2014 NFL Season Preview: NFC South

New Orleans Saints

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

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

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

 Analysis:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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

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

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

 Analysis:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Atlanta Falcons

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

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

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

 Analysis:

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

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

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

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

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

 

Carolina Panthers

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

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

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

Analysis:

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

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

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

Overall NFC South Outlook

New Orleans Saints (12-4)

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

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-9)

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

Carolina Panthers (7-9)

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

Atlanta Falcons (6-10)

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

 

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2014 NFL Season Preview: AFC North

Baltimore Ravens

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

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

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

Analysis:

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Cincinnati Bengals

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

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

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

 Analysis:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Pittsburgh Steelers

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

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

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

Analysis:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cleveland Browns

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

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

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

Analysis:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overall AFC North Outlook:

Cincinnati Bengals (11-5)

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

Baltimore Ravens (10-6)

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

Pittsburgh Steelers (6-10)

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

Cleveland Browns (5-11)

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

 

 

 

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2014 NFL Season Preview: NFC East

Philadelphia Eagles

Additions: QB Mark Sanchez, RB Darren Sproles, DE/OLB Bryan Braman, CB Nolan Carroll, S Malcolm Jenkins, S Chris Maragos.

Draft Picks: 
Rnd Pick#  Pos.     Player                              College
1          26       LB        Marcus Smith              Louisville
2          42      WR       Jordan Matthews      Vanderbilt
3          86      WR       Josh Huff                      Oregon
4          101     CB        Jaylen Watkins           Florida
5          141      DE       Taylor Hart                  Oregon
5          162      S          Ed Reynolds                 Stanford
7          224    DT        Beau Allen                    Wisconsin

Losses: WR DeSean Jackson, WR Jason Avant, S Patrick Chung.

Analysis:

Chip Kelly is going to change the NFL for the better. He’s a “why” guy. He questions everything. “Why do we do this? Why is this done this way? Why not do it that way?” Those questions will lead to some revolutions in the game that will change it to being more efficient and a much better product. I’m not talking about just on the field, but off of it, too. The Eagles were the healthiest team in the NFL last year, having fewer players miss fewer games than any other team in the league. Kelly and the players attribute it to Kelly’s data tracking of practice habits and analytics and using those to manage his players’ workload to keep them healthy.

It will be interesting to see how the NFL adjust to Kelly’s system this year and how teams will prepare for it. It seems that the Eagles will continue to struggle with getting receivers open vs. man coverage as they did last year. The addition of Jordan Matthews, who will play from the slot, should help with some of that. Philly can’t count on the good luck that Foles had last year either. Foles was phenomenal in Kelly’s system and executed very well but it takes some luck to be able to put up 26 touchdowns and only 2 interceptions. Foles does the boring but integral part of the position very well. He makes good presnap reads, efficient in his postsnap progressions, makes good decisions, and executes on time. He’s a great fit for the system and a legitimate franchise QB in this system.

Foles lost speedy deep threat Desean Jackson but in essence gains a receiver back after Jeremy Maclin returns from an injury that sidelined him for most of 2013. Maclin is a long strider who can get down the sideline in a hurry but does a good job working towards the middle of the field, too. Riley Cooper is a nifty receiver who will gives opposing defenses fits because he’s more physical than he gets credit for. Also look for tight end Zach Ertz to be a big part of this offense, especially down the seam. Ertz is a good redzone threat, too.

The offensive line is one of the most athletic in the league. When Jason Peters is healthy, he’s near the top of the league in terms of skill set as a left tackle. Evan Mathis was, again, Pro Football Focus’s highest graded guard. Jason Kelce is an upper echelon center. Todd Heremans is a savvy vet and at RT Lane Johnson looked good last year and should be even better with another year of progression.

LeSean McCoy will have a great time behind this line as he’s still a threat in every facet of the game. The addition of Darren Sproles is going to be a lot of fun to watch. Sproles will see a lot of receiving duties but he’s such a good pass blocker and doesn’t get enough credit for it.

The defense is the suspect part of the Eagles. The pass rush should be solid with Connor Barwin and Trent Cole bringing pressure from the edges. The defensive line is a little light. Fletcher Cox is a good player but needs more help. Backup DE Vinny Curry is a very good player but this system doesn’t fit him at all. It will be interesting to see how the Eagles use him throughout the season.

Demeco Ryans and Mychal Kendricks will hold the middle at the linebacker position. Ryans is a very smart player and helps get this defense in the right position for every play. For a team that knows opposing offenses are going to have to throw the ball a ton to keep up, the Eagles don’t have great cornerbacks. Cary Williams is streaky and the mix of Bradley Fletcher, Brandon Boykin, and Nolan Carrol shows depth but no real top-level talent. I love the addition of Malcolm Jenkins who will play free safety and give this defense some flexibility.

The Eagles are very clearly the best team in this division and have the fewest amount of warts. Aside from facing the NFC West, Philadelphia’s schedule is a fairly easy one. There appears to be a pretty big gap between the Eagles and the rest of this division.

Dallas Cowboys

Additions: QB Brandon Weeden, G Uche Nwaneri, DE Jeremy Mincey, DT Henry Melton, DT Terrell McClain, ILB Rolando McClain, ILB Will Herring, S Danny McCray.

Draft Picks: 
Rnd Pick#  Pos.     Player                               College
1          16        OT       Zack Martin                   Notre Dame
2          34       DE       Demarcus Lawrence  Boise State
4          119     LB        Anthony Hitchens       Iowa
5          146     WR      Devin Street                  Pittsburgh
7          231     DE        Ben Gardner                 Stanford
7          238     LB        Will Smith                     Texas Tech
7          248     SS        Ahmad Dixon                Baylor
7          251     DT        Ken Bishop                    Northern Illinois
7          254     CB        Terrance Mitchell       Oregon

Losses: QB Kyle Orton, RB Phillip Tanner, WR Miles Austin, G Brian Waters, C Phil Costa, DE DeMarcus Ware, DE Everette Brown, DT DeMarcus Ware, OLB Ernie Sims.

Analysis:

New year, same old song and dance. The Cowboys come in with a potent offense led by Tony Romo and a defense that has more leaks than iCloud. It will be interesting to see how scheme changes on the defense could help a group of players that looked lost last season.

The Cowboys lost Sean Lee to an offseason injury and that’s devastating. Orlando Scandrick is also suspended for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. For a team that isn’t deep on defense, they can’t afford to lose big time players like that.

The addition of Henry Melton could pay huge dividends this year. Melton was one of the best players at getting interior pressure 2 years ago before injury. However, there isn’t much help on the line next to him. Jeremy Mincey, Nick Hayden, and George Selvie will have to play far beyond their expectations for this defensive line to even be mediocre.

Bruce Carter is a guy that more fans should be aware of. He’s a big player with elite speed at the linebacker position that can chase down wide receivers and running backs. Rolando McClain is a veteran addition from Baltimore but he’s sitting behind Justin Durant at the MLB position. Again, depth is an issue at linebacker.

This was a secondary that looked lost last year. I still think Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr are good players but had no clue how to play in the scheme last year. These guys need to be in man coverage. Putting them in zone coverage and off the line of scrimmage doesn’t suit them. Barry Church and JJ Wilcox just aren’t going to cut it at safety.

I don’t think the Cowboys are nearly as good at wide receiver as fans want them to be. Dez Bryant is a freak of nature and his progression last year was phenomenal. Romo has the ability to make bad receivers look pretty good (I’m looking at you, Kevin Ogletree), but outside of Bryant, Romo is lacking big time playmakers at the wide receiver position. Jason Witten is another year older but should still rack up a ton of catches while the Cowboys continue to wait for Gavin Escobar to develop into the receiving threat they hope he can be.

The offensive line is much improved and that is good news for DeMarco Murray. Murray is one of the better backs in the league when he’s fully healthy. He’s a big back with good power and balance, but also has plenty of juice to get to the edge or up the field for the big run. LT Tyron Smith looked great last year. Rookie RG Zack Martin is a nice addition. For all the flack the Cowboys took for taking Travis Frederick in the 1st round in 2013, Frederick was a really good player last year as a rookie. Doug Free isn’t the answer at right tackle but he’s at least serviceable there.

Dallas has finished 8-8 in consecutive seasons, but with a bad defense and even more questions on offense than they had last season, 8-8 would seem like a triumph in 2014.

New York Giants

Additions: RB Rashad Jennings, WR Mario Manningham, OT Charles Brown, G Geoff Schwartz, G John Jerry, C J.D. Walton, DE Robert Ayers, ILB Jameel McClain, CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, CB Walter Thurmond, CB Zackary Bowman, S Quintin Demps, KR Trindon Holliday.

Draft Picks: 
Rnd Pick#  Pos.     Player                              College
1          12       WR      Odell Beckham, Jr.     LSU
2          43       C         Weston Richburg        Colorado State
3          74       DT       Jay Bromley                  Syracuse
4          113     RB       Andre Williams            Boston College
5          152      S          Nat Berhe                       San Diego State
5          174     OLB     Devon Kennard           USC
6          187     CB       Bennett Jackson          Notre Dame

Losses: RB Andre Brown, WR Hakeem Nicks, WR Louis Murphy, TE Brandon Myers, TE Bear Pascoe, OT David Diehl, G Kevin Boothe, C David Baas, DE Justin Tuck, DT Linval Joseph, OLB Keith Rivers, CB Terrell Thomas, CB Aaron Ross, S Will Hill, S Ryan Mundy.

 Analysis:

The New York Giants are going to get back to Tom Coughlin’s favorite form of football: downhill running and defense. The run game has looked good this preseason with Rashad Jennings and Andre Williams running hard. The offensive line is still questionable at best. Will Beatty wasn’t good at left tackle and Justin Pugh is an NFL guard, not a tackle. The Giants would be better served kicking him inside in place of Dallas Reynolds or Brandon Mosley. It sounds great in theory but that puts Charles Brown at right tackle. Ew. This offensive line is built for run blocking, not pass blocking.

Eli Manning looked like he had a noodle arm in preseason and the offensive line problems won’t help him look any better. The receiving corps is a very good group. Victor Cruz, Rueben Randall, and rookie Odell Beckham, Jr. is a quality unit. Beckham could be the best receiver out of the group by year’s end.

Defensively the Giants have gone back to their formula of loading up on pass rushers. Jason Pierre-Paul is back from injury and showed no ill-effects in preseason. New York added Robert Ayers who was a very good situational pass rusher in Denver last season. Mike Patterson and Cullen Jenkins is an interesting duo inside but they could under up getting pushed around in the run game. Damontre Moore is a 2nd year defensive end who might end up taking snaps if the veterans up front don’t produce early.

Jon Beason was an incredible addition to the Giants’ linebacker unit last season. His presence helped shore up a leaky defense. Jameel McClain comes over from Baltimore this year and will start at SLB. Jacquian Williams is the WLB and is very good in pass coverage. He’s not much of a defender in the run game, though.

The secondary was much better last year than I anticipated. Antrel Rolle was great. Now the Giants have Dominic Rodgers-Cromartie made the trip over from Denver and Walter Thurmond came from Seattle. These are both good additions to go with Prince Amukamara who developed well for a young CB in 2013.

The Giants are a hard team to predict. If the run game is on this season, they could punch some teams in the mouth and make some upsets. The defense is better and upgraded. The one issue I have with the Giants is that I have zero confidence in Eli Manning the way he played last year and then didn’t look like he had improved at all in the preseason. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to see him benched in favor of Ryan Nassib at some point this season.

Washington Redskins

Additions: QB Colt McCoy, WR DeSean Jackson, WR Andre Roberts, OT Bruce Campbell, G Shawn Lauvao, G Mike McGlynn, DE/DT Jason Hatcher, DE/DT Clifton Geathers, ILB Daryl Sharpton, ILB Akeem Jordan, CB Tracy Porter, S Ryan Clark, S Brandon Meriweather.

Draft Picks: 
Rnd Pick#  Pos.      Player                           College
2          47       LB        Trent Murphy           Stanford
3          66       OT       Morgan Moses          Virginia
3          78        G         Spencer Long             Nebraska
4          102     CB       Bashaud Breeland   Clemson
5          142     WR      Ryan Grant                 Tulane
6          186     RB       Lache Seastrunk       Baylor
7          217      TE       Ted Bolser                  Indiana
7          228      K         Zach Hocker               Arkansas

Losses: WR Josh Morgan, TE Richard Quinn, C/G Will Montgomery, DE/DT Adam Carriker, DE/OLB Darryl Tapp, ILB London Fletcher, CB Josh Wilson, P Sav Rocca.

Analysis:

Robert Griffin III is back! And he has a new coach. With a scheme that I’m not sure fits RGIII’s skill set. Jay Gruden runs an offense that is based on timing and rhythm and the ability to perform from inside the pocket. Essentially Griffin is learning to play a new position. He’s used to being able to use his wheels to escape pressure and let his receivers get vertical but now he must operate from the pocket and deliver the ball to the right receiver at the right time. Washington is asking him to change his DNA as a passer and that takes time to evolve and get comfortable with.

The offensive line looked like different players when playing in front of Kirk Cousins vs. in front of RG3. They fit Kyle Shannahan’s zone running scheme very well. The changes that are being made to this offense means there could be some hiccups up front even though this group was really good last year. Trent Williams is still a stud at LT and Tyler Polumbus is pretty good on the right side. Will Montgomery is gone and that leaves some questions on the interior so whoever is at QB for Washington will likely get a lot of pressure in their face.

Alfred Morris and Roy Helu are the 2 running backs to be aware of in this offense. These guys will be instrumental in this offense as Gruden needs a run game to help keep defenders honest. There’s some great deep speed on this Washington offense with Desean Jackson and Pierre Garcon (who is actually a better route runner than he gets credit for). Gruden should be able to use the run game and those receivers to contrast each other and create some gaps in defenses to exploit. I also like the addition of Andre Roberts to this offense. It’s unclear what his role will be but he needs to get some touches because he’s pretty dynamic.

It’s surprising that Washington kept Jim Haslett as the defensive coordinator after firing Mike Shannahan as the head coach. That almost never happens so it had to be a decision that came down from owner Dan Snyder. It’s also an interesting move because Washington wasn’t very good on defense last year (ranked 22nd in DVOA).

At any rate, the defensive roster is slightly re-tooled with the addition of DT Jason Hatcher and S Ryan Clark. Ryan Clark is a good addition as the Washington safeties were overly aggressive and didn’t play with much discipline. He’ll help bring some leadership and will try to solidify the back end. Deangelo Hall isn’t a shutdown corner. He’s a decent corner but he still gets beat far too often and still can be beat consistently with double moves. There isn’t much depth at cornerback. David Amerson is the 2nd corner on the roster and that spells trouble. Brandon Merriweather is suspended to start the season so it looks like Trenton Robinson will start in his place, leaving Bacarri Rambo and Duke Ihenacho as reserves.

Brian Orakpo was clearly the best player on this defense last season. He was good in all facets of the game and that’s important for a defense that lacks real punch up front. Ryan Kerrigan is a terrific player that had a bad season last year because he saw a ton of double teams. He needs Jason Hatcher to be a force in the middle to take some heat off of him and let him excel.

It seems like this roster is a square peg and these schemes are round holes. It will be interesting to see how new head coach Jay Gruden approaches this dynamic early in the season. It’s reasonable to expect Washington to struggle early and potentially get better as the season goes on, if their confidence isn’t shot by the time they start figuring it out. The first four games are crucial – at HOU, vs. JAX, at PHI, vs. NYG. There’s potential to go 3-1 or 0-4. I’m leaning more towards 1-3 out of those games. If that happens, the calls for Kirk Cousins to replace Griffin will only get louder.

Overall NFC East Outlook:

Philadelphia Eagles (11-5)

Philly should run away with this division.

New York Giants (8-8)

I’m torn on the Giants but I think defense and the run game delivers an average season.

Dallas Cowboys (6-10)

I was higher on the Cowboys before doing this but looking at that roster just makes me worry. No defense and Romo’s is coming off back surgery from having to carry Dallas through last year.

Washington Redskins (4-12)

I don’t think Washington is this bad. I do think that the transition is going to be more painful than fans want to expect.

 

 

 

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