Friday, August 15, 2014

Preseason Predictions, 2014

After a 7 month hiatus, I am back.  Hello football blog!

So I began my fantasy football research last week (about two months later than usual), and was shocked by how many skill position players changed teams.  Miles Austin, Steve Smith, James Jones, Emmanuel Sanders, Eric Decker, DeSean Jackson, Hakeem Nicks, Lance Moore ... did no middle-tier wide receivers remain on their team??  

Then there's the running backs, where I found names like Ball, Lacy, and Stacy in the top 10.  Seriously?  When did that happen?

Apparently 7 months of being an attentive dad and an avid fantasy baseball participant has affected my football IQ significantly.   There is a lot of catching up to do, and very few weeks until Week 1 kicks off.   Fortunately, I thrive under pressure, and I'm not afraid to make crap up.

Here are my preseason predictions:.


  Patriots -- The addition of Revis more than offsets the loss of Aqib Talib, and two All Pros, Gronk and Mayo, should be back to full health...ish.  The big question mark, believe it or not, is Tom Brady.  Will he ever be a dominant offensive force again, or is he on the path of unmistakable regression?   Ask any sucker who owned him in fantasy over the last two years, and it's the latter.

Still, the Pats will win the AFC East for the 6th year in a row (and 11th time in 12 years), because of superior coaching, a great offensive line, a defense that retains four elite players (Wilfork, Mayo, Hightower, McCourtey) and now adds Darrelle Revis to the secondary, and above all, because a regressing Tom Brady with one hand tied behind his back is still twice as good as any other quarterback in the division.   Prediction: 11-5

  Dolphins -- Aside from Cameron Wake, Miami is a team devoid of talent.  Mired in a bullying scandal and mediocre quarterback play, their offense ranked in the bottom 7 in both yards and points last season. Mike Wallace proved to be a money-minded disappointment.  Aside from a few upgrades to the offensive line (ie. overpaying Branden Albert), basically nothing was done to improve the offense and give Ryan Tannehill some legitimate weaponry. Brian Hartline and Knowshon Moreno?  No defensive coordinator is going to fear that duo.

But again, the AFC East is lousy, and Miami's defense tends to keep them competitive, at least as long as Wake stays healthy.  Dion Jordan could have a breakout year.  The secondary is good, not great.  And who knows, maybe Tannehill will break out of his John Navarre slump and put the offense on his back.  Prediction:  7-9

  Bills -- Buffalo has long served as an AFC counterpart to the Lions, so it's fitting that they signed Jim Schwartz to run their defense.  He'll bring his wide-9 scheme and his smug arrogance to a Bills defense that lost its best player, safety Jairus Byrd, to free agency.  Schwartz does get to tinker with an outstanding defensive line that features Mario Williams, Kyle Williams, and Marcel Dareus, but a lousy back-seven will betray them, just as it often did in Detroit.

It's easy to fall in love with Buffalo's skill players on offense - the athletic young QB, the rookie phenom receiver, the quintessential running back tandem -  but I'm not buying too much E.J. Manuel stock just yet.  Surely Sammy Watkins will make Manuel a more effective passer, and improve his stats.  But just like Calvin & Stafford, or Green & Dalton, an elite wide receiver does not transform a mediocre quarterback into an elite quarterback.  He merely masks his weaknesses.  And E.J. Manuel does not appear to even be a mediocre quarterback; his rookie season indicates he falls into the 'well below average' tier.  So while I am buying Sammy Watkins stock all over the place, it won't be enough to make the Bills playoff contenders.  Prediction:  7-9

  Jets -- Geno Smith expects to be a top 5 quarterback by this time next year.  Dee Milliner already believes he is the best cornerback in the league.  (I'm assuming he means excluding the obvious names like Sherman, Peterson, Revis, Haden, etc...)  You gotta love that trademark Jets confidence.

However, their roster is the bleakest in a bleak division.  The three big name additions - Mike Vick, Chris Johnson, and Eric Decker - and just that: big names.  Vick is a trifecta of bad quarterback mojo (turnover prone, injury prone, and drama prone), the RB formerly known as Sonic is  a hollow shell of his former self, and Decker is just the latest reincarnation of Brandon Stokley/Austin Collie/Token White Receiver that Peyton Manning makes look good.

The Jets' defense boasts two absolute studs up front - Richardson and Wilkerson - but nothing in the secondary now that Cromartie is gone.  Rex Ryan has proven himself to be a great coach who can win games with minimal talent, but this might be the end of the line.  Prediction:  5-11


  Steelers --  Everybody and their brother is predicting a rebound year for both Roethlisberger and the Steelers.  I am too.  Mike Tomlin is easily a top five coach, the defense is retooled and loaded with young talent, and there's just something stupidly lucky about these assholes.

I like the low-risk additions to the offense (LeGarrette Blount, Lance Moore, Heyward-Bey), and I have Markus Wheaton pegged as a major fantasy sleeper (just like everyone else, which I suppose makes him no longer a sleeper).  The offensive line has gone from weakness to strength, especially with DeCastro and Pouncey finally both healthy in the middle.  Le'Veon Bell should have a nice year and allow Roethlisberger to do what he does best:  deep bombs on play action.    Prediction:  11-5

  Bengals -- On paper, Cincinnati has the most talented roster in the division, and maybe the second best in the AFC behind only Denver.  But it's that pesky quarterback position that means the most, and the $115 million redhead is painfully average.  He mixes phenomenal games with total stinkbombs, and unfortunately those stinkbombs tend to take place in the postseason.  Dalton falls into that Stafford/Cutler/Romo tier of quarterbacks who are surrounded by an elite cast of weapons, and have no excuses for not winning.   There isn't a better WR/WR/RB trio in the AFC than AJ Green, Marvin Jones, and Gio Bernard.

The defense is also stacked, but will miss D-coordinator Mike Zimmer, now the Vikings coach.  Geno Atkins is probably the best DT in football, and is flanked by stud linebackers Carlos Dunlap and Vontaze Bufict (who led the NFL in tackles in 2013). The secondary is pretty old and Leon Hall is trying to return from a major injury, so that could be Cincy's weak spot.  They also have to face a first-place schedule that includes Denver and New England.  Prediction:  7-9

  Ravens -- The Ravens are a sneaky bounce-back contender this year, despite being primarily known as the idiots who made Joe Flacco the highest paid player in the NFL.   While the majority of Baltimore's preseason press has gone to Ray Rice and his domestic violence situation, the focus should be on Baltimore's defense, which improved significantly when Ray Lewis and Ed Reed left.  A quartet of absolute stud defenders (Haloti Ngata, Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil, Lardarius Webb) is now joined by rookie linebacker C.J. Mosley, a future star and the guy the Lions probably should have taken  in the 1st round instead of a backup tight end.  The Ravens defense will be good enough to keep them competitive in every game.

Which is important, because Joe Flacco, Ray Rice, and Steve Smith aren't scaring anybody.  Torrey Smith should have a solid year, and the return of Dennis Pitta (Flacco's favorite target) can't be underestimated.  But still, this offense will sputter a lot without a running game, and Flacco won't possibly be able to play well enough to escape the shadow of his preposterous salary.  Prediction:  9-7

  Browns --  The similarities between Tim Tebow and Johnny Manziel are well documented, in terms of hype and obnoxious media coverage, but the two couldn't be more different.  Tebow makes news for being pro-life and a virgin.  Manziel takes selfies with Justin Bieber.  Tebow is humble to a fault, virtuous to the point of nausea.  Manziel clearly loves himself, willfully inflates his own hype, and enjoys playing the villain.  Both Heisman winners had illustrious college careers and were drafted in the late first round, and both have glaring limitations (Tebow's arm, Manziel's size), but they have almost nothing else in common.  Except that they both annoy the crap out of me.

However, I actually rather like Johnny Football as a late-round fantasy flier.  He will pile up running yards, and tight end Jordan Cameron will finish the season as a top 3 player at his position.  But the suspension of Josh Gordon kills the offense, and Ben Tate won't stay healthy.  Terrance West is the running back to keep an eye on.

Cleveland does possess two of the best players in the NFL in LT Joe Thomas and CB Joe Haden, and an above average defensive line.  If Josh Gordon weren't suspended, I would see some decent sleeper potential here.   But it'll be a training wheels season for Johnny Football, with a few magnificent highlights scattered among lots of turnovers and sacks.   Prediction:  6-10


  Colts --  There is a clear demarkation of the top 4 quarterbacks in the NFL right now:  Manning, Brees, Rodgers, and Brady.  But with 3 of those guys at older than 35, the obvious question is which young QBs will rise to elite QB status, and how soon?

Segueway to Andrew Luck, the logical successor.  There's no doubt Luck will one day take his place among the game's best quarterbacks.  But my assertion is that day will happen much sooner than most people think.  I'll say ... by about week 9 of this season.

Luck has all the tools, mental and physical, and his third season is the logical time for him to take the leap into superstardom.  By November, all the Mortensens and Schlereths and Grudens will be saying, "I'll tell you what guys, Andrew Luck just might be the best overall quarterback in the National Football League ... right now!"   Of course, that'll be an overreaction.  But not a drastic one.

As Luck distances himself from the RGs and Wilsons and Newtons, the Colts will keep on winning.  Who cares what the rest of the roster looks like.  Prediction:  12-4

  Texans --  It's fun to think of J.J. Watt and JaDaveon Clowney on the same defensive line, but last year's Texans went 2-14 because of inept offense, not defense.  They were 31st in scoring, they led the AFC in turnovers, and threw something like 25 pick-sixes.   Replacing Matt Schaub with Ryan Fitzpatrick doesn't solve those problems.  Arian Foster and Andre Johnson are a few years removed from their primes.  Things won't be pretty for the Texans offense.

But their defense alone will win them a lot more than 2 games. Watt and Clowney will cause all kinds of havoc, and the secondary is good enough to take advantage.  Jonathan Joseph could be in for an All Pro year thanks to all the pressure his DEs will create.  The linebackers are also good, led by Brian Cushing and Brooks Reed.  This team is much better than their 2-14 record.  How far can they go with Fitzpatrick and a rookie head coach?  Prediction:  7-9

Titans --  I don't think there's a team in the NFL with less star power than the Titans.  No big names, no interesting stories, not even a fantasy player in the top 20 at any position.  Rookie running back Bishop Sankey will get lots of sleeper buzz, because he's a rookie with a lock on the starting job.  But it only took me 30 seconds on youtube to identify him as a slow plodder.  Yeah, he'll score from the 2 yard line a few times and get 60 yards per game on 20 carries, but he's not the breakout star anyone is looking for.

Nobody on this team is interesting.  Lots of B and C talent, but no A players.  Not a one.  I suppose Jake Locker could stay healthy and show everybody why he was considered the no-doubt #1 overall pick so many years ago. But I'm not holding my breath on that.  Prediction:  5-11

  Jaguars - The perennially boring Jaguars finally found the cure to NFL anonymity.  They got themselves a quarterback battle.  Blake Bortles vs. Chad Henne!  I even heard VanPelt talking about it on the radio today.

Hopefully Bortles will win the job early and make Jacksonville at least watchable.  Last year they simply did not belong among the other 31 NFL teams.  They were dead last in so many statistical categories I can't even begin to list them.

Admittedly, their defense is a solid C+.  But the offense grades lower than an F.  Maybe like a Q. Somehow, I don't see Toby Gerhart being the magical elixir.   Prediction:  3-13


  Broncos --
Barring an injury to Peyton Manning, Denver is a lock to win at least 12 games again, and maybe more.  The defense added DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib, and T.J. Ward, all of whom are among the best at their respective positions.   Ware and Von Miller form a pass rushing duo that may actually be the best in the AFC, which is a high compliment considering the competition (Baltimore's Suggs/Dumervil; Houston's Watt/Clowney).

The Peyton Manning Machine will continue to score at will, and could actually be better.  Emmanuel Sanders figures to be an upgrade over Eric Decker, and former All Pro tackle Ryan Clady returns after missing the entire season with an injury.  Both Thomases (Demaryius and Julius) will be top 3 fantasy players at their positions, and Sanders and Wes Welker will be solid producers, along with Monte Ball.  Keep an eye on Cody Latimer, the rookie from Indiana.  Neither John Fox nor Peyton Manning have much history utilizing rookies, but they didn't draft Latimer in the 2nd round for him to ride the bench.

Both sides of the ball are stacked, and it's Super Bowl or bust.  Prediction:  13-3

  Chiefs -- Following an improbable jump from 2-14 to 11-5, history tells us Kansas City is bound to regress.  Especially with a decidedly non-elite quarterback in Alex Smith.   Of course, KC has one of the game's most dynamic playmakers in Jamaal Charles, and some A+ players on defense in Eric Berry and Tamba Hali.  But there are quite a few negatives that lead me to believe the Chiefs are not headed back to the postseason.

For starters, last year's #1 overall pick Eric Fisher is already shaping up to be a bust.  Their best lineman, Branden Albert, went to Miami, and hybrid RB/WR Dexter McCluster went to Tennessee. Defenses will be able to put 8 or 9 in the box and bottle up Charles, and Alex Smith simply doesn't have the arm to make them pay.  So that's the first problem.

The other big problem is cornerback.  The Chiefs have nothing to speak of at this marquee position.  While they have great safeties and great pass rushers and great inside linebackers (Derrick Johnson), they've got nobody who really belongs as a CB2, let alone a CB1.  With a more difficult schedule (the AFC West has the misfortunate of drawing the NFC West) and some key losses this offseason, the Andy Reid magic is quickly going to wear off in KC.  Prediction:  8-8

  Chargers -- San Diego finished strong last season, winning 5 of 6 games to snag a wildcard berth, and then trouncing the Bengals in the first round.  They even gave the Broncos a close contest.  Something about Keenan Allen rejuvenated Phillip Rivers (or maybe it was being free from Norv Turner). I like the efficiency of San Diego's offense, with Matthews and Woodhead complementing each other well and a spread-the-ball-around philosophy.  Ladarius Green will emerge as a stud tight end once Antonio "Game Time Decision" Gates starts missing action.  Green is clearly of the Jimmy Graham mold - a wide receiver's skill set in a tight end's body.

Defensively the Bolts are quite average.  Some good young talent in Corey Liuget and Melvin Ingram, and a top-notch playmaking safety in Eric Weddle.  Last year they ranked 23rd in yards allowed and 23rd in sacks;  also 23rd in takeaways.  They struggled in all aspects, ranking 28th against the run in terms of YPC, and 28th against the pass in terms of opponent's QB rating.

As mentioned, they'll have the NFC West on the docket, along with Denver twice, so best case scenario would be maybe 10 wins.   Prediction:  9-7  

  Raiders -- Yikes.   Do I really need to say anything more than "Matt Schaub" ?

I did like their 2014 draft class. Khalil Mack will be a stud pass rusher, and Derek Carr (2nd round) could potentially be a franchise quarterback in 2015.   But this year, they'll be unwatchable.  Prediction:  4-12

AFC Playoffs:
Broncos (13-3)
Colts (12-4)
Pats (11-5)
Steelers (11-5)
Ravens (9-7)
Chargers (9-7) 

The rest: 
Chiefs (8-8)
Texans (7-9)
Bengals (7-9)
Dolphins (7-9)
Bills (7-9)
Browns (6-10)
Titans (5-11)
Jets (5-11)
Raiders (4-12)
Jags (3-13)

AFC Championship:  Broncos over Steelers 


  Eagles --  NickFolean Dynamite took the Chip Kelly brand of offense to new heights last season, with an insane 27-2 TD to INT ratio.  Of course that won't be replicated, but Foles did have a reputation coming out of college as a smart decision maker with an accurate arm.  However, let us be cautious, because Josh Freeman once had a 25-6 TD to INT ratio, and we know how that turned out.  Outliers exist; Foles is not a surefire franchise stud QB.  Yet.

But Philly is reasonably optimistic about their chances of ruling the NFC East.  They have a dominant rushing attack (maybe the NFL's best), they experienced addition by subtraction when two selfish distractions (Mike Vick and DeSean Jackson) went elsewhere, and they fine-tuned to adjust to Kelly's speed-driven offense, with the addition of Darren Sproles and the increased use of athletic tight end Zach Ertz.  Of course, a healthy year of Jeremy Maclin will help tremendously too.

The defense isn't nearly as good as the Philly offense, but it's adequate. writes, "the Eagles are the best team in the worst division in football." Probably true.  Prediction: 10-6 

  Redskins --  It's en vogue for football writers to refuse to use Washington's nickname, and instead always refer to them as 'the football team from Washington DC.' Personally I'm not offended by the moniker.   I don't know anyone who is.  Someday it'll change to something safe, like the Washington Hogs, and that'll be a good thing, but for now I'm fine with it.  I find the Cleveland Indians to be more offensive, or at least more idiotic, since Native Americans have nothing to do with India.

Anyway, RG3 is finally, actually, really healthy, and now has the speedy diva DeSean Jackson to throw to, along with favorite targets Jordan Reed and Pierre Garcon, and also new addition Andre Roberts.  That is a very solid quartet of options, and Alfred Morris should thrive in the RB1 role now that the disaster of Mike Shanahan is finally gone.  I italicize 'finally,' because Shanahan was fired about four years later than he should have been.  His misuse of offensive strategy was borderline senile.

This team is a huge candidate for a bounce-back season.  I'm a big fan of new coach Jay Gruden.  The defensive line is good (led by Brian Orakpo, when he's not playing Scrabble with cavemen, and Ryan Kerrigan), but the secondary is suspect at best.  The Skins ranked 31st in scoring defense last season, and also 31st in passing defense in terms of YPA.  Almost a mirror image of Philly - great offense, bad defense.  Both have pretty easy schedules; except Washington gets Tampa and Minnesota, where Philly gets the Packers and Panthers.  Prediction:  10-6 

  Cowboys -- The annually overrated Cowboys have flipped the script; this year, everybody hates them.  I haven't seen a single analyst peg them for more than 7 wins.  Many people predict an early Jason Garrett firing, the team quitting completely, and a top 3 draft pick resulting in Jameis Winston or Marcus Mariota.  That certainly could happen.  After all, the Cowboys defense was historically bad in 2013 (they allowed 300 yards more than the 31st ranked team), and now is without DeMarcus Ware.

But, they still might have the best quarterback in the division.  Call me crazy, but I believe in Tony Romo as an above-average regular season quarterback, and think he can single-handedly win 6 or 7 games.  Throw in a solid supporting cast - Dez Bryant, Jason Witten, DeMarco Murray, fantasy sleeper WR Terrence Williams - and that offense could carry their awful defense to a mediocre season.

Will that be enough to save Garrett's job?  Very doubtful.  But let's not give them a top 5 pick just yet.  Prediction:  8-8 

  Giants -- With 27 picks and 39 sacks, Eli Manning was arguably the worst quarterback in the NFL last season.  He ranked in the top 12 in attempts, but finished 35th in QB rating, behind Brandon Weeden, Christian Ponder, Matt Schaub, and other schmucks.  He was simply horrendous.

Nothing happened over the offseason to make me think the Giants can rebuild.  Tom Coughlin has been treading water thanks to a couple fluky Super Bowls for a long time, and this year could finally be the end of his run. (And Eli's).  I see the previously detailed Dallas scenario occurring for the Giants; 1-5 against the division, 0-4 against the NFC West, 2-2 against the AFC South, and losses to Atlanta and Detroit.  That's a top 2 pick and a new franchise quarterback. Where will Eli head in 2015?  Prediction: 3-13  


  Packers -- Still the favorites in the North, the Packers will go as far as Aaron Rodgers takes them.  They are no longer stacked with All Pros on defense like they were a few years ago, but they did acquire 34 year old Julius Peppers, to rush the passer opposite Clay Matthews.  That's pretty frightening.  The rest of the defense is very blah.

But Rodgers is armed with weapons - Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb (now healthy), a few random guys who he will turn into fantasy darlings, and a revamped running attack led by Eddie Lacy.  Also tackle Bryan Bulaga returns from an ACL injury.  I suppose I could go on and on, but you already know Rodgers is one of the best QBs in the NFL, so it goes without saying...  Prediction:  13-3 

  Bears --  Any impartial predictor would have to put Chicago ahead of Detroit, because of superior coaching, more balanced offense, and the fact that they haven't been fostering a culture of ineptitude for 6 decades.  Plus, I have seen Matt Stafford and Jay Cutler both play a lot of games, and there's no doubt in my mind I would rather have Cutler.  I strongly dislike them both, but Cutler is the better QB when it comes to winning games.  

Chicago's defense is terrible - 30th in yards allowed, 30th in points allowed, 32nd in rushing yards, 32nd in sacks, 25th in third-down conversions, 20th in takeaways - so they aren't a threat to Green Bay as far as winning the division.  They'll almost certainly finish between 7 and 9 wins.  But there isn't a better WR tandem in the NFL than Marshall and Jeffery, and not a better trio of weapons than those two plus Forte.  The two games between the Bears and Lions will likely determine a Wildcard berth.  Prediction:  9-7 

  Lions -- The good news:  Jim Schwartz is finally gone.  His poisonous personality slowly permeated the entire roster, and dictated the style of play on the field.  Lazy, angry, entitled, bratty, a complete lack of discipline.  Hopefully that stench will be quickly forgotten.

The bad news:  when Jim Caldwell tried to coach without Peyton Manning operating as his quarterback (and actual coach), he helplessly watched the Colts begin the year 0-13, losing by an average of 16 points.  So pardon me for having a memory that exceeds two years, but I am not buying into the "Caldwell has changed the Lions culture, he's a winner, he preaches excellence, no screwing around on his watch..." hype.  Any coach who loses 13 straight games is missing something.

With two new coordinators, both completely unproven in those roles, and a D+ secondary, it's just tough to be overly optimistic about this team.  Heck, even the kicker sucks.

I can try to talk myself into it.  Golden Tate and Eric Ebron will take attention off Calvin Johnson, the two-headed rushing attack of Bush & Bell will be unstoppable, Pettigrew can focus on blocking, and for the first time EVER- the offensive line is a strength!  Everything could finally click for Matt Stafford under the tutelage of some guy named Lombardi who turned Drew Brees into a record-shattering superstar!!  

But try as I might, I just can't talk myself into it.  Sidearm Stafford has let me down too many times.  His poor mechanics are under the constant scrutiny of talking heads, but it goes far beyond the stupid sidearm and bad footwork.  He's just not a winner, or a leader.  He doesn't have the "it" factor - call it poise, moxie, swagger, confidence, guts, whatever.  Sure, we've seen flashes of it:  the Browns 38-37 game as a rookie, and the marvelous jump-over-the-pile finish to beat the Cowboys last year. But a couple isolated instances does not an elite quarterback make.  He visibly isn't prepared to face certain blitzes and coverages, and his decision-making ability has not improved since his rookie season. Not to mention, his athleticism stinks.  He's slow, clumsy, awkward on his feet.  Those one or two plays a game when he needs to escape the pocket and create some time with his legs, he's completely unable to do it. Sure, Peyton and Brady are purely pocket passers with no athleticism, but they're in their late 30s.  Stafford is 26.  He has no excuse for being so fat and out of shape.  He's a professional athlete for crying out loud!

As far as the defense, we can expect more of the same.  It all centers around Suh:  constant double-teams, a few WWF bodyslams, a suspension, plenty of personal fouls, but overall elite play which anchors an above average defensive line.  The linebackers are nothing to scoff at - DeAndre Levy and Stephen Tulloch are both underrated and consistent tacklers, and Levy is fantastic in coverage.  But it's the secondary, once again, that stands out as the weak link.  Chris Houston is gone, Delmas is gone, and the signing of somebody called Ihedigbo isn't enough.  There isn't a cornerback on this roster who belongs as a CB2, let alone a CB1.  With 4 games against Cutler and Rodgers and the weapons they have, Lord help us.

Did I mention yet that David Akers sucks?

Fortunately, our schedule includes the AFC East, along with the Giants and Cardinals, and two games against Minnesota.  Worst-case scenario, we should be able to scrap together a respectable 7 wins.  If we can go 2-2 against the NFC South and 2-2 against the Packers & Bears, we ought to be able to snag a Wildcard with 9 or 10 wins.

Detroit has the talent, it's just a few dumb plays here and there that create those losses.  Could this be the year they finally discover the cure for stupid?  Probably not.  Prediction:  8-8 

  Vikings --  For most of the 2013 season, it seemed a foregone conclusion that the #1 pick would result in Teddy Bridgewater.  Then, the Combine and Pro Day and Mel Kiper took over, and everything changed.  Clowney went 1st, Bortels was the top QB, and Bridgewater freefell all the way to the LAST pick in the 1st round, where the Vikings swooped into Seattle's spot and grabbed the Louisville phenom.

Bridgewater seems to be the complete package:  solid arm, solid size, solid athleticism, solid brain.  He doesn't do anything at an elite level, but has no glaring weaknesses.  Best case scenario, he seems like a slightly slower Donovan McNabb, but with probably a better attitude.  Of course, it'll take him a while to adjust to the NFL, as it does with all rookie QBs.  Bridgewater has the luxury of playing with the best running back since Barry Sanders, though, and can hand the ball to AP anytime he wants.  Patterson and Rudolph give him a few good young targets also, and he has an anchor in left tackle Matt Kalil.  Really, this is a solid situation Teddy is stepping into.

The defense doesn't appear to be all that talented, save for stud safety Harrison Smith and youngsters Anthony Barr and Sharrif Floyd.  But new head coach Mike Zimmer has earned a reputation for creating great defenses with unknown players.  With the learning curve of a rookie QB and a rookie coach, you can't expect too much.  Prediction:  6-10  


  Saints --   With Bountygate finally behind them, the Saints are back to being legit Super Bowl contenders, despite playing in a brutal division.  I could almost copy-paste what I wrote about the Packers here, and substitute Brees for Rodgers. Any team with a top 4 quarterback should be expected to win at least 10 games, probably more.  With Graham, Colston, Kenny Stills, and rookie Brandin Cooks (with the famous 4.33 40 time), Brees will have plenty of weapons to offset the loss of safety valve Darren Sproles.  Khiry Robinson might give the Saints a legitimate running attack, while Mark Ingram's corpse rots away.

The Saints' D is sneaky good this year, with Jairus Byrd brought in to play next to safety Kenny Vaccaro, the 2013 1st rounder.  This is probably the NFL's best safety duo outside of Seattle.  Also, Cameron Jordan (one of the many players the Lions should have taken instead of Nick Fairley) is a stud defensive end.  Prediction:  12-4 

  Panthers --   After an uninspiring 1-3 start, Cam Newton carried Carolina on an 11-1 stretch to win the division last season.  Now many pundits are predicting decline for the Panthers, who lost their entire receiving corp, a few key offensive lineman, and three-fourths of their secondary.

No doubt their roster is thin, but they have a top 10 QB who is closing in on top 5-6 range, and one of the best defensive front-7's in football, with All Pro Luke Kuechly in the middle, and DEs Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy combining for 26 sacks.  The Panthers D was #2 overall in terms of both points allowed and yards allowed last season, trailing only the Seahawks in both categories. During their crazy 11-1 stretch, they only allowed more than 20 points on one occurrence, against New Orleans.

With a brand new secondary, you can expect the defense to decline a little.  And with no proven weapons for Cam Newton to distribute the ball to, except for slow tight end Greg Olsen, the offense will probably regress as well.  They still have plenty of elite talent, but very little depth, and a brutal first-place schedule that includes a three-game stretch of Green Bay, Seattle, then New Orleans. Prediction:  9-7 

  Falcons --  While everyone seems to be expecting the 12-4 Panthers to miss the playoffs, many are penciling the 4-12 Falcons into the postseason, all in the name of unpredictable parity.  I know Julio Jones was hurt and now he's back, but is he really worth 5 or 6 wins over the course of a season? Of course not.

Atlanta used the #6 pick on left tackle Jake Matthews, which was a steal, and they added a couple other decent pieces to the O-line to protect Matt Ryan.  I do like Matty Ice, always have, but I can't help but wonder if his best days are behind him?  I mean, 4-12 is a pretty inexcusable record for any QB who wants to be taken seriously.  I don't care who was hurt. Also, Tony Gonzalez retired this past offseason.  On some level, that matters too.

Atlanta's defense was bad last year (27th in both yards and points allowed) and lost their best player, Sean Weatherspoon, to an Achilles injury in June.  They added some low-risk, low-salary pieces to the defense, but nothing that will allow them to slow down Brees and Newton within their division.  They will win more than 4 games for sure, but I don't see them even coming close to returning to 2012 form, when they went 13-3.     Prediction:  6-10

  Bucs --  I am too lazy to ever remember how to spell Buccaneers,  and I'd really like it if Tampa would just change their official name to the Bucs.

Tampa is definitely a darkhorse playoff contender under Lovie Smith.  Josh McCown (AKA Ivan Drago) has Vincent Jackson, rookie Mike Evans, a healthy Doug Martin, and a B+ offensive line to work with, and the defense did an adequate job of replacing Revis with Titans stud Alterraun Verner.  Lovie also managed to sign DE Michael Johnson (21 sacks in the last 3 years with Cincy)  to play next to recent 1st rounders Gerald McCoy and Adrian Clayborn.  The best player on Tampa's D, and probably entire team is stud middle linebacker Lavonte David.  If that name sounds familiar, it's because I was rooting for the Lions to take him in the 2nd round in the 2012 draft.  They had a chance with pick 54, but passed up on the Nebraksa product who quickly developed into a 1st team All Pro ... because how could we pass up Ryan Broyles?  Prediction:  8-8 


  Seahawks -- No good reason to think Seattle couldn't repeat as champs, except that there are quite a few solid contenders who may be just as good as them.    The Seahawks definitely carved out a unique and specific niche in the NFL:  overpowering secondary, run-first offense, smart quarterback who doesn't do too much.  Their offense ranked 2nd in rushing attempts and 31st in passing attempts, and they led the NFL in turnover margin at +22, which was an amazing 8 points better than the next best ratio in the NFC, Carolina with +14.  (Worst in the NFC?  Lions, at -12.  Go Stafford!)  

Without question, there isn't a better secondary than Seattle's, nor is there a better homefield advantage.  If their defense isn't the NFL's best, it's definitely in the top 3.  They were 1st defensively in yards allowed, 1st in points allowed, 1st in takeaways, 1st in interceptions, 1st in opponent passer rating (63.4!!), and 1st in opponents YPA.   In most of these categories, there was not a close second.

Seattle lost a handful of starters, 5 of them by my count, but none were irreplaceable. And don't discount the fact that Percy Harvin returns for a full season.   The schedule is pretty easy, with the NFC East and AFC West, but the division is difficult and bonus games are against Aaron Rodgers and Cam Newton.  Prediction:  11-5. 

  49ers --  The Niners and Seahawks play each other weeks 13 and 15, and these two games will absolutely determine which team gets a bye in the playoffs.  No disrespect to the Cardinals, who are the best 3rd best team in any division.  But San Fran is as stacked as Seattle, albeit in difference areas.

Overall, the 49ers offense is slightly better than Seattle's, with Vernon Davis and Crabtree and a trio of capable running backs in Gore, Hyde, and Lattimore.  The offensive line is possibly the NFL's best, and Kaepernick is a freakish athlete, who could be harnessed into an unstoppable QB force, circa Michael Vick Madden 2004.

San Fran's defense is understandably a step behind Seattle's, especially with Aldon Smith's inexplicable need to get arrested.  (Seriously, $4.5 million a year and you're making bomb threats at the LA airport?)  Justin Smith is still elite, and the inside linebackers are still the NFL's best duo by far, although Navarro Bowman won't be back from ACL surgery until mid-season.  The Niners have the same schedule as Seattle, except they get Chicago & New Orleans instead of Green Bay & Carolina, which is dead equal in difficulty.  So as mentioned, weeks 13 and 15 will determine the division winner.  On a hunch, I'm giving both games to San Fran.  Prediction:  13-3

  Cardinals -- Despite being quarterbacked by Carson Palmer, Arizona could make another run at double-digit wins.  The offensive line has gone from legendarily bad to above average, the running game progressed from morbid Rashard Mendenhall to electric Andre Ellington, and Larry Fitzgerald gets to play opposite breakout-candidate Michael Floyd and the sometimes flashy Ted Ginn.  This is the best offense Arizona has possessed since the Kurt Warner days, by far.

Unfortunately the defense - which was poised to be elite - has taken some huge steps back. Pro Bowl linebacker Daryl Washington is suspended for the year for drugs and stupidity, and solid DE Darnell Docket is lost for the year with an ACL.  Also, Karlos Dansby signed with Cleveland, after having possibly the best season of his 10 year career.  That's three big blows to the league's #1 rushing defense.

But they still have DE Calais Cambell, one of the best 3-4 DEs in football, and they still have Patrick Peterson, quite possibly the best CB in football.   New addition Antonio Cromartie joins the Honey Badger to create the best trio of cornerbacks in football.  From my perspective, Peterson and the Badger will make Arizona one of the most consistently entertaining teams to watch this season.

But with four games against elite division rivals, the Cards are going to have to win at least 3 of those to have a shot at a Wildcard.  I don't have that much confidence in Carson Palmer.  Prediction:  8-8 

  Rams --  If you look up the word "understatement" in the dictionary, it says:  Sam Bradford hasn't played well enough to justify his 6 year, $78 million rookie contract.   He has been given numerous chances by the Rams - despite injuries, amidst new coaches and coordinators, and with a barrage of 1st round draft picks and marquee free agents aimed at protecting him and giving him new weapons.  Sadly, Bradford just isn't going to get it done at the NFL level;  even if he stays healthy this year, he's not going to magically transform into a top 10 quarterback.

But, the offense does have some hope.  Zac Stacy was a brilliant revelation last season, as was Tavon Austin.  Kenny Britt was a nice low-risk signing with huge potential.  LT Jake Long is a stud, and 2nd overall pick Greg Robinson will contribute right away to protecting the QB.  But with 6 games against elite NFC West defenses, Bradford is in for another year of mediocrity.

Defensively, Jeff Fisher has built a freakish machine up front.  DEs Robert Quinn (19 sacks) and Chris Long (9 sacks) are joined by rookie 1st rounder Aaron Donald, who lines up next to 2012's #14th overall pick, Michael Brockers.   The Rams were 3rd in sacks and 1st in forced fumbles a year ago;  expect more of the same.  The secondary stinks, but fortunately there isn't an elite passing offense in the run-first NFC West.

The bad news: the Rams are the 4th best team in a brutal division.  If they were in the AFC, they could absolutely contend for a wildcard spot.  The good news:  the Rams lead the NFL in gay players.  So there's that.  Prediction:  6-10 

*Update: Bradford gone for the year with another ACL injury.  Shaun Hill to start.  

On the field, this doesn't affect the Rams offense as drastically as many think.  The greater impact is on morale, for both players and fans.  Any semblance of hope, as far-fetched as it was, is now dashed.  In a bad division, sure, Shaun Hill might just go 9-7.  But the 2014 NFC West has potentially the best quartet of defenses any division has ever had. Not a good time to lose your franchise quarterback; not a good time to be Jeff Fisher.   I will stand by the 6-10 prediction (Shaun Hill is smart and steady and moves the chains), but I won't be shocked if a total emotional collapse leads to a 2-win season.  After all, within 30 minutes of the news about Bradford's ACL, every Rams fan started thinking about Mariota, Hundley, and Winston.  This is the most anticipated QB class since the Luck/Locker draft that never was; I expect full-blown tanking to begin by week 9.  

NFC Playoffs:
49ers (13-3)
Packers (13-3)
Saints (12-4)
Eagles (10-6)
Seahawks (11-5)
Redskins (10-6) 

The rest:
Bears (9-7)
Panthers (9-7)
Bucs (8-8)
Lions (8-8)
Cowboys (8-8)
Cardinals (8-8)
Rams (6-10)
Vikings (6-10)
Falcons (6-10)
Giants (3-13) 

NFC Championship:  Packers over 49ers 

Super Bowl Pick:  Broncos over Packers,  31-27.  

Other predictions ...

MVP - Aaron Rodgers
D-MVP - Patrick Peterson
Offensive ROY - Sammy Watkins
Defensive ROY - Clowney
Coach of the Year - Jim Harbaugh
Comeback Player of the Year - 3-way tie between Gronk, Harvin, and Doug Martin ... If I have to pick one, I'll go with Gronk
1st Coach Fired - Dennis Allen, Raiders

Top 3  picks in 2015:

1. Giants -- QB Brett Hundley, UCLA
2. Jags -- QB Jameis Winston, FSU
3. Raiders -- QB Marcus Mariota, Oregon

That's all I got.
Go Lions! 

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