Articles By Mark Ross
Twenty-four players went over 1,000 yards receiving in the NFL last season, even though just five caught 100 or more passes. And this group doesn’t include the likes of Julio Jones, Roddy White, Percy Harvin or Rob Gronkowski, who each missed a significant amount of time because of injuries.
With offenses relying and more and more on the passing game, the number of 1,000-yard and 100-catch wide receivers and tight ends will only continue to grow. Subsequently, the pressure for these players to produce in each category will likewise increase.
With that in mind, here are 15 pass-catchers who need to make the most of their targets in 2014:
1. Percy Harvin, Seattle Seahawks
Seattle paid handsomely (three draft picks and a six-year, $67 million contract) for Harvin last March and got a total of three games out of him because of a torn labrum that required hip surgery. That said, the reason the Seahawks willingly give up so much in the first place was evident in the Super Bowl when Harvin returned the second half kickoff 87 yards for a touchdown and led all rushers in the game with 45 yards on just two carries. The hope is that he can offer similar production over the course of an entire season, especially with last year’s No. 1 receiver, Golden Tate, now in Detroit.
2. Dwayne Bowe, Kansas City Chiefs
Everyone knows Kansas City’s offense begins and pretty much ends with Jamaal Charles, but if the Chiefs want to have any semblance of a passing game they need more from Bowe. After catching 81 passes for 1,159 yards in 2011, Bowe’s numbers have declined to just 57 and 673 last season. The 2007 first-round pick is making too much money ($8.8 million base this year, $30 million more through 2017) for that type of production, especially on a team that’s limited on pass-catching options to begin with.
3. Mike Wallace, Miami Dolphins
Similar to Percy Harvin, Wallace also signed a lucrative contract as a free agent last offseason. Unlike Harvin, Wallace doesn’t have an injury to blame for his lack of production (12.7 ypc, just 5 TDs) in 2013. There’s still a bunch of money remaining on Wallace’s five-year, $60 million ($30 million guaranteed) pact, so he’s not going anywhere. Unfortunately, the Dolphins as a team may not either unless Wallace performs more like the No. 1 receiver he’s being paid to be.
4. Rob Gronkowski, New England Patriots
Outside of Julian Edelman, the Patriots’ passing game was very much hit-or-miss last season, and the majority of it was “miss.” This is where Gronkowski comes in, who is every bit the matchup nightmare that Jimmy Graham is, when he’s on the field. With just 18 games played over the last two seasons, it may be too much to expect Gronkowski to survive a full season, but there’s no denying his impact when he’s out there. In the last two years, Tom Brady has thrown 33 touchdowns compared to just eight interceptions when Gronk has been on the field. Brady’s 25 touchdown passes in 2013 (Gronk played just seven games), were his fewest in a full season (2008 doesn’t count) since ’06 (24).
5. DeSean Jackson, Washington Redskins
Jackson led the Eagles with 82 catches for 1,332 yards and nine touchdowns last season. So why did Chip Kelly release his most productive target and eat more than $6 million in dead money in the process? Opinions vary on that, but it had to be a pretty good reason, considering the move allowed Jackson to join NFC East rival Washington. Fit and team chemistry are some of the words that have been tossed around in this regard, so it’s on Jackson to show that’s not the case, especially on a team that’s looking to bounce back with a new coaching staff in place.
6. Hakeem Nicks, Indianapolis Colts
This time last year, Nicks was looking to put together a strong season with free agency on the horizon. While he managed to stay relatively healthy, the production just wasn’t there, as Nicks didn’t score a single touchdown despite playing 15 games and catching 56 passes. Nicks signed with Indianapolis in March, but it’s a one-year deal so the 2009 first-round pick better treat this season as an audition or he may find himself in the same situation next year.
7. Danny Amendola, New England Patriots
As important as Rob Gronkowski is to the Patriots’ passing game, Amendola needs to live up to the contract he signed last offseason too. Once again injuries played a major role, limiting Amendola to just 12 games and only six starts. And outside of two 10-catch games, Amendola hauled in a total of 34 passes in his 10 other appearances and scored just two touchdowns. Amendola was signed with the intent of replacing Wes Welker. At this point, there are getting half of the production for basically the same cost (both earning $3 million in base salary this season).
8. Tavon Austin, St. Louis Rams
St. Louis traded up to snag Austin with the eighth pick of the 2013 draft and the expectations were the all-purpose dynamo would be unleashed. This didn’t exactly transpire, however, as Austin failed to make an immediate impact and the Rams struggled with how to use him in their game plans. Progress was made as the season went on, including a two-touchdown (one receiving, one return) breakout against Indianapolis. The hope for this season is that both the player and the team will be on the same page. The Rams have a championship-caliber defense in place; it just needs the offense to do its part.
9. Eric Decker, New York Jets
Decker cashed in on two strong seasons in Denver to the tune of a five-year, $36 million contract with the Jets. Now, it’s just a matter of proving he’s worthy of being paid so well in his first season with his new team. A team that just so happens to be in the media capital of the world. Oh, there’s also no Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker or Julius Thomas to draw attention away from Decker. And do I really need to bring up his quarterback situation?
10. Sammy Watkins, Buffalo Bills
Watkins is in many ways this year’s Tavon Austin. A dynamic, explosive, all-purpose threat that starred in college that a team traded up for in the first round to get. The Bills paid a pretty hefty price (first- and third-round picks in 2015) to move up four spots to land Watkins, so there’s little doubt they have high hopes for the former Clemson All-American. However, as was the case with Austin last season, there’s no guarantee that rookies pay immediate dividends. And having a young wide receiver rely on a young quarterback (and vice versa) only adds to the degree of difficulty.
11. Kelvin Benjamin, Carolina Panthers
Benjamin’s not getting near the attention of Sammy Watkins, but that doesn’t change his situation in Carolina. The Panthers’ first-round pick (No. 28 overall), Benjamin has as much experience with the team as pretty much anyone else in the receiving corps – zero games. The top four wide receivers from last season are no longer on the roster, which means the defending NFC South champions are really hoping that Benjamin literally catches on sooner rather than later.
12. Jeremy Maclin, Philadelphia Eagles
Maclin missed all of last season with a torn ACL, so there are plenty who are eager to see how well he fits in Chip Kelly’s offense. Besides coming back from a serious injury, however, Maclin also will be replacing the departed DeSean Jackson as a starter opposite Riley Cooper. So he needs to not only get rid of the rust pretty quickly, he also needs to grasp Kelly’s complex system. On top of that, Maclin’s signed for just one year, so in essence he’s playing for his next paycheck. No pressure, right?
13. DeAndre Hopkins, Houston Texans
Houston’s first-round pick (27th overall) last year, Hopkins got off to a strong start as a rookie before struggling to find consistency. After catching 18 passes for 243 yards and a touchdown in his first three games, Hopkins posted just 34 receptions for 559 yards and another score the rest of the way. Included in those final 13 games were three one-catch efforts. Granted quarterback play was a big issue in 2013, but new head coach Bill O’Brien needs Hopkins to make his presence known this season if the Texans’ offense is to rebound. This is especially the case if All-Pro Andre Johnson maintains his stance about not wanting to be a part of the rebuilding effort under O’Brien.
14. Jared Cook, St. Louis Rams
After signing a big contract (five years, $35 million) with St. Louis last offseason, the expectation was that Cook would finally capitalize on the talent and potential he had teased everyone with his previous two seasons in Tennessee. While he did post a career-best 51 catches, the yardage (671) and touchdown (five) totals still leave something to be desired. While Tavon Austin certainly needs to take his game to a new level this fall, it’s not fair for him to shoulder all of the blame. Cook also needs to be accountable, especially since his quarterback is in the same boat.
15. Levine Toilolo, Atlanta Falcons
Toilolo’s inclusion on this list is not due to any fault of his own. Rather it’s because the second-year pro has the unenviable (and pretty much impossible) task of following a legend, future Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez. No one really knows what the Falcons have in Toilolo, the 2013 fourth-round pick from Stanford, but they do know what Matt Ryan had in Gonzalez. And that was a consistent, reliable target that averaged 82 receptions and seven touchdowns over his five seasons in Atlanta.
Other Names to Watch
Miles Austin, Cleveland Browns
Josh Gordon’s fate should be known fairly soon, but it’s safe to say he will miss a fair number of games, at minimum. Whether it’s “veteran” Brian Hoyer or Johnny Manziel at quarterback, they will need Austin or Nate Burleson or Andrew Hawkins to give defenses someone else to worry about besides tight end Jordan Cameron.
Julio Jones, Atlanta Falcons
There’s no denying the difference-maker Jones is for the Falcons’ offense. Matt Ryan really needs a healthy, explosive Jones if this team wants to get back to its winning ways, especially with Tony Gonzalez now retired.
Kyle Rudolph, Minnesota Vikings
A broken foot cost him half of last season, disrupting any momentum he had gained after a productive 2012 campaign. A free agent after this season, Rudolph will have to be productive despite the Vikings’ uncertain quarterback situation.
Steve Smith, Baltimore Ravens
Carolina’s all-time leading receiver heads to the Ravens to provide a productive option at receiver behind Torrey Smith. Hopefully the bulk of the attention Steve Smith generates with his new team will be what takes place on, not off of, the field.
Golden Tate, Detroit Lions
Seattle’s No. 1 receiver the past two seasons doesn’t have to worry about filling that role in Detroit. Still, Calvin Johnson has yet to be paired with a suitable sidekick and the Lions need Tate to be just that, especially given how much he’s being paid (five years, $31 million, $13.25 of it guaranteed).
Markus Wheaton, Pittsburgh Steelers
Antonio Brown is the No. 1 wide receiver and tight end Heath Miller is a favorite target of Ben Roethlisberger, but the Steelers need someone to replace Emmanuel Sanders. The hope is that Wheaton, the team’s third-round pick in 2013, can emerge after a hand injury basically wiped out his rookie season.
(DeSean Jackson photo courtesy of Washington Redskins' Web site, www.redskins.com)
For the second straight year, no running back was taken in the first round of the NFL Draft. And in free agency, no ball-carrier signed for more than $10.5 million with a team. No matter how you look at it, the league’s attitude towards running backs has changed, which puts even more of a premium on production.
So when it comes to the running back position, NFL could truly mean “Not For Long,” as there are a number of former high draft picks that face uncertain futures as they enter the final year of their rookie contracts. On the other end of the spectrum, there also are several veteran backs that find themselves on the wrong side of 30 and need to prove they are still capable of getting the job done when the ball is in their hands.
Here are 10 running backs that need to make the most of their opportunities in 2014:
1. Trent Richardson, Indianapolis Colts
The third pick of the 2012 draft still has two years left on his rookie contract, but could be running short on opportunities to prove his worth. Already on his second team, Richardson fared even worse after being traded to the Colts (2.9 ypc) than he did with the Browns (3.5 ypc). With Ahmad Bradshaw (neck) and Vick Ballard (ACL) poised to return from injury, Richardson is certainly no lock to assume the starting job, even if the Colts gave up a first-round pick to get him in the first place.
2. Mark Ingram, New Orleans Saints
Richardson isn’t the only former All-American running back that played at Alabama struggling in the NFL either. Ingram, the 2009 Heisman Trophy winner, has yet to enjoy anywhere near the same level of success as a pro. Hampered by injuries, which have limited him to 37 games in his first three seasons, Ingram is averaging just 4.1 yards per carry as a Saint with 11 touchdowns. Darren Sproles is now in Philadelphia, but Ingram is still behind Pierre Thomas on the depth chart and could end up being passed by Khiry Robinson, an undrafted free agent last season, as well. Not exactly an ideal situation for someone who will be a free agent after the season.
3. Darren McFadden, Oakland Raiders
McFadden will turn 27 prior to the start of the season, yet his career is at a crossroads. The fourth overall pick of the 2008 draft, McFadden has shown glimpses of his all-around ability, but injuries and inconsistency have been the hallmarks of his career to this point. A free agent this past offseason, McFadden ended up signing a one-year deal to return to the Raiders, even though the team signed Maurice Jones-Drew (see below). McFadden better make the most of the touches he gets this fall, or else they may end up being the last he sees in the NFL.
4. Chris Johnson, New York Jets
The Tennessee Titans released Johnson in April, eating the last year of his contract. A 2,000-yard rusher in 2009, Johnson didn’t sit on the market too long, signing a two-year pact with the Jets. Set to turn 29 in September, Johnson has been consistent (six straight 1,000-yard seasons) and durable (only one missed game) in his six seasons, but he’s also shown signs of slowing down. After averaging 5.6 yards per carry in his magical 2009 campaign, he has seen that steadily decline to just 3.9 last season. Johnson believes he’s still capable of carrying the load, which would certainly help take some of the heat off of both his head coach and his quarterback.
5. Stevan Ridley, New England Patriots
Following a breakthrough 1,200-yard campaign in 2012, Ridley seemed primed to establish himself as one of the top running backs in the league. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to build on that success as ball-security issues (four lost fumbles), led to him taking a back seat to LeGarrette Blount, among others. Blount is now in Pittsburgh, but Ridley still has to prove to Bill Belichick that he can take care of the football when it’s in his hands. Not only do the Patriots have other options in the backfield, but Ridley also needs a strong season to help establish his value with free agency on the horizon.
6. Montee Ball, Denver Broncos
Ball is in just his second season and is the unquestioned starter in Denver. However, a lot of responsibility comes with that job, especially on a Super Bowl contender like the Broncos. With Knowshon Moreno in Miami, Ball should more than double his carries (120) from last season while also becoming a key part of the passing attack. Besides the production, however, Ball also has to prove that he’s capable of protecting the most important piece to this team – Peyton Manning. That’s especially the case if the Broncos have any hopes of getting another shot at the Lombardi Trophy in February.
7. Ryan Mathews, San Diego Chargers
Checking in at No. 3 on this same list prior to last season, Mathews answered the bell to the tune of a career-best 1,255 yards rushing. In the playoffs, however, the durability questions arose again when an ankle injury limited his effectiveness in the Divisional Round loss in Denver. A free agent after the season, Mathews is still young enough (27) to cash in. However, it may not be with the Chargers since they signed former Colt Donald Brown to a three-year deal this offseason and just extended Danny Woodhead two more years.
8. DeMarco Murray, Dallas Cowboys
Similar to Mathews, Murray also was pretty high on the hot seat list last season. And like Mathews, Murray responded with a Pro Bowl-caliber season that saw him rush for 1,121 yards. Unfortunately, Murray also has his own durability questions, as he has yet to make it through a full season healthy. Another pending free agent, Murray’s future seems a little more secure considering he’s a year younger and the Cowboys don’t really have a better option right now on their roster. Still, Murray could make his agent’s (and his head coach’s) job a lot easier if he’s able to duplicate last season’s success.
9. Ray Rice, Baltimore Ravens
If there is anyone who is ready to put 2013 behind them, it’s probably Rice. Besides seeing his production plummet (from 1,143 yards rushing in 2012 to 660), Rice also must still deal with the judicial system (NFL has suspended him for the first two games) when it comes to his indictment on third-degree aggravated assault stemming from a February incident involving his then-fiancée, now wife. With three more years remaining on his contract, the cost (cap hit/dead money) seems too high for the Ravens to simply cut their losses. But there’s no question that Rice needs to be at his best this season – both on the field and off of it.
10. Steven Jackson, Atlanta Falcons
After signing with Atlanta last offseason, Jackson thought he would finally get another shot to play in the postseason, while the Falcons thought they were solving their rushing woes. Unfortunately, neither goal was realized as Jackson rushed for career-worst 543 yards and the Falcons went from the top seed in the NFC playoffs to a 4-12 afterthought. At 31 years old and with more than 2,500 carries on his resume, the Falcons aren’t asking Jackson to be the workhorse he was earlier in his career. However, they do need more than 3.5 yards per attempt and seven total touchdowns they got from Jackson in 2013, especially if Atlanta wants to get back into the playoff discussion this season.
Other Names to Watch
Frank Gore, San Francisco 49ers
Has rushed for more than 1,100 yards in three straight seasons, but he’s 31 years old and a free agent after this year. The 49ers drafted Carlos Hyde in the second round and also have Kendall Hunter, LaMichael James and a rehabbing Marcus Lattimore on the roster.
Fred Jackson, Buffalo Bills
Thrived (890 yards rushing, 10 total TDs) in relief of an injured C.J. Spiller last season. Spiller still appears to be a building block for the future, however, as Jackson is 33 years old and a free agent after this season.
Maurice Jones-Drew, Oakland Raiders
The 2011 rushing champion tested the free agent market and ended up signing a three-year deal (just $1.2 million guaranteed) with Oakland. Are MJD’s best days behind him or can he return to Pro Bowl-caliber form?
Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams, Carolina Panthers
This duo is part of a crowded backfield and each has already restructured their contract to help secure a roster spot. Still, the Panthers need to find a productive running game to help Cam Newton break in a new receiving corps and stay in contention in what figures to be a competitive NFC South.
Ben Tate, Cleveland Browns
After tour of duty as Arian Foster’s backup in Houston, Tate gets his opportunity to carry the load in Cleveland. Contract (two years, only $2.5 million guaranteed) and the presence of rookie Terrance West are two indications that Tate may be on short leash in the Dawg Pound.
Of the 256 players selected in the most recent NFL Draft, 16 of them were quarterbacks. Cleveland, Jacksonville and Minnesota all took quarterbacks in the first round in hopes of landing a franchise signal-caller. Whether any of these rookies start a game (or more) this fall remains to be seen, but at least they don’t have to worry about job security just yet. The same can’t be said for a number of veterans around the league.
Here are 10 quarterbacks under the most pressure in 2014:
1. Jake Locker, Tennessee Titans
When it comes to Locker, it’s really pretty simple. There’s a reason the team didn’t exercise the fifth-year option on his rookie contract. The Titans’ brass still isn’t sure what exactly they have in Locker, who has made just 18 starts the past two seasons because of injuries. Locker has a golden opportunity to show first-year head coach Ken Whisenhunt he’s the long-term answer, but to do so he’ll not only need to stay healthy, he’ll also need to improve his accuracy (57.2 career completion percentage) and decision making (22:15 TD:INT ratio).
2. Sam Bradford, St. Louis Rams
The Rams had two shots at drafting Johnny Manziel, but passed on him, a show of confidence in Bradford. This doesn’t mean Bradford is completely off of the hook, however. Even though the Rams appear to have a defense that’s capable of keeping up with the Seahawks and 49ers in the NFC West, it’s the offense’s improvement in 2014 that will likely determine their fate. The No. 1 overall pick of the 2010 draft was off to a great start last season (60.7 completion rate, 14:4 TD:INT ratio) before tearing his ACL in Week 7. Besides continuing to improve his production, Bradford needs to show he can stay healthy, especially with just two years remaining on his six-year, $78 million ($50 million guaranteed) rookie contract.
3. Geno Smith, New York Jets
Smith is just in his second year, so he should be pretty “safe.” However, head coach Rex Ryan needs to win to keep his job and the team also brought in veteran Michael Vick as an insurance policy. Everyone with the Jets wants Smith to succeed and seize the starting job by the throat, but another interception-prone season (21 last season, compared to just 12 TD passes) may be too tough to swallow.
4. Carson Palmer, Arizona Cardinals
Palmer helped lead the Cardinals to 10 wins last season, but it wasn’t enough to get into the playoffs. The 11-year veteran will turn 35 in December and is entering the last year of his contract. The team drafted Logan Thomas in May, but he’s considered a long-term project. The Cardinals are built to win now so Palmer should be safe, at least this season. But with weapons like Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd and Andre Ellington, Palmer better improve on his production (24:22 TD:INT ratio in 2013) if he wants to stick around beyond 2014.
5. Alex Smith, Kansas City Chiefs
In the past three seasons, Smith has gone 30-9-1 as a starter for the 49ers and Chiefs. While the 2005 No. 1 overall pick hasn’t fully fulfilled his draft status, he has proven he’s capable of winning games consistently. Still, the 30-year-old is in the final year of his contract, despite posting an impressive 23:7 TD:INT ratio last season and performing even better (9:0) in three career playoff games. “Game manager” is a hard label for a quarterback to shed and that looks to be Smith’s challenge as he seeks to sign a contract extension with Kansas City.
6. Andy Dalton, Cincinnati Bengals
When it comes to Dalton, it’s a Jekyll and Hyde situation. The second-round pick from the 2011 draft has been extremely solid (30-18 record, 80:49 TD:INT ratio) in the regular season, leading his team to a franchise-first three straight playoff appearances in the process. Once he gets to the postseason, however, it’s been a nightmare, as he’s 0-3 with just one TD pass and six interceptions. It’s the latter that has cast some doubt on Dalton’s long-term future with the Bengals. Still, it seems more likely that Dalton and the team will come to an agreement on a contract extension. Sorry AJ McCarron fans.
7. Matt Schaub, Oakland Raiders
Pretty much whatever could go wrong for Schaub last season did, starting with the NFL-record four consecutive games with an interception returned for a touchdown. An ankle injury just added to his misery, and following Houston’s 2-14 meltdown, the two-time Pro Bowler was traded to Oakland for a sixth-round pick. The Raiders drafted Derek Carr in the second round, but the starting job should belong to Schaub. That said, considering the pay cut he took upon his arrival with his new team, it’s pretty safe to say the 33-year-old is not only playing for his spot with the Raiders, but his professional future.
8. Ryan Tannehill, Miami Dolphins
The good news for Tannehill is that he doubled his TD passes (12 to 24) in his second season as the starter. Unfortunately, the interceptions (13 to 17) also ticked up and he improved in the win column by just one game (7-9 to 8-8). He still has two years to go on in his rookie contract, but Tannehill needs to take another step forward this season if he wants to silence his critics. Of course, a little more support from his offensive line (sacked NFL-high 58 times in 2013) certainly wouldn’t hurt.
9. Josh McCown, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
After thriving (13 TDs, INT) primarily in relief of an injured Jay Cutler last season, McCown finally gets his shot at being the full-time starter. Even with a new head coach (Lovie Smith) and several new faces, expectations are pretty high for the Buccaneers this fall, so McCown will need to maintain his 2013 level of performance if he wants to prolong his starting status. After all, the Bucs still have Sean Glennon on the roster. Besides being more than a decade younger than McCown (35), Glennon (25 in December) fared pretty well as a rookie last season, posting a 19:9 TD:INT ratio in 13 starts.
10. EJ Manuel, Buffalo Bills
Similar to Geno Smith, Manuel is in just his second year in the league. Unlike Smith, Manuel missed six games due to knee injuries and fared a little better (11:9 TD:INT ratio) when he was on the field. Still, Manuel can’t develop as a quarterback if he’s not healthy enough to play. This season could be a critical one in that respect with first-round pick Sammy Watkins and former Tampa Bay wide receiver Mike Williams added to the roster. There are still plenty of analysts and pundits who question the Bills’ decision to take Manuel with the 16th pick of the 2013 draft. It’s now up to Manuel to prove them all wrong.
Fourteen NFL teams have hired a new head coach in the last two offseasons and one of those franchises (Cleveland) doubled their pleasure during this span. With nearly half of the league employing first- or second-year head coaches, “tenure” isn’t exactly a word that’s used to describe this fraternity.
Even with all of the recent turnover at the top, however, that doesn’t mean there aren’t any coaches who are already feeling the pressure with Week 1 still more than six weeks away. These four head coaches need to produce results this fall if they don’t want to become the newest to join the ranks of the unemployed.
1) Jason Garrett, Dallas Cowboys
The pressure’s always on for the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys, but that’s especially true for Garrett, who is in the final year of his contract and desperately needs to get his team into the playoffs. In his three and a half seasons at the helm, Garrett has yet to post a winning record over a full season. After going 5-3 when he replaced Wade Phillips (1-7 start) halfway through the 2010 season, Garrett has posted three consecutive .500 campaigns.
While the Cowboys’ four-year postseason drought is no doubt tough for owner/general manager Jerry Jones to stomach, the late collapses have been even more painful for him to endure. In each of the past three seasons, Dallas has had a chance to win the NFC East title. Unfortunately, the Cowboys have gone 0-3 in these games, which is a big reason why Garrett is feeling the heat in Big D.
2) Rex Ryan, New York Jets
Since leading the Jets to back-to-back AFC Championship Game appearances in his first two seasons, Ryan’s team has gone 22-26 and missed the playoffs three straight years. With general manager John Idzik entering just his second season with the Jets, the onus is on Ryan to show Idzik (as well as owner Woody Johnson) he’s still the man for this job.
Ryan did sign a contract extension in January that carries him through at least 2016, but the pact has some interesting language, including verbiage that states the deal isn’t fully guaranteed after the ‘15 season. The contract also features incentives related to postseason success. In other words, the writing in his contract is pretty much the writing on the wall for Ryan this season – make the playoffs or you may not be with the Jets in 2015.
3) Joe Philbin, Miami Dolphins
Philbin had the Dolphins in the AFC Wild Card chase until disappointing back-to-back losses to end the season. So after a two-game improvement (7-9) from his rookie year, why is he on the hot seat?
For one, thanks to an embarrassing bullying scandal that put the team in the national spotlight for all of the wrong reasons, the pressure is on Philbin to show his critics that he is in control of the locker room. The ‘Fins also need to focus on making headlines for what happens on the field, not off of it. And while Philbin survived the Dolphins’ tumultuous offseason, several others did not. With former Tampa Bay executive Dennis Hickey now in place as the general manager, Philbin may as well treat this season like a job interview. And in that respect, hopefully the on-the-field results will provide all the answers to Hickey’s questions.
4) Dennis Allen, Oakland Raiders
Allen’s gone 4-12 in each of his first two seasons in Oakland and let’s face it, no one expects the Raiders to produce a miraculous turnaround this year either. However, these are no longer Al Davis’ Raiders, as son Mark has taken over the reins and empowered general manager Reggie McKenzie to overhaul the roster.
McKenzie was very busy this offseason, using free agency and a couple of trades to bring in a lot of new faces. The Raiders clearly have a long way go before they can be considered legitimate contenders, and with recent draft picks like linebacker Khalil Mack, quarterback Derek Carr and cornerback D.J. Hayden considered a big part of the future, it’s not out of the question that the next change made is at head coach. After all, the Raiders certainly are no strangers to coaching changes — try seven different head coaches since Jon Gruden left after the 2001 season.
Marvin Lewis, Cincinnati Bengals
Last season, Lewis became the first in coach in Bengals’ history to earn three straight playoff berths. Unfortunately, Lewis is still looking for his first postseason victory (0-5), and even though he’s the winningest coach in franchise history (90-85-1 in 11 seasons), one can’t help but wonder if Lewis has taken this team as far as he can. And despite all of his success in Cincinnati, Lewis’ current contract is set to expire after the 2015 season.
Mike Smith, Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons were decimated by injuries last season, so Smith should get a mulligan for their 4-12 showing, which broke a string of three consecutive 10-win seasons. However, with the NFC South only getting tougher and owner Arthur Blank readying his shiny (and expensive) new stadium in 2017, it wouldn’t hurt Smith to show that 2013 was the exception and not the norm.
Ron Rivera, Carolina Panthers
From coach of the year to the unemployment line? It’s not likely, considering Rivera led the Panthers to an improbable 12-4 record and NFC South title last season, which netted him the AP’s NFL Coach of the Year award. However, after nearly doubling his win total from his first two years (13-19) at the helm, Rivera can’t afford too many steps backward this season in what figures to be a tightly contested division. Fair or not, Rivera has raised the expectation level in Charlotte, which subsequently decreases his margin for error.
Mike Tomlin, Pittsburgh Steelers
A two-time AFC champion with a Super Bowl ring to his credit, it’s entirely possible that Tomlin directs the Steelers back to the top of the AFC North this season. And should that happen, any questions surrounding his job security would be rendered moot. However, after consecutive 8-8 finishes which resulted in the proud franchise’s first extended playoff drought in more than a decade, Tomlin also knows that his team needs to produce better results in 2014 if he doesn’t want to worry about answering said questions.
Tom Coughlin, New York Giants
Coughlin has won two Super Bowls with the Giants and is among the top 15 head coaches in all-time wins (14th with 158). Even if the Giants fare considerably worse than 7-9 this season, I don’t really see any scenario in which co-owners John Mara and Steve Tisch fire Coughlin, who is the third-longest tenured head coach (11 seasons). However, considering the Giants’ steady decline since their 2011 Super Bowl run, I am not ruling out the possibility that Coughlin makes the decision to call it quits after a Hall of Fame-worthy career that covers nearly two decades. If anything, Coughlin, who is signed through the 2015 season, has earned the right to leave on his terms.
Entering last season, the two rookies that were widely projected to have the biggest fantasy impact in 2013 were running back Montee Ball and wide receiver Tavon Austin. Their electric debuts didn’t exactly materialize, for different reasons, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t any first-year fantasy standouts either.
Eddie Lacy, Giovani Bernard, Le’Veon Bell and Zac Stacy all finished among the top 20 running backs in fantasy points, while San Diego’s Keenan Allen put up better numbers than the likes of Pro Bowl wide receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Victor Cruz, among many others.
So which members of the 2014 NFL Draft class are the ones to target for your fantasy team this season?
1. Sammy Watkins, WR, Buffalo
No one was really surprised when the Bills traded up to grab Watkins at No. 4 overall. And based on the steep price (two first-round picks, one fourth) the team paid to do so, it’s pretty clear the former Clemson star will be a huge part of the offensive game plan from the start. Watkins was a threat to break off a big play whenever he touched the ball in college, and his all-purpose skills only add to his appeal. The Bills traded away No. 1 wide receiver Stevie Johnson during the draft, so the opportunity is there for Watkins to step in and immediately become quarterback EJ Manuel’s favorite target.
2. Bishop Sankey, RB, Tennessee
The first running back off of the board, Sankey (above, right) is the beneficiary of an unsettled Titans backfield with Chris Johnson now on the Jets and Shonn Greene coming off of knee surgery, along with the fact the team has a new head coach in Ken Whisenhunt. A workhorse at Washington, Sankey figures to see plenty of touches this fall and should be the first rookie running back drafted.
3. Brandin Cooks, WR, New Orleans
The nation’s best wide receiver lands on a team with a future Hall of Fame quarterback. It could be a match made in fantasy heaven for Cooks, who caught 128 passes last season. While it wouldn’t shock me to see Cooks post the best numbers of any rookie wideout when all is said and done, there’s still the matter of grasping the Saints’ complex passing game and the fact that Drew Brees doesn’t lack for targets with Jimmy Graham, Marques Colston, Kenny Stills and Pierre Thomas around.
4. Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Carolina
The Panthers’ top four wide receivers from last season are gone, so opportunity should not be an issue for Benjamin. A big (6-5, 241) target, Cam Newton should have little trouble finding Benjamin, provided the rookie learns the ins and outs of being an NFL wide receiver.
5. Jeremy Hill, RB, Cincinnati
Giovani Bernard is the Bengals’ top backfield option, but he’s also more of the change-of-pace guy, not the bruising, between-the-tackles rusher. Right now that job belongs to BenJarvus Green-Ellis, but Hill could quickly supplant him. To that end, even though BJGE averaged a paltry 3.4 yards per carry last season, he did have seven rushing touchdowns.
6. Odell Beckham Jr., WR, New York Giants
Hakeem Nicks is now in Indianapolis, so that certainly helps Beckham’s chances of getting on the field early. However, the Giants already have Victor Cruz, Rueben Randle and Jerrel Jernigan at the position, and with a grizzly old veteran like Tom Coughlin as head coach, Beckham will have to earn his playing time. Still, with no established tight end on the roster and Eli Manning at quarterback, there’s much to like about Beckham’s fantasy potential.
7. Mike Evans, WR, Tampa Bay
The jury seems to be out on Evans, but there’s no disputing his production (1,394 yards, 12 TDs at Texas A&M last season) or the fact he’s a large (6-5) target capable of making big plays down the field. In addition, the Buccaneers traded Mike Williams to Buffalo, so the No. 2 job opposite Pro Bowler Vincent Jackson is available.
8. Carlos Hyde, RB, San Francisco
The thinking is that Hyde is the heir apparent to Frank Gore, who has nearly 2,200 carries in his career. However, Gore is only 31 years old and the 49ers have other options in Kendall Hunter, LaMichael James and a rehabbing Marcus Lattimore (see below). The 49ers love to run the ball, but don’t lack for mouths to feed either.
9. Marqise Lee, WR, Jacksonville
A first-round talent according to many scouts, Lee fell in the Jaguars’ lap early in the second. With Justin Blackmon’s future with the team uncertain at best, the only sure thing Jacksonville has at wide receiver is Cecil Shorts. If not for the quarterback situation, Lee would be higher on this list.
10. Johnny Manziel, QB, Cleveland
The No. 1 attraction in the entire draft class, Manziel won’t be handed the starting job by rookie head coach Mike Pettine. However, considering Brian Hoyer has four total career starts under his belt, it may just be a matter of time before Manziel is running the show. His dual-threat ability is obviously appealing, but don’t push Manziel too high up your draft board, unless it’s a keeper/dynasty league.
11. Eric Ebron, TE, Detroit
Although he didn’t play basketball, Ebron fits the Jimmy Graham mold pretty well and he landed with a team that’s fairly pass-happy in its own right. Ebron’s shortcomings as a blocker may actually bolster his fantasy value, especially if the Lions line him up out wide (See: Jimmy Graham).
12. Tre Mason, RB, St. Louis
The Heisman finalist finds himself behind Zac Stacy, another SEC alumnus, in the Rams’ backfield pecking order. Head coach Jeff Fisher seems committed to Stacy, last year’s fifth-round pick who emerged from nowhere to seize the starting job. However, that doesn’t mean history can’t repeat itself this season with Mason. At worst, Mason figures to be a potential flex play or bye week fill-in down the road.
13. Terrance West, RB, Cleveland
The Browns signed Ben Tate as a free agent, but his production has dipped in the past few seasons and he has struggled to stay healthy. Coming from FBS member Towson, West may be somewhat unknown and unheralded, but that could change if he gets enough touches this season.
14. Jace Amaro, TE, New York Jets
Amaro was a pass-catching magnet at Texas Tech, which is something the Jets haven’t had at tight end since Dustin Keller. The question is can Geno Smith find and, more importantly, connect with Amaro?
15. Jordan Matthews, WR, Philadelphia
Plenty to like about the SEC’s all-time leading wide receiver, but it remains to be seen how Chip Kelly will use him in an offense that attempted the sixth-fewest passes last season. Also don’t forget about the additions of Jeremy Maclin (missed last season with torn ACL) and Darren Sproles (via trade with New Orleans).
16. Allen Robinson, WR, Jacksonville
Like Marqise Lee, Robinson immediately bolsters a receiving corps that lacked playmakers. But Robinson is probably behind Lee and Cecil Shorts on the depth chart for a team that finished near the bottom in pass offense last season. A hamstring injury suffered during OTAs only adds to the uncertainty surrounding Robinson’s fantasy potential.
17. Charles Sims, RB, Tampa Bay
Doug Martin should be 100 percent recovered from a torn labrum, which probably limits Sims’ chances. However, new Buccaneers head coach Lovie Smith probably sees some Matt Forté in Sims, who could carve out a role as a receiver out of the backfield.
18. Jerick McKinnon, RB, Minnesota
Toby Gerhart is now in Jacksonville, so the backup job is there for the taking. Just remember who holds the No. 1 job in Minnesota, which is the main reason Gerhart is now a Jaguar.
19. De’Anthony Thomas, RB, Kansas City
Can Thomas be Andy Reid’s new Dexter McCluster? If so, the former Oregon all-purpose dynamo could develop into a fantasy sleeper.
20. Austin Seferian-Jenkins, TE, Tampa Bay
Like teammate Mike Evans, Seferian-Jenkins was very productive in college. Unfortunately, Seferian-Jenkins’ path to the Buccaneers’ starting lineup doesn’t seem as clear as Evans’, not with last year’s pleasant surprise, 2013 undrafted free agent Timothy Wright, and a couple of veteran tight ends on the roster.
Others to Watch (alphabetical order):
Davante Adams, WR, Green Bay – Great quarterback, crowded receiving corps.
Dri Archer, RB, Pittsburgh – Special teams weapon could see role as change-of-pace back.
Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Minnesota – May be most pro-ready rookie QB, but Vikings in no rush to throw him out there.
Ka’Deem Carey, RB, Chicago – Open competition to be Matt Forté’s backup.
Shaq Evans, WR, New York Jets – After Eric Decker Jets’ receiving corps is unsettled.
Devonta Freeman, RB, Atlanta – Steven Jackson is not getting any younger.
Nate Freese, K, Detroit – Kickers score points too, especially for an offense like Detroit’s.
T.J. Jones, WR, Detroit – Plenty of targets available for another Lion wide receiver to emerge behind Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate.
Jarvis Landry, WR, Miami – Ryan Tannehill and Mike Wallace weren’t exactly on the same page last season.
Cody Latimer, WR, Denver – Any Denver wide receiver deserves to be mentioned, but Latimer may be more of a 2015 option.
Paul Richardson, WR, Seattle – Golden Tate is gone, while Percy Harvin and Sidney Rice are no strangers to the injury report.
Devin Street, WR, Dallas – Miles Austin’s departure presents an opportunity for a new No. 3 wide receiver to emerge.
Lorenzo Taliaferro, RB, Baltimore – Ravens running backs averaged 3.1 yards per carry last season.
(Bishop Sankey photo courtesy of Tennessee Titans' Web site, www.titansonline.com; Odell Beckham Jr. photo courtesy of New York Giants' Web site, newyorkgiants.com; Jace Amaro photo courtesy of New York Jets' Web site, www.newyorkjets.com; Teddy Bridgewater photo courtesy of Minnesota Vikings' Web site, www.vikings.com)
The Seattle Seahawks won't officially begin defense of their Super Bowl title until Sept. 4 when they host the Green Bay Packers in the opening game of the 2014 NFL regular season. However, the real work begins July 24 with the start of training camp in Renton, Wash.
The Buffalo Bills will be the first team to open training camp in Pittsford, N.Y., on July 18, while the Detroit Lions will be the last of the 32 teams to get things going in Allen Park, Mich., on July 27. Regardless of which team gets back to work first or last, they will all begin their quest towards the same goal - the opportunity to play for the Lombardi Trophy in Glendale, Ariz., on Feb. 1.
Below are the dates and locations for 2014 training camps for all 32 NFL teams:
|Arizona||University of Phoenix Stadium||Glendale, AZ||7/25|
|Atlanta||Atlanta Falcons Training Facility||Flowery Branch, GA||7/24|
|Baltimore||Under Armour Performance Center||Owings Mills, MD||7/23|
|Buffalo||St. John Fisher College||Pittsford, NY||7/18|
|Carolina||Wofford College||Spartanburg, SC||7/24|
|Chicago||Olivet Nazarene University||Bourbonnais, IL||7/24|
|Cincinnati||Paul Brown Stadium||Cincinnati, OH||7/23|
|Cleveland||Cleveland Browns Training Facility||Berea, OH||7/25|
|Dallas||River Ridge Playing Fields||Oxnard, CA||7/22|
|Denver||Paul D. Bowlen Memorial Broncos Centre||Dove Valley, CO||7/23|
|Detroit||Detroit Lions Training Facility||Allen Park, MI||7/27|
|Green Bay||St. Norbert College||Green Bay, WI||7/25|
|Houston||Methodist Training Center||Houston, TX||7/25|
|Indianapolis||Anderson University||Anderson, IN||7/23|
|Jacksonville||Florida Blue Health & Wellness Practice Fields||Jacksonville, FL||7/24|
|Kansas City||Missouri Western State University||St. Joseph, MO||7/23|
|Miami||Miami Dolphins Training Facility||Davie, FL||7/20|
|Minnesota||Minnesota State University, Mankato||Mankato, MN||7/24|
|New England||Gillette Stadium||Foxboro, MA||7/23|
|New Orleans||The Greenbrier &||White Sulphur Springs, WV &||7/24|
|New Orleans Saints Training Facility||Metairie, LA||8/17|
|New York Giants||Timex Performance Center||East Rutherford, NJ||7/21|
|New York Jets||SUNY Cortland||Cortland, NY||7/23|
|Oakland||Napa Valley Marriott||Napa, CA||7/24|
|Philadelphia||NovaCare Complex||Philadelphia, PA||7/25|
|Pittsburgh||Saint Vincent College||Latrobe, PA||7/25|
|St. Louis||Russell Athletic Training Center||Earth City, MO||7/24|
|San Diego||Chargers Park||San Diego, CA||7/23|
|San Francisco||Marie P. DeBartolo Sports Center||Santa Clara, CA||7/23|
|Seattle||Virginia Mason Athletic Center||Renton, WA||7/24|
|Tampa Bay||One Buccaneer Place||Tampa Bay, FL||7/25|
|Tennessee||Saint Thomas Sports Park||Nashville, TN||7/25|
|Washington||Bon Secours Training Center||Richmond, VA||7/23|
Dates and locations subject to change. Information culled from several sources.
(Top photo courtesy of Seattle Seahawks Web site, www.seahawks.com)
NFL training camps don't open until later this month, but it's never too early to look ahead to the upcoming season of fantasy football. Twelve Athlon editors and fantasy contributors did just that in early May.
Keep in mind that since this was done more than a month ago, that the picks reflect rosters and teams as they stood then. For example, even though he was not drafted, Atlanta linebacker Sean Weatherspoon (ruptured Achilles) was healthy when this mock draft took place.
Below is a complete breakdown of the 12-team, 20-round IDP mock draft we conducted, along with some analysis of my own. This mock draft also can be found in this year's Fantasy Football Magazine, which also features 419 in-depth player reports including projected stats, a 280-player big board and team-by-team analysis from NFL beat writers. Other content in this year's edition includes a "Who's No. 1?" and Johnny Manziel-centric debate, along with the introduction of a new advanced statistic, Opportunity-adjusted Touchdowns (OTD), courtesy of Pro Football Focus' Mike Clay, who also participated in this mock draft. And if that's not enough, there's also a rundown of potential breakout candidates, injury concerns and fantasy busts from 2013 who may or may not bounce back in '14.
12-team, 20-round serpentine-style mock draft based on Athlon Sports standard scoring (see below):
Starting lineup: 1 QB, 2 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE, 1 Flex (RB/WR), 1 K, 1 DEF/ST, 1 DL, 1 LB, 1 DB, 1 Flex IDP (DL/LB/DB), 6 bench spots
|1||1||Jamaal Charles||RB||KC||David Gonos||SI.com/FantasySports.about.com|
|2||2||Adrian Peterson||RB||MIN||Brandon Funston||Yahoo! Sports|
|3||3||LeSean McCoy||RB||PHI||Jamey Eisenberg||CBSSports.com|
|4||4||Matt Forte||RB||CHI||Matt Schauf||DraftSharks.com|
|5||5||Marshawn Lynch||RB||SEA||Nathan Rush||Athlon Sports|
|6||6||Eddie Lacy||RB||GB||Mark Ross||Athlon Sports|
|7||7||Calvin Johnson||WR||DET||Corby Yarbrough||Athlon Sports|
|8||8||Doug Martin||RB||TB||Steven Lassan||Athlon Sports|
|9||9||DeMarco Murray||RB||DAL||Eric Mack||Bleacher Report|
|10||10||Peyton Manning||QB||DEN||Braden Gall||Athlon Sports|
|11||11||Demaryius Thomas||WR||DEN||John Hansen||FantasyGuru.com|
|12||12||Jimmy Graham||TE||NO||Mike Clay||Pro Football Focus|
Round 1 Analysis: No real surprises here. If I was picking second, I would have gone LeSean McCoy over Adrian Peterson, but that’s just a matter of preference (think McCoy’s upside as a pass-catcher puts him ahead of Peterson). I thought about taking Megatron with the sixth pick, but figured Lacy would be the safer choice as I consider him a true workhorse RB, provided he stays healthy. I also have no issue with Braden being the only one to take a QB, although I certainly didn’t think at the time we wouldn’t see another come off of the board until Round 5.
|1||13||Dez Bryant||WR||DAL||Mike Clay|
|2||14||Le'Veon Bell||RB||PIT||John Hansen|
|3||15||Zac Stacy||RB||STL||Braden Gall|
|4||16||Alfred Morris||RB||WAS||Eric Mack|
|5||17||Giovani Bernard||RB||CIN||Steven Lassan|
|6||18||A.J. Green||WR||CIN||Corby Yarbrough|
|7||19||Julio Jones||WR||ATL||Mark Ross|
|8||20||Brandon Marshall||WR||CHI||Nathan Rush|
|9||21||Jordy Nelson||WR||GB||Matt Schauf|
|10||22||Montee Ball||RB||DEN||Jamey Eisenberg|
|11||23||Alshon Jeffery||WR||CHI||Brandon Funston|
|12||24||Arian Foster||RB||HOU||David Gonos|
Round 2 Analysis: I prefer Giovani Bernard and Montee Ball over Zac Stacy and Alfred Morris, but the real wild card at RB in this round is Arian Foster. Everyone knows what Foster is capable of, when healthy, but he’s coming off of back surgery and will now operate in a different offense under new Texans head coach Bill O’Brien. Combine those factors with the uncertainty at quarterback and it wouldn’t surprise me if Foster continued to slip in the rankings in the coming months.
|1||25||Antonio Brown||WR||PIT||David Gonos|
|2||26||Randall Cobb||WR||GB||Brandon Funston|
|3||27||Larry Fitzgerald||WR||ARI||Jamey Eisenberg|
|4||28||C.J. Spiller||RB||BUF||Matt Schauf|
|5||29||Chris Johnson||RB||NYJ||Nathan Rush|
|6||30||Keenan Allen||WR||SD||Mark Ross|
|7||31||Rob Gronkowski||TE||NE||Corby Yarbrough|
|8||32||Andre Johnson||WR||HOU||Steven Lassan|
|9||33||Pierre Garcon||WR||WAS||Eric Mack|
|10||34||Reggie Bush||RB||DET||Braden Gall|
|11||35||Shane Vereen||RB||NE||John Hansen|
|12||36||Andre Ellington||RB||ARI||Mike Clay|
Round 3 Analysis: The RBs and WRs continue to fly off the board with Rob Gronkowski the only outlier. As tantalizing and tempting a fantasy asset Gronk may be, I most likely won’t end up with him on any of my teams this season. Fourteen missed games over the last two seasons and the severity of his injuries are hard for me to overlook, especially when it comes to using a high draft pick on a TE not named Jimmy Graham. I’m also not expecting big things from Chris Johnson in a Jets uniform. For starters, he’s no lock for an RB1-worthy workload.
|1||37||Vincent Jackson||WR||TB||Mike Clay|
|2||38||Julius Thomas||TE||DEN||John Hansen|
|3||39||Vernon Davis||TE||SF||Braden Gall|
|4||40||Victor Cruz||WR||NYG||Eric Mack|
|5||41||Roddy White||WR||ATL||Steven Lassan|
|6||42||Ryan Mathews||RB||SD||Corby Yarbrough|
|7||43||Percy Harvin||WR||SEA||Mark Ross|
|8||44||Wes Welker||WR||DEN||Nathan Rush|
|9||45||Joique Bell||RB||DET||Matt Schauf|
|10||46||Bishop Sankey||RB||TEN||Jamey Eisenberg|
|11||47||Cordarrelle Patterson||WR||MIN||Brandon Funston|
|12||48||Michael Crabtree||WR||SF||David Gonos|
Round 4 Analysis: Four rounds in and Corby finally takes a RB. He could certainly do worse than Ryan Mathews as his RB1, but I would encourage other fantasy GMs to think twice before employing a similar strategy. The top five RBs last season averaged 293.6 fantasy points (Athlon scoring). For nos. 5-10 that average plummets to 221.3. Mathews finished as the No. 12 fantasy RB in 2013 with 197.4 fantasy points. That said, Mathews is certainly safer than Bishop Sankey, who was the first rookie at any position to be taken. Sankey appears to have a great opportunity in Tennessee, but it’s not like highly touted rookies haven’t panned out before, right? Remember Tavon Austin or even Montee Ball last season?
|1||49||Aaron Rodgers||QB||GB||David Gonos|
|2||50||Rashad Jennings||RB||NYG||Brandon Funston|
|3||51||Julian Edelman||WR||NE||Jamey Eisenberg|
|4||52||Michael Floyd||WR||ARI||Matt Schauf|
|5||53||Frank Gore||RB||SF||Nathan Rush|
|6||54||Drew Brees||QB||NO||Mark Ross|
|7||55||Ray Rice||RB||BAL||Corby Yarbrough|
|8||56||Ben Tate||RB||CLE||Steven Lassan|
|9||57||Andrew Luck||QB||IND||Eric Mack|
|10||58||T.Y. Hilton||WR||IND||Braden Gall|
|11||59||Jeremy Maclin||WR||PHI||John Hansen|
|12||60||DeSean Jackson||WR||WAS||Mike Clay|
Round 5 Analysis: Forty-nine picks in and we finally have a second quarterback taken! Credit to David for pouncing on Aaron Rodgers with the first pick here. I jumped next with Drew Brees, but Eric was the only other to follow suit (Andrew Luck). Has the general perception on QB value changed? Perhaps, but I still think there’s a clear distinction between the elite and next tier. Although Peyton Manning lapped the field with his record-breaking season, Brees still posted 435.7 fantasy points, which was 81.6 points more than the No. 3 scorer (Andy Dalton). And while 14 QBs averaged 20 or more fantasy points per game, only 10 of those played more than 13 games. Not saying you can’t wait on a QB, just don’t wait too long especially if Rodgers or Brees is still out there.
|1||61||Steven Jackson||RB||ATL||Mike Clay|
|2||62||Trent Richardson||RB||IND||John Hansen|
|3||63||Torrey Smith||WR||BAL||Braden Gall|
|4||64||Josh Gordon||WR||CLE||Eric Mack|
|5||65||Kendall Wright||WR||TEN||Steven Lassan|
|6||66||Matthew Stafford||QB||DET||Corby Yarbrough|
|7||67||Knowshon Moreno||RB||MIA||Mark Ross|
|8||68||Cam Newton||QB||CAR||Nathan Rush|
|9||69||Terrance Williams||WR||DAL||Matt Schauf|
|10||70||Golden Tate||WR||DET||Jamey Eisenberg|
|11||71||Toby Gerhart||RB||JAC||Brandon Funston|
|12||72||Maurice Jones-Drew||RB||OAK||David Gonos|
Round 6 Analysis: A couple of more QBs go, but the proceedings continue to be dominated by RBs and WRs. RBs in particular have really thinned out by this point. I know Knowshon Moreno isn’t in Denver any more, but it’s not like he’s joining a crowded backfield in Miami and the Dolphins invested heavily in overhauling their offensive line. I’m also curious to see what Toby Gerhart does in Jacksonville with his first opportunity to be the top ball-carrier. Probably goes without saying, but Josh Gordon’s draft value will be tied directly to how many games he gets suspended. I for one will be very surprised if it’s no fewer than eight. After that it’s simply a matter of risk tolerance. Depending on how you used your previous picks, I have no issue with someone taking a chance on half a season of Gordon in Round 6.
|1||73||Jason Witten||TE||DAL||David Gonos|
|2||74||Jordan Cameron||TE||CLE||Brandon Funston|
|3||75||Stevan Ridley||RB||NE||Jamey Eisenberg|
|4||76||Robert Griffin III||QB||WAS||Matt Schauf|
|5||77||Sammy Watkins||WR||BUF||Nathan Rush|
|6||78||Darren Sproles||RB||PHI||Mark Ross|
|7||79||Emmanuel Sanders||WR||DEN||Corby Yarbrough|
|8||80||DeAngelo Williams||RB||CAR||Steven Lassan|
|9||81||Eric Decker||WR||NYJ||Eric Mack|
|10||82||Carlos Hyde||RB||SF||Braden Gall|
|11||83||Pierre Thomas||RB||NO||John Hansen|
|12||84||Marques Colston||WR||NO||Mike Clay|
Round 7 Analysis: Two more rookies get their names called in this round. Sammy Watkins looks a lot like this year’s Tavon Austin – a dynamic, all-purpose threat who is expected to become a focal point of the offense right away. However, as has already been mentioned, that didn’t happen with Austin in 2013. Whether history will repeat itself with Watkins remains to be seen, but it wouldn’t surprise me one bit to see his draft value fluctuate dramatically as we get closer to the start of the season. I am more bullish on Watkins as a rookie than Carlos Hyde. Frank Gore’s age and wear and tear notwithstanding, San Francisco doesn’t lack for options in its backfield. Don’t completely ignore Hyde, but don’t forget about Kendall Hunter, LaMichael James or even Marcus Lattimore either.
|1||85||Darren McFadden||RB||OAK||Mike Clay|
|2||86||Colin Kaepernick||QB||SF||John Hansen|
|3||87||Brandin Cooks||WR||NO||Braden Gall|
|4||88||Mike Wallace||WR||MIA||Eric Mack|
|5||89||Reggie Wayne||WR||IND||Steven Lassan|
|6||90||Mike Evans||WR||TB||Corby Yarbrough|
|7||91||Tavon Austin||WR||STL||Mark Ross|
|8||92||Anquan Boldin||WR||SF||Nathan Rush|
|9||93||J.J. Watt||DL||HOU||Matt Schauf|
|10||94||Matt Ryan||QB||ATL||Jamey Eisenberg|
|11||95||Robert Quinn||DL||STL||Brandon Funston|
|12||96||Danny Woodhead||RB||SD||David Gonos|
Round 8 Analysis: The QBs continue to trickle out, but we also see the first IDPs taken. Not surprised that J.J. Watt and Robert Quinn are first two to go, but it’s usually pretty difficult for any IDP, but especially a DL, to perform well enough to justify such a lofty draft status. Just be willing to accept potentially less ROI should you consider being one of the first to pull the trigger. Also, count me in the camp that thinks Brandin Cooks could end up with the best fantasy numbers of any rookie wide receiver this season. The Biletnikoff winner appears to be an ideal fit for Drew Brees and the Saints’ passing attack.
|1||97||Luke Kuechly||LB||CAR||David Gonos|
|2||98||Cecil Shorts||WR||JAC||Brandon Funston|
|3||99||Dennis Pitta||TE||BAL||Jamey Eisenberg|
|4||100||Greg Olsen||TE||CAR||Matt Schauf|
|5||101||Antonio Gates||TE||SD||Nathan Rush|
|6||102||Jordan Reed||TE||WAS||Mark Ross|
|7||103||Chandler Jones||DL||NE||Corby Yarbrough|
|8||104||Kyle Rudolph||TE||MIN||Steven Lassan|
|9||105||Lavonte David||LB||TB||Eric Mack|
|10||106||Khiry Robinson||RB||NO||Braden Gall|
|11||107||Kenny Stills||WR||NO||John Hansen|
|12||108||Dwayne Bowe||WR||KC||Mike Clay|
Round 9 Analysis: Luke Kuechly is the first LB to be drafted, which makes sense considering the Panthers’ tackling machine is the reigning Defensive Player of the Year. However, similar to Patrick Willis, reputation and accolades don’t necessarily translate to fantasy success. Kuechly’s production is driven primarily by his tackle totals, but that I mean he’s not a lock to generate other plays (sacks, forced fumbles, INTs, etc.). This is just another factor to keep in mind when you put together your draft board. I also really like Saints RB Khiry Robinson as a sleeper this year, as the opportunity is certainly there with Darren Sproles now in Philadelphia.
|1||109||Nick Foles||QB||PHI||Mike Clay|
|2||110||Marvin Jones||WR||CIN||John Hansen|
|4||112||Tre Mason||RB||STL||Eric Mack|
|5||113||Vontaze Burfict||LB||CIN||Steven Lassan|
|6||114||Jeremy Hill||RB||CIN||Corby Yarbrough|
|7||115||Kiko Alonso||LB||BUF||Mark Ross|
|8||116||Tom Brady||QB||NE||Nathan Rush|
|9||117||Fred Jackson||RB||BUF||Matt Schauf|
|10||118||Greg Hardy||DL||CAR||Jamey Eisenberg|
|11||119||Russell Wilson||QB||SEA||Brandon Funston|
|12||120||DeAndre Hopkins||WR||HOU||David Gonos|
Round 10 Analysis: Raise your hand if you pegged Tom Brady for a 10th-round pick. Yeah me neither. Tom Terrific’s numbers have certainly gone in the wrong direction, but track record has to count for something right? Well it’s just a matter of if you think the Patriots’ offense can get back to its past levels of success. Considering the only help Brady got in free agency was the addition of former Carolina WR Brandon LaFell and the uncertainty surrounding Rob Gronkowski, the concerns of this occurring are well warranted. At the least, I would definitely lean Russell Wilson over Brady if both were still on the board. And while hindsight is certainly 20/20, I have some drafter’s remorse over making Kiko Alonso my first IDP taken. While I like Alonso just fine, I think I became smitten too much with his numbers and probably would have been better off taking someone more established like a Paul Poslusnzy or Karlos Dansby instead.
|1||121||Jason Pierre-Paul||DL||NYG||David Gonos|
|2||122||Bobby Wagner||LB||SEA||Brandon Funston|
|3||123||Devonta Freeman||RB||ATL||Jamey Eisenberg|
|4||124||Paul Posluszny||LB||JAC||Matt Schauf|
|5||125||Patrick Peterson||DB||ARI||Nathan Rush|
|6||126||Alec Ogletree||LB||STL||Mark Ross|
|7||127||Hakeem Nicks||WR||IND||Corby Yarbrough|
|8||128||Tony Romo||QB||DAL||Steven Lassan|
|9||129||Terrance West||RB||CLE||Eric Mack|
|10||130||Jordan Matthews||WR||PHI||Braden Gall|
|11||131||Karlos Dansby||LB||CLE||John Hansen|
|12||132||Derrick Johnson||LB||KC||Mike Clay|
Round 11 Analysis: IDPs really coming into focus by this point, including the first DB off the board in Patrick Peterson. While I would not have made the same decision as Nathan, there’s no disputing Peterson’s talent, ability and upside. However, Peterson is a little too reliant on the big plays (turnovers in particular) for my tastes. I prefer a little more consistency when it comes to tackle numbers and across the board production. Also credit to Steven Lassan who was the last one to take a QB and still ended up with Tony Romo. Questions about his back aside, there’s nothing wrong with landing a potential top-10 QB in the 11th round.
|1||133||Riley Cooper||WR||PHI||Mike Clay|
|2||134||Justin Hunter||WR||TEN||John Hansen|
|3||135||Cameron Jordan||DL||NO||Braden Gall|
|4||136||Earl Thomas||DB||SEA||Eric Mack|
|5||137||Jay Cutler||QB||CHI||Steven Lassan|
|6||138||DeMeco Ryans||LB||PHI||Corby Yarbrough|
|7||139||Philip Rivers||QB||SD||Mark Ross|
|8||140||Patrick Willis||LB||SF||Nathan Rush|
|9||141||Kelvin Benjamin||WR||CAR||Matt Schauf|
|10||142||Brian Cushing||LB||HOU||Jamey Eisenberg|
|11||143||Eric Berry||DB||KC||Brandon Funston|
|12||144||Markus Wheaton||WR||PIT||David Gonos|
Round 12 Analysis: Steven backs up his Tony Romo selection with Jay Cutler, another solid move, and I follow suit by taking Philip Rivers as my Drew Brees insurance. As important as RB and WR depth can be, if something happens to your No. 1 QB and you don’t have an adequate Plan B, your fantasy season could be ruined right then and there. Aaron Rodgers owners last season can certainly relate to this strategy.
|1||145||San Francisco||DST||SF||David Gonos|
|2||146||Ladarius Green||TE||SD||Brandon Funston|
|3||147||Odell Beckham Jr.||WR||NYG||Jamey Eisenberg|
|4||148||Danny Amendola||WR||NE||Matt Schauf|
|5||149||Martellus Bennett||TE||CHI||Nathan Rush|
|6||150||Eric Ebron||TE||DET||Mark Ross|
|7||151||Lamar Miller||RB||MIA||Corby Yarbrough|
|8||152||Muhammad Wilkerson||DL||NYJ||Steven Lassan|
|9||153||Coby Fleener||TE||IND||Eric Mack|
|10||154||Mark Ingram||RB||NO||Braden Gall|
|11||155||Harrison Smith||DB||MIN||John Hansen|
|12||156||James Laurinaitis||LB||STL||Mike Clay|
|1||157||Cameron Wake||DL||MIA||Mike Clay|
|2||158||Rob Ninkovich||DL||NE||John Hansen|
|3||159||Eric Reid||DB||SF||Braden Gall|
|4||160||Mario Williams||DL||BUF||Eric Mack|
|5||161||T.J. Ward||DB||DEN||Steven Lassan|
|6||162||Christine Michael||RB||SEA||Corby Yarbrough|
|7||163||Eric Weddle||DB||SD||Mark Ross|
|8||164||Bernard Pierce||RB||BAL||Nathan Rush|
|9||165||Dexter McCluster||WR||TEN||Matt Schauf|
|10||166||DeMarcus Ware||DL||DEN||Jamey Eisenberg|
|11||167||Andre Brown||RB||HOU||Brandon Funston|
|12||168||David Wilson||RB||NYG||David Gonos|
Rounds 13 and 14 Analysis: Nearly half of the picks in these two rounds are used on IDPs, as the GMs work towards filling out their starting lineups. I particularly liked the Rob Ninkovich pick by John, as the Patriot is an underappreciated fantasy stud. Capable of playing both LB and DL, Ninkovich was one of five DL-eligible players to finish with more than 100 fantasy points last season. Once again, name recognition carries little, if any, value when it comes to putting together a championship-caliber fantasy team. I also particularly liked the selections of Harrison Smith (13th) and T.J. Ward (14th) from the DB ranks.
|1||169||Mark Barron||DB||TB||David Gonos|
|3||171||Bernard Pollard||DB||TEN||Jamey Eisenberg|
|4||172||Jerod Mayo||LB||NE||Matt Schauf|
|6||174||Chris Ivory||RB||NYJ||Mark Ross|
|7||175||Zach Ertz||TE||PHI||Corby Yarbrough|
|8||176||Lawrence Timmons||LB||PIT||Steven Lassan|
|9||177||NaVorro Bowman||LB||SF||Eric Mack|
|10||178||Johnny Manziel||QB||CLE||Braden Gall|
|11||179||Tyler Eifert||TE||CIN||John Hansen|
|12||180||Morgan Burnett||DB||GB||Mike Clay|
|2||182||LeGarrette Blount||RB||PIT||John Hansen|
|3||183||Davante Adams||WR||GB||Braden Gall|
|4||184||Andy Dalton||QB||CIN||Eric Mack|
|6||186||St. Louis||DST||STL||Corby Yarbrough|
|7||187||Marqise Lee||WR||JAC||Mark Ross|
|8||188||Jadeveon Clowney||LB||HOU||Nathan Rush|
|9||189||Carson Palmer||QB||ARI||Matt Schauf|
|10||190||Ben Roethlisberger||QB||PIT||Jamey Eisenberg|
|11||191||Eli Manning||QB||NYG||Brandon Funston|
|12||192||Stevie Johnson||WR||SF||David Gonos|
Rounds 15 and 16 Analysis: If he’s able to come back 100 percent from his torn pectoral, Matt has an absolute steal in getting Jerod Mayo in the 15th round. When he’s played 16 games, Mayo has been a fantasy stud. Plenty of risk associated with the NaVorro Bowman selection, as he’s a fairly safe bet to start the season on the PUP list, meaning he will miss the first six games at minimum. And even though he was drafted as a QB2, I wouldn’t have been the one to take Johnny Manziel. Not with Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, Andy Dalton or Carson Palmer still on the board. For every Andrew Luck and Robert Griffn III that has come along there’s been just as many EJ Manuels and Geno Smiths when it comes to rookie quarterbacks.
|1||193||Knile Davis||RB||KC||David Gonos|
|2||194||Jarrett Boykin||WR||GB||Brandon Funston|
|3||195||Daryl Smith||LB||BAL||Jamey Eisenberg|
|4||196||Rueben Randle||WR||NYG||Matt Schauf|
|5||197||Steve Smith||WR||BAL||Nathan Rush|
|6||198||Calais Campbell||DL||ARI||Mark Ross|
|7||199||Aaron Dobson||WR||NE||Corby Yarbrough|
|8||200||Roy Helu||RB||WAS||Steven Lassan|
|9||201||Isaiah Crowell||RB||CLE||Eric Mack|
|10||202||Mychal Kendricks||LB||PHI||Braden Gall|
|11||203||Ryan Tannehill||QB||MIA||John Hansen|
|12||204||Alex Smith||QB||KC||Mike Clay|
|1||205||Donald Brown||RB||SD||Mike Clay|
|2||206||Tampa Bay||DST||TB||John Hansen|
|3||207||Danny Trevathan||LB||DEN||Braden Gall|
|4||208||Kansas City||DST||KC||Eric Mack|
|5||209||Robert Woods||WR||BUF||Steven Lassan|
|6||210||Chad Greenway||LB||MIN||Corby Yarbrough|
|8||212||Shonn Greene||RB||TEN||Nathan Rush|
|9||213||New England||DST||NE||Matt Schauf|
|10||214||Rod Streater||WR||OAK||Jamey Eisenberg|
|11||215||Jerrell Freeman||LB||IND||Brandon Funston|
|12||216||Charles Johnson||DL||CAR||David Gonos|
Rounds 17 and 18 Analysis: At this point in the draft, you are either filling out your starting lineup (except for kicker) or mining for diamonds in the rough. David wisely secured Kansas City’s backfield by grabbing Knile Davis after taking Jamaal Charles No. 1 overall. Jarrett Boykin fared well after Randall Cobb went down with an injury last season and now the No. 3 WR job in Green Bay is his for the taking with James Jones in Oakland. Roy Helu is more of pass-catching threat than Alfred Morris so he could carve out a nice role for himself in Jay Gruden’s offense in Washington. Isaiah Crowell, the undrafted rookie who started his college career at Georgia, seems to be a rather significant reach, but new lead back Ben Tate hasn’t exactly been durable in his career and the only other competition for carries in Cleveland seems to be fellow rookie Terrance West. Stranger things have happened. Among the IDP selections, I really like Danny Trevathan’s chances of breaking out this season with Wesley Woodyard and Shaun Phillips no longer on the Broncos.
|1||217||Josh McCown||QB||TB||David Gonos|
|2||218||Matt Prater||K||DEN||Brandon Funston|
|4||220||Johnathan Cyprien||DB||JAC||Matt Schauf|
|5||221||Stephen Gostkowski||K||NE||Nathan Rush|
|6||222||Justin Tucker||K||BAL||Mark Ross|
|7||223||Antrel Rolle||DB||NYG||Corby Yarbrough|
|8||224||Andre Williams||RB||NYG||Steven Lassan|
|9||225||Jonathan Stewart||RB||CAR||Eric Mack|
|10||226||Steven Hauschka||K||SEA||Braden Gall|
|11||227||Phil Dawson||K||SF||John Hansen|
|12||228||Delanie Walker||TE||TEN||Mike Clay|
|1||229||Mason Crosby||K||GB||Mike Clay|
|2||230||Nick Roach||LB||OAK||John Hansen|
|3||231||Green Bay||DST||GB||Braden Gall|
|4||232||Blair Walsh||K||MIN||Eric Mack|
|5||233||Dan Bailey||K||DAL||Steven Lassan|
|6||234||Robbie Gould||K||CHI||Corby Yarbrough|
|7||235||Ka'Deem Carey||RB||CHI||Mark Ross|
|8||236||Jurrell Casey||DL||TEN||Nathan Rush|
|9||237||Shayne Graham||K||NO||Matt Schauf|
|10||238||Adam Vinatieri||K||IND||Jamey Eisenberg|
|11||239||Doug Baldwin||WR||SEA||Brandon Funston|
|12||240||Matt Bryant||K||ATL||David Gonos|
Rounds 19 and 20 Analysis: Finally the kickers come off the board, but we know no one cares about them. The last two rookies taken in this mock draft – Andre Williams (19th) and Ka’Deem Carey (20th) – are certainly worth keeping an eye on once training camps open. Williams could see significant carries sooner rather than later because of David Wilson’s uncertainty regarding his neck injury while Carey has a pretty clear path to serving as Matt Forté’s backup, especially considering he has a similar skill set. Believe it or not, but Delanie Walker was a borderline top-10 fantasy TE last season, while Doug Baldwin probably enters the season as the Seahawks’ No. 2 WR with Golden Tate now in Detroit. Both are very solid picks in the final two rounds of this mock draft.
The All-Star break will be here in a couple of few weeks, which means the trade winds will start to blow a little stronger. One trade has already taken place, giving a pair of deposed closers a change of scenery. Pittsburgh sent Jason Grilli, an All-Star last season who saved 33 games for the WIld Card Pirates, to the Angels for Ernesto Frieri. The fire-balling Frieri posted 37 saves of his own in 2013, but he has struggled mightily so far this season, to the tune of a 6.39 ERA for his former team. It remains to be seen if a change of scenery will do either enough good for them to become fantasy factors once again, but one thing is clear — they won't be the last bullpen pieces to switch uniforms between now and the end of July.
|Arizona||Addison Reed||Brad Zeigler||Joe Thatcher, Oliver Perez|
|Atlanta||Craig Kimbrel||Shae Simmons||Jordan Walden, Luis Avilan, David Carpenter (DL)|
|Baltimore||Zach Britton||Tommy Hunter||Darren O'Day, Ryan Webb, Brian Matusz|
|Boston||Koji Uehara||Junichi Tazawa||Edward Mujica, Burke Badenhop, Craig Breslow|
|Chicago (AL)||Zach Putnam*||Javy Guerra*||Jacob Petricka*, Daniel Webb, Nate Jones (DL)|
|Chicago (NL)||Hector Rondon||Pedro Strop||Neil Ramirez, Justin Grimm, Kyuji Fujikawa (DL)|
|Cincinnati||Aroldis Chapman||Jonathan Broxton||Sam LeCure, Manny Parra|
|Cleveland||Cody Allen||Bryan Shaw||Scott Atchison, John Axford|
|Colorado||LaTroy Hawkins||Adam Ottavino||Rex Brothers|
|Detroit||Joe Nathan||Joba Chamberlain||Al Albuquerque, Phil Coke|
|Houston||Chad Qualls||Tony Sipp||Joshua Zeid, Jesse Crain (DL)|
|Kansas City||Greg Holland||Wade Davis||Kelvin Herrera, Aaron Crow|
|Los Angeles (AL)||Joe Smith||Jason Grilli||Kevin Jepsen|
|Los Angeles (NL)||Kenley Jansen||Brian Wilson||Brandon League, J.P. Howell, Chris Withrow (DL)|
|Miami||Steve Cishek||A.J. Ramos||Mike Dunn|
|Milwaukee||Francisco Rodriguez||Brandon Kintzler||Will Smith, Tyler Thornburg (DL)|
|Minnesota||Glen Perkins||Casey Fien||Jared Burton|
|New York (AL)||David Robertson||Dellin Betances||Adam Warren, Shawn Kelley|
|New York (NL)||Jenrry Mejia||Jeurys Familia||Carlos Torres, Vic Black, Bobby Parnell (DL)|
|Oakland||Sean Doolittle||Luke Gregerson||Ryan Cook, Dan Otero, Jim Johnson|
|Philadelphia||Jonathan Papelbon||Ken Giles||Jacob Diekman, Antonio Bastardo, Matt Adams (DL)|
|Pittsburgh||Mark Melancon||Tony Watson||Justin Wilson, Ernesto Frieri|
|St. Louis||Trevor Rosenthal||Jason Motte||Seth Maness, Sam Freeman, Kevin Siegrist (DL)|
|San Diego||Huston Street||Joaquin Benoit||Alex Torres, Dale Thayer|
|San Francisco||Santiago Casilla*||Jeremy Affeldt*||Jean Machi, Sergio Romo, Javier Lopez|
|Seattle||Fernando Rodney||Danny Farquhar||Tom Wilhelmsen, Yoervis Medina|
|Tampa Bay||Jake McGee||Joel Peralta||Grant Balfour, Juan Oviedo|
|Texas||Joakim Soria||Jason Frasor||Neal Cotts, Alexi Ogando (DL)|
|Toronto||Casey Janssen||Aaron Loup||Sergio Santos, Brett Cecil (DL)|
|Washington||Rafael Soriano||Tyler Clippard||Drew Storen|
*The Chicago White Sox and San Francisco are employing a closer-by-committee approach right now.
Last season’s MVP, both on the field and in fantasy football, was without a question Peyton Manning. That’s what happens when you break the single-season records for passing yards (5,477) and touchdowns (55). Manning’s 520 fantasy points (Athlon scoring) lapped the field and then some, as he it was nearly 100 points more than No. 2 Drew Brees’ 435.7 points.
Despite Manning’s record-setting performance, he barely makes the top 10 of Athlon Sports’ early fantasy football rankings for 2014. As remarkable as Manning’s 2013 season was, there’s no reason to draft the future Hall of Famer based on what he did last year. Instead, our early rankings lean towards the few elite running backs that remain — LeSean McCoy, Jamaal Charles, Adrian Peterson and Matt Forté. Even though the NFL has become more of a pass-happy league, there’s no substitute for landing one of the few playmakers who are guaranteed to touch the ball (assuming they stay healthy) 300 times a season and are the undisputed focal points of their team’s offense.
Athlon Sports' 2014 Fantasy Football magazine is now available for purchase at newsstands everyone or online. The ultimate draft-day resource, this year's edition features 419 in-depth player reports, informative features, a 20-round mock draft, team-by-team analysis from NFL beat writers and much more. Whether your fantasy league is head-to-head, roto, PPR or IDP, this magazine has all the stats and insight you need to help you get ready for the upcoming season. Click here to purchase you copy today!
Early 2014 Fantasy Football Big Board (Top 280)
|1||LeSean McCoy||PHI||RB||Ideal fit for Chip Kelly's offense.|
|2||Jamaal Charles||KC||RB||3rd in rushing, just 10th in carries.|
|3||Adrian Peterson||MIN||RB||More catches coming in Norv's O?|
|4||Matt Forté||CHI||RB||Enjoyed career year in Trestman's O.|
|5||Calvin Johnson||DET||WR||Yards went down, but TDs up in '13.|
|6||Marshawn Lynch||SEA||RB||He's not really going to retire is he?|
|7||Jimmy Graham||NO||TE||Clearly he's a TE in fantasy.|
|9||Peyton Manning||DEN||QB||Don’t bank on another 55 TDs.|
|11||Julio Jones||ATL||WR||Hoping for better health in '14.|
|12||Eddie Lacy||GB||RB||Can he enter elite RB conversation?|
|14||Dez Bryant||DAL||WR||Dez needs a healthy Romo.|
|15||Doug Martin||TB||RB||Shoulder should be fully recovered.|
|16||Arian Foster||HOU||RB||QB concerns could mean more work.|
|17||DeMarco Murray||DAL||RB||Still has yet to play full season.|
|18||Zac Stacy||STL||RB||How much of a threat is Tre Mason?|
|19||Le'Veon Bell||PIT||RB||Healthier OL could mean big year.|
|20||Montee Ball||DEN||RB||No real competition for carries now.|
|24||Andre Johnson||HOU||WR||Not a happy Texan right now.|
|26||Randall Cobb||GB||WR||Broken leg wiped out promising start.|
|27||Alfred Morris||WAS||RB||How does he fit Gruden's O?|
|28||Giovani Bernard||CIN||RB||Should see more touches.|
|30||Ryan Mathews||SD||RB||SD backfield getting crowded.|
|31||Drew Brees||NO||QB||No more Sproles, but added new WR.|
|33||Larry Fitzgerald||ARI||WR||Floyd ready to supplant him as No. 1?|
|35||Pierre Garcon||WAS||WR||How will DeSean Jackson impact him?|
|36||Keenan Allen||SD||WR||Sophomore slump coming?|
|37||Roddy White||ATL||WR||Goal is to start season healthy.|
|38||Wes Welker||DEN||WR||Concussions becoming more of an issue.|
|39||Percy Harvin||SEA||WR||Finally ready to take flight?|
|40||Matthew Stafford||DET||QB||New coach/OC = new Stafford?|
|42||Vernon Davis||SF||TE||49ers added to WR depth.|
|43||DeSean Jackson||WAS||WR||Ready to silence the critics?|
|46||Torrey Smith||BAL||WR||Steve Smith should help Torrey.|
|47||Frank Gore||SF||RB||Is Hyde or Lattimore a threat?|
|48||C.J. Spiller||BUF||RB||Breakout season coming?|
|49||Ben Tate||CLE||RB||Finally gets chance to be No. 1, maybe.|
|50||Ray Rice||BAL||RB||2013 a fluke or sign of things to come?|
|52||Rob Gronkowski||NE||TE||Is there a bigger risk-reward option?|
|54||Michael Floyd||ARI||WR||Could supplant Fitzgerald as No. 1 target.|
|55||Cordarrelle Patterson||MIN||WR||If QB is settled, he could break out.|
|56||Jeremy Maclin||PHI||WR||Chip Kelly has forgotten about him, have you?|
|57||Andre Ellington||ARI||RB||How many touches will he get?|
|58||Trent Richardson||IND||RB||Running out of chances to matter.|
|59||Chris Johnson||NYJ||RB||What does he have left for Jets?|
|60||Steven Jackson||ATL||RB||Workhorse days are probably over.|
|61||Rashad Jennings||NYG||RB||Can he carry the load for the Giants?|
|62||Reggie Wayne||IND||WR||Coming back from ACL injury.|
|64||Sammy Watkins||BUF||WR||All eyes will be on this rookie.|
|65||Shane Vereen||NE||RB||Vereen could be a PPR monster.|
|66||Knowshon Moreno||MIA||RB||Dolphins' tenure not off to best start.|
|67||Stevan Ridley||NE||RB||Was a 1,200-yard rusher in 2012.|
|68||Joique Bell||DET||RB||Should remain a factor in Lions' backfield.|
|69||Andrew Luck||IND||QB||Cut his INTs by half (18 to 9).|
|70||Russell Wilson||SEA||QB||26 TD passes in each of first 2 seasons.|
|71||Bishop Sankey||TEN||RB||Could be Week 1 starter.|
|72||Toby Gerhart||JAC||RB||Could surprise as Jags' No. 1 back.|
|73||Maurice Jones-Drew||OAK||RB||Best to keep expectations low.|
|74||Cam Newton||CAR||QB||Throwing to entirely new WR corps.|
|75||Robert Griffin III||WAS||QB||Fresh start with new HC, offense.|
|78||Dennis Pitta||BAL||TE||Could be in for big season.|
|80||Darren Sproles||PHI||RB||Expect similar role w/ Eagles.|
|82||Nick Foles||PHI||QB||Don't expect 27:2 TD:INT ratio.|
|83||Colin Kaepernick||SF||QB||Got better as season progressed.|
|84||Matt Ryan||ATL||QB||Better OL/WR health = better numbers.|
|85||Kendall Wright||TEN||WR||Gets the catches, but not the yards.|
|86||Mike Wallace||MIA||WR||Can he and Tannehill get on same page?|
|87||Golden Tate||DET||WR||Megatron gets his sidekick.|
|88||Eric Decker||NYJ||WR||You’re not in Denver anymore Eric.|
|89||Tom Brady||NE||QB||Tom's terrific days past him?|
|91||Khiry Robinson||NO||RB||Watch out for this young Saint.|
|93||Emmanuel Sanders||DEN||WR||Could post Decker-like numbers.|
|94||Cecil Shorts||JAC||WR||Should finally get some support.|
|95||Riley Cooper||PHI||WR||Was last year a fluke?|
|98||Tony Romo||DAL||QB||Will his back hold up?|
|99||Philip Rivers||SD||QB||Can he do it two years in a row?|
|100||Jay Cutler||CHI||QB||Weapons are in place for huge numbers.|
|101||Ben Roethlisberger||PIT||QB||WR corps could be better this season.|
|104||Delanie Walker||TEN||TE||Quietly posted strong 2013 season.|
|106||Pierre Thomas||NO||RB||More valuable in PPR leagues.|
|107||David Wilson||NYG||RB||His neck is definitely a concern.|
|108||Chris Ivory||NYJ||RB||Should see carries even w/ CJ on board.|
|109||Bernard Pierce||BAL||RB||If Rice falters, Pierce could seize job.|
|110||Josh Gordon||CLE||WR||How many games will he play?|
|111||Terrance Williams||DAL||WR||No. 2 now with Miles Austin gone.|
|112||DeAndre Hopkins||HOU||WR||Looking for consistency in 2nd season.|
|113||Brandin Cooks||NO||WR||Seems tailor-made for Saints/Brees.|
|114||Antonio Gates||SD||TE||Time for Ladarius Green to take over?|
|115||Ladarius Green||SD||TE||Can he supplant the future HOFer?|
|117||Shonn Greene||TEN||RB||May have already lost starting job to Sankey.|
|118||Tre Mason||STL||RB||If Zac Stacy slips, Mason could pounce.|
|119||Darren McFadden||OAK||RB||MJD + DMC = a backfield to avoid.|
|120||Lamar Miller||MIA||RB||Moreno's health history could benefit Miller.|
|121||Danny Amendola||NE||WR||Hoping for better results in Year 2 w/ Pats.|
|122||Dwayne Bowe||KC||WR||Chiefs need him to bounce back.|
|123||Steve Smith||BAL||WR||What role does veteran play w/ new team?|
|124||James Jones||OAK||WR||Matt Schaub is NOT Aaron Rodgers.|
|127||Mike Evans||TB||WR||Can the rookie make a splash early?|
|128||Tavon Austin||STL||WR||Looked better late last season.|
|130||Eli Manning||NYG||QB||Surely he can't throw 27 INTs again?|
|132||Mark Ingram||NO||RB||Running out chances in NO?|
|136||Kelvin Benjamin||CAR||WR||Big target, but still raw as a WR.|
|140||Eric Ebron||DET||TE||How will Lions use him as rookie?|
|144||Broncos||DEN||DST||Plenty of new faces on D.|
|145||BenJarvus Green-Ellis||CIN||RB||Jeremy Hill may make BJGE irrelevant.|
|146||LeGarrette Blount||PIT||RB||How many carries will he get with Bell around?|
|148||Roy Helu||WAS||RB||Seems well suited for Gruden's O.|
|149||Miles Austin||CLE||WR||Browns need help at WR b/c of Gordon's situation.|
|150||Hakeem Nicks||IND||WR||New team = new Nicks?|
|151||Rueben Randle||NYG||WR||Not quite ready to cede No. 2 job to Beckham.|
|152||Rams||STL||DST||D-line should be one of league's nastiest.|
|153||Chiefs||KC||DST||Incredible start, disappointing finish.|
|157||Dexter McCluster||TEN||WR||Ken Whisenhunt's new Danny Woodhead?|
|158||Josh McCown||TB||QB||Weapons in CHI better than those in TB.|
|160||Ryan Tannehill||MIA||QB||Needs to cut down on INTs (17).|
|161||Johnny Manziel||CLE||QB||When will he start? How much will he run?|
|163||Kenny Stills||NO||WR||Even w/ Cooks, opportunity exists for Stills too.|
|166||Justin Hunter||TEN||WR||Ready to break out?|
|167||Markus Wheaton||PIT||WR||Steelers have been waiting for him.|
|168||Odell Beckham Jr.||NYG||WR||Landed in good situation w/ Giants.|
|171||Buccaneers||TB||DST||How will the Bucs adapt to Cover-2?|
|175||Latavius Murray||OAK||RB||Younger legs could supplant veterans.|
|178||Sam Bradford||STL||QB||Lots of pressure to stay healthy and produce.|
|181||Jordan Matthews||PHI||WR||Intriguing rookie to keep an eye on.|
|182||Marqise Lee||JAC||WR||If QB play is solid, he could surprise.|
|183||Jeremy Hill||CIN||RB||Could seize backup job quickly.|
|185||Terrance West||CLE||RB||Browns high on this rookie.|
|190||Owen Daniels||BAL||TE||Played for new OC Kubiak in Houston.|
|194||EJ Manuel||BUF||QB||Will he and Watkins click right away?|
|196||Jake Locker||TEN||QB||Make or break year for Locker.|
|197||Geno Smith||NYJ||QB||Needs to show improvement in Year 2.|
|198||Matt Schaub||OAK||QB||Can he turn things around in Oakland?|
|200||Jace Amaro||NYJ||TE||Could be big part of offense right away.|
|201||Doug Baldwin||SEA||WR||Golden Tate no longer in Seattle.|
|209||Texans||HOU||DST||Watt and Clowney should be fun to watch.|
|212||Christine Michael||SEA||RB||Could be see bigger workload.|
|213||Carlos Hyde||SF||RB||Will Harbaugh trust the rookie right away?|
|217||Brandon LaFell||NE||WR||Tom Brady needs more help from his WRs.|
|222||Kenny Britt||STL||WR||Fisher giving his former WR another chance.|
|227||Marlon Brown||BAL||WR||Undrafted rookie caught 7 TDs last season.|
|231||Chad Henne||JAC||QB||Jags would rather Blake Bortles watch.|
|232||Brian Hoyer||CLE||QB||Probably will open as starter, but for how long?|
|233||Michael Vick||NYJ||QB||Jets needs Geno Smith to seize job.|
|234||Teddy Bridgewater||MIN||QB||Just how pro-ready is he?|
|239||Bears||CHI||DST||Bears have beefed up D-line/secondary.|
|246||Levine Toilolo||ATL||TE||Post-Tony Gonzalez era begins for Falcons.|
|247||Andre Williams||NYG||RB||Keep eye on him, esp. if Wilson doesn't return.|
|248||Devonta Freeman||ATL||RB||Someone will need to spell SJax.|
|253||Mike Glennon||TB||QB||Do the Bucs still view him as QB of future?|
|257||Jerick McKinnon||MIN||RB||Peterson needs a new backup.|
|258||Vick Ballard||IND||RB||Not like Richardson's a lock for the job.|
|259||Ahmad Bradshaw||IND||RB||Don't count out this veteran.|
|269||Marcus Lattimore||SF||RB||Is he ready to return to the field?|
|270||Paul Richardson||SEA||WR||His speed could result in playing time.|
|271||Devante Adams||GB||WR||Packers high on this rookie.|
|272||Allen Robinson||JAC||WR||Jags need all the weapons they can find.|
|273||Cody Latimer||DEN||WR||Anyway Bronco WR is worth monitoring.|
|274||Blake Bortles||JAC||QB||Only a keeper/dynasty league option in 2014.|
|277||Adrien Robinson||NYG||TE||Starting job is there for the taking.|
A total of 256 players heard their names called during the 2014 NFL Draft, but that doesn’t mean they will be the only ones joining the professional ranks. Every team signs a number of undrafted free agents after Mr. Irrelevant is announced at Radio City Music Hall in New York City.
For example, the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks had 21 players on their 53-man roster last season who started their NFL careers as undrafted free agents. There also are several members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame who went undrafted, a number that’s sure to grow in the years to come.
So before you discount the chances of an undrafted free agent (UDFA) from not only making your favorite team’s roster, but having an impact this season, remember that Hall of Famers like Dick “Night Train” Lane and Warren Moon didn’t hear their named called on draft day either. Here is our list of the 25 top UDFAs over the last 25 years (since the 1989 NFL Draft):
1. Kurt Warner, QB, Northern Iowa
He played in three Super Bowls with the Rams and Cardinals and won the league’s MVP twice. He also was MVP of Super Bowl XXXIV when St. Louis defeated the Titans 23-16. Warner holds many postseason records and should make the Hall of Fame.
2. John Randle, DT, Texas A&I
The ferocious Vikings pass-rusher was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2010. Randle totaled 137.5 sacks in his 14 seasons with the Vikings and Seahawks. He made seven Pro Bowls and was elected to the NFL’s All-Decade Team of the 1990s.
3. Antonio Gates, TE, Kent State
The Chargers turned to the basketball court to find Gates, who did not play college football. He’s made eight Pro Bowls in 11 seasons in San Diego, and currently sits 50th all-time in receiving yards (9,193) and is tied for 12th with 87 career touchdown catches. The only tight end with more TD grabs is the recently retired Tony Gonzalez.
4. Wes Welker, WR, Texas Tech
The ultra-quick Welker was initially signed by San Diego following the 2004 draft, but then was cut and landed in Miami. He joined New England in 2007 and proceeded to put up an NFL-leading 672 receptions, along with 7,459 yards and 37 touchdowns, in his six seasons with the Patriots. Welker signed with Denver before last season and proceeded to post a career-high 10 touchdown receptions. Welker is already among the top 25 players all-time in receptions (841, 24th) and top 50 in receiving yards (9,358, 47th).
5. Adam Vinatieri, K, South Dakota State
Some may disagree with having a kicker this high, but Vinatieri’s contributions to elite teams should not be undervalued. He has been a part of four championships with the Patriots and Colts and made a last-second, game-winner in two of those Super Bowls. He’s one of just seven players in NFL history with 2,000 points in their career and currently sits in fifth place with 2,006.
6. Tony Romo, QB, Eastern Illinois
The popular, yet polarizing, Cowboys signal-caller is still building his legacy, but he has already made three Pro Bowls and has 208 touchdown passes in 108 career starts. He has completed nearly 65 percent of his passes and his career passer rating is 95.8, which ranks him fifth all-time.
7. London Fletcher, LB, John Carroll
After 16 highly productive NFL seasons, Fletcher the undersized tackling machine who consistently made plays retired after the 2013 campaign. Whether it was playing for the Rams, Bills or the Redskins, Fletcher exhibited a nose for the football (2,046 career tackles, 23 INTs, 23 forced fumbles) and was a constant in the lineup. He never missed a game in 16 NFL seasons and started every game from the beginning of the 2001 season until his final game this past December.
8. Jeff Saturday, C, North Carolina
The six-time Pro Bowler anchored the Colts' offensive line from 2000-11. During his time snapping to Peyton Manning, Indy won double-digit games nine times and won Super Bowl XLI. After one season in Green Bay, Saturday re-signed with Indianapolis last March so he could officially retire as a member of the team that brought him into the league.
9. Brian Waters, G, North Texas
Waters failed to latch on with the Cowboys during his first year out of college in 1999, but he found a home in Kansas City the next season. The elite blocker made five Pro Bowls with the Chiefs and then a sixth with the Patriots in 2011. After sitting out a season, Waters returned to the field in 2013, playing five games for Dallas, seemingly bringing his career full circle.
10. Rod Smith, WR, Missouri Southern
He played his entire 12-year career in Denver, and Smith’s 849 receptions put him in the top 20 in NFL history. He was a part of two Super Bowl winners with the Broncos and went over 1,000 yards receiving eight times.
11. James Harrison, LB, Kent State
Harrison played 10 seasons (2002, '04-10) in Pittsburgh before switching to AFC North rival Cincinnati last season. The 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, Harrison went from undrafted rookie to a playmaking force for the Steelers and helped the franchise win two more Super Bowl titles.
12. Priest Holmes, RB, Texas
The former Ravens and Chiefs runner had a solid career with over 8,000 rushing yards and 94 total touchdowns. Holmes had an amazing three-year run in Kansas City from 2001-03, amassing 4,590 rush yards and 56 TDs on the ground.
13. Arian Foster, RB, Tennessee
Injuries limited the Texans’ star to just eight games last season, but prior to that Foster averaged 1,421 yards rushing from 2010-12. He led the NFL with 1,616 yards in 2010 and also has exhibited a nose for the end zone with 52 total touchdowns in 59 career games.
14. Pat Williams, DT, Texas A&M
The massive run-stuffer took a while to make a mark in the NFL, but he developed into a defensive stalwart for Minnesota. Williams made three straight Pro Bowls from 2006-08 while playing for the Vikings.
15. Jeff Garcia, QB, San Jose State
The four-time Pro Bowler starred in Canada to begin his professional career, and did not play in the NFL until age 29. However, Garcia made his mark by throwing for over 25,000 yards with the 49ers, Browns, Lions, Eagles and Buccaneers.
16. Jake Delhomme, QB, Louisiana-Lafayette
The Bayou native started slow with the Saints, but he found a nice niche with the Panthers from 2003-09. Delhomme passed for over 19,000 yards and 120 TDs during those seven seasons and led Carolina to a Super Bowl appearance in 2003.
17. Jason Peters, T, Arkansas
Initially a tight end in college, Peters went from undrafted rookie to special teams contributor to All-Pro offensive tackle in a relatively short period of time. After signing with Buffalo following the 2004 draft, Peters claimed the starting right tackle job in ’06 and proceeded to reel off five straight Pro Bowl invites (2007-11). Traded to Philadelphia in 2009, Peters has established himself as one of the NFL’s top tackles, as evidenced by his two All-Pro seasons (2011, ’13) and the five-year, $51.3 million extension he signed with the Eagles in February.
18. Bart Scott, LB, Southern Illinois
The entertaining linebacker played on some quality defenses with both the Ravens and Jets, and he made the Pro Bowl in 2006. From 2006-12 with the Ravens, Scott missed just one game and made 108 starts.
19. David Akers, K, Louisville
The reliable kicker led the NFL in scoring in both 2010 and '11. Akers has made 386 career field goals, good for ninth all-time, while connecting on 81 percent of his attempts. He has earned six Pro Bowl invites in his career kicking for the Eagles, 49ers and Lions.
20. Shaun O'Hara, C, Rutgers
The tough interior blocker started his career playing guard for the Browns, but he flourished with the Giants from 2004-10. During that span, O’Hara made three Pro Bowls and was a leader on the Giants' Super Bowl winner in 2008.
21. Wayne Chrebet, WR, Hofstra
The New York fan favorite was a classic underdog story, and he played his entire career with the Jets. Chrebet was especially effective from 1995-2002, when he caught 507 passes and 39 TDs during that eight-year span.
22. Barry Sims, T, Utah
The starting left tackle for two conference championship games and a Super Bowl in 2002, Sims played 12 NFL seasons in the Bay Area. He was a solid blocker in Oakland for nine years before finishing his career in San Francisco.
23. Antonio Pierce, LB, Arizona
He had a fairly short NFL career but was a tackling machine from 2004-08 with the Redskins and Giants. Much like O’Hara, Pierce was an underrated leader for the Super Bowl XLII champions.
24. Cullen Jenkins, DL, Central Michigan
The younger brother of Kris Jenkins started his professional career in NFL Europe before joining the league in 2004. A solid interior defender with the Packers, Eagles and Giants, Cullen has 43.5 career sacks in 141 games (113 starts).
25. Cameron Wake, LB/DE, Penn State
After going undrafted in 2005, Wake turned to the CFL to continue his playing career. Little did he know the league up north would do much more than that. The CFL’s Most Outstanding Rookie of the Year in 2008 and a two-time (2008, ’09) Most Outstanding Defensive Player honoree; Wake parlayed his strong play in Canada into a four-year contract with Miami. After collecting 5.5 sacks in 2009, Wake broke out the following year with 14 sacks. A three-time Pro Bowler (2010, ’12-13), Wake also earned All-Pro honors following his 15-sack 2012 campaign. In 77 career games (62 starts), Wake has recorded 51.5 sacks and nine forced fumbles.
As the most popular and profitable American sport, the NFL would love for you to believe that every game on its 2014 schedule is “must see.” But as any knowledgeable fan knows, that’s just not true. To help you cut through the clutter, we dug through the 2014 season’s slate of action to find the marquee matchups. Here are 10 games this football fan is definitely looking forward to.
1. Seattle at San Francisco (Week 13, Thursday)
Yes, the defending champs open up their title defense against Green Bay at home, but how can you not pick this game? The first meeting of the season between division rivals who absolutely hate each other and figure to battle once again for a spot in the Super Bowl? And it’s on Thanksgiving Day? The fourth Thursday in November can’t come soon enough.
2. Denver at Seattle (Week 3)
Not only is this a Super Bowl rematch, but it’s possible it could be a precursor to the 49th edition as well. More importantly, this early-season offering should show if the Broncos have been able to narrow the gap between them and the current owners of the Lombardi Trophy, or if the reigning champions are still vastly superior to one of the best the AFC has to offer.
3. Denver at New England (Week 9)
Call it what you want, Manning vs. Brady XVI, an AFC Championship Game rematch, etc., but there’s no denying this game won’t lack for storylines. Besides the history between the quarterbacks, there’s also the added element of this representing new Bronco Aqib Talib’s first game back in New England, just as was the case last season with Wes Welker. You don’t think Tom Brady won’t be keeping an eye out for his former teammate when he drops back to pass?
4. Indianapolis at Denver (Week 1)
Andrew Luck and Peyton Manning go head-to-head for the second time, but this one’s on No. 18’s home turf. Even though it’s the season opener for both teams, this meeting won’t feature the same emotions as Manning’s homecoming to Indianapolis last season, while Luck and the young Colts have a chance to show they are ready to take the next step in their maturation process by knocking off the defending AFC champions on the road.
5. Washington at Philadelphia (Week 3)
These NFC East rivals will get together twice, but the game that everyone will be watching is when DeSean Jackson returns to the City of Brotherly Love. And it just so happens, we won’t have to wait long with said meeting dialed up for Week 3. I have little doubt that Eagle fans will greet Jackson accordingly, but the real question is how will head coach Chip Kelly and his former teammates treat the mercurial wide receiver – before, during and after the game?
6. San Francisco at Denver (Week 7)
The two West divisions face each other in crossover play this season, which means Denver gets to pit its prolific offense against four of the NFL’s top 15 defenses last season, including fifth-ranked San Francisco. Jim Harbaugh’s unit should be a tough test for Peyton Manning and company, but will the home elements (altitude) come into play at all for this Sunday night clash?
7. Washington at Indianapolis (Week 13)
The first and second overall picks of the 2012 NFL Draft will meet on the field for the first time when Andrew Luck and the Colts host Robert Griffin III and the Redskins. Both have already led their teams to the playoffs, but Luck has gone two-for-two and put up bigger numbers, as RGIII has struggled to stay healthy.
8. New England at Green Bay (Week 13)
Outside of Brady vs. Manning, this is arguably the second-best quarterback matchup possible in the NFL when it comes to resumes (with apologies to Aaron Rodgers vs. Drew Brees in Week 7). This will be just the second time Brady has paid a visit to Lambeau Field in his career. The previous one was back in 2006, when he outplayed Aaron Rodgers’ predecessor, Brett Favre. Will the tundra be frozen for this late November, primetime contest? We can only hope.
9. New England at Indianapolis (Week 11)
Andrew Luck’s first two encounters with the Patriots have not gone well. Bill Belichick’s team has handed Luck and the Colts two losses, including January’s Divisional Round beatdown, to the tune of a combined score of 102-46. This time Luck gets Tom Brady and company on his home turf, where he’s gone 14-3 (including playoffs) in his first two seasons.
10. New England at New York Jets (Week 7, Thursday)
As if this AFC East rivalry needed any more spice. Yet you know Darrelle Revis already has this game circled on his calendar. Are Jets fans (and new wide receiver Eric Decker for that matter) ready for a Thursday night visit to Revis Island?
When the 2014 NFL season kicks off on Sept. 4, Seattle will open at home against Green Bay. Fortunately there will be no replacement referees in sight at CenturyLink Field that Thursday night, as the Seahawks begin their journey toward becoming the first team to repeat as world champions since New England in 2003-04.
The road to Super Bowl XLIX will not be easy for Seattle, but the defending champion’s upcoming slate is just one of the things that caught our attention as the NFL released the 2014 schedule.
Related: 10 Must-See NFL Games in 2014
1. The Defending Champs’ Tough Path to a Possible Repeat
If Seattle does end up back in the Super Bowl, the Seahawks will have earned that right. Russell Wilson and the reigning world champions open at home against Green Bay and then head south to face San Diego before hosting the Super Bowl rematch with Denver in Week 3. That’s three 2013 playoff teams in the first three games. After the early bye, it’s back-to-back games against the NFC East (at Washington, Dallas) before consecutive road games at NFC West foe St. Louis and defending NFC South champion Carolina.
Once the middle of November rolls around, things really start to ratchet up, as the Seahawks play the Chiefs in Kansas City in Week 11, then host Arizona the following week before making the quick turnaround to play the 49ers in San Francisco on Thanksgiving Day. After a small breather, Seattle ends with a finishing stretch of Philadelphia (away), San Francisco (home), Arizona (away) and St. Louis (home). That’s four divisional games among the final six and four matchups with playoff teams (two with the 49ers) in the final month and a half.
2. Denver’s Rocky Road Back to the Super Bowl
The Broncos are clearly “all in” once again this season, adding Aqib Talib, DeMarcus Ware and T.J. Ward to their defense and replacing the departed Eric Decker with Emmanuel Sanders in hopes of getting Peyton Manning back to the Super Bowl. Denver’s road to Glendale, Ariz., however, is anything but easy and I emphasize “road.” The AFC West meets the NFC West in crossover play this season, which means the Broncos not only get a rematch with Seattle, but also will face San Francisco and Arizona at home and take a trip to St. Louis. All four of these defenses finished among the top 15 in the NFL in yards allowed last season.
The Broncos were unstoppable at home last season, but this team’s mettle will truly be tested on the road. Besides Seattle and St. Louis, Denver’s road slate includes New England, Cincinnati, Kansas City, San Diego and the New York Jets. Of course Oakland is on the schedule too, but otherwise you are looking at the world champions, two other division winners and a total of five playoff teams from last season on Denver’s road itinerary. Is this any way to treat one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game?
3. Andrew’s Luck-y QB Draw
In in two short seasons since being selected No. 1 overall by Indianapolis in the 2012 NFL Draft, Luck has led the Colts to consecutive AFC South division titles and already written his name into the record books. Arguably the cream of the current young quarterback crop, Luck will get more than one opportunity to see how he matches up with some of his more seasoned and accomplished peers this season.
For starters, there’s the season opener in Denver against Peyton Manning and the Broncos and a Week 11 matchup with Tom Brady and Patriots, this one coming in Indianapolis. Luck and the Colts also are slated to face off against three other Super Bowl MVPs. Indianapolis hosts Baltimore (Joe Flacco) in Week 5 and will visit Pittsburgh (Ben Roethlisberger) and the Giants (Eli Manning) in back-to-back weeks, with the latter taking place on “Monday Night Football” to finish off Week 9.
There’s also a Week 16 trip to Big D to play Tony Romo and the Cowboys, and the must-see Week 13 matchup against Robert Griffin III and the Redskins at Lucas Oil Stadium. In fact, additional home dates with fellow 2012 draft class member Nick Foles and Philadelphia (Week 2, Monday night) and ’11 first-rounder Andy Dalton and Cincinnati (Week 7) shouldn’t be overlooked either. After all both Dalton (33) and Foles (27) finished last season with more touchdown passes than Luck (23).
4. Pac-12 Reunion, NFL Style
We already get a little USC vs. Stanford action with the two divisional tilts between Pete Carroll’s Seahawks and Jim Harbaugh’s 49ers, but this season the NFL has upped the ante. The NFC East draws the West in crossover play, which means that Chip Kelly will get to match wits with his former conference peers once again with the Eagles set to visit San Francisco in Week 4 and host Seattle in Week 14. While at Oregon, Kelly got the better of Carroll in their only head-to-head meeting in 2009, while he and Harbaugh split their two matchups. Bragging rights on the collegiate level are certainly important, but they simply don’t compare with success in the NFL. Just ask Carroll, who has the Lombardi Trophy to prove it.
5. Player “Payback” Games?
Thanks to free agency, the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately attitude prevalent through the league and other factors, we can always count on plenty of roster and coaching turnover every season. This turnover, more often than not, also produces some intriguing matchups on the schedule and 2014 is no different.
Some of this season’s marquee matchups feature this element, such as Denver’s Aqib Talb vs. New England, Washington’s DeSean Jackson vs. Philadelphia and the Patriots’ Darrelle Revis vs. New York Jets. In addition, there’s Steve Smith in a Baltimore Ravens uniform matching up against Carolina’s secondary in Week 4, while new Jet Eric Decker and Talib figure to see plenty of each other when the Broncos come to the Big Apple in Week 6.
Speaking of the Jets, running back Chris Johnson will no doubt be looking for plenty of yards when he makes his return to Nashville, Tenn., to face the Titans in Week 15. Knowshon Moreno will do the same when he and the Dolphins face off with the Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High in Week 12. On the defensive side, Michael Johnson will probably not roll out the welcome mat for Andy Dalton and the rest of the Bengals when they come to Tampa Bay in Week 13, while Jared Allen can’t wait for his shots at whomever Minnesota has at quarterback when he leads Chicago’s new-look defense against its NFC North rival in Weeks 11 (home) and 17 (away).
6. Fired Head Coaches Looking for Revenge?
Players aren’t the only ones who get a shot at payback, at least when it comes to matchups. Such as when new head Buccaneer Lovie Smith (and quarterback Josh McCown) return to the Windy City to play the Bears in Week 12, while his defensive coordinator, Leslie Frazier, will try and shut down the team that fired him this offseason when Minnesota comes to Tampa Bay in Week 8.
Another former NFC North head coach, Jim Schwartz, not only gets a crack at his former employer (Lions), but the entire division, as his new team, the Bills, draws all four in crossover play. The headliner, of course, is when Buffalo’s defensive coordinator returns to the Motor City to try and shut down Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson, Bush and company in Week 5.
And let’s not forget about new Ravens offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak who will be back at NRG (former Reliant) Stadium in Week 16 when Baltimore meets up with Houston.
7. Rookie Head Coaches’ Indoctrination
Seven different NFL teams hired a new head coach this offseason with four guys getting their first opportunity to be the top dog. Houston turned to Penn State’s Bill O’Brien to turn the Texans around, while Minnesota and Washington raided Marvin Lewis’ staff in Cincinnati by hiring defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer and offensive coordinator Jay Gruden, respectively. Former Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine filled the last vacancy when he was hired by Cleveland in late January.
In looking at their opening month schedules, the NFL didn’t do the two former defensive bosses any favors. Pettine’s Browns open things at Pittsburgh, followed by consecutive home games against New Orleans and Baltimore. Although the bye in Week 4 is the earliest possible, it couldn’t come at a better time for a team that’s pretty much starting over.
Zimmer and the Vikings don’t get the same respite, as they open up on the road in St. Louis before coming back to their temporary home (TCF Bank Stadium) to host New England. After that it’s down to the Big Easy to play the Saints and then back north to face Atlanta. That’s three of the NFL’s most potent offenses (when fully healthy) matching up with the 31st-ranked defense last season.
Interestingly enough, either O’Brien or Gruden will get to enjoy their first career victory right out of the gates, as Houston hosts Washington in Week 1. Victory also could be possible for both the following week with the Texans traveling to Oakland while the Redskins welcome Jacksonville to FedEx Field. After that things get a little tougher with Houston in the Big Apple to face the Giants and Washington hooking up with the Eagles in Philadelphia.
Gruden’s first month as Skins’ head coach will end with a home date against the Giants while O’Brien and the Texans host the Bills. On paper, it looks like it will be a smoother and more enjoyable indoctrination for O’Brien and/or Gruden rather than Pettine and/or Zimmer, but we won’t really know until we see them and their teams on the field.
8. Bear-ing Down on the Road
Chicago enjoyed a fair amount of success in head coach Marc Trestman’s debut season. The Bears went 8-8, finishing a half game behind NFC North champion Green Bay and already boasts one of the more explosive offenses in the league. A defensive overhaul has taken place during the offseason, but even with likely improvement on that side of the ball, the results may not be evident in the win-loss column thanks in large part to scheduling.
The NFC North gets the NFC South and AFC East in crossover play this season. So not only does Chicago have to play Carolina, New Orleans, Atlanta, New England and the rest of those two divisions, its road games from this group are against the Panthers, Falcons and Patriots, as well as the Jets. What’s more, the Bears’ away swing game takes them out west to San Francisco for a Week 2 primetime matchup against the 49ers. The rest of the road slate is made up of divisional foes Green Bay, Detroit and Minnesota.
All told that’s three division winners and a fourth playoff team from last season, another game against a team just a season removed from playing for a spot in the Super Bowl and two other NFC North clashes. Any analysts who were bearish on Chicago’s chances this season better hope Trestman’s team doesn’t hibernate when it hits the road.
9. NFC Hosts Thanksgiving Day Feast
Even though it has a distinct NFC flavor, there’s little doubt in my mind that fans will devour the three course meal the NFL is serving up this Thanksgiving. The Turkey Day menu features not one, not two, but three tasty divisional matchups starting with Chicago in Detroit. The other traditional Thanksgiving Day host, Dallas, goes next when the Cowboys welcome the Eagles to AT&T Stadium. And just like last year’s Pittsburgh-Baltimore pairing, Commissioner Roger Goodell has saved the best for last with Seattle in San Francisco, as this heated NFC West rivalry takes center stage in primetime and serves as the perfect ending for a terrific Thanksgiving Day tripleheader.
10. Primetime Pairings
When it comes to the NFL’s broadcast schedule, there are two prime pieces of real estate – a spot on NBC’s Sunday night slate and an appearance on ESPN’s “Monday Night Football.” The market may have just gotten a little more crowded, however, as 2014 marks the beginning of the new Thursday night partnership with CBS and the NFL Network. From Weeks 2 to 8, CBS will air one Thursday night matchup with NFL Network simulcasting on their channel. From there, NFL Network will pick things up through Week 16, during which CBS also will broadcast two games that Saturday (Dec. 20).
So with even more NFL games on tap during primetime on Thursday, Sunday, Monday and one Saturday in December, which teams get the spotlight more? To the surprise of no one, Peyton Manning’s Broncos are scheduled for six such appearances, with half of those coming on NBC. Right behind them are Chicago, Indianapolis, New England, New Orleans, the New York Giants and Pittsburgh who each have five primetime dates.
Seattle, the defending Super Bowl champions, is currently slated for just four appearances, although the Seahawks also get the privilege of opening the regular season on NBC on Thursday, Sept. 4. This means their opponent, the Packers, actually have a total of six primetime dates.
Every team has at least one primetime appearance scheduled, which means even Jacksonville, Oakland, Buffalo and Minnesota will get their chance in the spotlight. How many will exactly tune in when these teams do appear on national TV is an entirely different question. At least there are plenty of other games to look forward to, right?
Similar to last year, free agency has not been kind to the NFL’s reigning champions. While nothing will take away from Seattle’s dominating victory over Denver in Super Bowl XLVIII, the Seahawks team that will take the field in Week 1 as defending champions will look considerably different than the one that manhandled the Broncos in MetLife Stadium less than two months ago.
Seattle isn’t the only playoff team that looks worse on paper right now compared to last season either. Carolina, Cincinnati and Indianapolis also have gone through some roster shuffling, which has left each with new holes or areas of weakness that need to be addressed.
Dallas entered free agency hamstrung by their own cap issues, so it’s not surprising to see them on this list of “losers,” but then there’s the curious case of Oakland. The Raiders have not been shy about spending money and bringing in new faces. However, a closer look at the moves the struggling franchise has made is yet another example of how quantity doesn’t necessarily equal quality.
Related: 2014 NFL Free Agency Winners
2014 NFL Free Agency Losers (in alphabetical order)
Even after San Francisco beat Carolina at home in the NFC Divisional Round to end the Panthers’ season, things seemed to be looking up for head coach Ron Rivera and his young team. Unfortunately, the reigning NFC South champions have seen their top three wide receivers and two starting defensive backs sign with other teams and their Pro Bowl left tackle retire.
No one around the league was surprised when Carolina and Steve Smith, the franchise’s all-time leading wide receiver, decided to part ways. However, his exodus to Baltimore along with Brandon LaFell signing with New England and Ted Ginn joining Arizona, leave former Steeler Jerricho Cotchery and former Buccaneer Tiquan Underwood along with holdovers Marvin McNutt and Tavarres King as quarterback Cam Newton’s inexperienced (in terms of playing together) and relatively unproven receiving corps.
Additionally, while the team franchised defensive end Greg Hardy to make sure he wouldn’t get away, the loss of cornerback Captain Munnerlyn and safety Mike Mitchell opens up two holes on a defense that was the team’s strength in 2013. There’s also the matter of replacing the now retired Jordan Gross, who has been a mainstay at tackle, primarily on the left side, since he was drafted eighth overall in 2003. Put it all together and general manager Dave Gettleman and Rivera have their work cut out for them in the draft if they want to carry over any momentum in a division that includes New Orleans and Atlanta. On top of that, Tampa Bay has been busy this offseason, first hiring Lovie Smith as its new coach and then being one of the more aggressive teams early in free agency.
Like the Panthers, the Bengals were coming off of a division title and seemed to be on the upswing. Cincinnati also entered free agency with plenty of cap space to use on either extending or re-signing its current core or to address areas of weakness. Instead the defending AFC North champions have seen both coordinators leave to take head coaching jobs and also have been fairly quiet in free agency so far, and I’m not sure that’s a good thing. Standout defensive end Michael Johnson signed a huge five-year, $43.75 million deal ($24 million guaranteed) to go to Tampa Bay and the Bengals also lost starting tackle Anthony Collins to the Buccaneers as well.
Perhaps even more painful, especially for Bengals fans, is that division rival Cleveland signed wide receiver Andrew Hawkins to an offer sheet that Cincinnati decided to not match. The Bengals did sign a few players, notably former Browns backup quarterback James Campbell and Green Bay offensive tackle Marshall Newhouse, but they have yet to sign a replacement for Johnson and it just seems like this is a team that should have acted with more sense of urgency. While the three straight playoff appearances (a franchise first) are a welcome sight, there’s still plenty of work left to do – the Bengals haven’t won a postseason game in more than two decades (1990).
The Cowboys and archrival Redskins found themselves in the same boat this offseason. Their penchant for spending freely and wildly during free agency and poor salary cap management in previous years coupled with some harsh penalties handed down by the NFL for their actions during the uncapped 2010 season finally came home to roost. Both teams were severely hamstrung by their roster and cap situations, which limited their ability to make many moves in free agency this offseason.
However, the reason the Cowboys show up here and not the Redskins is because Washington made the most of what little cap room it had to sign several players to modest deals, while Dallas had to cut ties with two of its top defensive players and a former Pro Bowl wide receiver. To be fair, while cutting wide receiver Miles Austin was probably a difficult decision, the move also made plenty of sense as his production had slipped in recent seasons.
The loss of DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher, however, is a different story entirely, as the Cowboys’ defense must replace two starters who were responsible for half of the team’s sacks last season. And this doesn’t include fellow defensive lineman Anthony Spencer, who remains an unrestricted free agent. If he doesn’t return, that’s another hole Jerry Jones, head coach Jason Garrett and new defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli will have to fill on that side of the ball alone.
So with Ware now in Denver hoping to get that long sought-after Super Bowl ring and Hatcher on the other side of the Dallas-Washington rivalry, the Cowboys are hoping that Henry Melton, the former Bear recovering from a torn ACL, and Jeremy Mincey can somehow fill these fairly large holes on a defense that ranked last in the NFL in 2013. Having missed the playoffs each of the last four seasons, Garrett already had enough to worry about and that was before free agency began and further depleted his roster.
The Colts are the reigning AFC South champions, have one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL in Andrew Luck and had plenty of cap space to beef up the supporting cast around him. While re-signing cornerback Vontae Davis, especially after long-time safety Antoine Bethea bolted for San Francisco, was a priority, Indianapolis was reported to be targeting either Eric Decker or Julian Edelman to bring in another weapon for Luck and the passing game. That didn’t happen, however, as the team invested heavily in Davis, former Cleveland linebacker D’Qwell Jackson and former Raven defensive lineman Arthur Jones.
To be fair, Indianapolis’ defense needed to be addressed. The Colts gave up 87 points and more than 900 yards in their two playoff games. However, Davis ($15 million guaranteed) and Jackson ($10.4 million guaranteed) didn’t come cheap. Besides Bethea, another key departure was running back Donald Brown, who signed with San Diego. Indianapolis did sign former Giant wideout Hakeem Nicks for one year and brought back running back Ahmad Bradshaw, but the former has seen his stock drop considerably in recent seasons while the latter is coming back from a serious neck injury.
So as it stands now, the Colts have lost their top defender (Bethea) and running back (Brown) and also are counting on 35-year-old Reggie Wayne, who tore his ACL last season, to return and immediately be of Luck’s most productive targets right out of the gates. Oh yeah, Indianapolis also doesn’t have a first-round pick in May’s draft because of the trade for Cleveland running back Trent Richardson, who scored four touchdowns and averaged less than three yards per carry for his new team. Sure sounds like a team that should have done more in free agency, no?
On one hand the Raiders have been one of the busier teams in the NFL so far, having signed 11 free agents from other teams and five of their own. The activity doesn’t end there, as Oakland has seen seven players from last year’s roster depart and also traded for former Houston starting quarterback Matt Schaub.
To this point, however, the additions don’t equal the subtractions, as two of the players that have left were arguably the Raiders’ best on each side of the ball – defensive end Lamarr Houston (signed with Chicago) and left tackle Jared Veldheer (Arizona). Also gone are running back Rashad Jennings (New York Giants), defensive tackle Vance Walker (Kansas City) along with cornerbacks Tracy Porter (Washington), Phillip Adams (Seattle) and Mike Jenkins (Tampa Bay).
Oakland has brought in some recognizable names in defensive end Justin Tuck, linebacker LaMarr Woodley, wide receiver James Jones and cornerback Carlos Rogers, but how effective each can be at this point in their respective career and given their supporting cast remains to be seen. Perhaps even more curious is that even though running back Darren McFadden re-signed for one year, the team still went out and added former Jacksonville Jaguar Maurice Jones-Drew (three-year deal).
There’s no question the Raiders needed to do something to address one of the weaker rosters in the league. However, there are plenty of questions surrounding how they have gone about doing it. The majority of the new players signed or the holdovers brought back are at least 30 years old, while the team let two young building blocks (Houston and Veldheer) leave seemingly without much of a fight. And even with Schaub now on board, the Raiders’ quarterback situation is far from settled.
So while the names on Oakland’s roster have certainly changed, it still looks an awfully lot like the same old Silver and Black. And that’s not a good thing.
It’s hard to call the Super Bowl champs “losers,” but just like Baltimore a year ago the Seahawks are finding out how much tougher things are once you are on top. A year ago, the Ravens were the victim of their own success, as salary cap issues and other factors forced them to bid farewell to several starters and other key contributors from the team that won the Lombardi Trophy.
This year it’s the Seahawks’ turn, as the team’s blueprint for success – maximizing on draft picks, especially in later rounds and identifying young players who didn’t work out for other teams – makes it virtually impossible to keep the roster intact. Especially with Super Bowl XLVIII MVP Russell Wilson and All-Pro defensive backs Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas among those in line for lucrative contract extensions.
As far as this offseason went, Seattle made re-signing defensive end Michael Bennett a priority and got the job done with a four-year, $28.5 million ($16 million guaranteed) pact. In turn, however, fellow starting defensive linemen Clinton McDonald and Chris Clemons decided to sign elsewhere, joining Tampa Bay and Jacksonville respectively. The Jaguars also lured end Red Bryant, a key cog in the defensive line rotation, away while cornerbacks Brandon Browner (New England) and Walter Thurmond (New York Giants) departed as well.
However, one of the biggest potential losses could end up being wide receiver Golden Tate. Wilson’s top target in his first two seasons, Tate signed a five-year deal to become Calvin Johnson’s sidekick in Detroit. The Seahawks still have Percy Harvin, Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse on the roster, but Tate’s value to this team went beyond the passes he caught. Seattle also lost a piece of its offensive line as right tackle Breno Giacomini signed with the Jets.
There is still a lot of talent left for Pete Carroll to coach, starting with the likes of Wilson, Sherman, Thomas, Bennett and Harvin. However, there’s also no disputing that the team that takes the field in Week 1 when the Seahawks begin defense of their championship will look distinctively different. Again this was the case last year with Baltimore and the Ravens went on to finish 8-8 and not make the playoffs. Will Seattle follow the same path? Free agency already seems to have made any chances of a repeat that much tougher.
The new NFL league year is not even a month old, but teams have been plenty busy with free agency ongoing while also getting ready for the draft in May. While hundreds of players are still on the market, plenty have already found their new homes.
A division title, conference championship or even Super Bowl ring won’t necessarily be won or lost based solely on what a team accomplishes in free agency, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some teams that clearly look like “winners” at this point either.
AFC contenders Denver and New England both addressed areas of weakness, while teams like Arizona, Chicago, Detroit and Miami targeted and signed players that were atop their wish list. Even lowly Jacksonville got into the act, as the Jaguars really beefed up their defense in hopes of turning things around.
However, no team was as aggressive and intentional in remaking their roster than Tampa Bay, something that has to bring a smile to new head coach Lovie Smith’s face.
2014 NFL Free Agency Winners (in alphabetical order)
The Cardinals have signed 13 free agents to this point, including seven of their own. Of the other six, two should have a significant impact this season. Left tackle Jared Veldheer, arguably Oakland’s best player, fills a significant need, as offensive line has been a major issue for Arizona the past few seasons. The Cardinals were just 23rd in rushing offense in 2013 and the line gave up 41 sacks.
With Veldheer and last year’s first-round pick guard Jonathan Cooper returning from injury, Arizona’s offensive line is in considerably better shape headed into training camp. Even better, the Cardinals got Veldheer for a reasonable price (five years, $35 million, $10.5 fully guaranteed), especially compared to the deals that peers Branden Albert (Miami) and Eugene Monroe (Baltimore) signed.
Arizona also caught a break when Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie got cut right before the start of free agency. Although clearly interested, and in the end the team got their man. Cromartie will pair with Patrick Peterson and it’s possible this duo could end up being the best cornerback tandem in the NFC West. This would be no small feat considering the division also houses the defending Super Bowl champion Seahawks.
Although not as significant as the Veldheer and Cromartie signings, adding former Pittsburgh running back Jonathan Dwyer, Carolina wide receiver/return specialist Ted Ginn and veteran tight end John Carlson gives Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians even more pieces to work with on offense.
After giving up a franchise-record 478 points last season, Bears general manager Phil Emery and head coach Marc Trestman were intent on making over their defense. Besides bidding farewell to defensive end Julius Peppers, fellow defensive linemen Henry Melton and Corey Wootton also have departed, along with defensive backs Zack Bowman and Major Wright.
In their place, Chicago signed Oakland defensive end Lamarr Houston and two former Lions in Willie Young and Israel Idonije, who played for the Bears from 2004-12, to overhaul the line. The team also re-signed linebacker D.J. Williams and All-Pro cornerback Charles Tillman along with safeties Ryan Mundy (Pittsburgh) and M.D. Jennings (Green Bay).
Emery made a major push towards signing highly sought-after defensive ends Michael Bennett and Michael Johnson as soon as free agency began, but he was rebuffed on both fronts. However, the GM kept plugging away and he was rewarded when former Minnesota All-Pro Jared Allen declined a chance to join Seattle and signed a four-year deal with his former division rival instead. Two years younger and more productive (11.5 sacks in 2013) than Peppers (7.5 sacks), Allen should not only spark an unproductive Bears pass rush (30 sacks last season), but also serve as a vocal leader in the locker room. Whether or not these new faces produce better results on defense this season remains to be seen, but you certainly can’t say that Emery and Trestman didn’t try.
There’s little doubt that the 43-8 Super Bowl XLVIII shellacking by Seattle still stings, which is why general manager John Elway did what he thought was necessary to keep the Broncos’ championship window open. While the team did watch wide receiver Eric Decker leave for the Big Apple and allowed leading rusher Knowshon Moreno sign with Miami among several other key departures, Elway also wasted neither time nor money in addressing his team’s biggest holes.
The first salvo fired by the defending AFC champs was signing Pro Bowl cornerback Aqib Talib (top) away from the New England Patriots, just like Denver did last year with wide receiver Wes Welker. Even though Talib has a history for both injuries and his share of off-the-field issues, there’s no disputing his talent and ability to shut down a team’s best receiver. Talib won’t be the only new face in Denver’s secondary either, as he will team with former Cleveland safety T.J. Ward to try and replace the departed Dominque-Rodgers Cromartie (signed with the Giants) and Champ Bailey (still unsigned).
The loudest shot, however, came when Elway got DeMarcus Ware, after he was released by Dallas, to come to the Mile High City. Even though he’ll be 32 years old this season, Ware’s pass-rushing ability is something Denver desperately needs, especially with linebacker Von Miller coming back from a torn ACL. And while Elway certainly recognizes the need to improve the defense to take some of the pressure off of his MVP quarterback, he also made a shrewd move by signing former Pittsburgh wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders to replace Decker as one of Peyton Manning’s preferred targets. As bad as the Broncos looked in the Super Bowl, they still have to be considered one of the favorites to represent the AFC in Glendale, Ariz., in Super Bowl XLIX.
The Lions weren’t particularly active, but still made two important moves that could go a long ways towards determining how head coach Jim Caldwell’s first season in the Motor City goes. The biggest one was singing wide receiver Golden Tate away from the Super Bowl champion Seahawks. The five-year, $31 million ($13.25 million guaranteed) deal gives All-Pro Calvin Johnson a legitimate sidekick for the first time, as Tate will replace the departed Nate Burleson. Quarterback Matthew Stafford also had to be happy when tight end Brandon Pettigrew re-signed with the Lions, as these two moves now means general manager Martin Mayhew can now focus his attention on beefing up the defense through the draft.
Can it be? The Jaguars are considered “winners” for a change? That’s what happens when owner Shad Khan opens up his checkbook, allowing general manager David Caldwell and head coach Gus Bradley the opportunity to get aggressive in molding this roster. While cornerstone running back Maurice Jones-Drew is no longer a Jaguar, Bradley tapped his Seattle roots to beef up a defense that ranked near the bottom in every major category in 2013.
The Seahawks’ defensive coordinator from 2009-12, Bradley convinced defensive ends Red Bryant and Chris Clemons to join him in Jacksonville. Those two along with former Pittsburgh end Ziggy Hood and the re-signed Jason Babin will allow Bradley the opportunity to constantly bring pressure by rotating fresh, able bodies in. Cornerback Will Blackmon also should step right in and be an immediate contributor in the secondary.
All the attention wasn’t paid to the defense, however, as former Denver guard Zane Beadles fills a major need and Toby Gerhart, Adrian Peterson’s backup in Minnesota, should get his chance to shoulder the backfield load for the Jaguars. Caldwell also was able to trade former first-round pick Blaine Gabbert to San Francisco for a sixth-rounder in the upcoming draft. The Jaguars still have a long ways to go as they work their way back to competing on a consistent basis, but this offseason was a positive step in that direction.
The Dolphins were one of the more aggressive teams in free agency last season, adding wide receiver Mike Wallace, linebacker Dannell Ellerbe and cornerback Brent Grimes, among others. The ‘Fins didn’t stay on the sidelines this time around either, as the biggest fish they reeled in was former Kansas City left tackle Branden Albert. The 6-5, 316-pound blocker didn’t come cheap (five years, $47 million, $20 million guaranteed), but he was considered by many the best tackle available and he’s clearly an upgrade over what the Dolphins had (and had to deal with) last season.
New general manager Dennis Hickey and head coach Joe Philbin also decided to address their struggling running game, which ranked 26th last season, by bringing in Knowshon Moreno. The oft-injured running back is coming off his best season, rushing for 1,038 yards and adding another 548 on 60 catches while scoring 13 total touchdowns for Denver. Signed for one year at just $3 million, Moreno will try and build on last season’s success, as he will compete with incumbents Lamar Miller and Daniel Thomas for touches.
Miami took care of important business on defense by re-signing defensive tackle Randy Starks and cornerback Brent Grimes, while also inking St. Louis Ram castoff Cortland Finnegan to further bolster its secondary. Most off all, the Dolphins are “winners” in that they made sure to rid themselves of offensive linemen Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin, the two central figures in the bullying scandal that overshadowed and sullied their 2013 season.
New England Patriots
It was almost déjà vu for the Patriots in free agency. After watching wide receiver Wes Welker leave for Denver last season, it looked like the Broncos had stuck it to their rivals again when they signed cornerback Aqib Talib. This time, however, Bill Belichick and the front office did not just sit idly by, instead pouncing on All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis as soon as he was released by Tampa Bay. Unlike Talib’s lengthy, expensive contract (six years, $57 million, $26 million guaranteed), Revis signed a one-year, $12 million pact with the Patriots that gives him a chance to prove to everyone (especially the New York Jets, his former employer and now division rival) that he’s fully recovered from the torn ACL he suffered in 2012.
And the hooded one wasn’t done there either. The team added a second physical corner in Brandon Browner, despite the drug-related suspension that still looms over the former Seahawk. But perhaps most importantly, the Patriots also made sure that their current top wide receiver, Julian Edelman, didn’t leave the nest like Welker did last March. New England still has other holes and needs to address, but Belichick is doing all that he can in hopes of building a supporting cast that can hopefully get him and Tom Brady back to the Super Bowl.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Talk about your housewarming gifts. All Buccaneers owner Malcolm Glazer and new general manager Jason Licht have done to welcome new head coach Lovie Smith is gift wrap one of the top defensive ends (Michael Johnson) and cornerbacks (Alterraun Verner) on the market. They along with tackle Clinton McDonald and corner Mike Jenkins should team with the pieces already in place (defensive linemen Gerald McCoy and Adrian Clayborn, linebacker Lavonte David, safeties Mark Barron and Dashon Goldson) to form one of the nastier defenses in the NFL.
On the other side of the ball, new additions include center Evan Dietrich-Smith, tight end Brandon Myers and quarterback Josh McCown, the former Bear who has familiarity with Smith and will challenge second-year pro Mike Glennon for the starting job. It’s early, but if Tampa Bay can maximize its draft picks, settle on a starting quarterback and make the transition to Smith’s preferred Tampa-2 defensive scheme, the Buccaneers could mimic what division rival Carolina did last season – go from worst to first in the NFC South.
Opening Day. These two words are so synonymous with baseball that more than 100,000 Americans signed a petition on the White House Web site imploring the Obama administration to declare the first day of the MLB season a national holiday. Whether this movement results in any government action remains to be seen, but it won’t change the attachment, emotions and memories fans of America’s pastime have when it comes to Opening Day.
Besides signaling the start of a new season and the opportunity to cheer on their favorite team and/or player, Opening Day also has been the catalyst for some of baseball’s most historic moments and impressive achievements.
The Day Baseball Changed Forever
On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson, 28, played first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers, becoming the first African American to play in MLB’s modern era in the process. By breaking the color barrier, Robinson forever changed America’s pastime and this also represented the start to his eventual Hall of Fame career. Even though he went hitless (0-for-3) in his first game, Robinson’s impact on the game is unmistakable, as evidenced by the fact his No. 42 has been retired permanently.
“The Judge” Holds Court in the Dugout and at the Plate
Similar to Jackie Robinson, Frank Robinson was a trailblazer in his own right. A Hall of Fame player with 586 career home runs, two MVP awards and a Triple Crown, Robinson debuted as player-manager of the Cleveland Indians back on April 8, 1975, becoming the first African American manager in major league history.
Facing the New York Yankees at home, Robinson batted second as the team’s DH and gave the fans at Cleveland Stadium something to cheer about early when he homered off of Doc Medich in the bottom of the first. The Indians would go on to win 5-3, giving Robinson the first of the 1,065 wins he would amass in his 16 seasons as a manager. Robinson also was no stranger to going deep on Opening Day. His eight career Opening Day home runs are the most in history, a mark he shares with Ken Griffey Jr.
Presidential First Pitch
Twelve U.S. presidents have thrown out the ceremonial first pitch of the MLB season. The first to do so was William Howard Taft back on April 14, 1910. A noted baseball fan, Taft attended the Washington Senators’ opener at Griffith Stadium. While several other presidents, including Woodrow Wilson (pictured above in 1916), preceded Ronald Reagan in fulfilling this duty, he is the first Commander-in-Chief credited with throwing out the first pitch from the mound rather than the stands. Reagan did so in 1984 as part of an unscheduled appearance at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium.
Since Reagan, each of the sitting presidents have participated in at least one Opening Day, the most recent being President Obama’s appearance at the Washington Nationals’ season-opener in 2010 – the 100th anniversary of the presidential first pitch.
The Bambino Christens His House
It was known as “The House That Ruth Built” and if there was every any doubt as to why, just go back to what happened on April 18, 1923. On the first Opening Day in Yankee Stadium (the original, not the one that opened in 2009), Ruth fittingly produced the first home run – a three-run shot into the right field bleachers. This blast helped the Yankees defeat the Red Sox, Ruth’s former team, and was the first of 259 home runs Ruth would hit at his house.
The Hammer Ties the Bambino
On April 4, 1974, Hank Aaron forever etched his name into the record books when he hit a three-run home run off of Cincinnati’s Jack Billingham in the top of the first inning at Riverfront Stadium. Besides staking his Atlanta Braves to an early 3-0 lead, it represented the 714th home run in Aaron’s career, tying Babe Ruth for the most in MLB history. Aaron finished his Hall of Fame career with 755 home runs, a mark that many still acknowledge as the all-time record.
Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller threw three no-hitters in his career, including one on April 16, 1940. Taking the mound for the Cleveland Indians against the Chicago White Sox at the original Comiskey Park, Feller made one run stand, holding the home team hitless while allowing five walks and striking out eight. This remains as the only no-hitter thrown on Opening Day.
Going the Distance
On April 13, 1926, the Washington Senators and Philadelphia A’s opened their season by needing 15 innings to decide the winner. While on the surface that may not seem that impressive, consider that the two starting pitchers – Walter Johnson and Eddie Rommel – were on the mound for the entire game!
Johnson, the Hall of Fame righty who is considered one of the greatest pitchers of all-time, allowed just six hits and struck out 12 in his 15 innings of work for the Senators. Opposing him was the knuckleballer Rommel, who surrendered nine hits and walked five. The Senators broke through in the bottom of the 15th, giving Johnson a 1-0 win in a pitching matchup for the ages.
In fact, Johnson owned Opening Day in many ways, as the man known as “The Big Train” took the mound for 14 season-opening starts. In those starts, he went 9-5 with 12 complete games, including three that went to extra innings. Seven of his nine victories were shutouts, and he struck out more batters (82) than hits allowed (81) in 124 innings pitched.
Opening Day Power
Toronto’s George Bell hit three home runs off of Kansas City starter Bret Saberhagen on April 4, 1988 to become the first player to do so in his team’s opener. Chicago Cubs outfielder Tuffy Rhodes was the next to accomplish this feat when he took New York Mets ace Dwight Gooden out of Wrigley Field three times exactly six years later. Rhodes’ power display was certainly unexpected, as he entered that game with just five home runs in four seasons and wound up with a total of 13 in 590 career at-bats.
The most recent to go yard three times on Opening Day was Detroit’s Dimitri Young, who tamed Comerica Park with three home runs on April 4, 2005. Two of Young’s taters came off of Kansas City starter Jose Lima, while he victimized reliever Mike MacDougal with two outs in the bottom of the eighth for his third round-tripper.
Giving Fans Their Money’s Worth
Those in attendance at Progressive Field on April 5, 2012 got to see plenty of baseball action. The Cleveland Indians and Toronto Blue Jays battled for 16 innings, the longest Opening Day game in MLB history. Although the home team lost, 7-4, those that stuck around for the entire game basically got a two-for-one deal with their ticket.
Saving Their Best For Last
In 1901, the Detroit Tigers, playing their first-ever game, trailed the Milwaukee Brewers 13-4 headed into the bottom of the ninth. The home team mounted a monumental rally, tallying 10 runs to beat the Brewers, 14-13. More than 110 years later it remains the greatest Opening Day rally in major league history.
The 2013 MLB season included the Boston Red Sox going from worst in the AL East in 2012 to World Series champions, the Pittsburgh Pirates breaking their record streak of 20 straight losing seasons and the Cleveland Indians improving their win total by 24 games.
Every season there always seems to be a few teams that defy expectations, so there’s no reason to expect anything different in 2014. While there’s no guarantee that said improvement will result in a World Series appearance, let alone a postseason berth, here are some teams that could be a part of the playoff discussion come August and September.
Los Angeles Angels
Take out the Angels’ horrendous start (9-17 in April) to last season and a rough beginning to the second half of their slate (4-9 in first 13 games after All-Star break) and the end result is a 65-58 record. What’s more, other than April and July, the Angels outscored their opposition by 50 runs (527 scored, 477 allowed) the other four months. Only six American League teams finished the season with a better run differential.
So what’s the reason for optimism when it comes to the other team that calls Los Angeles home you ask? For starters, there’s Mike Trout, arguably the best player in the game at the ripe age of just 22 years old. But Trout can’t do it alone, which is why it’s critical that former MVPs Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton do their part at the plate. Age isn’t on the side of this duo, but provided Pujols and Hamilton can stay healthy they should be able to surpass last season’s combined totals of 122 runs, 38 home runs and 143 RBIs fairly easily.
While the offense had its issues in 2013, pitching was more of the problem, as the team’s starters posted a collective ERA of 4.30. Jered Weaver, who missed time due to a fractured elbow, and C.J. Wilson are back to front the rotation and have been joined by young lefthanders Tyler Skaggs and Hector Santiago. This duo was part of the three-team trade in December that saw slugger Mark Trumbo wind up in Arizona with outfielder Adam Eaton going to the Chicago White Sox.
And while the Angels will certainly need to stay healthy in order to have their best product on the field, the team has already benefitted to a degree from the misfortune that has struck division rivals Oakland and Texas. The A’s have lost ace Jarrod Parker to Tommy John surgery while the Rangers have been beset by a slew of injuries during spring training – ranging from Derek Holland’s freak accident that led to microfracture surgery on his knee to Jurickson Profar’s torn shoulder muscle (out 10-12 weeks) to ace Yu Darvish’s stiff neck, which will cause him to miss his Opening Day start, at minimum. Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good, and the Angels have already gotten a decent dose of the former.
Related: Los Angeles Angels 2014 Preview
Kansas City Royals
The Royals went 86-76 last season, thanks to a strong 43-27 second half. This team is young, headlined by several rising stars at different positions and has a chance to be even better on the mound in 2014. That’s saying something considering Kansas City led the AL with a 3.45 team ERA last season.
On offense, first baseman Eric Hosmer, left fielder Alex Gordon, catcher Salvador Perez and designated hitter Bully Butler form the core of a lineup that could end up being one of deepest and most productive in the majors. During the offseason, the team added right fielder and leadoff man Norichika Aoki via trade and signed free agent second baseman Omar Infante. Couple their production with any sort of improvement from the likes of shortstop Alcides Escobar, third baseman Mike Moustakas and center fielder Lorenzo Cain and this has the makings of a lineup that should score plenty of runs a variety of ways.
James Shields headlines a starting rotation that swapped Ervin Santana (9-10, 3.24 ERA in 2013) for lefty Jason Vargas and also includes reliable innings eater Jeremy Guthrie, veteran Bruce Chen and young fireballer Yordano Ventura. The bullpen (2.55 ERA) was second only to Atlanta’s in the majors with closer Greg Holland (47 saves, 1.21 ERA) leaving little doubt at the end of games. While the pen will miss Luke Hochevar (Tommy John surgery), there are no lack of options to take his place with setup guys Kelvin Herrera, Tim Collins, Aaron Crow and young lefty Danny Duffy waiting in the wings.
The Royals went 44-32 against AL Central foes last season. Provided the pitching doesn’t take a major step back, the offense could improve enough to produce a few more wins, which could find this young team in the thick of the playoff chase come September.
Related: Kansas City Royals 2014 Preview
The Brewers finished 14 games below .500 last season, but also were missing 2011 MVP Ryan Braun for nearly two thirds of the campaign while third baseman Aramis Ramirez played in just 92 games. Both will be back this season and even though right fielder and leadoff man Norichika Aoki was traded to Kansas City, the team is high on young left fielder Khris Davis, who hit 11 home runs in just 136 at-bats in his first taste of major-league action. With Braun and Ramirez teaming up with center fielder Carlos Gomez, shortstop Jean Segura and catcher Jonathan Lucroy, the Brewers’ offense should be much more dangerous than last year’s lineup that finished eighth in the National League in runs and sixth in home runs.
The key to Milwaukee’s fortunes in 2014 is its starting rotation. Last year, the Brewers’ starters posted a 4.20 ERA, but this group has been bolstered by the addition of Matt Garza via free agency. Garza went 21-18 with a 3.45 ERA in two-plus seasons with the Chicago Cubs and the 30-year-old should get even more offensive support as a Brewer in his return to the NL. If Yovani Gallardo can prove that last season’s disappointing campaign is the exception and not the norm and youngster Wily Peralta can continue his development, Milwaukee’s rotation could end up being quite deep with veteran Kyle Lohse and promising Marco Estrada rounding out the staff.
If Braun can prove that he’s the same MVP-caliber hitter he was before his embarrassing 100-game Biogenesis-related suspension, then the Brewers’ lineup has the pieces to make some noise at the plate. If the rotation can step up and take advantage of this run support and the bullpen maintains its level of performance, then the Brewers could fill the same role that Pittsburgh did in 2013 and be the surprise team in the NL Central this season.
Related: Milwaukee Brewers 2014 Preview
Toronto Blue Jays
The Blue Jays finished last in the AL East in 2013 with a 74-88 record. Injuries and pitching were largely to blame, as Toronto’s 4.81 ERA from its starting rotation was next to last in the majors (Minnesota). While there are still certainly question marks in this area, the hope is that 2012 National League Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey will fare better in his second season in the AL while Brandon Morrow looks to show he’s healthy and recovered from a forearm issue that limited him to just 54 innings last season. The Jays also are hoping that righties Dustin McGowan and Drew Hutchinson can help stabilize the back end of the rotation, something that was a major weakness in 2013.
The real reason I am somewhat bullish on Toronto’s chances in 2014, however, is because of what this team has the potential to do at the plate. As bad as the pitching was last season, the Jays finished with a run differential of just minus-44. Even though the pitchers surrendered 756 runs, the fourth-most in MLB, the offense plated 712 (ninth).
What’s even more impressive about this number is the fact that slugger Jose Bautista played in just 118 games, while leadoff man Jose Reyes saw action in only 93. The Jays also got little production from catcher and second base, as the two positions combined for a .230 batting average. Entering Opening Day, Bautista appears healthy and has been hitting the cover off of the ball in spring training, although Reyes has been slowed by a nagging hamstring injury.
Still with Bautista raking, he and fellow slugger Edwin Encarnacion (.272.-36-104 in 2013) should form a formidable heart of the order, which also will hopefully include a healthy Reyes as the catalyst, reliable Adam Lind (.288, 23 HRs) and Colby Rasmus’ power (22 HRs, .501 SLG) at the bottom and the breakthrough season from Brett Lawrie that everyone has been waiting for these past few seasons.
A lot of things will have to break just right for Toronto to maximize its potential in 2014, but there also are a lot of pieces in place to like, especially in a division with so much uncertainty once you get past the Red Sox and Rays.
Related: Toronto Blue Jays 2014 Preview
San Diego Padres
I must admit that I am not as keen on the Padres as I was when spring training started, as a rash of injuries have impacted their makeup. However, only one of these is of the season-ending variety to this point, so I will still make my case as to why I think San Diego could be a factor in the NL West all season long.
In 2013 the Padres finished 76-86 for the second straight season despite ranking 24th in the majors in runs scored. The primary reasons for this were twofold – they had a solid pitching staff (3.98 ERA, 20th in MLB) and thrived at Petco Park (45-36). The moves the team made in the offseason were relatively minor, but all with an eye towards shoring up weaknesses.
Pitcher Josh Johnson was signed to a one-year deal to help bolster a starting rotation that already included Andrew Cashner, Ian Kennedy, lefty Eric Stults and the surprising Tyson Ross, who really came on late in the season. Joaquin Benoit was added to replace primary setup man Luke Gregerson, who was traded to Oakland for left-handed hitting outfielder Seth Smith.
With Johnson in tow and lefty Cory Luebke expected to return from Tommy John surgery, the Padres were putting together what could have been one of the deepest starting rotations in all of baseball. Unfortunately, Luebke reinjured his surgically repaired elbow and had to undergo a second Tommy John procedure in February, while Johnson is expected to miss between four to five weeks with a flexor strain in his right forearm.
San Diego still has some arms, but now it’s even more imperative for the offense to pick up the slack. Shortstop Everth Cabrera was an All-Star before missing 50 games because of his connection to the Biogenesis scandal, which also claimed catcher Yasmani Grandal as one of the punished participants. Both players need to put this embarrassment behind them and show they are still capable of being solid contributors at both the plate and in the field.
The key to the Padres’ offense is a bounce-back season from third baseman Chase Headley, who already has been limited in spring training by a calf injury, along with the continued emergence of versatile outfielder Will Venable (22 HRs, 22 SBs) and the development of second-year slugging second baseman Jedd Gyorko (23 HRs in 486 AB). First baseman Yonder Alonso also needs to stay healthy and show no ill effects from a nagging hand injury that limited him to just 97 games in 2013.
No one is going to mistake this Padres team for the Dodgers, the clear-cut division favorites. However, if San Diego can catch a few breaks on the injury front, their young players continue to emerge, and a few of the veterans do their part, there’s no reason to think that the Padres can’t at least improve on last season’s showing. It’s not the like the Diamondbacks, Giants or Rockies don’t have their own injury-related issues or weaknesses of their own.
Related: San Diego Padres 2014 Preview
NFL free agency officially gets started at 4 p.m. ET on Tuesday, meaning more than 500 players will be looking for employment. While salary cap, team needs, system fit, and other football-related matters drive this process, that doesn’t mean it’s the only criteria that can be applied.
In the interest of having some fun, here are some free agent marriages we would love to see happen. In some cases these player-team pairings actually make some sense on the field, but in many instances these matches are simply too intriguing and/or entertaining to pass up.
Eric Decker signs with the Tennessee Titans
Why this makes some sense: Decker is coming off of a season in which he posted career bests in catches (87) and yards (1,288) and hauled in 11 touchdown passes for the highest-scoring offense in NFL history. Arguably the most attractive free agent wide receiver on the market, the Titans finished 21st in passing offense last season and could use another reliable target to complement Kendall Wright.
Why it probably won’t happen: The Titans have spent high picks on wide receivers in each of the past two drafts. In 2012, Wright was taken with the 20th overall selection and last April, Tennessee traded up to grab Justin Hunter early in the second round. While another weapon in the passing game would certainly be nice, this team has much more pressing issues at other positions.
Why we really want to see this happen: Decker’s wife, Jessie James, is a country artist on Mercury Records. They already have their own reality show (“Eric & Jessie” on E!) and are expecting their first child, so it only makes sense to have the oh-so-photogenic couple working in the same town, no? Also, they could potentially challenge Music City’s reigning sports-entertainment duo – Carrie Underwood and Nashville Predators center Mike Fisher – for the top spot in this category.
Michael Vick signs with the Minnesota Vikings
Why this makes some sense: Have you forgotten the revolving door that was the Vikings’ quarterback situation last season? Christian Ponder (nine games), Matt Cassel (six) and Josh Freeman (one) all started for Minnesota and collectively went 5-10-1 while throwing more interceptions (19) than touchdown passes (18). The Vikings could take a quarterback early in the upcoming draft, but still go with Vick under center to ease the rookie’s transition to the NFL.
Why it probably won’t happen: Vick will turn 34 years old before training camp starts and besides his age being a factor, he also lost the starting job in Philadelphia last season to Nick Foles. Besides nearing the end of his career, Vick has never been a model of durability and his career completion percentage (56.2) is lower than what the Vikings’ trio combined for (59.5) in 2013. And most of all, it's the fact that Minnesota re-signed Cassel to a two-year deal on Friday. One 30-something-year-old quarterback is probably enough for a team that's rebuilding under first-year head coach Mike Zimmer.
Why we really want to see this happen: Adrian Peterson has already come out and lobbied for the team to sign Vick and who doesn’t want to make their All-Pro running back happy? Also, it’s not like we haven’t seen this script before with the Vikings. Remember Randall Cunningham and Brett Favre? Both came to Minnesota at the end of their respective careers and nearly led the Vikings to the Super Bowl. Heck, even 37-year-old Gus Frerotte got the Vikings to the playoffs in 2008. Why not let Vick have his chance to try and do the same?
Darren McFadden signs with the Dallas Cowboys
Why this makes some sense: Most teams rely on more than one running back to carry the load these days and in Dallas’ case, having someone like McFadden would mean less wear and tear on DeMarco Murray. Murray rushed for a career-high 1,121 yards last season, but also missed two games because of injury.
Why this probably won’t happen: Murray hasn’t exactly been durable, missing 11 of a possible 48 career games so far, but McFadden’s injury track record is much worse. Since being taken 4th overall in the 2008 NFL Draft, McFadden has missed no fewer than three games in any season. In total, he has missed 29 games, including six last year, and also has seen his yards per carry decrease from 5.4 in 2011 to just 3.3 last year. The Cowboys also appear pretty set at running back with Murray and last April’s fifth-round pick, Joseph Randle, among those on the roster currently.
Why we really want to see it happen: Dallas owner/general manager Jerry Jones is a University of Arkansas graduate who was an offensive lineman on the Razorbacks’ 1964 national championship team. He is a proud alumnus and has been known to go with his heart over his head when it comes to personnel decisions. McFadden is the most decorated player to ever play for Jones’ beloved alma mater, as he holds the majority of the rushing records at the school. Jones didn’t have a shot at drafting McFadden back in 2008, so surely he won’t pass on the opportunity now, right?
And besides, how fitting would it be for Jones to overpay to bring McFadden to Big D even though the Cowboys already have a 1,000-yard rusher in Murray? The end result would be just what embattled head coach Jason Garrett doesn’t need – more drama and controversy that he didn’t create in the first place.
Maurice Jones-Drew signs with the San Francisco 49ers
Why this makes some sense: Frank Gore will be 31 years old by the time the 2014 season starts and he has averaged 272 carries over the last three seasons alone. Jones-Drew is two years younger and has carried the ball a total of 320 times the last two seasons combined. The 49ers’ other backfield options are either unproven (LaMichael James) or come with injury risks (Kendall Hunter, Marcus Lattimore).
Why this probably won’t happen: The reason Jones-Drew has so few carries the past two seasons is that he missed 10 games in 2012 because of a Lisfranc injury that eventually required surgery on his foot. And although he is younger (29 on March 23) than Gore, there already are concerns that his productive years may be past him. After leading the NFL in rushing with 1,606 yards in 2011, he’s averaged just four yards per carry over the last two seasons, including a meager 3.4 in 2013. The 49ers also don’t lack for other options with the aforementioned James, Hunter and Lattimore on the roster.
Why we really want to see it happen: Jones-Drew starred at UCLA before being selected by Jacksonville in the second round of the 2006 NFL Draft. This will give the California native a chance to come home and play on the West Coast. Also, 49ers tight end Vernon Davis is said to be recruiting him, perhaps because he feels sorry for him. In eight seasons with the Jaguars, Jones-Drew has played in the postseason just once (2007), which also is the only time he’s enjoyed being a part of a winning team. MJD deserves better, no?
Kenny Britt signs with the New York Jets
Why this makes some sense: No team had fewer touchdowns passes than the Jets’ 13 last season and only one team (Tampa Bay) finished with fewer passing yards (2,932). Second-year quarterback Geno Smith needs all the weapons the team is able to surround him with.
Why this probably won’t happen: Tennessee’s first-round draft pick in 2009, Britt’s tenure with the Titans will be remembered more for what he did off of the field than on it. Seemingly on the verge of breaking out in 2011 after posting 14 receptions for 271 yards and three touchdowns in the first two games, Britt injured his knee the next week and things just went downhill from there. He did return to the field in 2012, but his production was never the same and frequent legal issues and other poor decisions became the focus instead. Some team may end up taking a chance on Britt, but it doesn’t need to be the Jets, who have enough other problems to worry about.
Why we really want to see it happen: Come on, these are the Jets we are talking about, do I really need to say anything more? OK, Britt was a former Rutgers star, so maybe a homecoming of sorts will be just what he needs to get his career going again. But the real answer is who better than Britt to help fill the role of the malcontent wideout the Jets always seem to end up with. First it was Keyshawn Johnson than Braylon Edwards and most recently Santonio Holmes. Dare I say this is just meant to be?
Jared Allen signs with the Green Bay Packers
Why this makes some sense: A team can never have too many pass rushers, especially when it finished 24th in that category last season. The Packers had a respectable 44 sacks in 2013, but the most they got from a defensive lineman was Mike Daniels’ 6.5. Allen had 11.5 for Minnesota and he has averaged 14.4 over his last seven seasons.
Why it probably won’t happen: Allen will be 32 years old in April and the Packers’ have plenty of areas to address on a defense that ranked 25th in yards allowed and tied for 24th in points last season. There are probably several other teams that could pay Allen much more than Green Bay could or would be willing to fork out.
Why we really want to see it happen: Chalk this one up to karma. Wide receiver Greg Jennings left Green Bay and signed with Minnesota last season, taking some not-so-veiled shots at teammates, notably quarterback Aaron Rodgers, and the organization on the way out. Should Allen likewise change NFC North allegiances, it would be interesting to see if he would follow Jennings’ playbook or not. Also what sweeter revenge for Allen than to play on a team that has a MVP signal-caller while also guaranteeing him two shots at punishing whomever the Vikings end up with under center.
Golden Tate signs with the San Francisco 49ers
Why this makes some sense: The 49ers’ passing offense was 30th in the NFL last season. Only the Jets and Buccaneers threw for fewer yards while just nine teams finished with fewer than the 21 touchdowns Colin Kaepernick tossed. Meanwhile Tate led Seattle in catches and yards and helped the Seahawks win the Super Bowl. What better way to hurt the defending champs, not to mention your hated division rival, than to “take” away one of their biggest weapons?
Why this probably won’t happen: San Francisco has already re-signed Anquan Boldin, should have a healthy Michael Crabtree this season and also has an All-Pro tight end in Vernon Davis. Tate figures to be one of the more attractive wide receiver options on the market and will likely cost more than a run-heavy team like the 49ers is willing to spend on the position.
Why we really want to see it happen: Seattle and San Francisco absolutely despise one another, something neither side has had any problems making known. The fact the Seahawks beat the 49ers before going on to win the Super Bowl only adds more spice to this already heated rivalry. Player poaching, if you will, is nothing new to these two teams, but this would be without a doubt the highest-profile instance. I am not the only one who would love to see this happen either, as NFL beat writers, sports talk radio, the blogosphere and social media would devour this whole. And you thought their two NFC West divisional matchups were already intriguing enough? Welcome to the next level.
You can come “home” again?
While their situations may not be as interesting or entertaining as the ones mentioned above, there is something to be said for some other potential “homecomings” that could happen via free agency.
Wide receiver Hakeem Nicks has seen his production steadily decline in each of the past two seasons, so a change of scenery for this New York Giant may be in order. A potential landing spot for Nicks could be in Carolina, where the defending NFC South champions could use another reliable target in the passing game.
This is especially the case considering Steve Smith is seemingly on the downside of his career, if not on his way off of the Panthers’ roster. Nicks was a record-setting, All-ACC wider receiver when he was at North Carolina, so perhaps a return to the Tar Heel State is just what he and the Panthers need.
Just like Nicks, Justin Tuck also may have played his final game for the Giants. An All-Pro defensive end who has been to two Pro Bowls and has 60.5 sacks in nine seasons, Tuck will turn 31 in a few weeks but he is coming off of an 11-sack 2013 campaign.
A Notre Dame graduate who starred for the Fighting Irish, Tuck could help solve Chicago’s defensive line and pass-rush issues should he end up in the Windy City. After all, Tuck is three years younger and finished with four more sacks than Julius Peppers, the Bears’ high-priced pass-rushing end who could wind up being a salary cap casualty.
And then there’s Jairus Byrd, a Pro Bowl safety who is looking to get paid like one of the best defensive backs in the NFL. Prior to Buffalo selecting him in the second round of the 2009 draft, Byrd was an all-conference cornerback at Oregon from 2006-08. And who just happened to be the offensive coordinator for the Ducks Byrd’s last two seasons in Eugene? None other than Chip Kelly, who is now the head coach in Philadelphia and led the Eagles to an NFC East title in his rookie season.
As successful as the Eagles were last season, however, there is still plenty of room for improvement, especially on defense. Philadelphia was dead last in the league in passing defense in 2013, giving up 290 yards through the air per game. Provided the Eagles have the cap space, signing Byrd would be a significant step towards upgrading the secondary while also reuniting a pair of former Ducks. It’s just like I said earlier, sometimes these pairings make sense, both on the field as well as off of it.
The first two years of the Rich Rodriguez era at Arizona have produced the exact same results. In both 2012 and ’13 the Wildcats have gone 8-5 overall, finished fourth in the Pac-12 South Division with a 4-5 mark and ended the season on a high by winning their bowl game.
If RichRod and his team want to make it three-for-three in Tucson, it will have to be with a lot of new faces stepping up. The Wildcats return just 12 starters, six on each side of the ball, as they are practically starting over on offense and also must replace several key defenders.
There are a bevy of redshirt freshman and JUCO transfers coming in who will vie for the available openings and other spots on the depth chart, which only makes this spring practice period even more critical for Rodriguez and his staff.
Arizona Wildcats 2014 Spring Preview
2013 Record: 8-5 (4-5 Pac-12)
Spring Practice Opens: March 8
Spring Game: April 12
Three Things to Watch in Arizona’s 2014 Spring Practice
1. Quarterback competition. In his one and only year as the starter, B.J. Denker produced nearly 3,500 yards of total offense and 29 (16 pass, 13 rush) total touchdowns. Now that he’s graduated, Rich Rodriguez must identify his new starting quarterback from a group of options that didn’t take a single snap for Arizona last season. Jesse Scroggins and Anu Solomon both were part of the team, the former a junior college transfer who did not play in 2013 while the latter sat out as a redshirt freshman. Both were highly touted dual threat quarterback prospects coming out of high school and appear well suited to run Rodriguez’ spread offense. They will be joined in the quarterback competition by Texas transfer Connor Brewer and junior college transfer Jerrard Randall, who started his college career at LSU. It’s entirely too early to tell who the leader is at this point and while there may be some degree of clarity by the time the spring game rolls around, Rodriguez has already said he fully expects this battle to continue into the fall.
2. Starting over in the backfield. Entering spring, the quarterback and running back situations are very similar, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. As important as Denker was to Arizona’s success last season, a bigger loss was when Ka’Deem Carey decided to forego his senior year to enter the NFL Draft. An All-American who put together back-to-back 1,800-yard rushing seasons and scored 44 total touchdowns in that span, Carey’s jump to the pros leaves the Wildcats with one player who had more than 100 yards on the ground in 2013. Jared Baker is the leading returning rusher (127 yards), but he won’t be back on the practice field until the fall at the earliest as he’s recovering from a torn ACL. Rodriguez won’t lack for options to carry the ball this spring, with redshirt freshmen Pierre Cormier, Zach Green and Myles Smith available as well as true freshman Jonathan Haden, who enrolled in January. Cormier is probably the slight leader in the clubhouse at this point, but with Baker expected to return in the fall along with incoming freshman Nick Wilson, don’t be surprised if the backfield remains a fluid situation leading up to the Aug. 29 season opener against UNLV.
3. More progress on defense? In Rodriguez’ first year at Arizona, the Wildcats’ defense couldn’t stop anyone. Defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel’s unit finished 102nd or worse nationally in total, scoring, rushing and passing defense in 2012. It then took a huge leap forward last fall, coming in at 39th in the nation in scoring defense and ranking no worse than 70th in the other three major categories. From a points allowed standpoint alone, Arizona went from 35.3 per game in 2012 to 24.2 last season. If this defense is going to replicate that success in 2014, it will have to do so without the services of its top two tacklers (linebackers Jake Fischer and Marquis Flowers), sack leader (defensive end Sione Tuihalamaka) and a three-year starting cornerback (Shaquille Richardson). Linebacker Scooby Wright and safety Jared Tevis, who each picked up Honorable Mention All-Pac-12 recognition last season, return, but replacing the aforementioned five starters will be no easy task. Just like on offense, a host of redshirts and JUCO transfers are coming in to hopefully fill these holes and round out the defensive depth chart. Included in this group is tackle Jeff Worthy, who started his college career at Boise State before transferring to Santa Ana (Calif.) College.
2014 Early Projected Win Range: 6-8
Rich Rodriguez and his coaching staff have their work cut out for him this spring. Topping the to do list is finding a quarterback and determining the pecking order in the backfield. While neither of these situations will be completely settled until fall camp, the wide receiving corps should be plenty deep, especially with the return of Austin Hill (above, right), a 2012 first-team All-Pac-12 honoree who missed all of last season after injuring his knee. The offensive line also appears in good shape with four returning starters. The defense made significant improvement in 2013, but now must replace several key contributors.
Schedule-wise, the only thing that changes this season is Nevada replaces FCS member Northern Arizona. Rodriguez has put together back-to-back 8-5 showings in his first two years at Arizona. With all of the uncertainty on this roster, especially at quarterback and running back, a third such finish this fall would be impressive.
It was a tale of two halves for North Carolina last season. Larry Fedora’s team lost five of its first six games, including a disheartening 55-31 home loss to East Carolina and 0-3 start in ACC play. From late October until the end of the season, however, the Tar Heels lost just one game, a 27-25 thrilling contest to Coastal Division champion Duke in the regular-season finale. Carolina then closed 2013 out on the right note, soundly defeating Cincinnati 39-17 in the Belk Bowl to put the finishing touches on an impressive turnaround.
Now entering Fedora’s third season and with a total of 14 starters returning, expectations are on the rise in Chapel Hill. Fedora’s calling card has been his up-tempo, spread offense and the 2014 version has the potential to be one of the nation’s most explosive units. That said, whether or not the Tar Heels can contend for the top spot in the Atlantic this fall will likely come down to the improvement shown on the other side of the ball.
North Carolina Tar Heels 2014 Spring Preview
2013 Record: 7-6 (4-4 ACC)
Spring Practice Opens: March 5
Spring Game: April 12
Four Things to Watch in North Carolina’s 2014 Spring Practice
1. There’s a new OC in town. For the first time in five seasons, Larry Fedora had to find a new offensive coordinator after Blake Anderson, whose ties with Fedora go back to Southern Miss, accepted the head coaching job at Arkansas State in December. To replace Anderson, Fedora hired Seth Littrell, Indiana’s co-offensive coordinator the past two seasons. Littrell’s official title is assistant head coach for offense and he also will oversee the tight ends, something he did at Indiana as well as Arizona, where he coached from 2009-11. While in Bloomington, Littrell paired with Kevin Johns to help the Hoosiers post some of the biggest offensive numbers in program history. Last season, Indiana finished ninth in the country in total offense while setting numerous school single-season records, including ones for total yards, points, passing touchdowns and first downs. The Hoosiers also were just one of three teams (Baylor, Florida State) in the nation to average more than 300 yards passing and 200 yards rushing per game in 2013. The Tar Heels’ offense isn’t exactly “broken,” as they finished 49th in the country in yards and 28th through the air last season, but that doesn’t mean there’s not room for improvement either. Carolina was just 84th in rushing offense last season. It will be interesting to see how Littrell’s philosophies and ideas mesh with Fedora’s own and the personnel this spring.
2. Restocking the offensive line. Just like last year, one of the busiest position coaches during spring practice figures to be offensive line coach Chris Kapilovich. After the 2012 season, North Carolina lost three standout offensive linemen, including first-round NFL Draft pick, guard Jonathan Cooper, and now Kapilovich’s newest challenge will be replacing a pair of All-ACC honorees in left tackle James Hurst (first team) and center Russell Bodine (honorable mention). The cupboard isn’t exactly bare, not with guards Caleb Peterson and Landon Turner and tackle John Heck, each of whom started at least 12 games last season, returning. While this trio forms a solid foundation that Kapilovich can build around, it doesn’t change the fact that one way or the other the Tar Heels will have two new faces along the offensive line in 2014 and these “rookies” could be inserted into arguably the most important positions up front – left tackle and center. Among the newcomers expected to vie for these spots is redshirt freshman R.J. Prince and incoming freshmen Josh Allen, Jared Cohen and Bentley Spain. Of these Spain is definitely a name to watch as the highly regarded (No. 115 in the 247Sports Composite) in-state prospect from Charlotte enrolled early so he could participate in spring practice.
3. Quarterback battle. Despite being one of the few quarterbacks in the ACC that returns with any starting experience, there is no guarantee that Marquise Williams will get the call for the Aug. 30 season opener against Liberty. Even though Williams helped spark his team to a strong finish last fall, the junior finds himself in a battle this spring with sophomore Kanler Coker and redshirt freshman Mitch Trubisky. Williams made a total of five starts last season, finishing 2013 with 1,698 yards passing and 15 touchdowns. He also led the team in rushing with 536 yards and six touchdowns and caught two passes for 52 yards and a score. Williams clearly has the playing experience edge over Coker and Trubisky, but the latter was one of the top prospects of last year’s signing class and could wind up being Williams’ main competition. Whomever ends up under center for the Tar Heels won’t lack for weapons even with the departure of first-team All-ACC tight end Eric Ebron. The backfield includes returnees T.J. Logan (533 yards rushing, 4 TDs), Romar Morris (296, 5) and Khris Francis (236, 1) and will add one-time Notre Dame commit Elijah Hood, a top-10 running back prospect according to 247 Sports, Rivals and Scout. At wide receiver, Quinshad Davis is back after earning Honorable Mention All-ACC recognition in 2013, along with freshman All-American return specialist Ryan Switzer and wideouts Bug Howard and T.J. Thorpe.
4. Continued progress with the 4-2-5. This is Year 3 for the unique 4-2-5 defensive scheme employed by coordinators Vic Koenning (Associate Head Coach for Defense/Safeties) and Ron West (co-Defensive Coordinator/Linebackers) and, hopefully, the unit will continue to make strides. During last season’s 1-5 start, the Tar Heels’ defense gave up at least 27 points in all but one game and surrendered more than 550 yards of offense twice. Over the final seven games, the damage on the scoreboard was limited to 19.1 points per game and the most yards the defense gave up in a single game were 461 in the two-point loss to Duke. This side of the ball has lost some key players, notably first-team All-ACC defensive end Kareem Martin and secondary stalwarts Tre Boston and Jabari Price. However, seven starters and a host of key contributors return along with some additional reinforcements for the defensive line in the form of several redshirt freshmen and a pair of intriguing, incoming prospects. The linebackers could be pretty deep and the secondary boasts some talent and experience of its own. There appear to be plenty of pieces for Koenning, West and the rest of the defensive staff to work with and the spring will allow them to get a head start on putting the complicated puzzle that is the 4-2-5 together.
2014 Early Projected Win Range: 7-9
North Carolina saved its best for last in 2013, winning six of its final seven games, including the Belk Bowl over Cincinnati, to finish 7-6. While the Tar Heels have some questions to address on offense and plenty of room for improvement on defense, they should at least get off to a better start this fall. Instead of opening against South Carolina, Larry Fedora’s team welcomes Liberty to Chapel Hill. You also know Fedora won’t have to worry about a lack of motivation for the rematch with East Carolina on the road.
North Carolina opens ACC play at Clemson and by hosting Virginia Tech and also has Notre Dame on the schedule this season. However, scoring points shouldn’t be that hard for this offense and if the defense continues to improve with another season’s worth of experience in the 4-2-5 under its belt, there is no reason the Tar Heels can’t match last season’s win total before the postseason comes around. In fact, if both the offense and defense take that next step this fall, then Fedora and company could find themselves contending for the top spot in the Coastal Division and a chance to play for the conference championship in December.
BYU went 8-5 for a second straight season last fall, but the Cougars followed two different scripts to get there. In 2012, the nation’s No. 3-ranked defense, both in yards and points allowed, led the way in a season that culminated with a victory over San Diego State in the Poinsettia Bowl.
Last season, the offense carried the load, as the Cougars finished 10th in the country in rushing and 15th in total offense and went 8-4 in the regular season, including a convincing victory over then-No. 15 Texas in Provo, Utah. However, the season ended with a loss as BYU couldn’t get past Washington in the Fight Hunger Bowl.
Even with that setback, Bronco Mendenhall has led his team to at least seven victories in each of the past eight seasons and a bowl game in all nine he’s been in charge. The Cougars return plenty of experience this season with a total of 14 starters on both sides of the ball, but also lost some key personnel that will need to be replaced if they want to maintain their recent level of success.
BYU Cougars 2014 Spring Preview
2013 Record: 8-5
Spring Practice Opens: March 3
Spring Game: March 29
Three Things to Watch in BYU’s 2014 Spring Practice
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1. Taysom Hill’s progression as a passer. There’s no quarterback controversy in Provo, Utah. Hill, a junior, is the unquestioned starter and leader of BYU’s offense. One of the most dynamic dual threats in the country, Hill finished among the top 25 rushers in FBS with 1,344 yards on the ground. He also threw for nearly 3,000 yards with 19 touchdowns, but there’s still plenty of room for growth in this area. Hill completed less than 54 percent of his passes on the season and also tossed 14 interceptions. On four different occasions last season, Hill completed fewer than half of his pass attempts in a game and, not surprisingly, the Cougars went just 1-3 in those contests. Hill and talented junior running back Jamaal Williams (1,233 yards rushing in 2013) form a potent one-two punch on the ground, but the offense needs the passing game to keep defenses honest. Entering his second full season as the starter, it’s up to Hill to take that next step in his development as a quarterback or otherwise opposing defenses may focus their efforts on keeping him in the pocket instead of letting him beat them with his legs. Mendenhall and his staff also will have to figure out who is going to backup Hill since Ammon Olsen, who saw action in four games last season, announced in January he was transferring to Southern Utah University. With just one scholarship quarterback (Billy Green) and a group of walk-ons left to compete for the No. 2 job, this spring could prove critical as it relates to the future of the quarterback position.
2. Identifying reliable targets. The foundation of BYU’s offense is pretty well set with Hill and Williams in the backfield and all five starters returning along the line. But that’s where the stability ends, however, as the Cougars saw their top three wide receivers graduate, including all-time leading pass-catcher Cody Hoffman. The returning leading receiver is junior Mitch Mathews, who caught 23 passes for 397 yards and four touchdowns last season. He is expected to team with senior Ross Apo (14-204-3) to serve as two of Hill’s primary targets, but some others will need to step up as well. Help could be on the way in the form of UTEP transfer Jordan Leslie (44-612-7 last season for the Miners) and junior college transfers Devon Blackmon and Nick Kurtz. Kurtz has a leg up on the other two, as he will participate in spring practice with Leslie and Blackmon coming in the summer. With only four scholarship wideouts participating in the spring, Kurtz could end up seeing plenty of starter reps and solidify his position on the depth chart by the time fall camp rolls around. Whatever happens between now and the season opener on Aug. 29, this much is certain – BYU’s receiving corps will feature plenty of new faces.
3. Starting over at linebacker. As much production and experience BYU lost at wide receiver it pales in comparison to the rebuilding job Mendenhall and defensive coordinator Nick Howell ahead of them when it comes to their linebacking corps. Besides losing playmaker Kyle Van Noy (17.5 TFL, 4 sacks, 2 INTs) to graduation, the Cougars also bid farewell to fellow starters Uani Unga and Tyler Beck. This trio was responsible for nearly a quarter of the team’s total tackles last season and about 35 percent of all stops made behind the line of scrimmage. Senior Alani Fua is back to lead the group, but the other returnees at the position made just five starts combined last season. Developing this group is obviously one of the staff’s priorities this spring, as running back Michael Alisa, who has rushed for nearly 800 yards in his BYU career, is slated to make the switch to linebacker. Additional reinforcements are on the way in the form of incoming freshmen and returning missionaries, but between now and the first game of the season in late August, this linebacking corps will be a fluid situation to say the least.
2014 Early Projected Win Range: 8-10
For nearly a decade, Bronco Mendenhall’s team has consistently been good for at least eight wins each season and I don’t expect that to change this fall. As an independent, BYU has one of the trickier schedules in the nation and 2014 is no different. Starting with the season opener on the road at Connecticut and finishing with the finale at California, BYU will traverse nearly 15,000 round-trip miles and visit six different states in a span of three months.
There are some familiar foes on the docket, as the Cougars will play seven teams they faced in 2013. They went 6-1 against these opponents last season with the only loss coming against Virginia on the road. This time, the Cavaliers come to Provo, Utah, as does Houston, Utah State, Nevada, UNLV and Savannah State. Also, the likes of Georgia Tech, Notre Dame, Utah and Wisconsin have been replaced by the aforementioned Huskies, Golden Bears, Rebels and UCF Knights. Even with the loss of production at both wide receiver and linebacker, BYU has plenty of offensive talent and enough experience on defense returning to fare no worse than it did last season. In fact, if everything comes together, the Cougars could wind up with double-digit wins by season’s end.
TCU’s transition to the Big 12 hasn’t exactly gone according to plan. After finishing 7-6 overall and 4-5 in conference play in their first season as one of college football’s so-called “big boys,” the Horned Frogs were expected by many to contend for the top spot in the Big 12 in Year 2.
Instead, Gary Patterson’s team took several step backwards, stumbling to 4-8 overall and 2-7 in the Big 12. It was the worst showing by a TCU team in Patterson’s 13 seasons as the head coach and the fewest wins by the program since going 1-10 in 1997.
While TCU’s defense was solid last season, the offense was a disaster, finishing near the bottom of the FBS ranks in both total and rushing yards. Not surprisingly, Patterson made some changes on his coaching staff, bringing in two new coordinators to overhaul the offense. This will be the key for the Horned Frogs’ hopes this fall, as the defense returns eight starters and could be one of the better units not only in the Big 12, but the entire nation.
TCU Horned Frogs 2014 Spring Preview
2013 Record: 4-8 (2-7 Big 12)
Spring Practice Opens: March 1
Spring Game: April 5
Three Things to Watch in TCU's 2014 Spring Practice
1. Starting over on offense. TCU was bad on offense last season. There’s simply no other way to state it. The Horned Frogs finished near the bottom of 125 FBS teams in total offense, rushing offense and third down conversions. Things were so bad on that side of the ball that despite being a top 25 defense nationally, TCU managed just four wins, one of them coming against an FCS opponent. And the other three victories were over Kansas, Iowa State and SMU, teams that went a combined 11-25. Not surprisingly, head coach Gary Patterson made some changes in the offseason, bringing in two new offensive coordinators to hopefully “fix” his offense. Doug Meacham comes to TCU after spending last season as the offensive coordinator at Houston. Sonny Cumbie joins the Horned Frogs’ staff after serving as the quarterbacks coach and co-offensive coordinator at fellow Big 12 member Texas Tech. Last season, the Red Raiders’ and Cougars’ offense finished eighth and 55th, respectively, in the nation in total offense and both also were in the top 40 in scoring offense. Meacham and Cumbie will share offensive coordinator duties at TCU with the former slated to call plays. Meacham also will coach inside receivers, while Cumbie will stay with quarterbacks. It’s probably a good thing these two are working together because as last season showed, they have their work cut out for them. Starting with…
2. Finding a quarterback. Despite having two experienced signal-callers last season, the tandem of Casey Pachall and Trevone Boykin produced disappointing results. With both seeing plenty of action, the duo combined to complete 57.1 percent of their passes for 2,666 yards while throwing more interceptions (17) than touchdowns (13). Pachall has exhausted his eligibility, leaving Boykin, a junior, atop the depth chart entering spring practice, at least for now. TCU also has sophomore Tyler Matthews and redshirt freshman Zach Allen who are expected to see plenty of reps this spring, as the Horned Frogs are shifting to more of a spread offensive system under new co-coordinators Doug Meacham and Sonny Cumbie. Boykin is athletic and versatile enough to operate in a spread, but he won’t just be handed the starting job, not after last season’s results and with new leadership running things. There’s been some talk already that Boykin could be moved to wide receiver, which means Matthews and Allen should get plenty of opportunities to impress the coaching staff and potentially shake up the depth chart. Either way, expect plenty of attention to be paid to what happens under center this spring.
3. Rounding out the defense. TCU returns eight starters from a defense that finished in the top 25 in the nation in yards allowed. This unit should be the strength of this team, but that doesn’t mean that defensive coordinator Dick Bumpas can sit back and take it easy during spring practice. For one, he has some decisions to make regarding his secondary, which is made up of five defensive backs due to the unique 4-2-5 scheme the Horned Frogs have long employed under Patterson. The biggest loss from last season is cornerback Jason Verrett, who earned first-team All-Big 12 honors after leading the conference in passes broken up (14) while recording two interceptions. The secondary should be in good shape with senior strong safety Sam Carter, senior cornerback Kevin White and junior wide safety Chris Hackett forming a strong foundation to build around. However, Bumpas will need someone new to step up at cornerback opposite White and in the free safety spot that was occupied by Elisha Olabode last season. Otherwise, the front six returns largely intact form last year’s starting group, which doesn’t include Devonte Fields. The 2012 Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year as a true freshman, Fields played in just three games last season because of injury. He will start the spring second on the depth chart at right end. Fields also has run into some trouble off the field, including being robbed at gunpoint in January, so he could use a good spring to get things started on the right foot.
2014 Early Projected Win Range: 5-7
The good news is that things shouldn’t get any worse for Gary Patterson and company compared to last season. Schedule-wise Minnesota replaces LSU as the marquee non-conference opponent and TCU’s defense should be good enough to keep this team in most games. However, whether or not these Horned Frogs get back to a bowl game will more than likely be determined by the performance of their offense. Patterson has brought in two new coordinators to oversee the offensive overhaul, now it’s just a matter of finding the right pieces and putting it all together. TCU has enough talent to win six games, but its margin of error will probably be pretty thin unless the offense takes a dramatic step forward this fall.
Everyone knows that Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Manny Machado and others are the future of baseball, but that doesn’t mean three aren’t any All-Star-caliber “old” guys still getting the job done on the diamond. Even with Mariano Rivera retired, one could put together a pretty competitive team of MLB players who are at least 35 years old.
Here is Athlon Sports’ list of the top players in the game who are or will be at least 35 years old as of Opening Day (March 31). After all, age is just a number.
Age as of Opening Day (March 31) listed in parentheses
1. David Ortiz, DH/1B, Boston (38)
He doesn’t really need to even bring a glove to the ballpark any more, but as long as Big Papi hits like he did last season, he will head up this list. Ortiz hit .309 with 30 home runs and 103 RBIs for the Red Sox, earning his ninth All-Star invite, sixth Silver Slugger award (at DH) and helping Boston win its third World Series title in 10 seasons. He finished 10th in the AL MVP voting and as long as Ortiz stays healthy, he should have several more productive seasons left in that bat of his.
2. Cliff Lee, P, Philadelphia (35)
One of the best lefties in the game, Lee went 14-8 with a 2.87 ERA for the Phillies last season. He struck out as many batters (222) as innings pitched (222 2/3) and earned his fourth All-Star Game invite in the process. He has pitched 200 or more innings in six straight seasons, while compiling a collective ERA of 2.89 during this span. The last time he gave up more hits than innings pitched was in 2009 and he’s issued a total of 163 walks over the past five seasons combined.
3. Carlos Beltran, OF, St. Louis (36)
After two productive seasons in St. Louis, Beltran signed a three-year contract to join the Yankees. A return to the American League and the opportunity to DH on occasion should only help extend Beltran’s career, not that there’s any concern when he’s manning right field either. Beltran’s run production decreased last season compared to 2012, but he still hit 24 home runs and drove in 84 while batting .296 for the NL champion Cardinals.
4. Derek Jeter, SS, New York Yankees (39)
Granted Jeter played a grand total of 17 games last year and batted a woeful .190 in them, but I’m willing to give the Yankee captain a break due to injuries. Jeter has already announced that this, his 20th season, will be his last in pinstripes and there’s nothing he can do to hurt his Hall of Fame legacy. Don’t forget that two seasons ago, Jeter batted .316 with an MLB-best 216 hits and 99 runs scored, as he finished seventh in the AL MVP voting.
5. Alfonso Soriano, OF, New York Yankees (38)
All Soriano has done the past two seasons is post consecutive 30-100 campaigns, which is pretty good for any player, let alone a guy who is closer to his 40s than 30s. Now in the last year of his much-discussed and equally criticized contract, Soriano appears to be making a push for one more payday, as he hit 17 home runs with 50 RBIs in just 58 games for the Yankees last season after being traded from the Cubs in late July.
Although it probably won’t happen, Soriano is just 12 stolen bases away from posting 2,000 hits, 1,100 runs, 400 home runs and 300 steals in his career. The only others one to accomplish this feat in baseball history are Barry Bonds, Andre Dawson, Willie Mays and Alex Rodriguez.
6. Koji Uehara, P, Boston (38)
Uehara went from a set-up guy to closer after injuries shook up the Red Sox’ bullpen last season. The Japanese reliever thrived in his new role, saving 21 games in the regular season and seven more in October to help his team win the World Series. Uehara was practically unhittable, giving up just 35 knocks in 79 total innings pitched with 104 strikeouts and a total of nine walks. He also didn’t allow a single run in 10 appearances (10 2/3 IP) in the ALCS and World Series combined.
7. Torii Hunter, OF, Detroit (38)
Maybe we should start calling Hunter “Bat-Man” instead of “Spider-Man.” The nine-time Gold Glove recipient has been a hitting machine in recent seasons, including a .304 average for the Tigers in 2013. Still a valuable defender in the outfield, Hunter won his second Silver Slugger award and received his fifth All-Star Game invite in his first season in Detroit. He also eclipsed the 300-home run plateau last season, while scoring 90 runs and driving in 84 for the AL Central champs.
8. Chase Utley, 2B, Philadelphia (35)
After missing significant parts of each of the previous three seasons due to knee issues and other injuries, Utley rebounded nicely in 2013. Playing in 131 games, his most since 2009, the former perennial All-Star batted .284 with 18 home runs and 69 RBIs. The power (217 career home runs, 298 doubles) is still there, it’s just a matter of Utley being able to stay in the lineup and on the field on a consistent basis.
9. R.A. Dickey, P, Toronto (39)
The 2012 NL Cy Young Award winner’s first season north of the border wasn’t near as successful, but Dickey still won 14 games and a Gold Glove with the Blue Jays. He was more effective after the All-Star break, going 6-3 with a 3.56 ERA in the second half, as the knuckleballer got a little more acclimated to his new league and pitching environments. While he may not get back to his 2012 form, expect Dickey to continue to confound hitters with his array of unpredictable pitches.
10. Joe Nathan, P, Detroit (39)
Nathan has moved on from Texas, where he saved 80 games in two seasons and was an All-Star both times. Now with the Tigers, Nathan should benefit from both Detroit’s offense and the more pitcher-friendly dimensions of Comerica Park, compared to the bandbox that is the newly minted Globe Life Pak in Arlington, Texas. Then again, if Nathan comes close to matching his 1.39 ERA from last season, it won’t matter what stadium he’s pitching in.
11. Michael Cuddyer, 1B/OF, Colorado (35)
Cuddyer will turn 35 a few days before Opening Day, and if last season was any indication, he appears set to age gracefully. The NL batting champion with a .331 average, Cuddyer posted his best numbers in four seasons with 20 home runs, 31 doubles, 84 RBIs, while also contributing 10 stolen bases. He earned his second All-Star Game invite and also won his first Silver Slugger award. Not bad for a guy who was in his 13th season in the majors.
12. Jason Grilli, P, Pittsburgh (37)
Grilli fared quite well in his first shot as a closer, saving 33 games and helping his Pirates get to the postseason for the first time in 20 years. A first-time All-Star, the only negative aspect to his 2013 campaign was a forearm issue that caused him to miss some time. Grilli made it back before the playoffs, however, and was his usual effective self; pitching 3 1/3 scoreless innings before Pittsburgh was eliminated by St. Louis in the NLDS.
13. Hiroki Kuroda, P, New York Yankees (39)
Fellow countryman Masahiro Tanaka is getting all of the attention, but all Kuroda has done for the Yankees these past two seasons is take the mound when it’s his turn and keep his team in the game. Even though he went 11-13 last season, Kuroda posted a 3.31 ERA in 201 1/3 innings. He has good control (43 BB, 150 SO) and provided a quality start 19 of the 32 times he got the ball.
14. Aramis Ramirez, 3B, Milwaukee (35)
A knee injury limited Ramirez to just 92 games and sapped his power (12 HR) last season, but when healthy this is still a guy capable of hitting more than 25 homers and driving in 90 runs. He did have surgery in December to remove a non-cancerous polyp from his colon, which will probably result in him missing the first few games of Cactus League action in spring training, but he should be batting cleanup for the Brewers by Opening Day.
15. Victor Martinez, DH, Detroit (35)
After missing all of the 2012 season, Martinez returned to the Tigers’ lineup last year and batted .301 as their primary DH. Still capable enough of filling in behind the plate or at first on occasion, Martinez’ main job is to hit. And as a .303 career hitter who is basically a lock for double-digit home runs and 80-plus RBIs when he plays a full season, it’s a task he has handled very well.
16. A.J. Burnett, P, Philadelphia (37)
His divorce from Pittsburgh may have been messy, but Burnett won’t have to travel far for his new home. More importantly, the hope is that his performance on the mound, which included a career-best 3.30 ERA and 209 strikeouts for the NL Wild Card-winning Pirates, makes the trip from the Steel City to the City of Brotherly Love as well. While the wins may not have been there (10-11 last season), Burnett has been pretty reliable, making at least 30 starts and pitching 186 innings or more in each of the past six seasons.
17. Grant Balfour, P, Tampa Bay (36)
A failed physical negated a potential free-agent deal with Baltimore, so instead Balfour will re-join the Rays’ bullpen. More of a set-up guy his previous stint in Tampa (2007-10), the Australian moved on to Oakland where he eventually ascended to the closer role. A first-time All-Star last season after registering 38 saves for the AL West champs, Balfour has posted an ERA of 2.59 or lower in each of his past four campaigns.
18. Fernando Rodney, P, Seattle (37)
Another closer on the move this offseason, Rodney saved 85 games for Tampa Bay over the last two seasons. An All-Star and Cy Young candidate (finished 5th) in 2012, Rodney saw his ERA jump from 0.60 to 3.38 last season, although it was just 2.45 from June on. Still, with 172 career saves under his belt and nearly as many strikeouts (551) as innings pitched (571 1/3), Rodney should be a reliable late-game option for new Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon.
19. A.J. Pierzynski, C, Boston (37)
The notably prickly, yet productive backstop is with his third team in as many seasons, joining the defending World Series champs after one season with Texas, A career .283 hitter, Pierzynski managed a .272 average with 17 home runs and 70 RBIs for the Rangers despite sharing the full-time catching duties. With Jarrod Saltalamacchia now with the Marlins, Pierzynski should get more than his share of at-bats for the Red Sox with Fenway Park (.322 career hitter there) being a nice fit for his left-handed swing.
20. Bronson Arroyo, P, Arizona (37)
There’s nothing flashy about him, but Arroyo is as consistent as they come. During his eight-year run in Cincinnati, Arroyo averaged 13 wins and 211 innings per season and posted a collective 4.05 ERA. He’s not going to strike out a ton of batters, but he’s the kind of reliable, innings-eater that will keep you in ball games more times than not while taking some of the strain off of your bullpen. All of these are reasons why the Diamondbacks signed the veteran to a two-year contract (with team option in 2016) in February rather than inking or trading for a younger arm.
Best of the rest (alphabetical order)
Marlon Byrd, OF, Philadelphia (36)
Byrd smashed a career-high 24 home runs and batted .291 while playing for both the Mets and Pirates last season. The free agent parlayed that success into a two-year deal (with vesting option in 2016) with the Phillies this offseason.
Bartolo Colon, P, New York Mets (40)
The seemingly ageless veteran won 18 games for Oakland last season, finishing sixth in the AL Cy Young voting. Now he returns to the NL for the first time since 2002, as Colon will try to help the Mets overcome the absence of Matt Harvey (Tommy John surgery) in their starting rotation this season.
John Lackey, P, Boston (35)
Lackey won 10 games in the regular season and three more in the playoffs for the World Series champs in 2013, his first year back after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Now the veteran will look to extend his run of double-digit-win seasons to 11 in a row.
Kyle Lohse, P, Milwaukee (35)
A late free-agent signee last March, Lohse ended up being one of the Brewers’ most consistent starters in 2013. He won 11 games, while posting a 3.35 ERA with fewer hits allowed (196) than innings pitched while giving up just 36 walks.
Jimmy Rollins, SS, Philadelphia (35)
His MVP days are long past him, but Rollins is still getting the job done at the plate (36 2B, 22 SB in 2013) and with the glove (just 11 errors) as the Phillies’ leadoff hitter and shortstop.
Ichiro Suzuki, OF, New York Yankees (40)
Suzuki (above, right) needs just 258 hits to reach the 3,000 plateau in his Hall of Fame career, but he may be hard-pressed to get there. With the additions of the aforementioned Beltran and Ellsbury, along with the presence of Soriano and Brett Gardner, Suzuki is probably relegated to fifth outfielder status this season.
Josh Willingham, OF, Minnesota (35)
Knee surgery pretty much defined Willingham’s 2013 campaign, as he hit just 14 home runs and batted .208 in 389 at-bats. Before that, however, Willingham averaged 32 home runs the previous two seasons and, if healthy, should be able to produce around 30 in 2014.
Baseball players have often been referred to as the “boys of summer,” and as far as MLB goes, the use of the word “boy” may have never been more appropriate. Look around the majors and there is no lack of young impact players all over the diamond, a group that’s led by arguably the best player in the game.
Take last year’s All-Star Game, for example. The National League’s 38-man roster alone featured 12 players who were 25 years old or younger at the start of the 2013 season. The AL team had eight such players representing them at Citi Field in New York. And while some of these have since graduated from the ranks of the 25-and-under crowd, there are still plenty of candidates remaining when it comes to indentifying the cream of this crop.
Here’s Athlon Sports’ list of the top 25 players who will be 25 years or younger as of Opening Day (March 31).
1. Mike Trout, OF, Los Angeles Angels
Not only is Trout the best of the 25-and-under crop, he’s arguably the best player in the entire game – and he’s just 22 years old. The 2012 AL Rookie of the Year could already have two MVP awards to his credit if not the for the Triple Crown exploits of one Miguel Cabrera.
As it is, all Trout has done is average a .324-29-90 line along with 41 stolen bases, while making a number of highlight-reel plays in the outfield in his first two full seasons. Trout figures to have a lock on a starting All-Star spot for years to come, and there’s no telling where the ceiling is for this unique, one-of-a-kind talent. No wonder there is already speculation that Trout could up being baseball’s first $30 million (per season) man.
2. Bryce Harper, OF, Washington
Harper (above, right) and Trout will forever be linked, as they were the 2012 Rookies of the Year and are similar in that they are five-tool players. A two-time All-Star in his own right, Harper’s true potential won’t be known until he’s able to stay on the field consistently.
Injuries limited Harper to just 118 games last season, although his numbers were pretty much in line across the board with what he did in 139 games in his 2012 ROY campaign. Still just 21 years old, Harper is probably the closest thing there is to a Trout-like talent in the senior circuit. Now it’s just a matter of the Nationals’ outfielder producing Trout-like numbers.
3. Craig Kimbrel, P, Atlanta
Kimbrel and the Braves made news recently when he signed a four-year, $42 million contract. While that’s a lot of money for a pitcher who rarely goes more than an inning, it could end up being a bargain if the 25-year-old can maintain his level of performance.
Kimbrel leads the majors with 138 saves since 2011, while posting ridiculous numbers across the board. Among pitchers with 200 innings, Kimbrel is No. 1 in ERA (1.48), WHIP (0.87), opponents’ batting average (.158) and strikeouts per nine innings (14.9) over the last three seasons. For his career, Kimbrel has struck out 381 batters in 227 1/3 innings or more than three times as many hits (123) as he’s allowed.
4. Freddie Freeman, 1B, Atlanta
The Braves’ future seems incredibly bright as the team is well represented on this list. Prior to Kimbrel’s new contract, Freeman inked his own new deal, an eight-year, $135 million pact that is the richest in franchise history. That’s what happens when you make your first All-Star team and finish fifth in the NL MVP voting after batting .319 with 23 home runs and 109 RBIs.
Whether he’s able to match or even surpass those numbers on a consistent basis remains to be seen, but what is clear is that the 24-year-old will be manning first base for the Braves for many years to come.
5. Madison Bumgarner, P, San Francisco
In a rotation that included two Cy Young winners that helped win two World Series in a four-year span, it would have been easy for Bumgarner to get lost in the shuffle. Instead, all the 24-year-old lefty has done is establish himself as one of the best southpaws in the game.
He has won 13 or more games three seasons in a row and last season posted a career-best 2.77 ERA with 199 strikeouts in 201 1/3 innings while earning his first All-Star game invitation. If the Giants are going to bounce back from last season’s disappointing 76-86 showing, don’t be surprised to see Bumgarner leading the way on the mound.
6. Stephen Strasburg, P, Washington
There’s no denying Strasburg’s immense talent, but this season is a critical one for the 2009 No. 1 overall pick who will turn 26 in late July. After going 15-6 with a 3.16 ERA in his innings-capped 2012 season, his first back after Tommy John surgery, Strasburg slipped to just 8-9 last season. On top of that, he went under the knife yet again to have bone chips removed from his elbow this past October.
The upside with Strasburg comes in the form of his 3.00 ERA in 2013 along with more strikeouts (191) than innings pitched (183). Still, if the Nationals are to take that next step and become a legitimate NL pennant contender, Strasburg needs to develop into that 20-win, 200-innings workhorse ace everyone thought he would be when he made his debut back in 2010.
7. Yasiel Puig, OF, Los Angeles Dodgers
The newest Cuban sensation, Puig made quite the splash last season when he debuted in early June. The epitome of a first-pitch swinger, Puig capitalized on the element of surprise, as he batted .436 with seven home runs and 16 RBIs in his first 26 games. While his plate discipline (36 BB, 97 SO in 382 AB) is a work in progress, there’s no disputing the 23-year-old’s all-around talent or the impact he can have on a team.
Puig was one of the catalysts behind the Dodgers’ turnaround last season, as his .319-19-42 line with 11 stolen bases in just 104 games resulted in a runner-up finish in the NL Rookie of the Year voting for the NL West champs. The key for Puig moving forward is to continue to get better at the plate, with his defense and on the base paths and applying this acquired wisdom and maturity to the decisions he makes off of the field as well.
8. Manny Machado, 3B, Baltimore
As last season wound down, no one seemed to be primed for a breakout 2014 campaign than Machado. Not only did he make his first All-Star team, he was putting up MVP-caliber numbers at the plate (.284-14-71) and providing Gold Glove-winning defense at third base.
Unfortunately, Machado suffered a serious knee injury running the bases in Tampa Bay in the last week of the season, resulting in reconstructive surgery and plenty of uncertainty regarding when he will able to return to the field this season. The hope is that Machado will fully recover and pick up right where he left off, but either way the future still seems incredibly bright for this 21-year-old.
9. Jose Fernandez, P, Miami
The reigning NL Rookie of the Year, in just one season Fernandez has inserted himself into the conversation of best pitchers in the game, while also replacing slugging teammate Giancarlo Stanton (see below), as the gem of the Martins’ franchise. After finishing third in the NL Cy Young voting with a 12-6 record, 2.19 ERA (2nd in NL) and 0.98 WHIP (3rd), it appears the only things that could hold back this 21-year-old this season are a potential innings cap and the lack of run support from a lackluster Marlins offense.
10. Chris Sale, P, Chicago White Sox
The unorthodox delivery combined with his lanky (6-6, 180) build are reason for concern, but Sale’s results on the mound speak for themselves. Although he went just 11-14 last season, the White Sox’ left-handed ace made his second straight All-Star team as he posted a 3.07 ERA with 226 strikeouts in 214 1/3 innings and led the AL with four complete games. And durability questions aside, what hitters should really be concerned about is the fact that Sale, who will turn 25 just prior to Opening Day, cut down on his walks (46) last season even though both his innings and strikeouts went up compared to 2012.
11. Giancarlo Stanton, OF, Miami
Considering Stanton has averaged nearly 30 home runs per season over his first four, the first thought may be why isn’t he higher on this list? The simple answer to that query is that the jury is still very much out on the 24-year-old slugger, who has had a hard time staying on the field over the last two seasons. This also has led to a slip in his production.
The sky was seemingly the limit after Stanton bashed 34 home runs in 150 games as a raw 21-year-old in 2011. And while he has knocked a total of 61 more balls out of the park over the last two seasons, he’s played in just 239 total games during that same span and saw his batting average tumble to just .249 last season with only 62 RBIs. Still any player that hits a home run every 15 at-bats is someone who needs to be feared every time they step up to the plate.
12. Elvis Andrus, SS, Texas
Entering his sixth full season, Andrus finally turned 25 last August. So while this will be his last time mentioned in this vein, it shouldn’t overshadow the All-Star-caliber player he has been since making his debut for the Rangers in 2009. At the plate, Andrus has consistently been a .270 hitter good for more than 80 runs and more than 30 steals each season. He’s also driven in more than 60 in each of his last three campaigns and has become a reliable, and at times slick-fielding, shortstop.
13. Michael Wacha, P, St. Louis
Wacha pitched in just 15 games for the Cardinals during the regular season, but it was his five appearances in the postseason that have Redbird Nation and the rest of baseball buzzing. The 22-year-old went 4-1 in five postseason starts, posting a 2.64 ERA and claimed NLCS MVP honors after beating the Dodgers in two scoreless starts.
Wacha then went on to beat the Red Sox in Boston in Game 2 of the World Series before getting knocked around a little in the decisive Game 6. Still, in less than a span of two months, Wacha went from being just one of the Cardinals’ impressive crop of young pitchers to one of the most-talked about hurlers in the entire game. All eyes will be on this tall (6-6) Texan whenever he takes the mound this season.
14. Eric Hosmer, 1B, Kansas City
Believed to be one of the top prospects in the majors a few seasons ago, Hosmer’s star dulled somewhat following a disappointing 2012 campaign in which he batted just .232. After another slow start last season, Hosmer caught fire in June, as he batted .318 with 16 home runs and 63 RBIs over the last four months. Disciplined enough to take a walk (51 compared to 100 SO in 623 AB) and athletic enough to steal a base (11 with 4 CS), while providing Gold Glove defense at first base, the 24-year-old finally appears ready to become the Royals’ next superstar.
15. Wil Myers, OF, Tampa Bay
Myers was the centerpiece of the December 2012 trade that sent James Shields and others from the Rays to the Royals, and it looks like a deal that Tampa Bay will be glad they ended up making. All Myers did after getting called up on June 18 last season was win AL Rookie of the Year honors even though he played roughly half a season. In just 88 games, Myers posted an impressive .293-13-53 line, so there’s no telling what this 23-year-old will do with a full season’s worth of at-bats.
16. Jean Segura, SS, Milwaukee
A first-time All-Star last season, Segura finished second in the NL in both stolen bases (44) and triples (10), while hitting .294 with 74 runs scored for the Brewers. Fairly reliable at shortstop (15 errors), Segura is the ideal table-setter for Carlos Gomez, Ryan Braun and Aramis Ramirez. If there’s any weak spot to the soon-to-be 24-year-old’s game, it’s getting on base consistently. His .329 on-base percentage (25 BB in 588 AB) is something the Brewers would like to see improve in 2014, especially with last season’s leadoff hitter (Norichika Aoki) now in Kansas City.
17. Starling Marte, OF, Pittsburgh
The strikeouts (138 in 510 AB) are certainly concerning, but there’s nothing wrong with the 83 runs and 41 stolen bases Marte contributed last season in helping the Pirates break their record streak of 20 consecutive losing campaigns. Add in the assortment of extra-base hits (26 2B, 10 3B, 12 HR) and a good glove in left field and the 25-year-old from the Dominican teams with reigning NL MVP Andrew McCutchen to give the Pirates a formidable one-two punch in their outfield.
18. Andrelton Simmons, SS, Atlanta
The NL Gold Glove winner at shortstop last season and the league leader in defensive WAR, there’s no debate regarding Simmons’ value in the field. The next step for the 24-year-old is to continue his development at the plate. While his batting averaged dropped from .289 in 2012 (49 games played) to .248 last season, Simmons displayed an increased ability to drive the ball (17 HR, 27 2B) while posting a respectable 40:55 walk-to-strikeout ratio. And just like teammates Kimbrel and Freeman, Simmons signed his own long-term contract (seven years, $58 million) this month, cementing his status as one of the Braves' key building blocks for the future.
19. Jason Heyward, OF, Atlanta
The fourth Brave on this list, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Heyward eclipse his teammates when it comes to eventual stardom. The 24-year-old has already displayed his immense all-around talent and potential, as evidenced by a 2012 season in which he batted .269 with 27 home runs, 82 RBIs, 93 runs scored and 21 stolen bases.
Unfortunately, that breakthrough season has been sandwiched by two disappointing, injury-plagued campaigns, including last season’s 104-game showing in which he hit just .254 with 14 home runs, 38 RBIs and only four steals. Heyward did seem to find a home as the Braves’ leadoff hitter late last season, and there’s still plenty of time for the Georgia native to emerge as a legitimate superstar for his hometown team.
20. Trevor Rosenthal, P, St. Louis
Rosenthal saved more games in the postseason (four) than he did in the regular season (three) and did so in dominating fashion. The 23-year-old didn’t allow a run in 11 2/3 October innings last season and has yet to allow one in 20 1/3 career playoff frames.
Rosenthal has expressed a desire to join the starting rotation, but the Adam Wainwright-esque transition will more than likely wait at least one more season as manager Mike Matheny understandably doesn’t want to remove Rosenthal’s ability to miss bats (126 strikeouts in 87 total innings last season) from the closer role.
21. Matt Moore, P, Tampa Bay
Moore led the Rays with 17 wins last season, which is pretty impressive considering Tampa’s rotation also features a former Cy Young (David Price) and AL Rookie of the Year (Jeremy Hellickson) winner. Moore went 17-4 in his second full season in the majors, lowering his ERA from 3.81 to 3.29 in the process.
A power arm, the strikeouts (143 in 150 1/3 innnings) should always be there, but the real key to Moore’s development and maturation on the mound will be harnessing his control (76 BB). If he can figure that out, the Rays may end up with yet another award winner in their rotation.
22. Shelby Miller, P, St. Louis
After winning a spot in the starting rotation out of spring training last season, all Miller did was win 19 games with a 3.06 ERA for the eventual NL champs. The problem for Miller is that this was mostly forgotten come October, as he pitched a grand total of one inning in the postseason and watched his teammate, Michael Wacha, claim the mantle of the Cardinals’ best young pitcher in the process.
However, don’t count out Miller this season as the 23-year-old Texan is no doubt just waiting for the opportunity to not only silence any would-be critics, but show just how well-armed the Cardinals are as they seek to defend their NL Central and league titles.
23. Jose Altuve, 2B, Houston
Altuve didn’t repeat his All-Star selection last season, but he still provided quite a bit of production, especially considering he stands just 5-5. Don’t let his diminutive size fool you, however, as he’s hit more than 30 doubles and stolen more than 30 bases in each of his last two seasons. He’s also managed to bat a combined .286 during the same span. A good glove at second, the 23-year-old Venezuelan still has plenty of room for growth, especially when it comes to drawing a walk (32 in 626 AB in 2013).
24. Wilin Rosario, C, Colorado
No catcher has more home runs in the past two seasons than Rosario, who has slugged 49 in 238 games. While playing his home games in Coors Field probably helps, Rosario’s career home-away splits in the power department (29:23) aren’t that different. A .292 hitter last season, the just-turned 25-year-old backstop needs to improve his plate discipline (career 42:228 BB:SO ratio) if he wants to fully realize his potential.
25. Starlin Castro, SS, Chicago Cubs
This could potentially be a make-or-break season for Castro, which is hard to fathom considering he’ll turn 24 years old a week before Opening Day. But that’s where the two-time All-Star finds himself following an all-around disappointing 2013 campaign and with top prospect Javier Baez breathing down his neck.
The good news for Castro is that he gets a clean slate with new manager Rick Renteria now running the club and he also has financial security (signed through 2019). Now it’s just a matter of the talented Dominican rediscovering the form that made him such a productive hitter earlier in his career and continuing his development on the field as it relates to both his glove (22 errors last season) and on the base paths (just 9 SB in 2013).
Matt Harvey, P, New York Mets
Harvey is most likely going to miss the entire 2014 season as he recovers from Tommy John surgery, but he still deserves to be recognized for this exercise. The NL All-Star Game starter at just 24 years old, Harvey finished tied for fourth in the Cy Young voting even though he made his last appearance on the mound in late August.
A nine-game winner in 2013, Harvey’s value went well beyond the win-loss column, as he posted a 2.27 ERA and struck out 191 batters with just 31 walks in 178 1/3 innings. The Mets will clearly miss Harvey this season, as will baseball in general, but the hope is that he will be able to pick up where he left off when he does finally return to the mound.
Best of the rest (alphabetical order)
Brandon Belt, 1B, San Francisco
Xander Bogaerts, 3B/SS, Boston
Gerrit Cole, P, Pittsburgh
Patrick Corbin, P, Arizona
Sonny Gray, P, Oakland
Jedd Gyorko, 2B/3B, San Diego
Brett Lawrie, 2B/3B, Toronto
Sal Perez, C, Kansas City
Jurickson Profar, 2B/SS, Texas
Addison Reed, P, Arizona
Anthony Rizzo, 1B, Chicago Cubs
Julio Teheran, P, Atlanta
Chris Tillman, P, Baltimore
On deck? (alphabetical order)
Chris Archer, P, Tampa Bay
Oswaldo Arcia, OF, Minnesota
Nolan Arenado, 3B, Colorado
Jackie Bradley, Jr., OF, Boston
Nick Castellanos, OF, Detroit
Tony Cingrani, P, Cincinnati
Avisail Garcia, OF, Chicago White Sox
Billy Hamilton, OF, Cincinnati
Will Middlebrooks, 3B, Boston
Anthony Rendon, 2B/3B, Washington
Danny Salazar, P, Cleveland
George Springer, OF, Houston
Oscar Taveras, OF, St. Louis
Taijuan Walker, P, Seattle
Zack Wheeler, P, New York Mets
Christian Yelich, OF, Miami Marlins
The Seattle Seahawks are champions of the NFL and while the celebration in the Pacific Northwest is just getting started, the focus elsewhere across the league has already shifted to next season. As far as the 2014 campaign goes, one thing is for certain: the weather will not be an issue whatsoever when the Super Bowl returns to Glendale, Ariz., next February.
So with that settled, the question then becomes which two teams will meet on the field at University of Phoenix Stadium on Feb. 1, 2015 in Super Bowl XLIX? With the start of free agency still a month away and the draft a little farther down the road; here is an early look at the contenders.
The Reigning Champions
2013 Record: 13-3 (NFC West, NFC, Super Bowl XLVIII champions)
To the victor go the spoils, which is why the Seahawks understandably top this list. The youngest team to ever win a Super Bowl, according to ProFootballReference.com, Pete Carroll’s bunch appears well positioned for a shot at making history next season. Several of the team’s core players are signed, but there is definitely work to be done this offseason with numerous key free agents and others on the verge of significant pay raises.
Similar to Baltimore after its Super Bowl victory in 2013, don’t be surprised if Seattle’s roster undergoes some rather significant changes. The Seahawks also don’t have a third-round pick in the upcoming draft thanks to the Percy Harvin trade with Minnesota, but this front office has done an excellent job in finding impact players in the later rounds. There’s no reason to expect this team to take a major step backwards next season, but the road back to the Super Bowl will be anything but easy.
The Hated Division Rival
San Francisco 49ers
2013 Record: 12-4 (NFC Wild Card berth, lost to Seattle in NFC Championship Game)
A couple of plays and lucky bounces away from a repeat trip to the Super Bowl, the 49ers are not that far behind the defending champions. Just like Seattle, this team is young and has even more of its core signed to long-term deals. There are decisions to be made with wide receiver Anquan Boldin and several members of the secondary free agents, but the team has some cap space to work with.
Quarterback Colin Kaepernick also appears headed for a lucrative new contract, but Jim Harbaugh and the front office have a treasure trove of 12 draft picks at their disposal, including a total of five in the first three rounds. The only negative for San Francisco was the serious knee injury that All-Pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman suffered in the NFC Championship Game loss. He recently underwent surgery and there’s a chance he won’t be ready to go by Week 1 this fall.
2013 Record: 13-3 (AFC West, AFC champions, lost to Seattle in Super Bowl XLVIII)
The sting of the 43-8 drubbing by Seattle in the Super Bowl will no doubt linger, but as long as Peyton Manning’s surgically repaired neck checks out, Denver could find itself in the very same position next February. Keep in mind that this was a team that played without its All-Pro left tackle the entire season and was missing its All-Pro linebacker, as well as a starting defensive tackle and cornerback in the Super Bowl.
John Elway has some work to do with this roster, with running back Knowshon Moreno, wide receiver Eric Decker, linebackers Wesley Woodyard and Shaun Phillips and cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie topping a deep group of pending free agents, but there should be enough resources available, as well as motivation, to find a way to keep the band together for another championship run. Also worth pointing out, the AFC West and NFC West play each other in crossover action next season with the Broncos set to pay a visit to Seattle, possibly as early as Week 1. Can you say “must-see TV?”
The Other Contenders
(in alphabetical order)
2013 Record: 12-4 (NFC South champions, lost to San Francisco in NFC Divisional Round)
This young team took a giant leap forward in 2013, but this offseason will go a long ways to determining if the Panthers are going to stick around or be a one-hit wonder. Key pieces like defensive end Greg Hardy, tight end Greg Olsen, offensive lineman Jordan Gross, and defensive backs Captain Munnerlyn and Mike Mitchell headline the free agents and this offense desperately needs help at wide receiver. With the right moves, Carolina could take the next step this fall, but there’s also a chance the Panthers could fall back to the rest of the pack in the NFC South.
2013 Record: 11-5 (AFC South champions, lost to San Diego in AFC Wild Card Game)
A promising regular season for the Bengals ended with a disappointing thud in the home Wild Card game loss to San Diego. Couple that with the departure of both coordinators and Marvin Lewis’ team enters an offseason of transition. That said, this was the No. 3 defense in the NFL and that was without All-Pro defensive tackle Geno Atkins for about half of the season. Cincinnati has plenty of cap space to build for both the present and the future, as it looks to reinforce weak areas. Andy Dalton’s maturation as a quarterback could be the difference between another playoff appearance and a potential deep postseason run.
Green Bay Packers
2013 Record: 8-7-1 (NFC North champions, lost to San Francisco in NFC Wild Card Game)
As long as Aaron Rodgers is upright, this team will be a contender. But we saw what happened to the Packers when he got hurt in Week 9 – they went 2-4-1 without him under center. The emergence of Offensive Rookie of the Year Eddie Lacy is important, but the NFL’s 25th-ranked defense must be addressed. There also are some concerns regarding the offensive line and several free agents along the defensive line and in the secondary. Green Bay has room to improve, and will need to do so or run the risk of Chicago and/or Detroit possibly overtaking them in the NFC North.
New England Patriots
2013 Record: 12-4 (AFC East champions, lost to Denver in AFC Championship Game)
As long as Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are together, the Patriots will be right there in the thick of things in the AFC. Especially considering the rest of their division is full of teams in different stages of rebuilding. That said, Brady will be 37 years old when next season opens and it’s no stretch to say New England’s window of opportunity may be closing. There are plenty of free agents on this roster, All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski will be coming back from yet another serious injury that required surgery, cap space is an issue and the Patriots don’t have their usual stash of draft picks to work with. New England should still be the team to beat in the AFC East, but its margin for error is shrinking.
New Orleans Saints
2013 Record: 11-5 (NFC Wild Card berth, lost to Seattle in NFC Divisional Round)
Similar to New England, New Orleans will be a team to be reckoned with as along as Sean Payton and Drew Brees are there tormenting opposing defenses. The Saints finished just behind Carolina in the NFC South and after beating Philadelphia in the Wild Card game on the road, hung tough in Seattle before falling to the eventual Super Bowl champs. New defensive coordinator Rob Ryan orchestrated a remarkable turnaround on that side of the ball and the challenge now is to keep enough of the pieces together. New Orleans is projected to be well over the cap, and re-signing tight end Jimmy Graham is the No. 1 offseason priority. It will take some work, but with shrewd moves in free agency and the draft, the Saints should be right in the thick of things again in 2014.
The Wild, Wild NFC West
2013 Record: 10-6 (3rd in NFC West)
The only 10-win team to not make the playoffs; the Cardinals can’t be taken too lightly even though they are in the same division as the past two NFC champions. All-Pro wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald restructured his contract in hopes of re-signing key free agents like linebacker Karlos Dansby, as Arizona finished sixth in the NFL in defense in the regular season. The success of this team next season will more than likely come down to the offense, as more is needed out of the running game and the tight end position. Quarterback Carson Palmer is 34 years old, so Bruce Arians and the front office also need to start thinking about the future of this position, especially with so many promising options in this year’s draft.
St. Louis Rams
2013 Record: 7-9 (4th in NFC West)
In another division, the Rams could be considered the frontrunner, but instead they find themselves battling in the league’s toughest four-team grouping. The defense has the potential to be just as good as its divisional brethren, which is saying something, but the offense has a long ways to go. First Jeff Fisher and the front office have to decide whether they are committed to quarterback Sam Bradford, who is returning from a torn ACL, long term or if they need to use an early pick on another quarterback. The good news is the team has a bevy of selections in May’s draft, including the No. 2 overall pick thanks to the 2012 trade with Washington and the Redskins’ subsequent collapse (3-13) this season. The offensive line has some holes, but if running back Zac Stacy and wide receiver Tavon Austin and some others continue to develop, this offense, and likewise the Rams, could surprise.
Other Teams to Watch
(in alphabetical order)
2013 Record: 4-12 (4th in NFC South)
From hosting the NFC Championship Game just a season ago to a 4-12 train wreck, it’s been quite the roller-coaster ride for Mike Smith and the Falcons. Injuries absolutely decimated this team on both sides of the ball and there will be changes this offseason. However, with quarterback Matt Ryan, running back Steven Jackson and wide receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White, Atlanta has plenty of offensive firepower to work with. Future Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez will be tough to replace at tight end, but the focus needs to be on beefing up the offensive line and reinforcing the defense. The Falcons figure to be active in free agency and it’s not out of the question that they pull off a Carolina-esque turnaround in 2014.
2013 Record: 2-14 (4th in AFC South)
Everything that could possibly go wrong for the Texans this season did and as a result they have a new head coach in Bill O’Brien and the first pick in May’s draft. Quarterback is obviously a priority and O’Brien and the front office will identify their guy and target him in the draft. Running back Ben Tate is a free agent and will probably cash in elsewhere, but as long as Arian Foster returns healthy, the backfield shouldn’t be an issue. Houston doesn’t have much cap space to work with, but it’s not like O’Brien is starting completely over from scratch either. Depending on what happens at quarterback, the Texans could be next season’s version of Kansas City – go from being the worst team in the NFL to a playoff participant.
2013 Record: 11-5 (AFC South champions, lost to New England in AFC Divisional Round)
The defending AFC South champions have one of the best young quarterbacks in the game and some talented pass-catchers. However, the backfield is a mess and the offensive line needs some attention. The good news is the Colts are projected to have a lot (as in $33 million) of cap space to work with, but the team also has a lot of pending free agents on the roster. Indianapolis can’t count on much help coming from this draft either, as the Trent Richardson trade with Cleveland cost the Colts their first-round pick. In fact, as of right now, Indianapolis has just four picks.
2013 Record: 10-6 (NFC East champions, lost to New Orleans in NFC Wild Card Game)
Even though the Eagles lost to the Saints at home in the NFC Wild Card game, Chip Kelly’s first season in the NFL couldn’t have gone much better. Now the question becomes what does he and his team have in mind for an encore? Philadelphia appears to be well positioned considering the current state of affairs that exists with its divisional foes. Washington has a new coaching staff, Dallas has salary cap issues galore and the New York Giants are a team in transition. Offensively, the Eagles are pretty much set with Pro Bowl-caliber skill players and an outstanding offensive line in place. Wide receivers Riley Cooper and Jeremy Maclin, who missed all of last season, are both free agents, but otherwise the biggest area of concern appears to be in the secondary. Don’t be surprised if defense is the focus in free agency and the draft.
It’s February and while the groundhog may have seen his shadow, one of the best indicators that winter is coming to an end and that is baseball is just around the corner. To that end, spring training will commence in full in Florida and Arizona in less than two weeks with MLB's official Opening Day slated for March 31. The Arizona Diamondbacks and Los Angeles Dodgers get a head start on everyone because of the two-game series they will play in Sydney, Australia, on March 22-23 to open their 2014 campaigns.
Elsewhere, the defending World Series champion Boston Red Sox will reunite on Feb. 15 as one of the 15 teams in Florida, otherwise known as the Grapefruit League. Out west, the Cactus League is home to the other 15 teams who gather in the greater Phoenix metropolitan area to prepare for the upcoming 162-game regular season, and hopefully a few more games after that.
To help get you ready for the upcoming season, Athlon Sports' 2014 MLB Preview magazine is available on newsstands and to order online now. Starting with 21 unique covers to choose from, Athlon covers the diamond and circles the bases with enough in-depth preseason analysis, predictions and other information to satisfy fans of the national pastime from the Bronx to the Bay and everywhere in between.
This year's edition includes features on "14 Things to Watch in 2014," as well as a look back on the 2004 MLB Draft, the newest crop of Cuban stars, the unwritten rules of baseball etiquette and much more. As always, there's team-by-team preview of all 30 clubs, with rosters, stats and schedules as well as a look at each club's farm system and our predictions for how this season will shake out, both for the regular and postseason. Athlon Sports' 2014 MLB Preview is the most complete preseason publication available today. Order your copy now!
Below are the reporting dates and locations for 2014 spring training for all 30 MLB teams:
|Team||Location||Pitchers & Catchers||Position Players|
|Reporting Date||First Workout||Reporting Date||First Workout|
|Arizona Diamondbacks||Scottsdale, AZ||Feb. 6||Feb. 7||Feb. 11||Feb. 12|
|Atlanta Braves||Lake Buena Vista, FL||Feb. 13||Feb. 14||Feb. 18||Feb. 19|
|Baltimore Orioles||Sarasota, FL||Feb. 13||Feb. 14||Feb. 18||Feb. 19|
|Boston Red Sox||Lee County, FL||Feb. 15||Feb. 17||Feb. 18||Feb. 20|
|Chicago Cubs||Mesa, AZ||Feb. 13||Feb. 14||Feb. 18||Feb. 19|
|Chicago White Sox||Glendale, AZ||Feb. 15||Feb. 15||Feb. 20||Feb. 20|
|Cincinnati Reds||Goodyear, AZ||Feb. 14||Feb. 14||Feb. 19||Feb. 19|
|Cleveland Indians||Goodyear, AZ||Feb. 11||Feb. 13||Feb. 15||Feb. 17|
|Colorado Rockies||Scottsdale, AZ||Feb. 15||Feb. 17||Feb. 21||Feb. 23|
|Detroit Tigers||Lakeland, FL||Feb. 13||Feb. 14||Feb. 17||Feb. 18|
|Houston Astros||Kissimmee, FL||Feb. 15||Feb. 16||Feb. 19||Feb. 20|
|Kansas City Royals||Surprise, AZ||Feb. 14||Feb. 15||Feb. 19||Feb. 20|
|Los Angeles Angels||Tempe, AZ||Feb. 13||Feb. 14||Feb. 18||Feb. 19|
|Los Angeles Dodgers||Glendale, AZ||Feb. 8||Feb. 9||Feb. 13||Feb. 14|
|Miami Marlins||Jupiter, FL||Feb. 16||Feb. 16||Feb. 20||Feb. 22|
|Milwaukee Brewers||Phoenix, AZ||Feb. 15||Feb. 17||Feb. 21||Feb. 22|
|Minnesota Twins||Fort Myers, FL||Feb. 16||Feb. 17||Feb. 21||Feb. 22|
|New York Mets||Port St. Lucie, FL||Feb. 15||Feb. 17||Feb. 20||Feb. 20|
|New York Yankees||Tampa, FL||Feb. 14||Feb. 14||Feb. 19||Feb. 20|
|Oakland A's||Phoenix, AZ||Feb. 14||Feb. 15||Feb. 19||Feb. 20|
|Philadelphia Phillies||Clearwater, FL||Feb. 13||Feb. 13||Feb. 18||Feb. 18|
|Pittsburgh Pirates||Bradenton, FL||Feb. 12||Feb. 13||Feb. 17||Feb. 18|
|St. Louis Cardinals||Jupiter, FL||Feb. 12||Feb. 13||Feb. 17||Feb. 18|
|San Diego Padres||Peoria, AZ||Feb. 13||Feb. 14||Feb. 18||Feb. 19|
|San Francisco Giants||Scottsdale, AZ||Feb. 14||Feb. 15||Feb. 18||Feb. 19|
|Seattle Mariners||Peoria, AZ||Feb. 12||Feb. 13||Feb. 17||Feb. 18|
|Tampa Bay Rays||Charlotte County, FL||Feb. 14||Feb. 15||Feb. 19||Feb. 20|
|Texas Rangers||Surprise, AZ||Feb. 16||Feb. 17||Feb. 19||Feb. 20|
|Toronto Blue Jays||Dunedin, FL||Feb. 16||Feb. 17||Feb. 20||Feb. 21|
|Washington Nationals||Viera, FL||Feb. 13||Feb. 15||Feb. 18||Feb. 20|