2014 NFL Season Preview: AFC East

New England Patriots

Additions: DE Will Smith, OLB James Anderson, CB Darrelle Revis, CB Brandon Browner.

Draft Picks: 
Rnd.  Pick# Pos.    Player                         College
1           29        DT       Dominique Easley     Florida
2          62         QB       Jimmy Garoppolo     Eastern Illinois
4          105       C          Bryan Stork                Florida State
4          130       RB       James White              Wisconsin
4          140       OT       Cameron Fleming      Stanford
6          179        G         Jon Halapio                Florida
6          198        DE       Zach Moore               Concordia (St. Paul)
6          206        S         Jemea Thomas           Georgia Tech
7          244        WR     Jeremy Gallon           Michigan

Losses: 
RB LeGarrette Blount, NT Isaac Sopoaga, ILB Brandon Spikes, ILB Dane Fletcher, CB Aqib Talib, S Steve Gregory, S Adrian Wilson.

Analysis:

This is the most talented team that Bill Belichick has had in a long time. Probably since the Patriots lost in the Super Bowl to the Giants. The addition of Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner adds an element that Belichick hasn’t had with a shutdown corner plus another one who is good enough to handle his own if put on an island. I can see a few more zero-blitzes from the Pats this year.

Dominique Easley is potentially a penetrating force upfront next to Vince Wilfork. Rob Ninkovich is a savvy pass rusher and Chandler Jones can be dominant when he decides to use his length and power and not the hesitation move he loves so much. Jamie Collins, Jerod Mayo, and Donta Hightower are athletic and superbly smart players. Collins really came on at the end of 2013 and could make a name for himself as a full-time starter this season.

The secondary will use Alfonzo Dennard as the #2 CB while Browner serves his suspension but then Dennard will move to the nickel back position and that’s a very deep rotation. Devin McCourty was phenomenal last season and if he plays that same way, this is going to be a defense that creates a ton of short fields for its offense.

Tom Brady hasn’t been as sharp as the Brady you might expect the last couple of years. He’s missed some throws he usually makes in his sleep. Hopefully with another year with these receivers those become completions. Kenbrell Thompkins reminds me of Chad Johnson in how he’s so smooth and quick with his feet. He’ll consistently get open for Brady. Danny Amendola will try to stay healthy and provide a game piece for Belichick to play chess with. Rob Gronkowski returns. If he’s anything like he was before his injury, this offense becomes a monster in the red zone. There are some other legitimate deep threats in TE Tim Wright, Aaron Dobson, and potential sleeper Brandon LaFell.

The offensive line has some major question marks. Losing Mankins hurts the run game. Josh Kline steps into the LG role next to Nate Solder at LT. Dan Connolly, Ryan Wendell, and Sebastian Vollmer round out the rest of the line. Any injury means that Marcus Cannon likely hits the field and that’s bad news for the Patriots. Cannon was awful in preseason at the tackle position and the word is that the Pats think he doesn’t have the quick reaction time to handle the guard position where things happen faster than on the outside.

Stevan Ridley didn’t look terrific in preseason. If he continues to fumble, the Pats may render him obsolete and go with a mix of Shane Vereen (more of a receiver and 3rd down back), Brandon Bolden, and rookie James White who looked very good in the preseason. It’s interesting to note that the Patriots kept 5 running backs, including James Develin who operates as a fullback.

This is a supremely talented team and Belichick is going to scheme teams to death with it. It’s such a versatile roster and Belichick can identify and attack opposing team’s weaknesses with precision. It’s going to be a good year for the Patriots. Perhaps even a Super year.

New York Jets

Additions: 
RB Chris Johnson, WR Eric Decker, WR/KR Jacoby Ford, OT Breno Giacomini, CB Dimitri Patterson.

Draft Picks: 
Rnd.  Pick# Pos.     Player                         College
1          18         S           Calvin Pryor               Louisville
2          49        TE         Jace Amaro                Texas Tech
3          80        CB        Dexter McDougle      Maryland
4          104      WR       Jalen Saunders          Oklahoma
4          115       WR       Shaq Evans                 UCLA
4          137       G          Dakota Dozier            Furman
5          154       LB        Jeremiah George        Iowa State
6          195       CB        Brandon Dixon           Northwest Missouri State
6          209      WR      Quincy Enunwa          Nebraska
6          210       DE       IK Enemkpali             Louisiana Tech
6          213       QB       Tajh Boyd                    Clemson
7          233       LB       Trevor Reilly               Utah

Losses: 
QB Mark Sanchez, WR Santonio Holmes, OT Austin Howard, G Vladimir Ducasse, CB Antonio Cromartie.

Analysis:

I love the addition of Calvin Pryor to the Jets. He’s such a Jets-type of player. He flies all over the field and lays the wood to anyone that even thinks about touching the football. He’s not currently listed as the starter but he’s going to play early and often. He’ll be a good fit next to Dawaan Landry. Dee Milliner, Leon McFadden, and Kyle Wilson round out the big players in the secondary. Milliner is injured and that really eats into what little depth the Jets had. Look for Darin Walls to get some snaps early on as he looked very good in the preseason and the Jets may want to see if he can handle playing when it really counts.

Up front, the Jets have 2 phenomenal players in Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson. They’re the guys that make everything go because they either create penetration or eat up a ton of blockers allowing other guys like Quinton Coples or Calvin Pace to get to the QB. Coples looked better this preseason than he did last season and the hope is that as he continues to progress, he can become a dominant pass rusher. David Harris is still the leader of this defense at ILB. Also look for new addition Jason Babin to get some snaps in pass rush situations which is his specialty.

On offense, Geno Smith really came along well towards the end of the season last year. He seems to still have issues getting through his reads but really the jump in Smith’s play came from his willingness to take off and run more later in the season. Before he held onto the ball too long and then eventually tried to make a play under duress and it didn’t turn out well. When he became more willing to run before the defense was closing in on him the offense opened up because it made defenses respect his running. That helps to create larger throwing lanes and less reading for Geno in the pocket.

The offensive line has to be better. Brian Winters was terrible last season. Really, the only bright spot was Nick Mangold. Willie Colon was decent at RG but inconsistent. New York dumped Vladimir Ducasse and added Brent Giacomini which is an upgrade. D’Brickishaw Ferguson was a decent pass blocker but has to get better in the run game this year if that’s the type of offense the Jets want to run.

I like the addition of rookie TE Jace Amaro but there are still limited weapons for Geno to throw to. Eric Decker should help but Jeremy Kerley needs to take a big leap forward and show he’s worthy of being a #2 receiver. Chris Ivory and Chris Johnson make for an interesting pair of tailbacks. One runs violently into contact and one runs away from it. Johnson still shows flashes but it appears that his vision has eroded recently. He has to have everything blocked perfectly or he doesn’t see the hole. Look for Ivory to be the more efficient and more productive back.

The Jets went 8-8 in what was a very good coaching season for Rex Ryan. Not often do 8-8 seasons solicit coach of the year consideration but that performance probably should have. Ryan dealt with a rookie QB, injuries, and an overall lack of weapons and fought through a period when the organization was in transition. Rex and his staff deserve a ton of credit for the season they had in 2013 and now they look to continue to build on it.

Miami Dolphins

Additions: 
RB Knowshon Moreno, WR Damian Williams, OT Branden Albert, OT Jason Fox, G Daryn Colledge, NT Earl Mitchell, CB Cortland Finnegan, CB R.J. Stanford, S Louis Delmas.

Draft Picks: 
Rnd. Pick# Pos.    Player                 College
1          19        OT       Ja’Wuan James   Tennessee
2         63        WR      Jarvis Landry      LSU
3         67        OT       Billy Turner         North Dakota State
4         125      CB       Walt Aikens          Liberty
5         155       TE       Arthur Lynch       Georgia
5         171       LB        Jordan Tripp       Montana
6         190      WR      Matt Hazel          Coastal Carolina
7         234      DE       Terrence Fede     Marist

Losses: 
OT Jonathan Martin, G Richie Incognito, G John Jerry, NT Paul Soliai, CB Dimitri Patterson, CB Nolan Carroll, S Chris Clemons.

Analysis: 

At first I was a believer in Joe Philbin but my faith is starting to wane. I probably should have known better considering that he hired Mike Sherman as his offensive coordinator as one of his first moves as a head coach. Then there was the Incognito/Martin incident. The Dolphins actually rallied after that to post a respectable 8-8 season.

New OC Bill Lazor should be able to point this offense in the right direction. They added Branden Albert and drafted Ja’Wuan James to help shore up the tackle position. James probably isn’t ready for full-time duty but he’s the best option at RT at this point. Basically this is still a suspect OL, especially if Mike Pouncey is out for any extended period of time.

Ryan Tannehill started seeing ghosts last year and that’s never good for a young QB. Hopefully his internal clock isn’t sped up because he has been under so much pressure since coming into the league. It will also help that Lazor will likely use Tannehill’s athleticism more and move him around a bit and move the pocket to help eliminate some of the pressure he typically sees.

Lamar Miller is listed as the starter at RB. Knowshon Moreno may end up taking that job from him early on. Miller is still dynamic and shows burst but is much like Chris Johnson in that if he’s running up the middle he needs the play to be blocked perfectly to spring it. I’d expect Lazor to get Miller to the edge more while letting Moreno handle the downhill runs and 3rd down duties because he’s such a good pass blocker. At WR, Mike Wallace provides a deep threat and Brian Hartline is Mr. Dependable. Brandon Gibson was terrific as the 3rd receiver last season and filling in for when Harline was injured.

The offense actually isn’t my main concern. Now it’s the defense. They let some important pieces walk – Soliai, Carroll, Clemons – and replaced them with Earl Mitchell and Louis Delmas. Delmas is a talented player that can’t stay on the field due to injury and Mitchell wasn’t very good in Arizona last year. Courtland Finnegan played poorly before injury last season in St. Louis so he’s a bit of a wild card as he’s shown he can be a terrific defender.

The defense is still led by Cameron Wake, easily one of the league’s best pass rushers. The defensive line is solid, aside from Mitchell, with Jared Odrick and Randy Starks. Starks has a great season last year. The unfortunate part is the the linebackers behind them aren’t very good. Dannell Ellerbe was bad last year. The hope is that Dion Jordan will finally live up to his expectations and take over one of the linebacker spots. Koa Misi wasn’t awful last year.

This is a Dolphins team with too many holes in the roster and still trying to find it’s way. It doesn’t really have an identity at this point.

Buffalo Bills

Additions: 
RB Anthony Dixon, WR Mike Williams, G Chris Williams, OLB Keith Rivers, ILB Brandon Spikes, CB/S Corey Graham.

Draft Picks: 
Rnd.  Pick# Pos.     Player                         College
1           4          WR       Sammy Watkins         Clemson
2          44        OT        Cyrus Kouandjio         Alabama
3          73        LB         Preston Brown            Louisville
4          109      CB         Ross Cockrell              Duke
5          153       G           Cyril Richardson        Baylor
7          221       LB        Randell Johnson         Florida Atlantic
7          237       OT       Seantrel Henderson   Miami

Losses: 
QB Kevin Kolb, WR Stevie Johnson, DE/DT Alex Carrington, S Jairus Byrd.

Analysis:

The roster says this should be a 10-win team. The QB plays says it’s a 3-win team. EJ Manuel brings this team down that much. He can’t read a defense and when he does he’s highly inaccurate. It’s such a shame as the skill positions are loaded – Sammy Watkins, Robert Woods, Mike Williams, CJ Spiller, Fred Jackson, Bryce Brown, Marqise Goodwin, and Scott Chandler.

Some of the blame has to fall on the coaching staff. There is too much talent to let it go to waste. The offensive line can share some of that blame as last season only Cordy Glenn was good at his job. Oddly enough, Kraig Urbik wasn’t awful at his job and he goes from starter to bench with the addition of Chris Williams who starts at center.

On defense, the big blow was the loss of lightning rod LB Kiko Alonso going down with an injury. The addition of Keith Rivers and Brandon Spikes should help soften the blow but neither are the same type of player. Jerry Hughes was terrific as a pass rusher last year. Let’s hope the loss of Mike Pettine doesn’t inhibit his production this year. The front line is kind of unfair. Mario Williams, Kyle Williams, and Marcel Dareus are powerful players and free up the linebackers to make big plays. Dareus in particular was a beast in preseason and was pancaking offensive linemen with consistency.

The loss of Jairus Byrd is going to hurt the secondary. Da’Norris Searcy is a decent player but not near the level of Byrd. Stephon Gilmore is a terrific young CB but is dealing with an injury right now. Leodis McKelvin and Corey Graham are solid 2nd and 3rd options at CB but not really great functioning as #1 and #2 CBs.

The Bills have a ton of talent and it’s all going to waste.

Overall AFC East Outlook

New England Patriots (13-3)

New England may not be better than Seattle overall, but I think they matchup well and will beat them in the Super Bowl.

New York Jets (9-7)

The Jets are better but a lack of offensive weapons makes it hard to project them to 10-wins though they might push for the playoffs in the AFC.

Miami Dolphins (6-10)

Miami seems lost as a franchise. Hopefully new GM Dennis Hickey can get it fixed after this season.

Buffalo Bills (3-13)

Kyle Orton takes this team from a 3 win team to a 5-win team. I think the loss of Mike Pettine hurts more than people realize.

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2014 NFL Season Preview: NFC South

New Orleans Saints

Additions: FB Erik Lorig, C Jonathan Goodwin, CB Champ Bailey, S Jairus Byrd.

Draft Picks: 
Rnd Pick# Pos.    Player                          College
1          20         WR       Brandin Cooks                    Oregon State
2          58         CB         Stanley Jean-Baptiste      Nebraska
4          126       LB         Khairi Fortt                          California
5          167        S           Vinnie Sunseri                      Alabama
5          169       OLB      Ronald Powell                      Florida
6          202      OT        Tavon Rooks                         Kansas State

Losses: RB Darren Sproles, FB Jed Collins, WR Lance Moore, OT Charles Brown, C Brian De La Puente, DE Will Smith, DT Tom Johnson, ILB Will Herring, CB Jabari Greer, S Malcolm Jenkins, S Roman Harper.

 Analysis:

Shh, Mark Ingram looks like a legitimate running back. Ingram has teased in the past with flashes of ability that scouts all thought he was capable of. He looked good at the end of the season in 2013 and looked even better in the preseason. The exit of Darren Sproles opens up a lot of opportunity in this offense.

As long as Drew Brees is healthy, this offense will be productive. Brandin Cooks is a good addition to a still-loaded receiving corps. Jimmy Graham is still the biggest weapon but a healthy Marques Colston and more progression for Kenny Stills means this offense still has plenty of options.

Brees faced too much pressure in his face last season. Terron Armstead takes over at LT full time and he looked up to the task in the preseason. If he’s good, this offense could keep up with Peyton Manning’s Broncos. Health is the biggest concern as the OL isn’t as deep as the Saints would like. If they have to get into 2nd stringers much, Brees will have to compensate too much.

Jairus Byrd adds a new dynamic to this defense. Rob Ryan is going to have a field day with Byrd patrolling deep centerfield and allowing him to move Kenny Vaccaro all over the place. Vaccaro is a swiss army knife that can cover, blitz, and hit. He’s a perfect fit for Ryan’s defense.

Cam Jordan and Akiem Hicks are tough for any offensive line to handle and with the weak lines in the NFC South, they’re going to have a fun year. Add in a healthy Junior Gallette and Ryan won’t have to try to scheme pressure as much as he did a year ago. They’ll need pressure to help protect a CB group that has some question marks. Patrick Robinson could get supplanted by rookie Stanley Jean-Baptiste but I’m not really confident in either until we can see more of them in the regular season.

The Saints should run through this division. My biggest concern is if teams can figure out how to stop Jimmy Graham (a few teams did last year) then it affects the whole offense and it seems to grind to a halt.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Additions: QB Josh McCown, TE Brandon Myers, OT Anthony Collins, G/OT Oniel Cousins, C Evan Dietrich-Smith, DE Michael Johnson, DT Clinton McDonald, ILB Dane Fletcher, CB Alterraun Verner, CB Mike Jenkins, S Major Wright.

Draft Picks: 
Rnd      Pick#  Pos.     Player                         College
1          7          WR       Mike Evans                 Texas A&M
2          38       TE       Austin Seferian-Jenkins Washington
3          69       RB       Charles Sims             West Virginia
5          143     G         Kadeem Edwards        Tennessee State
5          149     OT       Kevin Pamphile          Purdue
6          185     WR       Robert Herron                         Wyoming

Losses: QB Dan Orlovsky, FB Erik Lorig, WR Mike Williams, OT Donald Penn, G Davin Joseph, G Gabe Carimi, C Jeremy Zuttah, C Ted Larsen, OLB Dekoda Watson, OLB Adam Hayward, CB Darrelle Revis.

 Analysis:

I’m still confused on what the Bucs are doing with the roster but that doesn’t mean it isn’t good. It’s just not how I envisioned it and I’m not sure I see the big picture of it but that should become clearer after the first couple of weeks. The offensive personnel mirrors Lovie’s setup in Chicago with big receivers, a suspect offensive line, and even his former Bears QB Josh McCown. What doesn’t make sense is that the roster was built to fit his offense in Chicago but new OC Jeff Tedford indicates he’s running a different system. Basically, there seems to be a disconnect in what the personnel is built for and what the scheme is. That rarely leads to good results.

The offensive line was atrocious in the preseason. Big free agent signing Anthony Collins looked more suspect than like a wall on the left side. He’s likely going to be streaky all year long with some very good games and some bad games. The trade for Logan Mankins helps solidify the interior but there is still zero depth. The right guard spot is questionable at best and I’m still not sold on Evan Dietrich-Smith as a good center. Demar Dotson is the holdover from last year that looked really good on the right side in the preseason. He could end up being the best OL on the team by year’s end.

Vincent Jackson is a more versatile receiver than he gets credit for. He’s not just a jump-ball winner. He runs solid routes and displays strong hands. Opposite him, rookie Mike Evans seems like a carbon copy that hasn’t developed to VJax’s level yet. Evans will show big time flashes of talent and will likely run some wrong routes early in the season as he’s still learning a new offense. The trade of Tim Wright takes a receiving threat away but allows Brandon Myers to step up to the plate. Lookout for rookie Austin Sefarian-Jenkins to take over the main role very early if he doesn’t start there. He’s extremely raw but the ceiling is sky high once he gets a feel for the NFL.

The defense is going to be dominant. There is potential to be a top 3 defense in the league. Gerald McCoy and Lavonte David are going to love playing in this defense and McCoy is going to look all-world in the ways that Lovie is going to use him. It’s finally time for the NFL to see how good McCoy can really be. New free agent signing is going to have pressure on him to get pressure on the QB. This defense needs pressure off the edge. Out of all the free agent signings, Clinton McDonald is going to be the most significant. His presence on the inside allows Lovie to mix it up a little more. He’s strong at the point of attack and teams can’t double team both he and McCoy. Adrian Clayborn needs to take a leap forward in his pass rushing this year. He’s stout against the run but now it’s time for him to start getting upfield and let the LBs behind him clean up any runs that get past him.

Lavonte David is an All-Pro linebacker and deservedly slow. Mason Foster is incredibly intelligent and a thumper between the tackles but lacks good speed to get sideline to sideline. That’s not his game so it will be interesting to see how Lovie keeps him from having to do that. Jonathan Casillas is listed as the SLB but he’s the first guy to come off the field when the Bucs go into their nickel packages which will be more than 50% of the time. The Bucs even have a coach specifically devoted to nickel backs.

It would have been fun to see Darrelle Revis play for this defense but his exit clears room for Alterraun Verner and Johnthan Banks to show what they’re made of. Banks is long and lanky and really improved as the season progressed in 2013. Verner looked phenomenal in Tennessee last season but he didn’t play much in the preseason due to injury. Mike Jenkins is the nickel back with Leonard Johnson as the 4th CB. Johnson is the type of guy that can get a pick six on any play or blow a coverage and give up a big touchdown.

Mark Barron is going to be great to watch this year as Lovie will let him roam a little. He’s much better in the box than as a deep coverage type of player. Dashon Goldson has to be more disciplined in this defense. The safeties play a big role in keeping plays from being big gainers and Goldson’s aggression could work against him in that regard. I think the Major Wright signing might have been a safeguard for that as well as to help communicate the intricacies of Lovie’s defense to this team.

Tampa Bay feels like they could vastly underachieve this year because they can’t get the offense going or they could push for the playoffs based on a run game and a dominant defense.

 

Atlanta Falcons

Additions: QB T.J. Yates, TE Beat Pascoe, G Jon Asamoah, G Gabe Carimi, DE/DT Tyson Jackson, NT Paul Soliai, CB Josh Wilson, CB/KR Javier Arenas, S Dwight Lowery, KR Devin Hester.

Draft Picks: 
Rnd      Pick#  Pos.     Player                         College
1          6          OT       Jake Matthews                       Texas A&M
2          37       DT       Ra’Shede Hageman    Minnesota
3          68       S          Dezmen Southward    Wisconsin
4          103     RB       Devonta Freeman       Florida State
4          139     LB        Prince Shembo                       Notre Dame
5          147     CB       Ricardo Allen             Purdue
5          168     LB        Marquis Spruill                       Syracuse
7          253     LB        Yawin Smallwood        Connecticut
7          255     LB        Tyler Starr                  South Dakota

Losses: RB Jason Snelling, FB Bradie Ewing, TE Tony Gonzalez, G Garrett Reynolds, OLB Stephen Nicholas, ILB Akeem Dent, CB Asante Samuel, S Thomas DeCoud.

 Analysis:

Atlanta addressed the offensive line issue by drafting Jake Matthews sixth overall in the 2014 draft. The plan was to let him get his reps in at RT before sliding over to protect Matt Ryan’s blindside, but an injury to LT Sam Baker forced the hand of the Falcons. The Falcons might be better off because of it. Of course they’d love to have Sam Baker to stick in at RT but Matthews looks like the real deal. Atlanta also added Jon Asomoah from Kansas City and that should also help a putrid OL from 2013. Though it’s still a weak spot, Ryan will be under less pressure than he was last year.

Roddy White returns from injury and is still one of the sharpest route runners in the league. Julio Jones is a monster receiver that’s incredibly tough to defend. Harry Douglas played well as the Falcons’ number 2 receiver last year and is pushed back to the 3rd WR which is really where he fits best. Levine Toilolo is more of a blocker than a receiver at TE and he’s stiff. It’s really surprising that the Falcons didn’t make more of an effort to grab a more athletic option at an important position in this offense.

The defensive isn’t overhauled but it’s essentially all new starters with last year’s starters being relegated to reserve duties. Kroy Biermann was out last year with injuries, Jonathan Babineaux returns but probably won’t be starting for long. Osi Umeniyora provides some veteran leadership and athleticism on the edge. Tyson Jackson and Paul Soliai take over on the interior.

Atlanta lists 2 starting LBs – Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu – and 3 starting CBs, Robert Alford, Desmond Trufant, and Josh Wilson. Look for reserve LB Prince Shembo to be starting by season’s end. The young corners played extremely well considering they had no pass rush in front of them last year and they should look even better this year. William Moore is a solid player at safety but is a little nosey towards the line of scrimmage when he’s supposed to be in coverage. Dwight Lowery comes over from San Francisco to take over at FS.

The Falcons are one of the much improved teams from last year but I’m still not sure how I feel about their coaching. It’s not that they’re poorly coached, it’s just that they’re not well coached. The offense survives on good play from Matt Ryan who covers up some flaws and the defense just isn’t very physical.

 

Carolina Panthers

Additions: WR Jerricho Cotchery, WR Jason Avant, WR Tiquan Underwood, WR/QB Joe Webb, TE Ed Dickson, TE Mike McNeill, CB Antoine Cason, S Roman Harper, S Thomas DeCoud.

Draft Picks: 
Rnd      Pick#  Pos.     Player                         College
1          28       WR       Kelvin Benjamin         Florida State
2          60       DE       Kony Ealy                   Missouri
3          92       G         Trai Turner                 LSU
4          128     S          Tre Boston                  North Carolina
5          148     CB       Bené Benwikere          San Jose State
6          204     RB       Tyler Gaffney             Stanford

Losses: WR Steve Smith, WR Brandon LaFell, WR/KR Ted Ginn, WR Domenik Hixon, OT Jordan Gross, OT Bruce Campbell, G Geoff Hangartner, G Travelle Wharton, G Jeff Byers, OLB Jordan Senn, CB Captain Munnerlyn, S Michael Mitchell, S Quintin Mikell.

Analysis:

Carolina is a team I missed big time on last year. I didn’t anticipate their defense to be so dominant. Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson was the most dominant pass rush duo in the league and Star Lotulelei and Kawaan Short were also terrifying on the interior. Behind them Luke Kuechly looked like the best linebacker in the league and Thomas Davis wasn’t far behind him. This year they have the choice of Chase Blackburn or AJ Klein at the other linebacker spot and it’s kind of scary that Short is now listed as a reserve behind Colin Cole who comes over from San Francisco. Short played terrifically last season so if Cole is better than he is, offenses are in trouble again.

I like the addition of Antoine Cason in the secondary after losing Captain Munnerlyn, who admittedly played much better than I ever thought he could last year. It certainly helps when QBs have no time to throw because of a dominant front line. Melvin White and Charles Godfrey aren’t ideal at the cornerback spot but they’ll be good enough. Thomas Decoud provides some decent speed at the safety position and Roman Harper provides some veteran leadership even if he has lost a step.

The offense revolves around Cam Newton. It has to. There’s nothing else to revolve around. Greg Olsen and Kelvin Benjamin are the only true weapons other than Newton. But Carolina’s brass made sure not to make it too easy for Cam by not providing him with good weapons to throw to, they made sure to let his entire offensive line go and not replenish it with good players. Now not only does Cam not have anyone to throw to, he won’t have any time to throw to those nobodies. I’m normally critical of Cam because he has such high potential and hasn’t fully reached it yet, but this year he deserves a pass if he can’t get it done.

Overall NFC South Outlook

New Orleans Saints (12-4)

The Saints are stacked and can compete with anyone in the league. This should be a cake walk in the division for them.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-9)

I have no idea what this offensive scheme is going to look like, but I do know they’ll have trouble blocking people and keeping McCown off his back. The defense is the reason they win 7 games.

Carolina Panthers (7-9)

The Panthers overachieved last year so they’re due for a regression but that defense is still the same defense.

Atlanta Falcons (6-10)

Offensive line woes and a lack of pressure from the defense means the Falcons are in for another long season.

 

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2014 NFL Season Preview: AFC North

Baltimore Ravens

Additions: RB Justin Forsett, WR Steve Smith, TE Owen Daniels, C Jeremy Zuttah, S Darian Stewart.

Draft Picks: 
Rnd Pick# Pos.   Player                     College
1          17           LB        C. J. Mosley                  Alabama
2          48         DT        Timmy Jernigan         Florida State
3          79          S           Terrence Brooks        Florida State
3          99         TE        Crockett Gillmore      Colorado State
4          134       DT        Brent Urban                 Virginia
4          138       RB        Lorenzo Taliaferro    Coastal Carolina
5          175        G           John Urschel                Penn State
6          194       QB        Keith Wenning             Ball State
7          218       WR      Michael Campanaro   Wake Forest

Losses: FB Vonta Leach, WR Tandon Smith, TE Ed Dickson, OT Michael Oher, DE/DT Arthur Jones, ILB Jameel McClain, CB Corey Graham, S James Ihedigbo.

Analysis:

The Ravens had a very “Ravens” type of draft. They just kept drafting rock-solid defensive players. CJ Mosley is going to be a captain for this team for a very long time. Timmy Jernigan is a run plugger that can own the middle of the line of scrimmage. Terrence Brooks is a very good addition to the back seven and will contribute.

Haloti Ngata played well last year but not up to the normal Ngata level of play. It can be argued that Arthur Jones was better than Ngata over the duration of the year. Now it’s Brandon Williams and Chris Canty, both who played well enough last season. Jernigan will get his snaps for sure. The linebacker unit is loaded with an insane amount of talent. Technically the starters are Terrell Suggs, CJ Mosley, Daryl Smith, and Courtney Upshaw. Throw in Elvis Dumervil and Arthur Brown and this is one of the best and deepest groups in the league.

In the secondary, Ladarius Webb is *thisclose* to becoming a shutdown corner. He certainly looked like one back in 2011 and he might be rounding back into one for 2014. Jimmy Smith played very well last season, too. Asa Jackson is the nickel back but has very limited snaps so it’s hard to know if he’s up to the task. Matt Elam is a fast player at safety but isn’t disciplined and sometimes gets himself out of position. James Ihedigbo was a strong player on the backside for the Ravens but he’s now gone and it’s Darian Stewart starting at free safety.

Battered and broken, the offensive line struggled last season. It was so bad that the Ravens added Eugene Monroe at LT in a mid-season trade from the Jaguars. He and Marshal Yanda were the only real highlights from an otherwise putrid offensive line. That poor play affected everyone on the offense. QB Joe Flacco was awful at driving the ball down the field and the running backs could not find room to run. Ray Rice had one of his worst years and Bernard Pierce fair much better.

Torrey Smith is still a number 1 wide receiver. The addition of Steve Smith is probably more hype than what he’ll contribute in offensive production. Smith wasn’t very good in Carolina last year and it’s strange signing by the Ravens based on that. Marlon Brown and Jacoby Jones are the #3 and #4 receivers this year. Jones has his moments of flashing because of his ability to get deep but he’s got to get better to be a good options as a consistent 3rd receiver.

Gary Kubiak takes over as the OC after Jim Caldwell departed for the head job in Detroit. Some believe that Kubiak is a major upgrade but it’s hard to know how much of the offensive struggles in Houston were due to poor QB play or to his scheme. Probably a little of both. The Ravens need a bounce back year. If Kubiak can get the offense corrected, the Ravens are a dangerous team.

 

Cincinnati Bengals

Additions: QB Jason Campbell, OT Marshall Newhouse, S Danieal Manning.

Draft Picks: 
Rnd Pick# Pos.    Player                     College
1          24          CB         Darqueze Dennard     Michigan State
2          55          RB         Jeremy Hill                   LSU
3          88         DE         Will Clarke                     West Virginia
4          111         C            Russell Bodine             North Carolina
5          164        QB         AJ McCarron                Alabama
6          212        LB         Marquis Flowers         Arizona
7          239        WR       James Wright               LSU
7          252        CB         Lavelle Westbrooks   Georgia Southern

Losses: QB Josh Johnson, WR Andrew Hawkins, OT Anthony Collins, C Kyle Cook, DE Michael Johnson, OLB James Harrison, CB Brandon Ghee.

 Analysis:

The biggest loss of this team is really the loss of defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. However, I’ll neve rworry about a Marvin Lewis-lead defense. Not to mention they’ll get Geno Atkins back from injury. Atkins is a dominant force and when he’s on, it can be argued he’s the best defensive tackle in the league. Carlos Dunlap is a remarkable mix of size and athletic build. Keep an eye out for DE Margus Hunt this year. He’s a guy who possesses exceptional strength and is still learning to play the position. If he catches on and gets a couple of go-to moves, he could be dominant.

Rey Maualuga is still slow but plays decent enough in the hole against the run. Vontaze Burfict is the bread winner of this group. He’s prone to some games where he can be manipulated by good QBs, but Burfict is supremely athletic and has a nose for the football. He’s one of the better outside linebackers in the league because of his versatility.

The Bengals are still full on good cornerbacks. Leon Hall, Terrance Newman, Adam Jones, Dre Kirkpatrick, and rookie Darqueze Dennard are all very good. Reggie Nelson played well at safety last season but the big surprise was George Iloka. Iloka is a versatile player who is probably best when he’s in pass coverage but isn’t afraid to hit when he gets the chance. If he continues to develop, the Bengals should have a defense that ranks with the best in the league.

Former OC Jay Gruden left to take the head coaching job in DC. While Gruden isn’t a bad coach, it was actually a blessing in disguise as it opened the door for Hue Jackson to move into the OC role. Jackson is a bit of a wizard at getting more out of his players on offense. I firmly believe that he’s going to make Andy Dalton look like a franchise QB this year (notice I said “look” and not that he actually is). Dalton is a streaky player and Jackson will be able to temper the lows and exacerbate the highs of Dalton’s game.

Andrew Whitworth and Andre Smith lead a very good offensive line. The OL lost Anthony Collins but it shouldn’t affect them too much. Kevin Zeitler and Clint Boling are very good in their own right. There’s still some depth at the position as Mike Poliak is a versatile backup that played well in limited snaps last season.

I’m still waiting for Tyler Eifert to break out. He’s a well-rounded tight end that needs more targets. He’s athletic and displays good hands and body control yet I still can’t figure out why the Bengals don’t get him on the field more. Jermaine Gresham is solid in multiple ways but Eifert is a more dynamic threat.

AJ Green is a top 5 receiver in the league. He’s followed by some solid and underrated talent in Mohammed Sanu and Jones. I like the addition of Brandon Tate for depth and it appears the Bengals might use Dane Sanzenbacher in multiple ways, especially out of the slot. Giovanni Bernard has the potential to be special and Jackson should help him get to that next level. He’ll be a big part of the run and the pass game.

This is a good roster and a well coached team. I love the depth of this team and deep teams usually means playoff appearances. With better QB play, this could be one of the best showings that the Bengals have had in a long time and get their first playoff win in 22 years.

 

Pittsburgh Steelers

Additions: RB LeGarrette Blount, WR Darrius Heyward-Bey, WR Lance Moore, NT Cam Thomas, ILB Arthur Moats, CB Brice McCain, S Michael Mitchell, P Adam Podlesh.

Draft Picks: 
Rnd Pick# Pos.   Player                        College
1          15          LB         Ryan Shazier                   Ohio State
2          46        DE        Stephon Tuitt                  Notre Dame
3          97         RB        Dri Archer                         Kent State
4          118       WR       Martavis Bryant             Clemson
5          157        CB        Shaquille Richardson   Arizona
5          173        C          Wesley Johnson              Vanderbilt
6          192       OLB     Jordan Zumwalt             UCLA
6          215       DT        Daniel McCullers            Tennessee
7          230      TE        Rob Blanchflower           Massachusetts

Losses: RB Jonathan Dwyer, WR Emmanuel Sanders, WR Jerricho Cotchery, TE David Johnson, OT Levi Brown, C Eric Olsen, DE/DT Ziggy Hood, NT Al Woods, DE/OLB LaMarr Woodley, ILB Larry Foote, S Ryan Clark.

Analysis:

Pittsburgh had a bit of roster turnover this offseason in an effort to get younger and better. They let a few guys go that needed to go – Dwyer, Hood, Foote – but also let some other guys go that they could’ve used this year – Brown, Woodley, Sanders. If Lance Moore has anything left in the tank I’ll love that addition. His play in New Orleans last season says that’s not the case. Darrius Heyward-Bey is an interesting add as he will finally have a decent QB to get him the ball and could look like a different player. Cam Thomas is going to be the key add from free agency for Pittsburgh.

Ryan Shazier is an athletic rookie who is a smart player but still has issues with over pursuit. One of his best traits is running the seam underneath tight ends and that was on display in the preseason. He’s going to be a good player but he’s a guy that QBs can manipulate early on. Dri Archer is pure speed. He’s going to be fun to watch on kick returns and it will be interesting to see how Todd Haley incorporates him into packages within his offense. Steelers are going to need Stephen Tuitt to be good early to help shore up a defensive line that was really bad last year outside of Cam Heyward.

Jarvis Jones still looks lost on the field so it’s going to be important for Jason Worilds to continue his good play from last season. I think Worilds is probably one of the most underrated players in the league at this point. He’s really good on the edge and is the best past rusher on this team now that Woodley is gone.

The secondary lost Ryan Clark but still has Troy Polamalu. This secondary is crazy aggressive and good QBs use it to their advantage. Tom Brady attacked that predisposition by using his eyes to lure defenders to one side of the field opening up routes on the opposite side. This defense has to play more disciplined against good teams. They should eat up young QBs but struggle against the top-echelon QBs because of their tendency to be aggressive. Ike Taylor and William Gay are still solid players (Gay had a really good year in 2013). The addition of Cortez Allen should be a good one for this secondary.

By far the biggest addition is that the Steelers are getting back Maurkice Pouncey from injury. He’ll help solidify a line that was really bad last season. Ramon Foster and David Decastro were still good on the interior but there are huge question on the edges with Kelvim Beachum and Marcus Gilbert. Heath Miller looks healthy and will help in all facets of the offense.

Le’Veon Bell looked good as a runner last year and I’m not really sure why the Steelers added LeGarrette Blount except for depth purposes. Blount is a guy that runs with good vision and balance and is a load to try to bring down. Maybe they plan on using him like they did Dwyer in past seasons?

The offense still revolves around Ben Roethlisberger’s ability to get the ball down the field. Antonio Brown gives him that ability. Lookout for Markus Wheaton who could explode onto the scene this year. This kid was phenomenal in limited snaps last season and it was easy to see that he provides a dynamic that the other receivers on the field didn’t.

The Steelers are in a sort of transition mode right now and it makes them hard to predict. They’re going to do the things they always do well – be physical and play defense. There are holes in the roster and the aggression is a real problem as it’s now become more of a negative than a positive.

Cleveland Browns

Additions: RB Ben Tate, WR Andrew Hawkins, WR Miles Austin, WR Nate Burleson, S Donte Whitner.

Draft Picks: 
Rnd Pick# Pos.  Player                     College
1          8            CB       Justin Gilbert              Oklahoma State
1          22         QB       Johnny Manziel          Texas A&M
2          35         OT       Joel Bitonio                 Nevada
3          71          LB       Christian Kirksey       Iowa
3          94         RB       Terrance West            Towson
4          127        CB       Pierre Desir                 Lindenwood

Losses: QB Brandon Weeden, QB Jason Campbell, WR Davone Bess, G Shawn Lauvao, G Oniel Cousins, ILB D’Qwell Jackson, CB Chris Owens, S T.J. Ward.

Analysis:

I was wrong on the Browns last year. I picked them to finish above .500 and they looked like they might be able to get there with Brian Hoyer at QB. When Hoyer went down, it torched any chances the Browns had with Brandon Weeden coming in to throw the ball to the other team. The (potential?) loss of Josh Gordon is a huge blow to the offense as he was the one thing that made it run last year. Without him, now teams can double down on Jordan Cameron. The addition of Miles Austin is one where I see an athletic player that’s slowed a bit but still has potential to be an important piece of this offense. It’s tough to count on him with his injury history.

Four-fifths of the offensive line was quietly pretty good last year. Joe Thomas, Alex Mack, John Greco, and Mitchell Schwartz were solid as a group. Rookie Joel Bitonio and Paul McQuistan look to feel the LG position which was a turnstyle for defenders last season. Behind it, the stable of Ben Tate, Terrance West, and Isaiah Crowell is a solid group. Tate is a decent runner but doesn’t offer anything special. The guy to watch is Crowell. He’s probably the most talented of the group and if he gets some snaps, he can show that he offers a dimension that Tate and West don’t have – burst.

Hoyer gets a lot of flack but he does a few things well that aren’t exciting – he’s smart, makes good decisions, and he makes them quickly. He can’t throw the ball through a wall and his accuracy is suspect at times, but when he’s on and in rhythm he gives the Browns a good chance to win as he often won’t be the guy giving the game away. Cleveland certainly doesn’t want to have to rely on him to carry this offense, though. Johnny Manziel simply isn’t ready to play in the NFL and I don’t understand the push to get him on the field. He’s more a liability than an asset at this point. Also, Kyle Shannahan needs to stop with the “Manziel Read-Option” packages. That’s not who he is as a player and all that’s going to do is get the kid hurt before he ever gets a chance to get his feet wet as a passer.

There are some good pieces to this defense, but most important is Joe Haden. Haden is a shutdown corner and allows this defense to do so many other things because he can take away the other team’s best receiver. Buster Skrine played well opposite Haden last year and I really like rookie Pierre Desir. He comes to the NFL from a small school (Lindenwood) so his learning curve is a bit steeper than most CBs. TJ Ward is out at safety and Donte Whitner is in, though I’m not sure that’s an upgrade. It does however define the roles of the safeties a bit with Tayshaun Gipson now assuming more of a traditional free safety role and Whitner being the enforcer.

I was disappointed in Craig Robertson last year as I expected him to take a big leap forward and really become a household name. He still shows flashes but looked a little lost in a new scheme last year. If anyone can get him on track it’s Mike Pettine. Pay attention to Robertson because he could be a spark like Kiko Alonso was in Pettine’s defense last year.

The front seven is quietly talented – Dansby, Kruger, Rubin, Sheard, and Bryant are all very good in different ways. Barkevious Mingo showed flashes as a pass rusher and this system may be a better fit as Pettine is going to let him get after the quarterback instead of asking him to run all over the field.

The Browns are missing weapons but they’re not as bad as the general public wants to believe. They’ll win a few games this year that will surprise some people. If they can get the running game going, they have a shot at a decent season.

Overall AFC North Outlook:

Cincinnati Bengals (11-5)

I like the way the Bengals schedule sets up. It’s going to be a battle between them in the Ravens. The difference will be who slips up and loses an intra-division game.

Baltimore Ravens (10-6)

I’m hesitant with this as the offense looked so bad last year and it doesn’t seem like an easy fix. A new OC is a good start. I’d be comfortable swapping them with Cincy here.

Pittsburgh Steelers (6-10)

Pittsburgh is taking a step back to take a step forward. Re-tooling is a good thing for the future of the franchise. Unless Big Ben goes down, then they might play for the #1 pick.

Cleveland Browns (5-11)

This feels low for Cleveland but the QB situation plus a tough division makes them look worse than they really are.

 

 

 

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