"This league, truly, because of the parity, drives you to 8-8." - Seahawks GM John Schneider
The Dallas Cowboys could have the worst defense in the NFL; that was the consensus from most of the sports world this time last year. The middling Cowboys (8-8 the year before) had cut Demarcus Ware, lost Jason Hatcher to free agency and lost Sean Lee to an ACL tear, prompting these claims, which weren't exactly hyperbole. Afterall, the Cowboys had given up the 6,645 yards on defense in 2013, third worst in league history.
Instead, Dallas came out and shocked those cynics. The defense wasn't great, but they schemed their way around its limitations to finish 12-4 and coming within a catch/no-catch of their first trip to the NFC Championship in two decades.
It seems like every year, a new group of upstarts secure berths to the postseason and a few clubs that start the year near the top of the media's preseason rankings only to end up in the middle or worse by December. Parity is one of the NFL's best attributes, and there will no doubt be some surprises in store for fans.
Let's take a stab at predicting and a few teams with the potential to regress, then a few that could see big turnarounds.
Denver Broncos (12-4 in 2014)
The Broncos are still a very talented team and return many of their key performers from last season. However, the major wild card, obviously, is: what version of Peyton Manning will take the field in 2015?
Over the Broncos' final eight games (including their playoff loss to the Colts), with Denver's revamped run-heavy focus, the future Hall of Famer completed just 62 percent of his passes at 6.9 yards per attempt, connecting on 11 touchdowns while throwing eight interceptions. When you compare that to Manning's first nine games of the season (67 percent, 8.25 YPA, 29 TD to seven INT), it's disconcerting.
It also doesn't help that Manning lost one of his favorite targets in Julius Thomas, meaning the rarely targeted Virgil Green will have to quickly assume that role. Can Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders carry the load if not? It will be interesting.
It's likely that Denver will continue to look for balance on offense but if the 39-year old Manning falls off that proverbial cliff this year in terms of performance, the Broncos may be hard-pressed to match those 12 wins.
New England Patriots (12-4 in 2014)
There are two major question marks for the Patriots in 2015: 1) How many games will Tom Brady miss due to the DeflateGate suspension, and 2) what's going on in their secondary?
The first question will likely be answered over the next few weeks or months, but if it stays at the original punishment of four games, that could be a major blow to New England. Assuming the suspension sticks -- how beat up will the Jimmy Garopolo-led Patriots get while facing the Steelers, Bills, Jags and Cowboys? Those early four games could end up being crucial for standings and seeding in the AFC and the Patriots' division, which is, of course, just finishing up a major arms race this offseason.
Of course, it's not just Brady that should concern Pats fans. While New England has beefed up their front seven with Jabaal Sheard, Brandon Spikes, Malcom Brown and Trey Flowers, they've lost a big chunk of the secondary from last year. Re-signing Devin McCourty was an important move, but Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner, Kyle Arrington and Alfonzo Dennard are all gone. Will Bradley Fletcher and Logan Ryan start outside? What about Justin Green or Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler? No matter how you look at it, it's a huge downgrade at a premium position.
Things aren't getting any easier in the AFC East either. New England's major advantage is that they have a true franchise quarterback, for most of the season anyway. They should be fine, but can they get to 12 wins again?
San Francisco 49ers (8-8 in 2014)
The Niners have a tough offseason, first controversially "parting ways" with head coach Jim Harbaugh and his coordiantors, Greg Roman and Vic Fangio. Next, they lost two pillars of their defense in Patrick Willis and Justin Smith to retirement. Adding to that, promising young linebacker Chris Borland decided to retire as well, and gone in free agency or via cap cuts are Frank Gore, Mike Iupati, Michael Crabtree, Perrish Cox, Chris Culliver, Brandon Lloyd and Stevie Johnson, among others.
San Francisco got reinforcements by signing Darnell Dockett, Torrey Smith, Shareece Wright, Chris Cook and Reggie Bush, but will those five right the ship, even if they play up to their potential? The defensive front is inexperienced in spots, as is the offensive line. Getting NaVorro Bowman back from his knee injury would be huge, of course, but it's been a long rehab and there's always a readjustment period expected. There's still a question as to which direction Colin Kaepernick's career is trending. His play this year will be crucial to answering it.
It's always tough to count San Francisco out -- they've got a ton of talent, some very intriguing players waiting in the wings and they've been incredibly resilient over the years -- but with the upheaval in the front office, the exodus of some key players this offseason and a diminished homefield advantage in the new stadium in Santa Clara still an issue, the 49ers have some major hurdles to clear this season. Will they get back over .500?
Players to Watch
Players to Watch
If you make a list of all the sub-.500 teams from 2014, the vast majority had big issues at the quarterback position, whether it was lack of talent, injury, inexperience, inconsistency, or a combination of all four. It's no coincidence that the first two clubs on my list have one very important thing in common: they both have proven franchise quarterbacks. It's on the other side of the football where they must improve.
Atlanta Falcons (6-10 in 2014)
Just having Matt Ryan gives the Falcons substantially better odds at a big bounce-back next year, but there's also a defense that gave up more than 26 points per game last season. Atlanta got a huge shakeup over the offseason -- a whole new coaching staff and a bevy of personnel moves -- but the main focus was on the defensive side of the football. For good reason. While Atlanta finished with the 10th ranked offense in the NFL last year per Football Outsiders DVOA metric (respectable), they were dead last in defense. That's where Dan Quinn comes in.
It's obviously too early to tell if Quinn and his Seattle-styled system can tun things around for the Falcons, but he's made some moves in free agency to add some tools that can run what he did with the Seahawks last year. Adrian Clayborn can play the strongside end and will get some looks on the inside in nickel, and Brooks Reed will play outside linebacker in base sets and rush the passer on third downs. Justin Durant is likely starter at the weak side in year one, O'Brien Schofield will be a sub-package rusher and Phillip Adams adds depth at corner. That's a start.
Adding weak side pass rusher Vic Beasley (first round), cornerback Jalen Collins (second) and defensive tackle Grady Jarrett (fifth) means the Falcons could potentially see three rookies become first-year impact players. Beasley will likely get a ton of pass rushing snaps. We may see Collins start opposite Desmond Trufant and Jarrett will get snaps in the Atlanta defensive line rotation. Will these additions be enough? Another factor will be how much Quinn can get out of second year pro Ra'shede Hageman, last year's second-rounder that he inherits from the previous regime.
They have a long way to go on defense, but with Quinn calling the shots it wouldn't surprise me to see some immediate dividends from their investments. In the relatively weak NFC South, Atlanta could make a run for the division title. Let's even assume the division produces a winning record this next year.
New York Giants (6-10 in 2014)
First of all, it did not help that about eleven billion players got hurt for New York last year, and they led the NFL with 20 players on the IR by the end of the season. A good chunk of those players return this year and, with luck, will be on the field.
Offensively, there's room for improvement, and Odell Beckham's insane second half last year brings hope. Once Beckham took the field in 2014 after missing the first five games, Eli Manning's line spiked into the "actually fairly decent" range, and over his final 12 games, he completed 62 percent of his passes for 3,436 yards, 21 touchdowns to nine picks and a 91.2 rating. Add back in Victor Cruz, sprinkle in some free agent Shane Vereen, and New York's passing game could potentially look much better in 2015.
Of course, like the Falcons, it's the defensive side of the ball that needs to pick up more of the slack. The Giants finished last year 24th in defense per Football Outsiders' DVOA, but they made a few moves that could help in this area.
Franchising Jason Pierre-Paul was a key to the Giants' pass rush and defensive line, then grabbing Alabama's Landon Collins -- the consensus top safety in the draft -- in the second round, was huge. UCLA's Owamagbe Odighizuwa was considered by some to be a first-round talent, so getting him in the third round could turn into another pass-rushing steal for New York. I thought that nabbing defensive tackle Kenrick Ellis in free agency was an underrated move which could help shore up their run defense.
Additionally, New York has a few young players that could make big leaps on defense this year. Linebacker Devon Kennard showed well down the stretch, as did pass rusher Demontre Moore. Defensive backs Cooper Taylor, Trumaine McBride and Prince Amukamara all ended the year on the IR and will be back.
It won't be easy in a very tough NFC East, but could the Giants be a dark horse in that division this year?
New York Jets (4-12 in 2014)
The Jets have a new front office and a new head coach in the highly respected Todd Bowles. They also had a whole bunch of money to play with in free agency. They used it well, putting together a brand-spanking new secondary for the defensive-minded Bowles, grabbing Darrelle Revis, Antonio Cromartie, Buster Skrine and Marcus Gilchrist. Drafting Leonard Williams with the sixth overall pick was a steal. On paper, this is a freakishly talented and deep defense.
Of course, they improved on offense as well, acquiring Brandon Marshall, Stevan Ridley, James Carpenter, DeVier Posey and Zac Stacy. Nabbing Devin Smith with their second-round pick made a lot of sense as well.
This looks like a team poised to make a major jump, but there's still one enormous question mark: the quarterback position. Geno Smith has been named the starter, and New York has done a good job of amassing some talent around him. Can he produce in his third year?
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