2017 AFC South Projections

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X-Houston Texans 10-6

Four of the last six years have seen the Houston Texans make the playoffs, but they’ve been unable to get past the second round. And the two biggest reasons why the Texans have been unable to advance are the New England Patriots who have eliminated them in two of those years as well as their issues at the most important position on the football field. Each of the last four years has seen the Texans have a different starting quarterback on opening day and this year will mark five consecutive seasons in which that is the case.

The Brock Osweiler experiment is over for the Texans after just one season as Houston has decided to move on from him. Tom Savage will enter the new season with the most experience at quarterback for the Texans, but he only started two games for Houston last year. The Texans used a first-round pick this year on quarterback Deshaun Watson as he is looked at as the future of the franchise, but he could also be the present.

After Watson lost his first start for the Clemson Tigers in 2014, he would only lose twice more for his collegiate career. Watson led Clemson to consecutive 14-1 seasons and this past January saw the Tigers claim their first national championship since 1981. Watson might not be familiar with taking snaps under center, but he is a winner which is something that the Texans need at the position.

Bill O’Brien

For Texans head coach Bill O’Brien, he has a solid commitment to running the football which is a lost art in today’s game. Last year the Texans were eighth in the National Football League in rushing and you can expect another healthy dose of the rushing attack this season. Lamar Miller will once again be the feature ball carrier for the Titans, and he once again has the potential to gain at least 1,000 yards on the ground. But Houston has depth behind him in the form of Alfred Blue as well as D’Onta Foreman as this rushing attack will be important to a young quarterback in Watson who I expect to get his feet wet sooner rather than later.

It has not taken wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins that long to morph into one of the better pass catchers in the National Football League, and he has been able to accomplish this in spite of not having consistency at the quarterback position. Like Watson, Hopkins is a Clemson alum, and if these two former Tigers are able to get on the same page, Houston’s offense should be a force.

J.J. Watt

Defensive end J.J. Watt has been at the forefront of the relief efforts in the Houston area following the devastation that was caused by Hurricane Harvey, and the icing on that cake is that he is a darn good football player. Watt is a three-time National Football League Defensive Player of the Year, but he is attempting to bounce back after an injury plagued 2016. Last season Watt was limited to just three games as he underwent surgery to repair a herniated disc in his back. Watt is a physical specimen, but it’ll be interesting to see how is body will be able to respond to the wear and tear that comes with paying in the NFL.

However Watt’s return along with the emergence of outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney as well as the consistency of outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus and inside linebacker Brian Cushing will once again make Houston’s defense tough. And whereas that the Texans will be unable to replace the experience of nose tackle Vince Wilfork who retired after 13 years in the National Football League, the return of Watt will be able to remedy some of that.

The Texans will face their old nemesis in the Patriots in Week 3, however with the competition in the AFC South expected to once again be light, Houston should once again be the team to beat in that division.

Tennessee Titans 9-7

The 2016 National Football League season saw the Tennessee Titans possibly barreling to their first playoff appearance since 2008. However things would change in Week 16 when quarterback Marcus Mariota would suffer a fractured right fibula. The Titans would go on to lose that game to the Jacksonville Jaguars, but they would rebound to defeat the Houston Texans to end the regular season. The Titans would finish 9-7 for their first winning season since 2011, while they tied the Texans for the top spot in the AFC South. However the Titans would lose the tiebreaker with Houston due to the fact that Tennessee was only able to go 2-4 within the division, while the Texans were 5-1. But now as a new season is set to begin, are the young Titans poised to take that next step in 2017 in order to become a playoff team?

Marcus Mariota

After the Titans made Mariota the second overall pick of the 2015 National Football League Draft, he is rapidly developing into a franchise player as well as a leader in Nashville. The biggest knock on Mariota coming out of college was whether or not that he would be able to make the transition to the pro game which meant adjusting to a pro-style system as opposed to the spread offense that he played in during his collegiate days.

Mariota has been able to make the transition which has included him completing more than 62% of his passes in the National Football League. Titans head coach Mike Mularkey has done a solid job of putting Mariota in situations where he can succeed which means an emphasis on featuring his running ability.

The Titans were third in the National Football League season in rushing as this is a team that is a throwback to a different era of football. Running back DeMarco Murray enjoyed his first season in Nashville as his 1,287 yards were third in the NFL. Murray did carry the football 293 times last season, but Tennessee won’t have an issue in regards to keeping him fresh due to his understudy.

In 2015, running back Derrick Henry won the Heisman Trophy en route to helping the Alabama Crimson Tide win the national title. Henry was used sparingly last year as a rookie; mainly to give Murray a breather. However I see Mularkey and Titans offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie using Henry more this season. Henry checks in at 6’3″, while he weighs 247 lbs., and he has solid speed on that frame which means that he runs like an 18-wheeler that is barreling down the interstate. And aside from being a good runner at the goal line, Henry could team with Murray and Mariota to give the Titans a running game reminiscent of that of the Miami Dolphins from the early 1970s which featured running backs Jim Kiick, Larry Csonka, and Mercury Morris.

Mike Mularkey

Once upon a time Mularkey was a tight end in the National Football League and he’s bringing that physical mentality to his team. The Titans have a pair of bookend studs in left tackle Taylor Lewan and right tackle Jack Conklin who help to give Tennessee one of the best offensive lines in the NFL which will be important with Mariota returning from the injury.

But as much as the Titans can run the football, they are going to need some production through the air. The Titans used a first-round pick on wide receiver Corey Davis, while they also signed free agent wide receiver Eric Decker. Decker has proven throughout his career that he can be a solid slot receiver in the right offense. And as effective as the Titans can run the football, Decker should be able to benefit from consistent play-action passing.

For Titans defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, he operates a 3-4 defensive scheme where the strength of the unit comes from the linebackers. However the Titans were 20th in the National Football League in total defense last season, while they lack a disruptive force on the defensive line as well as at linebacker who can consistently get to the quarterback. Outside linebacker Brian Orakpo was able to tally 10.5 sacks in 2016 which led the team, but as he is 31, while also having several severe injuries during career, can he be counted on to have another productive season?

The Titans do have several weapons on special teams who could be game changers. The Titans entered the National Football League last spring owners of a pair of first-round picks with one of those being used on cornerback Adoree Jackson. The Titans not only drafted Jackson for his coverage skills on defense, but also for his ability to return kicks and punts, while he could also be used in special packages on offense. And then there is kicker Ryan Succop who made 11 field goals from beyond 40 yards last year as his leg will be important in 2017 if Tennessee wants to end their playoff drought.

The mental strength of the Titans will be tested during the early stages of their schedule as four of their first five games will be against playoff teams from last season. But if the Titans want to take the next step, these are the games that they must find a way to win.

Indianapolis Colts 6-10

The names have changed for the Indianapolis Colts, but the results are still the same as this is an organization that has too much reliance solely on their quarterback. The Colts made quarterback Andrew Luck the first overall pick of the 2012 National Football League Draft, but they have failed to put a quality team around which was also the case of his predecessor in Peyton Manning. Grant it that Luck has worked under a different general manager than Manning did, but during Ryan Grigson’s time as Colts GM, he never did right by Luck which led to his termination last season. Now former Kansas City Chiefs director of football operations Chris Ballard has begun his tenure as Colts general manager by picking up right where Grigson left off from which included having a lackluster draft class come to Indianapolis. However for Ballard, his dilemma is a little bit bigger than initially thought.

Andrew Luck

The Colts inability to put a quality team around Luck which includes having a lackluster offensive line has led to injuries for him. Over the last two years Luck has missed a combined 10 games. And as the injuries are catching up to Luck, he underwent shoulder surgery during off-season which prevented him from participating in the team’s training camp. Now the Colts must deal with the reality that Luck will not be ready for start of the upcoming season. And even when Luck returns to action, how effective will he be coming off of the mend?

In order to offset Luck’s absence, the Colts acquired quarterback Jacoby Brissett from the New England Patriots this summer. Brissett was a third-round pick of the Patriots last year, and in two starts with the team he was able to complete nearly 62% of his passes. However now that Brissett won’t have the luxury of having the talent around him on offense like he was accustomed to with the Patriots, how productive will he be in Indy?

Chuck Pagano

For Colts head coach Chuck Pagano, his offense was tenth in the National Football League in total offense in 2016. But with Luck on the shelf and a veteran running back in Frank Gore, how productive will the Colts offense be this year? Gore is coming off of a productive first year with the Colts as he was able to surpass the 1,000-yard mark for the ninth time in his National Football League career. Gore is 935 yards shy of becoming only the fifth player in NFL history to rush for 14,000 career yards, but he is a 34-years of age, and at some point the other show has to drop.

The Colts passing offense which was fifth in the National Football League will more than likely take a hit without the services of Luck for all 16 games which means that wide receiver T.Y. Hilton won’t be as productive. Hilton has become one of the biggest deep threats in the NFL which included him leading the league in receiving yards last year with 1,448. And in spite of the fact that Hilton was able to lead the NFL in receiving last year, he is not a player who is considered as a typical top receiver which goes back to my point about Indianapolis failing to put talent around Luck.

Prior to Pagano becoming a head coach, his specialty was defensive football, however that has not transferred over to his time with the Colts. Last year Indianapolis was 30th in the National Football League in total defense And like the Colts offense, this organization has failed to find play makers on the defensive side of the football which has greatly inhibited their ability to stop opponents. Last season Colts opponents were able to convert on 41.5% of their third down conversions which was 25th in the National Football League and I expect that trend to continue here in 2017.

Only one of the Colts first eight opponents made the playoffs last year. But even an easy schedule to begin the season won’t prevent Indianapolis from struggling this year.

Jacksonville Jaguars 4-12

The names on the back of the jerseys as well as that on the offices of the head coach and general manager may change, but the losing has continued for the Jacksonville Jaguars. You have to go back to the 2007 National Football League season to find the last time that the Jaguars had a winning season, while they’ve won no more than five games in a campaign since 2011. What has hurt the Jaguars the most is the ineptitude in their front office which has seen the organization consistently miss on their first-round picks as this is never a recipe for success.

After leading Jacksonville to a playoff appearance in four of the team’s first five years of existence as their head coach, Tom Coughlin has returned to the organization. This past January, Coughlin was named as the Jaguars executive vice president of football operations and he hopes to return the team to prominence, while brining with him some of the winning formula that helped him attain a pair of Super Bowl Championships as the head coach of the New York Giants. Coughlin is a staunch disciplinarian who pays attention to detail. And if the young Jaguars won’t buy into what Coughlin is selling, he won’t have a problem helping them pack their bags to get out of town.

After replacing Gus Bradley who was fired as the Jags head coach with two games remaining in 2016, Doug Marrone was retained to be the Jaguars head coach. Prior to joining the Jaguars, Marrone was the head coach of the Buffalo Bills from 2013-2014, and he appeared to be on the track to success until he opted out of his deal due to issues within the front office. But only time will tell if things will work out differently for Marrone in Jacksonville.

Blake Bortles

For the past three years Blake Bortles has been the Jaguars starting quarterback and it has not gone well for him. In three years as the Jags starting quarterback, Bortles has led the National Football League in sacks twice and interceptions once. In total Bortles has been sacked 140 times, while also throwing 51 interceptions. And most importantly Bortles’ record as a starting quarterback with Jacksonville is only 11-34. Bortles does have solid wide receivers to get the football to in Allen Hurns, Allen Robinson, and Marquise Lee, but he appears to be lacking the “it” factor. Bortles has heard his fair share of criticism in Northern Florida, and as the Jaguars have talent around him on offense, 2017 will be a make or break year for him.

During Coughlin’s time as the head coach of the Jaguars and Giants respectively, his teams always had a commitment to running the football which goes back to his days as a collegiate running back for the Syracuse Orangemen. And Coughlin’s first pick upon returning to the Jaguars organization was used on running back Leonard Fournette.

Leonard Fournette

Fournette comes into the National Football League with plenty of hype as he was the first running back that was selected from a very deep class of running backs this year. At 6’0″, 228 lbs., Fournette is a bruising runner who combines size with speed and he now gets an opportunity to shine on the big stage as he is an immediate upgrade to a Jaguars running attack that did not have one ball carrier tally at least 500 yards in 2016.

Jacksonville must get more competitive defensively and it begins with some of their recent early round draft picks stepping up. In 2015, defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. was the third overall pick of the National Football League Draft. However Fowler would suffer a torn ACL in his first practice with the Jaguars and he has yet to become the impact player that he was expected to be. Last year Jacksonville would use a second-round pick on middle linebacker Myles Jack who entered the NFL with knee issues. And any turnaround that Jacksonville wants to have defensively in 2017 begins with Fowler and Jack being able to live up the hype which was bestowed upon team heading into the NFL.

For Coughlin and Marrone, they are attempting to change the culture in the Jaguars locker room which isn’t a quick fix. There is a deep culture in regards to losing in Jacksonville, and until it is fixed which also includes making better draft decisions, this team will continue to finish near the bottom of the AFC South.

X-Division Winner

Source: Pro-football-reference.com

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2017 Week 1 NFL Picks

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After letting a Super Bowl Championship slipped away from Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons, the long journey back begins.

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2017 Key Games For Week Two In College Football

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Will the results be different this around for quarterback Baker Mayfield and the Oklahoma Sooners when they clash with the Ohio State Buckeyes?

 

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2017 NFC West Projections

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X-Seattle Seahawks 11-5

Six of the last seven years have seen the Seattle Seahawks make the playoffs, but after they lost the Super Bowl in February 2015, they’ve lacked the ability to be recognized as a strong Super Bowl contender. Since Seattle won the Super Bowl in February 2014, age, injuries, free agency, and the salary cap crunch have caught up to them. Seahawks general manager John Schneider and head coach Pete Carroll have stuck to their guns which has seen them focus on drafting in the hopes of maintaining depth at each position. And as some players have been harder to replace than others, it has shown up in key regular season losses for Seattle as well as when they were eliminated in the divisional round of the playoffs in each of the last two years. But as a new season is set to begin in the National Football League, will the Seahawks be able to put all of that behind them and make another push at winning the Vince Lombardi Trophy?

Russell Wilson

Russell Wilson was the starting quarterback for the Seahawks when they won the Super Bowl, but the heart and soul on offense for that championship team was running back Marshawn Lynch. Last year saw Lynch retire from the National Football League and in the process the Seahawks running game suffered. In 2016, the Seahawks were 25th in the NFL in rushing with their leading rusher being Christine Michael with only 469 yards.

In the off-season the Seahawks signed former Green Bay Packers running back Eddie Lacy in the hopes of giving their stagnant running game a boost. Lacy had a strong start to his National Football League career in 2013 with the Packers. That season saw Lacy gain 1,178 yards on the ground and in the process he was named as the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year. However weight issues have hampered Lacy ever since which led to him falling out of favor in Green Bay. But I do expect Lacy to have an impact with Seattle this year due to the fact that he has incentives in his contract to keep his weight down.

And a solid season be Lacy should benefit Wilson. In five years as the Seahawks starting quarterback, Wilson’s career record is 56-23-1. Wilson’s passing yardage has increased in each season, however when he has a big passing game the Seahawks generally lose. The Seahawks offense is predicated on balance and as good of a winner the Wilson is, he cannot carry the offense by his lonesome.

Doug Baldwin

Surprisingly the Seahawks traded veteran wide receiver Jermaine Kearse this off-season, but Wilson still has his “BFF” in wide receiver Doug Baldwin while after tight end Jimmy Graham dealt with injuries as well as trying to figure things out in Seattle in 2015 was able to bounce back last year for one of the most productive seasons of his career. And although that Graham is set to become 31-years of age in November, he can still get it down for the Seahawks; especially in the red zone.

Last year the Seahawks were fifth in the National Football League in total defense and this unit is at its best when all 11 players are flying around the football. For the longest time Seattle has had a stout defensive line with pass rushers such as Cliff Avril, Frank Clark, and Michael Bennett set to have an impact this season. But the rich got richer when the Seahawks were able to acquire defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson from the New York Jets this summer.

Richardson was able to burst onto the scene with the Jets in 2013 as he was named as the National Football League’s Rookie of the Year, while making the Pro Bowl in 2014. The best way to describe Richardson is that he is a disruptor on the defensive line and when he is on top of his game, he is one of the top defensive tackles in the game. However the downside is that Richardson can take plays off and lose focus. But if there is an organization that can bring out the best in Richardson, it would be the Seahawks.

Bobby Wagner

Middle linebacker Bobby Wagner led the National Football League in tackles last year with 167, while outside linebacker K.J. Wright is one of the most underrated players at his position. The Seahawks secondary is still home to some of the top alpha males in the NFL in cornerback Richard Sherman, free safety Earl Thomas, and strong safety Kam Chancellor. Thomas is looking to bounce back after he suffered a broken leg last year and the Seahawks secondary simply wasn’t the same without him. But overall this unit could be ready to once again be dominant this season.

In 2015, Blair Walsh was one of the most accurate kickers in the National Football League as he connected on more than 87% of his kicks as a member of the Minnesota Vikings. But Walsh will only be remembered for missing a 27-yard field goal in the closing seconds of a wild card loss to the Seahawks. Walsh would have a hard time getting over the miss which led to the Vikings releasing him last year. However Walsh has now been presented with the chance to get back on track as a member of the Seahawks, and whereas Carroll has been known to coach his guys up, Walsh could be ready to bounce back in a big way this season.

The beginning and the end of the Seahawks schedule will be the toughest portion as they’ll open on the road against the Packers, while they will finish up with the Dallas Cowboys and Arizona Cardinals. But when it is all said and done, Seattle should be in line to claim another NFC West Title.

Arizona Cardinals 10-6

At the start of the 2016 National Football League season, the expectations were high for the Arizona Cardinals. The previous season had seen the Cardinals reach the NFC Championship Game for just the second time in franchise history. However the Cardinals would be up and down last season which began in their first game when they lost at home to the eventual Super Bowl Champions in the New England Patriots who didn’t have the services of quarterback Tom Brady. And as the Cards finished with a record of 7-8-1, they have still failed to make the postseason in three consecutive years. But as the Cards finished 2016 by winning their final two games which included knocking off the Seattle Seahawks on the road for the second consecutive year, maybe they can carry that momentum over into the new season.

Bruce Arians

Since Bruce Arians has been the head coach of the Cardinals, he has relied on Carson Palmer to be his starting quarterback. Palmer is entering his 13th years in the National Football League and as he is set to be 38-years of age in December, it will paramount for Arizona’s offensive line to keep him protected due to the fact that he is not that mobile.

Palmer isn’t the only veteran who is a key component to the Cardinals. The last 13 years have seen wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald morph into one of the best pass catchers that the National Football League has ever seen. And the age of 34, Fitzgerald isn’t showing any signs of slowing down. Fitzgerald led the NFL in receptions last season with 107, while he still commands a double team.

But the Cardinals cannot solely rely on Fitzgerald in their passing game which means that wide receiver John Brown needs to have a bounce back season. After Brown gained 1,003 receiving yards in 2015, he struggled at times last year and in the process he fell out of favor with Arians as he was only able to tally 517 yards.

David Johnson

Very rapidly running back David Johnson has emerged as one of the better all-purpose backs in the National Football League and his 1,239 rushing yards were seventh in the league last season. But what set Johnson apart was his ability at the goal line as he had 16 touchdowns on the ground. And if the Cardinals are able to get some consistency from their wide receivers who are not named Fitzgerald, Johnson could be even more dangerous with defenses being unable to solely focus on him.

For Cardinals defensive coordinator James Bettcher, it is all about “organized chaos” with his unit. The Cards defense is all about putting as much pressure as possible on opposing offenses and it also good that the players in Arizona can rely on some former National Football League players as assistant coaches. Kevin Ross played in the NFL for 14 years and now he serves as the Cardinals defensive backs coach. Larry Foote spent 13 years in the NFL which included winning a pair of Super Bowl Championships as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and now he serves as Arizona’s inside linebackers coach. Brenston Buckner spent 12 years in the NFL as a defensive tackle and now he is coaching the defensive line for Arizona.

But even with all of that experience on the sidelines, it is the Cardinals players who have to go out on the field and make it happen, however they have the people to do so. Defensive ends Robert Nkemdiche and Frostee Rucker can provide pressure up front, while the Cardinals could have one of the best linebacking cores in the National Football League. Outside linebackers Chandler Jones and Markus Golden have become one of the bookend pass rushing tandems in the NFL which should compliment rookie inside linebacker Haason Reddick and Karlos Dansby who is set to begin his third stint with the club.

The Cardinals secondary is home to a wealth of play makers as well. Cornerback Patrick Peterson is one of the best in the business in regards to one-on-one coverage, while free safety Tyrann Mathieu has rapidly developed into arguably the top all-around safety in the National Football League due to his ability to play both the run and the pass. The Cards have depth in their secondary which includes strong safety Tyvon Branch and cornerback Tramon Williams. And this depth has allowed the Cardinals to play Deone Bucannon at linebacker as opposed to his natural position of safety.

Special teams were an issue last year for Arizona as well, but the acquisition of kicker Phil Dawson should remedy that being that he is one of the most accurate kickers in National Football League history. And it will also help the veteran kicker in Dawson that all of Arizona’s home games will be played indoors.

Only one of Arizona’s first nine games will be played against a team that made the playoffs last season. And a fast start for Arians and his team could be just what they need to make it back to the postseason.

Los Angeles Rams 6-10

The 2016 National Football League season saw the Rams return to the City of Los Angeles for the first time since 1994. And although that the Rams were initially welcomed with excitement for their return to Southern California, it waned rather quickly. The Rams went 4-12 last year for their tenth consecutive losing season. In the process the Rams went through two different head coaches as Jeff Fisher was fired after the team’s 4-9 start. The Rams finished with the fifth worst record in the National Football League, but they didn’t have a first-round pick to show for their inefficiency due to a trade in 2016 with the Tennessee Titans. 31-year old Sean McVay has been hired to be the Rams new head coach. And as critics will attempt to use McVay’s age against him, will he be the guy to get things turned around in Los Angeles?

McVay was given the Rams job on the premise that he would be able to develop quarterback Jared Goff into a quality National Football League quarterback. The Rams used the first overall pick of the 2016 NFL Draft on Goff and in the process they mortgaged the future by giving up multiple first-round picks in order to obtain him.

Jared Goff

Last year Goff began his National Football League career by watching from the sidelines. Goff would go on to start seven games for the Rams, but he was never able to lead them to a victory. As expected Goff struggled as he only completed 54.6% of his passes, while throwing 5 touchdowns to 7 interceptions. Overall the Rams offense was last in the NFL in total offense, but the entire blame cannot be placed on Goff.

After being the National Football League’s Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2015, running back Todd Gurley regressed last season. Gurley only gained 885 yards on the ground last season as he wilted in the Hollywood spotlight. But if the Rams want to have any success on offense this year, Gurley will need to run like he did when the team still called St. Louis home.

Sammy Watkins

The Rams passing game should receive a boost this year as the team acquired wide receiver Sammy Watkins from the Buffalo Bills. After the Bills moved up in the first round of the 2014 National Football League Draft to select Watkins, he was never able to live up to the hype as he has constantly been injured. And it hasn’t helped Watkins that wide receivers who were selected after him such as New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. are consistently Pro Bowlers. But now Watkins has the opportunity to wipe the slate clean with the Rams as he needs to get on the same page with the young Goff.

Defensively the Rams were ninth in the National Football League in total defense last year, but at times they were a very undisciplined bunch. The Rams were the fifth most penalized team in the NFL last year with the defense accounting for their fair share. The Rams have talented players on the defensive side of the ball, but they’ve simply been unable to make it all come together consistently.

Aaron Donald

It has not taken defensive tackle Aaron Donald that long to become one of the best players at his position in the National Football League. In just three years Donald has tallied 28 sacks which is an incredible number for a player who spends the majority of his time on the interior of the defensive line. This off-season has seen Donald attempt to be compensated like one of the top players in the league, but to no avail. And as Donald and the Rams have been unable to come to an agreement on a long-term deal, he sat out for the entire off-season which has cast some doubt over his availability for the regular season.

The Rams defense will look different without Donald on defense, but they still have a strong group of linebackers which includes outside linebacker Robert Quinn, along with inside linebackers Alec Ogletree and Mark Barron. Quinn has spent his entire National Football League career as a defensive end, but with Wade Phillips taking over as the Rams defensive coordinator, Quinn’s role has changed. Phillips is a proponent of the 3-4 defense as opposed to the 4-3 as it is all about supplying as much pressure as possible on opposing offenses. However Phillips knows how to get results with his defenses which included his most recent stint as the defensive coordinator of the Denver Broncos which led to a Super Bowl Championship to culminate the 2015 National Football League season.

The Rams are going to need some luck in order to be a playoff team in 2017, and they’ll have to take advantage of the early portion of their schedule which will see them host the Indianapolis Colts who won’t have the services of quarterback Andrew Luck, and the Dallas Cowboys who won’t have running back Ezekiel Elliot.

San Francisco 49ers 1-15

It’s hard to believe, but it was less than five years ago that the San Francisco 49ers were in the Super Bowl and they were one play away from winning it all. Since then the championship caliber team that had been built by former 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh has been rapidly destroyed with only three players who were on San Francisco’s roster during their Super Bowl run currently still there. And after San Francisco has only been able to win a combined seven games over the last two years, Niners owner Jed York has decided to push the reset button and start over as he has welcomed in a new general manager and head coach to his organization.

York hired John Lynch to be San Francisco’s new general manager. Lynch doesn’t have any prior front office experience in the National Football League, but most notably he was a standout free safety for 15 years which included appearing in nine Pro Bowls and winning a Super Bowl Title as a member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Lynch gave up a cushy job as a color analyst for FOX Sports to join the 49ers, but as he brings the same passion and intensity that he played with to the front office, things could be turned around in San Francisco sooner rather than later.

Lynch’s first order of business was to hire Kyle Shanahan as the 21st head coach in 49ers franchise history. Shanahan learned the ins and outs of the coaching profession from his father Mike who won a pair of Super Bowl Championships as the head coach of the Denver Broncos. The younger Shanahan has been the offensive coordinator for several teams in the National Football League with his most recent stint being with the Atlanta Falcons.

However Shanahan’s stint with the 49ers will begin under a cloud of controversy as his last game with the Falcons was Super Bowl 51 where his offense could not maintain a 28-3 lead versus the New England Patriots. And now Shanahan must redeem himself as he looks to make San Francisco a contender.

It’s tough to get overly excited for the Niners this season once you look at their quarterbacking situation. The two quarterbacks who are currently on the 49ers roster are veteran Brian Hoyer and rookie C.J. Beathard. In eight years in the National Football League, Hoyer has a career record of 16-15 with a completion percentage of 59.5%, while Beathard has never attempted a pass in the league.

Overall San Francisco is lacking play makers on the offensive side of the football. Each of the last two years have seen the Niners fail to produce a 1,000-yard running back, while the only bright spot for the offense is left tackle Joe Staley who is a five-time Pro Bowler.

With Lynch leading the way, he is going to attempt to rebuild the defense; more than likely in the variation of the Cover 2 defense that he is most familiar with which is the “Tampa 2”. The strength of the Cover 2 is right up the middle of the defense which is currently a huge weakness for the Niners. And as San Francisco was dead last in the National Football League last year in total defense which included surrendering at least 35 points in a contest five times, there still isn’t that much to get that excited about in regards to this group.

The only two victories that the 49ers were able to attain last year were over the Los Angeles Rams. And as this year appears to be a throw away for the Niners, victories will once again be few and far between.

X-Division Winner

Source: Pro-football-reference.com

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2017 NFC South Projections

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X-Carolina Panthers 10-6

In 2015, the Carolina Panthers could do no wrong as they went 15-1 to earn their second NFC Championship in franchise history. But as good as 2015 was for the Panthers, 2016 was equally as difficult. The Panthers got off to a 1-5 start and were never able to recover as the team that was finding a way each week to win games in the previous year, was now going out of their way to lose. But in spite of going 6-10 last season, the Panthers appear ready to put all of that behind them and get back to being one of the better teams in the NFC.

Cam Newton

It’s very simple for the Panthers as quarterback Cam Newton goes, so does the rest of the team goes. In 2015, Newton was the National Football League’s MVP as he accounted for 45 touchdowns. But last year saw Panthers opponents be able to keep Newton in the pocket more, and he was not as effective. Now as Newton is set to begin his seventh National Football League season, he has another obstacle to overcome. During the off-season Newton underwent shoulder surgery and the jury is still out on whether or not that he’ll be able to have the same zip on his throws.

But even with Newton under center, the Panthers bread and butter on offense is their rushing attack. Carolina made a stride by using their first-round pick in this April’s National Football League Draft on running back Christian McCaffrey. During McCaffrey’s collegiate career with the Stanford Cardinal, he was always a step away from making a big play. As a sophomore in 2015, McCaffrey set a single-season Football Bowl Subdivision record for all-purpose yards with 3,864. McCaffrey is the ultimate home run hitter as aside from being a dynamic runner, he can be a solid pass catcher coming out of the backfield, while also contributing on special teams with punt and kick returns. And Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula should have a field day in regards to finding ways to get McCaffrey the football as much as possible.

Greg Olsen

At 32-years of age, Panthers tight end Greg Olsen continues to chug along. Olsen is set to begin his seventh season with the Panthers, while he is coming off of his third consecutive campaign in which is he was able to gain at least 1,000 receiving yards. Olsen has also made the Pro Bowl in each of his last three years, while he has also developed into a leader for Carolina. Olsen can still split the seams with the best of them and the presence of McCaffrey should help him out as far as getting more single coverage.

And with McCaffrey on board, Panthers wide receivers Devin Funchess and Kelvin Benjamin should have productive seasons as well as just like Olsen, they should see more single coverage. The Panthers also have a veteran offensive line which includes the Kalil Brothers of center Matt and his younger brother in left tackle Ryan who signed with Carolina this off-season after spending the first five years of his National Football League career with the Minnesota Vikings.

For Panthers head coach Ron Rivera, Steve Wilks has been on his staff since 2012, but now he gets his first chance to be the Carolina’s defensive coordinator and he inherits a veteran unit that is seeking to get back on track. The Panthers were 21st in the National Football League in total defense least year in spite of the fact that they were able to record 47 sacks and generate 27 turnovers.

The Panthers are happy to welcome back a familiar face who is seeking to finish his playing career in Charlotte. In 2002, the Panthers made defensive end Julius Peppers the second overall pick of the draft and he was seen as a building block for the franchise. Peppers spent the first eight years of his National Football League career with the Panthers which included him becoming the franchise’s all-time leader in sacks with 81, while he helped them reach the Super Bowl for the first time in franchise history. And after Peppers split time over the last seven years with the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers, he is back now with the Packers to add to his 143.5 career sacks with are the fifth most in NFL history.

The return of Peppers will give the Panthers more depth on their defensive line as he’ll team with defensive ends Charles Johnson and Mario Addison. And as Wilks should be able to rotate his defensive ends more this year, it will give him the opportunity to keep his veteran pass rushers such as Peppers fresh.

Carolina also has one of the best linebacking cores in the National Football League as long as they are able to remain healthy. Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly is the best at what he does which is evident by him being named the National Football League’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2013. However several concussions have forced Kuechly to miss time over the last two seasons and this is something that the Panthers medical staff should monitor. Outside linebacker Thomas Davis has spent his entire NFL career with the Panthers, and as he is set to begin his 13th season in Carolina, he is the heart and soul of this team. And then there is case for outside linebacker Shaq Thompson who is entering his third NFL as he is just scratching the surface on his athleticism which will keep him on the field due to his ability to play both the run and pass.

The Panthers secondary still has some question marks as this unit has not yet recovered after the organization parted with cornerback Josh Norman. And because of that the Panthers secondary will be relying on their front seven to generate enough pressure in order to give them the opportunity to make more plays.

The Panthers will enter this season with several “what ifs” which includes seeing how Newton will rebound after having off-season shoulder surgery. But Carolina should be able to benefit from the early portion of their schedule where six of their first eight opponents failed to make the playoffs in 2016. However second half of the season will see Carolina have two meetings with the Atlanta Falcons which should go a long way in decided who’ll win the NFC South.

Atlanta Falcons 9-7

The Atlanta Falcons are set to begin their 52nd year of existence and this could be the toughest one in the history of the franchise. After going 11-5 in the regular season in 2016, the Falcons scored a combined 80 points in two playoff games en route to winning their second NFC Championship in franchise history. The Falcons would then keep that momentum going in the Super Bowl as they built a 28-3 lead in the third quarter over the New England Patriots.

However as the Falcons appeared to be on cruise control to win their first Super Bowl Championship, the wheels began to come off as not only would they not score again, but they allowed the Patriots to storm back, force overtime, and ultimately steal the game. In the process the Falcons became only the third team in Super Bowl history to blow a 10-point lead and lose; however they were the first team to give up a double-digit lead in the second half more/less a 25-point advantage. And after Falcons owner Arthur Blank was on the sideline celebrating an expected victory, how will he and his organization rebound after being so close to football’s holy grail?

Dan Quinn

Dan Quinn is set to begin his third season as the Falcons head coach, but his staff will look very different heading into the new season. The Falcons will have a new offensive coordinator in Steve Sarkisian who replaces Kyle Shanahan as he moved on to become the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers. Sarkisian is best known for his respective tenures collegiately as the head football coach of the Washington Huskies and USC Trojans with his only previous venture into the National Football League being as the quarterbacks coach of the Oakland Raiders in 2004. But now Sarkisian must get up to speed with the Falcons offense.

The Falcons still have quarterback Matt Ryan who enters the campaign as the National Football League’s MVP. Ryan completed nearly 70% of his passes, while he threw for 4,944 yards and 38 touchdowns in 2016. Ryan is the Falcons all-time passer and his career record is 85-57. But what haunts Ryan is the fact that he has been unable to get it done in the postseason. Ryan is 3-5 in the playoffs, but more importantly he has lost twice in January while having home-field advantage, and he’ll now have last season’s collapse in the Super Bowl attached to him. Ryan is still one of the game’s best quarterbacks which will make him a fantasy football owners dream, however the Falcons will need his leadership skills more than ever this season.

Ryan also has the luxury of throwing the football to one of the best wide receivers in the National Football League in Julio Jones. In 2015, Jones led the NFL in receptions with 136 as well as receiving yards with 1,871. And at 6’3″, Jones is one of the most physical pass catchers in the game as he’ll continue to torment defensive backs.

But as good as the combination of Ryan and Jones can be, in order for the Falcons to once again be a force in the NFC, they must focus on rushing the football. Atlanta was fifth in the National Football League in regards to rushing the football. And in the Super Bowl, the Patriots didn’t have an answer for Falcons running back Devonta Freeman who averaged 6.8 yards per carry. However when it mattered the most, the Falcons went away from running the football which would ultimately lead to their demise.

Devonta Freeman

Freeman is a durable ball carrier who is always one step away from making a big play. And although that Freeman has combined to carry the football 492 times over the last two years, he is still a guy that the Falcons need to feature in order to provide balance for their offense as well as taking some of the offensive burden off of Ryan; especially since Atlanta has an experienced offensive line that includes center Alex Mack.

Defensively the Falcons ran out of gas in the fourth quarter versus the Patriots and it showed as they were unable to generate a pass rush. The collapse in the Super Bowl would cost defensive coordinator Richard Smith and defensive line coach Bryan Cox their jobs as three quarters of the way through the game they each appeared to be on their way to getting promotions. Smith has been replaced by Marquand Manuel who after spending eight years as a defensive back in the National Football League, and the last five years as an assistant coach will now have his opportunity to be a play caller.

The Falcons had a solid pass rush in 2016, but they have improved by signing free agent defensive tackle Dontari Poe as well as drafting defensive end Takkarist McKinley. Poe spent the last five years as the anchor on the defensive line of the Kansas City Chiefs. Poe was a two-time Pro Bowl selection as a nose tackle, and now he will team with defensive tackle Grady Jarrett to give Atlanta a stout interior defensive line that should be able to free up rushing lanes for the Falcon linebackers.

Vic Beasley Jr.

After a subpar rookie campaign in 2015, there were some people who felt that outside linebacker Vic Beasley Jr. would be a bust. In 16 games with the Falcons in 2015, Beasley was only able to record 4 sacks. But when Atlanta allowed Beasley to be an outside linebacker in 2016 as opposed to a defensive end, he was able to flourish which saw him lead the National Football League in sacks with 15.5. It will be tough for Beasley to follow 2016 up with another season like that, however his presence should free up other Falcons pass rushers such as defensive end Courtney Upshaw and McKinley.

The Falcons first three games of the upcoming season will be versus the NFC North which includes an NFC Championship Game rematch in Week 2 at home versus the Green Bay Packers. Weeks 7-9 will see Atlanta have a three-game road trip which includes a Super Bowl rematch versus the Patriots, while they’ll be in Charlotte in Week 9 to face the Carolina Panthers in a meeting that’ll go a long way to determine who will win the NFC South.

The Falcons have talent, but the stench of their heartbreaking Super Bowl loss still sits with this team.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 9-7

It’s hard to believe, but the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have one of the longest current playoff droughts in the National Football League. You have to go back to 2007 to find the last time in which the Bucs made the postseason, while they have not won a playoff game since Super Bowl 37 which was in January 2003. Since 2008, the Buccaneers have employed five different head coaches which is a sign of turmoil for any franchise. Dirk Koetter has one year under his belt as the head coach of the Bucs, and in the process he was able to guide Tampa Bay to their first winning season since 2010. However will Koetter be able to do something that hasn’t been done in Western Florida for a long time which is to lead the Buccaneers to the postseason?

Jameis Winston

A big reason why Koetter was named as the head coach of the Bucs last year was due to his relationship with quarterback Jameis Winston. As a rookie in 2015, Winston passed for 4,042 yards and 22 touchdown passes to be named as the National Football league’s Offensive Rookie of the Year with Koetter as his offensive coordinator. And under the tutelage of Koetter, Winston continued to grow as a quarterback last year as Tampa Bay was on the cusp of making the playoffs. Now as Winston is set to begin his third year in the NFL, he could be on the verge of doing some big things which not only means helping the Buccaneers make the postseason, but his strong arm and emerging leadership could put him in the conversation to be the league’s MVP.

Winston will have a bevy of quality pass catchers to throw the football to which includes wide receivers DeSean Jackson and Mike Evans as well as tight ends Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard. However Tampa Bay will need more out of their running game that was only 24th in the National Football League last year. Injuries are beginning to take their toll on veteran running back Doug Martin, while he’ll also miss the first three games of the upcoming season after he tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. However in the past NFL Draft, the Bucs did use a fifth-round pick on running back Jeremy McNichols who should split carries with Jacquizz Rodgers in Tampa’s backfield.

Defensively the Buccaneers were 23rd in the National Football League in total defense last year and they still need to find some semblance of order on that side of the football. And until they do, they are going to continue to rely on Winston and the offense to bail them out.

Three of Tampa Bay’s first five games in 2017 will be against playoff teams from last season which includes home meetings with the New York Giants as well as the New England Patriots who are the defending Super Bowl Champions. And as fast start for the young Bucs will be paramount if they are going to end their playoff drought, it won’t be easy.

New Orleans Saints 8-8

Four of the last five years have resulted in the New Orleans Saints failing to make the playoffs, and a big reason for that is their best player. In 2012, quarterback Drew Brees signed a five-year, $100 million deal to remain with the Saints, but in the process he hamstrung the team in regards to maintaining a quality team around him as his deal ate up a ton of salary cap space. And just when it appeared that the Saints were beginning to put it together once again, they traded one of their best players this off-season in wide receiver Brandin Cooks to the New England Patriots. But whereas the combo of Brees, general manager Mickey Loomis, and head coach Sean Payton have meant so much to the Saints for a very long time, will they be able to turn around the fortunes of this franchise and get back to the playoffs?

Drew Brees

Brees continues to put up video game like numbers as he has led the National Football League in passing yardage in five of the last six seasons which includes the previous three. Brees is 38-years of age, but he is not showing any signs of slowing down as the Superdome is the perfect spot for him to sling the football around.

As far as not having a quality team around Brees, one thing that has hurt the Saints has been their inability to effectively run the football. 2016 marked the first time since 2006 that New Orleans had a running back gain at least 1,000 yards on the ground, and better things appear to be on the horizon. Since 2007, Adrian Peterson has been the best running back that the National Football has had to offer. Peterson’s 11,747 career rushing yards are the 16th most in NFL history and his 97 rushing touchdowns are tenth. However at the age of 32, the Minnesota Vikings thought that Peterson was done; especially since he was only able to appear in three games last year due to a bum knee.

But Peterson has always been a player who rises to the occasion. And the idea of Peterson playing in the same backfield with Brees, while also being able to split carries with running back Mark Ingram should spark him to give it one more push in regards to winning a Super Bowl Title.

Willie Snead

The Saints will undoubtedly miss the contributions of Cooks which means that wide receivers Willie Snead and Michael Thomas will have bigger roles in the offense for New Orleans. However Brees is one of the better quarterbacks in the National Football League in regards to not only spreading the football around, but also making his receivers step up their game.

The Saints are coming off of another bad year on defense in the National Football League as they were 27th in total defense which included them only being able to tally 30 sacks. The Saints also surrendered 30 points on six occasions, and unless play makers such as strong safety Kenny Vaccaro and defensive end Cam Jordan can consistently step up, it once again won’t matter if Brees passes for at 5,000 yards if the New Orleans defense cannot stop their opponents from scoring at will.

Three of the Saints first four games will be on the road which includes them beginning the season versus Peterson’s old team in the Vikings. The Saints must find a way to get off to a fast start; especially on defense if they want to make a postseason berth this year a reality.

X-Division Winner

Source: Pro-football-reference.com

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2017 NFC North Projections

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X-Green Bay Packers 11-5

In the NFC North, it is the Green Bay Packers and everyone else. The Packers have won five of the last six NFC North Championships, while their eight-year playoff streak is tied with the New England Patriots for the longest active playoff streak in the National Football League. But since the Packers won the Super Bowl to conclude the 2010 NFL season, they have dealt with heartache during the playoffs. Two of the last three seasons have ended with the Packers losing in the NFC Championship Game this past January to the Atlanta Falcons. But as the Packers continue to be one of the better teams in the NFC, will they be able to put it all together in 2017 to claim another Vince Lombardi Trophy?

Mike McCarthy

For Packers head coach Mike McCarthy, his job has been made easier over the last nine years with Aaron Rodgers as his starting quarterback. In 2008, Rodgers took on an impossible job in replacing Brett Favre as the Packers starting quarterback. And although that Rodgers will never be able to make the people in Green Bay forget about Favre, he has done a tremendous job in regards to writing his own story.

Aside from leading Green Bay to a Super Bowl victory, Rodgers is a two-time National Football League MVP and he is one of the most accurate quarterbacks that the game has ever seen. For his career Rodgers has completed 65.1% of his passes, while he has thrown 297 touchdowns passes to just 72 interceptions. And even at the age of 33, Rodgers is showing no signs of slowing down, while he should also rack up plenty of points in fantasy football.

Rodgers has always been one of the best in regards to spreading the football around and that’ll once again be the case this season. Since 2008, wide receiver Jordy Nelson has been one of Rodgers’ most dependable pass catchers. And after Nelson missed the entire 2015 National Football League season as he was recovering from a torn ACL, he returned last year to lead Green Bay in receptions (97), receiving yards (1,257), and receiving touchdowns (14). Nelson has some of the best hands for a wide receiver and he should continue be dependable in key situations; especially on third down.

Devante Adams

In 2014, the Packers used a second-round pick on wide receiver Devante Adams and he continues to improve. Adams was on the verge of totaling 1,000 receiving yards last season, and he should be able to reach the mark this season in what will be an important year for him with his rookie contract set to expire.

But as good as Rodgers has been, he cannot mask the fact that the Packers have struggled to rush the football. Last year the Packers were 20th in the National Football League in regards to rushing as their running game was in shambles. As Green Bay dealt with several injuries at the running back position, they were forced to convert wide receiver Ty Montgomery to running back. And with no long term answer in sight, it appears that Montgomery will once get the bulk of the carries this year for Green Bay.

The past few years has seen as the Packers offensive line as a quiet, unassuming group which goes out and does their job which is to keep the uniform of Rodgers clean. The Packers offensive line is not comprised of Pro Bowl caliber players as they are more of a “no-name” group that has come together to be a solid unit. However the Packers offensive line should get a boost with veteran guard Jahri Evans joining the unit. Evans has spent the last 11 years with the New Orleans Saints where he was a six-time Pro Bowl selection, while also helping the Saints win their only Super Bowl Championship in franchise history.

For Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers, his unit must find a way to improve after they were 22nd in the National Football League last year in total defense. The Packers desperately need outside linebacker Clay Matthews to regain the form that has made him one of the top defenders in the NFL. The Packers have been shifting Matthews around over the last three years playing him as both an inside and outside linebacker. However Matthews is at his best as an outside linebacker due to his edge rushing ability. And Capers must find a way to play Matthews as much as on the outside this season.

Morgan Burnett, Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix

Green Bay has one of the best safety combos in the National Football League with strong safety Morgan Burnett and free safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix as both players have tremendous range, while neither is afraid to do some paint swapping in the run game. But the Packers will need some more consistency from their cornerbacks such as Davon House and Damarious Randall in order to be one of the better units in the league.

Once the Packers offense is able to get the football inside of an opponents 40-yard line they are in scoring range due to the leg of kicker Mason Crosby. Crosby connected on seven of his nine attempts from beyond 40 yards last season, and his powerful leg will once again be important; especially when the temperature begins to drop.

The schedule makers weren’t kind to the Packers as they’ll begin the upcoming season by hosting the Seattle Seahawks before they visit the Falcons who eliminated them from the playoffs this past January. However with the NFC North expected to weak, Green Bay should once again be able to coast to another division title.

Minnesota Vikings 7-9

The 2016 National Football League was set to begin with the Minnesota Vikings as a legit Super Bowl contender, but things would unravel rather quickly. In last August 2016, Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater suffered a torn ACL during a non-contact drill which changed the outlook for Minnesota. The Vikings would scramble as they would acquire quarterback Sam Bradford from the Philadelphia Eagles. The Vikings still had strong defense which propelled them to a 5-0 start, however the wheels would quickly fall apart as they would lose eight of their final 13 games to finish 8-8.

Aside from the Bridgewater injury, veteran running back Adrian Peterson only appeared in three games for the Vikings last year due to a knee injury of his own. And thus when the off-season rolled around,the Vikings deciding to not exercise an option on his contract which made him a free agent as he would go on to sign with the New Orleans Saints.

Peterson left Minnesota as the Vikings all-time leading rusher with 11,747 yards, while he had been the face of the franchise for the last decade. And now that Peterson is gone, while Bridgewater still isn’t fully back from his ACL injury, how will Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer handle the upcoming season for his team?

Dalvin Cook

With the Vikings parting with Peterson, it left a void for this team as they use a second-round pick on running back Dalvin Cook. During Cook’s collegiate career with the Florida State Seminoles, he was a two-time All-American as at times he was a runaway freight train. Cook is 5’10”, 213 lbs., but he runs over opponents like a fullback, while possessing the speed of someone smaller than him which makes him a logical candidate to the Offensive Rookie of the Year this season in the National Football League.

Bradford doesn’t have a reputation for being a Pro Bowl caliber quarterback, but he is coming off of the finest season of his professional career. Bradford completed 71.6% of his passes last year which was tops in the National Football League. Even though that Bradford was in his first year with the Vikings, he had familiarity with offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur when they worked together with the Eagles as Bradford made it his business to not force the football.

Stefon Diggs

Minnesota has plenty of speed with wide receivers such as Laquon Treadwell and Stefon Diggs, but the biggest question will be whether or not that Bradford who is not known for the deep pass will be able to get them the football consistently? However whereas Bradford doesn’t get the football down the field with regularity, one of his favorites options in the passing game last year was tight end Kyle Rudolph. Rudolph continues to improve in each season with the Vikings and his 6’6″ frame is a matchup nightmare for opposing safeties and linebackers. Rudolph will be Bradford’s go-to-guy once again this season; especially on third down as he knows how to move the chains.

But with Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer being a defensive minded coach, Minnesota’s bread and butter is defensive football. Last year the Vikings were third in the National Football League in total defense which included holding nine opponents under 20 points. Defensive end Danielle Hunter is rapidly emerging as a force for the Vikings which was evident by him recording 12.5 sacks last year. A knee injury could force defensive tackle Shariff Floyd to retire, but Minnesota still possesses plenty of depth on the defensive line with defensive tackle Linval Joseph and defensive end Brian Robison.

Detroit Lions 6-10

The 2016 National Football League season was full of surprises which included seeing the Detroit Lions reach the postseason. Lions head coach Jim Caldwell was able to rally his team as Detroit was seeking to replace a legend in wide receiver Calvin Johnson who had retired following the end of the 2015 NFL. However although that the Lions made the playoffs last January, they finished the season on a four-game losing streak which included blowing an opportunity to win the NFC North for the first time in franchise history. And as the Lions are set to embark on a new campaign, will they be able to do something which they’ve been unable to do since 1995 which is to make the postseason in consecutive years?

Jim Caldwell

For Caldwell and Lions general manager Bob Quinn, they have attached their wagon to quarterback Matthew Stafford. In 2009, the Lions made Stafford the first overall pick of the National Football League Draft in the hopes that he would help to reverse the fortunes of their franchise. Stafford has not always had the best team around him, but by 2011 he was able to help Detroit reach the playoffs. Stafford has made one Pro Bowl appearance and he has rapidliy become one of the better quarterbacks in Lions franchise history which is evident by him passing for at least 4,000 yards in each of the last six years. The Lions have committed to Stafford as last month they gave him a five-year, $136 million extension which made him the highest paid player in NFL history.

But Stafford’s extension with the Lions has been met with criticism as he has a career record of 51-58, while he has never won a playoff game. Stafford did show maturity last year as without Johnson as his security blanket, he had to focus on getting the football to other wide receivers, but will he be able to take the next step and get the Lions a playoff victory?

Matthew Stafford

A big reason why the Lions have had to rely on Stafford’s arm so much is that they have struggled mightily in regards running the football. The Lions leading rusher in 2016 was running back Theo Riddick with just 357 yards, and as a team, Detroit was 30th in the National Football League in rushing. And with Riddick as the Lions best option at running back heading into the new season, I don’t see the Lions problems in regards to running the football going away; especially with a patchwork offensive line.

Last year the Lions defense lacked sizzle, but they had substance. Seven of Detroit’s opponents in 2016 were held under 20 points as points came at a premium against them. But as the Lions were only able to tally 26 sacks, they lacked the ability to make big plays in key situations which is a big reason why they were swept by the Packers.

A big reason for the Lions lack of a pass rush was due to the fact that defensive end Ziggy Ansah was plagued by an ankle injury as after recording 14.5 sacks in 2015, he was limited to just a pair of sacks last year. Aside from Ansah, the Lions don’t have a pass rusher who can consistently put fear into opponents which makes it paramount that he is healthy to be an anchor of Detroit’s defensive line.

The Lions won’t be confused with having an easy schedule as they have road games with the New York Giants and New Orleans, as well a pair of divisional meetings with the Packers. The Lions have not had consecutive winning seasons since 1995 and Caldwell and his club have their work cut out for them in order to make that a reality in 2017.

Chicago Bears 5-11

It’s hard to believe, but the Chicago Bears have not made the playoffs since 2010, while they have not had a winning record since 2012. Over the last three seasons the Bears have lost a combined 34 games for their worst stretch since 1997-2000 as this organization has been plagued by numerous bad personnel decisions. General manager Ryan Pace and head coach John Fox are each set to begin their third year with the Bears and as Chicago is in the midst of rebuilding, there doesn’t appear to be any end in sight in regards to the futility in the Windy City.

In 2009, the Bears acquired quarterback Jay Cutler from the Denver Broncos and he was expected to be a savior as he was expected to finally solve Chicago’s long time issues at the position. Cutler had an up and down career with the Bears as he was 51-51 as a starter while throwing 154 touchdowns to 109 interceptions.

At the conclusion of the 2016 National Football League season, Cutler announced that he was going to retire after 11 years as a professional. But when Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill suffered a knee injury during training camp, Cutler decided to unretire to take his spot in South Florida.

John Fox

Pace and Fox have spent this off-season attempting to find Cutler’s replacement with the Bears. The first move by the Bears was to sign quarterback Mike Glennon. Glennon spent the last four years as a backup quarterback. Glennon has 18 starts under his belt in the National Football League and he has a career record of 5-13. However the Bears saw enough and they decided to sign Glennon to a three-year deal for $45 million.

The Bears would not stop there as they made a trade with the San Francisco 49ers to move up to the second overall pick in the National Football League Draft this past April to select quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. The jury is still out on Trubisky who only had one year as a starter collegiately for the North Carolina Tar Heels. But this was enough for Pace and Fox to be convinced that Trubisky will be the Bears quarterback of the future.

But whereas the Bears were only able to go 3-13 last year and that they are in the process of rebuilding, it means that there have been plenty of opportunities for young players to earn roster spots. Last year as a rookie, running back Jordan Howard exploded for 1,313 yards, while he also made the Pro Bowl. Howard did have 252 carries last year and as there is plenty of wear and tear on running backs in the National Football League, the Bears must make sure that he stays fresh here in 2017.

There is potential in the Bears receiving corps, but potential is only go on paper. In 2015, Chicago used the seventh overall pick of the National Football League Draft on wide receiver Kevin White. However through two seasons, White has only appeared in four games for the Bears. White’s absence gave wide receiver Cameron Meredith the opportunity to be “the guy” last year, but he’ll miss the entire upcoming season as the result of a torn ACL. Wide receiver Kendall Wright was first-round pick of the Tennessee Titans in 2012, but in five seasons in Nashville he was never able able to reach his potential. Now after Wright signed a one-year deal to join the Bears, he will get a shot at redemption, however it won’t be easy as he’ll have to rely on a rookie quarterback in Trubisky to get him the football.

Like the Bears receiving corps, the defense in Chicago has potential, but it is just a matter of everyone staying healthy for defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. Outside linebacker Danny Trevathan has been out of action since he suffered a torn patellar tendon last November. In 12 games as a rookie in 2016, outside linebacker Leonard Floyd was able to record 7 sacks, and I can see Fangio using him in the same role that he used outside linebacker Aldon Smith in when he was the defensive coordinator of the San Francisco 49ers. Floyd missed four games last year due to injury, and the Bears are going to need the combination of him and Trevathan to be healthy in order to consistently put pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

Right out of the chute the Bears are going to have to deal with some heavy hitters as they will face the Atlanta Falcons, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Green Bay Packers, and Pittsburgh Steelers in their first four games. Only the Buccaneers didn’t make the playoffs last season, and as the Bears have questions surrounding their quarterbacking situation, this could be a long season in the Windy City.

X-Division Winner

Source: Pro-football-reference.com

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2017 AFC East Projections

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X-New England Patriots 13-3

It’s another year and once again the New England Patriots are the team to beat in the National Football League. The Patriots are coming off of their second Super Bowl Title in the last three years and their fifth since 2001. The Patriots were truly a team of destiny last season as they won the Super Bowl in dramatic fashion by becoming the first team in the history of the contest to overcome a 25-point deficit. Late in the third quarter, New England found themselves down 28-3 to the Atlanta Falcons in the Super Bowl, but they would finish the game on a 31-0 run which included seeing them score a pair of touchdowns and a pair of two-point conversions in order to force overtime. However as good as things were for the Patriots in 2016, don’t expect Patriots head coach Bill Belichick to allow his team to dwell on what they did last season heading in to a new campaign.

Bill Belichick

As Belichick is arguably the best head coach in National Football League history, he has the luxury of possibly having the best quarterback in the history of the game working with him. Tom Brady has been New England’s starting quarterback since 2001 and it has been a heck of ride for him as well as the Patriots. Brady’s record as a starters is an impressive 183-52, while he is the only quarterback in NFL history to win five Super Bowl Championships along with four Super Bowl MVP Awards. Brady turned 40-years of age last month and he is not showing any signs of slowing down.

Tom Brady

Brady is one of the most accurate quarterbacks that the game of professional football has ever seen as he combines that with intensity and precision. When Brady has the football in his hands, he is the equivalent to a maestro conducting an orchestra. Brady has an array of players to get the football to as he indeed knows how to spread the wealth.

Brady will not have the luxury of having wide receiver Julian Edelman this season as he suffered a torn ACL in the preseason. Edelman has been one of Brady’s most reliable receivers as he has a knack for the big play. But with the Patriots it is all about the next man up.

Rob Gronkowski

Unlike last year, New England will have a healthy Rob Gronkowski at tight end as injuries limited him to just eight games. At 6’6″, 265 lbs., Gronkowski is a freak of nature who should be very motivated to come back and show why he is the best tight end in the National Football League after the Pats were able to win the Super Bowl without him last February. And aside from getting Gronkowski back, the rich have gotten richer as Belichick has made sure that the Patriots passing attack won’t skip a beat this year.

The Patriots traded their first-round pick in this past spring’s National Football League Draft to the New Orleans Saints in exchange for wide receiver Brandin Cooks. Cooks was a first-round selection of the Saints in 2014 and he was quickly becoming one of the better receivers in football. Each of the last two seasons saw Cooks collect at least 1,100 yards receiving, but he was becoming disgruntled with his role in the Saints passing game. And when the Saints decided that Cooks was no longer in their plans, the Patriots jumped at the opportunity to acquire him.

Brandin Cooks

Cooks won’t replace Edelman’s contributions on the field or in the locker room. But what Cooks gives the Patriots is a receiver who’ll stretch the field, while he also has sure hands. And with a quarterback such as Brady getting the football to Cooks, he should be on top of his game, while his presence will make it tough for Patriots opponents to attempt to double team Gronkowski.

The Patriots lost tight end Martellus Bennett in free agency as he signed with the Green Bay Packers. But the Patriots who have become wizards in regards to having depth at the tight end position acquired tight end Dwayne Allen from the Indianapolis Colts.

Allen was a third-round selection of the Colts in 2012, but his time in Indy saw him consistently under utilized. Allen won’t be the focal point of the Patriots offense, but he’ll be a player who should thrive playing alongside of Gronkowski, while also becoming another dependable pass catcher for Brady in the red zone.

From 1982-2013, Dante Scarnecchia was on the Patriots coaching with his most notable duty being the team’s offensive line coach from 2000-2013. But in 2013, Scarnecchia decided to retire and without the Patriots offensive line did not have the same cohesion. Scarnecchia returned to the Patriots last season and the offensive line played with more precision. The offensive line for New England continues to be unassuming, but one player to keep an eye on is left tackle Nate Solder whose main job is to protect the blindside of Brady.

New England will miss the bruising running ability of LeGarrette Blount who after leading the team in rushing last year signed with the Philadelphia Eagles as a free agent, leaves a void for the Pats. And without Blount, speed will be the name of the game for the Patriots with running backs James White, Mike Gillislee, and Dion Lewis. And due to the fact that New England’s running backs are undersized, I foresee Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels using more screen and swing passes which will go down on the stat sheet as passes, but they could be just as effective as runs due to the fact that he’ll get his play makers the football in space.

Defensively the Patriots were eighth in the National Football League last year in total defense and they must replace some key players from the unit. Defensive end Chris Long only recorded 4 sacks last year for the Pats, but he was a veteran leader. And New England must replace another leader on defense in defensive end Rob Ninkovich who decided to hang it up after 11 years in the NFL.

New England still has stout players on their defensive line in defensive tackles Malcolm Brown and Alan Branch, while they have some versatile linebackers in Shea McClellin, Kyle Van Noy, and Dont’a Hightower, while linebacker Elandon Roberts is an emerging player for Belichick.

Big plays will be at a premium against the Patriots secondary. Cornerback Malcolm Butler is still one of the top players at his position in the National Football League, while New England was able to add to their depth at the position when they signed former Buffalo Bills cornerback Stephon Gilmore to a five-year deal that is worth $65 million. And once you add in free safety Devin McCourty who is coming off of his second Pro Bowl as well as veteran strong safety Patrick Chung who knows Belichick’s system, New England should once again be a force to be reckoned with defensively.

Kicker Stephen Gostowski still possesses one of the strongest and accurate legs in the National Football League, while wide receiver Matthew Slater is not only a captain for Patriots, but he is also continues to be a guru on special teams with his coverage skills.

As the defending Super Bowl Champs, the Patriots will be getting their opponents best effort on a weekly basis, but this is something that they are accustomed to. And even though that New England will endure a stretch during the second half of the season where they’ll play five of six games on the road which includes contest versus the Denver Broncos and Oakland Raiders, Belichick’s team will once again be battle tested when the playoffs roll around.

Y-Miami Dolphins 10-6

After a 1-4 start in 2016, the Miami Dolphins were well on their way to a ninth consecutive losing season until something remarkable happened. The Dolphins would reel off six consecutive victories, and after Miami finished the regular season with a record of 10-6, they were postseason bound for the first time since 2008. Dolphins head coach Adam Gase made believers out of some of his critics by leading Miami to the postseason in his first year with the club. But whereas the Dolphins were able to use the element of surprise in 2016, how will they do with teams better prepared for Gase’s team this time around?

If the Dolphins are going to make the playoffs in consecutive years for the first time since 2001, they are going to have to accomplish it without the services of quarterback Ryan Tannehill. Tannehill was the Dolphins first-round pick in 2012, and after he struggled under several offensive coordinators, he was finally beginning to put it together under Gase. Late in the 2016 campaign, Tannehill suffered a leg injury which forced him to miss out on the Fins playoff game. Tannehill had rehabbed and was ready to once again be under center until he suffered a torn ACL earlier this month which ended his season before it even started.

And with the Dolphins in need of a quarterback for the upcoming season, Gase would reach out to an old friend in Jay Cutler.

Jay Cutler

In 2015, Gase was the offensive coordinator of the Chicago Bears. And under Gase, Cutler had one of his best seasons in the National Football League. Throughout Cutler’s NFL career he has been known to throw interceptions in bunches due to his “gunslinger mentality”, however Gase convinced himself to not force the football field down the field as much, while utilizing his check downs to running backs.

After an injury filled 2016, Cutler decided to retire from the National Football League until he was convinced to the Dolphins to give it one try in 2017. But after Cutler appeared to be content in retirement, while he is also 34-years of age, how much left does he have to give?

Without Tannehill, the Dolphins offense still has the opportunity to be potent due to their ability to run the football. Last year Miami was ninth in the National Football League in rushing and there should once again be some paint swapping from this year’s team. Gase is committed to running the football which means that you can expect another heavy dose of running back Jay Ajayi. Last year Ajayi became the first Dolphins running back Ricky Williams in 2003 to carry the football at least 250 times. At 6’0″, 229 lbs., Ajayi is a big, physical running back who only gets better as the game goes along. Ajayi had two games last season where he was able to gain at least 200 yards on the ground, and while this ability will see him go pretty early in fantasy football leagues, he’ll also get the chance to close out games for the Dolphins.

But the biggest thing that Gase has brought to the Dolphins offense is balance as it isn’t all about their running game. Wide receiver Jarvis Landry is rapidly becoming one of the better wide receivers in Dolphins franchise history. Landry was a second-round pick by the Dolphins in 2014 and he has brought something to the franchise that they had lacked for quite some time which is explosiveness. Landry is extremely versatile and Gase will continue to find numerous ways to get him the football which includes reverses and wide receiver screen, while also using him on special teams on punt returns.

And if opposing defenses want to concentrate on slowing down Landry in the Dolphins passing game, Miami has several other viable options to get the football to in with receivers Kenny Stills and DeVante Parker as viable options, while tight end Julius Thomas who was recently acquired from the Jacksonville Jaguars could be a sleeper this season in fantasy football.

The Dolphins defensive line is home to some guys that have high motors. Defensive end Cameron Wake has recorded 81.5 sacks in eight years with the Dolphins which is the second most in franchise behind the 131 of Hall of Famer Jason Taylor. Wake weighs 263 lbs., but he knows how to use leverage which gives him the advantage versus many of the right tackles that he lines up against in the National Football League. And because of that you can expect another double-digit sack campaign in 2017 from Wake.

Ndamukong Suh

In two seasons with Miami, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh has only managed to record 11 sacks, but his presence on the defensive line has given some of his teammates more opportunities to make plays.

Miami’s linebacking unit received a boost this off-season when the organization signed a pair of veterans in outside linebacker Lawrence Timmons and inside linebacker Rey Maualuga. Timmons spent the first decade of his National Football League career with the Pittsburgh Steelers which included winning a Super Bowl Championship, while Maualuga brings eight years of experience with him following his stint with the Cincinnati Bengals.

Miami has been blessed with an easy schedule to begin the season as only one of their first eight opponents made the playoffs last season. And if the Dolphins want to contend with the New England Patriots for the top spot in the AFC East, they are going to need to win the games that they are supposed to which means that Cutler canno tplay hero ball.

Buffalo Bills 5-11

The Buffalo Bills have the current longest active playoff drought in the National Football League. You have to go back to the 1999 NFL season to find the last time that the Bills made the playoffs and once you analyze the dysfunction within the organization, you get a better understanding why the Buffalo has struggled so much. Since 2000, the Bills have had seven different general managers, ten head coaches, and 13 starting quarterbacks. And this constant turnover at these key positions let you understand why the Bills have only been able to record two winning seasons over that stretch.

The past 10 months have been no easier for Buffalo as with one game remaining in the regular season, Rex Ryan was fired as the head coach of the Bills. Ryan was on the cusp of just completing his second year with Buffalo, and thus the team was once again starting over. A few weeks later Sean McDermott was hired to be the Bills new head coach. However the man who hired McDermott in general manager Doug Whaley was fired following the conclusion of the 2017 National Football League Draft and he’d be replaced by former Carolina Panthers assistant general manager Brandon Beane.

The craziness doesn’t stop there for the Bills as the cloud of uncertainty still looms over the quarterback position for them. Tyrod Taylor spent the last two years as the Bills starting quarterback, however he isn’t “Mr. Popularity” within the organization. Taylor spent the last two years as the Bills starting quarterback, and although that he was able to put up decent numbers, he has been unable to help the Bills take the next step. Aside from Taylor, no quarterback on the Bills roster has attempted more than 134 passes in the National Football League. And if the Bills don’t feel that Taylor is the long-term solution for them at quarterback, they’ll once again be starting over at the most important position on the football field.

Ad the Bills flirted with parting with Taylor, they did trade his favorite target in wide receiver Sammy Watkins to the Los Angeles Rams. The Bills moved up in the first round of the 2014 National Football League Draft in order to obtain the services of Watkins, however his time in Buffalo was marred by injuries and thus Buffalo decided to move on. After trading Watkins, the Bills would proceed to acquire wide receiver Jordan Matthews from the Philadelphia Eagles and it is paramount that he and Taylor are able to get on the same page.

LeSean McCoy

After an injury filled 2015, running back LeSean McCoy bounced back last season to have one of the better years of his career. At the age of 29, McCoy still has plenty of explosion and any success that Buffalo intends on having in 2017 hinges on the strong legs and quick feet of McCoy.

But whereas McCoy can be a difference maker for Buffalo’s offense, the Bills don’t have too many impact players on the defensive side of the football. Last year saw linebacker Lorenzo Alexander enjoy the best year of his National Football League career as he was able to record 12.5 sacks. But at the age of 34, will the Bills and McDermott be able to back on Alexander being able to put together another quality season like that?

With the start of a new season right around the corner, the Bills are still searching for their identity as an organization. And because of that, 2017 will see the Bills add to there already mounting frustration of being unable to reach the postseason since 1999.

New York Jets 1-15

Following the New York Jets can be hazardous to your health at times due to the numerous head scratching moves that have been made by this club over the years. In 2015, the Jets went 10-6 and were in an eye shadow of making the playoffs. But since then the Jets have regressed and all signs point to them rebuilding as after they went 5-11, things appear ready to get worse.

This off-season has seen a roster overhaul as they’ve parted with veteran players such as defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson and wide receiver Brandon Marshall. And although that the Jets weren’t a playoff team last year with these guys on the roster, more than ever they appear to be a rudderless ship.

Unfortunately for the Jets, they are still searching for the next Joe Namath at quarterback which is not going to happen. Last year the Jets used three different quarterbacks and none of them were able to complete 60% of their passes. The quarterbacking situation is not that much better for the Jets this season as they have a pair of inexperiences quarterbacks on the roster in Bryce Petty and Christian Hackenburg, while this off-season saw New York sign veteran quarterback Josh McCown whose record as a starter in the National Football League is a paltry 18-42.

At 31-years of age, running back Matt Forte’s best years carrying the football are in the rearview mirror, but he is just 585 rushing yards away from being the 30th player in National Football League history to gain 10,000 career yards. However aside from Forte potentially reaching the milestone, there is not anything to get excited about in regards to the Jets offense as this unit has the potential to be historically bad.

Todd Bowles

Jets head coach Todd Bowles built his rep around the National Football League by coaching defensive football. And although that the stars are not alining for Gang Green to be good this year, two players to keep an eye on are defensive ends Leonard Williams and Muhammad Wilkerson who each could be in the mix to make the Pro Bowl.

It’s been some time since the Jets came into a season with expectations for them as low as they currently are. And because of that it would not surprise me to see the brown paper bags broken out by Jets fans at MetLife Stadium by Week 8.

X-Division Champion

Y-Wild Card Source:

Pro-football-reference.com

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2017 AFC North Projections

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X-Pittsburgh Steelers 11-5

In 2016, the Pittsburgh Steelers reached the AFC Championship Game for the 16th time. The Steelers 16 appearances since 1970 in the conference championship game are tied with the San Francisco 49ers for the most in the National Football League during that stretch as they are a part of the elite organizations in the league. But making the AFC Championship Game is not good enough for the Steelers as their six Super Bowl Titles are the most of any NFL franchise. And after the Steelers came up short against the New England Patriots this past January, will they have enough in their arsenal to get to Minneapolis for Super Bowl 52 this February?

Ben Roethlisberger

2017 is setting up to be a make or break season for the Steelers since quarterback Ben Roethlisberger flirted with retiring during the off-season. Roethlisberger has 13 years under his belt along with dealing with his fair share of bumps and bruises along the way. Roethlisberger has only been able make all 16 starts in the regular season two times, and along the way he has dealt with a litany of injuries which has included concussions, a broken nose, as well as multiple injuries to his hands and knees. And at the age of 35, while also seeing the wear and tear of those who have played the game before him, Roethlisberger took some time to examine things this off-season as it would not surprise me to see him hang it up after this season which puts the onus on him to really leave it all out there this year.

Since Todd Haley has been the Steelers offensive coordinator in 2012, Pittsburgh has been one of the most explosive teams in the National Football League which included Roethlisberger leading the league passing in 2014 with 4,952 yards. Many of those pass plays have seen Roethlisberger hook up with wide receiver Antonio Brown who has rapidly become one of the better pass catchers in the NFL.

When Roethlisberger led the National Football League in passing in 2014, Brown did the same in regards to receiving yards. The last three years have seen Brown rack up nearly 5,000 receiving yards as he is a fantasy football owner’s dream, while also making life very difficult for defensive backs around the league.

Aside from Brown, the Steelers have a wide receiver corp that could be dangerous if everyone is one the same page. In 2015, wide receiver Martavis Bryant was beginning to show flashes of being a consistent play makers for the Steelers as he averaged 15.3 yards per reception. However a failed drug test by Bryant saw him suspended by the National Football League for the entire 2016 season. Bryant has yet to be fully reinstated by the NFL, but he has been allowed to practice. And if the league decides to fully reinstate Bryant, he will be ready to have a big impact for Pittsburgh as his 6’4″ will be huge in the red zone, as well as his deceptive speed for his size. Rookie wide receiver Juju Smith-Schuster was a second-round pick this year for the Steelers, and after slipping to the 62nd overall selection, he should come into the season with a chip on his shoulder, while also potentially becoming a good slot receiver.

Le’Veon Bell

But for all the star power that the Steelers have on offense, the engine is running back Le’Veon Bell. In 12 games with the Steelers last season, Bell gained 1,268 yards, and when he left the AFC Championship Game with an injury, the tenor of Pittsburgh’s offense drastically changed. Bell is one of the most dynamic play makers at the running back position in the National Football League as he is the total package being that he is a runner, receiver, and most importantly a blocking back. Bell missed the entire training camp as the result of a contract dispute, but he will be ready to go in Week One for the Steelers.

Another key for the Steelers will the ability for them to maintain a healthy offensive line. Pittsburgh has a veteran unit up front which includes center Maurkice Pouncey, guard David DeCastro, and left tackle Alejandro Villanueva who is rapidly developing into a solid player to protect the blindside of Roethlisberger.

Defensively the Steelers were 12th in the National Football League last year in total defense, but for defensive coordinator Keith Butler, his unit is lacking those game changing play makers. Over the years the Steelers defense has been home to Hall of Famers such as defensive tackle Joe Greene along with defensive back Rod Woodson who could put a team on their back, while there have been edge rushers like Greg Lloyd and Kevin Greene who could wreak havoc. However since the Steelers don’t have those kind of players which is evident by the fact that no Pittsburgh defender had more than five sacks in 2016, the Steelers still have some work ahead of them in order to become a complete team.

Pittsburgh has a very easy schedule to begin the season as six of their first seven opponents were non-playoff teams last year. However in recent years the Steelers have had issues in regards to playing down to their opponents which has cost them. But I do expect the Steelers to play with a sense of urgency this year as this could be it for Roethlisberger. However until Pittsburgh is able to develop a pass rush, they will not have enough to get past the Patriots in the AFC.

Y-Cincinnati Bengals 10-6

The 2016 National Football League season ended with the Cincinnati Bengals extending their streak of being unable to win a playoff game since January 1991, however for the first time since 2010, there wasn’t a playoff berth in the Queen City. Injuries and inconsistency did the Bengals in last year as they were only able to muster a record of 6-9-1. But as five of Cincinnati’s nine losses were by five points or less, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis could have something to build off of heading into a new season.

Andy Dalton

In spite of the losing season by the Bengals, quarterback Andy Dalton is coming off of one of his better seasons. Dalton passed for 4,206 years while completing nearly 65% of his passes and only throwing 8 interceptions. Dalton has been a lightning for criticism in Cincinnati due to the fact that he is 0-4 in the playoffs, but he is rapidly becoming one of the better quarterbacks in the franchise’s history. However for the man who has been dubbed as “The Red Rifle” who is a three-time Pro Bowler, maybe this will the year in which that Dalton will be able to get the monkey off of his back and win a playoff game.

Last year Dalton didn’t have the services of a healthy A.J. Green at wide receiver as he is indeed a difference maker. At 6’4″, Green can out leap most defensive backs in the National Football League, while he possesses the speed of someone who is smaller than him. Green missed six games last year due to a torn hamstring and you can only hope that he will have the same explosiveness after sustaining the injury.

But whereas there is the potential of Green having lost a step, the Bengals used a first-round pick on wide receiver John Ross who’s middle name should be fast. Ross is entering the National Football League fresh off of setting a record at the Scouting Combine by running a 4.22 in the 40-yard dash. Ken Zampese is in his second year as the Bengals offensive coordinator and I see him attempting to find creative ways to get Ross the football which includes him being used on reverses and wide receiver screens.

The Bengals offense has the potential to be explosive as along with a good passing game, Cincinnati should be able to effectively run the football with a trio of running backs in Giovanni Bernard, Jeremy Hill, and rookie Joe Mixon. Last year Bernard suffered a torn ACL which limited him only 91 carries. And the fact that Bernard was not available took away from the effectiveness of Hill who is better as a tandem back. This time around Mixon could fill a void for the Bengals as Bernard is attempting to work his way back from a knee injury. Collegiately for the Oklahoma Sooners, Mixon was solid coming out of the backfield as a receiver, while he was also a solid change of pace back due to his breakaway speed.

Tyler Eifert

Another player who is looking to bounce back for the Bengals is tight end Tyler Eifert. A back injury limited Eifert to only eight games last year, while he has yet to see the field for all 16 regular season games during his four-year career in the National Football League. At 6’6″, Eifert is mismatch for defenses, and the Bengals must find a way to have him, Mixon, and Green on the field together as much as possible.

Defensively the Bengals tend to be solid under Lewis, but last year was not a vintage year for them. Cincinnati was 17th in the National Football League in total defense, while they only managed to record 33 sacks. The Bengals must get back to gang tackling and putting pressure on the quarterback as a group. Defensive ends Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson each are coming off of down years and if they are unable to find a way to put more pressure on quarterbacks, Cincinnati will have issues on defense.

Discipline has been an issue with the Bengals for the longest time, but if Lewis can find a way to keep his teams focused, a trip to the postseason for the sixth time in the last seven years is a very strong possibility.

Baltimore Ravens 7-9

The Baltimore Ravens will enter the new National Football League season in very unfamiliar place as this marks the first time since 2005 that they are coming off of consecutive years in which they failed to make the playoffs. The Ravens were an up and down team last year as they were either hold or cold. And in an unfamiliar mode for the Ravens, they came apart coming down the stretch as after heading into Week 16 with a record of 8-6 and a legitimate chance to win the AFC North, Baltimore collapsed in their final two games. And to make matters worse, those defeats came at the hands of their divisional rivals in the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals. John Harbaugh is set to begin his tenth season as the head coach of the Ravens, and as he is a master motivator, what will he be able to pull out of his hat in order to get Baltimore back to the postseason this year?

Joe Flacco

The face of the Ravens franchise right now is quarterback Joe Flacco. Flacco has been the Ravens starting quarterback since he came into the National Football League in 2008. And although that there are some people who still want to question Flacco’s ability to lead and get it done, he has a record of 83-55 as a starting quarterback, while he also has a Super Bowl Championship to his credit. However Flacco’s detractors may get the opportunity to see what life without him is like as a back injury has put him on the shelf during training camp while also putting his availability to start the regular season in doubt. And with the Ravens not having a quality backup quarterback behind Flacco, the Ravens could be in a bind.

The past few years have seen the Ravens struggle to run the football as they were 28th in the National Football League last season in rushing with the team’s leading ball carrier being Terrance West with just 774 yards. After wide receiver Jeremy Maclin was released by the Kansas City Chiefs following an injury filled 2016 season, he found a new home with the Ravens. When healthy, Maclin can be a solid second receiver in the offense, but any potential success for him hinges on Flacco being healthy. Aside from Maclin, the Ravens have another veteran wide receiver in Mike Wallace who at the age of 31 is still faster that most of the players at his position which gives Baltimore a threat in the vertical passing game.

The defensive side of the football is where the Ravens built their reputation which also led to the franchise’s two Super Bowl Titles. But in recent years the Ravens have not been as solid on that side of the football. The Ravens were 17th in the National Football League in total defense, while they were only able to tally 31 sacks. And for Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees, he has aging players on his unit such as outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, while some of the team’s early draft picks have yet to materialize.

Three of Baltimore’s first four games are within the AFC North as they must find a way to stay afloat if Flacco will miss some regular season games. But even with a healthy Flacco, the Ravens are going to have their work cut out in order to be a playoff team this season.

Cleveland Browns 2-14

To give you an idea as to how inept that the Cleveland Browns are, they have won a combined 15 games over the last four years which included winning one game last season. Since the Browns re-entered the National Football League in 1999, they have only had two winning seasons with just one playoff appearance. Hue Jackson is entering his second season as the head coach of the Browns, and although that he was only able to win one game in his first year in Cleveland, there is some optimism for his team. Of the Browns 15 losses, they held a lead going into the fourth quarter in five games, while they also lost five games by six points or less. The Browns started more rookies or second-year players than any other team in the NFL last year which could be a plus heading into a new season. But will the young Browns be able to use that experience and turn it into a plus in 2017?

For the Browns to improve and become competitive in the AFC North, they are going to need some consistency at the quarterback position. Last year the Browns used five different quarterbacks with none of them passing for more than 1,380 yards. The Browns once again have a “battle” at quarterback position with former Houston Texans quarterback Brock Osweilier, Cody Kessler, Kevin Hogan, and rookie DeShone Kizer all having a chance to be under center. None of these players have shown that they can be that guy in the National Football League, and if Jackson is unable to attach his wagon to one signal caller, it is going to be another long season in Cleveland.

The Browns are lacking play makers on the offensive side of the football with the lone bright spot being left tackle Joe Thomas. Thomas is set to begin his 11th season in the National Football League, and in spite of the woes of the Browns, he has remained committed to the team. Thomas has made the Pro Bowl in each of his seasons in the NFL, and in spite of the losing, he will soon get the call for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But aside from Thomas, the Browns offensive line must improve as they allowed 66 sacks last season which is a recipe for disaster regardless of who the starting quarterback is.

With the Browns only being able to win one game last year, they were able to obtain the first overall pick in this past spring’s National Football League Draft. There was much debate as to what direction that Browns wanted to go with the selection with the idea of trading the pick being the possibility. However the Browns would decide on selecting Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett.

In three seasons at Texas A&M, Garrett was a two-time All-American, while he was also able to amass 31 career sacks. As a team last year, the Browns were only able to tally 26 sacks, and although that Garrett was the first overall pick, he is going to have to prove himself versus the top left tackles in the National Football League.

Jabril Peppers

In all the Browns had three first-round picks in this year’s National Football League with the 25th overall selection being used on Michigan safety Jabril Peppers. Peppers was the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year last season as he is built like a safety, but he has the mindset of a linebacker. And for Browns defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, he will definitely find creative ways to use Peppers this season.

Jackson still has a tall task in front of him in regards to turning around the Browns. The Browns are not respected by their counterparts in the AFC North as they are still everyone’s “homecoming game”. In the last three years the Browns have only won four games in the AFC North as the culture of losing reigns supreme in Cleveland. And until Jackson or anyone else is able to change that, the Browns will continue to get beat up on.

X-Division Champion

Y-Wild Card

Source: Pro-football-reference.com

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