Another Seahawks-Broncos Super Bowl? Back-to-back Super Bowl appearances for both teams doesn’t seem likely on first glance. It has only happened once before, when the Dallas Cowboys beat the Buffalo Bills by a mere 17 points in January 1994, one year after a 35-point victory margin in the big game. But there are some parallels. Most notably, the current versions of the Seahawks and Broncos return the nucleus of their conference-winning starting lineups.
There’s more turnover among today’s predicted winners because the reality of the salary cap has changed over the last 20 years. You could probably argue that both of these teams are better than the 2013 versions, given Denver’s free agent haul and Seattle’s depth. At this point, it’s hard to predict anything other than a Super Bowl rematch given how loaded both these teams are.
Nevertheless, these are predictions, albeit educated ones from SB Nation’s roster of team bloggers. We also made our picks for the season’s award winners, some being much easier than the others.
The Broncos and the Seahawks and the 30 other teams vying for a Lombardi Trophy this year still have to play out 16 games, battle through injuries and avoid the kind of unlucky bounces that can change the course of a season. The unpredictability is what makes it so exciting in the first place.
Forget improvement -- the Cowboys’ defense is just worried about having enough warm bodies to fill out a depth chart at this point. A year after allowing the third-most yards in NFL history, the unit has been wracked by exits and injuries at a mind-boggling rate: DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher left town, star linebacker Sean Lee is out for the season, second-rounder DeMarcus Lawrence will miss the first three games minimum, promising young linebacker DeVonte Holloman had his career cut short by a neck injury and cornerback Orlando Scandrick will start the year with a four-game suspension. Dallas’ explosive offense will win the team a fair share of games (assuming Tony Romo’s surgically repaired back holds up), but unless a few unheralded defenders can emerge to fill the void, it’s hard to imagine Jason Garrett finally breaks the .500 threshold.
If the Cowboys are going to win in 2014, it’s going to be in shootouts. And if they’re going to win shootouts, it’s going to be because of Bryant. The fifth-year pro has hauled in 2,615 yards and 25 touchdowns over the last two seasons and has a sound argument as the most physically gifted wideout in the league.
The Cowboys are hoping that Lawrence, an athletic edge rusher out of Boise State, is the heir apparent to the departed Ware. Lawrence was working behind Jeremy Mincey at defensive end in training camp before going down with a serious foot injury, but he’ll be called on to contribute immediately whenever he’s cleared to return. The latest reports have that happening sometime between Weeks 3 and 6.
The fact that the most dependable piece on the Cowboys’ D-line is a guy who hasn’t suited up in roughly a year speaks volumes. Nevertheless, Melton was one of the league’s top pass-rushing defensive tackles before going down with a torn ACL last September in Chicago and should provide critical support in the interior. His best two seasons with the Bears came in 2011 and ‘12 while working under Rod Marinelli, who happens to be running the defense in Dallas now.
Owner John Mara deemed the Giants’ offense “broken” in the wake of a disastrous 2013 that saw them start 0-6 for the first time in nearly four decades, and rebooting the unit has been the team’s primary offseason focus. Offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride has been replaced by Ben McAdoo and his West Coast scheme, the O-line has been blown up and rebuilt, and three of the first four draft picks were spent on the offensive side of the ball. Defense has long been the backbone of Big Blue, but its 2014 fate lies in its ability to spark an offensive renaissance.
Things haven’t been so hot for Pierre-Paul over the past two years. After getting to the quarterback 16.5 times in a breakout 2011, injuries and inconsistent play limited him to just 8.5 sacks in ‘12 and ‘13 combined. With Justin Tuck now in Oakland, there’s more pressure than ever for Pierre-Paul to fulfill his destiny as the next great Giants defensive lineman. All the work the team has put into beefing up the secondary is for naught if the front line can’t generate a pass rush, so it’s fair to say the Giants’ defensive success hinges on whether JPP can return to form.
New York is counting on Beckham to fill the void left by Hakeem Nicks and round out Manning's receiving options.
Manning, who began and ended last season with an interception, led the league with 27 picks and averaged a turnover every 20 dropbacks. Complicating matters in 2014 is a shift from Gilbride’s vertical offense -- which fit well with Manning’s deep-ball ability -- to a West Coast attack that will challenge him to make quick, accurate throws on short and intermediate routes.
Year one under Chip Kelly had its ups and downs, but the offensive progress can’t be denied -- the Eagles finished second in total offense, first in rushing yards and fourth in scoring. Nick Foles rocketed from backup to star, and even after the release of DeSean Jackson, he’s surrounded by a host of dangerous playmakers (not the least of which is 2013 NFL rushing champ LeSean McCoy). Kelly’s offensive system has the pieces to succeed, and if offseason upgrades to the defensive secondary pay off, Philly should have no problem competing for the division title.
Defenses rarely had an answer for Shady last season. He racked up a total of 2,146 yards, with more than 1,600 of those coming on the ground in Kelly's fast-paced offense.
Jackson and Jason Avant are no longer on the receiving depth chart, and scheduled starter Jeremy Maclin is coming off an ACL tear. That opens the door for Matthews, a second-round pick who left Vanderbilt as the SEC’s all-time leader in receptions and receiving yardage, to have an early impact.
Sproles was born to play in Kelly’s offense. The versatile running back, who came to Philadelphia in a trade after three years in the Saints’ pass-happy attack, has the receiving tools to thrive with the Eagles. No running back in the league had more targets or receptions over the past three seasons, which fits perfectly with an offense that loves to get athletes in space -- 16.4 percent of Foles’ passing yardage last season came off screen plays, the most in the NFL according to Pro Football Focus.
The Mike Shanahan/Robert Griffin III feud ended with owner Dan Snyder choosing his franchise quarterback over his head coach, and while SportsCenter producers will miss the drama, Washington fans are happy to see former Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden at the helm. Gruden’s first and most important priority will be returning RGIII to his 2012 Rookie of the Year form. That Griffin will have one of the league’s top rushers (Alfred Morris) and receiving duos (Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson) will help the cause. Defensive tackle Jason Hatcher strengthens a defensive front that ranked among the league’s best in pressuring the quarterback last season, and safety Ryan Clark will provide valuable experience on the back end. Given the returning talent and offseason upgrades, Washington is a popular pick to go worst to first in the NFC East, and for good reason.
A common misperception about RGIII is that he’s been too quick to scramble. To the contrary, Griffin has been one of the most patient quarterbacks in the league (he waited an average 5.31 seconds before scrambling last year, the fifth-longest time among starters). If anything, he should be quicker to use his legs, but a surgically reconstructed knee kept him uncharacteristically timid last season. Note that using his legs and taking shots are not the same thing -- he’ll have to learn how to better avoid contact (sliding, running out of bounds) if he’s going to survive in the NFL.
Washington hasn’t had many draft picks to work with after trading away the farm for RGIII in 2012. Worse, the few picks the team has had haven’t been able to contribute much since then. A second-round pick this year, Murphy is counted on to beef up the pass rush. Washington will also need to see enough to know whether or not Murphy can be a potential replacement for Brian Orakpo, who is set to be a free agent after this season.
Jackson had the best season of his six-year pro career in 2013, but was released by the Eagles in March amidst rumors of gang affiliations. Washington was quick to snap him up in free agency, hoping his big-play ability will provide an explosive new dynamic to the offense. In 2013, Washington ranked near the middle of the pack in pass plays of at least 25 yards. The arrival of Jackson, who led the league in touchdowns receptions of 20 yards or more last season, should provide a boost.
The Bears became an offense-first team so recently that it is still difficult to dissociate them from their Midway-mauling days. The team was second in the NFL averaging 27.8 points per game during Marc Trestman's first year, however, and second-to-last giving up 29.9 PPG. The front seven gave up 161.4 yards rushing per game, dead last in the NFL by a wide margin. The team made what are expected to be major upgrades on defense, bringing in Lamarr Houston and Jared Allen, and spending four of its first five NFL Draft picks on defensive talent. The hope is that the Bears can be serviceable defensively. If so, a stacked offense could carry this squad a long way.
There’s no question which team has the best wide receiver combination in the NFL. The pair combined for more than 2,700 receiving yards and 19 touchdowns last season. It was enough to revive Josh McCown’s career as a viable NFL starter. The Bears are counting on the duo and returning starter Jay Cutler to win shootouts against their division rivals in Green Bay and Detroit.
Injuries have limited Fuller’s work in the preseason, which have cost the Virginia Tech corner valuable reps with the reworked Bears defense. Chicago is counting on their first-round pick to improve a unit that clipped the team’s playoff hopes last season.
Chicago rebuilt its defensive line during the offseason. Houston underachieved during his time in Oakland, but broke out for a career year in 2013 with six sacks and 69 tackles. The 27-year-old signed a five-year, $35 million contract in the spring, and the Bears are counting on him to give them some pass rushing muscle.
The Lions looked to be chugging along to a division title season … then the wheels fell off. They lost six of their last seven games, missed the playoffs and sent Jim Schwartz packing. Enter Jim Caldwell, who inherits a prolific, but inconsistent, offense captained by quarterback Matthew Stafford. Athletic rookie tight end Eric Ebron and former Seahawk WR Golden Tate improve a passing attack that ranked third in the NFL in 2013 and already boasts the league’s best wideout, Calvin Johnson. Ndamukong Suh anchors the interior of the defensive line, but edge rushers are an issue -- Detroit ranked 28th in getting to the quarterback last season.
If there’s one thing you can count on in the NFL, it’s Megatron turning in another season with some of the NFL’s best receiving numbers. He had 1,492 yards in just 14 games last season. But he can’t do it alone. The Lions have leaned on the Megatron-Matthew Stafford connection as their sole source of offensive production for too long.
The Lions used their first-round pick to add another playmaker. Ebron still has some work to do as a blocker, which will limit his reps this season. His athleticism has been compared to Vernon Davis, and the UNC product can be a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses.
Fairley’s been in the news during the preseason … for the wrong reasons. He’s accustomed to playing alongside Suh, but coach Jim Caldwell has demoted him to the second team because of weight issues.
In a fluky sport of bad bounces and sample size errors, one of the few inexorable truths is that great quarterback can overcome anything. When Aaron Rodgers went down last season, all of the Packers' glaring flaws surfaced -- a shaky offensive line, a neutered pass rush, an injury-riddled secondary, etc. They became crippling defects as Green Bay went 2-5-1 in the MVP's absence. The Packers are among the few teams considered legitimate Super Bowl contenders. Rodgers is the No. 1 reason why, though not the only reason. The defense should be much stronger thanks to healthy returning players and an influx of talent. (B.J. Raji's injury does present a hurdle). The offensive line looks better, and Rodgers and the depth at the skill positions can cover any lingering issues. The Packers have as much reason for optimism as any team in the league. Now the question is whether things will break their way.
Not only is Rodgers the Packers’ most valuable player, he’s a popular pick to win the MVP award this season. Injuries limited him to just nine games last season, and it almost cost the Packers a trip to the playoffs. With Rodgers healthy, Green Bay is automatically a Super Bowl contender.
The most predictable pick in the entire 2014 NFL Draft, Clinton-Dix gives the Packers a true center fielder at free safety. Dom Capers’ defense has been mostly lackluster over the last few seasons, for lots of reasons. A dependable presence in the secondary could be just what this unit needs for a turnaround.
Bulaga played his first football game since Nov. 2012 in the second week of the preseason this year. It was a welcome sight for the Packers, whose offensive tackle position seems like it’s been a revolving door for years. Green Bay needs Bulaga to regain his old form and stay on the field this season.
The Vikings followed up a surprise playoff appearance in 2012 with a season generously described as flat. Poor quarterback play, injuries and a defense that looked lost most weeks marred the team’s 2013 campaign and cost Leslie Frazier his job. New head coach Mike Zimmer accomplished wonderful things in Cincinnati, and Minnesota’s new-look defensive line could end up being this team’s greatest strength. Speaking of greatest strengths, the Vikings offense will have to do more than sit around waiting for Adrian Peterson to have another 2,000-yard season. They need second-year receiver Cordarrelle Patterson to break out in a big way. A full season from tight end Kyle Rudolph will help too. But it all hinges on the quarterbacking situation getting ironed out. Can Matt Cassel provide a reliable bridge until Teddy Bridgewater is ready? Or is Bridgewater ready now?
Running backs are easy to overlook these days. Maybe that’s because teams finally realized guys like Peterson only come around every decade or so. Peterson is 29 this year, and still looks to have plenty of wheels left. The Vikings will need him.
The union of Bridgewater and offensive coordinator Norv Turner has been one of the biggest stories from training camp. Norv’s tutelage and Bridgewater’s ability were on display during the preseason as well, giving Vikings fans hope that the team may have finally found its franchise quarterback.
Patterson is more than just a wide receiver. He’s one of those new-fangled offensive weapon types who can line up anywhere on the field where his athletic gifts can bewilder a defense. Minnesota needs him to be like Percy Harvin, with a 6’2, 200-pound frame that can make him even more of a matchup problem.
The Falcons thought they were a Super Bowl contender in 2013, but several years of overachieving fell apart all at once and has left coach Mike Smith hovering above the chopping block. Although Smith is the winningest coach in Falcons history, he’ll be the winningest former head coach if they don’t rebound from their 4-12 finish a year ago. That will depend heavily on an improved performance by the offensive line and defense, one of which has already suffered a blow with the season-ending injury of left tackle Sam Baker. Can Smith put this team back in the playoffs, or will Atlanta be rebuilding in 2015?
Rebounding is one thing, but if the Falcons want to advance to the next level and become a serious championship contender, they’ll need a championship season from Ryan. Even though he’s been great for six years, being as good as he is has only gotten the team so far. He needs to be better, take over games, and be the difference-maker in the fourth quarter again. Ryan led the NFL in game-winning drives in 2010 and 2012, but he had just one last year when Atlanta lost seven games by a touchdown or less. The defense doesn’t figure to be great after finishing 27th in yards allowed last season, so the offense needs to do a better job of picking up the team as a whole.
It’s becoming a common trend in recent years to draft a franchise left tackle and ease him in early on the right side or guard. That was the plan for Matthews, but the loss of Baker means that he needs to protect Ryan’s blindside from the get-go. Tackle is one of the hardest positions to learn and excel at in the NFL, and Matthews will be facing some excellent defensive ends in the South, so his steep learning curve could show itself on Sunday. The Falcons are hoping he’s the second coming of Joe Thomas, but there’s no way to know for sure until the games begin just how ready he is. Or isn’t.
Atlanta doubled down on cornerbacks in the 2013 draft and first-round pick Desmond Trufant was incredible in his first season. That’s a great start towards slowing down the steadily-growing passing offenses in today’s NFL, but it only completes one part of developing an elite secondary. Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan is crossing his fingers that Alford, the team’s second-round pick a year ago, is ready for a full-time role opposite of Trufant. Most teams have at least two good wide receivers these days, so two good cornerbacks is a huge coup.
After two seasons of being decidedly average, the gambles of “Riverboat Ron” paid off in a big way last season, with the Panthers winning 12 games for the third time in franchise history. Carolina ended up losing to the 49ers in the playoffs, but after finishing with the second-best defense behind only the Seahawks, the Panthers look poised to remain in contention as long as Cam Newton can run even an average offense in 2014. That notion is a bit unpredictable following the losses of their top three receivers, but the truth is that Carolina’s receivers weren’t that great last year. Perhaps there’s nowhere to go but up.
A lot of people were surprised by Kuechly winning Defensive Player of the Year over favorites like J.J. Watt, Robert Quinn and Richard Sherman, but the victory did come with some merit. Kuechly was the best player on a great defense, and he manned more than just the middle of the field. He notched two sacks, four interceptions, eight passes defended and 156 tackles, and did it all at the ripe old age of 22. Yes, he has plenty of merits to go around.
Teams don’t always fill their most obvious need in the first round of the draft, but Carolina was really up against it this year. After parting ways with their top three receivers, the Panthers were lucky that this year’s draft was so deep at wide receiver. Though Benjamin was picked No. 28 overall, and the fifth receiver taken, he’s got the potential of a top-10 pick. At 6’5, 240 pounds, Benjamin is already one of the biggest receivers in the league, but on a team desperate for a true number one, is he ready to play big?
Perhaps feeling that their back four wasn’t nearly on par with the front seven, the Panthers almost completely retooled their secondary after parting ways with Munnerlyn, Mike Mitchell and Quintin Mikell. The new safeties are DeCoud and Roman Harper, but White quickly went from undrafted free agent to starter last season. He played well, but against teams like Atlanta and New Orleans, Carolina is going to need him to be better than just “well.” Can he do that or will he be replaced as quickly as he was moved into the starting role?
Sean Payton’s 2012 suspension may end up being a great opportunity to show his worth to the New Orleans Saints. Over the last five seasons, the Saints have made the playoffs four times, winning five playoff games and a Super Bowl. The only time they didn’t make the playoffs: 2012. That year, New Orleans went 7-9 without Payton and finished last in total defense. His return, and the hiring of Rob Ryan as defensive coordinator, had the Saints improve to fourth in total defense plus a playoff win over the Eagles. In a tough division, can New Orleans return to the postseason for the fifth time in six years, or will Payton miss the playoffs for the first time since 2008?
Not a lot of people were exactly sure what the Saints were getting when they signed Brees in 2006, but it was a calculated risk that a desperate franchise had to take. It’s paid off more than anyone can imagine. Brees has gone from “good, inconsistent quarterback” in San Diego to “surefire Hall of Famer” in the eight years since. The partnership between Brees, Payton and several smart assistants have not only helped the franchise win a Super Bowl, but aided in the transformation of the league ever since. In an age of passing records falling left and right, Brees is still doing things unimaginable.
Lance Moore was once a key player on the Saints offense but he had become an afterthought in 2013, so Cooks appears to be a massive upgrade at receiver. An electric playmaker at Oregon State, Cooks is someone who can put up impressive numbers from game number one. With Jimmy Graham, Marques Colston and Kenny Stills drawing attention, Cooks could use his speed to break off some massive plays this season.
The defense in New Orleans is better than you think, especially after the addition of Byrd to the secondary, but the rushing offense remained fairly weak last year. Ingram has now rushed for 1,462 yards and 11 touchdowns with 4.1 yards per carry through three seasons after being drafted 28th overall with the idea that he could be rushing for 1,400 yards per year. That probably won’t happen, but the team would definitely like to see if Ingram can bring more to an offense that should be opening up the box for big runs. Can the former Heisman winner live up to his billing?
The Greg Schiano era was short (just two years) but will be memorable just for how odd and unsuccessful it was. Tampa’s 4-12 finish last season may have been just what the franchise needed to move on from Schiano. Veteran Lovie Smith was brought on board to take over a talented defense and start working to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2007. The Bucs could be in line for a quick turnaround or a mild finish, but it almost certainly won’t be as bad as last season. It would be hard to get any worse.
If there was an underrated candidate for Defensive Player of the Year in 2013, many people thought that guy was David, not Kuechly. On an absolutely terrible team, David had seven sacks, five interceptions, 10 passes defensed and 145 tackles. There may not be a better outside linebacker in the league other than Von Miller, and David hasn’t missed a game in two seasons since being a second-round pick out of Nebraska. If the Bucs make the playoffs this year, David is the best candidate to be the reason why.
Though Vincent Jackson excelled and Tim Wright surprised, Tampa sorely lacked any other receiving options last year and it hurt them in a major way. The Bucs finished 32nd in passing yards and posted just 6.2 yards per attempt between Mike Glennon and Josh Freeman. After trading Williams to the Bills, the team opened up a spot for the rookie Evans, the No. 7 overall pick in the draft out of Texas A&M. He’s a big target like Williams, but seems to be more talented in nearly every other respect. He’s had a good preseason and could be a significant target this year.
Mike Glennon was Schiano’s hand-picked replacement for Freeman, but Smith has no such attachment to the young QB. Instead he pegged McCown, a player he’s familiar with from the Bears, to lead a stable offense because of his veteran experience and the fact that he posted phenomenal numbers with Chicago last season. McCown had a passer rating of 109.0 over eight games (five starts) but was it because he finally improved or because of the genius of coach Marc Trestman?
After a 10-6 finish last season, the Cardinals were probably the NFL’s best non-playoff team after improving on offense and fielding a top-tier defense. The Cardinals’ identity is centered around Todd Bowles’ defense -- a unit that was better against the run than just about any other team in the league last year, giving up a paltry 84.4 rushing yards per game. That will be tested with the losses of Dansby (free agency), Washington (suspension) and Darnell Dockett (injury). Arizona’s secondary, though, should see a boost this season with the additions of free agent corner Antonio Cromartie and Washington State safety Deone Bucannon. If Tryann Mathieu can get back on the field at full speed, along with Patrick Peterson, that secondary should be among the league’s best. The Cardinals have plenty of talent, but they have to prove they can go blow-for-blow with the best in the West.
Despite being another year older, Palmer will be a major factor for the Cardinals’ successes or failures in 2014. He’s a gun-slinger with no fear and no apparent short-term memory, particularly when it comes to throwing picks (22 in 2013), but he’s also a talented quarterback that can lead a dangerous passing attack when he’s on point. With another year in the Bruce Arians offense and hopefully some improved protection up front, Palmer could surprise some people this season.
Arizona added another piece to their secondary in the first round of the draft this year. Bucannon play a big role in his first year bolstering a defense already hit hard with injuries.
Floyd is being talked about as the new No. 1 receiver for the Cardinals and when you’re talking about a group that includes Larry Fitzgerald, that’s saying a lot. Floyd has all the tools for it -- at 6’3, 220 pounds with excellent body control and leaping ability -- and became a favorite target for Palmer in 2013. He caught 65 passes for 1,041 yards and five touchdowns, but what stands out is his 16.0 yards-per-catch average. Floyd has the potential to break out in 2014 and join the upper echelon of receivers in the NFL.
The Rams have a plan for playing their way into the NFC West race. It starts in the trenches. Headlined by Robert Quinn and Chris Long, this defensive line has the speed, power and depth that gives quarterbacks nightmares. But that’s only half the story. On the other side of the ball, the Rams added a blue chip mauler to their offensive line when they used the second pick in the draft on Auburn’s Greg Robinson. The game plan is simple -- play shutdown defense and stuff the ball down opponents’ throats. It’s a tall hill to climb without Sam Bradford under center, but this Rams team wasn’t exactly built around its quarterback.
His 19 sacks weren’t quite enough for the NFL’s inaugural Deacon Jones Award; he missed the top of the leader board by half a sack. Quinn mauls the game’s best offensive linemen from snap to snap, even double teams struggle to stop him. The Rams are banking on another big year from Quinn to put them on the right side of .500 for the first time in more than a decade.
Donald gives the Rams pass rushing firepower something it’s lacked recently: a force on the inside. The Pitt product isn’t the biggest lineman on the field, but he has a knack for finding his way into the backfield.
The 34-year-old backup gets his first extended starting gig since 2010. The Rams were competitive with Kellen Clemens under center for the second half of the 2013 season, and they'll again lean on their defense and the running game to keep them in the hunt.
After falling just short of a second straight Super Bowl berth last season, the Niners reload in 2014 and remain one of the best and deepest teams in the NFL, if not a favorite to win it all. While San Francisco will have to work with a revamped secondary and the early-season absences of linebacker Navorro Bowman (ACL) and Aldon Smith (possible suspension), they’ve bolstered their passing attack by acquiring Stevie Johnson and signing Brandon Lloyd while hitting the draft hard. A stingy, tough front seven led by Justin Smith and Patrick Willis lays the foundation on defense, and a smash-mouth, pulling, trapping run game anchors the offense. Colin Kaepernick runs like a gazelle and has a howitzer for an arm, and he won’t be short of weapons with Frank Gore, Anquan Boldin, Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis all healthy.
The seemingly ageless Smith returns at the vanguard of the elite Niner front seven, and remains a linchpin for their success up front, both at end and tackle. Smith garners so much attention from opposing offensive lines that it opens up things for his teammates along the line. Stunts and twists with Aldon Smith are commonplace, and even with Aldon likely out for part of the season, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio will likely continue to run two-man rush schemes with Justin Smith as the fulcrum.
With the departure of Donte Whitner, Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown to free agency, the Niners’ first-round pick comes in with great expectations to boost the secondary as a slot-corner/safety hybrid. Ward will be asked to line up over slot receivers -- some of the fastest, shiftiest players in the NFL -- in addition to some possible duties as a safety. This hybrid, versatile role is a big job in an NFL that has become dominated by three-wide looks and up-tempo no-huddle offenses.
With the ink on his new contract now dry, Kaepernick is done worrying about his contract status and instead can concentrate fully on playing football. Not to quote Jaws, but Kaepernick really does have the pure physical potential to be one of the all-time great quarterbacks -- toughness, agility, ridiculously strong arm and incredible mobility -- but will look to make strides in touch and accuracy in 2014. The big question on fans’ minds is whether the Niners will open up the passing game and put more on Kap’s shoulders, and reports out of camp indicate that could be the game plan. No team threw less than the Niners in 2013, and if that changes and Kap rises to the challenge, the Niners could be better than ever.
The Seahawks will take a shot at becoming the first team to win back-to-back Super Bowls since the 2003-04 Patriots, and on paper have about as good of a shot at it as any of the teams since. They’re still young, return most of their starters, and held on to all of their position coaches and coordinators. Their elite defense remains largely intact, and the offense has a chance to improve with a healthy Percy Harvin and a maturing Russell Wilson. The main questions for Seattle will come in the trenches, where they have seen the most turnover. Regardless, the equation remains the same: tough, hard-hitting defense and a punch-you-in-the-mouth offense.
In just two seasons, Wilson has greatly exceeded expectations. QB wins is not a statistic, but no quarterback in NFL history has led his team to as many wins in their first two seasons as Wilson has (27 total, 22 regular season). One of those wins includes the last Super Bowl, not too shabby. With another offseason under his belt, Wilson should be better at identifying coverages, a greater command of the playbook, and improved footwork and chemistry with his receivers. This could make an already dangerous offense even better.
The Seahawks lost one of their premier playmakers from 2013 when Golden Tate signed with the Lions, so Seattle looked to the draft to find a player who can add a spark to the offense in 2014. Richardson is not a similarly-styled receiver to Tate -- he's been compared more often to the style of DeSean Jackson -- but has looked electric in training camp and the preseason so far. He's a deep threat with elite speed, and because defenders are forced to give him a solid cushion, he'll likely be used as a quick pass target for Russell Wilson as well. Look for him to carve out a role on the Seahawks' wide receiver depth chart.
Harvin only appeared in one regular season game in 2013 after the Seahawks traded for him and gave him a nice new contract, but his game-changing explosiveness was evident in the Super Bowl. A healthy Harvin is the ultimate wild card for the Seahawks because his mere presence on the field changes the way teams play defense, forcing them to defend the entire width of the field with his fly-sweep speed in addition to his deep speed. As teams roll coverage onto him, this opens up room for the run game and for Seattle’s other weapons on offense.
The Bills have talent on their roster, unlike some of the teams they’ve fielded over the last decade or so. A stout defensive line led by Mario Williams and Marcell Dareus looks capable of holding its own in any trench. Sammy Watkins redefined training camp hype, and he leads a group of skill position players that would be the envy of a lot of other franchises. There’s just one problem: the quarterback. If the Bills are going to make a run at one of the AFC wild card spots, or even at the Patriots’ ownership of the division, EJ Manuel is going to have to learn on the job, overcoming issues with accuracy and how well he sees the field that have plagued his preseason.
Spiller is by far the team’s best player, but for some reason the coaches here are afraid to use him for more than the 13 carries per game he averaged last season. They put him back on the shelf for third downs, goal-line work, etc. The more Spiller’s on the field, the more defenses have to account for him. Once Marrone and his staff realize that, it’ll only help the offense.
Buffalo surrendered its first-round pick in the next draft to move up and grab Watkins with the fourth pick. He has the talent to pay immediate dividends, and the Bills need him to if they’re going to compete in 2014.
2013’s first-round pick still looks lost on the field, even through a month of preseason play without blitzes and running a vanilla playbook. He missed six games last year, which imperiled his learning curve. The Bills need Manuel to play at least at a league-average level this year. If not, they may have to consider another trade up in the 2015 Draft.
Miami did a some much-needed house cleaning in the offseason, jettisoning three-fifths of their offensive line, the part of that group that helped turn the team’s locker room into an inhospitable place. But the most important change the Dolphins made was bringing in Bill Lazor to remake the offense into an uptempo nightmare. His arrival should do wonders for Ryan Tannehill, similar to what Lazor did with Nick Foles in Philadelphia last year. That’s the theory anyway. Will that be enough for the Dolphins to challenge the Patriots?
One of the most productive pass rushers over the last five seasons, Wake headlines a Dolphin defense that probably doesn’t get enough credit for what it does. He turned 32 in January, so he’s now at that point in his career where his coaches will have to be mindful about his snap counts. Still, his presence in that lineup elevates what his fellow pass rushers can do.
Landry’s hands could make Miami’s new slot receiver Ryan Tannehill’s top target by the end of the season. The hope here is that he can keep the chains moving with his physical style of play.
The most important player in Philadelphia’s fast-paced attack was LeSean McCoy. Miller is definitely not McCoy, but he’ll be expected to play a similar role in Lazor’s offense.
New England hasn’t finished anywhere but first place in the AFC East since 2008. That five-year streak should be a six-year streak by the time the 2014 season ends, barring some kind of freak injury or other unforeseen circumstance. But even then, it might not be enough to stop a team this deep. The hot take industry tried to write off Tom Brady last year, but he was fine even with a cast of throwaway receivers. What’s most impressive about this Patriots team is the defense, the secondary in particular. The tandem of Revis and Browner are the shutdown storefront of a deep group built to beat Peyton Manning and the Broncos.
No, we’re not writing Brady off. He’s still great. But he did turn 37 this month. It’s fair to wonder just how many more seasons he has left to play.
There’s just not much room for a rookie to crack the starting lineup on this roster. Easley could be the first to do so with Vince Wilfork aging and coming off an Achilles tear last year. Of course, Easley brings his own injury concerns. He’s recovering from a torn ACL.
He’s healthy again, and the Patriots insist that he’ll be on the field for the first week of the regular season. It’s not the first week of the season New England needs to be worried about; it’s whether or not Gronk can play something close to a full season and be ready to go for the playoffs.
Since a run of success during his early years as the Jets head honcho, Ryan’s achieved his more recent successes in beating incredibly low expectations. He got the Jets to 8-8 last season, even chasing a wild card spot for a little while, with a replacement-level offense. The key for Ryan has been getting production from his defense (and a terrible field of contenders in the AFC). That’s going to be harder this season with a secondary filled with question marks. But the Jets do have more offensive talent this year, a viable receiver in Decker, a productive running back in Johnson and a veteran quarterback now playing mentor to Geno Smith.
We knew Wilkerson was good, but last season he showed us just how good, putting up 10.5 sacks and thwarting running attempt after running attempt. The Jets picked up his contract option for 2015 during the offseason. They’ll need to him locked up beyond that soon enough.
The Louisville product had a good camp and preseason, even throwing in a blitz or two with an exhibition highlight reel full of hard hits. If he lives up to his billing in coverage, he’ll give an iffy secondary some relief.
Smith had his moments last year, both good and bad, but after 16 games he left people perplexed. When the Jets signed Michael Vick in the offseason, some thought it signaled that the Jets were already done with Smith. They weren’t. Smith had a productive August and finally has some decent talent around him.
Despite continued regular season success with Harbaugh and Joe Flacco, not very many people expected them to win Super Bowl XLVII when the playoffs started. They fell off the year after that thanks to roster turnover and injuries. Now, they could be a sleeper pick for the championship in 2014 after some key additions in the draft and veteran Steve Smith in free agency. As Baltimore can attest to, stranger things have happened.
Through three seasons, Smith has 2,824 yards and 19 touchdowns. Smith has proven to be the big-play option that Baltimore has been seeking since the Browns moved there from Cleveland, and this is only the beginning.
Nobody will ever replace Ray Lewis, possibly the best middle linebacker of all time, but Mosley could certainly become a great player in his own respect. The fact that he plays for the Ravens is no reason to compare him to Lewis, though people will for obvious reasons. Mosley gets the opportunity to play in between Terrell Suggs and Courtney Upshaw, so he’s got an advantage right off the bat for Defensive Rookie of the Year, which many experts are predicting already.
Upshaw and Mosley played side-by-side at Alabama, so perhaps the addition of the latter will help give a boost to the former. Upshaw has just three sacks through two seasons with a modest number of tackles, which was not what Baltimore expected when it drafted him 35th overall in 2012. There seems to be enough budding talent in the linebacking corps for the Ravens to possibly be the next iteration of what John’s brother Jim has in San Francisco, but they have to start playing like it. If they do, the Ravens could be right back in the Super Bowl.
Another year, another early exit from the playoffs for the Bengals. That’s three years in a row. Critics have heaped most of their scorn on quarterback Andy Dalton, who has yet to translate his regular season success into a January win. The Bengals would seem to disagree, reaffirming their commitment to Dalton with six-year contract extension. Instead, they’re betting that Hue Jackson taking over the play-calling duties from Jay Gruden will help turn the tide. The Bengals also changed defensive coordinators, losing Mike Zimmer to Minnesota and replacing him with Paul Guenther. Any major slip in defensive performance could really hurt their season, and the Bengals may not even get the chance to see Dalton in the playoffs this year.
The Bengals still managed to win five of seven games after losing Atkins to a torn ACL last year, but there’s no question they missed him. If he can stay healthy, it’ll make the new defensive coordinator’s job that much easier.
The Bengals really need a better corner to pair on the other side of Leon Hall. Dennard was one of the more highly regarded corners in the draft this year, but he struggled in camp and the preseason. Cincinnati needs the Michigan State product to catch up, and fast, to improve its secondary.
It’s easy to fixate on Dalton’s record in the playoffs, but it has its roots in his struggles to find consistent play from week to week. For example, he followed a five-touchdown performance in Week 8 with nine interceptions over his next four games. Greater emphasis on the running game should help, but Dalton’s going to have to do the heavy lifting himself.
This is supposed to be the year that the Browns get over the hump, or at least closer to getting over the hump they’ve been stuck on for a long time now. Instead, Johnny Manziel underwhelmed in camp and during preseason play with the starters. Brian Hoyer got the starting job, but the prospect of a suspended Josh Gordon, offensive line questions and not much help beyond Jordan Cameron make it a tough job for anyone. There is talent on the defensive side of the ball that the Browns may have to lean on in a tough division.
Haden missed time during the preseason, and the Browns’ defense looked absolutely lost without him. Life will be better with one of the game’s best cornerbacks on the field.
It’s not Johnny time yet. That time will come, eventually. If offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan can recapture some of the magic he had with RGIII as a rookie, the Browns could surprise teams with Manziel’s free-flowing style of play.
There was a time when Austin was considered a legitimate No. 1 receiver, before injuries led most of the world to write him off. He’s looked sharp in the march toward the regular season. Without Gordon, Austin will get his chance to be on top of the depth chart again.
It seems like the Steelers have been fighting off the problems of an aging roster for a long time now. Finally, Pittsburgh has a young stable of players on both side of the ball that have the team reloaded for another run back to the top of the AFC North and beyond. Pittsburgh added heft to its defensive line with Stephon Tuitt, and linebacker Ryan Shazier already looks like a leading candidate for the Defensive Rookie of the Year award. That group joins Lawrence Timmons, Cam Heyward and Jarvis Jones to make a formidable front seven. A better offensive line and a healthy Ben Roethlisberger will give the offense some pop too.
If he doesn’t have to spend as much time running for his life behind a shaky line this season, we could easily see Big Ben back in MVP form. He has some question marks at receiver behind Antonio Brown that he’ll have to elevate with his play.
You don’t want to get too hyped over camp and preseason performances, but the tape really says a lot about the first-round pick out of Ohio State. He’s been everywhere on the field making plays. Shazier has the ability to shut down an entire section of the field almost entirely by himself.
There wasn’t much to see from Wheaton last year. Suddenly, he’s the Steelers’ No. 2 wide receiver.
Everyone in Houston will try to just forget what happened in 2013 and focus on the here and now. The silver lining to a collapse like 2013’s is that the Texans grabbed the No. 1 overall pick and used it to select a player that many believe will be a generational talent at defensive end, Jadeveon Clowney. Just plop him down right next to another generational talent in J.J. Watt, and you got yourself a stew going on defense. The offense’s side of the equation in 2014 may not be quite as exciting, but if the Texans can jump-start their normally excellent run game it will help likely-starter Ryan Fitzpatrick manage the game and distribute the ball to a strong stable of playmakers. It’s not easy to dig yourself out of a 2-14 hole, but look no further than the 2013 Chiefs for an example of what a team with a strong defense and run game can do to bounce back.
Probably the most unblockable player in the NFL. Probably the most disruptive defender in the league. You don’t have to be an expert to know that Watt will be the leader of this defense, and he’ll have the chance to set the tone early that last year is in the rear-view. Watt comes into the 2014 season as one of the favorites to win the Defensive Player of the Year award.
There haven’t been many defensive players drafted in the past decade that have gotten as much hype as Clowney, and that’s really all you have to say about why he’s a guy to watch. On the Texans’ already strong defensive line, he should be able to garner a lot of one-on-one opportunities, which means he’ll have every opportunity to eat as a rookie.
A change of scenery can be a good thing for any veteran QB, and when pairing him with a strong run game , an offense could do worse than having Fitzpatrick as its starter. At the very least, he’s experienced and has always played with a quiet confidence and even keel that you like to see in a signal caller. As with every NFL team, the offense runs through the quarterback, so to make a big turnaround Fitzpatrick will have to play well.
The Colts come off an exciting 2013 season when they went undefeated in the AFC South, beat powerhouse teams in the 49ers, Seahawks and Broncos, and finished 11-5 with the division title and an exciting playoff win over the Chiefs. They’ll reload in 2014 as the favorites to win the South once again, and Indy fans will hope to get more consistent help for their star quarterback, Andrew Luck. They’ll do so with some additional weapons on offense -- Hakeem Nicks and Donte Moncrief -- and some beef on defense in Arthur Jones and D’Qwell Jackson. The Colts will rely on Luck and a strong run game to power the offense, and hope for another career year from Robert Mathis on D.
Luck is inarguably the most important player in the Colts’ locker room. His talent as a passer and scrambler have helped Indianapolis return to being a playoff-caliber team despite some obvious holes and depth issues on the roster. He he enters his third season as a starter and will look to improve in a few key areas -- his completion percentage and yards per attempt are two areas to watch -- and with a few more weapons around him this season, has the chance to elevate himself to superstardom.
After losing starting left guard Donald Thomas for the entire season with a torn quad, the Colts have, over the offseason, become very thin along the offensive line. With much of their offense running through Andrew Luck and Trent Richardson, this is no small issue for Indianapolis to deal with. The Colts will look to rookie second-round pick Jack Mewhort, who played right tackle in college, to fill in as the starter in Thomas' place at left guard. His versatility is a huge bonus for the Colts and part of the reason they valued him in the second, and he'll be put to the test early. He's one to watch.
The Colts gave up a first-round pick for the underperforming Browns running back, hoping to give him new life and a second chance in Indianapolis, but a 2.9 yards per carry average in 2013 looks good compared to his preseason numbers. Of course, the Colts’ offensive line certainly shares some of the blame (or much of it, depending on your perspective), but the fact is that Richardson has to start performing better in 2014 to prove he’s not an NFL bust.
Optimism abounds in Jacksonville despite the Jaguars coming off a 4-12 season. A new owner has pumped cash into the facilities, installed a cutting-edge analytics team, and paired a forward-thinking GM with second-year head coach Gus Bradley, the closest proxy to Pete Carroll the NFL has to offer. He’s upbeat, energetic, and the Jags have been playing with a gusto that belies their place in the standings. With more talent infusions over the offseason, Jacksonville has a real shot at getting back to.500 and into the playoff discussion. Bradley’s defense has steadily improved and is starting to put together the pieces for a strong run defense and ball-hawking secondary. The offense is still young at some key spots, but free agent Toby Gerhart will be expected to contribute as the bell-cow and veteran Chad Henne will call the shots at quarterback (unless Blake Bortles forces the team to reconsider their pledge to sit the rookie all year).
With the departure of Maurice Jones-Drew, the Jags needed a new feature back, so they signed Gerhart from the Vikings. He’ll get his first shot at the spotlight after backing up the best back in the NFL the last four seasons.
Let’s face it, this will be the commanding storyline for the Jaguars this season. Rookie Blake Bortles was impressive in the preseason, and while the Jags’ braintrust quickly declared that they planned to sit him his entire rookie season, it’s hard to ignore how comfortable he’s looked. Gus Bradley was on the Seahawks’ staff in 2012 when Russell Wilson’s preseason brilliance essentially forced the Seattle coaching staff to name him the day one starter over big-name free agent Matt Flynn, so that has to be in the back of his mind.
Sticking with the offensive side of the football, Joeckel’s comeback from a broken ankle will be a major factor for the effectiveness of the Jaguars’ offense in 2014. Solid, consistent play for last season’s No. 2 overall pick can not only protect whoever is throwing passes for Jacksonville, but clear paths for the run game. Development there will be key.
Ken Whisenhunt transformed the Chargers’ offense last year, restoring it to prominence and rehabilitating a then-struggling Philip Rivers. The idea is that he and his system will work the same magic with fourth-year quarterback Jake Locker in Tennessee. It’s a make-or-break season for the former first-round pick, and staying healthy will be his first priority. On defense, new coordinator Ray Horton will look to shore up the defense, but will make the difficult transition from a 4-3 to a 3-4. Overall, Tennessee will hope that exciting free agent additions like Dexter McCluster and Wesley Woodyard will hide the loss of elite cornerback Alterraun Verner. Rookies Taylor Lewan and Bishop Sankey should play big roles immediately.
Casey emerged as one of the best defensive tackles in the NFL last season, and in the attacking Horton system, he could elevate his game to a new level. It won’t be easy to top his 10.5 sacks from last year, but don’t be surprised if you’re hearing Casey’s name a lot more in 2014.
The Titans moved fast to replace Chris Johnson, making Sankey the first running back off the board in the 2014 NFL Draft. Most expect Sankey to lead a running back committee this season. Tennessee’s offense will rely on a productive season from the Washington product to keep pace in a wide-open AFC South.
Locker was playing some of his best football of his career early last season before suffering a season-ending foot injury. He’ll have his last big shot this year to prove he’s a franchise quarterback for the Titans, and transitioning to Ken Whisenhunt’s QB-friendly system should pay dividends for him. Locker will have to balance continued development in passing from the pocket with smart, conservative scrambling that takes advantage of his excellent athleticism.
Peyton Manning will be a ruthlessly efficient football robot again this season and he’ll continue to make us forget that what he’s doing is difficult and athletically demanding despite how awkward he looks on that once-a-year naked bootleg he gets to run. Demaryius Thomas might be the best weapon he’s ever had at his disposal, and just for kicks they brought in Emmanuel Sanders. Unless they go up against a team with a lightning quick pass-rush and Legion of Boom secondary, the Broncos offense will continue to dominate. Montee Ball is good at taking handoffs and getting six yards when facing five men in the box which is all you really have to be able to do in this offense. The Broncos did most of their damage in 2013 without some of their best players. Von Miller and Ryan Clady both missed significant time with serious injuries and Denver didn’t miss a beat. The additions of DeMarcus Ware and Aqib Talib make the Broncos defense one of the best in the league, especially when it comes to playing with a lead.
As Peyton Manning goes, so go the Broncos. Peyton’s coming off the best statistical season of his entire career which is insane considering the numbers he put up in the past.
The Broncos have such a prolific offense that they need to be able to defend against the pass for three quarters, so taking the touted CB out of Ohio State made sense. Roby’s got some big shoes to fill with Champ Bailey leaving for Denver’s exact opposite climate in New Orleans. Playing opposite Talib is a great way to get picked on and learn some hard lessons early in your career. This is a great situation for Roby since the Broncos can afford to have him learning on the job given their offense.
It’s going to be Super Bowl or bust in Denver for the third year in a row. That’s a hell of a place for any coach to be. The Broncos were embarrassingly outcoached in the Super Bowl and the only way for Fox to live that down is to get back and get a ring.
Andy Reid inherited a talented but mismanaged team. Mismanaged is a polite way of saying “unironically started Matt Cassel for four years.” Going from 2-14 to 11-5 is an amazing feat no matter how many Matt Cassels you’re able to cut. Alex Smith is a good quarterback in a general sense. Reid has a way of getting the most out of the position, and he will get all that he can out of Smith until he hits an inevitable ceiling, or gets traded to the Cardinals for two second-round picks and Tyrann Mathieu. The Chiefs are the type of team that could easily beat the Broncos at home one week and suffer a defeat at Oakland the next. They’re not engineered to blow people out given Andy Reid’s clock-eating West Coast approach. Dwayne Bowe is still a monster no matter how much weed he smokes or Sonic he eats, and Jamaal Charles is one of the best in the game, period. That's enough to keep the Chiefs in the mix.
One of the most electrifying players in the league with the ball in his hands. Charles is being used in a similar way to how Reid used Brian Westbrook in Philly, except Charles possesses rare athleticism that Westbrook never had. He’s a scoring threat whenever he touches the ball, and a great safety valve for Alex Smith.
Ford was a key ingredient in Auburn’s unexpected SEC title run, and was brought in to help the Chiefs’ defense that faltered down the stretch, specifically in the fourth-quarter of the Wild Card round against the Colts.
Smitty wants a contract like Colin Kaepernick, not that he’s jealous or checking the Facebook feed of his ex or anything. A strong candidate for comeback player of a career, Smith has had one of the most remarkable turnarounds in recent history after coming within inches of flaming out in San Francisco. He wants to shake the “game manager” label, but the reality is that Smith’s in a perfect situation for his skillset and he needs to embrace it. He’s more valuable to the Chiefs than he is on the open market, so he could be in for a nice payday at the end of the year with more real guaranteed money than Kaepernick even if the total numbers don’t match up.
The Raiders are in a contract year with the City of Oakland yet to give them money for a new stadium or even tag them as their franchise player. If this team has it in them to compete for a wild card spot in a crowded AFC West, now would be a nice time for it. The best the Raiders can hope for this year is to get a promising glimpse of Derek Carr, and some stud play from Khalil Mack. Reggie McKenzie is just now digging himself out of the mess that he inherited from the previous regime so the fairest way to judge how the Raiders are currently performing won’t be for another two or three years.
It’s typically not a great sign when a teams’ only Pro Bowler is its fullback, and with the overhaul fully underway in Oakland there really isn’t a standout MVP. Raiders fans will continue to support their team through thick and Matt McGloin which is more than you can say about many other franchises. Unfortunately, right now the biggest black hole is the team’s future in town. Raiders fans deserve better, and hopefully the powers that be can figure out a way of keeping the team in town without further stripping the cash-strapped city of all of its much-needed money.
The last five Raiders first-rounders are: D.J. Hayden, Rolando McClain, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Darren McFadden and JaMarcus Russell. They’re due for a superstar, and all indications are that Mack is the real deal. The Raiders are very much still in the process of building for the future so a dominant pass-rusher would be nice to have.
Run DMC has shown flashes of brilliance, but if he wants to get another big contract this is the year to put up. A strong running-game is going to be a must for the Raiders if they want to have any chance of winning, as veteran Matt Schaub showed us last year what he’s capable of when he’s asked to throw the ball 30 times a game. The addition of MJD should provide some protection for McFadden, who’s looking to have his first healthy season since ever.
Their wide receivers are as tall as their cornerbacks are short. That’s going to make for some high scoring affairs when their opponent has Thomases, Julius and Demaryius. The Chargers might have the best WRs in the division, with Malcom Floyd, Keenan Allen and Eddie Royal. You’d have better luck predicting Tiffany Rivers’ next three due dates than you would trying to figure out which of those three is going to have a big game on any given week. Philip Rivers spreads the ball around, and as long as he’s healthy (this could be said about any NFL QB, but especially Rivers since he won’t tell anyone if his rotator cuff looks like the inside of a carnitas burrito) the Chargers’ offense can hang with almost any team. The situation at running back isn’t great. Ryan Mathews has been stuck in a perpetual “wait until next year” Groundhog’s Season. Danny Woodhead is effective but limited in what he can do out of the backfield, and Donald Brown lost his old job to Trent Richardson.
Reports of Rivers’ demise were greatly exaggerated as he came back pitching his little shotput passes just as accurately and efficiently as he did three years ago. Despite the fact that he sometimes acts like a WWE wrestler on the sidelines, he’s shown that he will play through pain and his teammates respect his leadership.
Verrett wasn’t a sexy pick, but then again neither was the Chargers’ pass defense. They finished 29th against the pass last year and needed a CB that’s able to provide a talent upgrade in the secondary. That should also help their defensive line generate a little bit more pressure which they will have to do if they want to compete for a playoff spot.
The Chargers are putting the screws to Mathews in hopes that he proves he’s worth resigning. Mathews is going to have to beat out a fellow first-round pick in Donald Brown and recently resigned Danny Woodhead if he wants to retain his starting role. Mathews has been plagued by injuries in the past, but seemed to turn a corner in 2013 when he put up over 1,200 yards for the first time in his career.