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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2014 NFL Season Preview: NFC West

Seattle Seahawks 

Additions: DT Kevin Williams, CB A.J. Jefferson, CB Philip Adams.

Draft Picks: 
Rnd Pick# Pos.   Player                     College
2          45         WR      Paul Richardson         Colorado
2          64         OT        Justin Britt                   Missouri
4          108       DE       Cassius Marsh              UCLA
4          123       WR      Kevin Norwood           Alabama
4          132       LB        Kevin Pierre-Louis     Boston College
5          172        DT        Jimmy Staten               Middle Tennessee
6          199       OT        Garrett Scott                 Marshall
6          208       SS        Eric Pinkins                    San Diego State
7          227        RB        Kiero Small                   Arkansas

Losses: WR Golden Tate, OT Breno Giacomini, DE Red Bryant, DE Chris Clemons, DT Clinton McDonald, CB Brandon Browner, CB Walter Thurmond.

Analysis:

Simply put, the Seattle Seahawks were the best team in the league in 2014 and it was available to see before the season. They’re just as good this season, if not better. They’re still one of the deepest (if not the deepest) teams in the league even after other teams pillaged their roster to try to get a piece of the action.

Russell Wilson is a legitimate franchise quarterback. The Seahawks rely on the run game and their defense to carry them but aren’t afraid to let Wilson light it up if that is what they need to do. He could improve in his ability to get rid of the ball faster but he has enough pocket tolerance, presence, and athleticism to hang on to the rock a beat longer than most QBs and still be able to escape trouble.

Golden Tate left and yet the wide receivers still should be better. Doug Baldwin is a magician at getting off the LOS clean and quick and Percy Harvin is an athletic marvel when healthy. Jermaine Kearse is one of my favorite players in all of the NFL. There isn’t a better run blocking wide receiver in the NFL (and hasn’t been since Hines Ward) but Kearse is also an explosive vertical threat – averaged 16.6 yards per catch last season.

There’s an embarassment of riches at the running back spot in Seattle. Marshawn Lynch is at the age where the Seahawks should be planning to lighten his load but they appear to be ready to run him into the ground and then give the ball to Robert Turbin or Christine Michael when Lynch is more “Least Mode” than Beast Mode.

The offensive line is the weakest unit of the entire team. This is no different than last season and they’re no better and no worse than they were last year. James Carpenter needs to lookout for his job. Alvin Bailey is a versatile player who looked terrific in the preseason. He may force the Seahawks to find a spot for him along the line somewhere because his presence uplifts the entire group if he plays like he did in the preseason.

On defense, Seattle will continue to get pressure by mixing and matching along the defensive front with Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril burning up tackles and Brandon Mebane and Tony McDaniel holding pat on the inside. Look for Brandon Schofield to get playing time as he was another guy who looked terrific in the preseason.

People swoon over the LB duos of Luke Kuechly/Thomas Davis and Patrick Willis/Navarro Bowman, but Seattle’s LB corps is arguably the best in the league. Bobby Wagner, KJ Wright, and Malcom Smith are all studs in their own right. Bruce Irvin is a damn good player and is more of a rotational player in this defense because of how good the other LBs are. This unit gets overshadowed by the dominance of the defensive line and the bravado of the secondary, but they’re as good as either.

Richard Sherman and company proved that they can play within the new enforcement of old rules this preseason. The starting unit wasn’t flagged for defensive holding or illegal contact a single time. Early Thomas is still – bar none – the best safety in the league and the most important cog of this defense. His presence allows the defense to scheme the way that it does. Outside of Peyton Manning, he may be the most valuable player in the league. Kam Chancellor is a multi-utility tool that can bring the hammer on receivers or can align in man coverage over a slot receiver and be more attached to him than his shadow. Byron Maxwell, Jeremy Lane, and Tharold Simon round out a group of CBs that is still ridiculously deep.

This Seahawks team is really unfair. The roster is phenomenal and the scheme is so ideally suited for it. It’s the perfect pairing and one of the reasons they’ll find themselves in the Super Bowl again. However, I think their opponent in the Super Bowl might be the one team that can out-scheme them. The Seahawks will have to settle for NFC Champs and fall just short of a repeat.

San Francisco 49ers

Additions: QB Josh Johnson, QB Blaine Gabbert, WR Brandon Lloyd, OT/G Jonathan Martin, CB Chris Cook, S Antone Bethea.

Draft Picks: 
Rnd Pick# Pos.   Player                   College
1          30         S           Jimmie Ward             Northern Illinois
2          57         RB       Carlos Hyde                Ohio State
3          70         C          Marcus Martin           USC
3          77         LB        Chris Borland             Wisconsin
3          100      G          Brandon Thomas      Clemson
4          106      WR      Bruce Ellington          South Carolina
4          129       CB       Dontae Johnson         North Carolina State
5          150       DE       Aaron Lynch                South Florida
5          170       CB       Keith Reaser                Florida Atlantic
6          180      CB       Kenneth Acker             SMU
7          243      DT       Kaleb Ramsey             Boston College
7          245       FB        Trey Millard                Oklahoma

Losses: QB Colt McCoy, RB Anthony Dixon, WR Mario Manningham, C Jonathan Goodwin, CB Carlos Rogers, CB Tarell Brown, S Donte Whitner.

Analysis:

Colin Kaepernick really needs to stay healthy. No one wants to see Blaine Gabbert at the helm of this offense. That’s like Lieutenant Colonel Frank Slade driving a Ferrari but without Charlie telling him when to take the corners.

The 49ers offense has surpassed the defense in terms of talent. The offensive line is still one of the best in the league. The left side is rock solid with Joe Staley acting as a stonewall and Mike Iupati hulk-smashing opponents in the run game. Alex Boone ended his holdout so he’ll be back at guard which is good news for the 49ers. Daniel Kilgore is an above average center but playing with so much talent on the line really helps him flourish. RT Anthony Davis really improved his pass blocking last season and that’s a huge help for Kaepernick who still is a bit slow in his reads and needs the extra time. Joe Looney is the “swing” backup on the OL in the sense that if one of the tackles goes down, he’ll pop in at guard and one of the guards will likely kick out to tackle. It seems unlikely that Jonathan Martin will see a lot of playing time unless significant injuries strike the line.

The backfield is loaded now with Frank Gore who seems to be an ageless wonder. The hope was that Marcus Lattimore would come back healthy and be Gore’s replacement but that ship probably sailed with the addition of Carlos Hyde who is the exact type of back the 49ers want and will fit perfectly in this offense.

The wide receiving crew is a perfect fit for Kaepernick. Kap still has issues getting through reads (though he’s getting better) and often likes to throw to his first read. He really struggled passing when teams were able to identify his first read and take it away immediately after the snap forcing him to get to his 2nd and 3rd options. With Kaepernick, his 3rd best option is usually taking off and running. With the addition of Stevie Johnson, the 49ers now have 3 guys who get off the line of scrimmage well (Crabtree and Boldin being the other 2) and get separation quickly. This gives Kaepernick multiple options on each play if he can make the correct presnap reads. This should really help him complete more of his passes and get rid of the ball quicker if he finds it within himself to pull the trigger on those throws. Vernon Davis provides a great vertical threat to eliminate any team that wants to try to cheat up and crowd the line of scrimmage against these receivers.

The defense is expected to take a step back with all of the bad news circulating it. Navarro Bowman begins the year on the PUP list, while Aldon Smith (definitely) and Ray McDonald (likely) suspensions, will keep them out for significant amounts of time. As long as Justin Smith is healthy, the defense will still impose it’s will on offenses.

Top end talent at CB has been an ongoing issue for the 49ers. Part of that is due to a lessened emphasis on the position considering they play a lot of quarters coverage. If the 49ers continue to lose players on defense, the small but important flaws in this secondary will begin to crack and turn into full blown blemishes. Let’s just hope that Antoine Bethea stays healthy because Greg Dahl starting is something no one wants to see.

The 49ers have a lot going on off the field. It’ll be important that Jim Harbaugh keeps his troops focused. It’s a veteran group of players so the impact of the commotion is minimized but it still has ripple effects. It’ll be interesting to see if the 49ers can keep their composure and fight for the NFC West while missing some key pieces. I want to say they’re destined for 2nd place but the division is so good and the schedule is so tough, it’s possible that the Cardinals can hang with them.

St. Louis Rams

Additions: QB Shaun Hill, WR Kenny Britt, G Davin Joseph, DE/DT Alex Carrington.

Draft Picks: 
Rnd Pick# Pos.   Player                      College
1          2            OT       Greg Robinson              Auburn
1          13          DT       Aaron Donald                Pittsburgh
2          41          S          Lamarcus Joyner         Florida State
3          75          RB       Tre Mason                      Auburn
4          110        S          Maurice Alexander     Utah State
6          188       CB       E. J. Gaines                     Missouri
6          214       QB       Garrett Gilbert              SMU
7          226       OT       Mitchell Van Dyk         Portland State
7          241        FS        C. B. Bryant                   Ohio State
7          249       DE       Michael Sam                  Missouri
7          250       C          Demetrius Rhaney      Tennessee State 

Losses: QB Kellen Clemens, TE Mike McNeill, G Harvey Dahl, G Shelley Smith, G Chris Williams, CB Cortland Finnegan, S Darian Stewart.

Analysis:

It’s unfortunate that Sam Bradford went down in the preseason with a season ending injury. He looked like a competent QB in the preseason and the offense showed some promise. Instead, it’s the Shaun Hill show. Hill is a capable QB but not really a guy that a team wants to rely on to start 16 games.

The fact that Greg Robinson isn’t starting in week one is troubling. There were concerns about his ability to pass block early on in his career and those concerns have manifested themselves into reality. He’ll eventually win the job, he’s just too talented not to. The offensive line is better as a whole and if Robinson develops his pass blocking, the line could be really good.

That’s good news for Zac Stacy who looks to continue his strong finish to 2013. Stacy wasn’t exactly efficient as a ball carrier (3.9 yards per attempt), but he was a punchy battering ram between the tackles who has enough juice to break off longer runs. They don’t need him to to be a homerun hitter – that’s where Tavon Austin factors in. Benny Cunningham played well and tossed himself into the mix at running back, and even though he’s a smart runner he lacks the athleticism and zip that Stacy has for a larger back. Lookout for 3rd round draft pick Tre Mason. He could end up being the homerun threat that the Rams will be looking for out of the backfield. He was my highest graded back out of the 2013 draft and is a good size/speed/agility/vision/explosiveness mix. He’s the total package and really probably the most talented back in this group. Side note: I really liked Zac Stacy last preseason. I like Tre Mason more this year.

There is a lot of athleticism and explosiveness at the WR position. Kenny Britt is the one guy with size. Tavon Austin and Steadman Bailey have the potential to break a big one on any play. Chris Givens is a big deep threat and Jared Cook still remains a weapon from the tight end spot. Now if only they had a QB who could get them the ball in an effective manner.

The defense relies on its pass rush to make everything work. Without it everything else falls apart. Chris Long and Robert Quinn are 2 of the most lethal pass rushers in the league. Michael Brockers creates great interior pressure and the addition of Aaron Donald is going to make this one badass (technical term, I know, but it’s apt) defensive line. The linebacking corps was disappointing as a whole last season and that is what keeps me from selecting the Rams as my “defense carries offense to terrific season” candidate this year.

Janoris Jenkins looked like a terrific young CB last season though he was a bit aggressive. If he continues to develop and stay out of trouble, he’s going to be fun to watch. The Rams are extremely high on rookie 6th round draft pick, CB EJ Gaines. He played well in preseason but it will be interesting to see how he stacks up when the games count. There is basically no depth here with undrafted free agent Marcus Roberson and Brandon McGee as the backup CBs. Same goes for the safety position but without the same level of talent at starter.

The Rams have some good pieces but they’re not all in sync yet. There’s a serious lack of depth in the back 7 and some questionable talent at some of the starting positions. Without Bradford, it’s easy to have serious concerns about where this team finishes since they reside in one of the most stacked divisions in the league.

Arizona Cardinals

Additions: RB Jonathan Dwyer, WR/KR Ted Ginn, TE John Carlson, OT Jared Veldheer, C Ted Larsen, CB Antonio Cromartie.

Draft Picks: 
Rnd Pick# Pos.   Player                     College
1          27          S           Deone Bucannon        Washington State
2          52         TE        Troy Niklas                   Notre Dame
3          84         DE       Kareem Martin            North Carolina
3          91         WR       John Brown                 Pittsburg State (KS)
4          120       QB        Logan Thomas            Virginia Tech
5          160       DE        Ed Stinson                    Alabama
6          196       WR       Walt Powell                 Murray State

Losses: RB Rashard Mendenhall, WR Andre Roberts, OT Eric Winston, G Daryn Colledge, ILB Karlos Dansby, ILB Jasper Brinkley, CB Antone Cason, S Yeremiah Bell, KR Javier Arenas.

Analysis:

Admittedly, the Cardinals are probably one of the teams that I feel the most uncomfortable projecting in 2014. They were much better than I expected in 2013 and the roster is a little muddled after a suspension to Daryl Washington and an injury to Darnell Dockett. Those are both massively impactful to a defense that relied heavily on turnovers last season.

John Abraham was one of the biggest pickups before last season and was an incredible pass rushing presence for the Cards last year. They’ll need him to continue that in 2014 for the defense to continue to shine. He and Calais Campbell were a tough duo to stop. The LB corps looks depleted without Washington to anchor it. I’m perplexed by the addition of Larry Foote. Kevin Minter is a young player who is still growing. It will be interesting to see if Alex Okafor or Desmond Bishop crack the starting lineup early in the season.

The secondary is still superbly talented. The addition of Antonio Cromartie to Patrick Peterson and Justin Bethel makes this a very deep unit. Jerraud Powers is a great 4th option at CB. Tyrann Mathieu was fun to watch as a safety/corner last season as he played all over the place. He’ll need some support from Rashad Johnson and Tony Jefferson who both played fairly decent last season behind and beside Mathieu. A dip in safety play for the Cardinals spells doom for a defense that needs a safety valve because of how aggressive it is up front.

Carson Palmer makes the offensive line look better than it truly is. His ability to read defenses, call out protections, and make quick decisions keeps him cleaner than he should be behind a mediocre-at-best line. Jared Veldheer was the only significant addition to the offensive line this offseason and that doesn’t really help the rest of the line get better.

The skill positions are still talented but not particularly deep. Hopefully Bruce Arians gives Andre Ellington the workload he deserves and let’s the kid shine. He’s a very good runner with good juice and explosion. With enough touches, he’s going to become a household name. Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd lead the receivers but it’s an odd mix throwing Tedd Ginn in as the 3rd receiver. I’m not sure his skill set fits the grouping. The Cards drafted TE Troy Niklas out of Notre Dame to start for them. The kid has some developing to do in a hurry in the passing game before he’s an impact player for the offense. For now, he’s more of a blocker than a pass catcher.

Arizona is a good team who has been really unfortunate to lose 2 of the largest cogs in their defense. Unfortunately, that’s really going to hurt. I’m usually a big believer in scheme being able to overcome roster deficiencies but the losses of Washington and Dockett are too detrimental.

Overall NFC West Analysis:

Seattle Seahawks (14-2)

Why not repeat what they did last year? Keep Russell Wilson healthy and they can.

San Francisco 49ers (9-7)

Too much going on around the team. They’re still a great team, just not as good as last year at this point. 9-7 is more indicative of a tough schedule than a huge regression.

Arizona Cardinals (6-10)

Tough season for a good team. I would have them lower if for my belief in Arians. And no, this season is not Palmer’s fault.

St. Louis Rams (6-10)

I like the Rams but they’re missing big pieces in key positions. The lack of depth usually means a bad season. Put them in another division and they might compete for the playoffs.

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