NFL Week 7 – Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. Washington Redskins Game Preview

While this game may not be important to most of the NFL world since it’s two 2-win teams facing off, it’s quite interesting to me. I live in Tampa and follow the Buccaneers closely. I also follow Scot McCloughan closely because I believe he’s the best talent evaluator in the NFL. A couple of years ago I did a roster evaluation of the Buccaneers’ roster. This offseason, I did one of the Washington roster. That’s why this game is interesting to me.

This week, I’ve crowbarred in some time to take a look at this specific matchup.

Last year, the Bucs only won 2 games. One of those games happened to be against Washington. It wasn’t a close game either. The Bucs won by a score of 27-7, mostly on the back of wide receiver Mike Evans who had 207 yards and 2 touchdowns. The Bucs’ leading rusher in that game was Charles Sims with 36 yards on 13 carries. For Washington, Alfred Morris had 96 yards on 20 carries while Robert Griffin went 23/32 for 207 yards, 1 TD, and 2 INTs. While the numbers weren’t atrocious, it was one of the worst games I’ve ever seen Griffin play as he seemed to have zero field vision and missed tons of open reads and couldn’t pull the trigger on a number of easy throws.

This year, both quarterbacks are different. For Washington, it’s Kirk Cousins. For Tampa Bay, instead of Josh McCown, it’s rookie Jameis Winston.

Winston has been incredibly inconsistent in his play this year, just as you would expect from a rookie. For the most part, he makes the correct presnap reads and that translates to mostly the correct decisions. The problem is that Winston has been precise in his throws. This is mostly due to poor mechanics in his feet and his throwing motion. Winston also tends to panic a bit when he’s in traffic in the pocket. When the pocket begins to close in around him he makes large elaborate movements instead of subtly sliding forward by a step and maintaining his eyes downfield. If he can maintain calm in the pocket, he’s a much better passer.

One of the biggest things that I’ve noticed on film is that contrary to how Winston played in college, vs. Jacksonville, Winston lacks anticipation, timing, and confidence in his arm and/or his wide receivers. There was a throw down the left sideline to Evans beat his CB by 2 steps on a go route, and Winston put too much loft on the ball and it allowed the CB to recover and knock it down. That’s a throw that Winston normally puts some zip on downfield and puts on the money. There are also other throws on comeback routes that Winston delivered late but completed because the Jags’ secondary isn’t very good. I don’t know where the old Winston went, but he surely wasn’t what I saw in college vs. Jacksonville.

It may have a lot to do with his offensive line. The Bucs may have one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL. LT Donovan Smith is a big body that’s a solid run blocker but has slow feet. He can be beaten with speed – especially when a fast edge rusher can get him to overset vs. the outside speed rush and then cut back across Smith’s face to the inside. In the absence of LG Logan Mankins, Kevin Pamphile has been filling in. He’s another big body that lacks athleticism. The rest of the OL has its own set of problems with Joe Hawley at C, Ali Marpet at RG, and Gosder Cherilus at RT. Marpet is an athletic rookie that shows promise but lacks the functional strength to play at the NFL level right now.

The Washington defensive line has shown that it can’t be overlooked. Jason Hatcher, Chris Baker, and Stephen Paea are disruptive upfront to even good offensive lines. Terrance Knighton is a big body in the middle that eats up space. Ricky Jean-Francois has proven that he can still stop the run as well. The problem is that this front seven lacks a true quick-twitch pass rusher. Ryan Kerrigan is a Pro-Bowl level player as an all-around edge player. He’ll tally double digit sacks this year but he’s not Justin Houston or Von Miller on the edge. Trent Murphy lacks the closing speed to be that guy. Rookie Preston Smith has showed promise and could have a major impact on this game if Washington will give him the snaps I think he deserves today.

On the back end of the defense, ILBs Riley and Robinson may be two of the best LBs in the NFL that you’ve never heard of unless you’re a Washington fan. These guys are smart and fly all over the field. Robinson is better in coverage than Riley while Riley fills down with a little more oomph than Robinson. These guys are fun to watch together.

Bashaud Breeland is a guy that I said had the potential to be a shutdown corner in my preseason roster evaluation. He looked rusty in his first couple of games but he’s shown me exactly what I’ve expected in his last 3 games. He’s still young and he still makes mistakes, but Breeland still looks like the real deal.

Aside from Breeland, the Washington secondary has been wholly inconsistent. The best player to this point in the secondary may be safety Dashon Goldson. DeAngelo Hall and Chris Culliver have played decent but are out for this game. That leaves Will Blackmon, Deshazor Everrett, and Quinton Dunbar to fill in against Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans. That’s not an ideal matchup.

On a side note, I’d really like to see Jeron Johnson get some more snaps to see what he can do at safety. Trenton Robinson has been all over the place and Johnson was a guy I really liked in Seattle.

For the rest of the Bucs offense, Mike Evans has had a slow start to the year but this could be the game where he breaks out. It really depends on how Washington decides to defend in the secondary. Vincent Jackson has been the Bucs’ best receiver by a longshot this year so they may decide to focus on him instead of Evans, but it seems most teams are still guarding Evans more than VJax.

Doug Martin has been the Bucs’ best player this season – Lavonte David and Gerald McCoy included. Martin has the burst he had a few years ago and the agility is back. He’s also a strong runner. He really is a complete back and if he had a better line he’d have a shot at 1500+ yards this season. I’m surprised Bucs’ OC Dirk Koetter hasn’t relied on him more considering the struggles of a rookie QB. Sims has been the “3rd down” back. The Bucs are figuring out how he’s best used – in space, on the edge, and as a WR and he’s benefited in recent weeks from it. He’s not a between the tackles runner and he goes down too easy on contact (and as evidenced in his 1st quarter toss play vs. Jacksonville, sometimes without contact).

Washington will continue to roll with QB Kirk Cousins. It’s important to understand what Cousins is and isn’t before throwing him under the bus. Cousins is a limited QB who needs to get rid of the ball quickly and on-time to be efficient. His mechanics deteriorate quickly when he’s pressured and he doesn’t do well when plays breakdown. This is why he’s effective when throwing to guys like Garcon and Crowder who are good route runners who understand how to stem routes to quickly get leverage against a defender.

In front of Cousins, the Washington offensive line is a very big, but athletic-for-the-size, group. Trent Williams is still a Pro Bowl-level LT. The guy I’ve been most impressed with is RT Morgan Moses who has shown a ton of promise. He’s been Washington’s 2nd best offensive linemen this year. Rookie Brandon Scherff has been solid as well. I still lean that he’d be a better tackle than guard, but he’s beginning to figure it out at guard after a few games. The sky is the limit for his potential. Kory Lichtensteiger is out for this game which means the beleaguered Josh LeRibeus will be at center. LeRibeus is a liability and could solely be responsible for Washington losing this game. OL coach Bill Callahan better have a plan to protect LeRibeus against the defensive tackles of Tampa Bay as McCoy, Clinton McDonald, and and Henry Melton will dominate LeRibeus one on one.

On the edge, the Bucs’ Jacquies Smith gets a lot of credit for small bursts of production. Smith owns lesser players at LTs but struggle against anyone who is above average. He’ll likely be very silent against LT Williams. (All of this is assuming Williams is active as he’s passed concussion protocol.) Perhaps the most intriguing matchup is RT Moses vs. DE William Gholston. Gholston is a physical freak who can physically dominate but it doesn’t always seem to “click” for him. He’s played well this year but he often gives up on plays or makes the wrong move when needed. Too many times I’ve seen him shoving the tackle into the space of the QB and then stop to try to get around his blocker. I’d love to see him just continue that push straight into the lap of the QB. Moses is the type of guy that can give him trouble. He’s physically a strong match for Gholston but all it takes is one misstep and a guy like Gholston can win.

This feels like a good game for RB Matt Jones. Both he and Alfred Morris should have good run lanes. I like Jones more because he gets downhill in a hurry and his physicality is a bad matchup for the slow and soft defense of the Bucs.

Lavonte David has played well this year – contrary to what you might have heard anywhere else. David is asked to do different things in this defense so he’s not making as many splash plays as he did in Schiano’s defense but that doesn’t mean that he is any less of a player. Rookie LB Kwon Alexander looks like a legit star in the making at MLB.

In the secondary, the Bucs have played pretty poorly. Banks and Verner aren’t solid fits for Tampa 2. The safety position has been pretty atrocious. Chris Conte is a smart player but lacks the speed and athleticism to make plays when necessary. He’s always just a step shy and in the NFL at the safety position, that means he’s giving up points. Bradley McDougald has his moments but he’s still not terrific. Again, consistency is everything at the safety position. Any mistake there means that the backend of the defense falls apart and points are likely scored.

Getting into the scheme relations and matchup problems, there are a couple of things that stick out to me. Washington could have serious trouble on the interior OL vs. the Bucs’ DTs. This means that Cousins could have guys in his face all day. I would expect Jay Gruden to realize this could be the case and they could neutralize this will rollouts, tunnel screens, and draw plays to keep the DTs honest. They should also use hard counts to get the Bucs’ DL to jump offsides and slow their get off. With time, I think Cousins could have an easy go of it when passing because of the soft defense of the Bucs. Look for the Washington RBs to have success running off the edge and B gaps.

One intriguing matchup is how Gruden decides to us his RBs in pass pro. Will he have them focused on the interior to protect there and leave RT Moses on an island vs. Gholston, or does he split the help amongst the right side. He can leave LT Williams on an island vs. DE Smith and feel comfortable.

On the other side of the ball, I’m curious as to how DC Joe Barry decides to distribute coverages between Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans. My sense tells me that he’ll still focus on Evans until Jackson proves that he can beat them. With that being said, he has multiple ways to try to manage this dynamic. He may be able to put Breeland on Jackson and roll coverages over to Evans’ side. I think that’s probably the best way to handle it until Jackson proves he’s the guy that Barry should focus on.

I also think the Washington DL dominates the Bucs offensive line. Winston should be under pressure all day as his OL is facing a DL that is both stronger and more athletic across the board. Preston Smith could have 2 or 3 sacks today if given the appropriate amount of playing time.

It’s important to note that the Bucs are using more coverage disguises in their last couple of games and are playing more Cover 3 and single high safety than at any point since Lovie Smith took over. Even with an extra guy in the box, I expect Tampa Bay to have trouble stopping the run.

If played correctly, Washington should rush for over 200 yards, have 4 or 5 sacks, and win pretty handily. The only way that doesn’t happen is if OC Dirk Koetter can get Winston in a groove early and get the Washington defense on its heels and force Cousins into throwing more than Washington would like. This would increase opportunities for turnovers and could put Washington in a position where they have to play a close game.

I don’t think that happens and Washington wins by 14+ points.

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The Blame Game – A Tale of an Interception

While going through the Washington vs. Miami game from Sunday, I ran into a play that serves as a good learning lesson. It helps to illuminate that for the most part, plays – good or bad – are rarely ever one player’s fault. It’s a combination of a lot of different elements that play into it.

In the 2nd quarter, Washington QB Kirk Cousins escaped a bit of pressure and rolled to his right. Targeting TE Jordan Reed, Cousins released the ball only to have Miami CB Brent Grimes undercut the pass and pick it off. At first glance, it looks like Cousins made a poor decision and was wholly at fault for the throw. Taking a closer look, that may not necessarily be the case.

Presnap, Miami is showing a quarters look with Grimes playing closer to the line of scrimmage than any of the other DBs.

Cousins INT Presnap

Washington is in 11 personnel with Reed and a running back on each side of him. Pierre Garcon is singled out to Cousins’ left, while Andre Roberts is in the slot right and Ryan Grant is out to Cousins’ wide right. Both outside receivers are running routes that break back to the QB, with Roberts running an in from the slot, and Reed leaking out into the flat from his position next to Cousins.

The Miami defense is showing quarters and stay true to that look after the snap. This means that the DBs are playing a 4-deep coverage and making sure to stay over top of any receiver that comes into their zone. The nickel cornerback is aligned over the slot and squatting on the short route knowing he has help over top.

Cousins INT Eyes

Cousins’ first read is to his left and he predetermines that Garcon isn’t going to be open when he breaks off his hook route (which turns out to be incorrect). He then moves his eyes to Roberts in the slot. Roberts’ in breaking route is bracketed by the underneath defenders yet Cousins stays locked on.

Grimes, from his off-position over his receiver, has his eyes in the backfield on Cousins. Reed has leaked out into the flat and is wide open. Had Cousins seen this presnap, he could deliver this ball and Reed would likely pick up a healthy gain. As it is, Cousins has his eyes affixed to the middle of the field and won’t pull them off until he has to break containment and scramble.

Cousins INT Grimes Eyes

This is the point where Cousins breaks contain and begins to sprint out to his right. This is also the point where Cousins sees Reed open out in the flat. The problem is that Grimes still has his eyes on Cousins and has good position to break down on any pass.

We’ve already shown that Cousins is late to recognize his open receiver and is partially to blame already for the oncoming interception. This is where Jordan Reed and Brent Grimes both put their impact, for better or worse, on this play.

Cousins INT Release

This is where each player is when Cousins releases the ball. Because Grimes has his head up and eyes in the backfield, he sees the throw coming instantly and is already breaking on the route. Not many cornerbacks can read and react like Grimes and this is a terrific play on his part.

Reed actually helps Grimes out here while hurting his QB. At the release, Reed is around the 20 yard line. As you’ll see in the next screenshot, Reed drifts upfield and is beyond the 25 yard line by the time the ball reaches him. Those 5 yards allow Grimes to further undercut the route. If Reed were to stop or to come back to the football, he may have been able to break up the interception or even make the catch. It doesn’t help that there isn’t much juice on the throw and Grimes can really cover some ground when breaking down on a throw.

Cousins INT Catch

Here is the point where the ball meets Grimes. Reed has drifted out beyond the 25 which eliminates him from being able to get in and make a play on the ball. Grimes’ momentum ends up taking him out of bounds or else this would have been a pick-six and changed the entire complexion of the game early on.

It’s easy to say that Cousins made a late decision and a poor throw, but if Reed had turned back to the ball instead of drifting upfield, this INT probably never happens. A lot of credit also goes to Grimes who broke off of his initial coverage to drive underneath a mark who wasn’t even his to cover. His superb vision and closing speed allows him to get to a ball that most CBs would maybe only be able to swat away.

The blame (or credit) is shared here among the 3 players. How heavily it rests on each player is debatable, but it can’t be attributed to just one player. Most interceptions in the NFL have this element of complexity to them but it’s easier, more exciting, and frankly there isn’t enough time in the broadcast for announcers and analysts to pick apart the intricacies of the play as it happens.

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2015 NFL Preview

I posted this the morning of opening day via Google Docs because my website was down at the time. I’m re-posting here now that the website is back up. Thanks for reading and enjoy.

 

AFC North 

Baltimore Ravens

Previous Record: (10-6)

Losses:

QB Tyrod Taylor
RB Bernard Pierce
WR Torrey Smith
TE Owen Daniels
C Gino Gradkowski
NT Haloti Ngata
DE/OLB Pernell McPhee
CB Antoine Cason
S Darian Stewart
S Jeromy Miles
KR Jacoby Jones

 

Veteran Additions:

CB Kyle Arrington
S Kendrick Lewis
QB Matt Schaub

 

Draft:

Round Pick Overall Pos Player College
1 26 26 WR Breshad Perriman Central Florida
2 23 55 TE Maxx Williams Minnesota
3 26 90 DT Carl Davis Iowa
4 23 122 DE Za’Darius Smith Kentucky
4 26 125 RB Javorius Allen USC
4 37 136 CB Tray Walker Texas Southern
5 35 171 TE Nick Boyle Delaware
5 40 176 OG Robert Myers Tennessee St.
6 28 204 WR Darren Waller Georgia Tech

 Synopsis: There are some pretty big names that the Ravens let go this offseason and that’s worrisome as they don’t seem to have reloaded. While Torrey Smith didn’t produce as expected last year, I’m surprised the Ravens didn’t re-sign him. Haloti Ngata leaving is just weird because of his long and dominant tenure with Baltimore but they would rather get rid of a guy a year too early than a year too late and Ngata is getting up there in age. Probably the most underrated piece that left is Pernell McPhee. He was quietly one of the biggest pieces of the Ravens defense last year as a pass rusher. Now in Chicago, I believe the Ravens might miss him more than they realize.

I love the additions of Kyle Arrington and Kendrick Lewis as it adds talent and depth to a secondary that was the weakest unit of the defense last year for the Ravens. They still have one of the best LB corps in the league in both overall talent and depth, and rookie Za’Darius Smith out of Kentucky could be the backfill for McPhee, while Timmy Jernigan will need to step up and be the dominant DL force that the Ravens need.

On offense, the Ravens really seem to lack some big names at the WR position. 1st round pick Breshad Perriman will need some time to adjust. During that time, it wouldn’t surprise me to see Marlon Brown take over the outside role and become a big part of this offense. He has very good deep speed. The offensive line is set to have another good year and the Ravens are prepared to roll with Justin Forsett and Lorenzo Taliaferro at RB as they did last year.

The Ravens tend to go as Joe Flacco goes. He’s a solid quarterback who goes on hot streaks. This team doesn’t feel like it’s changed much, but they do appear to have a harder schedule than last year. That could make 10-6 more like 9-7.

 

Cincinnati Bengals

Previous Record: (10-5-1)

Losses:

QB Jason Campbell
WR Greg Little
TE Jermaine Gresham
OT Marshall Newhouse
C Mike Pollak
DE Robert Geathers
CB Terence Newman
S Taylor Mays

 

Veteran Additions:

LB A.J. Hawk
QB Josh Johnson
DE Michael Johnson

 

Draft:

Round Pick Overall Pos Player College
1 21 21 OT Cedric Ogbuehi Texas A&M
2 21 53 OT Jake Fisher Oregon
3 21 85 TE Tyler Kroft Rutgers
3 35 99 ILB Paul Dawson TCU
4 21 120 CB Josh Shaw USC
4 36 135 DE Marcus Hardison Arizona State
5 21 157 TE C.J. Uzomah Auburn
6 21 197 FS Derron Smith Fresno St.
7 21 238 WR Mario Alford West Virginia

Synopsis: Cincinnati really didn’t lose anyone of much importance other than Mike Pollak. But they didn’t really gain much either. AJ Hawk is a solid player but isn’t going to transform this defense in any significant way. The Bengals got back Michael Johnson who played so poorly in Tampa Bay that the Bucs are literally paying him to play for another team.

The Bengals are consistent. They typically have a good defense with a middling offense every year. I could run through all of the positions but really they’re the same as they were last year with the exception that Geno Atkins is back at DT. Atkins is a dominant force on the interior and changes how any team schemes against Cincy. His presence will be felt immediately as he showed a return to his previous form in the preseason.

The offensive line will continue to be good as long as Paul Alexander is coaching it. He takes any player and molds him into a good one it seems. The wide receivers aren’t spectacular outside of AJ Green but both Sanu and Marvin Jones are solid options. Jeremy Hill is the downhill runner while Giovanni Bernard is the home run threat in space. Bernard had a bit of a disappointing season last year after having a strong rookie campaign in 2013. Gio is a player with high upside if the offense can figure out how to use him. And then there’s the QB position. Andy Dalton is hot and cold as a quarterback, but the problem is that he’s more cold than hot. I was thoroughly surprised that the Bengals decided to extend him. That’s one contract I would have let walk if I were forced to.

With that being said, the Bengals still have one of the strongest and well-built rosters in the league. Their biggest problem is also the most important and there isn’t a viable solution right now. While it’s very possible that the Browns or Steelers could steal an extra game from the Bengals this year, it’s easy to predict them to be right at their win total from last season.

 

Cleveland Browns

Previous Record: (7-9)

Losses:

QB Brian Hoyer
QB Thad Lewis
WR Miles Austin
TE Jordan Cameron
NT Ahtyba Rubin
DT Phil Taylor
DE/OLB Jabaal Sheard
CB Buster Skrine
P Spencer Lanning

 

Veteran Additions:

WR Dwayne Bowe
WR Brian Hartline
TE Rob Housler
P Andy Lee
QB Josh McCown
DT Randy Starks
CB Tramon Williams

 

Draft:

Round Pick Overall Pos Player College
1 12 12 NT Danny Shelton Washington
1 19 19 C Cameron Erving Florida St.
2 19 51 DE Nate Orchard Utah
3 13 77 RB Duke Johnson Miami
3 32 96 DT Xavier Cooper Washington St.
4 16 115 SS Ibraheim Campbell Northwestern
4 24 123 WR Vince Mayle Washington St.
6 13 189 CB Charles Gaines Louisville
6 19 195 TE Malcolm Johnson Mississippi St.
6 22 198 TE Randall Telfer USC
7 2 219 ILB Hayes Pullard USC
7 24 241 CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu Oregon

Synopsis: Last year, I believe that the Browns were close to being a playoff team. I actually thought they had a real shot at it. That turned out to be more true than not and then Brian Hoyer decided that he was going to turn awful and the Johnny Manziel experiment failed.

This year, I think the Browns could be on the verge of the playoffs again – if their QB wasn’t Josh McCown. Even with McCown, there’s a long shot chance, but watching him up close and personal last season in Tampa, I can’t endorse any team with McCown as their QB. He needs an inordinate amount of time to throw to be effective as a QB. Without it, he crumbles in the pocket. The Browns have enough of an OL to support McCown but it’s not ideal. And really the entire plan should be to run Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson until their legs fall off.

The defense has some question marks in the secondary, but the front seven is really good (especially along the DL), and is incredibly deep. Rookie 3rd round pick Xavier Cooper is a really good interior rusher and is playing as a backup for this team. Randy Starks was one of the best players that I saw in preseason this year – he was disruptive in both the run and pass game. If he plays like that all season, he’ll earn All-Pro honors. Rookie 1st round pick Danny Shelton looks like he belongs, while Desmond Bryant will play well to the other side of him. That means the backups are Armonty Bryant, John Hughes, Cooper, and a guy out of Ashland named Jamie Meder who was incredibly impressive in the preseason as well. Karlos Dansby and Paul Kruger make up the good half of the LB positions, while Christian Kirksey and Scott Solomon leave a lot to be desired. I’d really like to see Craig Robertson win the ILB position back as I think he’s clearly more talented than Kirksey. The secondary is solid though I don’t like trading out the departed Buster Skrine for Tramon Williams. Joe Haden will lock down the other side and Pierre Desir hopes to continue to play very well in his sophomore season. 2014 1st round pick Justin Gilbert is buried at the bottom of the depth chart and that’s a major disappointment.

Ultimately, this team will rely on its defense to hold it’s place this year. I don’t think the offense is marginally improved enough to give this team the jump it needs to get above .500.

 

Pittsburgh Steelers

Previous Record: (11-5)

Losses:

WR Lance Moore
DE/DT Brett Keisel
DE/OLB Jason Worilds
CB Ike Taylor
CB Brice McCain
S Troy Polamalu

 

Veteran Additions:

QB Michael Vick
RB DeAngelo Williams

 

Draft:

Round Pick Overall Pos Player College
1 22 22 OLB Bud Dupree Kentucky
2 24 56 CB Senquez Golson Mississippi
3 23 87 WR Sammie Coates Auburn
4 22 121 CB Doran Grant Ohio St.
5 24 160 TE Jesse James Penn St.
6 23 199 DT Leterrius Walton Central Michigan
6 36 212 DE Anthony Chickillo Miami
7 22 239 FS Gerod Holliman Louisville

Synopsis: It’s surprising to look at the Steelers’ record from last season and see 11-5. I know Parcells said, “You are what your record says you are,” but I don’t see the Steelers as an 11-win team. The offense was impressive, especially when Roethlisberger got hot and threw for 12 touchdowns and no picks in 2 games. The problem was the defense.

The Steelers defense was old and slow last season and it showed. I expect a slight improvement this year but it’s mostly due to an infusion of speed based on youth. Ryan Shazier is a great young player and fun to watch but he can be inconsistent at times. Top draft pick Bud Dupree is an intriguing player but appears to lack the functional strength to consistently win at the NFL level right now. Throw in a change from a legend defensive coordinator and there are still a ton of question marks for this team.

The offense was a blur last season. Points came in bunches. The Steelers were actually the 2nd best team in offensive DVOA last season – ahead of Denver, New England, Philly, et al (only behind Green Bay). With Pouncey out for a stretch of time and suspensions to Le’Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant (who is going to be a big part of this offense), I doubt the Steelers are that efficient on offense again.

Pittsburgh feels more like an 8 or 9 win team. The problem is that it all depends on how hot Big Ben gets and for how long this year. A good QB changes everything and compensates for a lot of other issues. While this team feels like a better team than the one last year to me, it still doesn’t feel like they’re an 11-win team.

 

AFC North Division Outlook:

Baltimore Ravens: 10-6

Pittsburgh Steelers: 9-7

Cincinnati Bengals: 9-7

Cleveland Browns: 7-9

This division feels like a 3 team race like it tends to be. That’s no disrespect to Cleveland because I do feel like they’re closing the gap and making themselves more and more relevant each year. Now if only they had a QB. For the records, this is kind of a cop out. I really don’t know how things play out, but I do think things could be this tight in this division this year. I think the Steelers regress in terms of offense and record, while Cincy and Baltimore hold strong. This is a tough ranking for me because I can’t decide how to order the top 3 based on criteria that I think is important. I can’t possibly put an Andy-Dalton-led team at the top of this division. However, I don’t think Pittsburgh hits 11 wins again, but they do have the best QB in the division so that gets weighted for them. But I feel like the Ravens are the most well-rounded team in the division. I’ll give the nod to the 2 teams with QBs, with Baltimore taking the division and Pittsburgh with the tiebreaker over Cincy.

 

 AFC South

 

Houston Texans

Previous Record: (9-7)

 Losses:

QB Ryan Fitzpatrick
QB Case Keenum
WR Andre Johnson
G Cody White
C Chris Myers
DE/DT Tim Jamison
DT Louis Nix
DE/OLB Brooks Reed
LB Kourtnei Brown
S D.J. Swearinger
S Danieal Manning

 

Veteran Additions:

QB Zac Dysert
S Stevie Brown
QB Brian Hoyer
S Rahim Moore
RB Chris Polk
WR Cecil Shorts
WR Nate Washington
NT Vince Wilfork

 

Draft:

Round Pick Overall Pos Player College
1 16 16 CB Kevin Johnson Wake Forest
2 11 43 ILB Benardrick McKinney Mississippi St.
3 6 70 WR Jaelen Strong Arizona State
5 39 175 WR Keith Mumphery Michigan St.
6 35 211 OLB Reshard Cliett South Florida
6 40 216 DT Christian Covington Rice
7 18 235 RB Kenny Hilliard LSU

Synopsis: When I saw Houston’s record from last year, it surprised me to see that they won 9 games with the likes of Ryan Fitzpatrick and Case Keenum as the leading passers. Logically that led me to check to see how good their DVOA was to support it. While 6th in defensive DVOA is good, it’s actually not as good as what I thought was necessary to support an offense that lacked firepower.

This year, the defense is going to get better. I think it’s addition by subtraction losing DJ Swearinger who was a liability the Texans didn’t need on defense. The defense added Vince Wilfork who still has some gas left in the tank. The addition of Wilfork and the return of Jadeveon Clowney could make this front 7 the best in the NFL. The difference between the Texans defense and some of the others (excluding NYJ) is that they have the corners to make it hard for defenses to move the ball in the air when they do get time to throw. Brian Cushing is an impact player at LB and shouldn’t be overlooked. This Texans defense has the chance to be the best in the NFL.

The offense will rely on a solid OL to pave the way for Alfred Blue until Arian Foster comes back from a hip injury. Blue is a good enough runner to rely on but I was actually impressed by 3rd stringer Jonathan Grimes in the preseason. Grimes is a big guy with smooth feet and good vision. He’s a great fit for this scheme. At QB, Hoyer is a slight improvement over Fitzpatrick, but it remains to be seen if he can be consistent for a whole year. I think he can and I think a lot of people will be surprised at how well Hoyer plays this year. Having a target like DeAndre Hopkins helps. I like Cecil Shorts’ fit within the offense as he’s the type of guy that will add big plays off of short passes.

The combination of an offense built around the run with a stifling defense that will create a ton of turnover opportunities means that the Texans will likely create a wide gap in turnover margin. That’s exactly what 2nd year coach Bill O’Brien works. This is a well-built team all around and I love BO’B’s coaching style. Look for this team to be a lot better than people expect. This is a really good football team.

 

Indianapolis Colts

Previous Record: (11-5)

Losses:

RB Ahmad Bradshaw
RB Trent Richardson
WR Reggie Wayne
WR Hakeem Nicks
C A.Q. Shipley
DE/DT Cory Redding
DE/OLB Shaun Phillips
DE/OLB Ricky Jean-Francois
CB Josh Gordy
S Sergio Brown
S LaRon Landry

 

Veteran Additions:

DE/OLB Trent Cole
RB Frank Gore
G Todd Herremans
ILB Nate Irving
WR Andre Johnson
DE/DT Kendall Langford
S Dwight Lowery
DT Billy Winn

 

Draft:

Round Pick Overall Pos Player College
1 29 29 WR Phillip Dorsett Miami
3 1 65 CB D’Joun Smith Florida Atlantic
3 29 93 DE Henry Anderson Stanford
4 10 109 SS Clayton Geathers Central Florida
5 15 151 NT David Parry Stanford
6 29 205 RB Josh Robinson Mississippi St.
6 31 207 ILB Amarlo Herrera Georgia
7 38 255 OT Denzell Goode Mars Hill

 Synopsis: The Colts feel like fools gold to me because of the way they’re built. Without Andrew Luck, this team isn’t very talented. It’s hard to justify that for a team that won 11 games last season but that’s how much the QB position means and that’s how good Luck is.

It looks like the Colts lost a good amount of talent but really they were just names that fans have heard a lot. Only a couple were real contributors in 2014. I like the additions of Cole, Gore, and Herremans. Andre Johnson still has to show that he can be anything close to what he used to be. The offensive line still has massive question marks as it’s mostly the same names just moved around a bit. Luck can negate much of the pass pressure with great pocket presence but holes for the RBs will still be hard to come by. That’s why I really like the addition of Gore because he is the type of back that doesn’t need large holes to get through and he powers through contact to stay on schedule. He’s a great fit for a line like this.

While the LB corps is solid, the defensive line leaves a lot to be desired. 5th round pick, rookie David Parry starts at nose tackle. He’s bracketed by Kendall Langford and Zach Kerr. That’s not ideal. The Colts just traded for Billy Winn who will likely become the starter at some point once he gets integrated into the defense. Vontae Davis doesn’t get enough credit for his work as a man-coverage cornerback, and Greg Toler is a good player on the opposite side. Darius Butler is a solid nickel back but the depth beyond him is questionable. Mike Adams and Dwight Lowery are either medicore (Adams) or unproven (Lowery), so the safety position is still a scary proposition for the Colts. Again, the theme with the safeties, as it is throughout this entire team, there is a lack of depth.

The masses are a lot higher on the Colts than I am. I don’t think this is a talented team in a lot of places, but they’re talented in the most important of all positions. Luck will have to put this team on his shoulders and carry them again, unless Gore turns out to be able to run with little to no offensive line in front of him (which isn’t impossible). With Luck, because of a weaker division and mediocre conference overall, I think the Colts are a playoff team. I don’t see this team as a team that will represent in the AFC Championship game like most do. If they do, Luck will have to play like the best QB in the NFL.

 

Jacksonville Jaguars

Previous Record: (3-13)

Losses:

RB Jordan Todman
C Jacques McClendon
DT Red Bryant
OLB Geno Hayes
ILB J.T. Thomas
CB Alan Ball
S Sherrod Martin

 

Veteran Additions:

S Sergio Brown
CB Davon House
DT Jared Odrick
OT Jermey Parnell
OT Austin Pasztor
RB Bernard Pierce
OLB Dan Skuta
TE Julius Thomas
WR Bryan Walters
C Stefen Wisniewski

 

Draft:

Round Pick Overall Pos Player College
1 3 3 OLB Dante Fowler, Jr. Florida
2 4 36 RB T.J. Yeldon Alabama
3 3 67 OG A.J. Cann South Carolina
4 5 104 SS James Sample Louisville
5 3 139 WR Rashad Greene Florida St.
6 4 180 DT Michael Bennett Ohio St.
7 3 220 WR Neal Sterling Monmouth (NJ)
7 12 229 TE Ben Koyack Notre Dame

 Synopsis: With Jacksonville the last few years, it feels like the pessimistic view of Murphy’s Law is always in affect – whatever can go wrong, will go wrong. Rookie 1st round draft pick, and number 3 overall pick, Dante Fowler, Jr. tore his ACL in rookie minicamp. Fowler was supposed to be the missing piece to a defense that even though it has been improving, hasn’t had a dominant edge rusher of late.

I will add that I really liked Jacksonville’s draft this year aside from Dante Fowler. I wasn’t a big fan of Fowler who didn’t even seem to get to the QB when blitz plays were schemed for him. Outside of Fowler, I love this draft class. Yeldon filled a need and is a terrific player. Cann will be a contributor at OG. Sample is a guy who will provide depth but can play either safety position. Greene will make a terrific 3rd or even 4th receiver depending on how the Jags play it. Bennett is a very good rotational player early on and is a steal in the 6th round.

Jacksonville’s defensive DVOA wasn’t awful last season where the Jaguars ranked 20th. They added some depth via free agency and a couple of very solid players via the draft that will get a good amount of snaps – Sample and Bennett. The lack of pass rush won’t help a couple of questionable cornerbacks in Aaron Colvin and Davon House. It will be interesting to see how the scheme makes up for a few holes here and there on this defense.

Quietly, the Jags have built a very good offensive line. Denard Robinson found a good amount of holes in the preseason and I would expect Yeldon to be able to do the same when he’s in. They did a good job of keeping Bortles upright as well. The one thing that will go unnoticed is the impact of new OC Greg Olson. Olson is a master at protecting young QBs and making them look like very solid players (see: Josh Freeman and Derek Carr). Bortles will look better in this offense than he did in the Jedd Fisch offense.

The jump in play I expect to see from Bortles might not necessarily be from development but from a different offense that simplifies reads and helps to eliminate mistakes. It will also help keep Bortles clean and cut down on pressure because it emphasizes quick reads and throws and when they aren’t there the QB is free to take off from the pocket. A much improved offense and a defense that isn’t as bad as fans probably think means that this team is going to win a few games that they aren’t expected to.

 

Tennessee Titans

Previous Record: (2-14)

Losses:

QB Jake Locker
WR Nate Washington
TE Anthony Fasano
OT Michael Roos
OT Michael Oher
ILB Colin McCarthy
CB Perrish Cox
S Bernard Pollard
S George Wilson
KR Leon Washington

 

Veteran Additions:

OT Byron Bell
WR Harry Douglas
DE/OLB Brian Orakpo
S Da’Norris Searcy
C Fernando Velasco

 

Draft:

Round Pick Overall Pos Player College
1 2 2 QB Marcus Mariota Oregon
2 8 40 WR Dorial Green-Beckham Missouri
3 2 66 OG Jeremiah Poutasi Utah
4 1 100 DT Angelo Blackson Auburn
4 9 108 FB Jalston Fowler Alabama
5 2 138 RB David Cobb Minnesota
6 1 177 OLB Deiontrez Mount Louisville
6 32 208 C Andy Gallik Boston College
7 28 245 WR Tre McBride William & Mary

Synopsis: The Titans are really trying to build through the draft this year. That’s a great idea but they’re still a long way from building themselves into a team that can compete for this division. Adding Marcus Mariota should help massively if he pans out to be what most fans think he is going to be, but it’s important to realize that he’s still a rookie and he comes from a system that is different than what he’ll be using this year. Inconsistency is to be expected.

The offense will center around Mariota, as it should, because the offensive line isn’t terrific and the running backs are pretty average-at-best, as well. The addition of Terrence West could push Bishop Sankey to a backup or rotational role. I’m not a fan of this group of wide receivers as I don’t see any dominant receivers. Dorial Green-Beckham should be this team’s number one receiver by late in the season.

This defense has some really good players on it in Jurrell Casey, Derrick Morgan, and Jason McCourty. The problem is that there are a lot of questions in between. The addition of Brian Orakpo is a major factor if he can stay healthy. He only has a couple of pass rush moves and almost refuses to develop anymore, but he’s physically explosive as a rusher and can pile up sacks when he gets in a groove. Having an additional pass rusher should help a group of DBs that, outside of McCourty and maybe safety Bernard Pollard, needs as much help as they can get. Hopefully the addition of Hall of Fame coordinator Dick LeBeau as the “Assistant Head Coach/Defense,” (Ray Horton is still technically the Defensive Coordinator, so I’m not sure how the duties are divided here) can help this defense shore up some holes and play better.

The Titans have to improve with better quarterback play and the addition of LeBeau, right? I’m still not entirely comfortable projecting the Titans as a huge jump but if some of the pieces come together and they stay healthy, 8 wins is entirely possible.

  

AFC South Division Outlook:

Houston Texans: (11-5)

Andrew Luck Indianapolis Colts: (10-6)

Jacksonville Jaguars: (6-10)

Tennessee Titans (5-11)

Yes, I know you think I’m crazy for picking the Texans to win this division. And yes, I understand I’m picking a Brian Hoyer-lead team to win 11 games. That’s how good I think this defense will be. They have an incredible defensive line that will give QBs nightmares and destroy running backs in the hole, too. I just can’t put my faith in Andrew Luck to continue carrying the Colts the way he has, even though I know he’s good enough to do it. I think the difference in these records is that the Texans play a slightly weaker schedule and I think they’re a matchup problem specifically for the Colts. They should win both matchups vs. Indy and that gives them the edge. Both teams will make the playoffs in the AFC. If the Texans had a QB even slightly better than Hoyer, I’d have them in the AFC Championship, but I just can’t do that.

 

AFC West

Denver Broncos

Previous Record: (12-4)

Losses:

QB Zac Dysert
WR Wes Welker
TE Julius Thomas
TE Jacob Tamme
G Orlando Franklin
C Will Montgomery
DE/DT Mitch Unrein
NT Terrance Knighton
ILB Nate Irving
S Rahim Moore

 

Veteran Additions:

TE James Casey
TE Owen Daniels
C Gino Gradkowski
G Shelley Smith
DE/DT Antonio Smith
S Darian Stewart
DE/DT Vance Walker

 

Draft:

Round Pick Overall Pos Player College
1 23 23 DE Shane Ray Missouri
2 27 59 OT Ty Sambrailo Colorado St.
3 28 92 TE Jeff Heuerman Ohio St.
4 34 133 C Max Garcia Florida
5 28 164 CB Lorenzo Doss Tulane
6 27 203 NT Darius Kilgo Maryland
7 33 250 QB Trevor Siemian Northwestern
7 34 251 DB Taurean Nixon Tulane
7 35 252 DB Josh Furman Oklahoma St.

 Synopsis: Denver had to dump a lot of talent because of cap restrictions. Not only was it a lot of talent, it was a lot of important talent that were key pieces. While they filled the TE spot well with veterans James Casey and Owen Daniels, they’re not as talented as they were last year.

One of the biggest issues that I have is that the Broncos didn’t fix their offensive line issues that were exposed against really good teams last year – namely the Seahawks. Any team with a physical defensive line impeded on Manning’s territory and ended up in his lap. The Broncos are expecting Andre Caldwell or Cody Latimer to step into Wes Welker’s role but that’s a large gap to fill. Throw in that I’m not as excited about CJ Anderson as everyone else is and a Peyton who is another year older, and I don’t think this offense is nearly as good as it was last year, or even what it’s projected to be this year.

The defense didn’t lose as many pieces but the depth is deteriorating. As long as they have the pass rush of Von Miller and Demarcus Ware, the defense should be formidable. The DL isn’t special, but it really only needs to keep the LBs clean to let them do their job. Chris Harris is one of the best CBs in the league, and Aqib Talib is still playing well, too.

As long Peyton Manning is at QB, this team has a chance at a run at the Super Bowl. The problem is that window is closing. Welker was a vital part of that offense and now the Broncos need a chain mover. While I still think this is a good team, I don’t think that they’re as powerful as they have been. They’ll need some young guys to step up to the plate to make this team what it was last year.

 

Kansas City Chiefs 

Previous Record: (9-7)

Losses:

WR Dwayne Bowe
TE Anthony Fasano
C Rodney Hudson
DE/DT Vance Walker
DE/DT Kevin Vickerson
ILB Joe Mays

 

Veteran Additions:

S Tyvon Branch
G Paul Fanaika
G Ben Grubbs
G Jeff Linkenbach
WR Jeremy Maclin

 

Draft:

Round Pick Overall Pos Player College
1 18 18 CB Marcus Peters Washington
2 17 49 OG Mitch Morse Missouri
3 12 76 WR Chris Conley Georgia
3 34 98 CB Steven Nelson Oregon St.
4 19 118 ILB Ramik Wilson Georgia
5 36 172 OLB D.J. Alexander Oregon St.
5 37 173 TE James O’Shaughnessy Illinois St.
6 41 217 DT Rakeem Nunez-Roches Southern Miss
7 16 233 WR Da’Ron Brown Northern Illinois

Synopsis: As long as Andy Reid is piloting the Chiefs, they’ll be an 8 to 12 win team. Alex Smith certainly helps to keep him around the lower half of that win total. Smith is good enough to keep the Chiefs relevant but this defense isn’t dominant enough to win anything important with Smith at the helm.

There wasn’t a whole lot of talent that departed. Vance Walker is significant as he played well in limited duty at defensive end but still was only a rotational player. Dwayne Bowe didn’t contribute much to the offense and Jeremy Maclin more than replaces him. I like the additions of OL as it adds both talent and depth. Jamaal Charles looked phenomenal in the preseason and with a better OL, he could set the league record for rushing if the Chiefs are willing to give him the touches. Maclin is going to compile a ton of catches and yards. His skill set is a great fit for this offense and the tons of packaged plays that the Chiefs will run. This is going to look like a mini Eagles offense, I suspect.

On defense, the Chiefs receive a big boost from some players returning from injury. Derrick Johnson, Mike DeVito, and Eric Berry all missed significant time due to trips to the IR. I love the addition of Tyvon Branch who I think is a good player and will provide a lot more security on the back end for a defense that wants to be aggressive.

The mix of defensive firepower and offensive scheme with a dynamic run game should make this a fun team to watch. If the Broncos falter at all, the Chiefs are good enough to take this division. Don’t count out KC. 

 

Oakland Raiders

Previous Record: (3-13)

Losses:

QB Matt Schaub
RB Darren McFadden
RB Maurice Jones-Drew
WR James Jones
WR Denarius Moore
G Kevin Boothe
C Stefen Wisniewski
DE/DT Antonio Smith
DT Pat Sims
DE/OLB LaMarr Woodley
CB Tarell Brown
CB Carlos Rogers
CB Chimdi Chekwa
S Tyvon Branch

 

Veteran Additions:

S Nate Allen
WR Michael Crabtree
RB Roy Helu
KR Trindon Holliday
C Rodney Hudson
ILB Curtis Lofton
OLB Malcom Smith
NT Dan Williams

 

Draft:

Round Pick Overall Pos Player College
1 4 4 WR Amari Cooper Alabama
2 3 35 DT Mario Edwards, Jr. Florida St.
3 4 68 TE Clive Walford Miami
4 29 128 OG Jon Feliciano Miami
5 4 140 ILB Ben Heeney Kansas
5 25 161 OLB Neiron Ball Florida
6 3 179 OLB Max Valles Virginia
7 1 218 OL Anthony Morris Tennessee St.
7 4 221 WR Andre Debose Florida
7 25 242 CB Dexter McDonald Kansas

 Synopsis: This is the first time that I’ve ever agreed with the Raiders free agent signings. I think they’ve done a terrific job of drafting recently but need the development of those draft picks to happen more quickly. For the free agents, Allen, Lofton, Smith, and Williams are all immediate starters. That’s a good indication of how far this team really still has to go.

Khalil Mack is an utter beast. There’s some age here but the backups are young. That’s a good way to do development. Now if the coaching staff can just help speed that process along.

On offense, I’m still one of the few that are saying hold out on judging Derek Carr just yet. He played solidly as a rookie but I see some glaring issues (like inconsistent in his reads) and I’m afraid of the impact that OC Greg Olson leaving will have on him. Olson’s offense helps young QBs look/play better than they really are sometimes though simplified reads and quick throws. It will really be interesting to see if Carr is truly ready for the NFL in Bill Musgrave’s offense. The offensive line is a solid pass blocking line but they won’t clear much of a path for the running backs. Finally, rookie Amari Cooper is the real deal. Pay attention to this kid. He’s going to be a good one.

The Raiders aren’t there yet but I like the direction they’re heading. A light improvement is expected this year but honestly I’m not a fan of this coaching staff. Solid players but with no cohesion or direction doesn’t make a very good team.

 

San Diego Chargers 

Previous Record: (9-7)

Losses:

RB Ryan Mathews
WR Eddie Royal
G Chad Rinehart
C Nick Hardwick
DE/OLB Dwight Freeney
ILB Reggie Walker
ILB Andrew Gachkar
CB Shareece Wright
S Marcus Gilchrist
K Nick Novak

 

Veteran Additions:

OT Joseph Barksdale
G Orlando Franklin
OT Chris Hairston
WR Stevie Johnson
KR Jacoby Jones
CB Patrick Robinson
DE/DT Mitch Unrein
CB Jimmy Wilson

 

Draft:

Round Pick Overall Pos Player College
1 15 15 RB Melvin Gordon Wisconsin
2 16 48 ILB Denzel Perryman Miami
3 19 83 CB Craig Mager Texas St.
5 17 153 OLB Kyle Emanuel North Dakota St.
6 16 192 DT Darius Philon Arkansas

 Synopsis: Mike McCoy is one of the most adaptable coaches in the NFL and he has one of the best QBs in the NFL. I thought the Chargers were a better team than 9-7 last season, but a 24th ranked defensive DVOA doomed them to missing the playoffs completely.

Unfortunately, the defense didn’t add pieces where they needed to. Denzel Perryman was drafted to a LB corps that is the weakest unit on the field for the Chargers defense. You would think that a team that has 4 LBs on the field in their base defense would invest in better ones. Donald Butler didn’t play well last year and is a major hole in the defense. Melvin Ingram played well when healthy and Jeremiah Attaochu had the same issue but needs to find consistency. There are too many question marks on this defense to feel good about where they stand.

On offense, as long as McCoy and Rivers are leading it, there isn’t a lot to worry about. The offensive line wasn’t good last year but the front office took steps to correct that in free agency with the additions of Barskdale and Franklin (immediate starters) and Hairston (depth). That should help rookie RB Melvin Gordon find space to run. Gordon could be the bellcow of this offense on the ground but Danny Woodhead and Brandon Oliver will still get their snaps in the appropriate situations. I really like the combination of Keenan Allen, Malcolm Floyd, and new addition Stev(i)e Johnson as starting WR. Jacoby Jones adds a slight amount of depth and an extra deep threat when necessary.

This is a well-rounded team. There’s a solid offense, good coaching, and a defense that has potential to improve a lot. It’s the defensive improvement that will really take this team from a just-miss-playoff-team to a team that can really mess up someone’s hopes and dreams.

  

AFC West Division Outlook:

San Diego Chargers: (11-5)

Kansas City Chiefs: (10-6)

Denver Broncos: (10-6)

Oakland Raiders: (4-12)

The Chargers were well on their way to a better record that their 9-7 finish last year before they lost 3 of their last 4 (to New England, Denver, and Kansas City, while beating San Francisco). Their schedule doesn’t shape up the way it did last year and I think they improve heavily on defense this year. Kansas City’s defense is nothing to scoff at and they have a real chance at swapping spots with San Diego here in the standings. I do think the Broncos take a bit of a step back. There are just too many holes left by the departing talent. I think KC gets the tie breaker between the two and scoots into the playoffs while the Broncos just miss. San Diego will be in the AFC Championship game.

 

AFC East

Buffalo Bills

Previous Record: (9-7) 

Losses:

RB C.J. Spiller
RB Fred Jackson
TE Scott Chandler
TE Lee Smith
OT Chris Hairston
G Erik Pears
ILB Kiko Alonso
ILB Brandon Spikes
S Da’Norris Searcy

 

Veteran Additions:

TE Charles Clay
FB Jerome Fulton
WR Percy Harvin
G Richie Incognito
RB LeSean McCoy
QB Tyrod Taylor

 

Draft:

Round Pick Overall Pos Player College
2 18 50 CB Ronald Darby Florida St.
3 17 81 OG John Miller Louisville
5 19 155 RB Karlos Williams Florida St.
6 12 188 OLB Tony Steward Clemson
6 18 194 TE Nick O’Leary Florida St.
7 17 234 WR Dezmin Lewis Central Arkansas

 Synopsis: I was surprised to see Fred Jackson traded as he was clearly the best RB in the preseason for the Bills. Now they’re left with a hobbled LeSean McCoy who has a very high ceiling but a low floor for this team as well. I’m not a fan of the Bills trading Kiko Alonso (even though he missed much of 2014) and losing Brandon Spikes. Tyrod Taylor is the most talented QB on this staff, but I thought the Bills would eventually settle on Matt Cassel giving them the best chance to win football games.

Taylor is a solid player but like most athletic QBs, he has trouble reading the entire field. Athletic QBs have this tendency because they aren’t forced to go through an entire progression. Usually 1 or 2 reads is sufficient and then their legs become the next best option. The problem is that in the NFL, everyone is fast and athletic and can chase and tackle. He has a ton of weapons surrounding him at the skill positions and a solid offensive line so he won’t have many excuses to lean on if things don’t go his way.

The real story of this team is its defense. Rex Ryan comes over from the Jets to try to make a very good defense even better. The Bills are threatening to opposing QBs with Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes rushing from the edge. Kyle Williams causes his own problems on the interior to complicate matters even more. The potential issue I see with this defense is in the middle of the field. While I like Nigel Bradham, I think teams can attack the LBs in coverage and test the safeties as well.

This team kind of reminds me of the Carolina defense from a couple of years ago that played so well the offense didn’t have to do much. I underestimated that team then and I may be underestimating the Bills now, but I don’t believe that Taylor is the answer at QB. If McCoy gets back to his top-NFL-rusher form, this team is a playoff team. If they can’t lean on him or the running game, I think the offense makes too many mistakes for the defense to cover up.

 

 Miami Dolphins 

Previous Record: (8-8) 

Losses:

RB Knowshon Moreno
WR Mike Wallace
WR Brandon Gibson
WR Brian Hartline
TE Charles Clay
G Shelley Smith
G Daryn Colledge
G Nate Garner
C Samson Satele
DT Randy Starks
DT Jared Odrick
LB Dannell Ellerbe
LB Philip Wheeler
LB Jason Trusnik
CB Cortland Finnegan
CB/S Jimmy Wilson

 

Veteran Additions:

CB Zackary Bowman
TE Jordan Cameron
WR Greg Jennings
CB Brice McCain
C Jacques McClendon
DT C.J. Mosley
OLB Spencer Paysinger
WR Kenny Stills
DT Ndamukong Suh
C J.D. Walton

 

 Draft:

Round Pick Overall Pos Player College
1 14 14 WR DeVante Parker Louisville
2 20 52 NT Jordan Phillips Oklahoma
4 15 114 OG Jamil Douglas Arizona State
5 9 145 CB Bobby McCain Memphis
5 13 149 RB Jay Ajayi Boise St.
5 14 150 FS Cedric Thompson Minnesota
5 20 156 WR Tony Lippett Michigan St.

 Synopsis: 16 players leaving is a major transition for a team that wasn’t that bad last season. The Dolphins were quietly 7th in offensive DVOA and 17th on defense. If they offense can simply maintain while the defense improves to a top 10 mark, that puts them squarely as one of the top 10 teams in the league (in terms of DVOA).

While losing Randy Starks is painful, most of the losses are pretty easy to get over. Even with Starks leaving, the Dolphins added Ndamukong Suh and made this defensive line a pain in the ass for teams to deal with. Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon can collapse a pocket on the outside while Suh and Earl Mitchell can destroy it from the middle. There’s even depth along the DL with CJ Mosley and Derrick Shelby in the rotation. Even though the LB rotation has changed, they still have a unique identity of being fast and poor tackling. The defensive line will help keep them clean and do their job and also create opportunities for a really good secondary to create a lot of turnovers.

The offense was criticized in 2014 for being a dink and dump offense and not really stretching the field. Well, with such a terrible offensive line last year, that was probably by design. Why take failed shots when it’s only going to get the QB destroyed? The offensive line has improved but only marginally so I wouldn’t expect the offensive gameplan to change much. The wide receiver corps is a bunch of guys who are very good route runners with great hands. This is secretly a really good group of skill players, and at the RB position Lamar Miller certainly looks like a breakout player based on his preseason.

The Dolphins are a well-rounded team and I think head coach Joe Philbin will let his coordinators do what they were hired to do. If that happens, Miami could be a very scary team for the rest of the AFC East.

 

New England Patriots

Previous Record: (12-4)

Losses:

RB Shane Vereen
RB Stevan Ridley
RB Jonas Gray
TE Tim Wright
G Dan Connolly
NT Vince Wilfork
DE/OLB Akeem Ayers
ILB Jonathan Casillas
ILB Chris White
CB Darrelle Revis
CB Brandon Browner
CB Kyle Arrington

 

Veteran Additions:

RB Travaris Cadet
TE Scott Chandler
CB Chimdi Chekwa
TE Fred Davis
CB Bradley Fletcher
WR Brandon Gibson
CB Robert McClain
DE/OLB Jabaal Sheard

 

Draft:

Round Pick Overall Pos Player College
1 32 32 DT Malcom Brown Texas
2 32 64 SS Jordan Richards Stanford
3 33 97 DE Geneo Grissom Oklahoma
4 2 101 DE Trey Flowers Arkansas
4 12 111 OG Tre’ Jackson Florida St.
4 32 131 C Shaq Mason Georgia Tech
5 30 166 LS Joe Cardona Navy
6 2 178 LB Matthew Wells Mississippi St.
6 26 202 TE A.J. Derby Arkansas
7 30 247 CB Darryl Roberts Marshall
7 36 253 OLB Xzavier Dickson Alabama

 Synopsis: These aren’t the same Patriots from last year. That losses column includes a lot of key players who were major reasons for why the Patriots won the Super Bowl last year. I picked the Patriots to win last year because it was the first time they had a secondary to handle the lack of pass rush that they tend to get from their front 7. Now that’s gone and so is Vince Wilfork and situational pass rusher Akeem Ayers.

I look at this roster on both sides of the ball and I’m disappointed. The offensive line seems to be lacking, and outside of Gronk and Edelman, the Pats are relying on skill position players that have had mediocre production across their careers. There are a ton of question marks.

On the defensive side, Dominique Easley is an intriguing player but he’s the type of player that the Patriots don’t tend to use like he should be used in the middle – as a pure penetrator. He’s even technically 3rd on the depth chart behind Alan Branch and Sealver Siliga. Rob Ninkovich is a savvy player but isn’t dominant. I love Chandler Jones but he doesn’t attack the QB the way he should. He has this hesitation before contact that stalls momentum and makes him either blockable or late to the QB. When he eliminates that from his game, he gets to the QB way more consistently. Collins, Mayo, and Hightower make up a really good group of LBs. In the secondary, the only player I’m at all a fan of is Devin McCourty. The CBs are a major question mark and without much of a pass rush, they’re sitting ducks.

This roster screams a 6-win team to me. But because it’s Belichick, he’ll somehow find a way to squeeze more wins out of it. The Patriots won’t be a bad team, but they definitely aren’t a Super Bowl team this year.

  

New York Jets

 Previous Record: (4-12) 

Losses:

QB Michael Vick
FB John Conner
WR Percy Harvin
WR Greg Salas
NT Kenrick Ellis
DE Jason Babin
ILB Nick Bellore
CB Kyle Wilson
CB Phillip Adams
S Dawan Landry

 

Veteran Additions:

DE/DT Stephen Bowen
OT James Brewer
G James Carpenter
CB Antonio Cromarite
QB Ryan Fitzpatrick
S Marcus Gilchrist
ILB Erin Henderson
OT Corey Hilliard
ILB Jamari Lattimore
WR Brandon Marshall
CB Darrelle Revis
RB Stevan Ridley
CB Buster Skrine
DE/DT Kevin Vickerson

 

Draft:

Round Pick Overall Pos Player College
1 6 6 DE Leonard Williams USC
2 5 37 WR Devin Smith Ohio St.
3 18 82 OLB Lorenzo Mauldin Louisville
4 4 103 QB Bryce Petty Baylor
5 16 152 OG Jarvis Harrison Texas A&M
7 6 223 NT Deon Simon Northwestern St. (LA)

 Synopsis: The bumbling Jets from 2014 are no more. They’ve reloaded on defense by bringing back Revis and Cromartie, and shored up the nickel cornerback spot with Buster Skrine. I like the addition of Marcus Gilchrist as well. The biggest addition is head coach Todd Bowles who I have a ton of respect for. He’s a brilliant coordinator so I’ll be interested to see how he transitions to being the CEO of the team.

Trading for Brandon Marshall added some much needed firepower to the offense. The offensive line is mediocre but workable. The Jets are a running team out of necessity, not necessarily by choice. There isn’t a ton of juice at the running back position – Ivory has some pop but isn’t a burner, and neither are Bilal Powell or Zac Stacy. I’m also concerned about Ivory’s health as he loves contact and actively seeks it out which creates extra opportunities to end up in the training room. I’ll skip the Geno Smith off-field saga and say that he is physically more talented than Ryan Fitzpatrick but when he’s available he needs to understand his role in the offense is to move the chains and let the defense do the heavy lifting. Fitzpatrick isn’t the answer but his style may be alright for this Jets team in the meantime.

I’m extremely excited to watch this defense. The front 7 is an extremely talented group though they lack a bit in pass rush dominance. I think Bowles, who is one of my favorite defensive architects in the game right now, can help scheme pressure and make this pass rush more powerful than what it probably should be. With any pressure at all, this secondary will feast on opposing QBs. Their ability to cover will also help generate sacks for the front 7. It’s a really nice mix.

I truly think of the Jets offense can muster 14-17 points a game, they can be a better-than-.500 team. That’s a massive jump from a team that was the punchline to many of the NFL jokes last year (and years before).

 

AFC East Division Outlook:

Miami Dolphins: 10-6

New York Jets: 9-7

New England Patriots: 9-7

Buffalo Bills: 7-9

This is a huge win total for 1 division. The problem is that these guys are all going to beat up on each other and most of the division is split. But looking at the schedules, Miami should come out of the gates hot and will finally unseat the Patriots from the top of this division. The Jets are really good, but they’re lacking at the most important position in the game: QB. They’ll end up with the same record as the Patriots or slightly better. The Dolphins will make the playoffs, while the Jets and/or Patriots may scoot in on a tiebreaker with another team. Because of a mediocre AFC, I think the Dolphins have a solid shot at making the AFC Championship but I don’t foresee them making the Super Bowl.

 

NFC North

 

Chicago Bears

Previous Record: (5-11)

Losses:

WR Brandon Marshall
C Roberto Garza
C Brian De La Puente
DE/DT Ray McDonald
DT Stephen Paea
OLB Lance Briggs
ILB D.J. Williams
CB Charles Tillman
CB Tim Jennings
S Chris Conte
S Danny McCray

 

Veteran Additions:

DE/OLB Sam Acho
CB Alan Ball
G Vlad Ducasse
DE/DT Jarvis Jenkins
DE/OLB Pernell McPhee
C Will Montomgery
RB Jacquizz Rodgers
S Antrel Rolle
WR Eddie Royal

 

Draft:

Round Pick Overall Pos Player College
1 7 7 WR Kevin White West Virginia
2 7 39 DT Eddie Goldman Florida St.
3 7 71 C Hroniss Grasu Oregon
4 7 106 RB Jeremy Langford Michigan St.
5 6 142 FS Adrian Amos Penn St.
6 7 183 OT Tayo Fabuluje TCU

 Synopsis: With a change at GM, you can really see the focus on getting younger and more athletic. The problem with a new coaching staff is that they like to change to their system and that means that you end up with a lot of square pegs and round roles.

Jared Allen isn’t an OLB. And neither is Willie Young. But that’s where both are listed on the depth chart. The Bears also don’t have the size inside for a DL running a 3-4 yet either. They brought in Jarvis Jenkins to help but he has some developing to do before he’s ready for a full time starter role. There are just a lot of misfit pieces here on the defense and they’re going to have some issues, especially early, because of the transition.

On offense, Jay Cutler is still the QB, which means there will be a lot of frustrating moments for Bears fans. My guess is that Matt Forte finally gets the workload he deserves and Jacquizz Rodgers was brought in to spell him when necessary. Alshon Jeffrey and Martellus Bennett remain the main receiving targets but look for Eddie Royal to have a surprising year. He looked sharp and productive in the preseason and I think he’s poised to do big things while Kevin White is out.

The Bears have improved this year. They’ve gotten younger and more athletic. The addition of Pernell McPhee is an underrated one. This is a team that looks to be turning around but they’re not there yet. Give the new staff time to see what can come of this.

 

Detroit Lions

Previous Record: (11-5) 

Losses:

RB Reggie Bush
FB Jed Collins
OT Corey Hilliard
G Rob Sims
C Dominic Raiola
DE George Johnson
DT Ndamukong Suh
DT Nick Fairley
DT C.J. Mosley
DT Andre Fluellen
OLB Ashlee Palmer
CB Cassius Vaughn

 

Veteran Additions:

DE Phillip Hunt
WR Lance Moore
TE Tim Wright
DT Haloti Ngata
CB Chris Owens
G Manuel Ramirez
WR Greg Salas
DT Tyrunn Walker
CB Josh Wilson

 

Draft:

Round Pick Overall Pos Player College
1 28 28 OG Laken Tomlinson Duke
2 22 54 RB Ameer Abdullah Nebraska
3 16 80 CB Alex Carter Stanford
4 14 113 DT Gabe Wright Auburn
5 32 168 FB Michael Burton Rutgers
6 24 200 CB Quandre Diggs Texas
7 23 240 OT Corey Robinson South Carolina

 Synopsis: The Lions have always been a tough team to judge, specifically for me, because they’ve improved in areas that many didn’t think they would while always having a quarterback that was all over the place.

The odd part about the Lions this year is that the entire interior of their defensive line departed this offseason. They went from Suh, Fairley, and Mosley, to Ngata, Tyrunn Walker, and Gabe Wright. Not the direction they wanted to go, but they did save a ton of money in letting those guys walk. Ansah and Jason Jones still man the edges with Darryl Tapp as the rotational guy on the edge. The back seven are solid but it will be interesting to see how the loss of Suh and Fairley impacts the cleanliness of the linebackers and the response time of the DBs.

Matt Stafford remains the major question mark for the Lions offense. The offensive line is good enough and so are all the other skill positions. Stafford felt more consistent this preseason but that’s also what the preseason does for quarterbacks. I think Abdullah is a good addition to this backfield but it will be interesting to see the split of carries between he and Joique Bell.

The Lions are a team that I’ve consistently underrated because I’m not a big believer in Stafford any longer. He’s a talented passer but isn’t a particularly great QB. I like that the Lions added Ngata in place of Suh but it’s just not the same any longer. Ngata is a space killer but not a penetrating force. The DTs will most certainly have a negative impact on the rest of this defense. Detroit ranked 3rd in defensive DVOA last season and I don’t think there’s any way that they keep that up this season.

 

 Green Bay Packers

 Previous Record: (12-4)

Losses:

QB Matt Flynn
RB DuJuan Harris
WR Jarrett Boykin
ILB A.J. Hawk
ILB Brad Jones
ILB Jamari Lattimore
LB Carl Bradford
CB Tramon Williams
CB Davon House

 

Veteran Additions: None.

 

Draft:

Round Pick Overall Pos Player College
1 30 30 FS Damarious Randall Arizona State
2 30 62 CB Quinten Rollins Miami (OH)
3 30 94 WR Ty Montgomery Stanford
4 30 129 OLB Jake Ryan Michigan
5 11 147 QB Brett Hundley UCLA
6 30 206 FB Aaron Ripkowski Oklahoma
6 34 210 DE Christian Ringo Louisiana-Lafayette
6 37 213 TE Kennard Backman UAB

 Synopsis: As long as Mike McCarthy and Aaron Rodgers are leading the Packers, the offense feels like there’s nothing to worry about, even when a guy like Jordy Nelson is lost for the season.

Davante Adams is supposed to step in to fill Nelson’s shoes but that’s projecting Adams to have a large jump in development from last season to this season. I think the job is spread around to a few different guys. Randall Cobb now becomes the bell cow for the receivers. I expect James Jones and rookie Ty Montgomery to have a major role in this offense, too.

Defensively, the Packers have tended to be a little leaky. I think that partly due to personnel but mostly due to scheme and play calling. They were gashed by the Steelers in the run game a bit in the preseason. Teams can attack them in the middle of the field, especially at ILB Sam Barrington. The secondary is as solid as it has been in a while for the Packers.

If not for Dom Capers, I would have the Packers winning the Super Bowl this year. It’s still possible they win it with him calling the plays on defense. This team is a legit contender for the title.

 

 Minnesota Vikings

Previous Record: (7-9)

Losses:

QB Matt Cassel
QB Christian Ponder
FB Jerome Felton
WR Greg Jennings
G Charlie Johnson
G Vladimir Ducasse
DE Corey Wootton
ILB Jasper Brinkley

 

Veteran Additions:

RB DuJuan Harris
ILB Casey Matthews
S Taylor Mays
CB Terence Newman
WR Mike Wallace

 

Draft:

Round Pick Overall Pos Player College
1 11 11 CB Trae Waynes Michigan St.
2 13 45 ILB Eric Kendricks UCLA
3 24 88 DE Danielle Hunter LSU
4 11 110 OT T.J. Clemmings Pittsburgh
5 7 143 TE MyCole Pruitt Southern Illinois
5 10 146 WR Stefon Diggs Maryland
6 9 185 OT Tyrus Thompson Oklahoma
6 17 193 DE B.J. Dubose Louisville
7 11 228 OT Austin Shepherd Alabama
7 15 232 OLB Edmond Robinson Newberry

 Synopsis: The Vikings are one of the teams that I’m highest on this year and I’m not ashamed to admit it. I think they have all the pieces to make a run deep into the playoffs.

On offense, the story is all about Teddy Bridgewater and Adrian Peterson. If Matt Kalil finds any semblance of himself and remembers how to block someone, this offense is going to be pretty filthy. Kyle Rudolph is a great target at TE and Mike Wallace, Charles Johnson, and Cordarrelle Patterson give a wide range of options for Teddy through the air. The only major question mark is if the OL can hold up and maybe a little question of depth at WR, but I think the return of Peterson will help keep teams honest vs. the run and pass.

Mike Zimmer has his defense coming into the form that he had in Cincinnati. He has some beef up front in the middle, some athletes on the edge to rush the passer, some stout guys up the middle, and a stable of DBs that can play his style of coverage.

There really aren’t many holes on this team. Provided they Vikings stay healthy, they’re going to upset a ton of teams until the rest of the league realizes it’s not an upset because the Vikes are just that good.

 

NFC North Division Outlook:

Green Bay Packers: (12-4)

Minnesota Vikings: (11-5)

Detroit Lions: (8-8)

Chicago Bears: (6-10)

The Packers are still that good. The Vikings are almost that good. I expect the Packers to make the NFC Championship game but eventually get beaten out. The Vikings will play in the divisional round of the NFC playoffs. The Lions regress based on a less potent defense and a QB unable to pick up the slack. The Bears are in transition mode. This isn’t a knock against them, but they will have to go through some growing pains to get it turned around in a tough division.

 

NFC South

 

Atlanta Falcons 

Previous Record: (6-10)

Losses:

QB T.J. Yates
RB Steven Jackson
RB Jacquizz Rodgers
WR Harry Douglas
TE Bear Pascoe
OT Sam Baker
G Justin Blalock
G Gabe Carimi
DT Corey Peters
OLB Sean Weatherspoon
OLB Prince Shembo
CB Robert McClain
CB Josh Wilson
S Dwight Lowery

 

Veteran Additions:

CB Phillip Adams
G Chris Chester
DE Adrian Clayborn
OLB Justin Durant
WR Leonard Hankerson
TE Tony Moeaki
G Mike Person
OT Tyler Polumbus
OLB Brooks Reed
DE O’Brien Schofield
TE Jacob Tamme

 

 Draft:

Round Pick Overall Pos Player College
1 8 8 OLB Vic Beasley Clemson
2 10 42 CB Jalen Collins LSU
3 9 73 RB Tevin Coleman Indiana
4 8 107 WR Justin Hardy East Carolina
5 1 137 NT Grady Jarrett Clemson
7 8 225 OT Jake Rodgers Eastern Washington
7 32 249 DB Akeem King San Jose St.

 Synopsis: New HC Dan Quinn is going to change the profile of this defense in a hurry. The Falcons were 32nd in defensive DVOA last season so they can’t get any worse. Quinn’s defense will be faster, smarter, and more ferocious.

It starts with 1st round pick Vic Beasley who is going to be a force up front. There’s still some work to be done along the DL and (mainly) at LB but just the attitude adjustment will make the defense more productive. This is a very good group of young CBs so if the DL can generate any pressure at all the CBs could feast and create turnovers.

Kyle Shannhan is the new offensive coordinator and it’s hard to know what he’s got planned for this squad. Shanny has shown he can adapt his offense as necessary but we haven’t seen him with a QB like Matt Ryan yet. It will be interesting to see if he lets Ryan sling it around the yard or if he takes a more conservative approach and relies on a heavy does of Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman to take some pressure off the defense. My guess is that it’s a balanced attack that leans slightly to the run until he figures out that the OL is an abomination outside of Matthews at LT.

If the Falcons had done anything at all to reassure me that the OL wouldn’t be awful, I’d pick them to win a weak NFC South. As it is, they may be lucky to stay out of the cellar.

 

Carolina Panthers 

Previous Record: (7-8-1)

Losses:

RB DeAngelo Williams
OT Byron Bell
C Fernando Velasco
DE Greg Hardy
OLB Chase Blackburn
S Thomas DeCoud
RB Jordan Todman
ILB Jason Trusnik

 

Veteran Additions:

S Kurt Coleman
KR/WR Ted Ginn
CB Charles Tillman

  

Draft:

Round Pick Overall Pos Player College
1 25 25 OLB Shaq Thompson Washington
2 9 41 WR Devin Funchess Michigan
4 3 102 OG Daryl Williams Oklahoma
5 33 169 LB David Mayo Texas St.
5 38 174 RB Cameron Artis-Payne Auburn

 Synopsis: Panthers fans hate me much like Lions fans hate me because I constantly underestimate their team. I actually do it for the same reason – I don’t believe in their QB as much as they do. The funny thing is that it’s been the defense that I’ve underestimated but somehow it’s always the QB that the conversation comes back to. I get it. No one wants to admit their QB isn’t great when he’s on the brink – just ask Baltimore fans.

Anywho, I’ve consistently picked Carolina to finish in the bottom because I didn’t believe in their offense or in the skill position players. This year, I’m not alone. A devastating injury to Kelvin Benjamin eliminates a lot of firepower from the offense. Greg Olsen is still around and figures to throw this receiving group (Olsen, Devin Funchess, Tedd Ginn, Jerricho Cotchery, and Corey Brown) on his shoulders and carry them to the end zone one more time. Funchess could turn out to be a very good target this year so it’s something to keep an eye on. Also, this offensive line is really good. Jonathan Stewart played decent last year but I don’t believe that with a lesser offensive line he would have looked as good as he did. Either way, he still rushed for nearly 1000 yards and production is all that counts. I’d like to see one of these young backs get in to see if they can provide some juice and a homerun threat to the ground game outside of the QB running it.

The defense was only 15th in defensive DVOA last season, mostly in part to their secondary. When the secondary plays poorly behind a defensive line like the Panthers have, you know there are some serious issues. Carolina addressed that a little bit by bringing in Charles Tillman. There is still questionable talent at the position and a severe lack of depth. Keep an eye on Kony Ealy on the DL this year. He looked like a monster in the making in preseason. If keeps up the play that he had in the preseason he’ll receive Pro Bowl attention.

The Panthers are built in a way that limits their exposure. They can run the ball and they have a strong defense that can pressure the passer. Those 2 things together can solve a lot of problems for a team.

 

 New Orleans Saints

 Previous Record: (7-9)

Losses:

RB Pierre Thomas
WR Kenny Stills
TE Jimmy Graham
G Ben Grubbs
C Jonathan Goodwin
DT Tyrunn Walker
ILB Curtis Lofton
CB Patrick Robinson
CB Corey White
K Shayne Graham

 

Veteran Additions:

CB Brandon Browner
RB Travaris Cadet
ILB Dannell Ellerbe
G Mike McGlynn
DE/OLB Anthony Spencer
RB C.J. Spiller
C Max Unger
DT Kevin Williams
CB Kyle Wilson

 

Draft:

Round Pick Overall Pos Player College
1 13 13 OT Andrus Peat Stanford
1 31 31 ILB Stephone Anthony Clemson
2 12 44 OLB Hau’oli Kikaha Washington
3 11 75 QB Garrett Grayson Colorado St.
3 14 78 CB P.J. Williams Florida St.
5 12 148 OLB Davis Tull Tennessee-Chattanooga
5 18 154 DT Tyeler Davison Fresno St.
5 31 167 CB Damian Swann Georgia
7 13 230 RB Marcus Murphy Missouri

 Synopsis: I’ll admit that I didn’t have a good feel for the Saints last year. I felt like Drew Brees could cover up any issues that they had and that with Mark Ingram finally running well the offense would stay on schedule and make up for a lack of a defense. Boy, was I wrong.

The defense was atrocious. The only team ranked worst than the Saints defense in 2014 was the Atlanta Falcons. New Orleans’ offense quietly ranked 8th in DVOA last season, even though many were saying that Brees was over and done with. He showed this preseason that if he gets a little time in the pocket he can still lace the ball all over the field with precision. Brees’ pocket presence has made up for a less than stellar line over the last few years. He finally has a bit of a running game to rely on when necessary, but he’s also missing his best target and matchup nightmare, Jimmy Graham. Outside of Brandin Cooks, I really don’t know whom Brees has to throw the ball to. While I loved Marques Colston as much as anyone back in the day, he’s 32 and seems to be banged up all the time.

While the Saints added some solid pieces on defense, I pretty much lost faith in Rob Ryan as a DC last season with his inability to adapt gameplans to his personnel and his opponents. I think the additions of Browner, Ellerbe, Spencer, and Williams will make an immediate impact. The unfortunate part is that Keenan Lewis is a complete liability at CB and he’s still listed as the starter. Jairus Byrd and Kenny Vacarro should be one of the top 3 safety duos in the league but looked awful even when Byrd wasn’t hurt. I’ll be interested to see how this defense rebounds. I’m also very interested in watching Stephone Anthony who is a guy that I believe is going to be a great LB in this league for a very long time.

While I think the defense has to be better, I don’t see how the offense can sustain without weapons. This will be a good case to test the theory of if a QB makes the weapons or if the weapons help make the QB. It’s clearly a balance of both, but I want to see just how much.

 

 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 

Previous Record: (2-14)

Losses:

QB Josh McCown
OT Anthony Collins
OT Oniel Cousins
DE Michael Johnson
DE Adrian Clayborn
DE Da’Quan Bowers
ILB Mason Foster
ILB Dane Fletcher
S Dashon Goldson

 

Veteran Additions:

OLB Bruce Carter
S Chris Conte
LB Larry Dean
DE George Johnson
OL Gosder Cherilus
DT Henry Melton
CB Sterling Moore

 

Draft:

Round Pick Overall Pos Player College
1 1 1 QB Jameis Winston Florida St.
2 2 34 OT Donovan Smith Penn St.
2 29 61 C Ali Marpet Hobart & William Smith
4 25 124 OLB Kwon Alexander LSU
5 26 162 WR Kenny Bell Nebraska
6 8 184 WR Kaelin Clay Utah
7 14 231 FB Joey Iosefa Hawaii 

Synopsis: You may not have known it by looking at their record, but the Bucs were in a lot of close games last year. And this year they improved mightily at the most important position on the field. Logically that leads to a large jump in wins, right? I guess we’ll see.

Jameis Winston immediately makes this team better (that’s probably less about him and more about how awful the QB play was with McCown and Glennon last season). The Bucs drafted a couple of OL and added one during free agency to help protect Winston, but I actually think they offensive line is still pretty terrible. Smith isn’t a left tackle because he has cement blocks for feet and Cherilus wasn’t good enough for the Colts (who have OL issues of their own) to keep. Marpet has real promise but he’s also a work in progress. He’s gotta get stronger as he lacks the functional strength to really lockout or maintain and finish blocks. The good news is that Doug Martin is back! That’s a legit exclamation point as he may be one of the contenders for Comeback Player of the Year. He looks explosive again and really seemed to do it with ease in the preseason even thought he wasn’t getting the best blocking up front. This offense could have been so potent if the OL mess was fixed. Mike Evans is a monster, Vincent Jackson has actually become underrated, and I believe that TE Austin Sefarian-Jenkins is about to have a breakout year provided he stays healthy. ASJ is a freakish talent that’s developed good rapport with Winston and should be really productive this year.

On defense, one of the most important facets of the Tampa 2 defense is being able to get pressure off the edge. Unfortunately, the Bucs don’t really have that covered either so it leaves the CBs (who are good) and safeties (far from good) out to dry. The Bucs can generate massive interior pressure with Gerald McCoy, Clinton McDonald, and Henry Melton, but the jury is still out on Jacquies Smith (looked promising last year), while George Johnson is a gypsy of a DE. The problem with gypsies at the DE position is that if they were very good at all, no one would let them leave. I know I seem jaded but this defensive scheme feels past it’s prime and it feels like the Bucs can’t even run it correctly because they don’t have the necessary pieces to make it work. Lovie Smith will have to adjust his gameplan if he’s going to make this defense at least halfway formidable. A fun player to watch will be rookie Kwon Alexander. He could have the makings of a legit starting MLB which will let Bruce Carter slide over to SLB and the defense will be better off for it.

The Bucs were, by record, the worst team in the NFL last season. That won’t happen this year as Jameis is really, really good. He’ll take his lumps as a rookie but this kid is going to be a top 7 QB in a relatively short period of time. The offense could put up some points when if figures out how to work around a terrible OL. The defense is one giant question mark. The defense was 18th in DVOA last season and that just feels like a miscalculation. If the defense can do that again, this team could be average or better this season.

 

NFC South Division Outlook: 

New Orleans Saints: (8-8)

Carolina Panthers: (8-8)

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: (6-10)

Atlanta Falcons: (6-10)

I mean, I’m only picking a winner of this division because someone has to win, right? This division has a history of teams going worst to first, and I think the Bucs have a shot at it simply because this division is still really bad right now, but it doesn’t seem likely. The Saints are better than 8-8 but Rob Ryan will make sure that doesn’t happen. I think the Panthers also have a shot at winning this division if they can have a stingy defense and solid ground game. It may come down to a tiebreaker between them and the Saints. I feel like I gave a solid guess for the Bucs but I may be underestimating the Falcons based on coaching. It’s hard to give either of these teams a pass with how poor the offensive lines appear to be this year.

 

NFC West

Arizona Cardinals

Previous Record: (11-5)

Losses:

TE Rob Housler
G Paul Fanaika
C Lyle Sendlein
DE/DT Darnell Dockett
DE/DT Tommy Kelly
NT Dan Williams
DE/OLB Sam Acho
DE/OLB John Abraham
CB Antonio Cromartie
KR Ted Ginn
QB Logan Thomas

 

Veteran Additions:

G Mike Iupati
DE/DT Corey Peters
DE/DT Cory Redding
C A.Q. Shipley
ILB Sean Weatherspoon
DE/OLB LaMarr Woodley

 

Draft:

Round Pick Overall Pos Player College
1 24 24 OT D.J. Humphries Florida
2 26 58 DE Markus Golden Missouri
3 22 86 RB David Johnson Northern Iowa
4 17 116 DT Rodney Gunter Delaware St.
5 22 158 DE Shaquille Riddick West Virginia
5 23 159 WR J.J. Nelson UAB
7 39 256 TE Gerald Christian Louisville

 Synopsis: The Cardinals have been another tough pick for me the last couple of years. I think they’re a tough pick again because Todd Bowles has moved on from the DC of this team and now I’m not sure how to rate the defense.

The defense also lost a lot of talent between the lines so I don’t think that 7th ranked defensive DVOA is something that’s maintainable. Calais Campbell is a stud but I don’t see much dominance out of anyone left on the defensive side of the ball. Minter, Rucker, and Okafor were all decent but not great last season for the Cardinals. And now the CB depth is depleted. Just too many losses for my taste.

The loss of Carson Palmer last year was devastating to this team. The Cardinals looked like a team that could win the NFC West when Palmer was hot. When he went down it make it too much of an uphill climb. The offensive line is still not the most stable group either. I feel like people are underestimating Larry Fitzgerald for whatever reason this year.

The Cardinals aren’t a bad team but their biggest loss was at the defensive coordinator position. And then all of his guys left behind him. This goes from an 11-win team to an average team playing in a tough division.

 

St. Louis Rams 

Previous Record: (6-10) 

Losses:

QB Sam Bradford
QB Shaun Hill
RB Zac Stacy
OT Jake Long
OT Joseph Barksdale
G Davin Joseph
C Scott Wells
DT Kendall Langford

 

Veteran Additions:

OLB Akeem Ayers
DT Nick Fairley
QB Nick Foles
QB Case Keenum
G Mike Person

 

Draft:

Round Pick Overall Pos Player College
1 10 10 RB Todd Gurley Georgia
2 25 57 OT Rob Havenstein Wisconsin
3 8 72 OT Jamon Brown Louisville
3 25 89 QB Sean Mannion Oregon St.
4 20 119 OT Andrew Donnal Iowa
6 25 201 WR Bud Sasser Missouri
6 39 215 OG Cody Wichmann Fresno St.
7 7 224 ILB Bryce Hager Baylor
7 10 227 DE Martin Ifedi Memphis

 Synopsis: I’ve continuously been fooled by Jeff Fisher teams for the last few years. I keep thinking that they’ll get better – and I really thought the Rams had a shot to challenge for this division last year. Then this year’s offseason and draft happened and I’m really confused as to what the Rams were doing. It felt like the only move that made sense was getting a new OC.

There was the Bradford trade. Then there was the Gurley pick. While I like have a good RB, it’s a position where you can save your resources and spend low to balance out spending of resources at another position – especially WHEN YOU HAVE TRE MASON ALREADY ON THE ROSTER. Mason lit up the NFL last year and proved he belonged and the Rams spent the 10th overall pick on another RB. That’s pretty blasphemous to the NFL gods in my eyes. And then they wasted their 3rd round pick on QB Sean Mannion.

But hey, at least the Rams have 5 dominant defensive linemen that will have to split time to get on the field. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great to have a dominant DL and to have depth at the position. But it just feels like the Rams are misusing resources.

The crazy thing about it is that if Greg Robinson figures out the LT position, and the drafting of 2 OL in the first 3 rounds shores up a porous OL, this team could punch some people in the mouth and upset the entire NFC. I’m more of a Nick Foles supporter than most. By far this biggest move this offseason was Brian Schottenheimer leaving for the NCAA. That’s what we call addition by subtraction.

  

San Francisco 49ers

Previous Record: (8-8)

Losses:

RB Frank Gore
WR Michael Crabtree
WR Stevie Johnson
OT Anthony Davis
G Mike Iupati
G Joe Looney
DE/DT Justin Smith
DE/DT Ray McDonald
ILB Patrick Willis
ILB Chris Borland
OLB Aldon Smith
CB Perrish Cox
CB Chris Culliver
P Andy Lee

 

Veteran Additions:

RB Reggie Bush
G/OT Erik Pears
OLB Dan Skuta
WR Torrey Smith
ILB Philip Wheeler
CB Shareece Wright

 

Draft:

Round Pick Overall Pos Player College
1 17 17 DT Arik Armstead Oregon
2 14 46 SS Jaquiski Tartt Samford
3 15 79 OLB Eli Harold Virginia
4 18 117 TE Blake Bell Oklahoma
4 27 126 RB Mike Davis South Carolina
4 33 132 WR DeAndre Smelter Georgia Tech
5 29 165 P Bradley Pinion Clemson
6 14 190 OG Ian Silberman Boston College
7 27 244 OG Trenton Brown Florida
7 37 254 TE Rory ‘Busta’ Anderson South Carolina

 Synopsis: What an offseason it’s been for the 49ers. First, the head coach quits to go back to coaching college football. Then it seems like a lot of the players decided to leave with him. The ones that didn’t leave either quit the sport or did something stupid to get themselves suspended or cut.

One of the positions affected most was offensive line. Davis, Iupati, and Looney were all starters. Starting running back Frank Gore dipped as well and that means that Carlos Hyde is going to take over the lion’s share of the carries and he’s going to do so behind a line that 3/5 of is new. That’s a scary proposition but Hyde is a really good player. He’s quick, powerful, pushes through contact, and has enough speed to be a threat to take it all the way. New arrival Torrey Smith could be interesting to watch. He had a quiet season in Baltimore last year but this is a guy that showed that he can be a top WR if he’s healthy. I would like to see Vernon Davis have a big bounce back year again. It’ll be interesting to see how new OC Geep Chryst handles this offense and Colin Kaepernick. At this point, we know what Kaep is. He’s an athletic quarterback that has trouble getting through full reads. He needs the running game and read option to help create larger holes and open guys. Without it, he hangs on to the ball too much and if a team figures out how to contain him in the pocket then they limit the entire offense.

Also affected by major departures, the linebacking corps took a couple of big hits. Perennial All-Pro Patrick Willis and Chris Borland both decided to reture. Smith, Cox, Parrish, and Culliver are all significant losses as well. This defense was deeper than most fans probably realize so I don’t expect as much of a dropoff as many do because of talent. I think most of the dropoff comes from a change in Vic Fangio leaving.

The 49ers seem to have had a tumultuous offseason. Really, I see a team that can fully recover from all of the losses that they incurred. The hardest one to come back from is the loss of Jim Harbaugh and the staff he had put together. While I don’t think Greg Roman hurts a ton, I think the rest of the staff matters. Look for the 49ers to take a step back but not by as much as the general consensus.

 

Seattle Seahawks

Previous Record: (12-4)

 Losses:

RB Christine Michael
RB Robert Turbin
TE Zach Miller
TE Tony Moeaki
TE Anthony McCoy
G James Carpenter
C Max Unger
DE/OLB O’Brien Schofield
OLB Malcolm Smith
CB Byron Maxwell
S Jeron Johnson

 

Veteran Additions:

TE Jimmy Graham
NT Ahtyba Rubin
CB Cary Williams

 

Draft:

Round Pick Overall Pos Player College
2 31 63 DE Frank Clark Michigan
3 5 69 WR Tyler Lockett Kansas St.
4 31 130 OG Terry Poole San Diego St.
4 35 134 OG Mark Glowinski West Virginia
5 34 170 CB Tye Smith Towson
6 33 209 DE Obum Gwacham Oregon St.
6 38 214 DT Kristjan Sokoli Buffalo
7 31 248 DB Ryan Murphy Oregon St.

 Synopsis: The Seahawks have proven they have staying power and that their depth is real. That depth will get tested again this year, especially on defense and along the offensive line.

James Carpenter and Max Unger were 2 of the better blockers along the offensive line for the Seahawks last year and now both are gone. There are a whole lot of question marks along the rest of that front 5 outside of Russell Okung. I think losing these guys hurts more than most realize. The holes will be smaller for Marshawn Lynch (which Beast Mode helps negate a bit) and Russell Wilson is going to be under more pressure than people realize. Jimmy Graham should see a good amount of targets simply because of this. I’m really interested to see how Graham affects Wilson. Wilson could rely on him too heavily and it may actually make him easier to read from a defensive perspective. Wilson is a smart guy so I don’t think that is the case but it’s something to watch out for.

On defense, Smith and Maxwell played significant snaps for Seattle last season and they really eat into the depth of this squad. Johnson was utilized in a backup role as well but when he was in he played really well. The Seahawks think and hope they have the depth to continue to just reload. Holdout safety Kam Chancellor is going to help test that depth even more. As long as this defense has Wagner and Earl Thomas up the middle, with Avril and Bennett rushing the outside, and Sherman to handle the other team’s best receiver, they’re going to give teams trouble. How they fill in the gaps is important but they’re still as good a defense as any.

The most concerning part about this team is the offensive line. I think that causes more problems than people understand. The zone blocking system and OL coach Tom Cable will help negate some of the changes but I think it actually makes this offense vulnerable enough this year that they lose an extra game or 2 because of it.

 

NFC West Division Outlook:

Seattle Seahawks: (10-6)

Arizona Cardinals: (8-8)

San Francisco 49ers: (7-9)

St. Louis Rams: (7-9)

Seattle doesn’t feel as good as they have been in recent years, but what I may be underestimating is the impact of special teams. Teams are going to figure out real fast not to kick to rookie Tyler Lockett. The Seahawks are still a very good team, I just see some holes for other teams to exploit for once and the good teams may figure out ways to beat them. The Cardinals are missing a ton of talent on defense including their defensive coordinator and it feels like it’s going to have a major impact and this offense isn’t good enough to carry this team. The Niners aren’t as bad as most think but they’re also not challenging for this division this year. And with the Rams, I won’t get fooled again. I almost put them at 8-8 because this division isn’t as powerful as it has been in recent years, but it’s Jeff Fisher so I’m taking the under between my two choices. The Seahawks are likely to get a matchup in the divisional round of this year’s playoffs that I don’t think they’ll be able to escape.

 

NFC East 

Dallas Cowboys

Previous Record: (12-4)

Losses:

RB DeMarco Murray
OT Jermey Parnell
DE Anthony Spencer
DE George Selvie
DT Henry Melton
OLB Bruce Carter
CB Sterling Moore
CB Corey White
KR Dwayne Harris

 

Veteran Additions:

RB Christine Michael
ILB Jasper Brinkley
FB Jed Collins
ILB Andrew Gachkar
DE Greg Hardy
RB Darren McFadden
OLB Keith Rivers

 

Draft:

Round Pick Overall Pos Player College
1 27 27 CB Byron Jones Connecticut
2 28 60 OLB Randy Gregory Nebraska
3 27 91 OT Chaz Green Florida
4 28 127 ILB Damien Wilson Minnesota
5 27 163 DE Ryan Russell Purdue
7 19 236 OLB Mark Nzeocha Wyoming
7 26 243 OT Laurence Gibson Virginia Tech
7 29 246 TE Geoff Swaim Texas

 Synopsis: The Cowboys are taking a huge risk on Greg Hardy. That huge risk could pay huge dividends if he comes back in full form and is dominant on the edge like he was in Carolina.

What I think Cowboys fans need to understand is that the offense relied heavily on the running game to protect the defense last season. This defense isn’t as good as you want to believe. They finished 22nd in defensive DVOA last season, 4 spots behind the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. While Hardy will help with the pass rush when he returns from suspension, the loss of Orlando Scandrick to injury is pretty devastating. I know Mike Zimmer says you can find a cover 2 corner at 7/11 in Bloomington, but the Cowboys don’t seem to have that same ability to find those guys. Carr and Claiborne have been inconsistent at best in this scheme and don’t write off the loss of Sterling Moore in this equation either. The defensive front is better which will help the back 7 but it’s a question mark as to how much. The Cowboys were smart in getting Tyrone Crawford a new contract. He played well last year and has real potential for a breakout year this year and so the idea is they’re paying fifty cents on the dollar for the production they’re going to get. I still have major concerns about this safety duo as well. Getting Sean Lee back is a major gain for this defense. I know McClain had a good season last year but he’s suspended to start the season and I don’t see much depth at the LB position for the Cowboys.

The defense will still need protecting by the offense, in my opinion. This is why losing DeMarco Murray is a bit scary for me. The runningback by committee of Joseph Randle, Darren McFadden, and Lance Dunbar doesn’t really do much for me. I think that’s why Dallas acquired Christine Michael. Michael just might end up being the number one back in this offense pretty quickly. I like his style better for this offensive scheme than with Seattle (power instead of zone). Tony Romo is the rock of this offense. No matter what has changed around him he’s made this offense formidable. Dez Bryant may have the most productive year of any WR in the league. Terrence Williams and Cole Beasley will have to continue to have good seasons like last year but any bit of inconsistency could cause this offense to stall. The smartest thing that Will McClay did when building this team in the form that he wanted was putting together the best offensive line in the NFL. And now, he’s added La’el Collins as an undrafted free agent and he very well could end up starting at guard or tackle at some point this season.

The offense is what makes this team go, but it also is used to protect a defense that has some work to do to be average. I like the Cowboys to be a playoff team but they’re going to need someone to emerge from this running back stable to be the main guy in big situations. I think 12-4 was a bit of an overachievement last year for Dallas and I don’t think the team regresses but I think the record does.

 

New York Giants 

Previous Record: (6-10)

Losses:

RB Peyton Hillis
FB Henry Hynoski
WR Jerrel Jernigan
OT James Brewer
G Adam Snyder
C J.D. Walton
DE Mathias Kiwanuka
DT Mike Patterson
OLB Spencer Paysinger
OLB Jacquian Williams
CB Walter Thurmond
CB Terrell Thomas
CB Zackary Bowman
S Antrel Rolle
S Stevie Brown
S Quintin Demps

 

Veteran Additions:

OLB Jonathan Casillas
NT Kenrick Ellis
CB Josh Gordy
KR Dwayne Harris
OT Marshall Newhouse
DE George Selvie
ILB J.T. Thomas
RB Shane Vereen

 

Draft:

Round Pick Overall Pos Player College
1 9 9 OG Ereck Flowers Miami
2 1 33 SS Landon Collins Alabama
3 10 74 DE Owamagbe Odighizuwa UCLA
5 8 144 S Mykkele Thompson Texas
6 10 186 WR Geremy Davis Connecticut
7 9 226 OG Bobby Hart Florida St.

 Synopsis: The Giants must have a lot of faith in their young guys. They let a long of guys go that they didn’t replace.

The offensive line is the one unit that remains intact and that’s a good thing because it was a solid unit last season. I really just wish they’d kick Pugh inside and let him be great. That’s where he belongs. But they’re stubborn enough to keep him outside. Either way, the OL does a good job of keeping Manning upright in the pocket even if they leave a lot to be desired in run blocking. Odell Beckham is as good as advertised, it’s nice to have Victor Cruz back, and there’s a little depth here at WR with Ruben Randle, Preston Parker, and Dwayne Harris. Shane Vereen is a good 3rd down back and I really hope that Coughlin lets Rashad Jennings get the bulk of the carries. I think he’s better than Williams and is a better fit for this offense.

I like the addition of Landon Collins on defense but as a box safety only and I’d really even rather see him moved down to WLB to really exploit his skill set. The defensive line last year was solid but inconsistent. The linebacker play wasn’t as good and was even more inconsistent. The same goes for the secondary.

It feels like to me the real problem with this team isn’t the personnel, but the coaching. There are solid pieces here but they just never seem to be on the same page. I admire Coughlin as a coach and I think he’s terrific, but something just isn’t clicking. If it clicks this year, the Giants could be a good team. I have a feeling it doesn’t click and the Giants have another tough season.

 

 Philadelphia Eagles

Previous Record: (10-6) 

Losses:

QB Nick Foles
RB LeSean McCoy
RB Chris Polk
WR Jeremy Maclin
TE James Casey
G Evan Mathis
G Todd Herremans
DE/OLB Trent Cole
ILB Casey Matthews
CB Cary Williams
CB Bradley Fletcher
S Nate Allen

 

Veteran Additions:

ILB Kiko Alonso
WR Miles Austin
CB E.J. Biggers
QB Sam Bradford
ILB Brad Jones
RB Ryan Mathews
CB Byron Maxwell
RB DeMarco Murray
CB Walter Thurmond

 

Draft:

Round Pick Overall Pos Player College
1 20 20 WR Nelson Agholor USC
2 15 47 CB Eric Rowe Utah
3 20 84 OLB Jordan Hicks Texas
6 15 191 CB JaCorey Shepherd Kansas
6 20 196 CB Randall Evans Kansas St.
7 20 237 DE Brian Mihalik Boston College

 Synopsis: Where to start with this one. This offseason I said I wasn’t sure what the Eagles were doing but it was sure going to be fun to watch. I didn’t agree with the heavy investment in the RB position – a position I have recently felt as devalued and a place where a team can find cheap talent to be successful. What I didn’t realize is that this defense has become pretty damn good.

The big talk is about Sam Bradford. Bradford was nearly flawless in the preseason. The problem that I ran into with Philly fans is that they full expect Bradford to be that good all the time. It was useless to try to explain that he can’t keep up that pace and the expectations were getting way out of proportion. I love Bradford in this offense and I think he could immediately make a massive turnaround of his career. It helps that he has a terrific OL, a good stable of RBs, and some really good talent at the WR and TE position. I think DeMarco Murray is going to be the tough yards guy for this team, but Ryan Mathews is the explosive talent that’s really going to pile up yards provided he stays healthy. Also look out for rookie Nelson Agholor. He could pile up catches and he’s a threat to house it anytime he gets the ball in his hands.

On defense, the front 7 of the Eagles is probably top 3 in the NFL. They can pass rush, they can stuff the run, and they can chase and tackle. I also like the depth. There isn’t as much depth in the secondary but there are some really good players as well. Philly really needs Eric Rowe to accelerate his learning and get ahead of the curve because EJ Biggers will get smoked often at the nickel spot.

There isn’t much to pick at here with this Eagles team. The one thing I’m curious about is that NFL defensive coordinators have now had ample time to adjust to Chip Kelly’s offense. They should have some idea of how to stop it and if they can start finding flaws, it could really stunt the offense in a game or two. The funny thing is that really the Eagles run about a dozen plays that are run out of different formations and personnel groupings for added window dressing.

 

Washington Redskins

Previous Record: (4-12)

Losses:

RB Roy Helu
WR Leonard Hankerson
OT Tyler Polumbus
G Chris Chester
DE/DT Jarvis Jenkins
DE/DT Stephen Bowen
NT Barry Cofield
DE/OLB Brian Orakpo
CB E.J. Biggers
S Brandon Meriweather
S Ryan Clark

 

Veteran Additions:

CB Chris Culliver
S Dashon Goldson
DE/DT Ricky Jean-Francois
S Jeron Johnson
NT Terrance Knighton
DE/DT Stephen Paea

 

Draft:

Round Pick Overall Pos Player College
1 5 5 OG Brandon Scherff Iowa
2 6 38 DE Preston Smith Mississippi St.
3 31 95 RB Matt Jones Florida
4 6 105 WR Jamison Crowder Duke
4 13 112 OG Arie Kouandjio Alabama
5 5 141 OLB Martrell Spaight Arkansas
6 5 181 SS Kyshoen Jarrett Virginia Tech
6 6 182 CB Tevin Mitchel Arkansas
6 11 187 WR Evan Spencer Ohio St.
7 5 222 C Austin Reiter South Florida

 Synopsis: Whatever can go wrong will go wrong for Washington. I don’t know if it’s divine intervention or just a habit of this organization creating circumstances that continuously lead to their poor luck. Either way, I think Scot McCloughan adds relevance to this team. He’s going to make them a factor – maybe not this year but when he can get his guys in place.

The offensive line hasn’t improved as much as I thought it would based on preseason games. I don’t like putting Brandon Scherff at OG. He’s a tackle, so let him play tackle. Bill Callahan was supposed to turn this OL around but it hasn’t happened and it’s a big key to this offense as they shift from a zone to power scheme. Kirk Cousins was named the starting QB and I think that’s going to stick for a while. He’s not ideal be he’s the best option at this point. DeSean Jackson will have to create opportunities for himself as Cousins won’t often be able to put the ball up deep to him. Pierre Garcon should see a good amount of targets as he’s a sharp route runner who can get open in small spaces. If Jordan Reed is healthy, Cousins has plenty of good targets to rely on and a decent run game to lean on. I don’t know how Alfred Morris will perform in this power scheme, but it sure feels like Matt Jones is ready to step in and take the bulk of the carries if Morris makes a misstep or gets injured.

This defense is probably better than fans realize. McCloughan made all the moves that I would have made this offseason when he really focused on upgrading the DL. Jason Hatcher is quietly a very good player. The problem is that this defense is missing a true dominant pass rusher. Ryan Kerrigan is a fantastic all around player who can compile double digit sacks but he’s not the type of guy that I would call a dominant pass rusher. Trent Murphy doesn’t have the closing speed to be that guy, so that leaves it up to rookie Preston Smith who will have to fight for snaps. I love the combo of Keenan Robinson (a guy I think is a star in the making) and Perry Riley as the ILBs of this defense. The secondary is a weird mix of players. When Bashaud Breeland comes back from his suspension/injury, he’s immediately the #1 CB and has potential to be a shutdown corner. DeAngelo Hall needs to step up his game to be worthy of a starting spot. Chris Culliver makes a great option at nickel and I think David Amerson has a lot of potential at CB as well. The safety position is where things get murky. Dashon Goldson is talented but he has to be better at diagnosing and tackling. I actually think Jeron Johnson eventually takes over a starting safety spot next to Duke Ihenacho and the two make a solid pairing.

Be careful with this Washington team. They may not be great this year but they’re going to upset a few teams. This defense isn’t a push over in terms of talent (I can’t say speak to Joe Barry’s abilities as a coordinator as I’ve never studied him). If the offense can play keep away with the run game and hit on some big plays in the passing game, Washington has potential to beat anyone in the league.

 

NFC East Division Outlook:

Philadelphia Eagles: (13-3)

Dallas Cowboys: (10-6)

Washington Redskins: (6-10)

New York Giants: (6-10)

The Eagles are a Super Bowl contender. The Cowboys are going to put up a fight for this division but I think the Eagles have too much firepower and will have an easier schedule based on last year’s standings. I think Washington is just as good as New York this year mostly because of the defense. If Washington gets the OL straightened out, they could be 8-8. I think it will be interesting to watch the situation play out in Washington, but I bet Bill Callahan is installed as the interim coach at some point this season.

 

Super Bowl Prediction

Green Bay Packers vs. San Diego Chargers

I understand that this is way out there as far as Super Bowl predictions go, but let me explain before you lose your mind.

The NFC has a whole bunch of really good teams and I really think it comes down to the Eagles and the Packers. I see fatal flaws in the Seahawks this year with that OL and I still don’t have faith in the Cowboys’ defense. Oddly enough, the only other team that I see making a run in the NFC is the Minnesota Vikings. They have a great all-around team and will cause some people problems in the playoffs in the NFC.

The reason I picked the Packers over the Eagles is because I think at some point, the Eagles run into a team that figures them out. While I don’t think Dom Capers is that guy, I think the Packers offense is potent enough to exploit some holes and depth issues in the secondary while Aaron Rodgers is good enough to identify the Eagles’ pressure packages and make the necessary plays to win.

In the AFC, I don’t see any one single dominant team. That leads me to believe that someone is going to emerge from the pile that no one expected. As I said in their preview, I absolutely love Andrew Luck but he can’t keep carrying this team on his shoulders. The team around him isn’t as talented as some want to believe. That leaves me with Denver, who is still good but I’m thinking that they see some real regression this year. I think the Patriots regress as well because they lost a good amount of key talent. The Dolphins, Chiefs, Texans, and Chargers are all teams that I think rise to the top when the other guys sink in the AFC. I couldn’t pick the Texans because of the lack of the QB.

I think the Chargers go up against Denver or Indy in the AFC Championship game but the other team that I really keep coming back to is the Miami Dolphins. I love their offense and that defense is going to be nasty this season. It wouldn’t surprise me to see Miami vs. San Diego, or Miami in place of San Diego in the AFC Championship. The reason I like San Diego is because I think this defense comes to form this year and plays well enough to help support Philip Rivers and this offense. The OL will be better, they’ll have a consistent run game, and Rivers is a top 5 QB in this league. The Chargers have everything necessary to make a run to the Super Bowl.

And the winner is….

The Green Bay Packers.

The Packers have the best QB in the league and the firepower and balance on offense to keep up with anyone. I really like their personnel on defense aside from Sam Barrington who either needs to improve in a hurry or be replaced. I’d actually like to see the Packers make a deal for an ILB to shore up a solid defense. In the end, Aaron Rodgers leads these guys to the title because he can cover up a couple holes the Packers currently have and they don’t have an fatal flaws.

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