Five Talking Points from the NFL Season So Far

carson-wentz

Carson Wentz is yet to turn the ball over in three NFL starts

The NFL season may only be three weeks old, but there have already been enough surprising performances to raise eyebrows across the league. Rookie QB’s have taken flight, previously successful teams have stumbled out of the gate and a host of veteran players have yet to hit their stride. See below for the five biggest talking points as we near the quarter point of the schedule – plus five things that shouldn’t have caught you unawares.

Carson Wentz is Kinda Good

Rookie quarterbacks aren’t supposed to be good. Rookie quarterbacks who played in one quarter of pre-season football aren’t supposed to be good. And Rookie quarterbacks who assumed the starting role eight days before the start of the regular season, well that hasn’t happened much, if at all, in the history of the NFL. Wentz has been simply phenomenal as he’s lead the Eagles to a 3-0 record and a 34-3 rout over the Steelers in the battle for Pennsylvania, refusing to turn the ball over and making a number of impressive throws including a deft 73-yarder to Darren Sproles after his protection broke down around him. Rookie head coach Doug Pederson deserves a great deal of credit for his game-calling nous, and at some stage Wentz will have to deal with adversity – but for now the former North Dakota State QB has unquestionably been the surprise of the young NFL season.

Maybe the Cowboys Don’t Need Romo After All

Last season, Dallas saw their campaign fall apart following what felt like Tony Romo’s millionth broken collarbone injury, but this year the script has taken an upward turn for Jerry Jones’ franchise. Ezekiel Elliot rushed for his first career 100-yard game on Sunday night against the Chicago Bears and has increased his yardage total from each game to the next, while rookie QB Dak Prescott has been efficient and avoided the turnovers that plagued the likes of Matt Cassel and Brandon Weeden in 2015. The defense hasn’t been horrible, either, and it’s entirely possible that Dallas will be fighting for a play-off berth by the time Romo returns, if he returns, later on in the year.

Were the Carolina Panthers a one-time Deal?

Probably not. But alarm bells are sure to be ringing in Charlotte after Cam Newton and co. lost their second game of the young season to Minnesota, whose stifling defense picked off Cam three times and sacked the reigning MVP on six occasions. Admittedly the week one defeat to Denver should never have happened (Carolina missed a game-winning field goal try as time expired), but even with Kelvin Benjamin back in the fold it’s not gone to script for Ron Rivera’s men so far in 2016. The one saving grace for the Panthers? The Saints, Buccaneers and Falcons are unlikely to put too much pressure on them for their division crown following slow starts.

Has Anyone Seen Goff?

So this is kind of awkward for Jeff Fisher and the rest of the Los Angeles Rams top brass. After trading up to the first overall pick in May’s first year player draft, the Rams decided to select Jared Goff ahead of Wentz and so far the L.A QB has taken a grand total of – zero snaps. Goff didn’t even dress in week one, and although he’s since been promoted from third to second on the Rams depth chart it’s been a huge disappointment that he’s been unable to displace the mediocre Case Keenum as the top dog in the city of angels. Goff struggled in pre-season play and his relaxed attitude which was on display in Hard Knocks has come in for criticism in some quarters, especially when compared to the focused intensity displayed by the number two pick in the draft, Wentz. It’s likely we’ll see Goff in action sooner rather than later, but when we do the pressure will already be on for him to at least perform adequately following the success of Wentz and fellow rookie Prescott.

How Much More Time Will Gus Get?

For some, the Jacksonville Jaguars were the popular sleeper pick to emerge as a play-off calibre team in 2016. Blake Bortles threw 35 touchdown passes last season and with the signings of Chris Ivory and Malik Jackson it was thought they’d improve both their rushing attack and defensive line. However, the team has struggled as much as ever (they haven’t made the play-offs since 2007), and Bortles has been dire as the Jags have fallen to 0-3 for the third time in head coach Gus Bradley’s four seasons in charge. Bradley labelled his job a rebuilding one upon taking the reins in Jacksonville, but the lack of improvement from years one to four could condemn him and lead to the former Seattle defensive co-ordinator being the first coaching casualty of the season. More worrying for Jags fans has been the regression of Bortles, who has now thrown 45 interceptions in just two and a bit seasons in the league.

And Five Entirely Predictable Stories…

  1. The Browns are still the Browns, even missing a gimme 46-yard field goal to beat the Miami Dolphins Sunday.
  2. Bill Belichick is a genius who could probably win with Donald Trump at QB. Or Hilary.
  3. Odell Beckham Jr. and Josh Norman clashed again during their second career meeting. The winner, by split decision, was however the kicking net that Beckham unsuccessfully shoved in a childish strop.
  4. Blaine Gabbert is still not a good NFL QB, and Chip Kelly is still not a good NFL head coach.
  5. Why did Chicago give Jay Cutler a new contract last season? The mind boggles.

Assessing the Six AFC Playoff Contenders

jj watt

J.J Watt has been a one man wrecking ball for Houston this season

With the NFL playoffs set to begin in earnest this Saturday, there’s no time like the present to take a look at the teams who’ve made it to the NFL’s annual post-season dance. With only 12 of the league’s 32 franchises still in with a shout of lifting the Lombardi trophy in San Francisco on February 7, each team’s strengths and weaknesses will be exposed sooner or later as the playoff field gradually shrinks. To find out what to look out for when the games get underway this weekend, just keep reading.

Cincinnati Bengals

Seed: Three

Wild Card Round: v Pittsburgh (8.25 ET, Saturday 9/1)

Marvin Lewis is surprisingly yet to win a playoff game in his 13 years at the helm in Cincinnati, and if he’s to break his duck this weekend against the rival Steelers he’ll need Andy Dalton fit and firing just 27 days after he sustained a broken thumb. The chances of Dalton returning and playing are slim, although Lewis will at be able to take solace in the fact that the rest of the Bengals 53-man roster is as good as it’s been under his stewardship.

On offense Tyler Eifert has developed into one of the premier tight ends in the NFL, and his 13 touchdown receptions led the league as he became Dalton’s favourite red zone target. Running backs Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard combined for over 1,500 yards and 13 touchdowns on the ground, helping to give balance to Hue Jackson’s offense and taking the heat off of the passing attack. Jackson’s ability to utilise multiple weapons and lead Dalton to a career best season (25 TD’s, seven INT’s) has helped make him one of the most sought after co-ordinators in the NFL, and once the Bengals playoff run ends it’s likely he’ll earn a second shot at being an NFL head coach.

Defensively Carlos Dunlap leads the pass rush with 13.5 sacks, while interior lineman Geno Atkins (11 sacks) is an elite force in both stopping the run and pass. Adam Jones has matured into a top-end cover corner, while ballhawking safety Reggie Nelson tied for the league lead in interceptions with eight. Those two in particular will need to be at their best as they aim to keep Ben Roethlisberger and the high octane Steelers passing attack in check on Saturday, especially if Dalton isn’t ready to go and A.J McCarron is once again under centre.

Biggest Strength: Weapons at the skill positions on offense

Biggest Weakness: Uncertainty over the QB position and an 0-4 playoff record over the last four seasons

Denver Broncos

Seed: One

Wild Card Round: Bye Week

Denver clinched the number one seed and home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs with a hard earned win over San Diego in week 17. A loss would’ve seen them drop all the way to the five seed, and much of the credit for avoiding that fate lies with Peyton Manning after the veteran QB engineered the team’s comeback having replaced Brock Osweiler midway through the third quarter. Manning looks a shoe in to start for Denver at Mile High Field in two weeks time, when they’ll face the lowest remaining seed in the AFC, although the future hall of famer still has much to prove after his interception-laden start to the season.

The Broncos real strength lies in their defense, led by a ferocious pass rush featuring veteran DeMarcus Ware and elite linebacker Von Miller. The secondary also contains star talent, with Aqib Talib and Chris Harris just two of a number of ball-hawking defensive backs on the Denver roster. While the offense has often relied on the defense to bail it out over the course of the 2015 season, Gary Kubiak will need players such as running back C.J Anderson and wide reciever Demaryius Thomas to step up and help the weak-armed Manning put up enough points to keep pace with some of the high octane offenses they’re likely to face on their path to Superbowl 50.

Biggest Strength: Pass rush

Biggest Weakness: Inconsistent QB play

Houston Texans

Seed: Four

Wild Card Round: v Kansas City (4.35 ET, Saturday 9/1)

It takes a special type of player to enter the MVP discussion in consecutive years despite playing on the defensive side of the ball, but everyone is well aware of the threat J.J Watt possesses when he puts his hand on the ground. Watt was complimented well by Whitney Mercilus (12 sacks) during the regular season and between them they offer a significant threat to the health of opposing quarterbacks. Mercilus has helped Houston get over the disappointing play of Jadaveon Clowney, the number one overall pick in 2014, who for the second straight year underwhelmed with just 4.5 sacks.

Brian Hoyer has played well under centre when not injured, although last week was his first appearance since he suffered a second concussion of the season during a December loss to New England. Hoyer has had the good fortune of being able to throw the ball to DeAndre Hopkins when healthy, with Hopkins emerging as the Texans number one receiver after the off-season departure of Andre Johnson. Hopkins hauled in 111 receptions and topped 1,500 yards, while his 11 touchdown catches also led the team by some distance. Other than Hopkins, however, Hoyer has a dearth of options with the loss of Arian Foster to a torn achilles in October a blow most teams would struggle to overcome. Alfred Blue and Jonathan Grimes have done their best to fill Foster’s large shoes, but unfortunately for Houston they’ll have to navigate the playoff field without their star rusher.

Biggest Strength: J.J Watt

Biggest Weakness: Limited offense

Kansas City Chiefs

Seed: Five

Wild Card Round: at Houston (4.35 ET, Saturday 9/1)

Winners of ten straight games (yes, ten), Andy Reid’s Chiefs are the hottest team in the NFL. Having started the season 1-5 and lost star running back Jamaal Charles for the season, Reid and his players could’ve been forgiven for looking towards next season and a high pick in the draft in May, yet they’ve turned their campaign around in incredible fashion and now head to Houston to take on the AFC South winner Texans. It’s been a long time since Reid won a playoff game (early 2009 with Philadelphia), but he’s a seasoned coach with extensive playoff experience having once led the Eagles to four straight NFC Championship game appearances (including an appearance in Superbowl XXXIX.

Once Charles went down Charcandrick West took over at the running back position, and the previously unknown player excelled with over 800 multi-purpose yards and five TD’s in just over half a season of play. West is ably supported by Spencer Ware, and quarterback Alex Smith is no slouch himself with his legs, forcing opponents to focus on what has become a productive rushing trio for Kansas City. Free agent acquisition Jeremy Maclin has been everything the Chiefs would have hoped for and more, giving Smith a genuine deep threat on the outside to pair with dangerous tight end Travis Kelce.

The real strength of the Chiefs lies on defense, however, with a host of household names including Eric Berry, Justin Houston and Derrick Johnson leading the way. Rookie corner Marcus Peters could well win the rookie of the year award, and other familiar names include Tamba Hali, Sean Smith and Dontari Poe. It would take a brave man to bet against the rolling Chiefs, and make no mistake about it – they’re a team everyone in the AFC wants to avoid on their path to the Superbowl.

Biggest Strength: Elite defense

Biggest Weakness: Occasionally conservative offense, lack of dynamic weapons

New England Patriots

Seed: Two

Wild Card Round: Bye Week

The defending Superbowl champs earned a bye in this first round of the post-season largely on the back of 10-0 start. However New England faded badly down the stretch, finishing 2-4 after injuries ravaged their offense and the offensive line failed to protect legendary QB Tom Brady. The time off before their first game in January should prove invaluable, as wide receivers Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman return to full health. However breakout running back Dion Lewis is done for the season, as was his replacement LeGarrette Blount. The offensive line has also been a revolving door and no single lineman started all 16 games, which would make a fifth title of Brady’s career both unlikely and also immensely impressive, should he upset the odds and achieve it. Crucially, star tight end Rob Gronkowski has stayed fit all season and hauled in over 1,100 yards receiving and 11 touchdown receptions.

The Patriots defense has fared a little better on the health front, however, with last year’s Superbowl star Malcolm Butler emerging as a legit NFL cover corner. Chandler Jones leads the pass rush and his 12.5 sacks were nicely complimented by 8 from Jabaal Sheard and 6.5 from Rob Ninkovich. Devin McCourty remains the standout player in the secondary, and the safety recorded 67 tackles on the season.

Biggest Strength: Tom Brady and a versatile passing attack

Biggest Weakness: Inconsistent line play, lack of a running game

Pittsburgh Steelers

Seed: Six

Wild Card Round: at Cincinnati (8.25 ET, Saturday 9/1)

Having snuck into the playoffs at the expense of the New York Jets, the Ben Roethlisberger led Steelers are a potential banana skin for any of the higher AFC seeds. In fact, Pittsburgh and Kansas City, the two wild cards, may be the two form teams in the entire conference despite not winning their respective divisions. Roethlisberger may have lost running back LeVeon Bell to a season ending injury, but with Martavis Bryant and Antonio Brown as deadly weapons on the outside the Steelers offense has still operated at a high click since Big Ben returned from his four game injury absence earlier in the year. Heath Miller remains a reliable option at tight end, and Roethlisberger’s ability to extend plays with his unique physique affords Bryant and Brown plenty of time to get open down the field.

Pittsburgh’s defense isn’t close to the force it was earlier in the century, and that has the potential to hold them back against some of the high octane offenses they’ll face over the next few weeks. Lawrence Timmons still mans the middle of the defense and amassed 119 tackles during the regular season, while Cameron Heyward led the team in sacks with just seven. Mike Mitchell registered three interceptions from the safety position, and he’s the unquestioned leader of a secondary unit that will need to exceed expectations if the Steelers are to make it deep into January.

Biggest Strength: Explosive passing game

Biggest Weakness: Lack of playmakers on defense

Who do you think will emerge victorious from the AFC? Have your say in the comments or tweet @fredjstanley

 

 

 

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

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

2015 NFL Season Preview: NFC East

Dez Bryant will hope to lead the Cowboys to back-to-back NFC East titles

Dez Bryant will hope to lead the Cowboys to back-to-back NFC East titles

With the first two rounds of pre-season games in the books, the countdown to the first NFL Sunday of the regular season is upon us. Fred Stanley Sport takes a look at all eight divisions in the league, previewing each of the NFL’s 32 teams and assessing their prospects for the upcoming campaign. Let’s get things started with a look at the ultra-competitive NFC East.

Dallas Cowboys

Key Additions: RB Darren McFadden (free agency), OT La’el Collins (draft), DE Greg Hardy (FA), CB Byron Jones (draft)

Key Losses: RB DeMarco Murray (FA)

After winning the division crown in 2014 and a dramatic post-season which culminated with a defeat at Lambeau Field, the Cowboys and head coach Jason Garrett will be out to prove that they were no one season wonder with another stellar campaign. They’ll have to do so without the league’s leading rusher from a year ago, DeMarco Murray, who left Texas to join forces with his old college roommate Sam Bradford in Philadelphia. Whether or not Murray can be adequately replaced by a combination of former Raiders running back Darren McFadden and Murray’s former back-up in Dallas, Joseph Randle, will go a long way to determining the success of the Cowboys 2015 season. Incoming defensive end Greg Hardy was a controversial addition to a defensive unit that outperformed expectations last season, but his off-field history and four game suspension to begin the regular season could result in the move backfiring spectacularly. La’el Collins, signed after he went undrafted back in May, should bolster an already superb offensive line and while Collins had his own share of problems this summer (he was named as a person of interest in his ex-girlfriends murder investigation), he appears to be in the clear and his first-round talent will likely help him settle right in in Big D. Ultimately the Cowboys ability to return both Tony Romo and Dez Bryant should ensure another fruitful season offensively, while the defense will welcome back linebacker Sean Lee, who missed all of 2014 with a knee injury.

Prediction: 1st

New York Giants

Key Additions: OT Ereck Flowers (draft), Shane Vereen (FA), S Landon Collins (draft), LB J.T Thomas (FA), DT Kenrick Ellis (FA)

Key Losses: CB Walter Thurmond (FA), S Antrel Rolle (FA), S Stevie Brown (FA)

After two Superbowl titles in the space of four years between 2007 and 2011, Tom Coughlin’s Giants have failed to make much of an impression in either the NFC East or the NFL in general, with QB Eli Manning’s play falling off steeply in recent seasons. A lack of a running game and poor offensive line play hasn’t helped, however the emergence of Odell Beckham Jr. gives both Manning and Coughlin hope for the coming season. A healthy Victor Cruz would help compliment Beckham Jr and his big play ability, however Cruz has struggled with injuries in the past two years after his surprise emergence during New York’s 2011 Superbowl run. If the Giants offense was inconsistent last year, their defense was downright atrocious at times, and with star defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul out indefinitely after losing a finger in a fireworks accident (yes, you read that correctly), things aren’t exactly looking promising for 2015 either. While Beckham Jr. is worth watching alone, the rest of the Giants roster looks woefully short of top level talent.

Prediction: 3rd

Philadelphia Eagles

Key Additions: WR Nelson Agholor (draft), QB Sam Bradford (trade), LB Kiko Alonso (trade), RB DeMarco Murray (FA), CB Byron Maxwell (FA), RB Ryan Matthews (FA)

Key Losses: QB Nick Foles (trade), WR Jeremy Maclin (FA), RB LeSean McCoy (trade), OG Todd Herremans (released), LB Trent Cole (released), OG Evan Mathis (released)

Eagles coach Chip Kelly took total control of the roster following a disappointing second place finish in 2014, in the process deciding to blow up a team that delivered 20 wins in his first two seasons at the helm in Philly. Gone were starting QB Nick Foles, star running back LeSean McCoy and seasoned veterans Todd Herremans, Evan Mathis and Trent Cole. Jeremy Maclin was also allowed to leave via free agency, meaning the Eagles 2015 roster is almost unrecognisable from its 2014 counterpart. Sam Bradford was acquired from the St. Louis Rams in the Foles trade, and although Bradford has elite talent (he was once the number one overall pick in the draft) he has also undergone two knee surgeries since he entered the league in 2010. Murray should be a better fit at running back than McCoy was with his downhill running style, and former Seahawks corner Byron Maxwell bolsters a previously porous secondary – however holes still remain on a roster that has little offensive line depth and question marks at both safety and the cornerback spot opposite Maxwell. If, and it’s a big if, Bradford remains healthy then Philadelphia should challenge for NFC East supremacy. If not, it could be a long season for Chip Kelly in the city of brotherly love.

Prediction: 2nd

Washington Redskins

Key Additions: OT Brandon Sherff (draft), S Dashon Goldson (trade), DT Terrance Knighton (FA)

Key Losses: S Ryan Clark (retired), LB Brian Orakpo (FA)

It’s been a while since the Redskins entered an NFL season without some sort of controversy engulfing the team, and 2015 is no different as head coach Jay Gruden sits on the most scorching of hot seats and quarterback Robert Griffin III is under intense scrutiny after two well below-par campaigns. A 4-12 record in 2014 doesn’t bode well, and though a few nice pieces have been added to the roster it would be some shock if Washington made the post-season this time round. One positive is the weapons the Redskins have on offense; DeSean Jackson stretches the field as well as any receiver in football, and both Pierre Garcon and Alfred Morris possess veteran savvy. Unfortunately tight end Niles Paul is done for the season with an ankle injury, and last year’s terrible defense returns many of the same players. Ryan Kerrigan is worth watching at outside linebacker, and new addition Terrance Knighton will help the run defense. However those two notwithstanding, the starting 11 on defense is average at best and dreadful at its worst.

Prediction: 4th