Thursday, August 28, 2014
Games That Matter To Me
Rice at #17 Notre Dame
An academic scandal has rocked Notre Dame for the second consecutive offseason. Last year it was QB Everett Golston getting caught cheating and having to sit out the season. This year, WR DaVaris Daniels, DE Ishaq Williams, LB Kendall Moore, and CB KeiVarae Russell are all likely out for the season and perhaps kicked off the team for good after apparently having a tutor write papers for them. The Irish defense had already lost some really good players in Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt, as well as have a new defensive coordinator and now are without even more. Golston is back this season and is still undefeated in the regular season after having to sit out last season. With both TJ Jones and Daniels gone, a new receiver will have to step up for Notre Dame. The Irish couldn't seem to find a bell cow to run the ball last year, but if I had my say that guy would be senior Cam McDaniel. Not only does McDaniel take a great picture in the midst of being tackled, he produced best when Kelly fed him the ball often.
Rice are the defending Conference USA champions but are starting new this year at quarterback and have to replace their best running back. Driphus Jackson is the new leading man for the Owls and he does have the Owls leading receiver from a year ago back, Jordan Taylor. Rice was a pretty good defensive team last season, finishing 42nd in the nation in points allowed. However, history is not on their side. The Owls have lost 21 straight games against ranked opponents and typically it has been in blowout fashion.
The Irish defense will be a work in progress all season and I also expect Golston to have to shake off the rust a bit after not playing in a real game in a year and a half. I think in the second half, Golston will get more comfortable, and eventually the Irish will manage to hold off the Owls.
Prediction: Notre Dame 34, Rice 20
Florida Atlantic at #22 Nebraska
The biggest story of Nebraska's offseason has been how badly they have been hit by the injury bug, especially on the defensive side of the ball. They lost two key defenders in nickel back Charles Jackson and LB Michael Rose to season-ending injuries, and DT Kevin Williams is hurting. The defense made strides towards regaining their Blackshirt status last season, after a horrific 2012. However, with these injuries the defense may struggle, which puts the onus even further on the Cornhuskers best player, RB Ameer Abdullah. Sophomore Tommy Armstrong Jr. is the new starting quarterback. He gained valuable experience last year as a freshman when Taylor Martinez went down, but still has a steep learning curve. He had trouble with accuracy and threw too many interceptions in limited time this season. Opposing defenses are going to try to load up the box and stop Abdullah, but Abdullah doesn't seem to have a problem still producing, even when he is the focal point of a defense. The Huskers lost leading receive Quincy Anunwa but do return Kenny Bell. Bell saw his yards and touchdown slip last season from 2012, but with him being the number one target now, he has a chance to regain that form.
This game was added to the schedule for a chance for the Pelini brothers to coach against each other. However, Carl ruined that by getting busted smoking the sticky icky. The Owls are coming off a 6-6 season in Conference USA. They had a pretty good defense last season and return more than half their starters on both offense and defense. The player to watch will be their quarterback, Jacquez Johnson. Johnson is a threat to both pass and run the ball. WR William Dukes was the Owls leading touchdown receiver, securing 6 of them last season.
Nebraska started last season off with a disappointing and way too close victory at home against Wyoming last season. They are hopeful to get off to a much stronger start this year and I think they will.
Prediction: Nebraska 41, Florida Atlantic 17
Thursday, August 28
#21 Texas A&M at #9 South Carolina
This is the only game this weekend that features a Top 10 team facing a ranked opponent. Unfortunately, I probably won't see much or any of it because it is on the new SEC Network which DirecTV does not have yet. This game might be making more news for the players that won't be in it, versus the ones that are. Texas A&M starts life without Johnny Manziel, as they hope to stay nationally relevant. Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin will be looking to prove that he can coach up his team no matter who the quarterback is. Sophomore Kenny Hill is the Aggies new starting quarterback. He saw mop up duty action in four games last season, but will get hit with quite the test playing at South Carolina to start his college career. Texas A&M also lost stud offensive lineman Jake Matthews and wide receiver Mike Evans to the NFL. The new pieces on offense will have to get up to speed fast because the Aggies figure to have another porous defensive unit like they did last season.
South Carolina moves on in life without DE Jadaveon Clowney, and also has a new starting quarterback in Dylan Thompson. Thompson has quite a bit of experience on his side so it should be a pretty smooth transition for him taking over Connor Shaw. The Gamecocks do return their leading rusher Mike Davis and I expect to see a heavy dose of him in tonight's game. While Clowney is gone from the defense, the Gamecocks still expect to be strong on that side of the ball. Darius English is replacing Clowney and the coaches have been raving about his ability.
It will take time for the Aggies to gel on offense and with a leaky defense that won't be able to carry the team, asking them to go into South Carolina and win seems like a pipe dream.
Prediction: South Carolina 28, Texas A&M 17
Friday, August 29
Jacksonville State at #8 Michigan State
The Spartans have clearly leapfrogged the Michigan Wolverines in the battle for top football team in the state of Michigan. They are coming off of a stellar season, where they win the Big Ten Championship and the Rose Bowl. The Spartans play excellent defense, but are replacing half the starters on that side of the ball this year. What to watch for in this game, is how inspired the Spartans play against Jacksonville State, knowing that they are probably already game planning for their trip to Oregon next weekend.
Prediction: Michigan State 37, Jacksonville State 9
Saturday, August 30
#1 Florida State vs. Oklahoma State in Arlington, Texas
The Seminoles begin the defense of their national championship, and Jameis Winston begins the defense of his Heisman trophy. The Seminoles lost a ton of talent to the NFL but like any great time, they have recruited and bring back more than enough talent to offset those losses. The Cowboys on the other hand lost a ton off of their team from last year, and expectations are lowered because of that. With less than half their starters on offense and defense returning, it could be a rude awakening for a lot of guys Saturday night. I expect the Seminoles to blast Okie State and send a loud message to the rest of college football.
Prediction: Florida State 42, Oklahoma State 16
West Virginia vs. #2 Alabama in Atlanta, Georgia
The Crimson Tide are anxious to get the bitter taste out of their mouths with how their 2013 season concluded. They lost their chance at playing for the national title and a perfect season on that ridiculous play against Auburn, and then were demolished by Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl. The AJ McCarron era is over and coach Nick Saban has been very coy about who his new starting quarterback is. That means we could see both Jake Coker and Blake Simms get playing time at the position. The Mountaineers are coming off a dreadful season and Mountaineer fans that used to complain about Bill Stewart winning 8 games a season probably feel pretty foolish right now.
Prediction: Alabama 38, West Virginia 14
South Dakota at #3 Oregon
If only the Ducks could avoid playing Stanford. The last few seasons the Cardinal have spoiled the Ducks dream and dominated Oregon's high-powered offense. QB Marcus Mariota is the front runner for the Heisman and his campaign should get off to a rip roaring start against South Dakota. The goal for Oregon will be to get their starters out as quickly as possible and begin prepping for the Spartans.
Prediction: Oregon 66, South Dakota 7
Louisiana Tech at #4 Oklahoma
The Sooners are feeling pretty good about themselves coming off how they ended the 2013 season. They dashed their rival Oklahoma State's hopes of winning the Big 12 and then dominated Alabama. QB Trevor Knight was outstanding in that game and is receiving a lot of hype coming into the season. Louisiana Tech looks woefully over matched for this game, having won just four games last season and starting a new quarterback.
Prediction: Oklahoma 53, Louisiana Tech 13
#5 Ohio State vs. Navy in Baltimore, Maryland
The Buckeyes were dealt a major blow last week when it was learned that Braxton Miller would miss the entire season with a shoulder injury. Already considered at a disadvantage of being a playoff team because of having to play in the weak Big Ten, now just about everyone has written off the Buckeyes national championship hopes without Miller. Whereas last season they had the experienced Kenny Guiton available to play when Miller is injured, this year they have to turn the reigns over to J.T. Barrett who is a redshirt freshman. Cardale Jones, Barrett's backup could also see some time at quarterback. The Buckeyes better not overlook Navy, who has a history of giving the big boys fits when they play them. The Midshipmen have the highly athletic Keenan Reynolds at quarterback and like to pound defenses into submission by using run after run after run. I expect a very tight football game, but don't think Navy quite has the horses to pull off the upset.
Prediction: Ohio State 27, Navy 20
Arkansas at #6 Auburn
The Auburn Tigers are eager to start the season after the heartbreaking finish to last season. They had the highest of highs after how they beat Alabama but then felt the lowest of lows after blowing a huge lead against Florida State in the national championship game. Their quarterback Nick Marshall got in trouble for having pot, so he is not going to start this game and the question is how long coach Gus Malzahn will have him sit. While Marshall serves his "suspension", Jeremy Johnson will be the Tigers starting quarterback. Razorbacks coach Bret Bielema is looking for his first SEC win after a winless campaign in his debut season as Arkansas coach last year. However, those dreams will have to wait.
Prediction: Auburn 37, Arkansas 21
#7 UCLA at Virginia
The beginning of Brett Hundley's march to the national title and Heisman begins in Charlottesville on Saturday. Many people believed that Hundley could potentially turn pro, but he wanted to come back to UCLA because he believes they can compete for a national title. To really make a statement they need to blow out what was a very bad Virginia team last season. Virginia does return 17 of 22 starters but is that really a good thing when you went 2-10 the previous season?
Prediction: UCLA 49, Virginia 14
Wednesday, August 27, 2014
1. New England Patriots
2013 Record: 12-4, AFC East Champs
Head Coach: Bill Belichick (15th season New England, 218-114 career, 3 Super Bowl championships)
Key Additions: TE Tim Wright, DT Dominique Easley, CB Darrelle Revis, CB Brandon Browner, S Patrick Chung
Key Losses: RB LaGarrette Blount, LG Logan Mankins, NT Isaac Sopoaga, ILB Brandon Spikes, CB Aqib Talib, S Steve Gregory, S Adrian Wilson
2014 Outlook: The last few years the Patriots seasons have seemed to follow the same scripts. They win the woeful AFC East with little resistance, then they win a playoff or game or two and then lose, falling short of another Super Bowl, rinse and repeat. Another constant for New England has been, despite having defensive genius Bill Belichick as coach, they have been a team that relied on their high powered offense. The Patriots made some movers in their secondary this past off-season to try to change that narrative. Lase season the offense wasn't the high-powered unit that Patriots fans have become accustomed to. Tom Brady saw his numbers dip as he was surrounded almost entirely by rookies and guys he hadn't played with for very long. He also was without stud TE Rob Gronkowski for the majority of the year. The offense figures to be much improved this year as all of his weapons are back and Gronkowski is, at the moment at least, healthy. Not surprisingly, Danny Amendola battled injuries last season, so Julian Edelman turned into Brady's favorite target, Edelman had over 100 catches but a lot of them were on short patterns. Kenbrell Thompkins had some nice moments as a rookie and is a strong number three option. Aaron Dobson is 4th on the depth chart but should also be a contributor as he stepped in and played well at times last year. The Patriots also hope that they can get a consistent contribution from Stevan Ridley this season. Ridley immediately entered Belichick's doghouse by fumbling in the season opener. He would sometime find his way out of the doghouse but then go right back in it with more fumbles. LaGarrette Blount is gone, so they don't have that option to fall back on if Ridley struggles to hold on to the ball again. Shane Vareen will serve as Ridley's backup and could see just as many touches as Ridley. The Patriots offensive line also struggled last season but remains in tact. Injuries also hit the Patriots on the offensive line, so they are excited to welcome back RT Sebastian Vollmer. C Ryan Wendell and RG Dan Connolly struggled last season. The Patriots are hopeful that the injury bug passed through last year and combining that with Brady's higher chemistry with his receiving corps this year, that will lead to an improved unit in 2014. The Patriots could have the best corners in the league come game 5 of the 2014 season when the newly signed Brandon Browner is done serving his four game suspension. He will pair up with the Patriots other flashy acquisition Darrelle Revis. One player that could make an even bigger defense is the returning from injury Vince Wilfork. The Patriots ranked 30th in the league against the run last season and that was because they didn't have the gigantic Wilfork to eat up the middle. The Patriots also seem ready to insert rookie DT Dominique Easley as a starter after cutting Tommy Kelly. The Patriots have two strong pass rushers in Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones. The Patriots also figure to be very strong at linebacker with the emergence of Jamie Collins, who will now start alongisde Jerod Mayo and Dont'a Hightower. Mayo was another player lost for most of the season due to injury last year. Joining Revis and Browner in the secondary will be beast safety Devin McCourty and the questionable Duron Harmon. Stephen Gostkowski made it pretty easy for Patriots fans to move on from Adam Vinatieri, as he has been consistently good year after year. Ryan Allen is entering his second season as the Patriots punter. Edelman will return punts and Matthew Slater will return kicks. Per usual, the Patriots are one of the favorites to come out of the AFC. I think they will be better on both sides of the ball this season and seem destined to meet the Broncos in an AFC Championship rematch. However, I think once again, Brady and Belichick will come close but not able to reach the pinnacle that once seemed so easy for them.
2. Miami Dolphins
2013 Record: 8-8, 3rd place AFC East
Head Coach: Joe Philbin (3rd season Miami, 15-17 career)
Key Additions: RT Ja'Wuan James, RB Knowshon Moreno, LT Branden Albert, CB Cortland Finnegan, S Louis Delmas
Key Losses: OT Jonathan Martin, G Richie Incognito, G John Jerry, CB Nolan Carroll, CB Dmitri Patterson, S Chris Clemons
2014 Outlook: 2013 was a season to forget for the Miami Dolphins both on and off the field. On the field, the Dolphins controlled their destiny in the final game of the season, hosting the New York Jets. A win and they would be back in the playoffs for the first time since 2008. Instead, the Dolphins lost, completely soiling themselves and losing in embarrassing fashion. It seemed to be a fitting end to a season that featured the bullying scandal that turned the Dolphins into national news for all the wrong reasons. Most of the people from that fiasco are gone now and the focus can go back to football. The seat is warming for coach Joe Philbin to get the Dolphins back in the playoffs. Sharing that hot seat with him is third year quarterback Ryan Tannehill. Tannehill showed improvement in his second season but still is not where the Dolphins would like him to be to consider him a franchise quarterback. Lamar Miller is penciled in as the starting running back, and the Dolphins acquired Knowshon Moreno to potentially push him. Daniel Thomas has slipped all the way to third string in the rotation. Another major disappointment in 2013 for the Dolphins was Mike Wallace. Wallace signed a huge deal and was expected to make an immediate impact on the Dolphins offense and passing game. But Wallace and Tannehill could never seem to develop any chemistry and while Wallace would show flashes of his Pittsburgh self, he never really got going in 2013. This season will be telling, as Wallace and Tannehill should have that chemistry now and no excuses. Brian Hartline is a solid number two receiver and led all Dolphins receivers in yards last year. TE Charles Clay had a nice year last season as well and is becoming a dependable target for Tannehill. A major reason for Tannehill's slow progression as a quarterback has been the disaster that the offensive line was. Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito both left mid-season and the rest of the line was basically patchwork. To try to rectify the line, the Dolphins signed Branden Albert and drafted Ja'Wuan James. The Dolphins will be without their best lineman to start the season, C Mike Pouncey, so Sam Brenner figures to start the season there. Defensively, the Dolphins weren't very good last year either, especially against the run. Randy Starks and Jared Odrick will be counted on to control the line of scrimmage and help improve the Dolphins run defense. Cameron Wake remains a strong pass rusher, and Olivier Vernon is hoping to continue his coming out party after 11 1/2 sacks last season. Linebacker is a major question mark for Miami. Dannell Ellerbe and Phillip Wheeler are both coming off subpar seasons, and Koa Misi is adequate at best as middle linebacker. CB Brent Grimes successfully returned from injury last season to entrench himself as the Dolphins premiere cornerback. The other corner position is not as set in stone, with the newly signed Cortland Finnegan manning the position. Finnegan was atrocious in St. Louis and his best days appears far behind him. Louis Delmas was signed to replace the departed Chris Clemons at safety. Caleb Sturgis returns for his second season at kicker, and after missing eight kicks last season, is on thin ice. Brandon Fields is on much more sturdy standing and one of the best punters in football. Little used RB Marcus Thigpen will return punts and kicks. I expect 2014 to wind up pretty similar to 2013 for the Dolphins. They are just good enough to beat the medicore and lower tier teams, but don't have enough talent to beat the good and elite teams. I think that means another 8-8 season and another year sitting at home for the playoffs.
3. Buffalo Bills
2013 Record: 6-10, last place AFC East
Head Coach: Doug Marrone (2nd season Buffalo, 6-10 career)
Key Additions: WR Sammy Watkins, RB Anthony Dixon, RB Bryce Brown, WR Mike Williams, LG Chris Williams, OLB Keith Rivers, ILB Brandon Spikes
Key Losses: QB Kevin Kolb, WR Stevie Johnson, S Jairus Byrd
2014 Outlook: A new coach didn't change the results for the Bills, as they once again missed the playoffs and incredibly have not made the playoffs at all in the 2000s. They are hoping that the addition of another dynamic Clemson player might finally be what puts them over the top. I always advise people to not put too much stock in what happens during the preseason but if EJ Manuel and the Bills offense is anywhere near as terrible as they have looked thus far, it will be another long season in Buffalo. Manuel had his rookie season interrupted last year due to injury but he had shown some positive signs in the bit of playing time he had. The Bills drafted him in the First Round last year, so they are all in on Manuel for the foreseeable future. Another player they are all in on but are still waiting for results from is RB C.J. Spiller. Spiller entered last season with a ton of hype but once again struggled with injuries and consistency. Despite being 105-years old Fred Jackson may still be counted on to shoulder the load in the run game. The Bills also added Bryce Brown from the Eagles. Brown has had some moments but also is terrible at holding onto the ball. The dynamic Clemson player I mentioned above is WR Sammy Watkins. The Bills traded their first round pick in 2015 to move up to get Watkins. Watkins has made some spectacular catches in training camp but if he doesn't have a quarterback that can reliably get him the ball it won't matter. Robert Woods is the Bills number two receiver. The second year player showed some promise as a rookie, and the Bills are hopeful he can become a consistent pass catcher. The Bills also acquired Mike Williams from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and hope that can flash some of his 2012 form. Scott Chandler is underwhelming at tight end but year after year the Bills trot him out there as their starter. The Bills offensive line is not very good. They have some solid starters on the line but no one that is dominant. Their best blocker is probably RG Kraig Urbik. The Bills hired that whiny nut job Jim Schwartz as their defensive coordinator so expect to see lots of penalties and general lack of discipline from the defense. You will also be seeing the Bills switch to a 4-3, which means sack master Mario Williams will return to his natural position of defensive end. The Bills really struggled against the run last season which is surprising because Marcel Dareus and Kyle Williams are both pretty good defensive tackles. Dareus had a troubled off-season and could be facing a suspension at some point. DE Jerry Hughes is coming off a 10 sack season, so the Bills look pretty good in their front four. Linebacker is a different story as the Bills lost their best linebacker, Kiko Alonzo to injury, leaving them with guys who have their best years behind them in Brandon Spikes and Keith Rivers. The Bills were excellent against the pass last season but a big reason for that, S Jairus Bryd, is now in New Orleans. Da'Norris Searcy will try to fill Bryd's shoes and start alongside Aaron Williams. Leodis McKelvin and Stephen Gilmore are the corners. Gilmore has yet to live up to the promise that made the Bills take him 10th in the draft in 2012, mostly due to injury problems. Kicker Dan Carpenter is coming off a strong season, and punter Brian Moorman is coming off a terrible year. Marquise Goodwin will return kicks and McKelvin will return punts. The Bills just seem eternally stuck in quick sand. They don't quite bottom out, but they can't fight their way up to becoming a playoff team. Until they have the right quarterback in place, 6 and 7 win seasons figure to be the norm for Buffalo.
4. New York Jets
2013 Record: 8-8, 2nd place AFC East
Head Coach: Rex Ryan (6th season New York Jets, 46-40 career)
Key Additions: FS Calvin Pryor, QB Michael Vick, RB Chris Johnson, WR Eric Decker, KR Jacoby Ford, RT Breno Giacomini, CB Dmitiri Patterson
Key Losses: QB Mark Sanchez, WR Santonio Holmes, G Vladimir Ducasse, CB Antonio Cromartie
2014 Outlook: Despite having almost no offensive talent to speak of the New York Jets somehow managed to win eight games last season. Perhaps it speaks to the level of coach Rex Ryan is. Ryan talks way too much but I don't think many other coaches could have coaxed 8 wins out of the group he had to work with last season. He was rewarded with a contract extension but the Jets still have missed the playoffs three straight seasons. They added a lot of pieces on offense this past off-season so another non playoff season may spell Ryan's demise. Geno Smith has been named the starter over Michael Vick. Vick doesn't really sound like he gives a shit, so probably best to go with Smith, even if he was completely awful last season. The Jets were blown out in some of their losses, and the point totals might lead you to believe it was the fault of the defense. But the truth was that Smith turned the ball over so much, the defense was constantly being put in bad positions. Despite finishing sixth in the league in rushing last season the Jets decided to bring aboard over the hill Chris Johnson. Johnson will definitely share the workload with Bilal Powell and Chris Ivory. The Jets wide receivers were a complete joke last season, so New York brought in free agent Eric Decker to be their new number one receiver. It remains to be seen whether or not Decker became a star because of Peyton Manning, or if Decker is good no matter who is his quarterback. Besides Decker the rest of the Jets receivers are mostly dreck, including Stephen Hill, David Nelson and Jeremy Kerley. The Jets are even underwhelming at tight end with Jeff Cumberland. One area on the offense that the Jets have gotten right is their offensive line. D'Brickashaw Ferguson is Mr. Dependable at left tackle, and Nick Mangold is one of the best centers in the NFL. The Jets have a new starter at right tackle with Breno Giacomini, but some question marks on the line include the injury prone Willie Colon and the underwhelming left guard Brian Winters. The main reason the Jets finished .500 last season was their defense. One typically characteristic of Ryan coached teams is tough, hard nosed defense. The Jets passing defense was a mess last year but their run defense was one of the best in football. That is because the Jets front three features awesome players including Muhammed Wilkerson, Damon Harrison, and Sheldon Richardson. But then when you get to the back eight you start to see why the Jets struggled against the pass last season. LOLB Quinton Coples is good but not consistently good, and Calvin Pace is starting to get up there in football years. The Jets secondary is a mess. CB Dimitri Patterson just randomly disappeared last week and is indefinitely suspended. The other corner Dee Milliner talks a good game but hasn't proven himself yet. The Jets drafted Calvin Pryor and he looks like he will start right away, and the Jets may have moved on from LaRon Landry in the past but now his brother Dawan is their safety. Kicker Nick Folk was excellent last season, but the same cannot be said for punter Ryan Quigley. Jacoby Ford is slotted to return kicks, and Kerley will be the punt returner. The Jets schedule is pretty tough and even with the additions on offense I still don't have much faith in Geno Smith's ability to make proper use of someone like Decker. Add to that the questions and unrest on defense and I think the Jets will be sitting home for the playoffs for the fourth straight season.
Monday, August 25, 2014
1. New York Giants
2013 Record: 7-9, 3rd place NFC East
Head Coach: Tom Coughlin (11th season New York Giants, 170-137 career, 2 Super Bowl championships)
Key Additions: WR Odell Beckham Jr., RB Rashad Jennings, WR Mario Manningham, LG Geoff Schwartz, RG John Jerry, C J.D. Walton, LDE Robert Ayers, ILB Jameel McClain, CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, S Quintin Demps, KR Trindon Holliday
Key Losses: RB Andre Brown, RB Brandon Jacobs, RB David Wilson, WR Hakeem Nicks, 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 Aaron Ross, S Will Hill, S Ryan Mundy
2014 Outlook: The 2013 season got off to a disastrous start for the Giants, as they lost their first six games. They ended the season winning 7 of their final 10 games but were once again on the outside looking in when it came to the playoffs. Despite 2 Super Bowl championships some of the natives are growing restless with the inconsistency of the Eli Manning/Tom Coughlin era. This could serve as a make or break season for Coughlin, as if the Giants miss the playoffs again, his seat will be piping hot. Manning was a disaster in 2013, throwing a career high 27 interceptions and completing just 57% of his passes. His offensive line, which had been a constant for Manning throughout his career fell apart due to age and injury. Hakeem Nicks, once one of the fastest rising receivers in the league, didn't even score a touchdown and injuries to David Wilson and Andrew Brown left the running back position a mess. Wilson was forced to retire due to his neck injuries and Brown left via free agency, so the Giants will start free agent acquisition Rashad Jennings at running back. He will be backed up by Peyton Hillis and Andre Williams, and Williams has been earning praise throughout the presseason. With Nicks gone to the Colts, Rueben Randle slides into the number two receiver slot opposite Victor Cruz. Jerrel Jernigan was the Giants leading receiver in their final three games last season and Mario Manningham became the latest Giant to fail in San Francisco and come crawling back to New York. The Giants also drafted Odell Beckham Jr., so Manning will have plenty of choices of who to throw to. Adrian Robinson is the new starting tight end and could share time with Bear Pascoe. As mentioned above the Giants offensive line has undergone a major transformation. Announcers everywhere are saddened that Tom Coughlin's son-in-law Chris Snee is no longer playing. Also gone are David Dahl, Kevin Boothe, and David Baas, replaced by Geoff Schwartz, and J.D. Walton. The Giants defense is also taking on a new look, saying goodbye to Justin Tuck, Linval Joseph, Keith Rivers, Aaron Ross, Will Hill, and Ryan Mundy. They signed DE Robert Ayers and CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie away from the Broncos. Johnathan Hankins will replace Joseph up front, pairing with Cullen Jenkins. DE Jason Pierre-Paul had a disastrous 2013 season filled with lack of production and injury. With Tuck gone, even more pressure will be on him to rebound to his earlier form. The linebackers are a huge question mark for the Giants. Jon Beason is a shell of his former self due to injuries and Spencer Paysinger and Jameel McClain are average at best. The back four should be strong, as they will now pair Rodgers-Cromartie with the emerging Prince Amukumara. Antrelle Rolle and Quintin Demps make up a strong pair of safeties. Josh Brown is adequate at kicker although not terribly reliable from long range while punter Steve Weatherford is starting to see his skills decline. The Giants return game could potentially see a boost if another free agent pick up from the Broncos, Trindon Holliday gets his chances. Holliday has issues holding on to the ball but when he does he is one of the fastest men in football. The Giants have a lot of new pieces and it is questionable that they will all mesh together but I believe in Coughlin and Manning. They have proven that they can lead a team to the promised land, and while I don't believe that will be a 3rd Super Bowl title, I do think it will mean winning the highly mediocre NFC East.
2. Philadelphia Eagles
2013 Record: 10-6, 1st place NFC East
Head Coach: Chip Kelly (2nd season Philadelphia, 10-7 career)
Key Additions: QB Mark Sanchez, RB Darren Sproles, S Malcom Jenkins, CB Nolan Carroll
Key Losses: QB Michael Vick, WR DaSean Jackson, WR Jason Avant, S Patrick Chung
2014 Outlook: A season with ups and downs is how I would characterize the first season for the Eagles under Chip Kelly. In Week 1, Michael Vick and Kelly blitzkrieged the Redskins and an offensive revolution appeared to have been sprung on the NFL. But the Eagles followed that game up by losing five of their next seven and the narrative of Kelly quickly changed to college coach that couldn't hack it. Unsurprisingly, Vick was hurt during that string of losing and Nick Foles was inserted as the starter. Foles proceeded to play out of his mind, throwing 27 TDs and 2 INTs and the Eagles won seven of their final eight games to claim the NFC East. Vick was allowed to walk and Foles is now unquestionably the man in Philly. After such a strong season Foles really can't go anywhere but down but even if that is just slightly down, it would still be a strong season for him. Foles is helped by having perhaps the best running back in football, LaSean McCoy. McCoy was at first skeptical of the hiring of Kelly but quickly got on board once he saw how Kelly planned to use him in the offense. McCoy is not only a fantastic rusher, he is also great at catching the ball out of the backfield. The biggest move the Eagles made in the off-season was waiving DaSean Jackson after he had a career year. Apparently, Jackson didn't mesh well with Kelly so now Jeremy Maclin, who missed all of last season due to injury, is the Eagles #1 receiver. Maclin has proven to be a nice complement to Jackson but it remains to be seen how he will perform now that he he is the "man". Racist Riley Cooper ended up having the best season of his career after making headlines for all the wrong reasons in the off-season. It is imperative that he and Maclin have strong seasons because behind them on the wide receiver depth chart is a whole bunch of meh. Zach Ertz should become a bigger part of the offense, as he and Brent Celek form a pretty lethal 1-2 punch at the tight end position. The Eagles return all five starters on the offensive line, including stud left tackle Jason Peters. They will be without right tackle Lane Johnson for the first four games of the season due to suspension, and Dennis Kelly is slotted to start in his place. It was important that the Eagles offense score points because the Eagles defense, especially their pass defense, was not good. The Eagles were 10th in the league against the run and got strong play from NT Bernie Logan, RDE Fletcher Cox, and LDE Cedric Thornton. On paper the Eagles have a strong linebacking corps but the group didn't always play up to their potential in 2013. DeMeco Ryans and Connor Barwin were inconsistent, while Trent Cole improved upon his porous 2012 season, but still isn't quite the dominant presence on defense that he used to be. Malcolm Jenkins, formerly of the Saints, will take over for the atrocious Patrick Chung at safety, and be flanked by the mediocre Nate Allen. Corners Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher are average at best. Alex Henery hasn't been nearly the kicker I anticipated he would be after being so good at Nebraska but punter Donnie Jones is coming off a strong season. I think the regression of Foles this season, combined with a defense that still has too many question marks will leave Philadelphia out of the playoffs in 2014.
3. Washington Redskins
2013 Record: 3-13, last place NFC East
Head Coach: Jay Gruden (1st season Washington, 0-0 career)
Key Additions: QB Colt McCoy, WR DaSean Jackson, WR Andre Roberts, LG Shawn Lauvauo, LOLB Trent Murphy, DE/DT Jason Hatcher, S Ryan Clark
Key Losses: WR Josh Morgan, C/G Will Montgomery, DE/DT Adam Carriker, ILB London Fletcher, CB Josh Wilson, P Sav Rocca
2014 Outlook: Another new era in Washington as Jay Gruden is the latest coach brought in to try to return the Redskins franchise to an era of sustained success. It has been 23 years since the Redskins have won 11 games or more in a season. The Shanahan regime thought they had found their man to bring that success, when they traded away the future to be able to select Robert Griffin III. Griffin was fantastic in his rookie season, but his reckless style came back to haunt him and he suffered a torn ACL and MCL in a playoff loss to the Seahawks. Griffin wanted to rush back and the coaching staff and organization acquiesced to his request and allowed him to start the 2013 regular season opener. Griffin ended up looking rusty for most of the season and suffered through a trying year. He clashed with the Shanahans and struggled to handle criticism, eventually being benched for the final three games of the season. He appears happier now playing for Gruden but the true measure of this relationship will be seen when the inevitable hard times hit. Will Griffin quickly throw Gruden under the bus like he did the Shanahan's? Or will he have the wherewithal as a third year player to understand that the true measure of a leader is how he handles adversity? Also, can he manage to get a through season injury free but maintain some of the elusiveness that made him so effective in the first place? Alfred Morris had another strong campaign proving that his rookie season wasn't a fluke. Gruden likes to have his running backs catch the ball out of the backfield, so either Morris will have to develop a new skill, or Roy Helu Jr. will see an increase in playing time. The biggest acquisition the Redskins made in the off-season was signing DaSean Jackson. The Redskins didn't overpay for Jackson and there is certainly reason to believe that he and Griffin could mesh into quite the duo. The Redskins also signed Andre Roberts away from the Cardinals and he should make a very solid number three receiver. Pierre Garcon returns, coming off a career season, but can he put up those big numbers and stay happy if he has to share the ball with Jackson? Jordan Reed was a pleasant surprise in his rookie year at tight end, although he had problems staying healthy. The Redskins have some nice pieces to have one of the most dynamic passing games in football. What might stop that from being a reality is the highly questionable offensive line. The Redskins added LG Shawn Lauvao via free agency, but he is average at best. Center Kory Lichtensteiger, RG Chris Chester, and RT Tyler Polumbus are mainstays of the line but that isn't necessarily a good thing. The one elite player Washington does have on their offensive line is LT Trent Williams. Williams has lived up to his draft hype and has turned into a perennial Pro Bowler. The Redskins defense was atrocious and like everything else that sucked with Washington this somehow turned into Mike Shanahan's fault. Supposedly, he handcuffed defensive coordinator Jim Haslett. Nevermind that Haslett has never coached a top 10 defense in his career, it was all Mike's fault! The Skins did look to bolster their defensive line by plucking the Cowboys sack leader Jason Hatcher in free agency. Hatcher has been battling injuries this off-season so he could be a bit behind the eight ball once the season starts. London Fletcher finally had Father time catch up with him and realized it and retired. He will be replaced by Keenan Robinson who has shown some promise this preseason. The Skins also have the talented Ryan Kerrigan and Brian Orakpo at linebacker. Both guys have their moments of dominance but neither has been able to put it all together in a complete package. Orakpo is in a contract year, so if he wants to be paid like an elite talent this is the year for him to show that. The Redskins also drafted promising linebacker Trent Murphy out of Stanford. The secondary mostly remains the same despite their struggles, with the only change being the return of aging Ryan Clark at safety. S Brandon Meriweather was brought back and hopefully spent his summer learning the new hitting rules so he can avoid more fines and suspensions. No one has a higher opinion of themselves than CB DeAngelo Hall who laughably refers to himself as the best corner in football. Hall does have a nose for the football but he gets burned far too often for someone who sees himself as an elite corner. CB David Amerson had his rookie struggles but the Skins are hopeful he will make a jump in year two. Kai Forbath is currently in a battle with Zach Hocker for the kicking job. Forbath is pretty accurate but can sometimes struggle from long distance. Former New York Jet Robert Malone is the team's new punter. Niles Paul will likely return kicks and Santana Moss punts if he makes the team. Roberts and Jackson also have experience as return men so either way the Redskins return game should be much improved from a year ago. I think the Redskins offense can return to their 2012 form, but I am not expecting much improvement from the defense. I am not buying all this talk that Jim Haslett has just been held back all these years. The guy has proven with many teams that he just can't coach defenses to a high level. The Redskins will at least be respectable this season, but not good enough to make the playoffs.
4. Dallas Cowboys
2013 Record: 8-8, 2nd place NFC East
Head Coach: Jason Garrett (4th season Dallas, 29-27 career)
Key Additions: RG Zack Martin, QB Brandon Weeden, DE Jeremy Mincie, RDT Henry Melton
Key Losses: QB Kyle Orton, WR Miles Austin, G Brian Waters, C Phil Costa, DE DeMarcus Ware, OLB Ernie Sims
2014 Outlook: When looking up the definitions of mediocre or chokers you will likely find accompanied with them a picture of Jason Garrett and the Cowboys star. For three straight seasons Garrett has coached the Cowboys to an 8-8 record. During those three seasons the Cowboys played for a chance to win the division title in the final game of the season and all three times they have come up on the losing end. The notoriously impatient Jerry Jones has been strangely patient with Garrett. You have to think if the Cowboys wind up missing the playoffs for a fourth straight season that Jones would finally have seen enough. To be somewhat fair to the Cowboys, they played last season's finale without Tony Romo who had to sit with a back injury. Romo had one of the best years of his career last season, throwing 31 TDs to just 10 INTs. He did have some of his infamous late game turnovers that definitely hurt Dallas but overall he is the least of the Cowboys concerns and easily a top 10 quarterback in the league. RB DeMarco Murray will once again attempt to play all 16 games. a feat he has yet to achieve in his career. Murray had a strong season last year and serves a nice dual threat option for the offense, as he also a very effective pass catcher. WR Dez Bryant can be headache inducing with his antics on the field but there is no denying his abilities and that he is one of the top receivers in football. Terrance Williams is now the unquestioned #2 receiver with Miles Austin having moved on to Cleveland. Williams got plenty of chances last season since Miles could never stay healthy. Mainstay Jason Witten is back at tight end but he disappeared far too often in games last year. He would show flashes of his old self from time to time but he no longer appears to be the consistent threat that he used to be. The Cowboys offensive line is average but does have a current and future star in left tackle Tyron Smith. RG Zack Martin was drafted out of Notre Dame this year, and C Travis Frederick was drafted last season so the Cowboys do have some young pieces to build around on the line. Now that defense on the other hand, is ugly. Last season the Cowboys defense allowed the third most yards in a season in NFL history. The thing is, due to injuries, loss of personnel and suspensions they have a great chance of being even worse this season. Longtime star DeMarcus Ware was cut, sack leader Jason Hatcher left via free agency to the Redskins, the Cowboys best player, LB Sean Lee is out for the season after injuring himself in mini camps, and CB Orlando Scandrick will be serving a four game suspension for dancing with Molly. Looking at the Cowboys defensive depth chart, I can honestly say I am only really familiar with CBs Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne. Last year's coordinator Monte Kiffin was demoted and now Rod Marinelli, former coach of the 0-16 Detroit Lions, takes over. Tasked with pressuring the quarterback this season will be DEs George Selvie and Jeremy Mincey and the run stuffers are supposed to be Nick Hayden and Henry Melton. I say supposed to be because let's be honest, there was no stuffing the run done by the Cowboys defense last season. Taking over for Lee will be the inexperienced Andrew Hitchins, while on again, off again bust Rolando McClain may see some playing time if he can stay out of trouble and keep himself dedicated to football. Claiborne will star the year at corner with Scandrick suspended but he has been a major disappointment thus far. Carr has also been disappointing since the Cowboys signed him to a monster contract a few years ago. Barry Chuch and J.J. Wilcox return at safety but both are underwhelming players. One spot the Cowboys did do well at was kicker where Dan Bailey has become one of the most reliable kickers in football. Punter Chris Jones is pretty serviceable as well. Dwayne Harris is a dangerous kick and punt returner. I think this is finally the year the Cowboys break that 8-8 mark. Unfortunately for them, I mean that they will actually be worse than 8-8 this year. Their defense is just so terrible, that no matter what Romo does, there is no way this team will be a contender this season. This will finally be the end of the line for Garrett as coach.
Wednesday, August 20, 2014
1. Pittsburgh Steelers
2013 Record: 8-8, 2nd place AFC North
Head Coach: Mike Tomlin (8th season Pittsburgh, 76-44 career, 1 Super Bowl championship)
Key Additions: ILB Ryan Shazier, RB LaGarrette Blount, WR Darrius Heyward-Bey, WR Lance Moore, S Michael Mitchell
Key Losses: RB Jonathan Dwyer, WR Emmanuel Sanders, WR Jerricho Cotchery, OT Levi Brown, DE/DT Ziggy Hood, DE/OLB LeMarr Woodley, ILB Larry Foote, S Ryan Clark
2014 Outlook: The Steelers started last season 0-4, before rallying to win 8 of their final 12 games, narrowly missing the playoffs. It was the second straight season the Steelers were home in January, not something Steelers fans are too used to seeing. They can't blame Ben Roethlisberger for those issues as his play continues to be stellar. He is hoping that he has a full season of a healthy LaVeon Bell to take some of the pressure off of him. When Bell was injured, the Steelers running game was anemic and almost non-existent. Once Bell started playing, not only did the team's play improve but so did Roethlisberger's. The Steelers also signed LaGarrette Blount who seemed to have a career resurrection towards the end of the season last year in New England. Antonio Brown returns as Roethlisberger's number one receiver but the rest of his receiving corps is filled with new faces. Both Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery are gone, replaced by Markus Wheaton and Lance Moore. Roethlisberger was able to find chemistry quickly with Brown and Sanders, and the Steelers hope the same thing can happen with Wheaton. Moore always played well on the fast track of the Superdome, so it remains to be seen how he will do well playing outdoors on a regular basis. The Steelers also signed Darrius Heyward-Bey but he's buried pretty far on the depth chart right now, and possibly might not make the team. Heath Miller returns at tight end and is always one of Roethlisberger's favorite, most dependable targets. Offensive line has been a major problem area for Pittsburgh for most of Roethlisberger's career but showed improvement last year. Ramon Foster and David DeCastro are both very good guards, and the Steelers get back center Maurkice Pouncey this season. The only major question mark on the line is right tackle Marcus Gilbert. The Steelers defense has been dealing with being called old for years, so this past off-season they started to draft some younger players for that side of the ball. If Cam Thomas struggles then rookie Stephon Tuitt from Notre Dame could start playing sooner rather than later. Cameron Heyward and Stephen McLendon both had good seasons in 2013 and the Steelers have high hopes for their front three. They also have high hopes at linebacker after drafting Ryan Shazier out of Ohio State. He'll play next to Jarvis Jones who was a disappointment in his rookie season. LB Jason Worilds led the Steelers in sacks last year while Lawrence Timmons is coming off a disappointing year. Mike Mitchell was brought over from Carolina to replace Ryan Clark and will start at safety with Troy Polamalu. For the first time in forever Polamalu was able to play an entire season, but at 33 years old his durability remains a question mark. Ike Taylor suffered through a poor season and hopes to rebound and will start alongside William Gay. Shaun Suisham had a good year in 2013 but also was never asked to make anything beyond 50 yards, which sounds about right from his Redskin days. Brad Wing is slotted to punt. Brown will return punts and Wheaton kicks, so the Steelers will have some speed at their disposal on special teams. The Steelers are too good of a franchise to miss the playoffs for a third straight season. I think the additions on defense will help and I think a full season from Bell will improve the offense immensely. I expect Roethlisberger to take a little bit of time to mesh with his new receivers but if Bell can carry the offense during that time Pittsburgh should be alright.
2. Cincinnati Bengals
2013 Record: 11-5, 1st place AFC North
Head Coach: Marvin Lewis (12th season Cincinnati, 90-90-1)
Key Additions: QB Jason Campbell, S Danieal Manning
Key Losses: QB Josh Johnson, WR Andrew Hawkins, DE Michael Johnson, OLB James Harrison
2014 Outlook: A quick encapsulation of the Bengals 2013 season is another playoff berth and another embarrassing playoff loss. Despite being heavy favorites at home against the average Chargers, Andy Dalton once again played awful in the playoffs and Marvin Lewis remains without a playoff victory. Despite his playoff failings the Bengals have hitched their wagon to the Red Rocket, signing him to a long-term contract this past offseason. We will see how Dalton fares with a new offensive coordinator, since Jay Gruden took the Redskins job. The new offensive coordinator is Hue Jackson and one of his first moves seems to be putting Giovanni Bernard as the starting running back over BenJarvus Green-Ellis. The Bengals seemed hesitant to give Bernard the ball last year, maybe nervous about his size and durability. However, he is far more talented than Green-Ellis and they need to use him to his maximum potential, including as a receiver out of the backfield. A.J. Green remains one of the best wide receivers in football, and Marvin Jones flashed moments of greatness last season, including a 4 touchdown day against the New York Jets. Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert figure to split time at tight end. The Bengals offensive line remains largely unchanged from last season except at center, with new starter Trevor Robinson. Andrew Whitworth will return to starting at left tackle and Andre Smith continues to impress at right tackle. The Bengals defense returns most of their personnel from their strong 2013 unit but will be without longtime coordinator Mike Zimmer. Paul Guenther is the new defensive coordinator and will have plenty of talent to work with. The Bengals lost NT Geno Atkins for most of the season after he tore his ACL on Halloween, and are very excited for him to return to the field this year. Ends Wallace Gilberry and Carlos Dunlap each registered 7 1/2 sacks in 2013. Vontaze Burfict has quickly become one of the premiere linebackers in football and will have Ray Mauluga lining up next to him. Mauluga has mostly been living off his name from college and has overall been disappointing as a pro. The Bengals are strong at safety with George Iloka and Reggie Nelson but are highly questionable at cornerback with aging Terence Newman and Leon Hall who is returning from injury. Mike Nugent is an alright kicker but likely keeps his roster spot because of his ability to hit the long kicks. Kevin Huber is a pretty strong punter. Brandon Tate is a quality kick returner and Adam "Pacman" Jones has the capability of turning loose on punt returns. I expect with mostly the same roster returning for the Bengals to once again have a double digit win season. There will be some adjustments with the new coordinators on offense and defense but both promotions came from in-house so that will help mitigate there being major adjustments for the players. I still cannot under good faith bet on Dalton or Marvin Lewis leading them a playoff win in January though.
3. Baltimore Ravens
2013 Record: 8-8, 3rd place AFC North
Head Coach: John Harbaugh (7th season Baltimore, 71-38 career, 1 Super Bowl championship)
Key Additions: ILB C.J. Mosley, FS Terrence Brooks, WR Steve Smith, TE Owen Daniels, C Jeremy Zuttah
Key Losses: FB Vonta Leach, TE Ed Dickson, OT Michael Oher, CB Jeremy Graham, S James Ihedigbo
2014 Outlook: The Ravens ended up not being immune to the Super Bowl malaise that has seemed to hit champions the year after for the past decade. They missed the playoffs for the first time in the John Harbaugh/Joe Flacco era. Flacco didn't look anything like the quarterback we saw in the playoffs a year ago, but he did look vastly overpaid. It was obvious how much he missed Anquan Boldin and it also didn't help that Ray Rice appeared to become extinct last season. Rice then made headlines in the off-season for an altercation he had with his then fiancee, now wife. He will be suspended the first two games of the season, moving Bernard Pierce into the starting role for those games. Problem is, Pierce was even worse than Rice last season, averaging just 2.9 yards per carry. Torrey Smith is a decent receiver but not really a #1 guy like he has to be in this Ravens offense. Steve Smith was signed this past off-season and while he talks a good game, he is getting older and isn't the physical specimen that Boldin is. TE Dennis Pitta is healthy this season after missing 12 games last year, another absence that really hurt Flacco's play, The Ravens have also brought Owen Daniels on board, who should serve as a nice backup for Pitta. The Ravens offensive line imploded last season so changes had to be made. Jeremy Zuttah is the new starting center, and Rick Wagner replaces Michael Oher at right tackle. One positive for the Ravens on the offensive line is left tackle Eugene Monroe. It might have seeemd that the Ravens defense fell off last season but in reality they remained pretty effective. The Ravens still have the massive Haloti Ngata clogging things up front while they are hoping DE Chris Canty can give them far more production than he did in 2013. The Ravens are also strong at linebacker and have enough depth at the position that Elvis Dumervil is currently listed behind Courtney Upshaw on the depth chart. Rookie C.J. Mosley out of Alabama is slotted to start at left inside linebacker and Daryl Smith proved to be an effective replacement for Ray Lewis last season at right inside linebacker. Lardarius Webb and Jimmy Smith give the Ravens a nice cornerback combo but safety is a question mark with Matt Elam and Terrence Brooks manning those positions. Kicker Justin Tucker is arguably the best kicker in football and made a very memorable game winning field goal at Detroit last season. Sam Koch started to show some decline last year so he might be on the hot seat if his struggles carry into this season. Jacoby Jones is set to return punts and kicks and is as dangerous as ever. This off-season was one filled with arrests and headlines for all the wrong reasons for the Ravens. I expect them to not be much better than last season but I do think Gary Kubiak will make a difference as offensive coordinator. I believe that the Ravens will slip into the postseason but aren't any sort of threat to become Super Bowl champions this year.
4. Cleveland Browns
2013 Record: 4-12, last place AFC North
Head Coach: Mike Pettine (1st season Cleveland, 0-0 career)
Key Additions: CB Justin Gilbert, QB Johnny Manziel, RG Joel Bitonio, RB Ben Tate, WR Andrew Hawkins, WR Miles Austin, WR Nate Burleson, LB Karlos Dansby, S Donte Whitner
Key Losses: QB Brandon Weeden, QB Jason Campbell, WR Davone Bess, ILB D'Qwell Jackson, S T.J. Ward
2014 Outlook: The Browns had finally declared the Brandon Weeden experiment a disaster and turned the reigns over to little known hometown boy Brian Hoyer. He helped lead the Browns to 3 straight wins but in true Browns fashion he was injured in that third win and out for the season. The Browns would win just one more game the rest of the season and that meant the end of the line for first year coach Rob Chudzinkski. After a long search of almost no one wanting the job, Mike Pettine is the latest coach tasked with trying to turn the Browns into a consistent, winning franchise. His first major decision was to choose a starting quarterback between Hoyer and first round draft pick Johnny Manziel. Neither was all that impressive in the first two preseasons games, making Pettine's choice that much harder, but in the end Pettine made the choice I expected by going with Hoyer as his starter. The Browns were a dreadful rushing team last year, and became even worse when they traded away Trent Richardson. They ended up starting fossil Willis McGahee. They addressed the running back spot by signing Texans backup Ben Tate. Tate has looked pretty good when he has the few opportunities he could get backing up Arian Foster. One bright spot for Cleveland last season was the emergence of Josh Gordon as one of the best receivers in the NFL. However, Gordon had has issues with substance abuse and is potentially facing a year long suspension. Rumor has it that it could be cut to 8 games but either way his absence will be huge. The Browns added Miles Austin in the off-season, but Austin hasn't be a good player in a few years. The Browns also added Andrew Hawkins and Nate Burleson, but neither are players that will have teams shaking in their boots. Whoever is the quarterback between Hoyer and Manziel will likely turn to TE Jordan Cameron the majority of the time. Cameron disappeared some down the stretch but flashed a ton of potential early in the season. The Browns have some strong pieces on the offensive line, including left tackle Joe Thomas and center Alex Mack. They also drafted Joel Bitonio out of Nevada to start at right guard. If the pieces all fit together the Browns should have a very good offensive line for years to come. The Browns defense was a strong part of last year's squad, especially the pass defense. The rush defense did struggle the majority of the time, and they will need their front three of Ahytba Rubin, Phil Taylor, and Desmond Bryant to pick up their games. The linebacking corps will be bolstered by the signing of Karlos Dansby and the Browns hope the continued improvement of last year's top draft pick Barkevious Mingo. They also paid Paul Krueger a lot of money last season but didn't receive much of a return on their investment in year one. The Browns corners Joe Haden and draft pick Justin Gilbert could turn into one of the best tandems in the NFL. The Browns also added Donte Whitner from San Francisco, making life hard for opposing quarterbacks that want to try to go over the middle. Billy Cundiff didn't make Browns fans forget their best player Phil Dawson and punter Spencer Lanning was one of the worst in the league, which isn't good when you have an offense that doesn't score often. The schedule starts rough for Cleveland but then opens up a bit as the year goes on. I think the AFC North will be the best division in football this year, which means despite me projecting the Browns for a three win improvement this season, I still expect them to end up as cellar dwellers in the division.
Monday, August 18, 2014
1. Chicago Bears
2013 Record: 8-8, 2nd place NFC North
Head Coach: Marc Trestman (2nd season Chicago, 8-8 career)
Key Additions: WR Josh Morgan, DE Jared Allen, DE LeMarr Houston, S Ryan Mundy
Key Losses: QB Josh McCown, RB Michael Bush, WR Earl Bennett, DE Julius Peppers, DE Corey Wooton, DT Herny Melton, CB Zackary Bowman, S Major Wright, P Adam Podlesh, KR Devin Hester
2014 Outlook: In 2013 the Bears seemed to have set themselves up perfectly to take the NFC North. In a Monday night game at Lambeau Field they injured Aaron Rodgers, who would then miss the next seven games. Despite Rodgers missing and the Packers struggling, the Bears were unable to clinch the division but still had a home game against the Packers in the regular season finale to do the job. However, Rodgers was able to return for that game and then ripped the Bears hearts out when he hit Randall Cobb for a game and division winning touchdown in the final seconds. During the Lovie Smith era the Bears offense was always lacking and unable to keep up with the defense. In Marc Trestman's first season the opposite happened. The Bears featured one of the most potent offenses in the NFL and that was even with Jay Cutler suffering his annual injury. The Bears were fortunate last season to have Josh McCown step up when Cutler got hurt, but looking at the quarterback depth chart this season, it looks like another Caleb Hanie, Jason Campbell type disaster would be on Chicago's hands if Cutler goes down. Jordan Palmer is Cutler's backup this season and Palmer has never started a game in his career. Matt Forte continues to churn out strong season after strong season and is one of the most versatile running backs in football, with his abilities as a receiver to complement his rushing prowess. The Bears passing game is excellent with monster receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery and burly tight end Martellus Bennett. Cutler and Marshall have excellent chemistry and Cutler's objective this season will be to find that same type of chemistry with Jeffery. Jeffery really excelled when McCown was at quarterback last season. A main reason for the Bears quick improvement on offense was better play out of their offensive line. LT Jermon Bushrod made an immediate impact, and left guard Matt Slauson and center Robert Garza are each coming off strong seasons. The right side of the line is weaker with Kyle Long and Jordan Mills, but each player was a rookie last season so improvement is expected. The single biggest culprit for dashing the Bears playoff dreams in 2013 was their horribly inept defense. Age and injury seemed to catch up with the Bears defense last year so the Bears responded by signing more old guys. Jared Allen was plucked from the Vikings but Allen seems to be about half the player he once was. Lamarr Houston takes over at left defensive end while the Bears maintained the status quo at defensive tackle with Jay Ratliff and Stephen Paea. The Bears top linebacker Lance Briggs is healthy as of now but he missed more than half the season last year with various ailments and is starting to get up there in age. D.J. Williams is back at middle linebacker and didn't do much last season to make Bears fans forget about Brian Urlacher. Peanut Tillman and Tim Jennings are the starting cornerbacks and Tillman is another Bear like Briggs, who is seeing a sharp decline in play due to age and injury issues. Ryan Mundy and Brock Vereen figure to have their struggles at safety this season. Robbie Gould is one of the best kickers in football, especially dealing so well with the winds of Chicago. Rookie Pat O'Donnell is the Bears new punter. Eric Weems is set to take over punt and kick returning duties for longtime Bear Devin Hester. I am going out on a limb picking the Bears to win the division and a lot of things will have to break correctly for it to happen. Cutler has to somehow play 16 games because the Bears season will implode if Palmer has to start any games. The defense just has to be a tad bit better, as I think the Bears are so good offensively they can outscore most teams. It looks like 2014 will be another divisional dog fight between longtime rivals, the Bears and Packers.
2. Green Bay Packers
2013 Record: 8-7-1, 1st place NFC North
Head Coach: Mike McCarthy (9th season Green Bay, 88-50-1, 1 Super Bowl Championship)
Key Additions: S Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, DE Julius Peppers
Key Losses: WR James Jones, OT Marshall Newhouse, C Evan Dietrich-Smith, S M.D. Jennings
2014 Outlook: The Packers were left wondering what might have been when their 2013 season ended at the hands of the 49ers. Cruising along at 5-2, Aaron Rodgers was injured and the Packers limped to a 3-5-1 finish to the regular season. Packers fans might say that Rodgers wasn't 100% for that 49ers playoff game but let's be real, the Packers are the 49ers bitch right now. Rodgers remains one of the best quarterbacks in football and the Packers hope that he goes back to making it through a 16 game season unscathed. A major positive for Green Bay last season was the emergence of RB Eddie Lacy. For years, Rodgers had to do most things on his own since the Packers didn't have a rushing attack that could support him, but with Lacy running the ball that has all changed. Rodgers passing weapons will look a little different this season. Gone are James Jones and Jermichael Finley, but Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb should still be the beneficiaries of having Rodgers throwing the ball. Andrew Quarless is slotted to take over at tight end for Finley but is battling with Brandon Bostick and Richard Rodgers for the starting job. JC Tretter is the new starting center with the departure of Evan Dietrich-Smith. Bryan Bulaga is healthy after missing 2013 and ready to reassume his right tackle position. The rest of the line is solid, including the rapidly improving left tackle David Bakhtiari. The Packers shocked many when they went out and signed an aging Julius Peppers. The Packers hardly ever do much in free agency but these type of moves have worked out for them in the past. Charles Woodson was brought in when he was considered on the downslope of his career and had solid seasons in Green Bay. He will line up alongside B.J. Raiji, who was once the Freezer but lately has played like a mini-fridge. Mike Daniels doesn't have the name power of Peppers or Raji but is probably the most talented going into 2014. Clay Matthews has trouble staying healthy and when he is healthy he thrives at taking cheap shots at opposing quarterbacks. A.J. Hawk is another Packers defensive player living off past glory and not nearly as good as some think. The Packers are really excited for how Ha Ha Clinton-Dix might be able to help their secondary. Tramon Williams and Sam Shields make a pretty decent cover corner duo. Someone should test Packers kicker Mason Crosby for HGH stat as he went from one of the worst kickers in football in 2012, to one of the best in 2013. Tim Masthay has a pretty cool name but isn't a very good punter. I think Rodgers will stay healthy this season, Lacy will get even better, and the defense will be adequate enough that the Packers will return to double digit wins. But they still aren't good enough to beat the 49ers.
3. Minnesota Vikings
2013 Record: 5-10-1, last place NFC North
Head Coach: Mike Zimmer (1st season Minnesota, 0-0 career)
Key Additions: LB Anthony Barr, QB Teddy Bridgewater, DE Corey Wooton, DT Linval Joseph, ILB Jasper Brinkley, SLB Anthony Barr, CB Captain Munnerlyn, S Kurt Coleman
Key Losses: QB Josh Freeman, RB Toby Gerhart, WR/QB Joe Webb, TE John Carlson, DE Jared Allen, DT Kevin Williams, ILB Erin Henderson, ILB Desmond Bishop, CB Chris Cook
2014 Outlook: The Vikings have wasted most of Adrian Peterson's career and talent because of their inability to land a franchise quarterback. The only good quarterback Peterson has ever played with was Brett Favre and that was Favre's last good season as a pro. The Vikings reached a few years ago for Christian Ponder and predictably he has failed. So now Teddy Bridgewater is the latest "savior" that the Vikings hope can turn into a franchise quarterback. Right now it appears that he will start the season behind Matt Cassel. Cassel is adequate but unless the Vikings come storming out the gates this year, I would expect we see Bridgewater play sooner rather than later. Peterson feels excitement over the prospects of Norv Turner taking over the offense. There was no way that Peterson was going to have a season like 2012, but in some ways 2013 was a disappointment. Peterson only broke 100 yards in a game 5 times and it was becoming obvious that teams just focused all their defensive efforts on him. One bright spot for the Vikings on offense last year came with rookie WR Cordarrelle Patterson. Patterson was a threat returning kicks and started translating that to the wide receiver position late in the season. Greg Jennings looked like a sunk cost and a player that was propped up by having Favre and Aaron Rodgers throwing to him throughout his career. The Vikings resigned TE Kyle Rudolph and with Turner calling the plays, people expect his role in the offense to increase. The Vikings have a good offensive line, an area that has been a position of strength for the team for quite some time now. Phil Loadholt and Matt Kalil make an excellent right and left tackle pairing. The Vikings were decent at stopping the run but their pass defense was atrocious in 2013. The Vikings knew that the time was right to part with some aging veterans so Jared Allen and Kevin Williams were allowed to leave. They are also hopeful that by bringing Mike Zimmer aboard as coach he can use some of his renowned coaching skills to help improve the defense.The Vikings signed Linval Joseph away from the Giants and are hoping for improved play out of second year man DT Sharrif Floyd. Everson Griffen will take over Allen's spot and the Vikings showed their faith in him by giving him a big money contract this offseason. Brian Robison will be on the other end and is coming off a 9 sack season. The linebacking corps is mostly new with the additions of Jasper Brinkley and Anthony Barr. Chad Greenway is the only holdver from last year's group. Captain Munnerlyn is expected to make a huge difference in the Vikings pass defense. Putting him next to second year man Xavier Rhodes and passing the ball on Minnesota should be much more difficult this season. S Harrison Smith battled injuries last year but when healthy is a premiere player in the league. Blair Walsh is a reliable field goal kicker, and punter Jeff Locke is less of a headache and a better punter than Chris Kluwe. Patterson will be back returning kicks and is always a threat to bust one off, even from the back of the end zone. One factor to not overlook is the Vikings will be playing games outdoors this year at the University of Minnesota as they wait for their new stadium to be built. The Vikings were usually pretty tough to beat the Metrodome so it will be interesting to see if they can keep that homefield advantage in their temporary home. I think Zimmer was a smart hire by the Vikings and they did some nice things to improve the defense. Hopefully, Bridgewater ends up being the real deal because a lack of quarterback is all that holds Minnesota from being a playoff team.
4. Detroit Lions
2013 Record: 7-9, 3rd place NFC North
Head Coach: Jim Caldwell (1st season Detroit, 28-24 career)
Key Additions: LB Kyle Van Noy, QB Dan Orlovsky, FB Jed Collins, WR Golden Tate, DE Daryl Tapp, S James Ihedigbo
Key Losses: QB Shaun Hill, WR Nate Burleson, DE Isreal Idonije, S Louis Delmas, CB Chris Houston
2014 Outlook: The Lions have so much talent on both sides of the ball but the past two seasons they just couldn't being themselves and throwing it all away. With the Packers scuffling without Aaron Rodgers and the Bears unable to run away with the division, the Lions had the NFC North right there for the taking. They thrashed Green Bay on Thanksgiving Day to improve to 7-5 but then would not win for the rest of the season, costing coach Jim Schwartz his job. Former Colts coach Jim Caldwell is the new head man and showed his excitement by blinking twice in a 60 second span. QB Matthew Stafford has a world of talent and puts up video game like numbers at time, but he also turns the ball over way too much. Reggie Bush and Joique Bell will share rushing duties, although if I were coaching the team I would give Bell the most carries as he is a more physical and dependable rusher than Bush. Stafford has plenty of options at receiver, including the best receiver in football, Calvin Johnson. Golden Tate was signed away from the Seahawks and while the Lions overpaid him, he should benefit from defenses having to focus so much attention on Megatron. Ryan Broyles has shown some ability but has trouble staying healthy. The Lions have a pretty fearsome duo at tight end with Brandon Pettigrew and the newly drafted Eric Ebron. One of Detroit's biggest strengths is their offensive line. They may not be names you all are that familiar with besides veteran Dominic Raiola but they get the job done as witnessed by Stafford being sacked just 23 times last season. The Lions defense is filled with monsters and guys with big reputations, but they haven't always lived up to those reputations. Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley on paper should give the Lions the best interior defense in football but Fairley has never been a consistent presence. Plus, both have played undisciplined at times, one of the biggest problems during the Schwartz era. DE Ezekiel Ansah had a strong rookie season and should be even better in 2014. Even the linebackers Detroit has on defense are pretty good with a group that includes DeAndre Levy, Stephen Tulloch, and Kyle Van Noy. The Lions season could be made or broken based on how their secondary plays this season. Their rush defense was excellent but they ranked 23rd in the league against the pass. James Ihedigbo was signed to replace Louis Delmas, but Darius Slay and Rashean Mathis return at cornerback and neither was very good last season. To the surprise of no one but the Lions David Akers really was past his prime and no longer a viable kicker in the NFL, so he was jettisoned in favor of Nate Freese. Punter Sam Martin has a pretty powerful leg. The Lions really just need to find the right coach and maybe move out of Detroit to escape the bad history the franchise has. They have a lot of the pieces needed to win the division but I don't think Jim Caldwell is the coach to lead them to it. They needed discipline more than anything, so how is quiet as a mouse Caldwell going to instill that in his team? I expect another missed opportunity of a season for the Lions.
Wednesday, August 13, 2014
1. Indianapolis Colts
2013 Record: 11-5, 1st place AFC South
Head Coach: Chuck Pagano (3rd season Indianapolis, 14-9 career)
Key Additions: LG Jack Mewhort, WR Hakeem Nicks, DE Arthur Jones, ILB D'Qwell Jackson
Key Losses: RB Donald Brown, WR Darrius Heyward-Bey, G Jeff Linkenbach, CB Cassius Vaughn, S Antoine Bethea
2014 Outlook: Andrew Luck managed to cut down on his interceptions during the 2013 regular season but once the playoffs hit, Luck turned into an interception machine, throwing 7 picks in just two games. The lack of a consistent running game and the Colts trailing for most of those two games certainly contributed, but entering the third year of his career, Luck has to show a lot more smarts when it comes to trying to force the issue. The Colts are hopeful that with a full off-season under his belt, RB Trent Richardson will perform much better than he did last season. They showed strong faith in him by letting Donald Brown exit via free agency. Ahmad Bradshaw will serve as Richardson's backup after missing most of last season due to injury. Another Colt returning from injury is WR Reggie Wayne. Wayne tore his ACL and is 35 years old, so the Colts added some insurance at the position by signing Hakeem Nicks. Nicks was once one of the fastest rising starts in the league but injuries and dissatisfaction with contract situation in New York have really limited his production the last few years. The Colts hope a fresh start will revitalize Nicks career. Big things are also expected out of T.Y. Hilton. Hilton really stepped up his game when Wayne went out with injury and he was thrust into the number one receiver slot. With Wayne back and the acquisition of Nicks he goes down to #3 on the depth chart, possibly giving the Colts one of the best wide receiver trios in football. TE Coby Fleener has shown flashes of promise and the Colts are hopeful that his third season will be a breakout year. Offensive line is a question mark for Indianapolis, and is a group that is sometimes made to look better than they actually are because of Luck's ability to evade pressure. The Colts line is mostly a bunch of no names and RT Gosder Cherilus is the only one I could honestly say I know much about. Defensively, the Colts have their issues and those issues might be exacerbated by the absence of LB Robert Mathis for the first four games of the season. Mathis was suspended for taking some sort of fertility drug. People remain skeptical as Mathis saw a huge increase in production last year, earning 19 1/2 sacks. Without Mathis for those first four games guys like DE Ricky Jean-Francois and DE Arthur Jones will need to step up their games. Free agent signing D'Qwell Jackson will also need to make an impact immediately and Bjoern Werner will likely get thrust into Mathis' role despite being in just his second season. Safety LaRon Landry can't manage to get through a season unscathed from injury so David Sims will need to be ready to play at a moments notice. Vontae Davis is a premiere cornerback, while Greg Toler on his opposite side is just average. K Adam Viniatieri appears to be ageless as he has remained reliable as ever despite being 42. Punter Pat McAfee makes more headlines off the field than for anything he does on the field. Despite some of their question marks the Colts are clearly the class of a very bad AFC South. They managed to go undefeated against the division last season and could be in line to that again this year. I think the Colts can manage to get a playoff bye almost by default because of their easy schedule, but I think they aren't good enough defensively to go far in the playoffs.
2. Tennessee Titans
2013 Record: 7-9, 2nd place AFC South
Head Coach: Ken Whisenhunt (1st season Tennessee, 49-53 career)
Key Additions: QB Charlie Whitehurst, WR/KR Dexter McCluster, RT Michael Oher, LT Taylor Lewan, ROLB Shaun Phillips, ILB Wesley Woodyard
Key Losses: QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, RB Chris Johnson, WR Kenny Britt, CB Alterraun Verner, K Rob Bironas
2014 Outlook: The Titans got off to a pretty hot start a quarter into the season at 3-1. But then Jake Locker remembered he was fragile and missed time due to injury and the Titans finished 4-8 the rest of the season, earning coach Mike Munchak a pink slip. Locker has one last chance to show the Titans that he is a franchise quarterback and Tennessee is hopeful that new coach Ken Whisenhunt can kickstart Locker's career the way he helped revitalize Philip River's career last season. The Titans are also starting over at running back, letting Chris Johnson go and turning over the starting reins to Shonn Greene. The plan eventually will be to turn the running back position over to 2nd round draft choice Bishop Sankey out of Washington. The Titans quietly have put together a better receiving corps than at first glance people might think. Nate Washington is still listed number one on the depth chart, but Kendall Wright led the Titans in catches last season with 94. However, Wright scored just two touchdowns last season, something he needs to improve upon to be considered an upper echelon receiver. Delanie Walker had a strong season as the starting tight end for Tennessee and gives Locker another reliable option. In an effort to keep Locker healthy the Titans invested some money this off-season in the offensive line. They drafted Taylor Lewan in the first round and signed Michael Oher away from Baltimore. Left guard Andy Levitre is one of the best in football, while the Titans are hoping a second season proves more successful for RG Chance Warmack. Defensively, the Titans are switching to a 3-4 scheme. That means it could take a few seasons for the defense to reach its peak as the Titans try to find the right personnel to match the scheme. Jurrell Casey will have to adjust to playing defensive end this year, after securing 10 1/2 sacks as a defensive tackle last season. Two former Broncos will now team up in Tennessee in the Titans linebacking corps with the additions of Wesley Woodyard and Shaun Phillips. Both are getting up there in football years though so how much they can contribute remains to be seen. The Titans have major questions at cornerback with the loss of Alterraun Verner. Blidi Wreh-Wilson and Jason McCourty are the starters and Andrew Luck is probably licking his chops at the prospect of facing those two. Safety wise, the Titans get steady production from Bernard Pollard and Michael Griffin. The Titans released longtime kicker Rob Bironas and still haven't settled on who their field goal kicker will be this season. Travis Coons and Maikon Bonani are battling for the job. Punter Brett Kern doesn't get a ton of distance but has accuracy when it comes to pinning opponents inside the 20. Leon Washington will serve as the punt and kick returner, and if he has anything left in the tank the Titans will be the beneficiaries. It seems inevitable that Locker will go down this year at some point which means Titans fans should load up on Charlie Whitehurst highlights. That might only take them about 25 seconds. Questions about Locker and the switch to the 3-4 on defense will equal a long season in Tennessee.
3. Houston Texans
2013 Record: 2-14, last place AFC South
Head Coach: Bill O'Brien (1st season Houston, 0-0 career)
Key Additions: DE/OLB Jadaveon Clowney, NT Louis Nix, QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, S Chris Clemons
Key Losses: QB Matt Schaub, QB T.J. Yates, RB Ben Tate, TE Owen Daniels, DE/DT Antonio Smith, NT Earl Mitchell, DT Terrell McClain, ILB Daryl Sharpton, ILB Joe Mays, S Danieal Manning
2014 Outlook: When you are in the prediction business you are going to get things wrong. Honestly, you are likely to get more things wrong than right. However, I have never been more wrong than last season when I picked the Texans to reach the Super Bowl. Instead, Matt Schaub forgot how to throw it to his own team and the Texans limped to a 2-14 record and the #1 pick in the draft. That finally brought the Gary Kubiak tenure to an end and also saw the end of Schaub's time in Houston. Houston passed on taking Johnny Manziel with the first pick and instead focused on defense. That leaves Ryan Fitzpatrick as their starting quarterback. Fitzpatrick is really just a backup at this point so the Texans appear to be conceding this year and perhaps hoping they can take their quarterback of the future in next year's draft. Arian Foster is still one of the best running backs in the league, but he has a hell of a time remaining healthy. His longtime backup Ben Tate was allowed to leave via free agency and the Texans had brought in former Giant Andre Brown as his replacement. However, the Texans cut Brown a few days ago so the depth behind Foster is a huge question mark. Longtime wide receiver Andre Johnson was not happy about the prospect of being part of another rebuilding effort in Houston and skipped OTAs. However, he did show up for training camp and it seems that new coach Bill O'Brien has gotten Johnson on board. DeAndre Hopkins is entering his second season and showed plenty of promise in year one despite the revolving door at quarterback that the Texans had last season. Ryan Griffin, Garrett Graham and C.J. Fiedorowicz are battling for the starting tight end position. Despite their struggles as a team, the Texans have a pretty strong unit on the offensive line. LT Duane Brown, RG Brandon Brooks and C Chris Myers are all coming off strong seasons. The Texans have some of the top talent in the league on defense in some areas but also some gaping holes, leading to an inconsistent mess on that side of the ball. DE J.J. Watt is an absolute beast but is coming off a down season by his standards, registering just 10 1/2 sacks. Former Cornhusker Jared Crick will start at the other side and has a world of potential if he can stay healthy. The gargantuan Louis Nix was taken in the 3rd round and could be the starting nose tackle sooner rather than later. The Texans took Jadaveon Clowney with the #1 overall pick and will line him up at LOLB in their 3-4 scheme. Playing next to him will be Brian Cushing, another player that is great when on the field but has been beset by injuries and steroids. Fellow linebackers Brooks Reed and Whitney Mercilus are question marks. The Texans are alright in the secondary but way too often gave up the big play. They are hopeful that S Chris Clemons, acquired in the offseason can help with some of those issues. CBs Kareem Jackson and Jonathan Joseph will need to improve their games this season. Randy Bullock was a mess to start off the season at kicker for the Texans but seemed to find his way toward the end of the season. Shane Lechler isn't the premiere punter he once was but is serviceable. The Texans have pieces of talent but with a new coach and the question marks in key positions it is looking like another down year for the Texans. Houston once looked like they were on the cusp of being perennial contenders but now are back to the rebuilding days of the early years of their franchise.
4. Jacksonville Jaguars
2013 Record: 4-12, 3rd place AFC South
Head Coach: Gus Bradley (2nd season Jacksonville, 4-12 career)
Key Additions: QB Blake Bortles, WR Marqise Lee, RB Toby Gerhart, LG Zane Beadles, DE Red Bryant, DE Chris Clemons, DT Ziggy Hood, OLB Dekoda Watson
Key Losses: QB Blaine Gabbert, RB Maurice Jones-Drew, RB Justin Forsett, G Uche Nnwaneri, C Brad Meester, DE Jason Babin
2014 Outlook: The Jaguars really hired the perfect man for the job when they hired Gus Bradley last season. Only Bradley could see the positives in leading a franchise as inept as Jacksonville. Even when the Jags got off to an embarrassing 0-8 start last season, where they lost each game by double digits, Bradley was still smiling. The Jags recovered in the the second half of the season, even winning four out of five games at one point before ending the season on a three game skid. Then they shocked everyone by taking Blake Bortles with the third pick in the draft, a move many considered a major reach. That was after Jacksonville decided to end the Blaine Gabbert experiment, another quarterback that they drafted way too high a few years back. The plan for now is to start Chad Henne at quarterback and slowly bring Bortles along. However, after looking strong in the Jags first preseason game the pressure is already mounting to hand over the team to Bortles. Maurice Jones-Drew had turned into a shell of his former self, so he is gone, replaced by the newly acquired Toby Gerhart. Gerhart has never really had a chance to show off his skills playing behind Adrian Peterson in Minnesota, so he is looking at this opportunity with Jacksonville as his big break. Suspensions have had a major impact on the Jaguars receiving corps. They have lost both Justin Blackmon and Ace Sanders to suspensions. Blackmon probably won't play at all this year, while Sanders is eligible to return in Week 5. That leaves Cecil Shorts and the newly drafted Marqise Lee as the Jaguars starting receivers. Marcedes Lewis is back at tight end but years removed from being a factor in the passing game. The offensive line is a mess and a strong reason for Bradley to stick to his plan of not throwing Bortles to the wolves. Time and time again young quarterbacks have flamed out because they were treated like rag dolls because of porous offensive lines. The Jags are hoping a switch for Luke Joeckel to left tackle will get his career on track after a tough start to his career last year. To try to help the Jags on the defensive side of the ball Bradley brought in a couple of his former players from the Seahawks, Red Bryant and Chris Clemons. The signing of Bryant was basically a concession by Jacksonville that Tyson Alualu is a bust. They are hoping that Clemons can replace some of the pass rushing ability that Jason Babin had brought to the team. Besides LB Paul Posluszny the rest of the Jaguars defense is filled with a bunch of guys that I know little to nothing about. I do know that Jacksonville stunk on defense though and with most of their personnel returning they are going to have to hope for some major improvements. I think if Jacksonville is patient with Bradley he is the guy that could lead them back to the playoffs in the next few years. He is going to take his lumps in the beginning though but maybe him and Bortles are the Tom Coughlin/Mark Brunnell combination they have been searching for.