy and prove he’s the franchise quarterback the team needs so desperately. With no first-round pick in 2015 and a future new owner to impress, there is immense pressure on Manuel and the front office to win now.
PREDICTION: 3rd in AFC East
In their first two years on the job, coach Jeff Fisher and GM Les Snead have brought the Rams back to respectability, a commendable achievement in itself given the sad state of the franchise when they arrived in 2012. All along, they’ve pointed to Year 3 of their rebuilding project — the 2014 season — as the year to get over the hump. The year to end what is now a string of 10 straight seasons without a winning record. The year the blockbuster “RGIII Trade” with Washington would bear its last fruit. Well, here we are. The selection of offensive lineman Greg Robinson represented the last piece of property gained in return for giving the Redskins the right to draft quarterback Robert Griffin III. It’s time to see results in St. Louis.
The Rams were forced to start a backup quarterback for more than half of the 2013 season and played nine top-10 defenses, yet they still scored their most points since 2006. But the bar has been set pretty low. They need to find another field goal here, another touchdown there to push their way into the postseason. The approach to that task involves two potential risks — sticking with Sam Bradford at quarterback and standing pat at wide receiver in a draft in which Sammy Watkins was there for the taking. Those are the kinds of decisions that can lead to contract extensions if they work, but pink slips if they don’t.
Bradford was headed to a career year statistically when he suffered a season-ending knee injury in Game 7 at Carolina. He was nearly at full strength during OTAs, so his status for the regular-season opener is not in question. His group of pass-catchers — wideouts, tight ends and running backs included — needs to provide more help by minimizing drops and doing a better job of creating separation. Chris Givens failed to make a leap after a strong rookie season. He caught only 34 passes for 569 yards last season. Tavon Austin, a 2013 first-round pick, needs to polish his craft in every area, and the coaching staff must do a better job of utilizing his skills. Brian Quick is talented but has yet to catch more than 18 passes in a season. Kenny Britt, signed as a free agent, had flashes of brilliance during his five years with the Titans but lacked consistency and had difficulty staying out of trouble. Tight end Jared Cook, another former Titan drafted by Fisher, had a career-high 51 catches in his first season with the Rams, but he too needs to be more consistent.
The Rams are well stocked at running back, with third-round draft pick Tre Mason, the former Auburn star, joining Zac Stacy, Benny Cunningham, and Isaiah Pead. The addition of Robinson in the draft provides power to an offensive line that must grind out yards on the ground and keep Bradford from hitting the ground.
The Rams already had arguably the best defensive end tandem in the league in Robert Quinn and Chris Long. Now they’re adding the best interior pass-rusher in the 2014 draft in tackle Aaron Donald. And let’s not forget what could be the biggest offseason addition of all — Gregg Williams as the Rams’ new defensive coordinator. This was supposed to happen a couple of seasons ago when Fisher first took the job. But less than two months after being hired by Fisher during the 2011-12 offseason, Williams was suspended by the league for a year for his role in the “Bountygate” scandal in New Orleans. That led to a falling out between Fisher and Williams, one that included Fisher’s ouster of Williams’ son Blake after the ’12 season. But the two long-time friends patched things up in January, and two years later Williams finally gets to work his magic on the St. Louis defense.
The cornerstone will be that defensive line, which also includes two solid tackles in Michael Brockers and Kendall Langford, plus a superb utility man in end William Hayes. The Rams have five first-round picks in their front seven.
The linebacker corps returns all three starters in James Laurinaitis (middle), Alec Ogletree (weak side) and Jo-Lonn Dunbar (strong side). Ogletree had a strong rookie year and has big-play potential. Laurinaitis remains dependable, durable and productive.
Williams will earn his pay trying to get the secondary up to snuff. The entire unit has only 71 games’ worth of NFL starting experience. Starting corners Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson remain raw and mistake-prone. And at safety, starters T.J. McDonald (strong) and Rodney McLeod (free) are far from finished products. It’s not going to work unless the entire secondary cuts down on mistakes and does a better job avoiding big plays. Rookie LaMarcus Joyner, who will play nickel back, must make an instant contribution.
The Rams are close to becoming one of the best special teams units in the league. Fewer penalties and a little more juice in the return game can make that happen. Austin has flashes of brilliance on punt returns as evidenced by a long TD against Indianapolis and a TD called back against Dallas last year. He’s a slithery change-of-direction demon who needs just a little daylight to make a lot happen. Meanwhile, the Rams have been searching for a dynamic kickoff returner since the days of Tony Horne and the Greatest Show on Turf. There is no clear-cut favorite for that job, and it’s a certainty there will be auditions throughout the preseason. Cunningham, a backup running back, doesn’t look or run like a classic kickoff returner, but he has shown a knack for at least providing decent field position.
Punter Johnny Hekker and placekicker Greg Zuerlein are developing into a consistent, productive pair. Hekker has that rare combination of hang time, distance and directional skill, setting an NFL record for net punting (44.2 yards) a year ago. Zuerlein was nearly automatic in ’13, avoiding the midseason slump of his rookie campaign. He’s got one of the league’s strongest legs.
Improvement is needed at wide receiver and tight end. An offensive line that includes three players with recent injury histories — Jake Long, Rodger Saffold and Scott Wells — needs to stay healthy. It’s shaping up as a make-or-break year for Bradford, who’s had injury issues of his own in two of his four Rams seasons. There’s nothing but inexperience in the secondary and next to no depth at linebacker. OK, the D-line has the makings of “great.” Still that’s a lot of “ifs” for what figures to be the youngest team in the NFL for the third consecutive season. And in case you’ve forgotten, the Rams reside in the toughest neighborhood of all, the NFC West. Throw in a non-division schedule that includes Denver, Kansas City, and Philadelphia — all playoff teams from a year ago — and the Rams may need more than a GPS tracker to find the postseason.
PREDICTION: 4th in NFC West
Historically known as the domain of defenses like the Monsters of the Midway and the Purple People Eaters, the NFC North may be changing its image. Now home to Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford and Jay Cutler and a host of explosive playmakers, the division boasted three of the NFL’s top offenses in 2013. The Packers have been the top dog the past three seasons and are considered the favorites again this year. But both the Bears and Lions are hoping offseason changes will allow them to close the gap. And then there’s Minnesota, which has the best running back in the league in Adrian Peterson and is hoping it drafted its next franchise quarterback in Teddy Bridgewater.
In order to get an accurate assessment of how the four NFC North teams are shaping up heading into the 2014 season, Athlon asked NFL scouts to talk anonymously about the Bears, Lions, Packers and Vikings.
Note: These scouting reports come directly from NFL scouts and do not necessarily reflect the views of Athlon's editorial staff.
“The Bears saw the results of hiring offensive-minded Marc Trestman when Jay Cutler was having a productive year before a series of injuries occurred and Josh McCown stepped in and actually played even more efficiently.” …
“Chicago has an excellent set of offensive skill players with Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery on the outside with Martellus Bennett at TE and Matt Forté in the backfield.” …
“Their line got a huge boost from rookies Kyle Long and Jordan Mills after they had signed Jermon Bushrod in free agency.” …
“If they can get any sort of improvement from the defense, the Bears should compete for NFC honors. Defensive coordinator Mel Tucker is well respected around the league, but in all honesty, his statistics at Cleveland, Jacksonville and last year, have left some wondering about his future as a potential NFL head coach.” …
“Still, they were derailed by injuries and have since released Julius Peppers. However, a full makeover is underway with the additions of Jared Allen and Lamarr Houston. Allen has plenty left in the tank and Houston was often overlooked as a dependable starter in Oakland.” …
“DTs Ego Ferguson (LSU) and Will Sutton (Arizona State) were picked in the second and third rounds and the linebackers have to stay healthy despite their age (D.J. Williams and Lance Briggs).” …
“Tim Jennings has coaxed a ton out of his body to become a long-time pro, while [Charles] Peanut Tillman is nearing the end as a starting corner. Hence, the selection of CB Kyle Fuller (Virginia Tech) in the first round.” …
“The safeties won’t strike fear in anybody, so this entire secondary will need to be overhauled over the next two years.” …
“In a sentence, the Bears should be spectacular on offense, and if Tucker and Co. can turn things around defensively, this team has a chance to have a special year.” …
“After the Lions faltered down the stretch of the 2013 season with the division title in sight, the organization fired Jim Schwartz and hired Jim Caldwell. Caldwell has two tasks: to improve the consistency of Matthew Stafford and eliminate the on-field discipline issues that have plagued this team over the past five seasons.” …
“Stafford and Calvin Johnson have posted bigger numbers than any tandem since 2008, but they still added Golden Tate to the mix as an alternative, different style of receiver than Megatron. Kris Durham is a favorite of Stafford, despite his lack of all-out speed and athleticism.” …
“Brandon Pettigrew was retained, but that didn’t keep them from taking Eric Ebron with the No. 10 pick. The Lions got great mileage out of undrafted free agent Joseph Fauria who caught 10 touchdown passes as a rookie.” …
“Reggie Bush was everything advertised as a runner and receiver and the club likes the idea of pairing him off with Joique Bell.” …
“The offensive line is adequate with Riley Reiff at left tackle, Dominic Raiola in the middle and Larry Warford coming off a very secure rookie campaign.” …
“Teryl Austin takes over as the defensive coordinator and Detroit certainly has one of the best fronts in the entire league. Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley, Ziggy Ansah and Jason Jones all have significant talent and watch for Devin Taylor to reveal himself as a quality young prospect this year.” …
“The linebackers are undersized with Stephen Tulloch leading the way as a tackler.” …
“Austin recruited James Ihedigbo from the Ravens, but between he and Glover Quin, not sure they are good enough back there.” …
“On the corners, Rashean Mathis returns for another year, despite Detroit drafting Darius Slay in the second round a year ago.” …
“Chris Houston’s toe injury has been problematic during the offseason [Editor’s note: Houston was released by the team in June], so they also drafted Nevin Lawson (Utah State) to add depth on the edge.” …
“Turnovers and the ability to make critical plays at critical times will determine if Caldwell is a successful hire.” …
“Caldwell is charged with turning this group of underachievers into division winners, and for that to happen, he will need stellar performances from Stafford and a defense that will be tested at all levels in the NFC North." ...
Green Bay Packers
“Somehow without Aaron Rodgers for seven games, the Packers made the playoffs. Give credit to coach Mike McCarthy and GM Ted Thompson who have both quietly put together a solid record of leadership and success.” …
“Rodgers is at the top of his game and has performed through quite a bit of adversity over the past two seasons. Neither the offensive line nor receivers are what he had earlier in his career, but the running game is better with Eddie Lacy.” …
“Some Alabama insiders felt Lacy had more talent than Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson, and they were proven right with his 1178 yards as a rookie.” …
“Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb are both very good players and they added Davante Adams from Fresno State in the second round.” …
“David Bakhtiari is just OK as the left tackle, so they need Bryan Bulaga to return from injury in order to bolster their edge protection. J.C. Tretter projects well to center, but actually played LT at Cornell and spent most of 2013 on IR. All-Pro guard Josh Sitton can help him in that transition.” …
“On defense, Dom Capers seems to have lost some of his 3-4 magic, however, that may be more of a talent issue.” …
“Mike Daniels has become a dependable pro and they need Datone Jones to make big progress in his second year. B.J. Raji was brought back on a one-year deal, but he has to play better.” …
“A.J. Hawk has never made the splash plays of a top 5 pick and Brad Jones is only an adequate NFL starter. Clay Matthews is the best player on their D and the Packers signed Julius Peppers to rush from the opposite side, but no one has any idea how Capers will plug him into their system.” …
“Sammie Shields was deservedly extended in March, but Tramon Williams is on the other side of it, so Casey Hayward or Micah Hyde could push for a starting role this year.”…
“The safety play was atrocious last season and was their biggest need in the offseason. The Packers selected Alabama’s Ha Ha Clinton-Dix with the 21st pick of the first round and he is an athletic centerfielder.” …
“As long as Rodgers is healthy, this team will always have a chance to compete, but if Green Bay wants to talk Super Bowl, they must get production from Peppers and play at a much higher level along both lines of scrimmage.” …
“The Vikings are the NFC version of the Bills in that they have put together a solid, playoff-contending roster, but the QB position is the big issue here. GM Rick Spielman has at least a partial miss with Christian Ponder, but that didn’t prevent them from taking Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater at the end of the first round.” …
“They hired Mike Zimmer to fix an underachieving defense.” …
“Offensively, they literally have a blue-chip caliber talent in every position group except QB. Adrian Peterson is still the best RB in the game, Matt Khalil is one of the best young tackles in the league, Kyle Rudolph is a quality TE and Cordarrelle Patterson has incredible upside. With that said, Zimmer hired Norv Turner as his offensive coordinator to either fix Ponder and/or Matt Cassel and develop Bridgewater.” …
“Jared Allen moved to the Bears after the Vikings opted to retain a younger Everson Griffen and sign DT Linval Joseph from the Giants. Shariff Floyd is a major key to a defensive turnaround, he has to be more consistent and provide an interior pass rush against the QBs in this division.” …
“The linebackers are good enough when healthy, but Chad Greenway, Matt Mauti and Gerald Hodges have all missed time in the past, therefore, their original first round pick, UCLA’s Anthony Barr, will be expected to play and contribute this year.” …
“Maybe the weakest part of this roster is the secondary. Chris Cook signed with the 49ers, but Xavier Rhodes and Josh Robinson are the incumbent returners who will compete with Panthers’ signee Captain Munnerlyn.” …
“The safeties are just ordinary with SS Jamarca Sanford and FS Hunter Smith patrolling the deep part of the field…
“If this organization can figure out the QB and Zimmer can fix the D, the Vikings may in fact have a positive future after all.” …
The Cowboys lost two of the best players off a defense that was one of the worst in NFL history. Their quarterback underwent a second back surgery in eight months. They named a third offensive play-caller and a third defensive coordinator in three years. Their head coach is in the final year of his contract.
Rebuilding? Did someone say rebuilding?
“You don’t rebuild with (Tony) Romo,” owner Jerry Jones says. “The firepower we have on offense and where we are with our running backs and our receivers, you don’t rebuild with an offense that’s got the capability we’ve got.”
The Cowboys’ attack will feature Romo, tight end Jason Witten, receiver Dez Bryant, running back DeMarco Murray and a much-improved offensive line. They give Jones his hope. The Cowboys, however, have retooled their defense out of necessity. They believe that gives them a chance to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2009. Although the Cowboys went only 30–34 combined the past four seasons, they haven’t stopped believing at the team’s Valley Ranch headquarters.
Romo missed the win-or-go-home season finale against the Eagles. But the Cowboys expect their franchise quarterback, whom they guaranteed $55 million before the start of last season, to fully recover from the herniated disc he played through against Washington in Week 16. Dallas still is building its title hopes around Romo, who they consider younger than his 34 years since he didn’t play much his first two seasons. The Cowboys signed Brandon Weeden, the No. 22 overall pick of the Browns two years ago, as a backup plan more than as a developmental prospect since he turns 31 this season.
Murray finally became the workhorse the Cowboys thought he could be when they drafted him in the third round in 2011. He rushed for the third-most yards in the NFL in the final eight games of last season and finished the year with 1,121 yards and his first Pro Bowl berth. The Cowboys love Lance Dunbar’s explosiveness, but at 5'8", 188, he hasn’t shown he can withstand the punishment of consistent work. He played in only nine games last season because of injuries. The Cowboys drafted Joseph Randle in the fifth round last year to be Murray’s primary backup, but his development was delayed by thumb surgery in the offseason.
Witten, 32, continues to rank as one of the league’s best at his position. The Cowboys used a second-round pick on Gavin Escobar in 2013, but coaches said all season he needed to get bigger and stronger before he could help. James Hanna was used more.
Bryant enters a contract year after catching 93 passes for 1,233 yards and 13 touchdowns. Dallas selected Terrance Williams in the third round last year, with plans to groom him eventually to start opposite Bryant. That time is now. After Williams caught 44 passes for 736 yards and five touchdowns, the Cowboys felt comfortable in releasing Miles Austin. Dwayne Harris, Cole Beasley and 2014 fifth-round draft pick Devin Street will compete for time.
The offensive line was much improved, allowing only 35 sacks and paving the way for a rushing attack that averaged 4.5 yards per carry. Left tackle Tyron Smith became the team’s first Pro Bowl offensive lineman since 2010 and the team rewarded him handsomely with a massive eight-year contract extension that includes $40 million in guaranteed money and locks him up through 2023. The Cowboys shored up the interior by drafting center Travis Frederick in the first round last year, and he became one of the best in the league at his position as a rookie. The Cowboys also were satisfied with the play of left guard Ron Leary in his first season as a starter, and veteran right tackle Doug Free improved from 2012. They expect to replace right guard Mackenzy Bernadeau with versatile 2014 first-round pick Zack Martin.
Dallas released defensive end DeMarcus Ware, the club’s all-time sack leader, because his production no longer matched his salary. Defensive tackle Jason Hatcher, who led the team last season with 11 sacks, left for Washington in free agency. End Anthony Spencer did re-sign with the Cowboys, but he could struggle to regain his form after undergoing microfracture knee surgery. George Selvie, a street free agent signed last July when Spencer first injured his knee, returns at left end after recording seven sacks last season. Free-agent signee Jeremy Mincey and second-round pick DeMarcus Lawrence were scheduled to compete for the right end spot, but that was before the rookie broke his foot early in training camp. He is expected to miss the first month of the regular season, at minimum. Newcomer Henry Melton, who had 15.5 sacks in four seasons in Chicago, replaces Hatcher at the three-technique. Nick Hayden, who had 44 tackles and 16 quarterback pressures, returns at the nose, although Tyrone Crawford, who missed last season with a torn Achilles, will compete for the job.
When Sean Lee is healthy, he is one of the top inside linebackers in football. Staying on the field, however, has been a problem, as evidenced by the 18 games he has already missed in his four-year career. Unfortunately, he will only add to this total due to a torn ACL Lee suffered during OTAs in late May. The Cowboys sent a sixth-round pick in next year's draft to Baltimore for linebacker Rolando McClain in hopes of filling Lee's spot. The eighth overall pick of the 2010 NFL Draft out of Alabama, McClain has been a disappointment to this point and hasn't played a down since the 2012 season. Released by Oakland last offseason, McClain signed with Baltimore only to announce his retirement a month later. Back in the game, Dallas hopes the best is yet to come from the former unanimous All-American and Butkus Award recipient.
Kyle Wilber started the year at defensive end, but he found a home at strong-side linebacker. The move was necessitated by veteran linebacker Justin Durant’s hamstring injury in a Nov. 10 game. The Cowboys want more production from the weak-side spot, where Bruce Carter was a major disappointment in his third season.
The Cowboys thought they shored up their cornerback position before the 2012 season when they signed free-agent Brandon Carr to a five-year, $50.1 million deal, and traded up in the draft to select Morris Claiborne with the sixth overall pick. But Carr struggled and Claiborne lost his starting job to nickel back Orlando Scandrick last season. Claiborne has missed seven games in his two seasons because of injuries, and he has failed to show much playmaking ability. He could get a chance to re-establish his status as a starter, however, since Scandrick will have to sit out the first four games due to a violation of the league's policy on the use of performance-enhancing drugs. The Cowboys drafted B.W. Webb in the fourth round last year, but he had a forgettable rookie season. Dallas likes its safeties, believing it has long-term starters in free safety Barry Church and strong safety J.J. Wilcox.
Kicker Dan Bailey has become Mr. Reliable, converting 90.8 percent of his field goals in three seasons with eight game-winners. Chris Jones stayed healthy and completed his first full season as the team’s punter, averaging 44.8 yards on 77 punts with a 39.1 net. Harris has solved the Cowboys’ return game, becoming one of the game’s most dangerous specialists.
Dallas has played for the division title in the final game each of the past three seasons, losing all three win-or-go-home finales to finish 8–8 each time. Jones, the ever-optimistic owner, believes the Cowboys have upgraded their defense enough to make them a contender this season. It’s hard to see on paper. They lost Hatcher and Ware and added Melton via free agency and Lawrence in the draft. Coach Jason Garrett likely will need to reach the playoffs to save his job, and it’s hard to envision this team getting to the postseason.
PREDICTION: 3rd in NFC East
There are collapses, and then there are the 2013 Texans, whose supposed offseason fine-tuning of the roster disintegrated into 14 consecutive losses and the NFL’s worst record at 2–14. Head coach Gary Kubiak didn’t survive to season’s end. The coaching staff was overhauled with Penn State’s Bill O’Brien hired as the new boss. O’Brien knows something about picking up the pieces after taking over for Joe Paterno in 2012 amid the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State. Quarterback Matt Schaub’s decline prompted a March trade to Oakland for a sixth-round draft pick. Injuries and a lack of mental toughness in close games — nine losses by a touchdown or less — victimized the defending two-time AFC South champions. The upside is that the Texans can’t get much worse. They’re healthy and still have talent. The rebuild began with several free-agent signings and 10 draft choices, most notably No. 1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney.
The addition of free-agent quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick provides a veteran presence, but the reality is this is his third team in as many years and fifth in a 10-year career. He’ll provide experience, but the Texans will need him to groom an heir apparent, possibly rookie Tom Savage, a fourth-round pick out of Pittsburgh. Fitzpatrick will be asked to make the smart plays, not turn it over and rely on the run game. Turnovers are the concern. He’s averaged 16.5 interceptions the past four seasons.
O’Brien is also listed as offensive coordinator. Expect to see some wrinkles from his New England days as an assistant to Bill Belichick, formations with multiple tight ends and no fullbacks. Four of the O-line starters return, including two-time Pro Bowl tackle Duane Brown, but pass protection was an issue. Expect a combination of zone and man blocking schemes under new offensive line coach Paul Dunn. The obvious emphasis will be to get the most out of running back Arian Foster, who played just half of last season and underwent back surgery. He’s still just 28, so there’s no reason to believe he can’t revert to 2012 form, when he produced a league-leading 17 touchdowns. Free-agent signee Andre Brown, who has had his share of injuries, was believed to be the leading candidate to serve as the No. 2 tailback, but he and Dennis Johnson were cut a few weeks into training camp. This opens up an opportunity for either Dennis Johnson, who was the team's third-leading rusher last season, or sixth-round pick Alfred Blue to seize the backup job. The team also signed veterans Ronnie Brown and William Powell to add to the backfield competition during camp.
Seven-time Pro Bowl receiver Andre Johnson turns 33 before camp, but he delivered 109 catches for 1,407 yards and five TDs in 2013. The problem is, without another capable receiver — at least one with speed — opposing teams will double Johnson to minimize his production. Last year’s No. 1 pick, wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, had 52 catches for 802 yards but didn’t finish strong. Look for Hopkins’ numbers to improve and for him to be a more frequent target in the red zone. That would take a lot of the pressure off of Johnson. Too often in the past, opponents could sit on fade routes to Johnson inside the 20-yard line. Keshawn Martin and DeVier Posey provide depth, and both will be given every opportunity to contribute more. The Texans will use three tight ends, sometimes on the field at the same time. Garrett Graham has the potential for a breakout season. He and Ryan Griffin are talented pass-catchers. Third-round pick C.J. Fiedorowicz is a solid blocker with decent hands.
Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips was replaced by Romeo Crennel, a five-time Super Bowl winner who inherits a defense that generated a league-low seven interceptions and recovered just four fumbles. Crennel will change the 3-4 scheme by asking linemen to play two gaps. The previous expectation was to cover one gap and get up the field. The Texans were No. 3 in pass defense, but just 23rd in stopping the run and tied for 24th in points allowed. Crennel has one of the NFL’s best defensive ends in J.J. Watt, who has 36.5 sacks in his three-year career. But that number dropped from 20.5 to 10.5 last season as teams forced him to beat constant double-teams. Houston tied for 29th with just 32 sacks. Expect Watt to line up at different positions. The other end likely will be Jared Crick, a third-year pro who plays with a high motor. Rookie Jeoffrey Pagan is coming off shoulder surgery but could push Crick. Rookie third-round pick Louis Nix III will be counted on at nose tackle.
Clowney has the kind of freakish athleticism and pass-rush skills to make life easier for Watt. Clowney’s official position will be outside linebacker, but Crennel will use him in a variety of ways depending on the game situation. Whitney Mercilus had seven sacks in his first season as a starting outside linebacker. Brooks Reed moves inside next to Brian Cushing, a defensive leader who has missed 20 games the past two seasons due to injuries. Keeping Cushing on the field as an every-down linebacker is vital.
Cornerbacks Johnathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson return for their fourth season starting together. Joseph typically covers the opponent’s best receiver but has been inconsistent. Jackson has made strides but still gets hit with too many penalties. Depth is a concern. Former second-round pick Brandon Harris has yet to live up to his selection. He likely will become the nickel back. Strong safety D.J. Swearinger and free safety Shiloh Keo are back, but expect them to be pushed by free-agent additions Chris Clemons and Kendrick Lewis.
Punter Shane Lechler turns 38 during camp but is still one of the NFL’s elite with a 47.6-yard average last season and 34 punts inside the 20. Placekicker Randy Bullock made 26-of-35 field goals in his first season, though four of the misses were from 50 yards or more. Martin is an excellent kickoff returner with a 26.3-yard average, but he managed just 8.8 yards per punt return, primarily because of bad blocking. The Texans need to improve on kick coverage. They were 28th in both kickoff return average (25.7) and punt return average (12.3).
The lack of a quality quarterback in a league that requires superior play at the position will hold this team back at times. Fitzpatrick will show flashes, but with the great plays come the demoralizing ones. Still, Foster, Johnson, Watt, Cushing and hopefully Clowney give this team building blocks to bounce back to respectability. If healthy, Foster is too talented to have another subpar season. Clowney and Watt should be a headache for opposing offensive lines. Teams that run the ball and can play defense are always competitive. There will be more close games, and expect Houston to win its share of them this time.
The Texans are fortunate to be in the AFC South, where Tennessee and Jacksonville are also in rebuilding modes and have similar quarterback concerns. It’s a bit too optimistic to expect a worst-to-first rebirth and unseating of defending champion Indianapolis. But Texans fans have reason to expect progress. As far-fetched as it may seem, considering last year’s debacle, finishing around .500 isn’t out of the realm of possibility.
PREDICTION: 3rd in AFC South
For the first time in five seasons, the AFC North sent just one team to the playoffs in 2013. Cincinnati is the reigning division champion, but Baltimore and Pittsburgh both have won Super Bowl titles within the last six seasons. Can the Bengals hold off the Ravens and Steelers again in 2014? And what about Cleveland, which hasn’t made the postseason since 2002 and has had a revolving door at both head coach and starting quarterback since rejoining the NFL in 1999?
In order to get an accurate assessment of how the AFC North looks heading into the 2014 season, Athlon asked NFL scouts to talk anonymously about the Ravens, Bengals, Browns and Steelers.
Note: These scouting reports come directly from NFL scouts and do not necessarily reflect the views of Athlon's editorial staff.
“Very few teams enjoy more dependable, consistent leadership at the top than the Ravens. Despite their disappointing 8-8 record in 2013, head coach John Harbaugh was extended through 2017 during the offseason and GM Ozzie Newsome soldiers into his 19th year as the final decision-maker in Baltimore.” …
“Gary Kubiak takes over as offensive coordinator and his task will be to make QB Joe Flacco a more consistent performer. When Flacco is protected and ‘hot,’ he throws it as well, if not better, than anyone in the league. When the protection is not there, he looks uncomfortable, will force the football into coverage and does not have much mobility in trying to escape the pocket.” …
“RB Ray Rice ran into some legal problems stemming from a physical altercation with his fiancée (now wife) back in February, but it sounds as if he will be given another chance to demonstrate his ability to be the lead back for another season.” …
“The Ravens love Torrey Smith on and off the field, and with the addition of veteran Steve Smith from the Panthers, they may have found the ideal compliment to his game.” …
“The Ravens were derailed offensively almost from the outset of last year when TE Dennis Pitta went down with a fractured hip.” …
“Offensive line play was ineffective at the line of scrimmage and the team averaged less than 3.0 yards per carry for the season. Baltimore gave up multiple mid-round picks for LT Eugene Monroe and then was able to re-sign him in March to a long-term deal. During free agency, the club also acquired OC Jeremy Zuttah from Tampa Bay who will replace Gino Gradkowski after his struggles in 2013.” …
“Defensively, Baltimore had its lowest statistical rankings since 2002, but remember they lost both LB Ray Lewis and FS Ed Reed, two of the most iconic modern-day players in recent history. Leadership was an obvious issue and LB Daryl Smith returns after he stepped into the huge void left by Lewis.” …
“Other than hybrid Terrell Suggs, the Ravens really do not have a legit pass-rusher on the opposite side. Without that consistent pressure, the secondary is young and mentally inexperienced.” …
“FS Matt Elam and CB Jimmy Smith both have talent and upside, but need better attention to detail and more in-game focus to improve.” …
“Baltimore drafted with the intent of shoring up the middle of its defense with LB C.J. Mosley, DT Timmy Jernigan and FS Terrence Brooks, but can only hope Rice returns to previous form and they are not left with Bernard Pierce as the lead back.” ...
“The Bengals have one of the most balanced rosters in the entire NFL.” …
“Marvin Lewis has been in place for 12 years and don’t discount the impact that Duke and Bill Tobin have had on their personnel decisions. They actually have a scouting philosophy, do their homework and pick good players in every draft.” …
“There is no question this team will win again in 2014, but the pink elephant in the room is Andy Dalton, is he good enough to win a Super Bowl? His regular season numbers are as good as any that have played the game in their first four years, but his performances in the playoffs have been so bad, that this has been a constant topic of conversation around the league during the offseason.” …
“Dalton has weapons galore with A.J. Green, Mohamed Sanu, Marvin Jones, Jermaine Gresham, Tyler Eifert and the backfield combo of BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Giovani Bernard.” …
“the offensive line is solid in four places and they picked Russell Bodine from North Carolina as a potential fourth-round rookie starter.” …
“Defensively, with the return of Geno Atkins, they should be more disruptive on the inside.” …
“Vontaze Burfict has emerged as a legit ILB after his character/work ethic was crushed coming out of Arizona State. Rey Maualuga can flash, but the inconsistency is always a concern.” …
“The Bengals would love to see Dre Kirkpatrick elevate his play and become a bona fide starting corner this year, but they also drafted Darqueze Dennard in the first round to address the age issues of Leon Hall, Terence Newman and Adam Jones.” …
“Danieal Manning was signed in free agency to provide Chris Crocker-like insurance to Taylor Mays and Reggie Nelson.” …
”in a tough division, the Bengals have the most complete team, but need Dalton to respond to the pressure in order to end all of the talk by advancing in the playoffs and to the Super Bowl. Barring another rash of injuries, this team is a favorite again in the AFC.” …
“No organization in all of professional sports has gone through as much upheaval over the past decade as the Browns. Since 1999, they’ve had 20 different starting quarterbacks, eight head coaches and seven general managers, just incredible.” …
“After one year with Rob Chudzinski as head coach, CEO Joe Banner and GM Mike Lombardi dumped him, went on a 25-day coaching search and settled on Mike Pettine, the former Jets’ and Bills’ defensive coordinator as their best option. Ten days later, Banner and Lombardi were both shown the door and Ray Farmer was elevated to the top football decision-making spot by owner Jimmy Haslam.” …
“That’s all the bad news, the good news is that this roster has been piecemealed together over time by different regimes and there is some talent on hand.” …
“The biggest question mark has been and will be the QB position and the Browns maneuvered themselves into position to take Johnny Manziel in the first round. The Johnny Cleveland era will begin sooner rather than later, so maybe ‘21’ will be the magic number for them. Brian Hoyer was expected to serve as the ‘bridge’ QB, but that is up in the air now.” …
“In addition to QB, after Banner/Lombardi traded former first-round pick Trent Richardson last September, there was a huge void at RB. They signed Ben Tate from the Texans and he will be reunited with offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. If healthy, he can provide a downhill run threat, but they also added Terrance West from Towson in the third round to provide some insurance.” …
“Tight end Jordan Cameron, had a Pro Bowl season in 2013 and should continue to progress as a player. He can threaten the seam vertically and stretch the field horizontally with his speed and athleticism.” …
“Josh Gordon had a breakout year despite catching 87 passes from three different QBs last fall. He has an incredible mix of size, speed and skill, and when he is ‘on,’ he is a big-time player, but the immaturity off the field has never gone away, as evidenced by his potential one-year suspension in 2014.” …
“Greg Little has been a major disappointment in terms of his development, so this WR corps is depleted without Gordon.” …
“Joe Thomas has been a Pro Bowl-level mainstay since being the No. 3 pick in the 2007 draft and the Browns first tagged than eventually signed center Alex Mack in order to retain continuity on the OL.” …
“Mitchell Schwartz had some struggles athletically at right tackle, but the Browns addressed that side of the line by taking Joel Bitonio from Nevada in the second round.” …
“Defensively, the core elements for a 3-4 are in place with Phil Taylor, Ahtyba Rubin and Desmond Bryant on the interior with Paul Kruger and last year’s first-round pick Barkevious Mingo as the outside linebackers. Kruger was a high-priced disappointment in ’13 and Mingo has to develop a better repertoire of pass rush moves to go along with his outside speed.” …
“Cleveland released D’Qwell Jackson, but signed Karlos Dansby from the Cardinals as his replacement.” …
“Joe Haden made the Pro Bowl, but people around the league see him as an up-and-down player.” …
“The Browns selected Justin Gilbert from Oklahoma State ahead of Manziel in the first round because CB was such a huge need for them. Buster Skrine and Leon McFadden are only backups at this time.” …
“Safety T.J. Ward tested free agency and landed in Denver, but they brought Donte Whitner ‘home’ from the 49ers and Tashaun Gipson returns, so they are probably OK back there.” …
“Three things have plagued this franchise since its return in 1999: no leadership stability at the top with multiple owners, coaches and GMs, solving the QB riddle and competing in a very difficult division. Two of those three can be answered this season, but the Bengals, Ravens and Steelers are not going away anytime soon.” …
“The Steelers are caught betwixt-and-between as a team with enough aging ‘stars’ to win now, but not enough youthful talent to go into a full rebuilding mode.” …
“Pittsburgh has gone 8-8 the past two seasons and some are beginning to wonder if Mike Tomlin is part of the problem. The traditional strong running game has disappeared and the defense is a shell of its former self.” …
“On offense, ‘Big Ben’ Roethlisberger always gives them a chance because of his size, ad-lib ability and will to win. Word has it that he and OC Todd Haley are in a better place as they head into 2014.” …
“RB Le’Veon Bell began to emerge down the stretch of his rookie campaign and Pittsburgh added LeGarrette Blount in the offseason as an alternate ball-carrier.” …
“The wide receiver group is led by a big-time playmaker in Antonio Brown and the organization is looking for Markus Wheaton to take a big step forward this season. In order to protect their defense, the Steelers signed former Saint Lance Moore and are hoping to get one more solid season from TE Heath Miller.” …
“the offensive line is the concern, not necessarily Maurkice Pouncey or David DeCastro on the interior, but on the edges with Kelvin Beachum (who has an OG build) and Marcus Gilbert (who has never lived up to his second-round draft status).” …
“Unless you are in an NFL personnel department, you probably couldn’t name more than one DL in this front. Cameron Heyward is a former first-round choice, they inked Cam Thomas from the Chargers during free agency and drafted Stephon Tuitt (Notre Dame) and Daniel McCullers (Tennessee). People are intrigued about NT Steve McClendon, but he is off the field when the Steelers are in sub packages.” …
“Lawrence Timmons is one of the most underrated defenders in the league and, in many ways, it’s his defense now. Jarvis Jones recorded one sack as a rookie and that in and of itself probably forced the Steelers to tag OLB Jason Worilds, just to make sure they will have some kind of pressure from the corner in 2014. Ryan Shazier (Ohio State) was their first-round pick and he can fly.” …
“Troy Polamalu has had an unbelievable career, but it’s almost over, especially where his durability and range are considered. Mike Mitchell comes in from Carolina, but he’s only an average pro.” …
“The corners are past their primes when looking at Ike Taylor and William Gay and Cortez Allen has been more tease than player thus far.” …
“Everything needs to go right for the Steelers to make the playoffs for the first time since 2011, and with so many aging vets, I’m not sold that it can happen, which will turn up the temperature on Tomlin.” …
Players weren’t quite ready for James Franklin when he took over Penn State’s football program in January, fresh off a remarkable three-season run at Vanderbilt. It was nothing personal. Truth is, they might not have been ready for anybody.
Everything had changed at Penn State during the previous two years. Its reputation as one of the NCAA’s upstanding citizens had been shattered by the Jerry Sandusky scandal and the imposition of major sanctions in 2012. The football coaching staff, once a model of stability, had been in constant flux ever since Joe Paterno’s dismissal. The Nittany Lions had had three head coaches from November 2011 to January 2014, four if you counted longtime defensive line coach Larry Johnson, who was tasked with holding the program together after Bill O’Brien’s departure following the 2013 season.
After so much upheaval in such a short period of time, a particular kind of defensiveness had set in among players. Senior linebacker Mike Hull calls it “an us-against-the-world mentality.” So when Franklin showed up, bringing with him another set of assistants, schemes and expectations, those players did not rush to embrace the program’s new direction. Says Hull, “I think there was a wall there.”
Franklin sensed it, too. How could he not? A self-professed “relationships guy,” he might have come to town preaching solidarity but, as he later acknowledged, players weren’t going to trust him just because he wanted them to. “A lot of them came here to play for Joe,” he says. “Then Joe leaves and there are hurt feelings associated with that. Then Billy comes in, and then Billy leaves, and there are hurt feelings associated with that, too.
“We’ve talked about that, that the players had a little bit of a wall when we first got here, which is natural. But for us to get where we want to go, they have to let us in. They can’t do it by themselves, and we can’t do it by ourselves. We have to do it together.”
Togetherness has been the theme of Franklin’s tenure with the Lions, and not just in the locker room. In addition to gaining the players’ trust, he has talked about building relationships between the football program and Penn State fans and alumni throughout the region. He’s talked about packing 107,000 fans into Beaver Stadium on a regular basis, something the Lions haven’t come close to achieving in recent years. He’s promised to do speaking engagements and blow up balloons at birthday parties — whatever it takes to bring back all those people who’ve drifted away.
“We’re going to sell out every single game next year,” he says. “I believe that. I’m going to keep pounding the table on that because we need to do it from a recruiting perspective. We need to do it from a financial perspective. I truly believe once we get everybody pulling the rope in the same direction that we can build something really special here.”
There are places, no doubt, where that kind of off-the-charts positivity might seem overbearing or naive. Those places are not Penn State. This is a school that is still coping with the post-Sandusky fallout, a school that remains under NCAA sanctions and whose fans, alumni and trustees continue to spar over Paterno’s complicated legacy. At Penn State, all positivity is welcome, and Franklin is doling it out not with an eyedropper but with a fire hose.
So far, it seems to be working. After much lobbying from Franklin, Penn State drew 72,000 fans for the team’s spring game, an improvement of nearly 50,000 from last year. The weather was certainly a factor; last year’s game was marred by a snow squall, while this year’s was played under sunny skies and in temperatures approaching 70 degrees. But the turnout may also have had something to do with the esprit de corps that Franklin is trying to foster. “I don’t think there’s any doubt that (Penn State) is special,” he says. “And one of the big reasons we’re special is the support we get from the community.”
Players, too, have been buying in. If there was a wall in January, it was crumbling by April. “I think we’ve been able to break it down as a team,” Hull said midway through spring practice. “We’ve made a lot of progress.”
Crucially, it isn’t just current players who have responded. Recruits, too, have embraced Franklin’s upbeat vision. Before wrapping up his first spring practice with the Lions, Franklin and his staff had secured verbal commitments from 10 four-star prospects, two of whom joined the Class of 2014 following his hiring and eight of whom had committed to join the Class of 2015 as of mid-April. As of mid-August, the Nittany Lions have 12 four-star prospects committed for 2015. To put that number in context, those 10 four-star commitments (as rated by Rivals) are as many as Penn State recruited in its classes of 2011, ’12 and ’13 combined. They are two more than Franklin recruited in his three seasons at Vanderbilt.
It comes as little surprise that Franklin and his assistants have been able to make inroads with top prospects, particularly those in Pennsylvania and nearby states. Seven members of the new staff are originally from the Northeast, and four had coached in Pennsylvania before being hired by Penn State. The list begins with Franklin himself, who grew up in Langhore, Pa., and attended East Stroudsburg University in the Poconos. It also includes former Penn State wide receiver Terry Smith, who previously coached at Gateway High near Pittsburgh and has deep roots in the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League.
Franklin and his coaches have seized on recruiting as the key to rekindling Penn State’s championship aspirations. They are confident in their ability to sign the kind of blue-chip prospects that the Lions used to get with regularity but who began turning away during the waning years of the Paterno era. That confidence stems in large part from everyone’s faith in the guy in charge. Says Smith, “He’s high-energy. He’s got a youthful spirit. He relates to players today, and he attacks recruiting. That’s a priority.”
For now, the goal is to ride out the sanctions and work toward the better days that Franklin and his staff insist are coming. Penn State is only allowed 75 players on scholarship this year, and Franklin has told the incoming freshmen to show up ready to play.
The other goal is to create an atmosphere of trust. Trust in the staff, in the schemes, in the idea that Penn State is headed in the right direction, even if there are detours along the way. “I think it’s naturally going to happen over time,” Franklin says. “I think it’s getting better, and I’m very, very confident that by the first game of the year, our chemistry will be as good as any in the country, because that’s a focus of our program.”
Coming off one of the more eventful 8–8 seasons in recent memory, the Miami Dolphins hope they are ready to make more of their news on the field. Dogged by an embarrassing bullying scandal that put them in the national spotlight while taking two starters off the offensive line, Joe Philbin’s team was actually positioned to make the playoffs prior to a punchless finish: They scored a total of one touchdown in dropping their final two games to the also-ran Jets and Bills.
Philbin survived the offseason, but, much to the fans’ satisfaction, GM Jeff Ireland, offensive coordinator Mike Sherman and offensive line coach Jim Turner were sacrificed. After several top candidates took their names out of contention for the GM job, Tampa Bay executive Dennis Hickey took a promotion to run the personnel operation.
Hickey kept most of the core intact during the offseason, aiming to provide third-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill with better protection, while working in greater harmony with Philbin than Ireland did.
“We are on the same page of what we want our organization to be founded on,” Hickey says. “Trust, integrity, respect, communication, all of those things are common.”
Uncommon of late? Playoff appearances. There’s been only one (2008) in the past 12 seasons. If Miami falls short again, the axe may fall on Philbin.
Tannehill is now on his own, and yet, perhaps, less alone. Make sense? Consider that he’ll be without his college coach, Sherman, for the first time as a pro. The Dolphins heeded the complaints of players and fans and made a change at coordinator. Miami hopes that new coordinator Bill Lazor can replicate his success working with Nick Foles in Philadelphia, where he served as the quarterbacks coach. At age 42, Lazor has already had a diverse set of coaching influences, working under Chip Kelly, Mike Holmgren and Joe Gibbs, among others.
“What I’m interested in is these three things with Bill — increased play speed, the increased accuracy and cut down on turnovers,” Philbin says.
It will help if Tannehill has more time, after his sacks skyrocketed from 35 to 58 in his second season. Miami will go to a zone-blocking scheme, likely with four new starters flanking talented but still immature center Mike Pouncey. The key new component is left tackle Branden Albert, a long-time target who received $25 million guaranteed to leave Kansas City. Albert's addition is even more important considering Pouncey underwent hip surgery in June and could be out until November.
Miami could very well have a new starting running back too. And while Knowshon Moreno likely won’t be as productive as he was when playing with Peyton Manning, he should upgrade a spot that was one of the worst in the NFL last season. Moreno underwent knee surgery during the offseason, but he was activated from the PUP list just prior to the first preseason game. Lamar Miller showed breakaway flashes but was inconsistent in all phases, and Daniel Thomas has never shown the necessary physicality.
The Dolphins do have some weapons, if Tannehill can stay upright. His primary assignment is finding a way to connect with speedster Mike Wallace, whose first Dolphins season was a letdown. Sometimes, Wallace was wide open and Tannehill was short by several steps. Sometimes, Wallace seemed not to want to fight for the ball.
In fact, Tannehill still appeared most comfortable with Brian Hartline, who led the team in receptions and yards, and with Charles Clay, who surprised everyone by becoming a consistently productive tight end. Others, including the improving Rishard Matthews, the healing Brandon Gibson and the rookie Jarvis Landry give Miami quality depth.
For all the change, there was something that needed to stay the same: Brent Grimes manning a cornerback spot. The diminutive but ultra-athletic Grimes proved to be a steal on a one-year deal, and now he’s back on a long-term contract. The Dolphins, who slipped in most defensive categories from 2012, couldn’t afford to lose their most consistent performer.
After a breakout 2012, strong safety Reshad Jones made few impactful plays in 2013 and often took poor angles. He’ll need to be better, whether he’s paired with holdover Jimmy Wilson or veteran newcomer Louis Delmas, but any impact Jones has on the field for the Dolphins won't come until Week 6. Jones has been suspended by the NFL for the first four games of the season for violating the league's perfomance-enhancing drug policy. The competition is open at the other cornerback, where rookie disappointments Jamar Taylor and Will Davis have a shot, especially if feisty addition Cortland Finnegan’s best days are behind him.
Linebacker came to symbolize Ireland’s struggles in free agency: Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler proved to be downgrades from the departed Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett. Both are back, as is Koa Misi. But they’ll all be pushed. Even Philbin, loathe to criticize players, admitted that, “I think there was some inconsistency there. We have to get more consistency.”
There’s more promise on the defensive line, in part because Olivier Vernon (11.5 sacks) proved that he could be a worthy bookend complement to the dynamic Cameron Wake. Perhaps Vernon’s blossoming reputation will shake Wake free of some double teams. The hope was that 2013 first-round pick Dion Jordan would play more of a significant role along the line, but like Jones, Jordan will sit out the first four games due to a PED-related suspension.
Inside, the Dolphins lost long-time stalwart Paul Soliai in free agency but surprised many by retaining the versatile Randy Starks to pair with Jared Odrick. Earl Mitchell, just 26, has some upside. The Dolphins were 24th in the league in rushing yards allowed and 18th in yards per carry allowed. Defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle needs to address those numbers before anything else.
After winning the placekicking job from Dan Carpenter in training camp, rookie Caleb Sturgis made all seven of his field-goal attempts in his first four games before falling off some down the stretch. He was 26-of-34 overall, including 3-of-7 from outside of 50 yards. The Dolphins should feel a bit more comfortable about their punting situation. Brandon Fields remains one of the best, and veteran long-snapper John Denney never seems to make a mistake. Marcus Thigpen returns as the kickoff and punt returner. He fumbled three times, though he generally provided quality field position.
The fans can stash their banners and call off their chants. Ireland, the target of their frustration for the past several years, is gone, now just an advisor to the Seattle Seahawks. So, now what? Can the Dolphins get enough out of his leftovers, and Hickey’s additions, to steal a wild card spot? That, again, will largely depend on Tannehill. He’s been given a pass for his erratic passing, in part because of his relative newness to the position, after switching from receiver while at Texas A&M. But he enters this season with 32 NFL starts, just 15 wins and a pedestrian 79.1 quarterback rating. It’s time to produce.
PREDICTION: 4th in AFC East
By the time Julio Jones crumpled to the turf of the Georgia Dome in Week 5, his season-ending foot fracture was just one of countless injuries to an Atlanta franchise many had considered to be a legitimate Super Bowl contender. The Falcons, 1–3 at the time of his injury, continued to battle — they won two of their final five games, with the three losses to playoff teams by an average of four points — but this team simply didn’t have enough on either side of the ball to be any kind of factor in the NFC South.
Maybe it was more than just Jones’ absence — at the time of his injury he led the league in receptions. Maybe it was the shaky depth created by general manager Thomas Dimitroff’s move up to draft the Alabama star two seasons prior. After all, in a matter of weeks, the Falcons’ mediocre offensive line unraveled when injuries exposed a thin depth chart. Simultaneously, years of busted free agency moves on defense (Ray Edwards, Dunta Robinson, Asante Samuel) and a slew of injuries created one of the league’s most anemic pass rushes.
Although it appeared Atlanta built the framework of a powerhouse franchise despite the Michael Vick and Bobby Petrino debacles, head coach Mike Smith and Dimitroff watched the Falcons lose an entire season in the trenches before it ever really began. The good news is that most of the crucial pieces are in place for a rebound. Seven of the Falcons’ 12 losses last season were by a touchdown or less, and five of those were to playoff teams. Dimitroff recruited ex-Chiefs GM Scott Pioli specifically to oversee personnel housecleanings on the offensive and defensive lines (both units also feature new position coaches). Pioli’s input is likely for both short- and long-term fixes, as owner Arthur Blank is still confidently demanding a Super Bowl or bust for a team that’s locked and loaded on offense.
After a steady climb toward consideration as one of the NFL’s elite quarterbacks, Matt Ryan was undone by an injury-plagued offensive line in 2013. The Falcons’ quarterback was sacked 44 times after an average of 20 per season from 2010-11. Under near-constant pressure, Ryan posted a career-high 17 interceptions while throwing for only 26 TDs, his lowest total since 2009, when the Falcons last missed the playoffs.
Enter former Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Tice, who must overhaul one of the league’s worst lines in order for coordinator Dirk Koetter to effectively utilize his range of skill-position weapons. First-round pick Jake Matthews could start immediately at right tackle, but don’t be surprised if he upends maligned left tackle Sam Baker by season’s end. Free-agent guard Gabe Carimi is a high-upside, low-risk signee who could add a little extra nasty, and tackle Mike Johnson is expected to return at full strength after missing the entire 2013 season with a broken leg.
Compounding matters for that battered offensive line were key injuries to Ryan’s stable of weapons, most notably Jones (broken foot), All-Pro wideout Roddy White (high-ankle sprain) and running back Steven Jackson, who nursed multiple injuries and finished with the worst yards-per-carry average (3.5) of his career. All three are expected back, but Jones has become the most valuable, as his mere presence demands that defensive coordinators shift coverage to his side of the field.
Tony Gonzalez’s retirement will force Ryan to prove he can work without a safety valve, but he’ll do so with arguably the NFL’s best 1-2 receiver tandem in Jones and White. There’s room for competition at the No. 3 spot. Harry Douglas is coming off of career highs of 85 receptions for 1,067 yards, but many of his targets were the result of injuries at the position.
Running back Jacquizz Rodgers has proven a capable receiving option, and with a healthy O-line, Koetter will be allowed more creativity with a stable of fast, smallish backs that includes Rodgers, fourth-round draft pick Devonta Freeman and Antone Smith.
Coordinator Mike Nolan and Smith have refused to acknowledge that the Falcons are shifting to an outright 3-4 alignment, Nolan’s historic preference. Yet all signs point that way: The team signed nose tackle Paul Soliai and drafted a fleet of rookie linebackers built for inside and outside speed-rushing. For two seasons under Nolan, Atlanta has lacked pass-rushing talent on the edges of a 4-3 and the talent at linebacker to effectively shift into a 3-4. The latter has certainly been addressed. Among Atlanta’s draft class, Notre Dame linebacker Prince Shembo stands out as an ideal 3-4 backer capable of rushing the passer and dropping into coverage. In addition, Kroy Biermann will return from a season-ending torn Achilles. Initially a traditional 4-3 defensive end, Biermann had excelled as a 3-4 outside linebacker before his injury.
Expect veteran pass-rusher Osi Umenyiora to shift toward a specialist’s role on third downs. After that, the front seven depth chart is anyone’s guess, depending on how often Nolan shifts schemes. The Falcons drafted four new linebackers to accompany veteran Sean Weatherspoon and breakout performer Paul Worrilow, an undrafted rookie in 2013 who led the team in tackles with 127. The linebacker depth will be tested even further now that Weatherspoon (ruptured his Achilles during team workout in June) and fifth-round pick Marquis Spruill (tore his ACL during training camp) have already been lost for the season. The team signed veteran Pat Angerer to take Weatherspoon's spot on the roster.
The signing of Soliai and the selection of Ra’Shede Hageman in the second round seem to indicate a base 3-4. However, if Atlanta wants to maintain traditional 4-3 looks for variety they’ll need Corey Peters to return from a late-season Achilles injury and serious advancement from defensive end Jonathan Massaquoi as a legit pass-rushing threat.
Atlanta failed to pick up a serious starter at safety through free agency after parting ways with Thomas DeCoud, making the middle of the secondary the thinnest position on the team. Desmond Trufant is poised for a breakout sophomore season and could develop into an elite cover corner.
Free-agent signees Devin Hester and Javier Arenas are expected to compete in an overhauled return game. Hester’s speed could find a niche role in Koetter’s offense, but he’ll be looked upon foremost to repeat as the league’s leader in kick-return yardage. Since coming over from Tampa Bay in 2009, Matt Bryant has provided consistency at kicker, and his notable range (his career long is 62 yards) has given Smith confidence to rely on the Pro Bowler from long distances. Punter Matt Bosher returns after he netted a career-best 41.1 yards per kick.
No one’s expecting a Super Bowl run now, but the Falcons have traditionally thrived under Smith and Dimitroff when they’re ignored. But just like last season, Atlanta’s chances with names like Ryan, Jackson, White and Jones won’t matter if both lines of scrimmage haven’t been repaired — or least patched up.
PREDICTION: 3rd in NFC South
Don’t let the disparity between the top and bottom of last season’s NFC South standings fool you – this could be one of the more competitive divisions in the NFL in 2014. Carolina may be the reigning champion, but New Orleans brought in some new pieces during the offseason, while Atlanta should fare better than 4-12 given all of the injuries it weathered last season. And then there’s Tampa Bay, who hired former Coach of the Year Lovie Smith, once again spent big money in free agency and focused on offense in the draft in hopes of turning things around.
In order to get an accurate assessment of the NFC South heading into 2014, Athlon asked NFL scouts to talk anonymously about the Falcons, Panthers, Saints and Buccaneers.
“Aside from QB Matt Ryan and WR Julio Jones, the Falcons really have a below-average roster. With TE Tony Gonzalez retiring, WR Roddy White on the decline, an injury-plagued Steven Jackson and an offensive line that is questionable at best, it’s a bit of a pipe dream to expect Ryan to deliver a Super Bowl to Atlanta.” …
“LT Sam Baker was over-drafted as a first-rounder out of USC and has been bothered by back issues through most of his ordinary career. They are hoping for more out of center Peter Konz, but he and RT Lamar Holmes have really been disappointing thus far.” …
“Head coach Mike Smith brought in Mike Tice to help fix the OL, but with the issue being talent-based, Texas A&M’s Jake Matthews was an obvious choice at No. 6.” …
“Defensively, you have to wonder where the pass rush will come from, they signed Tyson Jackson and Paul Soliai in free agency, but both are more run-down players. Osi Umenyiora survived 16 games, but was not a factor off the edge.” …
“They got great mileage out of rookie free agents Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu after the injuries hit the linebacker spots, but the reality is that this is a sub-standard unit, especially with the loss of Sean Weatherspoon (ruptured Achilles).” …
“The back end is a work-in-progress, too. Second-year corner Desmond Trufant is more dependable than flashy and Robert Alford has promise as a potential starter. They released FS Thomas DeCoud and SS William Moore has been inconsistent since being a second-round pick in 2009.” ...
“They picked Dezmen Southward (Wisconsin) in the third round and he is a safety with corner speed.”…
“Age has hit this team and in a division where pressuring Drew Brees and Cam Newton is mandatory for success, I’m just not sure how they get back to the playoffs with no defenders that scare anyone.”
“Defensively, they were able to mask their secondary issues with a strong, almost dominant front seven. DE Greg Hardy is a force off the corner, but will he be the same player with his contract status (franchise tag) unresolved? Both rookie DTs, Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short, performed well in the Carolina rotation and should continue to control the middle of the action.” …
“LB Luke Kuechly is a tackling machine and true All-Pro. He has excellent key/diagnose instincts and can effectively play all three downs. It was great to see Thomas Davis get back on the field and play effectively in 2013.” …
“It’s hard to believe they won 12 games with this group of corners and safeties. Captain Munnerlyn signed with the Vikings and Mike Mitchell left for the Steelers during the offseason. The remaining safeties were simply atrocious last year. Robert Lester had a number of poor tackling misses that showed why he was an undrafted free agent.” …
“They stayed within the division and signed Thomas DeCoud from the Falcons and Roman Harper from the Saints to shore up things, but I’m not convinced either will really pay dividends.” …
“On the offensive side of things, it’s all about Cam Newton. When he’s hot, look out. When he’s not, he doesn’t look like the same player.” …
“The Panthers had two major losses in the offseason with the retirement of LT Jordan Gross and the release of WR Steve Smith, the most iconic player in franchise history.” …
“in many ways, trying to find a left tackle is more problematic than a WR, because there simply are not that many bodies capable of protecting the blind-side. If RT Byron Bell goes to the left side, this could be the club’s biggest roster failure and that appears to be the situation, because LT was not addressed in the draft.” …
“Help at WR will come from free-agent additions Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant and the Panthers went big with first-round choice Kelvin Benjamin (6-5/240) from Florida State.” …
“TE Greg Olsen is Newton’s favorite target and he has quietly put together a solid career.” …
“One thing they’ve never figured out is how to utilize RBs Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams. It has been spotty at best, and yet both have remained firmly in their backfield.” …
“GM Dave Gettleman struck all the proper notes in his first year as the primary decision maker, but people around the league are really interested to see what he does with at LT and with this secondary prior to the regular season.” …
“A lot of things went right for the Panthers in 2013 as they won the division. But there’s also no question, this team has taken several steps back since losing to the 49ers in the Divisional round of the playoffs.” …
New Orleans Saints
“Want to know how good Drew Brees really is? His receivers are not as dynamic anymore, the running backs without Darren Sproles are not special and the offensive line is very, very ordinary. It’s all about him and head coach Sean Payton who have worked together since 2006 (with the exception of the suspension year in ‘12).” …
“Marques Colston provides a big target, but cannot run anymore and Lance Moore was released, so a lot of pressure will fall on second-year WR Kenny Stills who flashed during the back half of the 2013 season and first-round pick Brandin Cooks out of Oregon State. Cooks should be electric in this system and might be an instant star in the league.” …
Jimmy Graham has rare height, body control and overall athleticism, but he won’t go to any Pro Bowls for his blocking.” …
“Last year, LT Charles Brown struggled to the point that they inserted rookie Terron Armstead into the lineup in December. He has a big upside, but is raw and inexperienced. It’s important to note that the Saints have two very good guards in Ben Grubbs and Jahri Evans and both do a great job of setting the bottom of the pocket and not allowing immediate pressure on Brees. New Orleans re-signed RT Zach Strief and it’s amazing that this will be his third contract because he is ‘just a guy.’”…
“The defense made significant strides under first-year defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. DE Jordan Cameron and OLB Junior Galette emerged as legit NFL difference-makers in his version of the 3-4 and the Saints are hoping Victor Butler can return from a torn ACL that he suffered during training camp last August.” …
“The inside linebackers are functional, but the real strength of this unit will be the safety combo of rookie sensation Kenny Vaccaro and high-priced free agent Jairus Byrd. This may be the best tandem in the entire NFL because of Vaccaro’s ability to blitz and defend the run near the line of scrimmage and Byrd’s range from centerfield.” …
“With so many oversized WRs in the division, it was important that they drafted CB Stanley Jean-Baptiste (6-3/220) in the second-round out of Nebraska.” …
“The Saints demonstrated they can win away from the Superdome when they went to Philadelphia and beat the Eagles in the Wild Card round, but there is no denying that this is a significantly different team when they are ‘marching home.’” …
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
“The Buccaneers are trying to recreate the Tony Dungy era with the hiring of Lovie Smith. The good news is that this defense has a chance to be very solid as they transition back to their Tampa-2 roots.” …
“They signed Michael Johnson from the Bengals and he will likely be the RE, but is not elite as a pass-rusher. Adrian Clayborn has the dimensions of a left end, but has a right arm deformity that really impacts his ability to play the run. DaQuan Bowers has never managed to reach expectations and has only 5.5 sacks since 2011.” …
“DT Gerald McCoy is one of the most unheralded players in the league and with the addition of Clinton McDonald, they should have a nice rotation on the inside.” …
“Lavonte David is a very impressive player on tape. He can run, hit and defend the pass. Mason Foster has always been solid in the middle…
“Mark Barron and Dashon Goldson pair off nicely in a strong and free safety arrangement, but the defensive staff has to be concerned about Goldson playing over the top in Cover 2.” …
“New free-agent signee Alterraun Verner and second-year corner Johnthan Banks are ideal zone defenders on the perimeter.” …
“Just like in Chicago, Smith will have to prove that he can oversee a successful offense and that’s where most of the questions are with this club. Jeff Tedford, the former Cal head coach, is the offensive coordinator and Josh McCown turned his 13-to-1 TD-to-INT ratio into a two-year/$10 million contract.” …
“The long-term question will be is if Mike Glennon is the QB of the future or someone else? Glennon, for the most part, showed signs of being a competent NFL starter when he started 13 games and threw 19 TDs against 9 INTs. Still, he was drafted by the previous regime and may not have the sponsorship needed to secure the spot.” …
“The offensive line is ‘under construction’ and has real question marks. New free-agent acquisitions LT Anthony Collins and OC Evan Deitrich-Smith are low-end starters, OG Davin Joseph was cut and LG Carl Nicks unexpected retired after losing last season due to a staph infection.” …
”The Bucs used all seven picks in the draft on offense, including two developmental guards. TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins was their second-round selection and he should be an upgrade over Brandon Myers who is as average as it gets.” …
“The running game should be better with the return of Doug Martin and Mike James, who both missed significant time in 2013.” …
“Tampa took Mike Evans in the first round and he has rare traits (6-5/231/4.53 speed) and a large catching radius. With he and the ultra-talented WR Vincent Jackson, McCown can throw the ball ‘above the rim’ like he did in Chicago and let them go get it.” …
“Lovie added his kind of guys in free agency on defense and isn’t waiting around to develop an offense in his second chance at being a head coach. It’s obvious he realizes that you must create personnel mismatches and score points to win in today’s NFL.” …
The Cleveland Browns are new again. Come Opening Day, they’ll have their third head coach in three years, their sixth different Opening Day quarterback in seven years and a new team playing under a new regime. The second full season under the ownership of Jimmy Haslam starts with a new head coach in Mike Pettine and a new boss on the personnel side in general manager Ray Farmer.
There will be pressure to play rookie quarterback Johnny Manziel — and he very well may earn the job — but veteran Brian Hoyer will provide stiff competition. Five Pro Bowlers from last season are due back to join a nice mix of veteran free agents and more young talent than the Browns have had in several years. Can it result in wins, though? Only if the Browns get solid quarterback play, stay healthy and keep a potentially strong defense off the field and fresh.
Last season, Josh Gordon was the NFL’s most productive receiver despite missing two games due to suspension and playing with three different quarterbacks. Unfortunately, it appears that Gordon will miss significant playing time this season as well as he's already met with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell regarding a reported additional violation of the league's substance-abuse policy. To make matters worse, Gordon also was arrested in early July on a charge of driving while impaired. Incidents like this certainly don't bode well for Gordon’s future nor for an offense that doesn’t have anything resembling a suitable replacement.
Tight end Jordan Cameron is coming off a Pro Bowl season and looking for a new contract, and he’ll likely be in line for 70-plus receptions whether Gordon is in the lineup or not. It will come down to whether the Browns can run the ball — Ben Tate was signed and Terrance West was drafted to help the cause — behind a line anchored by the team’s second- and third-highest-paid players, left tackle Joe Thomas and center Alex Mack.
Eventually, the Browns figure to transition to becoming Manziel’s team — and a strong running game would serve as the foundation for an offense that plays to the mobile but diminutive Manziel’s strengths. Hoyer won’t go down without a fight, though, and who plays quarterback shapes up as the biggest question for this Browns team. Even if Hoyer is more ready and able to produce, Manziel Mania is real — and those who drive it will be ready to pounce at even the slightest of Hoyer’s missteps.
Miles Austin, Nate Burleson and Andrew Hawkins bring experience and savvy to the receiving corps. Tate has waited for the opportunity to be a featured back and, if he can stay healthy, figures to have plenty of chances. The Browns simply couldn’t run the ball at all last year, and that’s part of the reason why they used a high second-round pick on Joel Bitonio, who should slide in immediately at guard.
A Browns team with the ability to chew up rushing yards to complement Gordon and Cameron in the passing game shapes up as a formidable team capable of playing with just about anybody in the league. A Browns team with continued inconsistency at quarterback and lack of playmakers on the perimeter figures to struggle again. Stay tuned.
The Browns have a talented front seven and got stronger up the middle in March by guaranteeing $14 million to linebacker Karlos Dansby and $11 million to safety Donte Whitner, a Cleveland native. The goal of Pettine and new defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil isn’t just to move past last year’s bad habit of giving up late leads, but to be aggressive and dictate the pace of games.
With an offense that figures to be a work in progress, the defense needs to be the strength of the team, at least early on. The defensive line has depth and talent many teams would love to have, and with Dansby, third-round pick Christian Kirksey and what Pettine hopes will be a new and improved Barkevious Mingo in his second year as an edge-rusher, the pieces are in place at linebacker. Rookie Justin Gilbert should start immediately at corner opposite Joe Haden, who’s becoming a star.
Haden, who signed a huge contract in the offseason, has emerged both as a leader in the locker room and the kind of guy opposing quarterbacks don’t want to have to challenge. That’s why it’s so important that Gilbert proves ready to play right away — and probably why the Browns drafted another big corner, Pierre Desir, as fourth-round insurance. The team wants to keep the speedy but small Buster Skrine in the slot.
The Browns need to be better against the run and make impact plays in obvious passing downs. Desmond Bryant should be back after a heart issue ended his 2013 season prematurely, and nose tackle Phil Taylor needs to prove worthy of the $5.5 million 2015 option the team’s new decision-makers picked up in the spring.
Getting to the passer off the edge will help Haden, Gilbert and all involved. A year after the Browns gave Paul Kruger a $40 million contract and used the No. 6 pick in the draft on Mingo, those two simply have to produce at a higher level. Maybe a new scheme and comfort level with their surroundings will help.
Travis Benjamin provided some sizzle in the return game last year, but neither the offense nor the special teams had the same pop after he went down with a torn ACL. He’s expected back, and the Browns hope he can be the same player. Gilbert has rare athletic ability and could contribute in the return game as well.
The kicking game is solid but not spectacular. The Browns were lucky to land Billy Cundiff just before the start of the 2013 season following the departure of Phil Dawson. Cundiff was good enough to land a contract extension. The team would like to see him in position to make more big kicks. Punter Spencer Lanning did a serviceable job in his first true NFL opportunity and should be better this year. With a young offense and nasty weather due for pivotal games, having a solid punting game can’t be overlooked.
Another restart is here, but Pettine and the winner of the Hoyer/Manziel battle will have better overall personnel than many of their predecessors. The Browns have some talent; the key is mixing a little bit of a luck with a little bit of confidence and seeing where that may lead. At an offseason speaking engagement, Haslam listed his three goals for the 2014 season as being competitive in what should again be a very tightly contested AFC North race; improving the win-loss record (the Browns haven’t won more than five games in a season since 2007); and becoming the kind of team Pettine wants in terms of toughness, discipline and establishing an identity. If the Browns run the ball and stop the run, they’ll have a chance for real progress. As for real wins, we’ll see which young players answer the call.
PREDICTION: 4th in AFC North
(Johnny Manziel photo courtesy of Cleveland Browns' Web site, www.clevelandbrowns.com)
Everybody should take a year off work, Lovie Smith says, before adding, “if you can get someone else to pay for it.”
Smith spent last fall in the basement of his home near Chicago watching football. It was a forced but financed hiatus after he was fired by the Bears following a 10–6 season in 2012.
The Buccaneers also wanted to push the reset button following their 4–12 season under Greg Schiano. Smith, who began his NFL coaching career teaching linebackers on Tony Dungy’s staff in Tampa Bay in ’96, was the perfect choice.
“My original statement was for us to become a relevant team again,” Smith says. “And what’s relevant? We want to win all of our home games. We want to put a good product on the field. We want it to be like the old days where teams said. ‘Oh, man, we’ve got to go to Tampa this week. It’s tough going down there.’ We have the same goal as everyone. It’s to win games. To win our division. To win the Super Bowl.”
The Bucs were last in the NFL in total offense last season, so Smith and new general manager Jason Licht believed an overhaul was necessary. They began by cleaning house on an overpriced, unproductive offensive line. Tackle Donald Penn and guard Davin Joseph were released. Center Jeremy Zuttah was traded. In their place, the Bucs signed Bengals free agent tackle Anthony Collins and Packers center Evan Dietrich-Smith. The only returners were expected to be tackle Demar Dotson and guard Carl Nicks, but Nicks unexpectedly announced his retirement prior to the start of training camp. After coming over from New Orleans as a free agent in 2012, Nicks played in just nine games in two injury-plagued seasons with Tampa Bay.
Smith reached back into his past to select a quarterback — Bears free agent Josh McCown, who threw 13 touchdowns and one interception in five starts filling in for the injured Jay Cutler last season. McCown was immediately named the starter over Mike Glennon, who had been dubbed the Bucs’ “quarterback of the future” by the previous regime. Glennon started 13 games as a rookie and threw for 2,608 yards with 19 touchdowns and nine interceptions.
The Bucs have surrounded McCown with some big targets, the Dunk-a-neers, as Licht calls them — rookie receiver Mike Evans (6'5"), rookie tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins (6'5") and veteran Vincent Jackson (6'5"). Evans, who is still relatively new to football, caught 151 passes for 2,499 yards in his two active seasons at Texas A&M.
Even though the Bucs believed they had depth at running back with Doug Martin, Mike James and Bobby Rainey, they added a Matt Forté clone in rookie Charles Sims, who caught more than 200 passes during his time at Houston and West Virginia. Martin was the team’s primary ball-carrier through the first part of the ’13 season, but he went down with a shoulder injury in a loss to Atlanta in late October. He was averaging only 3.6 yards per carry at the time of his injury. Rainey stepped in and ended up leading the team in rushing with 532 yards on a 3.9-yard average.
What remains to be seen is how offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford, the former Cal head coach, deploys all those weapons. But early indications are that the Bucs will play faster.
“I know you have to play offense and score points to win,” Smith says.
The Tampa-2 has returned home. Fortunately, Smith had two All-Pro components waiting for him — defensive tackle Gerald McCoy (9.5 sacks in ’13) and weak-side linebacker Lavonte David. He also reached back to his past to hire former Bucs linebacker Hardy Nickerson to coach that position.
“The three-technique in this defense is so important, and Gerald is the best in football right now,” Smith said. “And I think Lavonte is one of the best linebackers I’ve ever seen, and he’s still a young player.”
Jonathan Casillas, who was used mostly on special teams last year but re-signed as a free agent, has the inside track on winning the job at strong-side linebacker.
Smith’s defense generates a pass rush using the front four linemen. McCoy finally will have help with the addition of Bengals free-agent defensive end Michael Johnson and Seahawks defensive tackle Clinton McDonald. Defensive end Adrian Clayborn will attempt to switch from the right to the left side.
In order to clear some salary cap space, the Bucs released cornerback Darrelle Revis, who was due to earn $16 million in 2014. But they replaced him with Alterraun Verner, a former Titan who made the Pro Bowl for the first time last season. The strength of the secondary is the combination of safeties Mark Barron and Dashon Goldson.
The Bucs have not had a player with double-digit sacks since Simeon Rice in 2005. That should change under Smith, and it will need to if the Bucs are going to slow down the collection of NFC South quarterbacks that includes Drew Brees, Cam Newton and Matt Ryan.
If there is one thing Smith is banking on, it’s that he can make the Bucs’ defense elite again.
Placekicker Connor Barth missed all of 2013 after suffering a torn Achilles while playing in a charity basketball game a week before training camp. Then Lawrence Tynes was infected with MRSA following a procedure on an in-grown toenail. Barth is back and has been kicking since January. He says his leg may have actually benefitted from the rest, and he has been booting 61-yard field goals. A career 84 percent field-goal kicker is a nice weapon to have when you are likely to play a lot of low-scoring games. Punter Michael Koenen had a net average of 38.3 yards and pinned a career low 21.8 percent of his punts inside the 20-yard line. His ability to kick off remains an added bonus.
Olympic sprinter Jeff Demps has devoted his training to football and easily will be the fastest man in the NFL. He should serve as the Bucs’ primary kickoff returner. Receiver Eric Page will return punts again this year.
Smith brings stability and an identity back to the Bucs. Only nine players drafted before 2013 remain on the team. The defense should be among the best in the league, and the offense will be improved. But McCown has thrown for as many yards or touchdowns in the past five years as Glennon did as a rookie. Smith had four offensive coordinators in Chicago, and his offense never finished higher than 15th. It remains to be seen whether Tedford’s offense can be productive at the pro level. A worst-to-first rise in the NFC South is commonplace but probably too much to ask this year.
PREDICTION: 4th in NFC South
Besides being home to the AFC champions, the AFC West was the only division in the NFL last season with three playoff teams. Denver is a legitimate Super Bowl contender again this season, but what about fellow postseason participants Kansas City and San Diego? And does Oakland have any reason for optimism following significant roster turnover?
In order to get an accurate assessment of how the AFC West is shaping up heading into the 2014 season, Athlon asked NFL scouts to talk anonymously about the Broncos, Chiefs, Chargers and Raiders.
“Only the 1972 Miami Dolphins came back from a Super Bowl loss to win the world championship the following season, that’s 40 years of history working against John Fox and Peyton Manning.” …
“The Broncos got exposed up front against the Seahawks, however, not everyone can play like Seattle does.” …
“Manning had a record-breaking year and earned a fifth MVP award, but he will have some new working parts around him in 2014. At WR, Emmanuel Sanders was signed to replace Eric Decker who left for the Jets and the Broncos drafted Cody Latimer in the second round. Julius Thomas had a breakout season and even more will be expected of both he and Demaryius Thomas moving forward. Wes Welker proved once again that he is an elite slot receiver.” …
“Knowshon Moreno departed for Miami, so Montee Ball will have a bigger role, especially in pass protection this year. The return of Ryan Clady from injury will allow Denver to re-shuffle their offensive line and potentially put Chris Clark at RT with Orlando Franklin sliding inside. Will Montgomery was signed from the Redskins to bolster the middle in support of Louis Vaszquez and Manny Ramirez.” …
“On paper, the Broncos’ front seven looks really strong with Terrance Knighton, Sylvester Williams and Derek Wolfe handling the run game with Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware and Malik Jackson taking care of the pass rush. The organization is hoping Miller can get back to his previous level of play, while Ware ended up as a cap casualty in Dallas and leaves the Cowboys as their all-time leading sacker.” …
“Aqib Talib unexpectedly became available and the Broncos ponied up a 6-year/$57M contract to obtain him. The other corner spot is up in the air, since Chris Harris went down with a knee injury in the playoffs, so they drafted Ohio State’s Bradley Roby in the first round. They signed T.J. Ward to pair up with Rahim Moore, but neither is classified as a cover safety.” …
“Team health and mental approach are the two unknowns, but key factors to Denver making a return run to the Super Bowl.” …
Kansas City Chiefs
“The Chiefs fixed the two most important positions in pro football last year with head coach Andy Reid and QB Alex Smith. Then, the team stayed healthy and won 11 games.” …
“Offensive coordinator Doug Pederson is a rising star in the business and he helped Smith provide a steady hand to this team, while distributing the football efficiently to Jamaal Charles, Dwayne Bowe and Donnie Avery. They could use another WR and an interesting prospect to watch will be second-year TE Travis Kelce.” …
“The loss of Dexter McCluster in free agency will hurt, but they may find an answer in fourth-round pick De’Anthony Thomas.” …
“The Chiefs sustained losses on the offensive line when Brandon Albert, Geoff Schwartz and Jon Asomoah departed via free agency, but give GM John Dorsey credit for having the foresight in 2013 (in a draft devoid of stars) to pick Eric Fisher, who will now shift from RT to his more natural LT spot. Rodney Hudson is underrated in the middle and Jeff Linkenbach was signed from the Colts.” …
“Bob Sutton may have been the assistant coach of the year last fall when this unit responded and put five players in the Pro Bowl: Dontari Powe, Tamba Hali, Justin Houston, Brandon Flowers [Editor’s note: Flowers was released by the Chiefs in late June and signed a one-year deal with San Diego] and Eric Berry.” …
“At corner, they got the most out of Sean Smith and a lot of mileage from Marcus Cooper who was picked up on waivers just before opening day.” …
“If Smith will take another step forward and vertically push the football upfield, their run game with Charles and this defense should keep them in the mix again for AFC honors.” …
“Entering the 2014 offseason, owner Mark Davis waited a full week before having discussions with head coach Dennis Allen and GM Reggie McKenzie. After they were kept intact, then there was quite a bit of talk regarding the Raiders’ assistant coaching contracts, in terms of one-year renewals or two-year extensions. All of this is to say, despite their best attempts, Oakland is a difficult place to win in the NFL.” …
“Once the league year rolled around, McKenzie did not re-sign DE Lamarr Houston and negotiations with OT Jared Veldheer became personal in nature, so both players departed from the Silver-and-Black. After the Rodger Saffold/failed physical situation, the Raiders signed seven new starters with six of them being 30 or older.” …
“They traded a sixth-rounder for Matt Schaub and will hope that he can return to 2011-12 form when he was a Pro Bowl selection. Oakland did draft Fresno State QB Derek Carr in the second-round, so he is the likely future at the position.” …
“The key offensively will be the cohesion and continuity of the rebuilt offensive line (under the direction of Tony Sparano) and their ability to protect Schaub.” …
“They like TE Mychal Rivera as a pass-receiving threat and WR Denarius Moore has shown flashes of quality play in his first two seasons. Still, this is a team that is lacking in offensive firepower.” …
“Defensively, the Raiders are hoping DEs Justin Tuck and LaMarr Woodley can regain their previous pass rush form to provide some pressure in a division where they will face Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers on four different occasions.” …
“The Raiders sat at No. 5 in the draft and Khalil Mack, arguably the best player in the 2014 class, fell right to them. OLB Sio Moore had a productive rookie season and SS Tyvon Branch, when healthy, can be a competent player.” …
“Again, they will need a big step forward out of 2013 first-round pick, cornerback D.J. Hayden, and defensive coordinator Jason Tarver will rely on Charles Woodson’s return to communicate the scheme to a very young back end.” …
“The reality is this team has so many players and coaches from different backgrounds and philosophies, there just doesn’t seem to be much hope of them improving in 2014 against the toughest schedule ranked by win percentage going into September.” …
“if Hayden and OT Menelik Watson don’t play well and another 4-12 season ensues, with the specter of stadium issues and relocation always in the discussion, major changes would be expected for 2015.” …
San Diego Chargers
“It’s amazing how far a new messenger and team health can go in pushing an organization up the ladder in the NFL. GM Tom Telesco hired Mike McCoy as head coach and he enjoyed a very successful first year.” …
“Their coordinators are all communicators and well-liked by the players: Frank Reich on offense, John Pagano on defense and Kevin Spencer with special teams.”…
“Philip Rivers regained his confidence and returned to previous Pro Bowl form with the help of a reliable Ryan Matthews, the emergence of Keenan Allen, and surprisingly, a better-than-expected offensive line. People knock Rivers for his lack of a championship, but put him in the same situation as Eli Manning or Ben Roethlisberger, and he might have a couple of rings too.” …
“Many were shocked at how well LT King Dunlap played in 2013, can he do it again this year? Nick Hardwick has had a very good career at center and D.J. Fluker proved worthy of the No. 11 pick a year ago when he performed as well as any rookie lineman in the league.” …
“Antonio Gates still has something left and Ladarius Green began to show signs that he can be the legit heir apparent at the position. The Chargers need Malcolm Floyd to return from injury and that should only help Allen who showed why he should have been a first-round selection despite his injuries coming out of Cal.” …
“Defensively, Pagano can rely on Corey Liuget and Kendall Reyes on the front with re-signed Donald Butler and Manti Te’o patrolling the middle. Jarrett Johnson just keeps on playing winning football regardless of circumstance, while Dwight Freeney only appeared in four games before going down with an injury. Melvin Ingram gave them a boost at the end of the year and should be fully recovered from his knee injury in 2014. They drafted Jerry Attaochu from Georgia Tech in the second round and he has legit rush potential.” …
“This secondary is worrisome, because there is no lockdown corner and both safeties are somewhat undersized. Eric Weddle plays small and is over-hyped and Marcus Gilchrist is really an ideal third safety. They got even smaller on draft day, when they selected TCU CB Jason Verrett who has a slight build, but can play man-to-man as a nickel or outside corner.” …
“The Chargers gained great confidence under McCoy during his rookie season, but they reside in a tough division with Denver and KC, so it’s not an automatic that they make the playoffs again this year.” …
Getting ready for your fantasy football draft? Be sure to read these 10 tips from Athlon contributor Mike Clay before plotting your championship-winning plan of attack.
1. Gather as many studs as possible, Then worry about everything else
League-wide offensive production is growing each and every year. The recent wave of fast-paced and pass-heavy offenses has led to more fantasy points than we’ve ever seen. As a result, there are more fantasy-relevant players at every position. “Wait at <enter position name here>” is a common piece of advice from fantasy pundits, but in this day and age, you truly can wait at any position and end up with a competent group of starters. So what’s the message here? The focus of your first few picks should not be on need or replacement value; rather, it should be on selecting superstars until none remains. I always suggest drawing lines on your cheat sheet to create tiers. Be sure that only superstars are in that first tier at each position. The players who fit the superstar bill can fluctuate depending on your league’s scoring, but they’re usually not terribly hard to determine. This year, it’s the top seven or so running backs, top six wide receivers and tight end Jimmy Graham. Unless your scoring is obscenely favorable for quarterbacks, no passers should be in this conversation.
2. Be prepared to adjust on the fly
There are a lot of draft strategies out there: value-based drafting, high ceiling, wide receiver heavy, best player available, tiers. The list goes on and on. Although you’re best served having a game plan in mind come draft day, it’s important that flexibility and the willingness to adjust are a part of your mindset. No two drafts are the same, which means that all the preparation in the world can’t prevent the inside-the-box thinker from panicking when his target is swooped up right before he’s on the clock.
There are a few ways you can stay ahead of the game during your draft. The most obvious one is to cross every selected player off your board. Not only does this help you avoid the embarrassment of selecting a player taken four rounds earlier, but it also allows you to keep an eye on the flow of the draft. Maybe you’re in a 12-team league and haven’t picked a quarterback yet. You notice 10 are already off the board. Should you panic and snatch one up? Unless you’re staring at a major value, of course not. The owners who already have quarterbacks will be addressing other positions for a few rounds, which means you can take advantage and wait even longer to select a signal-caller.
Drafting near the turn? Glance at the rosters of the teams who pick between your two selections on the short side of the turn. Let’s say you have the 10th pick of the fifth round in a 12-team league, and you’re trying to decide between a quarterback and wide receiver. You glance at the rosters of the teams picking 11th and 12th. Both have a quarterback. The odds of either team picking a second quarterback are extremely low. That makes your decision easy. Pick the best wide receiver and go with the quarterback the next time around.
Those are just a few examples of how to adjust on the fly during your draft. Keeping tabs on everything going on around you is the best way to maximize your roster.
3. Don’t be the guy who drafts Peyton Manning
Earlier, I mentioned that quarterbacks do not fit the bill as early-round must-target superstars. That’s despite the fact that there are several superstar talents at the position. On top of that, Peyton Manning was arguably the fantasy MVP last season, breaking all sorts of records en route to blowing all other quarterbacks out of the water in terms of fantasy points. So why am I advising against selecting Manning this season? Simple: He’s not going to live up to his average draft position (ADP).
In early mock drafts, Manning is coming off the board in the mid-to-late first round. If you believe Manning will equal his 2013 performance, that’s not a bad pick. If you expect regression, it’s a poor selection. And you should expect regression. Manning set the single-season records for passing yards and passing touchdowns, and his team set the records for most points, touchdowns and 50-plus point games. Historically, teams that have put up extremely high touchdown totals have regressed the very next season. Consider that over the past six years, 12 offenses have averaged at least three touchdowns per game over a full season. Two-thirds of those teams saw a drop in scoring the next season. The average drop-off was a massive 22 percent, and every team dropped by at least 12 percent. Of the four teams that scored more the next season, three saw a boost of just three percent. The fourth was, go figure, the Broncos, who went from 3.1 TDs per game in 2012 to 4.1 per game in 2013.
I should also point out the loss of Eric Decker and the fact that we already saw regression from the Denver offense in the second half last season. After averaging an absurd five offensive scores per game through their first eight games, the Broncos put up 3.4 per game the rest of the way. That’s still a very healthy number, but it puts them right there with the league’s other elite offenses. Manning remains a top fantasy quarterback, but the inevitable regression makes him a poor first-round pick.
4. With two exceptions, wait at tight end
Much like last year, the tight end position is shaping up to drop off after the top two before leveling off, for the most part, until around the No. 12 spot. Jimmy Graham is your clear No. 1 option, but Rob Gronkowski is so productive when healthy — sometimes more so than Graham — that he has to be considered in the third round. After that, we have a tier of tight ends who will put up similar numbers. A case could be made that Julius Thomas should be in his own tier, but he usually comes off the board before Gronkowski despite overlooked durability questions of his own.
The true values come later in the draft. Jordan Cameron, Jason Witten, Jordan Reed, Dennis Pitta and Greg Olsen can all be had in the middle rounds. Even better, the likes of Kyle Rudolph, Martellus Bennett and breakout candidate Zach Ertz usually last into and beyond the ninth round. High-ceiling fliers like Ladarius Green, Travis Kelce, Tyler Eifert and Dwayne Allen can be had with late-round picks.
Graham and Gronkowski (assuming he remains on track to play in Week 1) are worth the early-round pick, but otherwise, the smart move is to wait for a major value later.
5. React reasonably to hype
Each year, the fantasy football industry grows exponentially. Punditry grows as a result. We all have guys we love and guys we hate, which leads to a constant seesaw of market value for each player. One week, I write a piece suggesting a breakout season for Justin Hunter. His ADP skyrockets. The next week, Joe Analyst writes a piece explaining why Tavon Austin will bust out during his sophomore season. Hunter’s ADP returns to earth, and Austin becomes overvalued for a while.
The key is to take every single piece of advice with a grain of salt. Does the advice make sense? Does the math add up? Is the player truly in a situation where he can succeed? Is he really as good as the analyst suggests?
Savvy owners take advantage of overreacting owners by avoiding the noise and sticking to their boards, making occasional tweaks only when it makes sense.
6. Go get these sophomore wideouts
All the talk is about the depth of this year’s crop of rookie wide receivers. Sorted by my favorite values, don’t overlook these sophomores:
I foreshadowed this earlier, but Justin Hunter actually is an excellent breakout candidate in Ken Whisenhunt’s wide receiver-friendly, pass-first offense. Terrance Williams will start opposite Dez Bryant in Dallas’ pass-heavy offense. Aaron Dobson figures to play nearly every down in an offense operated by Tom Brady. DeAndre Hopkins struggled along with the rest of Houston’s offense last season, but he will be rejuvenated with Bill O’Brien in control. Tavon Austin disappointed as a rookie but showed big-play ability and will be a key part of the Rams’ improving offense. In Buffalo, Robert Woods is being overshadowed by rookie Sammy Watkins, but the sophomore has an excellent shot to play nearly every down in 2014. Markus Wheaton and Kenny Stills have been promoted into starting roles in good (Pittsburgh) and great (New Orleans) offenses, respectively. The likes of Quinton Patton, Stedman Bailey, Marquise Goodwin, Ace Sanders, Marquess Wilson and Brice Butler should be monitored.
Keenan Allen and Cordarrelle Patterson are fine picks as well, but both will come off the board in the first half of your draft, making them expensive investments.
7. Draft post-hype superstars
We see it every year. A highly talented player makes perfect sense as a breakout. Selected in the first few rounds of every single draft, the player inevitably disappoints before finally busting out the very next season. Last year, Ryan Mathews was a fine example. Knowshon Moreno, DeMarco Murray, Rashad Jennings, Jordan Cameron and Julius Thomas also fit the bill.
This season, C.J. Spiller should be on your radar. Considering that he was a first-round pick in most drafts, the 2013 season was a major disappointment. Despite dealing with injuries and sharing the Buffalo backfield with Fred Jackson, Spiller still managed 202 carries and eclipsed 1,100 total yards. A lack of usage near the goal line remains a concern, but Spiller is only 27 and one of the top talents at the position. Available in the third round of most drafts, Spiller has top-five upside.
Looking for other post-hype candidates? Consider Jake Locker, Mark Ingram, David Wilson, Stevan Ridley, Danny Amendola, Tyler Eifert, Keenan Allen and Ladarius Green.
8. Raise the roof
Once you’re comfortable with your starting lineup, ensure that your focus is on acquiring the players with the highest ceiling. Obviously you want to draft high-upside players early as well, but for the most part, the players in this category are unproven. Spending early-round picks on speculative players is risky and best saved for the mid-to-late rounds. I’ve mentioned a bunch of these players throughout this piece, but there are a few categories breakout players tend to fall into. The most obvious one is “talented.” Players drafted in the last three years who have a ton of raw talent but were injured or buried on their team’s depth chart are usually worthy of late-round consideration. Last season, Alshon Jeffery, Zac Stacy, Julius Thomas and Jordan Cameron fit this category. Another is “opportunity.” These players might not be quite as naturally gifted, but they’ve fallen into a situation where they’ll be playing a significant offensive role or playing enough of a role in a high-scoring offense. The likes of Riley Cooper, Charles Clay and Julian Edelman fit the bill in 2013.
9. Be wary of rookies
Each year, there is a massive amount of attention given to the NFL Draft. That, combined with recency bias toward the college superstars of the past season, often leads to rookies being overvalued in fantasy drafts. Last year, 14 rookies were drafted in the top 200 of most drafts. Only four players (Eddie Lacy, Gio Bernard, Le’Veon Bell and Cordarrelle Patterson) outperformed their ADP. The other 10 players were nothing more than waiver wire fodder for most of the season. That was the case for Patterson for a good chuck of the season as well. There were a few other rookies who shined, but the likes of Andre Ellington, Keenan Allen, Jordan Reed, Zac Stacy and Mike Glennon went undrafted in most leagues. The message here is that rookies tend to be overhyped, and you should be very skeptical about choosing them during the first dozen rounds of your draft.
10. Don’t draft your handcuffs; draft the best handcuffs
It’s inevitable. The guy who picks Toby Gerhart is going to draft and/or waste a valuable roster spot on Jordan Todman. Trent Richardson owners will stash Vick Ballard. Gio Bernard owners will snag BenJarvus Green-Ellis. You get the picture. There are a lot of backup running backs who qualify as handcuffs but who are not very good and/or would be no more than a committee back in the event that they were called on to start. Todman, Ballard and Green-Ellis fall into that category and shouldn’t be stashed over running backs with higher ceilings. You don’t need to own Jamaal Charles in order to snatch up Knile Davis. Or Matt Forté to grab Ka’Deem Carey. Christine Michael, LeGarrette Blount, Bernard Pierce, Carlos Hyde, Donald Brown, Jerick McKinnon, Tre Mason, Charles Sims and Devonta Freeman all make for solid late-round targets.
Home to the defending Super Bowl champions and the only division that featured three 10-win teams last season; there is little debate that the NFC West is the NFL’s toughest division entering the 2014 season. So how is Seattle shaping up as the Seahawks prepare their title defense and what about the three other chasing them out west?
In order to get an accurate assessment of the four NFC West teams heading into 2014, Athlon asked NFL scouts to talk anonymously about the Cardinals, Rams, 49ers and Seahawks.
“The Cardinals have as much front-line talent as any NFL team. The problem is that they reside in the toughest division in the league and there is no guarantee to even make the playoffs.” …
“Bruce Arians has had quite a run since taking over as interim coach of the Colts in 2012 and then leading Arizona to a 10-6 mark last year. The players love Arians’ approach and really believe they can go win the Super Bowl in 2014, and they might be right.” …
“As Carson Palmer heads into the twilight of his career, he is surrounded by elite-level ability. Larry Fitzgerald has enjoyed a remarkable career despite being, at times, hamstrung by inept QB play, and Michael Floyd is poised to advance his game in his third season.” …
“Arians has raved about Andre Ellington, but he had major durability concerns coming out of Clemson, and it would be difficult to think of him as a workhorse over the course of 16 games and the playoffs. For that reason, Jonathan Dwyer was signed from Pittsburgh and Stepfan Taylor could be a stopgap option.” …
“With Jonathan Cooper returning from a leg fracture and Jared Veldheer being signed during free agency, this line should be much improved. John Carlson gives them a better-than-average answer at tight end and some inside the organization still think Rob Housler has more to offer from a physical standpoint.” …
“Arizona’s front seven has a mixture of experience and youth, but all of them can play. John Abraham can still rush the passer, Darnell Dockett has matured into a consistent Pro Bowler, and Calais Campbell is a force due to his height and athleticism.” …
“The Cardinals signed Antonio Cromartie to pair off with Patrick Peterson, and with Tyrann Mathieu expected to successfully return from knee surgery, they can be multiple in their coverage packages. They addressed their need at safety with Washington State’s Deone Bucannon in the first round ” …
“The backup-caliber players need to understand that special teams could be the difference between them and the Seahawks and 49ers.” …
“If Palmer stays healthy and upright, this team is highly motivated and stronger than people realize.” …
St. Louis Rams
“Head Coach Jeff Fisher is widely respected and well thought of in league circles because of his work on the Competition Committee and overall presence as a leader of the coaches. However, some are beginning to question his won-loss record and lack of success in St. Louis.” …
The Rams appear content to go forward with QB Sam Bradford, but there is no denying the risk involved because of his past injury history. Offensively, the line has been bad for two years running and their best ball-carrier emerged in the form of  fifth-round pick, Zac Stacy from Vanderbilt. They addressed both of those areas in the draft with a pair of Auburn Tigers, OT Greg Robinson and RB Tre Mason.”…
“TE Jared Cook has very good skill and should thrive more with a healthy Bradford, but the wide receivers have been a major work in progress over the past two campaigns. It took nearly ten weeks to get rookie Tavon Austin cranked up, so the assumption will be that he picks up where 2013 ended. STL has gotten little out of former second-round pick Chris Givens, so this will be a make-or-break year for him.”…
“They were lucky that Rodger Saffold returned to them after the physical fiasco in Oakland and the plan might be to play him at RG with Joe Barksdale at RT and Robinson aligning as a LG.” …
“The Rams now have the best defensive front four in the game after selecting Pittsburgh All-American Aaron Donald with their second first-round pick. The linebacking corps isn’t bad, either, with James Laurinaitis and Alec Ogletree.” …
“The Achilles’ heel has been the secondary and that is where they added Florida State’s super-competitive Lamarcus Joyner who can play safety, corner or nickel. And with even more pressure coming from Robert Quinn and Chris Long, this secondary should be improved.”…
“The Michael Sam story will get some play upon his arrival and maybe during training camp, but his shot to make the team will be as a situational pass rusher and special teams contributor, period.”…
“GM Les Snead and Fisher appear to work well together, but their time in the Gateway of the West will begin to run down without significant progress in football’s most difficult division.”
San Francisco 49ers
“The 49ers may have the most physically imposing and best-looking team in the entire league. They are big and strong along both lines and have tough, athletic skill players on offense and defense.”…
“Despite some of the communication issues between head coach Jim Harbaugh, GM Trent Baalke and football administration director Paraag Maranthe, this is an organization that has built a quality team. “ …
“Many inside the NFL think 2014 could likely be Harbaugh’s last season in SF, so it has been interesting to monitor the upward movement of former Jets and Browns coach Eric Mangini. He is currently the TEs coach, but made his name in New York and New England on the defensive side of the football. There is no question that he is reinventing himself for another run at a head job and would love the opportunity to take over a roster that is absolutely loaded, although DL coach Jim Tomsula would be the in-house favorite.” …
“The 49ers have hitched their wagon to QB Colin Kaepernick’s unique combination of rare size and speed at the position. If there is a criticism, it is his penchant to throw almost every pass on a line with no touch whatsoever. On play-actions and bootlegs, he can rifle a flat ball in between defenders, but in the drop-back game, he tends to try and throw it through rather than around people.” …
“Expect SF to have more of a backfield-by-committee in place for ’14 as RB Frank Gore still has some in-between-the-tackles ability and they picked Ohio State’s Carlos Hyde in the second round.” …
“Defensively, it’s all about what happens with NaVorro Bowman’s return from the brutal knee injury suffered in the playoffs and the off-field problems experienced by Aldon Smith.” …
“Look for second-year player Tank Carradine to make a splash after ‘redshirting’ last season. “ …
“They are so strong up the middle and that is where Patrick Willis has become this generation’s ‘Ray Lewis.’”…
“If they are light anywhere, it would be on the corner where Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers left for Oakland and the remaining group is headlined by Eric Wright [Editor’s note: he retired in June] and Chris Culliver with the anticipation that first-round choice Jimmie Ward will likely be the nickel in 2014. FS Eric Reid is a Pro Bowl talent and they signed Antoine Bethea to replace Donte Whitner.” …
“The ‘body’ of this team is ready to return to the Super Bowl, the ‘head’ of this team is what will determine their fate.” …
“Pete Carroll became only the third coach in football history to win both a college national championship and Super Bowl joining Jimmy Johnson and Barry Switzer in that elite club. He was rewarded with an extension during the offseason and between the leadership combination of himself, GM John Schneider and Russell Wilson, this team isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.” …
“Offensively, Wilson should be able to expand his game to provide more balance to their attack (4th in rushing, 26th in passing) and Percy Harvin is obviously a difference-maker for them when he is healthy and on the field. Golden Tate moved on to the Lions, so Harvin and Doug Baldwin will need to step up in 2014.” …
“The offensive line lost Breno Giacomini, but the other four starters return and RT Michael Bowie gained valuable experience as a rookie when he started 8 games during the regular season.” …
“Marshawn Lynch has prospered since arriving from Buffalo and his Beast Mode style matches the toughness of their defense.” …
“They traded for Terrelle Pryor prior to the draft, so that is a situation to monitor in regards to their backup QB situation.” …
“Defensively, the Legion of Boom will continue uninterrupted after Earl Thomas received a new contract in April and Richard Sherman did the same a few weeks later.” …
“Up front, the Seahawks lost Clinton McDonald, Red Bryant and Chris Clemons to free agency, but they did retain Michael Bennett and still have Cliff Avril and Bruce Irvin on the outside. Jordan Hill should figure more prominently on the inside as a second-year player to rotate with Brandon Mebane and Tony McDaniel.” …
“Bobby Wagner, T.J. Wright and Malcolm Smith are ideal fits for this scheme because of their versatility against the run and pass.” …
“Byron Maxwell’s emergence opposite Sherman allowed them to let Walter Thurmond and Brandon Browner to walk, so expect to see more of Jeremy Lane and Tharold Simon this year. Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor form the league’s best safety duo where they complement each other’s skill set unbelievably well.” …
“Seattle is built to last because of the QB, a solid OL and the quality of their overall defense. They preach competition and that’s exactly what they will get from their division rivals in 2014.” …
General Manager Rick Spielman created 13 categories that he thought described a successful NFL coach. He identified 10 preferred candidates, interviewed seven and fell in love, professionally speaking, with just one. “It’s like when I met my wife,” he said. “You just know.”
Mike Zimmer, the self-proclaimed “fixer” and first-time head coach at any level, replaces the fired Leslie Frazier. And, boy, does he ever have some fixing to do after a 5–10–1 season that featured the league’s worst scoring defense and a three-headed fiasco at quarterback. Zimmer and Spielman immediately infused the defense with youth and depth, signing five unrestricted free agents before spending seven of their 10 draft picks on that side of the ball.
Offensively, Norv Turner has been entrusted with maximizing a group of talented players and a less-than-ideal quarterback situation that already looks more promising with the franchise-wide acceptance that Christian Ponder never will be a franchise quarterback.
The Ponder experiment is over. Matt Cassel, who had opted out of the second year of his original contract with the Vikings, re-signed in part because he trusts that Turner and Zimmer are committed to him as the starter. That wasn’t the case last year when the Vikings waffled between Ponder, Cassel and Josh Freeman despite obvious examples that Cassel, though not great by any stretch, had the most poise, courage to throw the deep ball and overall success (a 3–3 record).
Ponder will start only if Cassel is injured. And even that would depend on whether rookie first-round draft pick Teddy Bridgewater is ready or not. Ideally, the Vikings want Cassel to be a one-year bridge and then back up Bridgewater in 2015.
Unlike former offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave, Turner can be counted on to not only groom a young quarterback, but also produce a creative and diverse offense. He’s proven over decades that he gets the most out of quarterbacks, receivers and tight ends while still being able to satisfy Hall of Fame-caliber running backs. And, of course, Adrian Peterson will remain the focal point of the Vikings’ play-action, run-first attack.
Musgrave’s approach was simple, predictable and puzzling in that it failed to incorporate obvious superstar-in-waiting receiver Cordarrelle Patterson until the team’s season had already collapsed. Patterson, an All-Pro kick returner as a rookie last year, will excel in Turner’s offense even though it’s more complex and he’s still a bit raw as a route-runner.
Up front, the offensive line underachieved last season and needs to live up to the level one would expect of a unit that’s still young and enters its third season intact. Left tackle Matt Kalil, a Pro Bowler as a rookie in 2012, had too many lapses in his second season. Left guard Charlie Johnson struggled and may be challenged by younger players.
Peterson is 29 and has had knee, hernia and groin surgeries the past three years. But he looks ready to surpass his 1,266-yard effort from 2013. Peterson will get some help from rookie Jerick McKinnon, the kind of third-down, change-of-pace back Turner likes.
The Vikings have played a Cover-2 base defense since 2006. Zimmer, meanwhile, has displayed admirable versatility throughout his career. He’s a 4-3 guy who has posted top-10 defenses using his own 4-3 scheme and a 3-4 alignment he learned working for Bill Parcells.
The selection of UCLA’s Anthony Barr ninth overall fills a huge need at strong-side linebacker and will be a key ingredient as Zimmer and defensive coordinator George Edwards transform the Vikings into a more unpredictable unit capable of easily mixing fronts, coverages and blitz packages. Barr, who has played linebacker for only two years, is raw, but his 6'5", 255-pound frame comes with unusual length, speed and cornerback-caliber agility. He’s a natural rusher from the up or down positions and has the skills to cover the seam downfield, which has been a weakness for the Vikings.
Up front, the Vikings said goodbye to Jared Allen and Kevin Williams and hello to a dramatic youth movement. Everson Griffen, 26, steps in for Allen after four years as an heir apparent. He possesses a freakish combination of speed, size, position flexibility and potential. Meanwhile, Sharrif Floyd, who had a nondescript rookie season, takes over for Williams and will be given a chance to live up to being a 23rd overall pick. Linval Joseph, 25, moves in at nose tackle, giving the Vikings their first legitimately sized nose since Pat Williams in 2010.
In the secondary, Spielman is finally starting to assemble a solid unit after the team experienced some bad misses in the draft. Free safety Harrison Smith, a first-round pick in 2012, is instinctive, fast, physical and will be an All-Pro one day if he stays healthy. Cornerback Xavier Rhodes, a first-round pick in 2013, is a potential Pro Bowler who needs to prove he can be durable.
Meanwhile, the other starting corner is Captain Munnerlyn, a prized free-agent signing and a huge upgrade over Chris Cook, who was a four-year disappointment on and off the field. Munnerlyn also can slide inside over the slot in the nickel, something Josh Robinson failed at last year when asked prematurely to fill that role after Antoine Winfield was cut in a salary cap move. Finding a suitable third corner on the current roster will test Zimmer’s reputation as “the fixer.”
Special teams coordinator Mike Priefer was one of Frazier’s three assistants retained by Zimmer. That’s because the Vikings are as good if not better top to bottom than any other team when it comes to special teams. Patterson, the kick returner, turned a ridiculous combination of size and speed into an NFL-leading 32.4-yard average and a league-record 109-yard return. Meanwhile, at punt returner, Marcus Sherels staved off being released and averaged a franchise-record 15.2 yards per return, good enough for second in the league.
Kicker Blair Walsh, an All-Pro as a rookie when he made a record 10-of-10 field goals of 50 yards or longer, struggled from long range last year (2-of-5), but he will be fine. Punter Jeff Locke was typically inconsistent as a rookie last year but should improve.
If turnovers aren’t an issue at quarterback, there’s enough firepower in Turner’s creative hands to maintain a balanced, run-oriented attack that highlights Peterson, camouflages Cassel and taps the potential of Patterson. Defensively, there’s more of a leap of faith required. How quickly can a unit that’s been overhauled with youth get up to speed in Zimmer’s system? The schedule-maker doesn’t give them much time with an opener on the road at St. Louis followed by games against Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Aaron Rodgers, the latter on the road on a Thursday night. An 8–8 finish might be a nice place to start.
PREDICTION: 4th in NFC North
(Teddy Bridgewater photo courtesy of Minnesota Vikings' Web site, www.vikings.com)
Phase 1 for the regime of general manager Dave Caldwell and coach Gus Bradley in Jacksonville was about survival, attempting to cobble together a roster last year that would avoid being totally outclassed. And the Jaguars did stay upright — barely, winning four games in the season’s second half. And now there is Phase 2, which is about being competitive in general and against the NFL’s best teams in particular.
The Jaguars went 0–7 last year against teams that made the playoffs, losing each game by at least 16 points. In 2014, the team wants to cut that margin and maybe even win some of those contests to confirm that it’s on the right path. To that end, Caldwell was active in free agency, adding eight players while also waving goodbye to veterans like running back Maurice Jones-Drew, right guard Uche Nwaneri and the retired Brad Meester and Russell Allen.
The Jaguars’ message to quarterback Blake Bortles once they drafted him third overall in May: Hurry up and wait. The Jaguars produced the draft’s first “Wow!” moment when they a) stayed at No. 3 instead of trading down and b) chose Bortles instead of higher-ranked names like Sammy Watkins and Khalil Mack. Bortles is the future, but Chad Henne is the present. Henne is well versed in the offense, respected in the locker room and huddle and stands tall in the pocket. But he’s also a player who is 18–32 as a starter in his career and has 55 touchdowns and 62 interceptions. Henne will keep the seat warm until Bortles is deemed ready to play (maybe at midseason, maybe after the Week 11 bye, maybe 2015). What should help Henne is a free-agent and draft season that re-tooled the offense. The Jaguars ranked last in points and second-to-last in yards, and upgrades were necessary. The end result is new faces, fresher legs and more speed.
After eight years and one league rushing championship, Jones-Drew was allowed to walk in free agency to Oakland. He will be replaced by Toby Gerhart, who averaged 4.7 yards per carry in four years as Adrian Peterson’s backup in Minnesota. The Jaguars were intrigued by Gerhart’s lack of wear and tear, his ability to get yards after contact and experience as a receiver out of the backfield. A hip flexor injury kept him out of the first preseason game, but that was probably more for precautionary reasons than anything.
The Jaguars then took advantage of a deep receiver class in the draft. USC’s Marqise Lee fell to them at No. 39, and then they traded up to No. 60 late in the second round to take Penn State’s Allen Robinson. Both bring what the Jaguars have lacked in the passing game — a willingness to go over the middle for the tough catch and a knack for getting to the end zone. The Jaguars hope that their presence will open up the seam routes for tight end Marcedes Lewis and that the coverage downfield will shade away from Cecil Shorts. Getting Lewis back for a full year after he was slowed by a calf strain last September/October gives the Jaguars a fine blocker (they averaged 0.6 more yards per carry when he was on the field) and a red-zone target (touchdowns in four straight games last year).
But the Jaguars’ most expensive signing was designed to improve an offensive line that has been plagued by performance and durability issues in recent years. Zane Beadles arrived from Denver on a five-year, $30 million contract to play left guard and serve as a leader. Luke Joeckel, coming off a broken leg, has moved from right tackle to left tackle. Brandon Linder, whom the Jaguars traded up in the third round to draft, is the likely new right guard. Mike Brewster will enter camp as the favorite to start at center, and Austin Pasztor, a former guard who impressed last year, will start at right tackle. The goals of this group are to stay healthy, run-block better and prevent a third straight year of 50 sacks by its opponents.
The Jaguars basically have to do everything better on defense. In addition to increasing their sack total, they have to stop the run better (29th last year), produce more takeaways (only 21) and be more effective on third down (27th).
Call the Jags’ defense “Seattle South,” both in the personnel and the scheme. Red Bryant was signed to be an early-down run-stopper at defensive end, and Chris Clemons was added to improve a pass rush that was last in 2012 and tied for last in 2013. Both played for Bradley and defensive line coach Todd Wash in Seattle. The scheme: Use big bodies at three of the defensive line spots and replace them with speedy pass-rushers on third down.
Bradley often says a team can’t have enough pass-rushers, and that is reflected in the Jaguars’ acquisitions. Clemons and draft pick Chris Smith join holdovers Jason Babin and Andre Branch. Ideally, Bradley wants to have four “Leo” (open-side end) players active on Sundays.
At linebacker, the Jaguars hope they’ve added an ascending player in Dekoda Watson, who had only six career starts in four years with Tampa Bay but signed with the Jaguars hours after the free-agent market opened. They believe he can add a dimension against tight ends, a season-long bugaboo in 2013, and also fit into the pass-rushing defensive end rotation. He joins middle linebacker Paul Posluszny, a tackling machine who is the defense’s heart and soul, and Geno Hayes, who is coming off knee surgery.
If the Jaguars are better stopping the run and more effective with a four-man pass rush, that could mean good things for a secondary that started three rookies at various points last year. Veteran Alan Ball returns at one corner and is paired with second-year pro Dwayne Gratz, who has a nose for the football but was sidetracked by two high-ankle sprains last year. At strong safety, former second-round pick Johnathan Cyprien came on during the season’s second half. At free safety, Winston Guy (another Seattle alum) and Josh Evans will compete in camp. Guy and Evans are hard hitters but need to become surer tacklers.
The Jaguars were top 10 in covering kicks and punts and returning kicks, but last in punt returns. Ace Sanders was drafted as a receiver/punt returner but never got untracked on special teams. The second-year player from South Carolina also announced prior to the start of training camp that he was taking an indefinite leave of absence from the team after he was notified he would be suspended the first four games for violating the league's substance-abuse policy. A candidate to replace Sanders is Tandon Doss, signed as a free agent from Baltimore. The Jaguars’ kicker-punter-long-snapper team of Josh Scobee-Bryan Anger-Carson Tinker returns intact. Scobee still gets good distance on his kickoffs and is adept at the directional kick, and Anger’s consistent hang time allows his teammates to get down the field.
Is it OK to say “Wait until next year” before the current year has even started? In the Jaguars’ case, probably. The goal this year should be to play better against the league’s elite teams, decide which players should make up the core moving forward and get Bortles late-season experience so that he’s ready to start in 2015.
PREDICTION: 4th in AFC South
Official school logos have been and will always be the simplest and most important way for a college program to classify and separate itself from its peers. Some change dramatically over time while others are literally set in stone for decades. Some are edgy, exciting and extremely busy while others are clean, classic and simple.
Every college football program in the nation has an official logo and the goal is to be the most recognizable brand in the nation.
Since Athlon Sports has been designing the best-looking magazines on newsstands for the better part of half a century, we asked our senior graphic design guru to rank college football's best and worst logos.
Here is what Art Director Matt Taliaferro best (and worst) logos in college football.
Note: Since college football is now an autonomous sport, only the Big 5 (including Notre Dame) are eligible.
College Football's Best Official Logos
|1.||Texas||The best logo in college football, the Longhorn is classic, simple, unchanging but also unique and creative. There is nothing else to say.|
|2.||Clemson||There are tons of Tigers, Wildcats and Bulldogs in college sports but none use their mascot quite like Clemson. The Tiger Paw print is synonymous with Clemson athletics and is utterly simple but still edgy and creative.|
|3.||Georgia||Find me a more effective marriage of color and simplicity of design and I'll hand these writing duties over to you. Georgia's logo is so timeless that I can't remember there ever being another that represented the football team. When you see this, there's no confusion as to what you're looking at.|
|4.||Michigan St||It's clean, classic, gets the point across and is recognizable. It has some fierce edginess to it, the color scheme is perfect and there is no doubt it represents a Spartan.|
|5.||Washington||Simple, tasteful, unchanging and very obvious. This emblem with its signature gold trim is one of the best in the nation and leaves little doubt as to what it represents.|
|6.||USC||The interlocking "S-C" is as famous as any logo in the nation. The other logo with the script team nickname above the "SC" isn't needed for a major brand like USC.|
|7.||Notre Dame||It is one of the most recognizable logos in college sports. There is some creativity in the interlocking N and D but it's done in a simple, classic and vintage way. I like the N better than the D.|
|8.||North Carolina||The interlocked N-C are as famous as any brand logo in the nation. There are simple touches of style — the font and black trim — that make this logo completely unmistakable.|
|9.||Auburn||Hard to find fault in the interlocking A-U. Again, trimming away all the waste and boiling a logomark down to its most basic typically nets the best results.|
|10.||Tennessee||As a logo, Tennessee's is as direct and to-the-point as it gets. Think what you will of the orange (personally, I'm no fan), but the unique working of the "T" is as good as it gets. As an aside, UT's retro Davy Crockett logo is badass.|
|11.||Miami||It's as simple as it gets but also brings loads of creativity and history. No other logo turns into a hand signal like "The U" and the two-tone color scheme and pattern is unique.|
|12.||Penn St||Historically speaking, few logos are as traditional as the Nittany Lions oval. The smooth looking Lions head has great lines and appears to be hunting... Wolverines or Buckeyes? Few logos combine classy and aggresive like PSU.|
|13.||Iowa||It also comes in black, which is slightly more stylish. While maintaining a simple and historic look, the Hawkeye emblen also brings some creativity. In fact, I've no idea what an actual Hawkeye looks like.|
|14.||Oklahoma||There is no doubting what the interlocking "O" and "U" stand for, right? The smooth lines and lack of extras in the font make this a fantastic logo.|
|15.||UCLA||The script "UCLA" is one of the most well-known logos in all of sports much less college football. And the way the word Bruins is incorporated makes it one of the most informative in the nation while still being fairly simple.|
|16.||Stanford||Michigan State and NC State know exactly what the smart kids from Palo Alto were thinking when this logo was created. It's classic and simple with a touch of style in the stroked white/red trim. Stanford boasts one of the best brand logos in the nation.|
|17.||Oregon||It doesn't get any simpler than the Oregon "O." There is some subtle style to the font that makes it cooler than the average "O." The clean classic look works but some yellow trim might make it the best in the league.|
|18.||Kansas St||All of Kansas State's design work, color scheme and uniforms are underrated and the logo is the same. Aggressive, stylish but yet still fairly simple and clean.|
|19.||Texas A&M||Someone from A&M needs to call Texas Tech and explain how effective beveling is done. Like Vandy, Texas A&M's logo is simple and therefore works as a potent branding mark.|
|20.||Ohio State||Normally, a name in a logo doesn't work, but the "S" is perfectly designed into the "O" and it works. It makes it busier than the cleaner, more classic logos above. The colors and trim are second to none.|
Others receiving votes: West Virginia, Vanderbilt, Colorado, Florida State, Virginia Tech, Indiana
College Football's Worst Official Logos
|Oregon St||The Beavers updated their look recently with a new edgier looking logo. And, frankly, they did a good job. This one is smoother and streamlined and is more aggressive. It's tough to make a beaver look mean, however.|
|Northwestern||The purple "N" has plenty of things going on around it. The font is seriously bizarre and not really intimidating anyone.|
|South Carolina||Surprisingly, it's not the gamecock that turns me off here, it's the 90 degree angles on the inside of the "C" — shave those off and the awkwardness of this logo is minimalized. Sure, the rooster could use an upgrade, but let's be honest, it may be time to start from scratch.|
|Kansas||The cartoon Jayhawk is a signature logo but doesn't really create an intimidating image in any sense of the word. And why is it dancing?|
|Boston College||The cartoon eagle and italicized/overlapped BC just doesn't exude tradition and excellence like some other logos. The colors aren't bad but it's too busy to be considered a great logo..|