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Tony Romo’s NFL numbers stand with the best of them in the history of the game, but what remains missing on his resume is what a few other quarterbacks in the game today have, an elite status earned from winning on the grandest stage. Now in the later stages of his career, Romo has the best offensive line in front of him and a front office that might’ve hit the jackpot to improve what lacked in ‘Big D” last season, a pass rush worthy of taking the Cowboys deep.
AFC East: Lots of changes took place in the east this offseason. Starting with the coaching carousel, the Bills replaced Doug Marrone, who exercised an option in his contract to step down as head coach with Rex Ryan, who was fired by the Jets after a dismal 4-12 season. To take over for Ryan, the Jets hired Ex-Cardinal defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, another defensive minded guru. The out with the old and in with the new regime process also engaged on the personnel side of the gridiron. The Jets, Bills and Dolphins got busy during the free agent signing period and added some potential studs through the draft.
What did they do to better their chances to compete with New England? You have to spend the big bucks while you can, and the Dolphins did just that. In his third season, quarterback Ryan Tannehill threw for over 4,000 yards and 27 touchdown passes. His best outing of his career was enough for Miami to lock him up to long term deal, and though the 4-year pro lost some key targets in the passing game, the front office reconstructed his ammo by signing Ex-Packer/Viking veteran WR Greg Jennings, traded with New Orleans for deep threat WR Kenny Stills, signed former Browns TE Jordan Cameron and drafted Louisville star Davante Parker 14th overall in the first round.
Using the most of their large cap space, the Dolphins’ biggest splash was signing elite DT Ndamukung Suh – the scariest interior force in the game to anchor their defensive line. Suh’s gap clogging, run stuffing and bull rushing ways should influence Miami’s defense mightily, creating more opportunities for top-flight DE Cameron Wake and the rest of Miami’s D-front to harass opposing quarterbacks, defend the run well, and help the backend that has a few playmakers, featured by CB Brent Grimes, a three time Pro Bowler. Overall, Miami held onto their cornerstone pieces while adding impactful players that can potentially get them over the hump.
No question, Buffalo’s defense is playoff-caliber material. Their defense sports three Pro Bowlers, DE Mario Williams, DT Kyle Williams and DT Marcell Dareus (suspended Week 1). The retaining of DE Jerry Hughes arguably keeps Buffalo’s front better than any group in football. Coach Ryan will deploy his extreme talents on aggressive concepts to keep Buffalo’s vicious penetrating defensive front barking in opposing quarterback’s ears on Sunday’s. Looking to improve a porous offense, general manager Doug Whaley added some spice to Buffalo’s offense by adding elite running back LeSean McCoy, all-purpose threat WR/KR Percy Harvin and HB/TE Charles Clay. However, the two areas on the roster that remain suspect are at quarterback and offensive line. Ryan will rely on McCoy’s versatility in a run first offense, but can Tyrod Taylor or E.J. Manuel entering his third year with the team move the chains on passing downs?
For now, Taylor, a mobile passer gets the nod to connect with Sammy Watkins, a second year receiver with tremendous upside. Ultimately, if Ryan is to lead the Bills to the playoffs in his first season coaching the team, the offense will need to improve significantly.
Like Buffalo, there’s a decent level of uncertainty for the Jets at quarterback. With Geno Smith (broken Jaw) out, coach Bowles will also be riding on the arm of a veteran. We saw what Ryan Fitzpatrick was able to do as a game manager in Houston with an effective ground game, and though the Jets don’t have a Pro Bowl runner like Fitzpatrick handed the rock to in Arian Foster last season – he does have depth behind quality lead back Chris Ivory. On the perimeter, the Jets added star receiver Brandon Marshall to compromise a good tandem with Eric Decker. In the draft, they beefed up an already talented D-line by selecting USC star Leonard Williams, drafted former Ohio State WR Devin Smith, a big play threat and selected Baylor QB Bryce Petty in the fourth round. The wave of moves upgraded the Jets’ roster on both sides of the ball for the upcoming and future seasons, potentially changing the fortunes of the franchise.
Why I favor the Patriots: Even with key losses on both sides of the ball, I’m rolling with the Patriots to win the east for the seventh consecutive season. The secondary may look weaker without elite lockdown corner Darrelle Revis (Jets) and the physical Brandon Browner (Saints), but the front seven still looks strong enough to hold the fort, particularly at linebacker with Jamie Collins, Jerod Mayo and Dont’a Hightower covering lots of ground. X-factor Shane Vereen (Giants) is out of the picture, and though there really isn’t a running back on the current roster that can provide the same flanker/screen game elements, HC Bill Belichick and OC Josh McDaniels’ expertise of mixing things up on spread and stacked alignments, plus splitting the touches with the backs between LeGarrette Blount (suspended Week 1) and whoever else spells him will keep the ground game stable.
Gone are the worries of not having Tom Brady under center for the first quarter of the season, as federal judge Richard Berman nullified the 4-time Super Bowl winning QB’s suspension. The field general remains equipped with reliable pass catchers. Super-athletic TE Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman (a Wes Welker clone) will continue to find open windows, keeping New England’s passing game functioning smoothly. At the end of the day, the Patriots seem to thrive when adversity arrives at their doorstep, and I’ve seen them far too many times fix gaps on their roster by making moves and switching up game plans that best suits their chances of winning. Coaching is also a talent and nobody is better than Belichick.
Predicted Finish: 12-4, 2 seed
AFC North: The Steelers, Ravens and Bengals all made the postseason in ’14, and the north could once again be a competitive division this season. We’ve seen three different division winners over the last three seasons, with the Ravens coming out on top in ’12, the Bengals in ’13 and the Steelers last season. Only the Ravens made the most it three seasons ago in route to their second Super Bowl title in franchise history.
The defending north champion Steelers will be without vital parts on offense to start the season. Losing center Maurkice Pouncey (ankle) is a tough blow to an already suspect O-line. All-purpose back Le’Veon Bell won’t return from his suspension until Week 3 and second year vertical threat WR Martavis Bryant’s suspension will keep him out of action until Week 5. Still, if health treats them right, and once the imperative tools of OC Todd Haley’s offense returns to action, the Steelers are loaded with playmakers. Haley will continue to move dynamite WR Antonio Brown around from the perimeter and slot, while making Bell the focal isolator by deploying his versatile/savvy skills from the backfield. Defensively, what life will be without the legendary Dick LeBeau coordinating the defense is a mystery, and for new DC Keith Butler to get splash plays from the Steelers’ youth movement on defense, last year’s first round pick, LB Ryan Shazier and this year’s first round Kentucky product LB Bud Dupree’s performance will come a long way on deciphering how Butler’s unit performs.
I like the chips the Browns stacked for second year head coach Mike Pettine, particularly through the draft on selecting Washington massive nose guard Danny Shelton (12th overall). They also picked Florida State center Cameron Erving (19th overall) and Miami speedster RB/KR Duke Johnson in the third round. There’s lots of depth on this roster being built at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, but primarily, the fortunes of the franchise depends on the development of “Johnny Football” to be answer at quarterback.
The Bengals used their top draft pick to add depth on the offensive line, selecting two tackles, Cedric Ogbuehi out of Texas A&M and Jake Fisher out of Oregon. The Bengals’ deep backfield combination of Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard provides the offense with balance. Their multifaceted skills sparks opportunities to stifle opposing defenses with their abilities of making plays on ground and in the screen game — setting the passing game up for quarterback Andy Dalton to go over the top to bona fide receiver A.J. Green. The team didn’t lose much on personnel other than veteran CB Terence Newman, and to enhance depth to a stout linebacker corps, they brought along former Packers LB A.J. Hawk. The more the merrier if Vontaze Burfict recovers from knee surgery. Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther is hoping the return of DE Michael Johnson can bolster a pass rush that went silent last season. He’ll need to for the Bengals’ defense to handle potent offenses like Pittsburgh’s. Mainly, it’s put up or shut up time for Dalton to deliver in clutch situations.
Why I favor the Ravens: Marc Trestman replaces Gary Kubiak at offensive coordinator. Trestman will keep Kubiak’s zone running scheme intact for Justin Forsett, who led a rotational ground game that ran for over 2,000 yards as a team in ‘14. The offensive line remains loaded to allow Forsett and his spell backs to see lots of cutback lanes to gash front sevens on the ground. That pedigree will keep quarterback Joe Flacco poised and able to work off the play-action for the Ravens’ passing game while staying ahead of the down and distance.
They didn’t use their cap space to retain vertical threat WR Torrey Smith, who signed with the 49ers, but they filled the void on the opposite side of veteran WR Steve Smith by taking UFC standout Breshad Perriman, a burner with size and athleticism in the first round. In the second round, they selected Minnesota TE Maxx Williams, who has potential to be a serious seam route threat. Perriman is dealing with a strained PCL, but the two should help Trestman’s unit up their production from last year’s 238.7 yards per game through the air.
OLB Pernell McPhee and interior D-lineman Haloti Ngata won’t be part of DC Dean Pees’ group, but the front seven still has a world of players to pressure the pocket – mainly with Pees’ hybrid linebackers, Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil, Courtney Upshaw, and rising star C.J. Mosely. Plus, they shored up their secondary with the additions of CB Kyle Arrington and FS Kendrick Lewis. The rushers Pees has to deploy on pressure packages will generate lots of opportunities for takeaways. HC John Harbaugh’s team is balanced on offense and has playmakers on defense. That has me upping them over their division foes to take north.
Predicted Finish: 11-5, 4 seed
AFC South: It’s obvious when looking at this division that head coach Chuck Pagano’s Colts are heavily favorites to win the south for a third consecutive season. Examining their competition, the Titans may have found their future franchise quarterback in 2nd overall draft pick Marcus Mariota, the Texans are hoping the signing of former Browns starting QB Brian Hoyer can improve the passing game, and the Jaguars are riding on the arm of second year QB Blake Bortles to improve an offense that was ranked 31st overall in his rookie season.
A groin injury to Houston’s Pro Bowl RB Arian Foster will likely keep him out of action until late September, leaving the duties up to Alfred Blue to be the lead ball carrier, and though they added depth for the loss of Andre Johnson with the acquisitions of Cecil Shorts and Nate Washington to complement their one true threat in DeAndre Hopkins at receiver, they’ll need Foster to recover from his injury to stabilize the offense. The Texans added some reinforcements to the J.J. Watt led defense, with Mississippi State second round pick LB Benardrick Mckinney, who has the range and speed to run down ball carriers. Plus, the addition of all-world former Patriot interior D-lineman Vince Wilfork clogging the middle can only help free up the outside rush and blitzes up the middle for DC Romeo Crennel to utilize.
I like some of the moves the Titans made in the draft and free agency, but the belief they have in second year RB Bishop Sankey and this year’s sleeper 5th round pick David Cobb will need to show some pluses for a ground game that was putrid last season. As for another rebuilding franchise like the Jaguars, their first round investment in Florida star rookie pass rusher Dante Fowler Jr., who suffered a torn ACL back May, won’t see the field. That’s a big loss, but drafting Alabama RB T.J. Yeldon and bringing along highly skilled former Denver TE Julius Thomas can up Jacksonville’s offense. Overall, between the three, their offenses have too many holes.
Not only do the Colts appear to be in cruise control in the south, the moves they made in the offseason can potentially leap them to the promise land: Kudos to owner Jim Irsay and general manager Ryan Grigson on the signings of former 49ers RB Frank Gore and former Texans WR Andre Johnson, both all-time productive players worthy of making it to Canton in their football afterlives.
Offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton has deployed his personnel on creating multiple favorable matchups in recent seasons, and with the physicality Gore brings to the table, All-Pro quarterback Andrew Luck now has a reliable workhorse to feed the pigskin to on early downs, short yardage packages and goal line situations. Gore will also serve as an extra blocker on passing downs to pick up the blitz. There’s so many moveable parts for Hamilton to use on vertical switch ups, slants, digs and crossing route concepts, and with Johnson able to line up from the perimeter and slot, it adds more weapons to Luck’s disposal. Slot threat T.Y. Hilton’s speed forces opposing defenses to roll a safety over him, and their tight ends Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen put lots of stress on linebackers and safeties when Hamilton flexes them.
Other than CB Vontae Davis, the Colts don’t have many impactful players on defense. However, the front office added some depth chips to defensive coordinator Greg Manusky’s group by bringing along linebackers Nate Irving and Trent Cole, while adding Kendall Langford to the D-line. Manusky will deploy his aggressive style and manufacturing ways at the point of attack, but for the Colts to win big in the postseason and limit Luck from having to use his sandlot skills (due to a lack of pass protection), Gore’s bruising style will need to control the tempo to keep Manusky’s suspect unit on the sidelines. With that in mind, the Colts’ offseason decisions, personnel wise were made to win now without sacrificing their future.
Predicted Finish: 12-4, 1 seed
AFC West: The west is a very intriguing division to me with the Chiefs and Chargers throwing in some talent in areas of need to challenge the Broncos, who’ve been crowned division champs for four consecutive seasons.
Glancing at the Raiders, with most of the attention circulating around the organizations development of second year quarterback Derek Carr, who showed flashes of what it takes to be a franchise quarterback – I like the moves they made on the defensive side of the gridiron, signing beefy NT Dan Williams and drafting Florida State DE Mario Edwards Jr. – along with other new faces brought in, LB Curtis Lofton and S Nate Allen. The hiring of Ken Norton Jr. away from Seattle to coordinate the defense will instill a high level of intensity and an enthusiastic approach to a defense that has one of the better young players in the game in Khalil Mack, a strong side linebacker and edge rusher setting the tone for the defense. The rebuilding process has given the franchise a sense of direction, and first round draft pick, Alabama fluid and super athletic WR Amari Cooper could build a long lasting relationship with Carr – that all depends how Carr adapts to the terminologies of new offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave’s system.
Kansas City’s defense will be without CB/S Sean Smith (suspension) for the first four weeks and NT Dontari Poe’s timetable to return from back surgery is uncertain. That’s the bad news. The good news is safety Eric Berry is cancer-free and he looks like he’s getting back to his form as one the best defensive players at his respective position. Only Seattle’s defense allowed fewer points than Kansas City’s in ’14 and the dynamic trio of linebackers, Tamba Hali and Justin Houston accelerating off the edges, and inside LB Derrick Johnson as an enforcer against the run should keep the defense solid. The front office made it a priority to bolster a passing game that didn’t have a receiver reach the endzone last year by signing former Eagles crafty and nifty route runner Jeremy Maclin to rejoin head coach Andy Reid’s west coast offense.
Clearly, the offense will stay focused on leaning on the big play skills of RB Jamaal Charles on the ground and getting him out in space on screen game concepts, but I’m wondering if Reid ups the vertical attempts for quarterback Alex Smith, who now has Maclin, who can get separation on intermediate routes, as well as being able to blow past defensive backs to get open over the top. My guess is they will while using the same play-fakes to catch opposing defenses out of position. I like the way this team is built, but until they give Smith the green light to go vertical, their offense will stay one-dimensional. We’ll see.
Last year’s injuries on the offensive line and lack of a ground game put the Chargers’ offense in an erratic state without balance. So…to better the chances for one of the games best quarterbacks in Philip Rivers to stay upright in the pocket, general manager Tom Telesco signed some depth guys and former Broncos guard Orlando Franklin. The big move by Telesco was landing Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon 15th overall. Gordon is a back with great agility able to run between and outside the tackles with a second gear to burst past defenders for large gains. Screen game threat Danny Woodhead, who suffered a season ending injury a year ago looks healthy, and Brandon Oliver rounds out an effective set of pace changers to keep opposing defenses honest.
Future Hall of Fame tight end Antonio Gates (suspended) won’t return until Week 5, but Ladarius Green is capable of picking up the pace decently in his absence. They let versatile WR Eddie Royal test the market and sign with the Bears via free agency, but the additions of Stevie Johnson to complement Rivers’ prime target on the perimeter in Kennan Allen, and Jacoby Jones, a deadly situational deep threat gives the Chargers’ aerial attack a wealth of options. The Chargers’ biggest loss was losing CB Shareece Wright to the 49ers, but they used their second round pick on hard hitting Miami LB Denzel Perryman, increasing defensive coordinator John Pagano’s personnel in the second levels where lots of strengths are, led by Pro Bowl S Eric Weddle. The front office not only invested in Gordon to run the rock, but to keep an aging quarterback from taking too many hits. If it all works out, the Chargers will be a serious threat to unseat the Broncos from repeating as division champs.
The Kubiak effect has me favoring Denver to take the west again: Head coach John Fox was fired and offensive coordinator Adam Gase is gone. To replace them, general manager John Elway hired zone scheme guru Gary Kubiak to take over at the helm. Kubiak’s philosophy had a big impact in Baltimore last season, coordinating an offense that made a Pro Bowler out of Justin Forsett, a small frame, shifty runner. The plan for Kubiak is to have the aged but all-time-great signal caller, Peyton Manning function in a run first offense. C.J. Anderson, another small but physical back shouldered the work in a “BellCow” role down the stretch last season, but a nicked up Manning proved to be the deciphering factor in Denver’s loss to the Colts in the division playoff round.
They ‘ll be without key contributors from last season after losing TE Julius Thomas, WR Wes Welker, G Orlando Franklin, G Manny Ramirez, C Will Montgomery, LB Nate Irving, DT Terrance Knighton and FS Rahim Moore in the offseason, but Kubiak brought along two players familiar with his system in TE Owen Daniels and C Gino Gradkowski. Sylvester Williams should fill in nicely for Knighton at nose tackle, and there’s a ship load of talent at linebacker and in the secondary. Insert rookie first round pick Shane Ray, an explosive athlete teaming up with two of the games’ top pass rushers in DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller, and defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, an expert of the 3-4 personnel has the key to open up the door on a world of pressure packages. For matchup purposes against the pass, CB Chris Harris Jr., CB Aqib Talib and SS T.J. Ward are three versatile tools Phillips can deploy from the perimeter, slot and in the box. Ward is one of the best playing up near the line to man up on tight ends flexed in big nickel packages. Plus, he has a nose for running down ball carriers with violence to help defend the run.
Although the ground game will be Kubiak’s recipe for success, he’ll still have Manning in shotgun spread formations to create a light box and get the football to his bona fide receivers, Demaryius Thomas and slot threat Emmanuel Sanders on intermediate and vertical concepts. What can really be a killer to opposing defenses is Anderson grinding it out effectively. That will draw defenses to play with 8 in the box, getting the play-action, bootlegs and misdirection concepts for Manning going to carve up pass defenses with one-on-one looks. Also, keep an eye on second year WR Cody Latimer, who the Broncos are looking to use on 3 WR sets. The most important factor for Denver this year will be the health of Manning, and I believe the elite passer continuing his deceptive operating ways to confuse defenses attached with Kubiak’s approach will keep him upright.
Predicted Finish: 12-4, 3 seed
My AFC Dark Horse Teams: San Diego Chargers, Pittsburgh Steelers, Cincinnati Bengals, Buffalo Bills
AFC Wild Cards: Kansas City Chiefs, 11-5 (5 seed), Miami Dolphins, 10-6 (6 seed)
NFC East: Every team in the east has won the division in each of the last four seasons, with the Giants taking the east at 9-7 in ’11 and going on to win the Super Bowl. The Redskins won the division in ’12, the Eagles in ’13, and last season, it was Cowboys that proved lots of doubters, including myself wrong by winning 12 games and earning their first playoff win in five seasons.
As the days go on in the Nation’s Capital, the more Robert Griffin III seems to be drifting away from Washington. RGIII was once looked upon as the future franchise quarterback when he took the league by storm in his rookie season, but injuries, coaching changes, and a downward spiral in stability has the Redskins scrambling for the right man to play under center. Is Kirk Cousins the answer? Well, he sure wasn’t last season for an offense that had a nag of turning over the football. The offense was a mess without the ground game aiding the passing game, and the offensive line was horrendous.
To address those woes, the Redskins took Iowa T Brandon Schreff 5th overall and 6-2, 231 pound Florida RB Matt Jones – all in hopes to improve the strong side of their O-line and giving starting running back Alfred Morris another bruiser to complement him. If the offense is going to pull a 360, the ground game needs to produce for Cousins or whoever ends up tossing passes to a highly skilled receiving corps that features blazing speedster DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon – could be better if TE Jordan Reed’s injuries get put to rest.
Lots of changes were made on defense, with Joe Barry taking over for Jim Haslett at defensive coordinator. They lost an explosive but often injured Brian Orakpo’s edge game, but a new group now has DT Terrance Knighton, DL Stephen Paea, two new safeties in Dashon Goldson and Duke Inhenacho and CB Chris Culliver. How OLB Ryan Kerrigan performs after knee surgery will be imperative for Barry’s unit, especially after former Saints pass rusher Junior Galette (ACL), a big addition went down with a season ending injury. There’s lots of pressure for coach Gruden to instill what’s been lacking in Washington (organized ball), and whenever the quarterback position has implications to be in a carousel state, leadership goes out the window.
After winning their second Super Bowl in a five year span, Tom Coughlin’s Giants have missed the postseason since. The philosophy of his offense has taken a more aerial approach under OC Ben McAdoo, with two-time Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning throwing 30 touchdown passes last season. The downside was the O-line and ground game, and the plan to improve it looks cloudy after T Will Beatty went down with a pectoral injury. First round draft pick Ereck Flowers was supposed to play right tackle with Justin Pugh moving inside, but now that Beatty is out – flowers has been placed at left tackle to protect Eli’s blind side. Having a porous offensive line can always generate miscues in execution, but GM Jerry Reese gave McAdoo’s offense a versatile weapon by bringing in RB Shane Vereen.
Victor Cruz’ return from a devastating injury last season makes the Giants’ passing game very dangerous, especially if his health improves this season. All the backs McAdoo has, Rashad Jennings, Andre Williams and Vereen fit his west coast system. They can be used on swing passes, wheel routes, and just about any screen game concept. With Vereen’s outstanding receiving skills, it draws defenses to man him with a defensive back because you don’t want a linebacker on him. Add that with Beckham Jr. able to blow the roof top off a secondary anywhere he lines up and Cruz’ dynamite slot prowess, and the percentages of the Giants’ offense racking up lots of points will be high. It would be better if the running game finds what it lacked last season (consistency) to keep Eli ahead of the down and distance.
Steve Spagnuolo is back to run the defense, taking over for Perry Fewell, but he won’t have what he had in ’07 with Hall of Famer Michael Strahan anchoring his unit to a championship, and New York’s best defense player Jason Pierre-Paul’s outlook after injuring his finger this summer is questionable. They’ll need him to play at a Pro Bowl caliber level and have some youngsters step up, otherwise the move up in the draft to take Alabama safety Landon Collins won’t flourish. In addition, losing S Antrel Rolle along with other key veterans adds more sour grapes. The Giants’ offense will keep them in games, but there’s too many question marks on defense that I think will catch up to them.
Chairman Jeffrey Lurie has given head coach Chip Kelly total control of the Eagles’ football operations and personnel decisions. Many faces have gone and many new ones have entered the Kelly program. When Kelly traded LeSean McCoy to Buffalo in exchange for Kiko Alonso, a linebacker coming off a torn ACL, it left many puzzled, but Kelly immediately signed last year’s rushing champion DeMarco Murray away from Dallas. He also added former Charger Ryan Mathews that could form the best running back tandem in football. The biggest gamble Kelly is rolling the dice on is his new quarterback Sam Bradford, who he acquired from St. Louis by shipping away Nick Foles. Bradford is coming off two ACLs, but when he’s been on the field, he’s taken care of the football and has completed passes at a high percentage.
The reshaping of personnel at the receiver position took place in the draft to address the loss of Jeremy Maclin (Chiefs) when Kelly used his first round pick on USC WR Nelson Agholor, a Maclin clone with precise route running skills working from the outside and in the slot. The offensive line lost Pro Bowl guard Evan Mathis and Todd Herremans, but still has five-time Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters and center Jason Kelce, who earned his first Pro Bowl honors last season. Kelly also reworked the secondary, getting rid of Cary Williams, Bradley Fletcher and Nate Allen and replacing them with top rated free agent CB Byron Maxwell, Oregon alum Walter Thurmond III and second round pick CB Eric Rowe, a Utah product with height and versatility. The Eagles’ secondary got burned last season, but Rowe can turn that around if he lives up to his expectations of being a lockdown corner. The linebacker corps is filled with an extreme amount of depth with the addition of Alonso. He’ll join a speedy group anchored by Pro Bowl pass rusher Conor Barwin, Michael Kendricks, DeMeco Ryans and Brandon Graham. D-linemen Fletcher Cox and Bennie Logan are powerful bench press pushers off the ball, freeing up the rest of Kelly’s rotation and DC Bill Davis’ pressure concepts.
Kelly’s up-tempo spread offense and multiple isolation strategies he deploys on motioning his speedsters from the backfield off the snap (Sproles will be used lots on these) catches back sevens out of position, and the quick screens and quick shallow slants neutralizes pass rushes. The wide range of play-fakes, screen game concepts and open windows will be there for Bradford to get the ball to his receivers Jordan Matthews, Riley Cooper, the rookie Agholor and his double-combo of tight ends in Zach Ertz and Brent Celek. However, it could be risky for Kelly to have him run out to the edges on read-option concepts, considering his high risk for injury. The Eagles’ defense finished with 49 sacks last season, but didn’t benefit from Kelly’s offense moving at 150 mph due to quick three and outs and the offense not controlling the tempo. The offense will move the ball and score lots of points again, but I’m wondering if Kelly slows things down some with Murray’s muscle to eat up clock. If not, the end results can turn out to be the same as last year (defense on the field too much) – but if Kelly does add a new wrinkle of dialing Murray’s number in a more violent than speed attack based philosophy, the Eagles can close out games with Murray in the second half and avoid getting caught up in high-scoring, seesaw affairs.
Dallas will win in the trenches: Believe it or not, the culture and locker room in “Big D” has transformed into a healthy environment and winning mindset of head coach Jason Garrett’s “Finish the Fight” mantra. The fortunes of the franchise has tuned its direction for the better, investing on building from the inside at the line of scrimmage while also investing on top level talents on the outside. There were hard pressed decisions to make for the Joneses during the offseason. They let franchise single-season rushing record RB DeMarco Murray go and some significant contributors at linebacker in Bruce Carter (Buccaneers) and Justin Durant (Falcons) sign with other teams. Sub-package WR/KR Dwayne Harris, DE George Selvie and OLB/DE Antony Spencer are also gone.
What they did do to add to their subtractions? The Joneses made it clear that improving the pass rush was a necessity, and I think they hit a homerun. Sure, there’s some baggage that comes with adding elite DE Greg Hardy and second round pick DE Randy Gregory, but the gamble is worth it when you a have a system in place the players are buying into. Hardy (suspended) will miss the first four games, but when he returns to action, defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli will have a deep rotation. Hardy’s an edge setter and explosive pass rusher that can also slide inside at the 3-tech and can take on two D-linemen at once. Gregory, a hybrid tool for Marinelli to use can explode with Hardy anchoring Dallas’ D-line. The Nebraska product has underrated strength and is simply a go-getter, and with the attention Hardy draws from the outside and interior, it will create favorable matchups and gaps for Gregory to shoot through, whether he rushes off the edge or is used as a blitzer in a linebacker role (think about what Justin Smith did for Aldon Smith when the 49ers’ defense harassed the pocket from ’11-to-’13). You can also factor in Carolina’s defense recording 59 sacks with Hardy anchoring their D-line in ’13. Without him, the defense took a step down last season.
Hardy’s presence in Carolina freed up D-linemen such as Charles Johnson, who finished with 11 a more sacks for two straight seasons with “The Kraken” ripping through double teams opposite of him. Examining Dallas’ defensive personnel, Marinelli has lots of flexible players ranging from the D-line, the linebackers and in the secondary this season. On nickel packages, he’ll have the luxury of deploying all of his best rushers, Hardy, Gregory, Tyrone Crawford and DeMarcus Lawrence in at the same time. These NASCAR packages have worked mightily for recent Super Bowl winners (Seahawks in ’13 and the Giants in ’11 on passing downs). Having Sean Lee back at linebacker from an ACL injury is a huge plus, and when Rolando McClain (suspended for first four games) returns, Marinelli will have a solid trio with McClain’s head-hunting prowess in the middle, pairing up with Lee and Anthony Hitchens, a second year linebacker with a good deal of upside. Fourth round pick Damien Wilson provides depth. Wilson has showed his speed and nose for the ball carrier ever since training camp began –a potential steal.
Losing CB Orlando Scandrick (season ending ACL) may look like a punishing blow to the secondary, but the additions of super-athletic DB Byron Jones, their first round pick and the signing of former Saints DB Corey White gives Marinelli lead-ways to deploy his secondary on a variety of coverage packages. Jones, a flier, can man the perimeter, slot and play the deep end while used to matchup against flex tight ends in Marinelli’s big nickel packages. White can do the same while Brandon Carr and a healthy version of Morris Claiborne play mostly outside. A better pass rush will make a big difference, and when Hardy led Carolina’s defense as an intimidating force, it helped a secondary that didn’t feature Pro Bowl caliber players play sound in coverage.
What about the Murray-less ground game? I’m not one to downplay what Murray did for Dallas’ offense, but I’m also not going to ignore the fact that running behind an upper echelon O-line helped paved the way for him. Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan has a track record of getting the best out of his personnel. The offensive line and Murray deserve lots of credit for their dominance last year, but you also have to take into account of Linehan’s Weapons in the passing game. Back sevens need to key on Dez Bryant with double coverage. Terrance Williams has sneaky speed opposite of him, and TE Jason Witten and slot WR Cole Beasley draw lots of attention in the seams. Linehan’s spread sets keep defenses backed off the line in nickel, creating lighter boxes for the ground game. The speedier and elusive backs Linehan has this season can be used out in space on screens as an extension of the running game, and take advantage from seeing a low percentage of 8 man boxes. Health concerns and a drop off from Murray’s ability of moving the pile can hurt Dallas’ ground game, but I like Darren McFadden, Joseph Randle and Lance Dunbar’s chances of keeping the ground game effective, and most importantly, keeping quarterback Tony Romo poised. You win at the line of scrimmage and Romo finally has the protection and stability he needs – ball is in his court to silence his critics.
Predicted Finish: 11-5, 2 seed
NFC North: The north is another division that hasn’t changed much with Packers looking to win their fifth straight division title. In fact, even an injury that sidelined two-time league MVP Aaron Rodgers for a good portion of the ’13 season wasn’t enough to stop Green Bay from winning the division. This year, the Packers will be without Rodgers’ bread and butter target, but will that be enough for the rest of north to overtake them?
How much worse can things get for the Chicago Bears in a rebuilding process under new general manager Ryan Pace? John Fox replacing the fired offensive minded Marc Trestman at head coach will bring a new theme to Chicago, but the road ahead will be a tall mountain to climb. Gun-slinging quarterback Jay Cutler lost one of the more complete receivers in the game in Brandon Marshall (via trade with the Jets in exchange for the 7th pick to select West Virginia star WR Kevin White), and to add more bitter salt in the water, that trade has already taken a backseat, as the rookie is in danger of missing the entire season with a leg injury.
The change of personnel on defense with the additions of OLB Pernell McPhee, S Antrel Rolle, LB Sam Acho, and Florida State 2nd round pick DT Eddie Goldman appear to be an ideal fit for Fox to run his scheme. Offensively, Matt Forte, an all-around back remains the prime dictator of new offensive coordinator Adam Gase’s offense. Gase has some quality pass catchers for Cutler to stretch the field with in TE Martellus Bennett, WR Alshon Jeffery and newcomer slot WR Eddie Royal looking to bring his versatile skills to Chicago’s offense. In the grand scheme of things, the success of the Bears in ’15 hinges on how Cutler adapts to the organizations overhaul, especially knowing that management was looking for ways to ship him away. The outside noise and pressure is massive and that could be too much for him to overcome.
Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater finished his rookie season strong, completing over 70 percent of his passes in his last five games. Offensive coordinator Norv Turner has worked his magic as a play-caller and as a guidance factor on developing quarterbacks throughout his career, including Hall of Famer Troy Aikman in his days as an assistant with the Dallas Cowboys. The Vikings believe they’ve found their future in Bridgewater, who showed lots of intelligence and composure – mixed with his ability to use his feet to extend plays and move the chains. The youngster’s sophomore season has the makings to see a rise with weapons at his disposal. The embattled and incredible running back Adrian Peterson is back and ready to shake off the drama to remind everyone he’s the best in the business. WR Greg Jennings was one of the few significant losses, but the addition of speedster, deep-threat Mike Wallace is an upgrade on the outside for Bridgewater.
The Vikings are loaded with talent on defense. Add a couple of highly ranked prospects in 2nd round pick LB Eric Kendricks and CB Trae Waynes to a unit that features up and coming star LB Anthony Barr, CB Xavier Rhodes, S Harrison Smith, DE Everson Griffen (led team with 12 sacks in ‘14), newcomer veteran CB Terence Newman and LB Chad Greenway, and HC Mike Zimmer’s defense can take another a major step this season. The Vikings have injuries and question marks on the offensive line, but Peterson’s extreme physicality to shed tacklers with his violent style of running and Bridgewater’s mobility can overcome blocking weaknesses. If TE Kyle Rudolph can stay healthy, Bridgewater will have a seam route threat combined with ammo on the perimeter. A ground game will give the Vikings’ offense balance and the play-action pass for Turner’s second year quarterback. All of this has me circling the Vikings as one of my Dark Horse teams this season.
Head coach Jim Caldwell has changed the culture and attitude in Detroit. The Lions were a feisty ball club in Caldwell’s first season calling the shots. A ferocious defense that recorded 42 sacks, with 34 of them coming from the men with their hands in the ground was a big reason why the Lions made it to the postseason in ‘14. Not to mention Golden Tate and Calvin “Megatron” Johnson, one of the games most lethal WR tandems both eclipsing the 1,000 yard mark. Caldwell’s team still sports lots skilled position players, but with the losses of DT Ndamukung Suh and DE George Johnson, two big contributors, there’s more than a few outsiders wondering if DC Teryl Austin will get the same production from his group in the trenches this season.
I’m thinking that Austin’s unit stays strong. Nobody is up to par with Suh’s interior prowess, but his replacement Haloti Ngata, a five-time Pro Bowler has also made a living creating havoc up front, and Ziggy Ansah and Jason Jones at defensive end are good edge setters/quality pass rushers. Ngata will draw double teams, keeping Austin’s strengths of deploying stunts, twists and manufacturing packages ready to unleash against opponents at the point of attack. Weakside LB DeAndre Levy is a viable blitzer and head hunter covering lots of ground, and the secondary returns Pro Bowl FS Glover Quinn, CB Rashean Mathis, CB Darius Slay and SS James Ihedigbo – all ball-hawking defensive backs and neutralizers of the deep ball. Pressure will still be there and windows for the opposition to exploit Austin’s backend will be very little.
A more consistent running game is imperative to take some pressure off quarterback Matthew Stafford’s back, and I give props to Detroit on addressing the O-line and adding skill at the running back position in the draft by selecting Duke G Lakem Tomlinson in the first round and Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah (reminds me of Ray Rice) in the second round. Abdullah and Joique Bell can provide a solid one-two punch, and sophomore TE Eric Ebron (looking to break out) is expected to be more involved in the passing game. The plan for offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi is to up man coverage looks for Stafford. If that takes place this season, Lombardi will use Stafford’s rocket arm – bombing away to Megatron and gang.
The Packers still have the mojo without Nelson to make a deep run: Reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers won’t have Jordy Nelson (ACL) to work with this season. There won’t be that QB/WR connection Rodgers has made famous with Nelson on back shoulder fades, slants, skinny post, shallow and deep crossing routes, and the deadly deep ball on the outside and inside on a deep middle post. The double moves and precise routes of Jordy will be ghost, but does this mean the league’s top scoring offense from a year ago will sputter in ’15? I can see defenses using more double coverage rolled over on WR Randall Cobb, but Cobb’s multi-faceted skills is one of the key isolation elements of HC Mike McCarthy’s offense. McCarthy and OC Edgar Bennett will continue to move Cobb around from the perimeter to the slot and occasionally will have him lined up in the backfield to use him on swing passes and wheel routes to create mismatches. They’ll also use him on Jet-sweeps and gadget plays. Cobb can hurt a defense in so many ways, but for the passing game to open up Rodger’s second, third and fourth options on a consistent basis, the Packers will need a healthy Cobb (shoulder).
Eddie Lacy provides the ground game an every down back able to punish defenders with his bruising style for long gains and short yardage/goal line situations. FB Jon Kuhn is a stone cold blocker sealing linebackers for Lacy and spell back James Starks is a solid change-of-pace runner when the Packers switch things up. Not to mention all the backs in McCarthy’s system can be utilized out of the backfield in the screen game. All of the multiple personnel groupings on offense and wide alignments will keep defenses on their heels, and if needed, Lacy can shoulder a heavy workload to draw stacked boxes, giving the aerial attack man coverage looks – advantage Rodgers.
General manager Ted Thompson has stuck to his guns on preferring to stack Green Bay’s roster depth with young talents through the draft and not spend highly on veteran free agents. The Packers lost cornerbacks Tramon Williams (Browns) and Devon House (Jaguars) via free agency, but Thompson replaced them with upside talents in the first two rounds, taking S/CB Damarious Randall 30th overall and Quinton Rollins 62nd overall. Linebackers Brad Jones and A.J. Hawk are gone, but Sam Barrington and rookie 4th round pick Jake Ryan will keep defensive Coordinator Dom Capers’ unit filled with athleticism. To pressure the pocket, Clay Matthews, Julius Peppers, Mike Neal and Nick Perry are Capers’ hybrid-linebackers used in his NASCAR packages that’ll remain effective, and the secondary still looks deep for him to deploy on nickel and dime packages. Getting B.J. Raji back at nose tackle could improve their woes on defending the run, particularly between the tackles.
There wasn’t any changes made to an offensive line that’s anchored by Pro Bowl G Josh Sitton, and Rodgers still has a good shield up front to protect him. WR Davonte Adams stepped up down the stretch and came up big the playoffs in his rookie season, and with Nelson out, his second year is a calling for him to manifest his physical and street ball skills to its full potential. Coach McCarthy has dealt with adversity before when he won his first Super Bowl by adapting and making adjustments to overcome a slew of injuries, and he has a good enough team to do it again.
Predicted Finish: 12-4, 1 seed
NFC South: The south was atrocious last season. The Carolina Panthers won the division with a losing record of 7-8-1, the Saints finished 7-9, the Falcons 6-10 and the Buccaneers finished 2-14, awarding the struggling franchise the top pick of the draft to select ’13 Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston.
The Bucs didn’t stop there, as they made strides to address a putrid offensive line by taking T Donovan Smith and G Ali Marpet in the following round. General manager Jason Licht overhauled a defense that lost S Dashon Goldson and DE Michael Johnson to give defensive minded head coach Lovie Smith more athleticism by adding S D.J. Swearinger (Texans), two former Cowboys in LB Bruce Carter and DT Henry Melton, and trading with the Lions for DE George Johnson. Usually, when a rookie quarterback is thrown into the fire, the outcome is messy on a rebuilding team.
Winston has the build to withstand hits and he’s took them during the preseason. Pass protection could be an issue once again if their O-line draft picks don’t hold the fort, but looking at the skill positions, Winston has a tall order of tremendously skilled/physical weapons to chuck the pigskin to in second year WR Mike Evans, who caught 12 TD passes in his rookie campaign and WR Vincent Jackson. TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins, who the Bucs took in the second round in ’14, is also a big target looking to break out as a seam threat. Ultimately, if Winston is going to end up on the winning side of things, RB Doug Martin needs to get back to gashing defenses like he did in rookie season. Otherwise, a lack of an effective running game can be too much of burden for Winston to overcome.
A second straight season of missing the playoffs influenced the Falcons to make coaching changes. Mike Smith is out, in steps former Seattle defensive coordinator Dan Quinn and zone-blocking-scheme expert Kyle Shanahan to coordinate the offense. Quinn will instill the philosophies from his days in Seattle of being a hard-nosed, foot in the ground minded coach that will stress playing with a great deal of enthusiasm. Speaking of enthusiasm, the Falcons already began that process under Quinn when they used their 8th overall pick to wheel in Clemson star DE Vic Beasley, an explosive athlete that has everything it takes to be a top QB-harasser.
The Falcons’ defense was horrendous on bringing QB’s to the ground in ’14, registering only 22 sacks, but Beasley is the cornerstone piece of the puzzle that can begin the upward climb to formulating a quality pass rush. Offensively, Shanahan has a tough road ahead of him on getting an offensive line that’s in flux to execute his scheme, particularly to get the best out of second year RB Davonta Freeman and 3rd round draft pick RB Tevin Coleman. The bright side for Shanahan is that he has a franchise quarterback in Matt Ryan, who can get the ball downfield to elite WR Julio Jones and a well-polished pass catcher complementing him in Roddy White. It’s not a question of how Ryan will perform, but developing an identity to play organized ball and taking some weight off of Ryan’s shoulders can have this team going further than expected. Don’t sleep on them.
Some organizations like the Panthers are lucky to have a quarterback that can escape immense pressure with their unorthodox skills behind a porous group of pass blockers. That factor, along with Cam Newton’s maturity rising is why Panthers general manager Dave Gettlemen signed the playmaking QB to a $103.8 million long term deal. The Panthers used only one of their five draft picks on an offensive lineman in the 5th round, but their first round pick, OLB Shaq Thompson provides the coaching staff with multiple ways to utilize him because of his extended skills. 2nd round pick Devin Funchess, a WR/TE is a hybrid physical target that impact Carolina’s passing game.
The depth Gettlemen brought along at the receiver position can prove to be the most important moves for the club knowing that Newton’s prime target in Kelvin Benjamin (ACL) is out for the season. Underrated tight end Greg Olsen has been a reliable target for Newton, but it’s going to be up to a Benjamin-less receiving corps to step up on the perimeter to give him open windows in the middle seams. Offensive coordinator Mike Shula will rely on often injured RB Jonathan Stewart to finally have a healthy campaign, now that DeAngelo Williams (Steelers) is gone. Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott has a good enough front to pressure the pocket and perhaps the best linebacker duo in the game in Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, who are rangy and can drop back into coverage to cover tight ends and defend backs leaking out of the backfield. I like head coach Ron Rivera’s personality and smash mouth style. That attitude rubs his team the right way, but can they overcome injuries and adversity to capture a third straight division title?
Improving the offensive line, depth on defense and a healthy Cooks has me rolling with the Saints to have a bounce back year: Cap issues can force the hand of organizations into a sell-off. That all began in the early stages of the offseason when general manager Mickey Loomis shipped away amazingly talented TE Jimmy Graham to the Seattle Seahawks in exchange for a first round pick and C Max Unger. Loomis also dealt WR Kenny Stills and G Ben Grubbs while releasing RB Pierre Thomas. The needed cap room was to address a defense that hasn’t been up to par with their high-octane offense, which is the reason why six of their nine drafts picks were defensive players. They made a cut-throat move by releasing the talented but troubled pass rusher Junior Galette and let a few other contributors on defense go.
Their replacements should be an overall upgrade with the signings of beefy DT Kevin Williams, pass rusher Anthony Spencer, LB Dannell Ellerbe and physical CB Brandon Browner. The move to get Browner (Aqib Talib traits) will give DC Rob Ryan the luxury of using his big frame against physical receivers and tight ends and occasionally play him near the line in safety/Linebacker role on nickel packages. Ellerbe will help them on the weakside, and though DE’s Cameron Jordan and Akiem Hicks had a down year in ’14, they’re both capable of stepping things up.
Stanford product offensive tackle Andrus Peat was taken 13th overall to better quarterback Drew Brees’ blind side, and without Graham creating mismatches, head coach Sean Payton can find other ways with his offensive personnel to attack defenses. Payton’s system thrives on showing the opposition different formations and personnel packages, and he can turn to the ground game with RB Mark Ingram to setup the play-action pass. Unger is one of the best interior blockers that can impact the Saints’ ground game, and if second year WR Brandin Cooks can avoid the injury bug, he and Brees are primed to make lots of noise at every angle of the field. Let’s not forget about Payton using the backs in the screen game, and if C.J. Spiller recovers from knee surgery, he can be an explosive option in space. I still don’t like the fact of giving a contender like Seattle Graham, but sometimes you have to take an addition by subtraction approach. Imagine if all of this works out to the tee – Loomis would look like a genius.
Predicted Finish 10-6, 4 seed
NFC West: Lots of moves took place this offseason in the west, from players to coaches and one gigantic blockbuster deal made between a pacific northwestern team and a team from Louisiana that could make the biggest difference on who’ll be raising the Lombardi Trophy in February.
Head coach Jeff Fisher is widely known for his smash mouth philosophy of stacking the line on both sides of the gridiron, but since he’s been the boss in St. Louis, the Rams haven’t taken a major step. When he led the Titans to a Super Bowl appearance sixteen seasons ago, he had a power running game led by Eddie George, a stout defense that featured top-tier pass rushers such as Jevon Kearse and a special teams that made big time plays. The issue hasn’t been defense for Fisher thus far in St. Louis, which is why defensive coordinator Gregg Williams influenced him not take a defensive approach in the draft.
They only made three significant moves in the offseason on defense – all on the D-line, letting Kenny Langford go, taking Martin Ifedi in the final round of the draft and added former Detroit DT Nick Fairley. The big and stocky Fairley joins one of the leagues fearsome defensive lines that sports DE Robert Quinn, one of the best in the game and rising star DT Aaron Donald. Fairly can even further the Rams’ production providing a deep rotation for Williams’ unit.
As far the offense goes, that’s an area Fisher is mainly in the process of turning around to form a complete football team. The Steve McNair (rest in peace Steve) project worked out beautifully for Fisher in Tennessee, but the Sam Bradford one didn’t. Bradford was traded to Philadelphia in exchange for Nick Foles, as the organization decided that Bradford’s nagging ACL injuries was too much of a concern for the team to carry. Seven of the Rams’ nine draft picks were offensive players, and the biggest one was the selection of Georgia Phenom Todd Gurley with the 10th overall pick. Gurley is Fisher’s perfect style of runner. His speed, power and explosive acceleration makes him pro ready to be a featured running back. If the rookie recovers from ACL surgery quickly, he can help a subpar offensive line because of his ability to shed tacklers and move the pile. If Fisher’s Rams are going to make it to the postseason for the first time under him, the offense needs a major improvement.
It seemed like every time you turned to ESPN, NFL Network or gazed across social networks, somebody on the 49ers either retired or was let go. New head coach Jim Tomsula will take over for Jim Harbaugh, with a roster that’s been majorly overhauled. An offensive line that was once looked upon as the best grinders in the business lost G Mike Iupati (Cardinals) and T Anthony Davis (retired). Dominant bone-crushing-hitting LB Patrick Willis and a potential star LB Chris Borland also retired. One of the franchise’s all-time greats, RB Frank Gore left for Indianapolis and WR Michael Crabtree (Raiders) along with a few other vital parts of yesterday are gone.
The biggest concerns on Tomsula’s roster lie in the trenches. With versatile D-lineman Justin Smith (retired) and the problematic OLB Aldon Smith released, it’s going to be interesting to see if first round pick Arik Armstead, Glenn Dorsey, Ian Williams, Quinton Dial and Tony Jerod-Eddie can produce from the inside-out. On the positive side of things, the linebackers, with top-notch Navarro Bowman healthy look decent, and the secondary was addressed by the losses of S Perish Cox and CB Chris Culliver by adding former San Diego CB Shareece Wright and second round pick S Jaquiski Tartt. You need three safeties due to the tight ends being flexed and with Antoine Bethea, Eric Reid and the rookie Tartt, DC Eric Mangini can interchange his safeties on singe-high alignments and in big nickel.
You’d think a roster that lost an abundance of talent would look like a rebuilding team, but looking at the skill positions, the 49ers have found a way to replace their missing pieces with new chips capable of making plays. Filling the loss of Crabtree with former Raven Torrey Smith gives quarterback Colin Kaepernick a vertical stretcher opposite of the reliable and durable veteran Anquan Boldin – and if OC Geep Chryst can get TE Vernon Davis back to his Pro-Bowl form, the 49ers’ offense will have three angles of the field to attack defenses with. Let’s not forget them drafting former Buckeye Carlos Hyde last season to eventually replace the aging Gore. Hyde is a downhill runner with explosive power and strength to plow through tacklers. He’s a player with potential breakout this season, and if former Saint/Lion Reggie Bush can finally have a healthy season, he’ll give Chryst the option to get him out in space in the screen game. Things may look like a train wreck in San Francisco, but I’m not guaranteeing it will be.
The Cardinals were riding high in ’14 until Carson Palmer’s season came to an end against the Rams in Week 10 when he injured his knee. Backup Drew Stanton also went down with a partial tear to his ACL, handing things over to third stringer Ryan Lindley, who couldn’t deliver for last year’s NFL Coach of The Year, Bruce Arians’ team down the stretch. There were other factoring injuries on offense, but Palmer’s injury proved to be the most damaging blow to the team, as the Cardinals lost five of their last eight games, including the playoffs without him. RB Andre Ellington’s season ended when he needed surgery to repair a hernia last December, but ’15 can bring better luck to him, as general manager Steve Keim continued the process of adding depth on the roster. Ellington will be the focal part of the Cardinals’ offense, carrying the rock and used out in space as a pass catcher, and with the Cardinals adding two backs in veteran Chris Johnson and 3rd round pick David Johnson, who bring the same extended skills, changing the pace will benefit Ellington. The better the ground game, the better it will be for Palmer to avoid injury and get situated on high percentage passing downs.
They added a swing tackle in the first round when they selected D.J. Humphries, but the move to improve the interior of their O-line by signing G Mike Iupati has set them back, as the 3-time Pro Bowler is expected to miss 6-to-8 weeks while recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery. To work around pass protection and run blocking vulnerabilities, Arians’ playbook runs deep. He likes to go vertical, but he’ll use WR screens and short/quick passing concepts as an extension of the running game. Larry Fitzgerald may have lost a step, but he’s still an enthusiastic fighter and reliable factor defenses need to respect. Michael Floyd and slot receiver John Brown are Arians’ best deep ball threats, stressing defensive coordinators to keep a safety over the top. That opens up the slant game and crossing route concepts for Palmer to get the ball to his receivers underneath. Anyway Arians slices it, whether it’s the backs doing their thing or the intermediate passes working effectively – it draws the backend of defenses to play up – setting up man coverage for Palmer to go vertical.
Defensively, James Bettcher takes over for Todd Bowles at defensive coordinator. Bowles’ sent the house on multiple blitz packages and Bettcher, who coached the linebackers, looks to do the same. The Cardinals lost a couple of difference makers on defense in CB Antonio Cromartie (Jets) and DL Dan Williams (Raiders), but Keim brought in linebackers Sean Weatherspoon and LaMarr Woodley to a solid corps, and Cory Redding adds strength to a D-line anchored by Calais Campbell. The secondary will be stronger, with S Tyrann Mathieu looking fully recovered from a serious knee injury he suffered in his rookie season, and a thumb injury in ‘14. The amazing CB Patrick Peterson can man up against anyone, anywhere on the field and S Deone Bucannon’s hybrid skills should have bettcher use him the same as Bowles did near the line in a linebacker role. Arians’ team is stacked, and if the aging Palmer makes it through the smoke and fire without setbacks, the Cardinals should challenge Seattle to the very end in the west…maybe they can do more than that.
Seattle’s power move keeps them atop the west: When Seattle acquired tight end Jimmy Graham in a trade with New Orleans, the first thing that came to mind was the HUGE impact it will have on what makes Seattle’s offense go – Marshawn “Beast Mode” Lynch. Of Course, you have to sacrifice to get an elite player when making a trade, so Seattle shipped away their first round pick and Pro Bowl center Max Unger to land Graham. Seattle also lost G Dan Carpenter (Jets) in free agency, but no need to fear the holes on the offensive line much when you have Lynch’s freakish strength, running over tacklers and quarterback Russell Wilson’s amazing sandlot skills turning a broken down play into a positive gain on the run.
The emphasis of offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell’s system lies on zone-read concepts and play-action bootlegs to get Wilson positioned at what he does best (throw on the run), but with Graham’s extraordinary receiving skills, Bevell will have the keys to flex him in the slot and move him out to the perimeter. It wouldn’t surprise me if he has him leak out of the backfield on short yardage situations, but it’s a guarantee that he’ll use Graham’s and WR Chris Matthews’ big size on fades when the Seahawks are in the redzone. The recent signing of veteran RB Fred Jackson to replace the departed Robert Turbin gives Lynch a quality spell back that Bevell can also deploy in the screen game and flex out to draw away main reads. Third round pick Tyler Locket, a lightning rod slot receiver added to the passing game has been making music all summer with Wilson and on special teams where he’ll serve as the kick/punt returner.
The defense didn’t lose much other than OLB Malcom Smith and CB Bryon Maxwell (Eagles), who general manager John Schneider decided not to match Philadelphia’s mega offer, but signed Cary Williams to play opposite of star corner Richard Sherman. Schneider extended weakside LB K.J. Wright for four years in December and made sure new defensive coordinator Kris Richard wasn’t going to lose All-Pro Bobby Wagner when he locked down the Mike linebacker on 4-year, $43 million deal. Strongside Hybrid LB Bruce Irvin rounds out arguably the best corps in the business and will be deployed as rusher on the edge in Seattle’s nickel defense. Rookie second round pick DE Frank Clark and former Brown DT
Ahtyba Rubin figure to be part of Seattle’s pass rushing rotation led by defensive ends Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett.
There’s no glaring weaknesses for head coach Pete Carroll’s defense. Defending the run won’t be an issue and the pass rush looks to be strong again. That will keep the pressing and bailing of Seattle’s Cover 3 scheme functioning. Three-time All-Pro free safety Earl Thomas is the best there is in a center fielder role, bracketing the deep middle and the “Shermanator” limits opposing quarterbacks from testing his side of the field. Strong safety Kam Chancellor is currently holding out. Rumor has it that the Seahawks may be willing to trade him for a couple of high draft picks, and the more he misses time, the more he’ll be fined. There’s really no leverage for Chancellor and the front office isn’t giving in. My guess is, he’ll eventually end up on the field and return to his tone setting, safety/linebacker/defensive end role. We know Seattle’s vaunted defense has been the best in the NFL, and Schneider improved the offense big time with the Graham move. Their schedule looks challenging, but only injuries and contract disputes can get in their way from making the postseason.
Predicted finish: 11-5, 3 seed
MY NFC Dark Horse Teams: Arizona Cardinals, Minnesota Vikings, Carolina Panthers, Atlanta Falcons
NFC Wild Cards: Philadelphia Eagles, 10-6 (5th seed), Detroit Lions, 10-6 (6th seed)
Predicting the Award Winners:
League MVP: QB Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts
Offensive Player of the Year: QB Aaron Rodgers, Packers
Defensive Player of the Year: DE J.J. Watt, Houston Texans
Offensive Rookie of the Year: WR, Amari Cooper, Oakland Raiders
Defensive Rookie of the Year: DE Randy Gregory, Dallas Cowboys
Comeback Player of the Year: RB Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings
Predicting the Playoffs and Super Bowl winner:
Wild Card Round
Denver Broncos (3) 24, Miami Dolphins (6) 17
Baltimore Ravens (4) 23, Kansas City Chiefs (5) 16
Indianapolis Colts (1) 31, Kansas City Chiefs (5) 24
Baltimore Ravens (4) 34, New England Patriots (2) 27
Baltimore Ravens (4) 34, Indianapolis Colts (1) 31
Wild Card Round
Seattle Seahawks (3) 30, Detroit Lions (6) 20
Philadelphia Eagles (5) 34, New Orleans Saints (4) 30
Green Bay Packers (1) 34, Philadelphia Eagles (5) 24
Dallas Cowboys (2) 24, Seattle Seahawks (5) 23
Dallas Cowboys (2) 30, Green Bay Packers (1) 27
Super Bowl 50
Dallas Cowboys 27, Baltimore Ravens 24
Super Bowl MVP, QB Tony Romo, Dallas Cowboys
You can follow Massimo Russo on Twitter @NFLMassimo and SilverandBlueReport.com @SilverBlueRpt