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The 2013 NFL season welcomed the Seattle Seahawks to the Lombardi-Trophy-winners-circle. And once again, top defenses proved to better top offenses, and millions got the chance to catch it before their own eyes in February — and how they put together a championship caliber team started from the top, with a plan set forth ahead that built the right attitude for winning.
Seattle’s front offense made a cut-throat decision to fire Jim Mora after a single season and hired Pete Carroll, who had failed in his previous coaching stints in the 90’s with the New York Jets and New England Patriots.
Carroll teaming up with new general manager, John Schneider has been the backbone of their plan through the draft, taking young talent at cheap prices, trading for a franchise running back (Marshawn Lynch), signing key free agents to help the defensive line and drafting a quarterback (Russell Wilson) in the third-round in 2012, who came into the league with a chip on his shoulder.
The Seahawks never had a coach like Carroll since Mike Holmgren that demands a high proper-level to compete, keeping his players at a mindset of feeling like they have something to prove, with their jobs on the line each and every day since he’s taken over as head coach.
Championships are won in the offseason when a group of guys come together and make a commitment to winning the ultimate prize. Carroll has helped build the games best secondary, a former defensive backs coach that won at the college ranks before winning in the pros and became just the third coach to win at both levels.
Ultimately, organizations that win have a head coach in place with assistants that build the right relationships and bonds with players that buy what’s being preached across the board. The league has a numerous number of teams that have talent on the playing field, but contracts, over-priced players and no sense of urgency for winning has stumped them from becoming a championship ready team.
Seattle still has the hunger for winning to repeat as champs, but with 31 other franchises wanting what they have, it’s time for me to take a deep-look into each division and examine what everyone’s done during the offseason, through the draft, free agency and see who has the best chance to overtake Seattle’s master-operating-system.
AFC East: New England Patriots – Miami and New York can potentially be “Dark Horse” teams in this division and fight for a wild card spot in the AFC, and the Bills are seemingly in forever rebuilding-mode. Rookie safety Calvin Pryor could be a huge boost for the Jets’ secondary. The team also added talent on offense by acquiring WR Eric Decker and RB Chris Johnson to improve a below average offense. The Dolphins added all-purpose back Knowshon Moreno to their backfield, and their defense is filled with talent, most notably upfront, led by Cameron Wake. The Bills have some talented youth to look at, particularly at receiver with rookie Sammy Watkins, who’s expected to be a star at the pro level.
New England remains kings of the east with an improved defense: It’s hard to see any overtakes or a serious threat to the Patriots that’ve won the last five AFC East titles, including three trips to the conference title game and a Super Bowl appearance.
New England remains consistently winning, but without bringing home the Lombardi Trophy since the 04 season, the tough pill to swallow for a franchise that demands success has to be driving the genius-like-minded, always thirsty for winning people (owner Robert Craft), the “Man in the Hoody,” head coach (Bill Belichick) and future Hall of Fame quarterback (Tom Brady) mad.
Bill Belichick’s Super Bowl winning teams in New England was a mirror image of his built reputation as a defensive guru in his days coaching the New York Giants’ defense. And the makeup he has before his eyes this season looks more like the defense that helped the Patriots become the second team in NFL history to win three Super Bowls (01,02 and 04) in a four-year span.
The last time the Patriots’ defense ranked near the top 10 was in 09 (ranked 11th) and in each of their last four seasons, they’ve been in the bottom quarter of the league. Last season, the defense suffered some crucial injuries, particularly on the defensive line, losing two key-components (Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly) on the interior due to ACL injuries. Kelly and Wilfork look healthy in 2014 and with the addition of Florida star DT Dominique Easley, their first round pick, who’s also recovering from an (ACL), only setbacks, health-wise will be an issue for their defensive line that also features defensive end (Chandler Jones) that led the team in sacks (11.5) in his second season, who is only getting better going into his third season with the team.
Where the Patriots improved mightily is on the backend of the defense. The huge signings of top-rated cornerback Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner (suspended for first four games) gives the Patriots two lockdown corners on the outside for a secondary that already sports one of the better free safeties (Devin McCourty) in the game.
I see big things coming from their front-seven that should generate more pressure and create an abundance of opportunities for takeaways. Having two solid cornerbacks on the outside gives you the luxury of manufacturing pressure, knowing you can trust your defensive backs manning up in coverage.
If there’s any concern, it’s on the offensive side of the ball, with tight end Rob Gronkowski’s health issues that’s stumped the Patriots’ passing game. Julian Edelman may be Tom Brady’s new x-factor working out of the slot on the intermediate routes, but without Gronkowski or any big-play-threat-receivers, the passing game lacked the ability to stretch defenses, vertically in 2013.
LeGarrette Blount gave the Patriots run-by-committee ground game muscle on third and short situations — getting the hard-fought yards and even displayed some break-away runs for big scores last season. Blount is out, but with Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley sharing carries and rookie James White in the mix, the Patriots are always prepared to make the backs a vital part of success for their offense, rather carrying the load or as pass-catchers out of the backfield. Bottom line – they don’t turn the ball over on offense and I’m expecting improvement from the Josh Boyce’s, Kenbrell Thompkins’ and Aaron Dobson’s in their second season…add Brandon LaFell, a quiet-sleeper-addition at Brady’s disposal and things look brighter for an always disciplined offense.
Prediction: 12-4, (2nd seed)
Notable departures – RB LeGarrette Blount, CB Aqib Talib, LB, Brandon Spikes, LB Dane Fletcher, TE Matthew Mulligan
Notable additions – CB Darrelle Revis, CB Brandon Browner, DT Dominique Easley (draft), S Patrick Chung, WR Brandon LaFell, DE Will Smith, LB James Anderson
AFC North: Cincinnati Bengals – With Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Cleveland tackling needs in the draft and creating optimism to challenge the reigning AFC North champion Bengals, the north just might be the most interesting one to endure this season. Both Pittsburgh and Baltimore drafted athletic and versatile linebackers in the first round. Pittsburgh snagged Ohio State’s Ryan Shazier at No. 15 and Baltimore took Alabama standout C.J. Mosley at 17. Both have star-potential written all over them that fit the mold of franchises that believe in physical style of ball, with heavy hitters and playmakers on defense that helped them win recent Super Bowls (Steelers in 05 and 08, Baltimore in 2012). As for the Browns that named Brian Hoyer the starter for Week 1 – at some point, my crystal ball sees Johnny Manziel, aka, “Johnny Football” becoming the starter. Bringing offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan along to run the offense and drafting a quarterback that can run the read-option like in the pistol, with a downhill runner like Ben Tate that can work the edges — and a tight end like Jordan Cameron that draws attention from the oppositions back seven, the door is wide open for a change of direction that could lead to success in the near future.
Here’s why I like the Bengals to repeat as champs in the north: Defense…they knew they were going to lose Michael Johnson in free agency, but they locked up Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap, long term, the same with Wallace Gilberry, who in 30 games in Cincy’s defensive scheme has registered 14 sacks. Weakside linebacker Vontaze Burfict is a star in the making and is coming off a stellar second season in which he recorded 171 combined tackles. They drafted Michigan State physical cornerback Darqueze Dennard in the first round to join a quality group that boast talent, with Leon Hall, Adam Jones, Dre Kirkpatrick and Terrence Newman, a deep area of the defense that’s loaded with depth. Mainly, getting Atkins back from an ACL injury is the focal part of the defense. And this is a defense that still ranked 5th in fewest points allowed and 3rd in fewest yards allowed in Atkins’ absence. And with Atkins back and a couple of youngsters on the rise, I see things only going up on the defensive side of the ball for them.
The burning question that circulates around the surface of this team is…can quarterback Andy Dalton get them over the hump? His performance in the playoffs has been dreadful, including against San Diego in the wild card round, a game where he turned the ball over on three straight possessions as Dalton and the Bengals’ offense were shutout in the second half of their 27-10 loss to the Chargers. Needless to talk about the talent at receiver with the top-notch A.J. Green making music downfield as a dynamite receiver, but running back Giovani Bernard, who’s expected to shoulder a bigger role will be a vital part of the offense to take some pressure off of Dalton. However, I’m not penciling in a repeat for Cincy in the north, even though I like them to come out on top. Baltimore adding veteran receiver Steve Smith to their offense, with a healthy Dennis Pitta at tight end, and if Ray Rice and the running game comes back to life, the Ravens can return to playoff form. Oh, and never lose trust in Ben Roethlisberger (The Burger Eater Man#7).
Prediction: 10-6, (3rd seed)
Notable departures – DE Michael Johnson, OT Anthony Collins, C Kyle Cook, WR Andrew Hawkins
Notable Additions – CB Darqueze Dennard (draft), RB Jeremy Hill (draft), QB Jason Campbell, DB Danieal Manning.
AFC South: Indianapolis Colts – The AFC South was the weakest division in 2013 and it looks like it’ll be again. Rookie #1 draft pick Jadeveon Clowney gives the Texans’ defense reason to believe that his speed and athleticism on the outside — along with the already top-tier d-lineman J.J. Watt is the cornerstone in building a top-rated defense. A healthy Jake Locker looks to be more efficient for the Titans at quarterback, and rookie QB Blake Bortles is the futuristic-hope in Jacksonville to turn around a franchise that’s been down in the dumps. In the grand scheme of taking a glimpse at the south, the Indianapolis Colts are clearly the team that sparks the most stability and sense of direction, with one of the games brightest young stars (Andrew Luck) at quarterback.
Indianapolis’ schedule starts off with two prime-time extravaganza’s that will have football fanatics glued to the television. Week 1, they’re @ Denver on Sunday night – the following week, they return home to square off against Chip Kelly’s exotic-like Eagles’ offense on Monday night. They also face 6 other opponents that carry prominent names at the most glorified position, with the Ravens, Steelers, Patriots, Cowboys, Redskins and Giants – all teams that have quarterbacks who have a combination of Super Bowl titles, league MVP’s, Super Bowl MVP’s and raw talent on their docket. Get it? The Colts are an exciting team and the schedule-makers have bumped them up to “National Spotlight” status.
Offensively, it’s going to be interesting to see if Trent Richardson can add some needed pop to Indianapolis’ running game after a dismal performance in which he only averaged 2.9-yards per carry, never reaching the century mark in single game (in fact, Richardson never rushed for at least 65 yards in a game after being traded to Indianapolis early last season). Donald Brown, a back that took over the starting role is gone, Ahmad Bradshaw, whose season ended Week 3 due to a neck-injury, looks ready to roll and Vick Ballard winds out a trio-set of runners. But, giving up a first a first round pick for Richardson, the Colts would surely like him to be more of a factor to better the offense.
Defensively, All-Pro outside-standup-pass-rusher Robert Mathis was suspended for the first quarter of the season for illegal use of performance enhancing drugs. Mathis had a career year last year, recording 19.5 sacks as the only true threat to create havoc upfront. They’ll need his replacement (Bjoern Werner), a second-year tweener on the outside to step things up for the time being of Mathis’ absence. The secondary looks vulnerable after losing veteran safety Antoine Bethea to the 49ers during the offseason. And outside of Vontae Davis, Indianapolis’ secondary has lots of question marks. Ultimately, they’ll need the same outburst they got from Mathis in 2013 when he returns from his suspension as the only down-right-difference-maker for their defense.
Vertical passing game and the addition of Nicks will guide them: We might see the rebirth of Hakeem Nicks, a receiver that’s been plagued by injury that’s proven when healthy to be a valuable target on the receiving end of things. Nicks helped the New York Giants during their dramatic playoff surge in route to their Super Bowl title in the 2011 season. If Nicks avoids his health demons, he’ll give a multiple stretching-the-field-receiving-core that features a well-polished veteran (Reggie Wayne), speedster T.Y. Hilton and big bodied young tight ends (Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen) more ammunition through the air. Allen missed all of the 2013 season due to injury and if he can have a healthy 2014 campaign, his athleticism will give the passing game two tight ends that work the middle, opening up more opportunities on the outside (for a primed to be deadly passing attack) for Andrew Luck to dissect defenses with.
The Colts will have some issues stopping the run and slowing down prolific aerial attacks on defense, a main reason why I think they go a step down in the win column this season, but the offense should carry them through a weak division.
Prediction: 10-6, (4th seed)
Notable departures – RB Donald Brown, FS Antoine Bethea, OT Jeff Linkenbach, LB Kavell Conner, G Mike McGlynn, WR Darrius Heyward-Bey, CB Cassius Vaughn
Notable additions – DL Arthur Jones, WR Hakeem Nicks, LB D’Qwell Jackson
AFC West: Denver Broncos – If we’re going to witness a 360 in the west this season, it’ll be done by getting after your current 5 time league MVP and record-setting quarterback, Peyton Manning. It’s no secret…you don’t pressure Peyton or play keep-away from the Broncos’ offense, you get no cigar. The Kansas City Chiefs brought QB’s to the ground 47 times in 2013, but when both of their key outside- linebackers (Tamba Hali and Justin Houston) were banged up, the pass-rush spiraled downward and the defense crumbled down the stretch and in the playoffs.
The Chiefs drafted Auburn standout OLB Dee Ford in the first round for depth and knowing that you need as many rushers as you can to slow down Manning and the Broncos’ prolific offense. The San Diego Chargers’ ground attack (keeping the Broncos’ offense off the field by eating up clock) was a vital part of their win over the Broncos during the regular season @ Denver and second-half-run in route to making the playoffs. The Raiders have added veterans at multiple positions, notably at quarterback (Matt Schaub) and running back (Maurice Jones-Drew), and drafted Buffalo star linebacker Khalil Mack with the 5th pick and their future at quarterback Derek Carr in the 2nd round. Schedule-wise, the AFC West will be playing perhaps the most talented division in all of football (the NFC West), which gives defending AFC West and conference champion Denver a tougher road ahead of them in 2014.
Running back Knowshon Moreno and receiver Eric Decker are gone. Both players reached the 1,000 yard mark at their respective positions and double-digit scores. Moreno was also a viable pass-catcher in the screen game that caught 60 balls and Decker’s size, speed and ability to make big catches was also a key part of Denver’s high-powered machine-offense. So why let them walk? Well, when you have a robotic-quarterback under center like Peyton, it makes it easier to find a replacement and the Broncos did just that in the offseason by signing former Pittsburgh receiver Emmanuel Sanders, a solid route-runner with speed and drafted Indiana’s Cody Latimer in the second round. Latimer has already showed flashes of making big plays during camp and the preseason. He could get a decent amount of playing time and make up for the loss of Decker’s physical athletic presence of being able to catch the football in traffic or on jump-balls.
Although there’s no major concern for Denver’s passing game to take a step back, the questionable area on offense will be the ground game. Will second-year running back Monte Ball be able to carry the weight in the Broncos backfield and be as valuable as the departed Moreno? I think he does, and I don’t see much of a step back in this particular area. Ball is a hard-nosed runner and contact-plugger, who’s able to get you the tough yards between the tackles. He also showed the ability to help in pass-protection. He may not be as big of a game-breaker as Moreno was, but his physical style of play and toughness will fill the void and he’s also able to catch out of the backfield. Bottom line – Denver’s offense is going to be fine and dandy, with the extremely talented Demaryius Thomas at receiver and the gifted and talented athletic tight end Julius Thomas working the middle, slot and intermediate routes along with the ever-so-reliable slot receiver, Wes Welker. You can bank on them lighting up the scoreboard once again.
Adding Ware, Talib and Ward keep them heavily favorites: Acquiring former Dallas All-Pro DE/OLB DeMarcus Ware, former New England standout CB Aqib Talib and former Browns safety T.J. Ward can help the defense take a step in the direction of (Defense Wins Championships). However, the Broncos need Von Millar healthy and for him to return to 2012 form when he tallied 18.5 sacks as a speed-rusher off the edge. Linebacker Danny Trevathan, the Broncos’ leading tackler last season suffered a fractured shin but is looking to return anywhere from four to six weeks from injury – hopefully he gets back to 100 percent as an important factor defending the run. The key to success for their new look and bolstered defense will primarily be the health of Ware and Miller. If they play a large majority of healthy snaps and are in good shape in the later stages of the season, sky is the limit for Denver’s defense that could help them win the big game, if they return to the Super Bowl this season. Only setbacks can get in their way.
Prediction: 13-3, (1st seed)
Notable departures - RB Knowshon Moreno, CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, WR Eric Decker
Notable additions -DE DeMarcus Ware, CB Aqib Talib, WR Emmanuel Sanders, rookie WR Cody Latimer
AFC Wild Cards: San Diego Chargers 10-6, (5th seed) Baltimore Ravens 10-6, (6th seed)
AFC teams I have missing the playoffs that can – Pittsburgh Steelers, Miami Dolphins, N.Y. Jets, Kansas City Chiefs
NFC East: Philadelphia Eagles – In each of the last three seasons, the east has come down to the final week to determine the division crown. And during that span, the non-Cowboys (Giants, Redskins and Eagles) topped the Dallas Cowboys in the regular season finale to get to the postseason. Only the Giants in ‘11 got past the wild card round after winning the east and went on to a second late season championship run to win it all — as they did four seasons before.
Offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride called it quits in New York and in his replacement enters Ben McAdoo, installing a new-look offense (west coast) in hopes that it’ll revamp Eli Manning from a dismal showing of yesteryear and get him back to being a playoff quarterback. The important factor of how things will determine the Giants’ outcome…will be how an overhauled backfield performs, with newly acquired RB Rashad Jennings and rookie RB Andre Williams expected to be a run-by-committee-rushing-attack. They’ll also need a suspect offensive line to protect Eli much better than last year’s putrid performance and for DE Jason Pierre-Paul’s health to stay in good standards, to create havoc upfront on the d-line.
The Redskins went from first to last in RGIII’s sophomore season that turned for the worse, in a season gloomed of controversial coaching decisions at quarterback that led to firing of Mike Shanahan. Jay Gruden will take over the remains of Shanahan and try to rejuvenate RGIII back to what he displayed his rookie season. Gruden inherits an offense that has added DeSean Jackson, one of the games most dangerous players at receiver to a unit that has talented weapons. RB Alfred Morris is a reliable ball-carrier and one of the games best power-backs, WR Pierre Garcon led the league in receptions (113) and is one the best in the game at separating himself from defenders, and tight end Jordan Reed is one of the young and up and coming players at his respective position.
The Cowboys’ defense is a major concern across the board, particularly at linebacker and promoted to defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli just may have the most difficult coaching-job in all of football this season. Surely, Dallas’ offense has been the bright spot of the team that’s kept them in games behind Tony Romo’s arm. Dez Bryant and Romo will always keep the volume up and connect for scores, but they’ll need the running game and DeMarco Murray to step things up to keep a highly-suspect defense off the field by controlling the tempo. Scoring on the ground will also be crucial to take the burden off of Romo and Bryant when the offense is in the redzone. Jerry Jones and the front office have been investing in the offensive line in recent drafts and potentially have one of the better ones in the league at the moment…so no more excuses for them to abandon the running game or make bone-headed mistakes.
Youth, speed, McCoy and Kelly-factor has me favoring the Eagles to repeat as division champs: The acquisition of RB Darren Sproles gives arguably the best runner in football, LeSean McCoy a dynamite change of pace option. In New Orleans, Sproles was used more as a deadly weapon in the screen-game. In San Diego, he was utilized more as a spell-back with his electrifying speed to change the pace for the Chargers’ rushing attack behind the now retired and future hall of famer LaDainian Tomlinson. His skill-set fits perfectly in Chip Kelly’s system that relies on chunk-passes in various ways within their spread formations, utilizing their speed to gain yards after the catch. The release of DeSean Jackson shouldn’t stump Philadelphia’s offense much. In fact, it’s aligned to be more of a well-rounded unit with Sproles’ speed and versatility and the return of WR Jeremy Maclin from injury. Rookie WR Jordan Matthews is already showing promise in this system during the preseason — the young and talented tight end Zach Ertz is only getting better and will see more targets in his second season. And the best part of the offense, the offensive line should remain protecting QB Nick Foles. It’ll be hard for Foles to match his performance, statistic-wise in 10 starts last season, but things are looking up for him and you can never really go backwards with a runner like McCoy behind you. Defenses in this division are going to have issues against this group that has a wealth of options.
The defense was ranked dead last against the pass, allowing 300 plus yards through the air, several times. How defensive coordinator Billy Davis’ unit fares in his second season running the defense will play a major role on determining the Eagles’ chances of pulling away from the division, or becoming a legitimate Super Bowl contender. Adding Pro Bowl caliber safety Malcom Jenkins and playmaker Chris Maragos brings depth to the secondary. Add that with some mid round draft picks to a young group anchored by third year linebacker Mychal Kendricks and the defense should see the youth improve from a year ago.
The east is a tricky division, however. The Cowboys have been plagued by injuries and poor defensive play, but have still managed to have a shot at winning the division in the final week. The Giants are the only proven team of this era in the east to win BIG against the odds. And though the Redskins went tumbling down in ’13, a healthy RGIII and upgraded talent could help turn the tides from last year’s debacle. But in conclusion to looking into a wide open division, the Eagles give me more confidence on the direction they’re heading.
Prediction: 10-6, (4th seed)
Notable departures – WR DeSean Jackson, QB Michael Vick, DE Clifton Geathers, RB Bryce Brown
Notable additions – RB Darren Sproles, S Malcolm Jenkins, QB Mark Sanchez, S Chris Maragos, rookie LB Marcus Smith, rookie WR Jordan Matthews
NFC North: Green Bay Packers – The north did some shaking up at coaching. Jim Schwartz is out and Jim Caldwell is in at head coach in Detroit and Mike Zimmer became the 9th head coach in Vikings history, replacing the fired Leslie Frazier in January. A swapping of prominent defensive players took place within the division (Jared from Minnesota to Chicago), (Julius Peppers from Chicago to Green Bay) and The Vikings are hoping that rookie Teddy Bridgewater is the franchise quarterback the organization has been thirsting for in a long time. Each team in the north made significant moves via free agency and the draft in areas of need, but with the outlook looking more in the avenue of high-scoring, offensive-juggernauting, having a healthy Aaron Rodgers under center makes the Packers the favorites to win the north again.
The Packers brought a new element (featured runner) to their offense in 2013. Before last season, the Packers’ offense has been mainly predicated upon the pass, with Rodgers consistently connecting with his prime-target (Jordy Nelson) and go to receiver on third down. Drafting Eddie Lacy last season gave them a “Bell Cow” the offense can turn to against top rated defenses. And that “King of the Jungle Defense” remains in Seattle, who the Packers face on opening night in the most hostile environment on the gridiron.
The world caught what a dominant defense like Seattle’s did to a record-setting offense like Denver’s in the Super Bowl. Knowshon Moreno (Denver’s running back last season) may be a runner that can get underneath tacklers, but breaking them is what you need to able to do when facing a herd of speedy gang-tacklers and Lacy is that style of runner the Packers have that can guide the Packers against defenses like Seattle’s on opening night or if they meet in the postseason. Hence — the Packers have a healthy Randall Cobb, a receiver that can lineup in the slot or split out wide, motion around or used on gadget-plays in the avenue of anything exotic to catch the attention of stout linebackers and safeties. Having Cobb back is much more vital to Green Bay’s offense than eyes can see to open up an already prolific offense up more. They already have a sure handed receiver like Jordy Nelson and multiple good route-runners that work the seams, intermediate routes, (back shoulder routes) and have the ability to get open deep (Nelson and Cobb) and catch the ball in tight-spots from a quarterback who’s ball-placement that’s out of this world. If Lacy’s rookie season outing was a true calling for one of the games next best backs, defenses better say their prayers before taking the field against them.
Here’s what truly can get Green Bay back to reaching the Super Bowl Again: Green Bay’s defense hasn’t been anything as good as they were during their title run in 2010. Yet, they’ve been able to generate turnovers and in some season’s rank amongst the top units in takeaways, their defense has mainly let them down come playoff time over the last three seasons (2011 against Eli Manning and the eventual Super Bowl champion Giants and the last two playoff appearances to San Francisco), not being able to stop SF’s quarterback Colin Kaepernick from making big plays with this feet. But with some key additions in free agency and in the draft on the defensive side of the ball, defensive coordinator Dom Capers may have a defense like he had four seasons ago that helped the Packers win their 4th Super Bowl in franchise history.
The signing of Julius Peppers can give the Packers’ defense a lethal outside rush off the edges. All of that depends if Peppers’ new role in a standup position gets him back to at least half the form he used to be when he was taking trips to the Pro Bowl. And if Clay Matthews (arguably the best edge-rusher when healthy) can avoid injury, a solid group of defensive backs, with the addition of first round draft pick Ha Ha Clinton-Dix can see lots of chances to take away the football from opposing offenses. Also, in Capers’ blitz-packages, Brad Jones and A.J. Hawk, two linebackers on the inside that have developed into good blitzers may get the green light often if opposing offenses are going to use extra blockers to try to negate Peppers and Matthews on the outside.
Crazy to think that the first game of the season, win or lose, could tell me lots about Green Bay’s mettle. But, most notably, health has been an issue for Green Bay’s defense, and if the “Football God’s” treat them good this season, they have an abundance of young talent and veterans on both sides of the ball that can get them back to the promise land.
Prediction: 12-4, (2nd seed)
Notable departures – WR James Jones, C Evan Dietrich-Smith
Notable additions – LB/DE Julius Peppers, 1st round pick S Ha Ha Clinton-Dix
NFC South: New Orleans Saints – We witnessed a first-to-worst (Atlanta Falcons) and a Carolina team that rose up to take the south last season with a stout defense and a much matured Cam Newton that guided the Panthers to the postseason in 2013. The Falcons caught an extreme illness case of injuries on both sides of the ball, notably at receiver when they lost star receiver Julio Jones for the season due to a right foot injury and had Roddy White miss some time, while playing at 50 percent for a good portion of the season.
Still, quarterback Matt Ryan managed to complete near 70 percent of his passes without his prime-targets to work with. If Jones and White are to be healthy campers in 2014, Atlanta’s offense can get back to 2012 form, especially upgrading a lack-luster offensive line through the draft by taking right tackle Jake Matthews at No. 6, and the defensive line underwent a complete overhaul to fit a new 3-4 base defense, primarily taking talented second-round draft pick Ra’Shede Hageman.
The defending south champs lost receivers Steve Smith, Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn in free agency, but replaced them with the big and tall Kelvin Benjamin through the draft – they also added veteran receivers Jason Avant and Jerricho Cotchery that’ve been decent receivers working out of the slot. Cotchery caught 10 touchdown passes for Pittsburgh last season and can help Newton with targets in the redzone (along with the main-plan they have in place to use the rookie Benjamin’s size that could help the offense score more touchdowns, rather than kick field goals when in striking distance).
The Bucs upped things coaching-wise with new head coach Lovie Smith bringing his defensive scheme concepts to the table and adding some veterans in the offseason, while drafting a star-potential receiver Mike Evans to line up on the opposite side of the talented Vincent Jackson. Tampa Bay’s hiring of Smith could potentially end up being the best hiring for one of the sleeper teams this season. This division can end up being better than advertised if the Falcons and Bucs improve from last season, but when examining the south, the team I like most to come out on top is New Orleans.
The emphasis of the ground game is why I like the Saints to win the south: When the Saints captured the Lombardi Trophy in 09 – the running game ran for over 2,000 yards as a team, scoring 21 times on the ground. And word out in the street is the Saints have been putting lots of time during camp on getting back to that element that made them the best team in football five seasons ago. Losing the quick speed and matchup nightmares that Darren Sproles presented to defenses for Drew Brees to work with in the screen-game, may seem as a big loss, but what I like most about this is having Mark Ingram being called upon for a bigger role in a contract year. Ingram knows the pressure is on him to show why he was a first round pick for the Saints in 2011. He brings more emphasis on attacking between the tackles, while backs Pierre Thomas and Khiry Robinson change the pace, with Thomas being more of the back that will be used out in the flats as a pass-catcher. The plan is to get it done by committee and not rely so heavily on the screen-game, even though that part of the offense won’t go entirely missing.
Drafting Oregon State blistering speedy receiver Brandin Cooks was an “Eye Popper” and should have defenses shaking in their boots. Adding the speedster to an offense that already possesses an extreme amount of weapons that has Jimmy Graham at tight and Marques Colston at receiver, keeps New Orleans’ offense able to attack at all angles of the field.
Defensively, the Saints lost Roman Harper and Malcom Jenkins but added veteran cornerback Champ Bailey and a safety (Jairus Byrd) that covers lots of range. With defensive coordinator Rob Ryan running the defense, the defense jumped from last to fourth overall last season. However, creating turnovers, something the defense lacked at doing last season is what they need to get better at. Taking CB Stanley Jean-Baptiste with the No. 58 overall pick in the draft will add immediate depth to Ryan’s defense. Ryan will be looking to use Jean-Baptiste’s size to take on a division that has lots of tall and talented pass-catchers. Significantly, New Orleans shored up their secondary and with S Kenny Vaccaro returning from a fractured ankle and ready to play a more defined role in his second season, Sean Payton’s Saints look ready and geared up to have the “Who Dat Nation” fanatics ready to rock and roll in 2014.
Prediction: 11-5, (3rd seed)
Notable departures: Running back Darren Sproles, receiver Lance Moore, linebacker Jonathan Vilma, safety Roman Harper, safety Malcolm Jenkins, defensive end Will Smith
Notable additions: Safety Jairus Byrd, cornerback Champ Bailey, center Jonathan Goodwin, receiver Brandin Cooks and cornerback Jean Stanley-Baptiste
NFC West: Seattle Seahawks –The west has all the implications of being the most competitive division. In 2013, Seattle, San Francisco and Arizona won 10 plus games, while only St. Louis finished the season with a losing record. The defending Super Bowl champion Seahawks and 49ers standout ahead of the pack as both are expected to compete for a shot at the ultimate prize. The west also sports the best rivalry in football at the moment for us to endure between Seattle and San Francisco that played a “Must See TV” conference title game that came down to the wire, a game that was decided on a late-game interception thrown by Colin Kaepernick that was tipped by Seattle’s Richard Sherman, that landed in the hands of linebacker Malcom Smith to ice the game and conference championship.
What makes the west compelling is looking at what Jeff Fisher’s Rams did to improve their roster in the offseason. WR Kenny Britt, who was selected by the Titans in the first round of the 2009 draft, reunites with Fisher, who was the head coach of the Titans at the time. Britt had some off the field incidents and an ACL injury in 2011 that got in the way of his talent to blossom at its fullest potential. He now looks healthy and more energized with an opportunity to revamp his career. But sadly, quarterback Sam Bradford suffered a setback during the preseason and re-injured his Achilles, ending his season for the second consecutive year. Backup veteran Shaun Hill will likely take his place. The defense added perhaps the best defensive player (DT Aaron Donald) in the draft to add more sugar to the punch to a defensive line that might be the best in all of football, anchored by “Sack Monster” Robert Quinn.
The Cardinals are going to need more from their offense. The defense will be without DL Darnell Dockett due to an ACL injury, linebacker Daryl Washington (suspension) and Karlos Dansby (free agency), three key pieces of their defense last season. And second-year safety Tyrann Matheiu is still recovering from knee surgery. To give a better outlook on the offensive line that’s been abysmal, the team signed left tackle Jared Veldheer and getting guard Jonathan Cooper back from a leg-injury that sidelined him in his rookie season should help improve their woes.
RB Andre Ellington is expected to take on a larger percentage of snaps in his second season for head coach Bruce Arians’ offense. Ellington has the talent and if that talent he has breaks out, the Cardinals will finally have a much needed balanced attack, offensively. They added a speed element at receiver by drafting John Brown in the third round to help open things up for Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd on the underneath routes. Arians knows not to bank on his line to keep Carson Palmer upright in the pocket, which makes sense on drafting Brown (deep-ball-threat), who will run vertical routes to draw attention on defensive backs that’ll help the timing on the intermediate crossing routes, slants or chunk passes. Shaky offensive lines call for plays to help the quarterback get the ball out quicker.
Last year’s NFC runner up San Francisco is looking to get over the hump in the (top contenders for a championship circle). And to me, the 49ers have the best set-up to be able to win at Seattle against their screaming “12’s” barking in their ears from dusk till dawn. In each of the last three seasons, the 49ers have lost twice in the conference title game and once in the Super Bowl. The talent is still there, but there are issues making headlines between player contracts and the gossip of players starting to turn away from head coach, Jim Harbaugh’s ways. The team still has an aged but still durable and reliable receiver Anquan Boldin and they added more depth and talent at the receiver position by adding former Bills receiver Stevie Johnson in a trade, they selected South Carolina receiver Bruce Ellington in the mid rounds of the draft, veteran receiver Brandon Lloyd is back where his career began and Michael Crabtree is healthy, unlike last summer.
I’ve been hearing lots of chit-chatting on Colin Kaepernick’s progression problems, but I’m not buying that. The kid has earned his money and has playoff wins under his belt. He has a stout offensive line in front of him and one of the games most raw and physical backs Frank Gore. Insert rookie Carlos Hyde, a top back out of Ohio State to an already top-flight running game and the 49ers offense looks better than the previous three units that made it deep into the postseason.
The defense will be missing some assets. OLB Aldon Smith is still waiting on the length of his suspension that will be given sooner or later, and how LB NaVorro Bowman recovers from his leg injury is the more pressing issue for the defense. In the secondary, hard-hitting safety Donte Whitner signed with Cleveland in March, which makes the productivity of veteran Antoine Bethea something to keep an eye on this season in taking over at safety for a vulnerable pass defense. What will save this defense without its top players due to suspensions and injuries is the fact that they won’t shy away from the run. Controlling the tempo by keeping it on the ground is a forte that’s made them successful since Harbaugh’s been at the helm.
Despite the loss of some depth on defense, the LOB keeps Seattle’s defense dominant and Wilson is the real deal: The more I watch Russell Wilson operate Seattle’s offense, the more I see him with total control and see an ultimate decision maker in him. Seattle’s offensive line may have some vulnerabilities, but when you have a quarterback like Wilson that has tremendous awareness from the pocket, with the ability to elude rushers, make throws on the run and use his feet to move the chains, his high-level of athleticism erases anything messy upfront on broken down plays.
Losing their best receiver Golden Tate may seem like knife in the back to the offense, but with Percy Harvin live and in color in camp and making plays during the preseason, Wilson now has a dynamite weapon to work with that he had for only 68 snaps in 2013. Although Harvin appears as healthy as he’s ever been, he’ll need his counterparts, Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse to start the season strong to help draw double-coverage away from him. To add depth and competition at the position, Seattle drafted Colorado speedster Paul Richardson in the second round and a bigger bodied Kevin Norwood out of Alabama in the fourth. The Speedy Richardson looks more suitable to get some action this season, as the rangy Norwood’s foot continues to bother him since his days with the Tide.
The receiver I like to emerge out of their new bunch this season is the once undrafted free agent Kearse that’s heading into his third season in the final year of his contract to prove his worth. Kearse showed flashes of big-play ability in the playoffs, highlighted by a go-ahead-touchdown catch in the fourth quarter of January’s showdown for the conference title. He carried things over in the Seahawks’ blowout win over Denver on the grand-stage, with a breaking-tackles catch and run into the endzone for a touchdown. And seeing Seattle use a number of wide and empty formation sets in preseason-play could be an indication of the offense opening things up more within the pass.
All the while, I expect them to still feed the football a good-chunk to “Beast Mode,” Marshawn Lynch and he may be fresher come the 4th quarter, with younger backs Robert Turbin and Christine Michael in the fold to give them a three-ring-set. With a mixture of speed and power, an ultimate change-of-pace, the set-up still remains for opposing defenses to load up the box that should create lots of opportunities for the deep-pass off the play-action. If Turbin and Michael are effective in their roles, the balance will be even better than it was in ’13, considering defenses will still be caught in a cat and mouse game, with Wilson doing work off the zone-read.
The defense had five players move on this offseason between starters and part-time players that were part of a dominating defensive force. Losing CBs Brandon Browner and Walter Thurmond III doesn’t generate much concern, as Byron Maxwell proved himself worthy of being a quality starter on the opposite side of Richard Sherman. The d-line lost Chris Clemons and Red Bryant but retained Michael Bennett. The Seahawks will have Bennett, Tony McDaniel and Cliff Avril play more snaps. Rookie Cassius Marsh, Kevin Williams, Jordan Hill and Greg Scruggs will be called upon to pick up the slack as rotators.
The d-line might take a slight dive this season, but the games scariest defender and knockout-blow-hitter, Kam Chancellor will continue to deliver bone-crushing hits in his safety/linebacker/end role, while the pressing and bailing techniques from Sherman and Maxwell will still funnel opposing targets towards the games best FS Earl Thomas, with the speedy linebackers and nickel corners sitting in their booby-trap zone. Only physical ground games or mobile quarterbacks can negate the perfection of what Seattle’s defense does best, and that’s force you into their game, physically and mentally. They still have the edge over their opponents with the proper attitude and no, “we won it only because of me type guys.” The champs have enough in place to be the first team to repeat as champs since the Patriots accomplished that feat from 03-to-04.
Prediction: 12-4, (1st seed)
Notable departures – CB Brandon Browner, LB Chris Clemons, DL Red Bryant, WR Golden Tate, WR Sidney Rice
Notable additions – WR Paul Richardson (2nd round pick), DE Cassius Marsh (4th round pick)
NFC Wild Cards: San Francisco 49ers 11-5, (5th seed), Carolina Panthers 10-6, (6th seed)
NFC teams I have missing the playoffs that can: Atlanta Falcons, Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, Washington Redskins, Dallas Cowboys
Player Award Predictions:
League MVP – QB Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers
Rookie of the Year – WR Mike Evans, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Offensive Rookie of the Year – WR Brandin Cooks, New Orleans Saints
Defensive Rookie of the Year – DE/OLB Jadeveon Clowney, Houston Texans
AFC Playoff Predictions:
AFC Wild Card Round – (3) Cincinnati Bengals 20, (6) Baltimore Ravens 17 OT
AFC Wild Card Round – (5) San Diego Chargers 27, (4) Indianapolis Colts 20
AFC Divisional Round – (1) Denver Broncos 30, (5) San Diego Chargers 17
AFC Divisional Round – (2) New England Patriots 24, (3) Cincinnati Bengals 13
AFC Championship – (2) New England Patriots 34, (1) Denver Broncos 31 OT
AFC Champion – New England Patriots
NFC Playoff Predictions:
NFC Wild Card Round – (3) New Orleans Saints 31, (6) Carolina Panthers 20
NFC Wild Card Round – (5) San Francisco 49ers 24, (4) Philadelphia Eagles 20
NFC Divisional Round – (5) San Francisco 49ers 23, (1) Seattle Seahawks 20
NFC Divisional Round – (2) Green Bay Packers 27, (3) New Orleans Saints 23
NFC Championship – (2) Green Bay Packers 24, (5) San Francisco 49ers 21
NFC Champion – Green Bay Packers
Super Bowl XLIX Prediction – New England Patriots 31, Green Bay Packers 27
Super Bowl MVP – QB Tom Brady, Patriots
You can follow Massimo Russo on Twitter @NFLMassimo and SilverandBlueReport.com @SilverBlueRpt