By: Chris Dagonas
With the NFL season kicking off (sorry) this Thursday, I’ve sat down with numerous depth charts, graphs, projections, and autumn beers to compile a little (8000 word) preview of the coming NFL Season. Who’s important, what teams to watch, what teams will win, and who will murder an acquaintance while possibly high on angel dust. It’s all the NFL storylines you want and need! To help you read through this piece, note that the team summaries read from predicted bottom of the division to top. Down, set, here goes!
NEW YORK JETS
NEED TO KNOW ON OFFENSE: The New York Jets are a mess all over the field. Geno Smith will start the season at quarterback, but will have to come out of the gate firing in order to keep the starting job, with Mark Sanchez pushing hard behind him. The loss of bruising running back Shonn Greene opens the door for Bilal Powell and newly acquired Chris Ivory, neither of whom have held starting jobs in the NFL, and probably neither will have one after this season. The injury to Santonio Holmes means that the receiving group in New York is weaker than its been in recent memory, with unheralded Jeremy Kerley leading that group.
NEED TO KNOW ON DEFENSE: The underrated Muhammad Wilkerson is a run-stuffer supreme, and will be asked to shoulder the load of forcing teams to pass against a capable, but not outstanding, secondary, that will miss the impact of all-universe cornerback Darrelle Revis.
PREDICTION: The Jets are the weakest team in the division, and perhaps one of the weakest in the whole conference. With possible wins coming against Buffalo, Oakland and maybe Carolina, the Jets end the year at 4-12, and Sanchez and Rex Ryan are given their walking papers.
NEED TO KNOW ON OFFENSE: The Bills enter this season with a new head coach and new starting quarterback. Most football fans know that combination signals the beginning of a long rebuilding process. Head coach Doug Marrone is a first-time NFL head coach, after successfully running the football program at Syracuse University, and working for three seasons as the New Orleans Saints’ offensive coordinator. At New Orleans, Marrone oversaw the development and explosion of Drew Brees, from competent NFL starter to Pro Bowl star. The Bills’ starting quarterback will be Kevin Kolb, unless his latest pre-season concussion setback is serious (update: it is serious), in which case Marrone is faced with the possibility of sending out rookie EJ Manuel or (gulp) Matt Leinart. The running back duo of Fred Jackson and CJ Spiller will be the key to giving Kolb time and space to find his receivers, particularly the talented Stevie Johnson.
NEED TO KNOW ON DEFENSE: On defense, the Bills rely heavily on defensive tackle Kyle Williams as the run-stuffer and Mario Williams (former first overall pick) as the main pass-rusher, and the secondary is headed by safety Jairus Byrd, who lead the AFC in interceptions last season. However, their supporting cast is mostly unproven rookies and average veterans.
PREDICTION: There is a fair collection of talent here, but given the new coach and the Manuel/Leinart-led offense, the Bills will likely end the season somewhere around a 5-11 record.
NEED TO KNOW ON OFFENSE: The Dolphins enter the 2013 season with some stability, returning both head coach Joe Philbin and quarterback Ryan Tannehill. With the departure of Reggie Bush to Detroit, the Dolphins are hoping for one of Lamar Miller, Daniel Thomas or Marcus Thigpen to emerge as viable starter options. As of right now, it appears that Miller will be the go-to running back. The wide receiver group is as talented as the Dolphins have had in the past decade, with the additions of slot receiver Brandon Gibson and Pro-Bowl deep threat Mike Wallace.
NEED TO KNOW ON DEFENSE: On the other side of the ball, Cameron Wake leads a defense that gave up the fewest points in the division, and third-fewest in the conference, last season. New arrival Dannell Ellerbe will be expected to replace the contributions of former linebacker linchpin Karlos Dansby, who was not allowed to walk.
PREDICTION: The new-look Dolphins start slow with a tough early schedule, but heat up through autumn and finish at 9-7, and maybe earn a wild-card berth.
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
NEED TO KNOW ON OFFENSE: The New England Patriots have been going through some, shall we say, challenges this summer. Even before Aaron-gate, there were reasons to think that maybe the Patriots’ run of dominance was coming to an end. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick remain, as always, but the offense has undergone significant changes. Most notable was the departure of wide receiver Wes Welker, but Brandon Lloyd and (obviously) Aaron Hernandez have also gone, and the Patriots have failed to replace them adequately. New addition Danny Amendola is a Welker-like workhorse, but will be unlikely to match Welker’s production. The Patriot also lost running back Danny Woodhead, and will rely on a combination of Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen and Leon Washington to handle the ground attack. To be fair, the Patriots have never had a feature back during the Belichick era, and it has never really been a problem before.
NEED TO KNOW ON DEFENSE: Vince Wilfork is the man here. He does everything a defensive lineman should do, and he usually does it with two or three offensive linemen in his way. He stops the run, he hurries the QB, he knocks down passes, and he has even gained a knack for forcing fumbles. Beyond the defensive line, the Patriots boast a quietly strong group of linebackers, particularly middle linebacker Brandon Spikes, and a solid secondary that rarely gives up the big play.
PREDICTION: There is a hall-of-fame combo of Belichick and Brady, and that alone should be enough to power through most of the competition. They finish at 11-5 and win the division.
NEED TO KNOW ON OFFENSE: Ugh. What can be said about the Browns? Let’s start with the positive; Running back Trent Richardson is an elite level offensive player. He is versatile, and can play in any situation on any down. Sadly, since he is so talented, on a team bereft of offensive talent, he handles way too much of the ball, and that resulted in him getting injured last season, an injury potential that will always be there. Receivers Josh Gordon and Greg Little are capable, but neither will frighten a defense. Quarterback Brandon Weeden is another in a long line of mediocre Cleveland quarterbacks.
NEED TO KNOW ON DEFENSE: Cornerback Joe Haden is a straight-up play-disruptor. He breaks up passes at a better rate than most other cornerbacks, but he is not yet respected enough to enter the Richard Sherman-Darrelle Revis tier of “Don’t Even Challenge Him” corners. That means he should get plenty more opportunities to break quarterbacks’ hearts this season.
PREDICTION: The Browns are who they are; a below-average team with a couple of star quality pieces. In a tough division. I’m thinking 6-10, maybe up to 7-9 if they catch some good breaks.
NEED TO KNOW ON OFFENSE: Ben Roethlisberger is entering his tenth season as the Steelers’ starting quarterback and, despite his team’s struggles last season, is coming off one of his best statistical seasons. He had his fewest rushing attempts last season, and received better protection from his offensive line. On the negative side, the Steelers have lost two of Big Ben’s best offensive weapons, running back Reshard Mendenhall and receiver Mike Wallace. The running will be supplied by a group including Felix Jones, Isaac Redman and LaRod Stephens-Howling. Jones was the starter in Dallas for a couple of seasons before losing that spot, but none of this group are too intimidating. Similarly, the receiving corps is lead by Antonio Brown and Jerricho Cotchery, two underwhelming performers.
NEED TO KNOW ON DEFENSE: Luckily for Mike Tomlin and Steelers fans everywhere, this defense can still dominate a game like few others. They gave up the second-fewest points in the conference last season, and are returning all of the key pieces. Defensive ends Ziggy Hood and Brett Keisel give quarterbacks nightmares, and linebacker LaMarr Woodley is a beast on the outside. Head-and-Shoulders pitchman Troy Polamalu has lost a step, but still plays fearless, and intelligent, football in the secondary.
PREDICTION: The defense can win plenty of games on its own, and if a couple of offensive starters play above their expectations, the Steelers can reasonably be a 9-7 team with playoff aspirations, but will have to battle the Baltimore Ravens for a wild-card spot.
NEED TO KNOW ON OFFENSE: Everyone returns from last season’s Super Bowl championship team except receiver Anquan Boldin, and tight end Dennis Pitta has just suffered a serious injury. Boldin may prove to be a major loss, as the Ravens were unable to replace him with a receiver of real quality. Deep threat Torrey Smith may face more double teams with the loss of Boldin, which will hurt his production as well. Of course, the rest of the offense is still strong, including incumbents Joe Flacco and Ray Rice.
NEED TO KNOW ON DEFENSE: This defense is tremendous. Every position offers high quality, but the standouts are Haloti Ngata on the defensive line, Terrell Suggs at linebacker, and Lardarius Webb at cornerback. Webb missed most of last season with a torn ACL, but should be ready to start the regular season. The retirement of Ray Lewis and departure of Ed Reed seem harmful at first glance, but the Ravens shrewdly added linebacker Daryl Smith and safety Michael Huff to more-than-replace the loss of the two veterans. Also, I couldn’t finish this section without mentioning the amazing Elvis Dumervil fax fiasco.
PREDICTION: Last season’s champions will not drop off too far, but in a tough division, even one loss could mean they are outside the playoff discussion. This looks like a 9-7 team that might secure a wild-card spot, in a tough race against the Steelers.
NEED TO KNOW ON OFFENSE: Quarterback Andy Dalton returns to lead a much-improved offensive unit that was already fifth in the conference in points scored last season. Rookies Tyler Eifert (Tight End) and Giovani Bernard (Running Back) add fuel and variety to the plodding running of BenJarvus Green-Ellis and the often double-teamed standout A.J. Green. With more options to look to, Dalton could really break out this season and end up as a pro-bowl quarterback.
NEED TO KNOW ON DEFENSE: This defense, in true AFC North fashion, is a force to be reckoned with. The defensive line pressures opposing quarterbacks relentlessly, and the secondary features pro bowl cornerback Leon Hall, among other hungry young players. They were fourth in the conference in points allowed, and could improve on that with development from their young linebackers.
PREDICTION: The Bengals could get tripped up on a tough schedule, which sees them facing the NFC North teams. If they can break even against that division, or better, they should have little trouble within their own division outside Baltimore, and could end up with an 11-5 record and a spot atop the division.
NEED TO KNOW ON OFFENSE: The Raiders enter the season with Terrelle Pryor at starting quarterback, with free-agent Matt Flynn looming behind him. Pryor offers the running options of a Michael Vick or Cam Newton, while Flynn is a standard pocket quarterback. With a weak offensive line, Pryor better use his Nikes, bruh. Running back Darren McFadden is elite, but often injured, and the Raiders have moved to provide insurance for McFadden by adding former Jaguar Rashad Jennings. Wide receiver Denarius Moore is the leader of that group, but will be hamstrung by the lack of consistency, or quality, at quarterback.
NEED TO KNOW ON DEFENSE: This group allowed 443 points last season, second most in the conference, and have done little to address that deficiency. Their yardage totals were average, but the high points allowed total usually points to a poor offense that gave up the ball at excellent field position for the opponents. The secondary is solid, while the defensive line and linebackers are young but improving.
PREDICTION: There is just not enough talent here, particularly on offense, to expect much out of this team. Expect a 5-11 season, at best.
SAN DIEGO CHARGERS
NEED TO KNOW ON OFFENSE: The Chargers bring back their offensive core, in quarterback Philip Rivers, running back Ryan Mathews, wide receivers Malcolm Floyd and Robert Meachem, and tight end Antonio Gates. The offense produced 39 touchdowns last season, the most of any AFC non-playoff team, so there is reason to believe they are not too far away. The addition of former Patriot Danny Woodhead will help add some versatility and take some weight off Mathews’ shoulders. However, the loss of receiver Danario Alexander to a knee injury really hurts.
NEED TO KNOW ON DEFENSE: Sadly for Chargers’ fans, the defense is much the same as it was last season, when it was extremely average. The Chargers drafted Notre Dame university standout Manti Te’o, he of the famous “Catfish” incident, to start at inside linebacker, but he will have to learn quickly at the pro level, and will struggle early and often to adapt to the pro game.
PREDICTION: This team stood still in a division where the Chiefs and Broncos were focused on improvement. With NFC East matchups looming, and the vastly improved Chiefs to play twice, the Chargers will sink to around 6-10 this season, or worse.
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
NEED TO KNOW ON OFFENSE: Are you a gambler? Looking for a long shot playoff team? Look no further than the Chiefs, who finished last season at 2-14, but have revitalized their roster (and coaching staff) with the additions of quarterback Alex Smith and head coach Andy Reid. Smith should provide far better production and efficiency than Matt Cassel, and Reid’s offensive system will allow for higher percentage plays, including short passes to the underrated Jamaal Charles. Dwayne Bowe is still the team’s best receiver, but Dexter McCluster is a freakish athlete and new signing Donnie Avery is a sneaky good slot receiver. The offense should see a boost from the measly 18 touchdowns it managed last season.
NEED TO KNOW ON DEFENSE: Here is where the question marks still lay for the Chiefs. The defense is stacked with high-potential players, who have yet to reach that potential. Dontari Poe was expected to be a Vince Wilfork-type of run stopper, but he did not have a great rookie season, although it appeared that he was improving towards the latter part of last season. Linebacker Derrick Johnson and cornerback Brandon Flowers are the key players who will hope to guide the Chiefs to an improvement over last season, in which they allowed the fifth-most points in the conference.
PREDICTION: Everyone agrees this team will be better than last season. They have to play against the NFC East, which is a considerably difficult, and will stumble in those games. However, they should have little trouble against the Raiders or Chargers, and can reasonably reach 8-8.
NEED TO KNOW ON OFFENSE: The league’s second-best offense just took the best offensive tool from the league’s best offense. Slot receiver Wes Welker joins Peyton Manning’s offense, and brings with him 100-reception potential. Welker is still a force, with sure hands and a keen eye for finding holes in defenses. Manning will find all sorts of creative ways to get Welker the ball, and the two will likely have great chemistry. That’s not to mention the already-awesome receiving duo of Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas, who evoked numerous comparisons to the late 90’s Broncos receiving pair Rod Smith and Ed McCaffrey. So, you know, the offense is solid.
NEED TO KNOW ON DEFENSE: Oh, also, the defense is solid. They boast the fewest points allowed in the conference last season. However, they will be missing pro bowl linebacker Von Miller for six games, suspended for a substance abuse violation, which will definitely be felt in big match-ups against the Baltimore Ravens and New York Giants in weeks 1 and 2. Regardless, the Broncos should easily keep pace with the division during Miller’s absence, and will likely catch fire on his return.
PREDICTION: 13-3, and an easy division title.
NEED TO KNOW ON OFFENSE: Blaine Gabbert. As in, you need to know how bad Blaine Gabbert is. He is the starting quarterback for now, and will likely keep that title as his only challenger is Chad Henne. That’s not a good thing, though. The rest of the offense is actually decent, including running back Maurice Jones-Drew and receivers Cecil Shorts and Justin Blackmon. With a league-average quarterback, these players would be legitimate offensive threats. With Gabbert and Henne, they are doomed to a season’s worth of poor passes and running routes for no reason.
NEED TO KNOW ON DEFENSE: The focus of the off-season was on improving the defensive line, in an attempt to slow opposing offenses by disrupting their runs and rushing their quarterback. If that was the Jags’ number one issue, this would have been a wise move. Since there are bigger fish to fry in Jacksonville, I think management missed the mark here.
PREDICTION: The Jaguars were 2-14 last season, but unlike the Chiefs, failed to address their most pressing need. They will meet the NFC West, which means match-ups against the 49ers, Seahawks and not-so-terrible Rams, and two games against both the Colts and Texans. A reasonable prediction is 3-13.
NEED TO KNOW ON OFFENSE: Quarterback Jake Locker showed significant growth last season, and should be ready to take another step forward this season. Chris Johnson is running at full speed and power in the pre-season, and the addition of Shonn Greene will help on short-yardage situations and to give Johnson breathers. Receiver Kenny Britt is a talent, but has also had several encounters with the police over the years, and is always one incident away from a suspension or jail time. Nate Washington is one of the league’s most underrated receivers, and has been Locker’s favourite target. The Titans offense is an up-and-coming threat.
NEED TO KNOW ON DEFENSE: Defensive end Kamerion Wimbley is the key player on the league’s most generous defense from last season. They give up far too many points to be considered respectable, and will need to make significant strides to compete with the Colts and Texans.
PREDICTION: They might be interesting to watch, considering every game they’re in could be a shootout, but that is not the foundation for a successful football franchise. Look for something in the 5-11 neighbourhood.
NEED TO KNOW ON OFFENSE: Quarterback Andrew Luck was one-third of the triple-headed rookie QB monster that took the NFL by storm last season. He lead the rookie class in passing yards, and should continue to have plenty of success this season. The Colts have added running back Ahmad Bradshaw to lead the ground game, while Reggie Wayne and T.Y. Hilton return to catch Luck’s passes. An already potent offense has improved by way of Luck’s development and Bradshaw’s addition.
NEED TO KNOW ON DEFENSE: Defensive tackle Ricky Jean-Francois and linebacker Robert Mathis lead an intimidating pass rush that should lead to plenty of interceptions for Antoine Bethea and the rest of the Colts secondary.
PREDICTION: The Colts were the only playoff team that had a negative point differential, which points to a possible regression. In addition, they were 7-1 at home, while only 4-4 on the road. Unless they can sort out the defensive issues, they are likely to drop a couple of games. I’m expecting a 9-7 finish, which could likely leave them outside of the playoffs.
NEED TO KNOW ON OFFENSE: What’s not to like? Arian Foster is one of the league’s best running backs, quarterback Matt Schaub is solid, not spectacular, but makes few mistakes, and Andre Johnson is still a dominant force at receiver. Even tight end Owen Daniels ranks inside the top 10 at his position, and the offensive line creates yawning chasms for the running backs and gives Schaub days to make passes. There is a potential weakness at receiver depth behind Johnson, so if big number 80 goes down with injury, the Texans could sputter.
NEED TO KNOW ON DEFENSE: The Texans also carry a high-quality defense with them into 2013; Everyone knows about the force of JJ Watt, and his uncanny ability to effect play after play. The loss of safety Glover Quin was quickly remedied by the arrival of the legendary Ed Reed from Baltimore.
PREDICTION: Great on offense, great on defense, great at home (6-2) great on the road (6-2); The Texans can easily shoot for 12-4 and a division title.
Here is a rundown of my projected conference standings with their projected records;
1. Denver Broncos (13-3)
2. Houston Texans (12-4)
3. New England Patriots (11-5)
4. Cincinnati Bengals (11-5)
5. Baltimore Ravens (10-6)
6. Indianapolis Colts (9-7)
7. Pittsburgh Steelers (9-7)
8. Miami Dolphins (9-7)
9. Kansas City Chiefs (8-8)
10. Cleveland Browns (6-10)
11. San Diego Chargers (6-10)
12. Tennessee Titans (5-11)
13. Buffalo Bills (5-11)
14. Oakland Raiders (5-11)
15. New York Jets (4-12)
16. Jacksonville Jaguars (3-13)
Offensive Player Of The Year – Peyton Manning, QB, Denver Broncos
Rookie Of The Year – Giovani Bernard, RB, Cincinnati Bengals
Defensive Player Of The Year – JJ Watt, DE, Houston Texans
Coach Of The Year – Andy Reid, Kansas City Chiefs
Consider the AFC fully dissected! Tomorrow, I’ll do a Walter Payton goal-line leap towards the NFC, where I have a shocking prediction about the Green Bay Packers (they’ll be very good).