2015 NFL Season Preview: AFC East

marcell dareus

Marcell Dareus is a standout performer on the stout Buffalo defence

We kick off our preview of the AFC’s four divisions with a look at the one that produced last year’s Superbowl champion, which was of course the New England Patriots. Following a summer of controversy surrounding the now infamous #Deflategate the Patriots will be relieved that the season is just around the corner, with New England hosting the now traditional curtain raiser this evening when they welcome Pittsburgh to Gillette Stadium. Meanwhile their division rivals include the Buffalo Bills, now coached by former New York Jets head honcho Rex Ryan, while the Jets themselves welcome former Arizona defensive co-ordinator Todd Bowles to the fold. Last but not least the Miami Dolphins will be hoping to make waves in South Florida, with quarterback Ryan Tannehill their unquestioned offensive leader. For a more comprehensive preview, keep it right here.

Buffalo Bills

Key Additions: RB LeSean McCoy (trade), QB Tyrod Taylor (free agency), WR Percy Harvin (FA), TE Charles Clay (FA)

Key Losses: ILB Kiko Alonso (trade), RB C.J Spiller (FA), TE Scott Chandler (FA)

The Bills are a much changed side from the one that took the field in 2014, with a new starting quarterback, new running back and of course a new head coach. Rex Ryan inherits one of the AFC’s top defences and with his track record it’s not unreasonable to think that they’ll improve further under his stewardship, although the former Jets coach’s offensive acumen is less famed. Former Ravens backup Tyrod Taylor is the new man under centre, and while he filled in admirably when called upon in Baltimore he lacks starting experience and will be under the microscope from his first snap. Taylor beat out former first round pick E.J Manuel and veteran Matt Cassel for the role. LeSean McCoy is expected to provide the majority of the team’s offense from the running back position after his surprise trade from Philadelphia, but after dealing with hamstring trouble throughout the pre-season it remains to be seen what kind of shape McCoy is in as week one approaches. Last year’s first round pick Sammy Watkins should be Taylor’s number one outlet in the passing game, although it’s possible that the lack of a productive quarterback and Ryan’s penchant for running the ball could stunt Watkins growth. Defensively the Bills possess a fearsome defensive line, including end Mario Williams and defensive tackle Marcell Dareus, and with Ryan operating the unit it’s more than possible that Buffalo engage in a number of low scoring contests in 2015. Ryan started fast during his tenure with New York, reaching two AFC Championship games, before he outstayed his welcome in New Jersey. If he can get off to a similarly encouraging start in his second head coaching gig then the Bills could be one of the NFL’s surprise packages this season.

Prediction: 3rd

Miami Dolphins

Key Additions: WR Kenny Stills (FA), TE Jordan Cameron (FA), DT Ndamukong Suh (FA), WR DeVante Parker (draft)

Key Losses: WR Mike Wallace (FA), TE Charles Clay (FA), C Samson Satele (FA), CB Cortland Finnegan (retired)

Miami made the biggest splash in the free agent market by reeling in former Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh with the biggest deal ever handed out in free agency, a six-year $114 million pact. They weren’t done there as they attempted to upgrade the offensive skill positions with players including wide receiver Kenny Stills and former Browns tight end Jordan Cameron. They join an offense run by coordinator Bill Lazor, who last year implemented some of Chip Kelly’s up-tempo concepts which he learned as quarterbacks coach during his time in Philadelphia with the Eagles. Ryan Tannehill is the man at the controls of the offense, and his steady growth continued last year as he used his top-tier arm strength and underrated mobility to star as a dual threat QB in Lazor’s exciting system. Lamar Miller is the main man in the backfield for the Dolphins, and his performances last year made Knowshon Moreno expendable after just one season on South Beach. Defensively it’ll be all about Suh this year, while elite edge rusher Cameron Wake is the other big name on the starting defence. Wake racked up 11.5 sacks in 2014, and if he can replicate that production this time round opposing offenses will have to make a tough decision between double teaming either him or Suh. Brent Grimes and Louis Delmas form the basis of a strong secondary, however that group of four players aside question marks linger over the ability of the Dolphins defence to keep the team in games. If Suh has as big an impact in Miami as he did in Detroit the Dolphins should have enough about them to challenge for AFC East supremacy; however Tom Brady’s recently overturned suspension still gives New England the edge to retain their division crown.

Prediction: 2nd

New England Patriots

Key Additions: DE Jabaal Sheard (FA), CB Bradley Fletcher (FA), NT Malcolm Brown (draft)

Key Losses: RB Shane Vereen (FA), RB Jonas Gray (released), TE Tim Wright (FA), NT Vince Wilfork (released), CB Darrelle Revis (FA), CB Brandon Browner (FA)

Last year’s Superbowl champs had a tumultuous off-season, unable to fully celebrate their title as they dealt with the ramifications from the Deflategate episode that occurred during last season’s AFC Championship game. However with Tom Brady recently cleared by Judge Chris Berman, although the punishments handed out to the Patriots organisation still stand, New England’s attention is back on the field and their quest to repeat as champions for the second time in a decade. Tight end Rob Gronkowski returns as Brady’s most explosive weapon, with the reliable Julian Edelman supporting him on the outside. LeGarrette Blount is the team’s lead running back, although his position is less than assured judging by head coach Bill Belichick’s propensity to juggle running backs during his New England tenure. Defensively the team has taken a few hits, losing both starting cornerbacks from a year ago (Darrell Revis and Brandon Browner), with long-time nose tackle Vince Wilfork also moving on. However it would be foolish to doubt Belichick’s wisdom regarding those moves, as he’s shown time and time again during his coaching career that anyone, sans Brady, is replaceable in the long-term. Ultimately, so long as Brady and Belichick are united in New England the Patriots will be annual Superbowl contenders, and 2015 is no exception.

Prediction: 1st

New York Jets

Key Additions: QB Ryan Fitzpatrick (FA), WR Brandon Marshall (FA), OG James Carpenter (FA), CB Darrelle Revis (FA), DT Leonard Williams (draft)

Key Losses: QB Mike Vick (FA), WR Percy Harvin (FA), CB Kyle Wilson (FA )

New coach Todd Bowles was introduced to the sometimes calamitous world of the Jets during training camp when starting QB Geno Smith was sucker punched by a teammate, suffering a broken jaw in the process. Unfortunately for Jets fans, such incredible scenes have been far from rare in recent years, and the franchise was desperately in need of a change of direction this past summer when Bowles was brought in to replace the departed Rex Ryan. Bowles inherits Smith, an inconsistent passer at best, and a solid running game headed by Chris Ivory. He also added the mercurial Brandon Marshall to the team’s wide receiver core to line-up opposite Eric Decker, although with Marshall’s propensity for getting into trouble the wisdom of such a move is debatable. He can, however, play his position extremely well, and if he stays out of trouble Marshall should be a great asset to Smith as he continues his development as an NFL QB. The defence improved measurably over the summer, with Darrelle Revis re-joining the team who he entered the league with, and the talented Leonard Williams was added in the draft. Both the offense and the defence have parts that Bowles can build a team around; however a lack of chemistry and a dearth of talent at the quarterback position should consign New York to another football-less January.

Prediction: 4th

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2015 NFL Season Preview: NFC South

Jameis Winston was selected with the number one overall pick in the NFL Draft by Tampa Bay

Jameis Winston was selected with the number one overall pick in the NFL Draft by Tampa Bay

 

The final division in the NFC we’ll cover is the NFC South, which a year ago was easily the weakest in the NFL. Carolina may have won the division, and a play-off game against an injury riddled Arizona outfit, yet they did so on the back of a 7-8-1 regular season record. The other teams in the division are the fading New Orleans Saints, the Atlanta Falcons and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who finished last season with the worst record in the NFL. To find out who to keep an eye out for on each team, just scroll down.

Atlanta Falcons

Key Additions: OG Chris Chester (free agency), OLB Brooks Reed (FA), DE Vic Beasley (draft), CB Jalen Collins (draft)

Key Losses: RB Steven Jackson (FA), RB Jacquizz Rodgers (FA), OT Sam Baker (FA)

Last season’s below par record saw Mike Smith lose his job as the Falcons head coach, with former Seattle defensive co-ordinator Dan Quinn chosen as his replacement. Quinn will be tasked with turning around a defence that has been suffering for quite some time now, while the offense will similarly hope for a new lease of life. Julio Jones remains as the team’s top playmaker and with Matt Ryan under centre Atlanta will hope it can return to its perennial play-off form of just a few years ago, although they’ll have to do so without the released running back Steven Jackson. While Quinn has a rebuild on his hands it’s not on as large a scale as the one another former Seattle DC, Gus Bradley, inherited in Jacksonville, so it’s not out of the realms of possibility that the Falcons can challenge for a division title in 2015. However if they’re to do so Ryan will have to return to somewhere near his best, while the defence will have to buy into Quinn’s methods immediately, and completely.

Prediction: 2nd

Carolina Panthers

Key Additions: RB Jordan Todman (FA), CB Charles Tillman (FA)

Key Losses: RB DeAngelo Williams (FA), DE Greg Hardy (released)

When wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin went down for the year in the second week of pre-season, quarterback Cam Newton’s heart will have skipped a beat as he contemplated playing without his most potent offensive weapon, after Benjamin enjoyed a spectacular rookie season. However Newton can take some solace in the fact that he has one of the NFL’s better tight ends, Greg Olson, to throw to and a stable of productive, if injury prone, running backs led by Jonathan Stewart. Whether or not that supporting cast will be enough to help “Superman” Newton lead the Panthers to back-to-back division titles remains to be seen, although the defence will try to play it’s part after a couple of stellar years. Led by inside linebacker Luke Kuechly the Panthers yield little on the ground, although the pass defence suffered mightily from the suspension of defensive end Greg Hardy early on in 2014. With Hardy now in Dallas the pass rush will face fresh questions, and in turn the secondary could find itself exposed on a regular basis. Ultimately Carolina look a similar unit to the one that finished under .500 last season; it’s unlikely that they’ll return to the post-season with an equally mediocre record this time around.

Prediction: 3rd

New Orleans Saints

Key Additions: C Max Unger (trade), RB C.J Spiller (FA), CB Brandon Browner (FA)

Key Losses: TE Jimmy Graham (trade), WR Kenny Stills (trade), RB Pierre Thomas (FA), ILB Curtis Lofton (FA)

The Saints laboured to a 7-9 record in 2014, struggling to replicate their scoring power on offense from previous seasons while the defence suffered as one of the worst in the whole league. An early season injury to newly acquired safety Jarius Byrd didn’t help the secondary, and things snowballed from there on in as New Orleans eventually surrendered the third most points in the NFC. On offense Drew Brees looks to have lost some zip on his fastball over the past couple of years, and the lack of a deep passing game has been notable as the Saints have lent more heavily on intermediate targets and the running game in recent seasons. With Jimmy Graham now gone, having been traded to Seattle for centre Max Unger and a first round pick, Brees will be without his favourite red zone target and a lot of pressure will fall onto diminutive receiver Brandin Cooks’ shoulders, even though he has so far underwhelmed in his short NFL career. One positive that did come out of 2014 for New Orleans was the breakout of former first round running back Mark Ingram, who finally began to fulfil his potential as the team’s lead back. Former Buffalo Bills rusher C.J Spiller will help support Ingram this year following his signing in free agency, so expect Brees to hand the ball off more often than not in 2015. Things look up on the other side of the ball, with Byrd and his big money contract back in the fold and solid cornerback Brandon Browner having signed in free agency the secondary should be much improved, while Cameron Jordan offers a pass rushing presence from defensive end. It may not be enough to return New Orleans to the NFC’s elite, but it could well be enough to help them win what remains a very weak division.

Prediction: 1st

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Key Additions: QB Jameis Winston (draft), TE Tim Wright (FA), DT Henry Melton (FA)

Key Losses:

The only way is up for Tampa Bay following their 2-14 debacle in 2014, and if they’re to head in that direction it’ll be the man they drafted number one overall, Jameis Winston, who’ll lead them there. Winston enjoyed a prolific career at Florida State, and although the Seminoles came up short in the first ever college football play-off it was through no fault of his. A rejuvenated Doug Martin in the Bucs backfield would go a long way to helping Winston settle in at the pro level, and if Mike Evans can build on his stellar rookie campaign Winston will have a genuine number one receiver to hook up with. The same recipe served Peyton Manning well when he was drafted by Indianapolis in 1998, and if Martin and Evans can serve as Winston’s version of Marvin Harrison and Edgerrin James he’ll have a great chance to be the player Tampa Bay need to return to relevance. The Buccaneers defence struggled as much as the offense did last year, however DT Gerald McCoy offers hope, while cornerback Alterraun Verner and linebacker Lavonte David are also reasonable building blocks for the unit. No one expects Tampa Bay to challenge for a post-season berth in 2015, but a steep improvement would certainly help placate a frustrated fan base who haven’t had much to cheer about since the 2002 Superbowl victory.

Prediction: 4th

2015 NFL Season Preview: NFC West

Can Colin Kaepernick return to form in 2015?

Can Colin Kaepernick return to form in 2015?

 

The next instalment of our NFL Season Preview explores the NFC West, mot notably featuring the powerhouse Seattle Seahawks who were one yard away from a second consecutive Superbowl title last February. The Arizona Cardinals also star, and if it hadn’t been for an injury to quarterback Carson Palmer they could also have made a deep run into January. San Francisco remain a solid team but a raft of retirements has weakened their defence in particular, while the St. Louis Rams will hope a change of quarterback can lead to a change in fortunes. For a more in-depth look at the division, just keep reading.

Arizona Cardinals

Key Additions: LB LaMarr Woodley (free agency), LB Sean Wetherspoon (FA), OG Mike Lupati (FA), OT D.J Humphries (draft)

Key Losses: DL Darnell Dockett (FA), CB Antonio Cromartie (FA)

After a 2014 season in which they led the NFC West for most of the campaign, Arizona suffered terribly when veteran QB Carson Palmer was lost with a knee injury, eventually losing the Carolina Panthers in the NFC Wild Card round. Palmer capably spread the ball among a plethora of offensive targets including receivers Michael Floyd and Larry Fitzgerald plus running back Andre Ellington, while defensive co-ordinator Todd Bowles (since departed for the head coaching job with the New York Jets) created a ball hawking group led by elite cornerback Patrick Peterson. “Honey Badger” Tyrann Mathieu will line-up opposite Peterson, and as a pair the two form one of the best cornerback combinations in the NFL. The rest of the defense could be better, however, although in the offensively challenged NFC West their weakness’ in the front seven are less likely to be exposed. With some exciting young weapons in their armoury Bruce Arians Cardinals could well exceed ten wins again in 2015, although unseating the NFC champion Seahawks could prove to be a bridge too far for the second year in a row.

Prediction: 2nd

St. Louis Rams

Key Additions: QB Nick Foles (trade), DT Nick Fairley (FA), LB Akeem Ayers (FA), RB Todd Gurley (draft)

Key Losses: QB Sam Bradford (trade), OT Jake Long (FA), C Scott Wells (FA)

One of the biggest moves across the NFL in the off-season was the blockbuster trade that saw St. Louis send former number one overall pick Sam Bradford to Philadelphia, with Nick Foles and a second round pick heading in the opposite direction. Foles remains somewhat unpredictable as he enters his fourth season in the NFL, as he followed up his excellent 2013 campaign with a dud last year, culminating with him suffering a broken collarbone and missing over half of the season. Running back Todd Gurley adds power to the backfield, while the pickup of Nick Fairley in free agency bolsters what was already one of the top defensive lines in the league. Aaron Donald is a beast on the interior, while Chris Long has been excellent since the Rams drafted him second overall in 2008. Nonetheless, as is often the case across the NFL, quarterback play will determine the success for the team in 2015. Additionally, playing in the same division as Arizona and Seattle won’t make things any easier for Jeff Fisher’s team in what could be a make-or-break 2015.

Prediction: 3rd

San Francisco 49ers

Key Additions: RB Reggie Bush (FA), WR Torrey Smith (FA), DL Arik Armstead (draft)

Key Losses: ILB Chris Borland (retired), ILB Patrick Willis (retired), RB Frank Gore (FA), WR Michael Crabtree (FA), OG Mike Lupati (FA), DE Justin Smith (retired),

No team was as gutted this past off-season as much as the 49ers, who saw defensive stalwarts Chris Borland, Patrick Willis and Justin Smith retire, while offensive playmakers Frank Gore and Michael Crabtree also moved on. Borland’s retirement was by far the most shocking, as he had just come off a stellar rookie campaign where he’d filled in admirably for the injured Navarro Bowman. While Bowman is expected to return to the lineup following the horrific knee injury he sustained in the 2014 NFC Championship game in Seattle he’ll be without his wingman Willis, who will go down as one of the best inside linebackers to have graced the NFL in modern times. QB Colin Kaepernick saw his production drop for a second successive season last season, and without Gore and Crabtree to call on 49ers fans will have every right to be worried about the man who took the league by storm in late 2013. Kaepernick’s throwing motion has been dissected to death and unfortunately it just doesn’t look like improving, despite the dual-threat QB working with former Rams passer Kurt Warner during the summer. The likes of first round pick Arik Armstead and wideout Torrey Smith will help to soften the blows felt by the losses of Justin Smith and Crabtree, however they surely won’t be enough to help San Francisco bounce-back from a sub-par 2014 campaign and make the play-offs in new head coach Jim Tomsula’s first season.

Prediction: 4th

Seattle Seahawks

Key Additions: TE Jimmy Graham (trade), RB Fred Jackson (FA), CB Cary Williams (FA)

Key Losses: C Max Unger (trade), OLB Malcolm Smith (FA), CB Byron Maxwell (FA)

Just one more yard. That’s all Seattle needed to achieve back-to-back Superbowl wins, something not done since the New England Patriots went two-in-two back in 2004 and 2005. Yet despite that monumental setback the Seahawks remain in a good place going into the 2015 season, and the addition of tight end Jimmy Graham should give mighty-mite Russell Wilson the best receiving option he’s enjoyed in his NFL career to date. Marshawn Lynch returns as one of the league’s top rushers, while the defence figures to be as stout as ever. Eric Thomas is one of the best pure free safeties in the NFL, while his partner in crime Kam Chancellor is the prototypical enforcer that all teams crave. Chancellor is currently holding out regarding his contract situation, however, so that situation will require close monitoring. Richard Sherman returns as the best shutdown corner in the game, while Bobby Wagner is another player who is among the elite at his position; in Wagner’s case, that position being inside linebacker. The pieces are in place once more for Seattle to make another deep play-off run, health permitting. All that remains to be seen what hangover they suffer from that one scarring play last February.

Prediction: 1st

2015 NFL Season Preview: NFC North

Teddy Bridgewater will be hoping to build off of his promising rookie season in 2015

Teddy Bridgewater will be hoping to build off of his promising rookie season in 2015

 

Part two of Fred Stanley Sport’s NFL season preview focuses on the NFC North, a division featuring last year’s NFC Championship game finalists, the Green Bay Packers, their fellow play-off participants Detroit, and two contenders in Chicago and Minnesota. To find out which order we expect the four teams to finish in, as well as which players each outfit has both lost and gained, keep reading.

Chicago Bears

Key Additions: WR Kevin White (draft), WR Eddie Royal (free agency), CB Alan Ball (FA), S Antrel Rolle (FA)

Key Losses: WR Brandon Marshall (trade), C Roberto Garza (FA), DT Stephen Paea (FA), CB Charles Tillman (FA), LB Lance Briggs (FA)

After hiring Denver coach John Fox to replace the departed Marc Trestman, the Bears will be hoping to avoid a repeat of their 2014 season, a train wreck which never really got off the ground. Jay Cutler returns at QB despite serious questions lingering about his leadership ability, while leading wide receiver Brandon Marshall is no longer in town. Alshon Jeffrey and Matt Forte give Cutler some hope for a productive offensive season, although the offensive line has several holes, as it also did a year ago. Chicago’s defense was even worse than the offense in 2014, and with little arriving in the way of reinforcements the once famed unit figures to be a weakness in the upcoming campaign as well.

Prediction: 4th

Detroit Lions

Key Additions: OG Manny Ramirez (trade), NT Haloti Ngata (trade), RB Ameer Abdullah (draft)

Key Losses: DT Ndamukong Suh (FA), Nick Fairley (FA), RB Reggie Bush (FA)

Unlucky to lose to Dallas in the Wild Card round last post-season, Detroit may have missed their chance to make a deep play-off run with both of last year’s starting defensive tackles, Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley, having departed via free agency. With the strength of last year’s team no longer in town, more onus than ever will be placed on elite wide receiver Calvin Johnson and the man throwing him the ball, rocket armed QB Matthew Stafford. Stafford has never quite taken his game to the next level in the NFL, despite having Johnson to throw the ball to, and with his pedigree as a former number one overall pick in the draft his career is viewed in some circles as a disappointment. Nonetheless, it would be unfair to call him a bust as he boasts several seasons with 30 or more touchdown passes, and he lead the team admirably even without Johnson in the side last year when the receiver was struggling with an injury. Golden Tate provides a useful compliment opposite “Megatron”, and with both incumbent starting running back Joique Bell and rookie Ameer Abdullah in the backfield the Lions offense should continue to put points on the board in 2015. Whether or not the defense can keep opposing teams out of the endzone, however, is another matter entirely. Detroit’s front four was so strong last year that opposing team’s had little to no chance moving the ball on the ground against them, but with Suh and Fairley no longer in town the onus will fall to new recruit Haloti Ngata to plug the 600-plus pound gap in the middle of the defense. DeAndre Levy is one of the NFL’s up and coming linebackers, and with a settled secondary the Lions have at least the chance to remain at a similar level to last season. Will it be enough to dethrone Green Bay in the ultra-competitive NFC North? Only time will tell.

Prediction: 2nd

Green Bay Packers

Key Additions: S Damarious Randall (draft), QB Brett Hundley (draft)

Key Losses: CB Tramon Williams (FA), CB Davon House (FA), ILB A.J Hawk (FA)

Green Bay were an onside kick recovery away from the Superbowl last January, and that botched play will live long in the memory of star QB Aaron Rodgers and head coach Mike McCarthy if the Packers are unable to make a return to the big game in the next season or two. Rodgers is just about in his peak, although as his calf injury last year showed he isn’t getting any younger, and after suffering a broken collarbone in the 2013 season his durability isn’t perhaps as stellar as other elite throwers around the NFL. With Jordy Nelson lost for the year with an ACL tear Rodgers will be without his favourite target in 2015, although Randall Cobb and second-year pro Devante Adams are still valuable weapons on the outside. Eddie Lacy has been one of the NFL’s more consistent running backs since he entered the league and he could see a greater role in the offense with Nelson absent, but in reality the health of Rodgers will dictate how successful Green Bay are at putting points on the board in the coming season. Defensively, Clay Matthews made a successful move to inside linebacker in 2014, with veteran defensive end Julius Peppers assuming a starting role outside and rolling back the years to perform at a high level despite his advanced age. The secondary lost both Davon House and Tramon Williams, so the success of that particular unit could hinge on the development of 2014 first round pick Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.

Prediction: 1st

Minnesota Vikings

Key Additions: CB Trae Waynes (draft), WR Mike Wallace (FA)

Key Losses: QB Matt Cassel (FA), WR Greg Jennings (FA), DE Corey Wooten (FA)

2014 was a mixed season for the Vikings, who lost star running back Adrian Peterson to a yearlong suspension after it was revealed that he had issued questionable punishment to his adolescent son, who as a result needed hospital treatment. However despite the absence of Peterson, rookie QB Teddy Bridgewater performed above expectations, showing great poise in the pocket and demonstrating that he might be the man to lead Minnesota into their new stadium in 2016. With Peterson reinstated Bridgewater will be able to lean on a much better running game than he was a year ago, and as a result the Vikings are many people’s pick to be the surprise package of the NFL in the upcoming campaign. The defense boasts a number of players who performed well last season but probably don’t receive the national recognition they deserve thanks to Minnesota’s small market and lack of a post-season appearance; namely safety Harrison Smith, defensive end Everson Griffen and linebacker Chad Greenway. Another defensive end, Anthony Barr, was selected in the top ten of the 2014 draft and has a chance to join that group as a building block towards the next Vikings team to play in January. With Peterson back in the fold and Bridgewater entering year two of his young career, that might occur sooner rather than later.

Prediction: 3rd