It's mid-May. Even with rosters more or less set for the 2015 season, trying to make predictions for final records, standings or playoff berths is pretty futile this early because this is the NFL, and parity rules. The smallest variable can make all the difference in the world for whether your team succeeds or falters next year. It often comes down to a few surprising players standing up and raging against mediocrity. In an NFL landscape where the playoff field will shuffle, division winners will tumble and cellar dwellers will rise, which player on your team has the ability to put their club over the hump?
Dallas Cowboys: RB Darren McFadden
Dallas' hogs up front are absurd. The Cowboys front five helped DeMarco Murray set rushing records in 2014 and could conceivably be better this season with the additions of La'el Collins and Chaz Green. This gives the oft-injured veteran McFadden a great shot at a comeback year. The 27-year-old has hovered around 3.3 yards per carry over the past three seasons while missing chunks of time each year, but Dallas is hoping to get something more like McFadden's 5.4 yards per carry average of 2011 and 2012.
He'll get a chance. Balance was an absolute key to the Cowboys' success last year -- an efficient passing game combined with their dominant running game meant that the offense held possession of the football longer than any other NFL team last season (nearly 33 minutes per game), keeping their defense off the field and wearing down opponents. As a result, a Cowboys defensive group that was supposed to be bad in 2014 held its own and gave up 22 points per game, right around the league median.
It all starts with the run game, though. Only two teams ran the ball more than the Cowboys last year (31.8 times per game), Dallas' 147 yards-per-game average was second in the NFL and only two teams averaged more yards per carry (4.6). Combined with Tony Romo's surgical passing game and outstanding red-zone effectiveness, Dallas averaged 29 points per game (third in the NFL) with an incredibly efficient 6.1 yards per play (also third).
So, with Murray gone for Philly, can the Cowboys still be one of the best running teams in the NFL? That's a huge question -- but if McFadden can carry the torch, Dallas could again find itself among the NFC elite. If he can't, Dallas' formula for success could get all out of whack.
Indianapolis Colts: RB Frank Gore
After losing to the Patriots in the AFC Championship in January, head coach Chuck Pagano said the team needed more of a threat in rushing the football. "We talk all the time, you've got to be able to do both," he said. "You saw what it opened up for [Tom] Brady and his playmakers on the outside."
"Whenever you are dealing with those top-four, top-five teams and you are competing against those teams who are able to run the football and stop the run, you have to be multi-dimensional," added tight end Dwayne Allen. "You can't go into those games thinking you can out-throw them and come out of there with a victory."
While Andrew Luck proved that he can do a lot to shoulder the offense last year, all parties in Indy know the team needs help with the run. The Colts finished 22nd in the NFL in both yards per carry (3.9) and rush yards per game (100.8) in 2014, and Pagano and offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton clearly want to run the ball better. That's where Frank Gore comes in. Gore is well versed in Hamilton's Stanford- and 49er-style Power-O run game, and he should easily hit the ground running with what the Colts want to do there.
Gore's durability is a huge factor as well. He hasn't missed a game since 2010, and he seems to get better as the game goes on, one of those rare traits that few running backs possess. In theory, instead of dropping seven or eight defenders in pass coverage when facing the Colts, opposing defenses will have to respect Gore's ability to break runs after following a pulling guard through the B-gap.
The Colts have added even more weaponry in the passing game in the form of Phillip Dorsett, so they'll certainly be dangerous in the air again. But, adding Gore in the hopes of making them dangerous runners could make a huge difference for Indianapolis' offense. Having watched Gore tear up NFC West defenses for years, good riddance, and good luck to AFC South front sevens.
6 coaches on the hot seat this coming season
Seven teams have new head coaches going into the 2015-16 NFL season. Which teams could be looking for a new coach after the coming year?
New Orleans Saints: S Jairus Byrd
Coming off of his 2013 All-Pro season, big things were expected for Byrd with his new team in New Orleans. Unfortunately he got off to a terrible start and played poorly before tearing his meniscus four games into a six-year, $56 million contract. New Orleans' defense followed suit in its collapse.
The Saints gave up 262 passing yards per game in 2014 (24th in the NFL), including 54 passes of 20 yards or more (20th), deep-ball plays that shifted momentum in games. Those big passes shifted things upstairs, too. After watching New Orleans give up 26.5 points per game (28th), GM Mickey Loomis defended his decision to trade massive offensive weapon Jimmy Graham this spring on the basis that the Saints devote some resources to getting better on defense.
Obviously, signing free agent Byrd last year was the first move in that direction, but New Orleans hasn't gotten much out of that investment yet. Year 2 with the Saints will be a big one for the veteran who, at full strength, has the potential to become that catalyst for change. Byrd has twice led the NFL in interceptions and is considered to be one of the best coverage safeties in the league. As the true free safety in Rob Ryan's scheme, Byrd can serve as the crux of a Saints defense that added corner Brandon Browner in free agency and is looking for a bounce back year from safety Kenny Vaccaro. That trio will be key for New Orleans to create more turnovers, reduce those big plays and ultimately allow fewer points to its opponents.
Detroit Lions: DT Haloti Ngata
Detroit's elite run defense gave up an absurd 3.2 yards per rush last year (first in the NFL and best for any team since 2007). Ndamukong Suh's dominance on the interior was a big part of this; with him, the Lions could force opponents to put the ball in the air, forcing them into one dimensional attacks that failed more often than not. Detroit gave up just 17.6 points per game in 2014, third best in the NFL.
Now Ngata has the unenviable task of "replacing" Suh. Of course, it's nearly impossible to replace a generational all-around talent, but what the Lions have done is smart: Instead of trying to find a complete player who can rush the passer and defend the run with equal effectiveness, they've focused on the latter skill set because it's been so key to their success -- not to mention, players who both can rush the passer and play the run with Suh's dominance cost you $100 million-plus. If you want someone to match Suh's run-stuffing capability, there aren't many players alive who can do what Ngata can do in eating up blocks and stopping opposing backs.
Detroit gave up a couple of mid-round picks to secure the services of the six-time Pro Bowler who's been one of the pillars of Baltimore's defense for nearly a decade. During Ngata's tenure the Ravens ranked in the top five in run defense in seven of his nine seasons and they were third in the NFL in 2014 while allowing 3.6 yards per carry.
Ngata won't play the exact same role as Suh, obviously, and at 31 he's not the same player he was in his prime. But, Detroit's defensive front needs a "war daddy," and the veteran former Raven plays with great power and leverage, allowing him the ability to do some things that few players not named Suh can.
Philadelphia Eagles: QB Sam Bradford
Bradford's one of the biggest wild cards in the NFL this season, but he's landed in the right place to answer lingering questions about his career: Can he stay healthy? And when on the field, can he run an offense with efficiency and precision?
The former Rams quarterback has missed most of the last two years to ACL tears, and a litany of injuries have kept him off the field throughout his career. Now that he's landed in Philadelphia, where Chip Kelly is a strong believer in his sports-science program, Bradford might finally buck his injury-prone label and put together a full season of work.
There's not much question as to Bradford's arm talent, but those injuries have kept him from answering the other big questions about his development: Can he read defenses effectively enough and get the ball out quickly enough to progress? Again, if there's anywhere Bradford could answer that second question, it's in Philly. Kelly has developed a reputation for designing quarterback-friendly passing schemes, and pairing with Bradford's former coordinator Pat Shurmur should ensure that play calls cater to Bradford's strengths. Additionally, Kelly and Shurmur appear committed to the run game, having acquired DeMarco Murray and Ryan Mathews after dealing LeSean McCoy, so the offense won't be solely on Bradford's shoulders.
The bottom line is, it's going to be fun to watch, because no one knows what will happen with this experiment. No one expected Nick Foles, a second-year former third-round pick, to throw 27 touchdowns and only two picks in 2013, compiling a 119 quarterback rating in 13 games. So what could Bradford do if he stays healthy? Make Kelly look like a genius.
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