1. AFC East (Order of Finish)
New England Patriots, 10-6: The combination of Darrelle Revis and Bill Belichick could push the Patriots defense close to the top of the league. Not to mention, Devin McCourty’s presence at free safety will make it very difficult for teams to simply throw away from Revis. On the other side of the ball, everything relies on Rob Gronkowski’s health. Tom Brady appears to be declining and the offensive line isn’t what it once was, but, still, a 10 win season in a relatively weak division should be considered a successful season.
New York Jets, 9-7: The re-tooling of the offense should allow Geno Smith’s numbers to align more with his talent this year. With a year of experience and development under his belt, Smith has the potential to become a source of strength rather than a hinderance this year. On the defensive side of the ball, the secondary is in trouble, but the dominance of the defensive line and Rex Ryan’s coaching should allow them to be a top 10-12 unit.
Buffalo Bills, 8-8: EJ Manuel inspires no confidence. He could be the worst starting quarterback in the NFL. However, the Bills offense is at least set up well to restrain how much he has to do and the defense could again be dominant this year. 8-8 feels like this team’s ceiling because of their situation at quarterback, but if Manuel has improved, it’s an easily attainable accomplishment.
Miami Dolphins, 7-9: Ryan Tannehill should have a huge season in Bill Lazor’s offense. Lazor showed in the team’s first preseason game that he is mimicking much of what Chip Kelly built his success on. The problem for the Dolphins is that they have Cortland Finnegan and Louis Delmas as contributors on the defensive side of the ball with arguably the worst starting linebacker group in the NFL. Tannehill has a better supporting cast on offense this year, but the defense is going to hold this team back.
2. MVP Finalists
Aaron Rodgers, QB, Packers. Jay Cutler, QB, Bears. Russell Wilson, QB, Seahawks. Peyton Manning, QB, Broncos. Andrew Luck, QB, Colts.
3. MVP Winner
Andrew Luck – In an offense that spreads the defense out more and puts the ball in its quarterback’s hands to consistently threaten big plays, Luck has a massive season in a relatively soft division.
4. MVP Runner Up
Jay Cutler – He stays healthy and thrives with one of the best supporting casts in the NFL.
5. Defensive Player of the Year Finalists
Robert Quinn, DE, Rams. Patrick Willis, LB, 49ers. J.J. Watt, DE, Texans. Darrelle Revis, CB, Patriots. Gerald McCoy, DT, Buccaneers.
6. Defensive Player of the Year
Robert Quinn – He was one of a couple of players who were robbed when Luke Kuechly took home the award last season. With Aaron Donald on his inside shoulder, Quinn has a legitimate chance to break Michael Strahan’s sack record this season.
7. AFC North
Baltimore Ravens, 9-7: The Ravens offense looks set to be better this year, but it should still only be an average or above average unit. With their talent on the defensive side of the ball, that shouldn’t be a major problem. The Ravens have more depth than most in their front seven, while the secondary will expect Matt Elam to be more effective this year and hope to rely on the potentially strong cornerback pairing of Jimmy Smith and Lardarius Webb. Those were their starters last year, but Webb is now another year removed from his torn ACL injury.
Cincinnati Bengals, 7-9: Andy Dalton was given a massive contract, but he remains a replacement level starter. The loss of Mike Zimmer will be felt on the defensive side of the ball, while key players returning from injury can’t be expected to immediately return to 100 percent effectiveness. Dalton will likely need to carry more of the offense without being so turnover prone, but whether he can actually do that remains unclear….or unlikely.
Pittsburgh Steelers, 6-10: On the offensive side of the ball, the Steelers should be an above average unit. The LeVeon Bell and LeGarrette Blount should set the tone in the running game, while Ben Roethlisberger does enough to complement them well. It’s the defensive side where the problems arise. The Steelers focused on adding speed to the middle of the field this year, but that speed comes at a cost against the run. Furthermore, the absence of a true nose tackle will continue to destroy the design of the defense unless Dick LeBeau changes his approach.
Cleveland Browns, 5-11: Whether Johnny Manziel starts or not, the Browns can’t expect consistency from the quarterback position during his rookie season. Without an upper tier starter at the quarterback position and nowhere near enough talent on the offensive side of the ball to be competitive, I’m not sure it matters who good the defense could be this season.
8. General Manager of the Year
Phil Emery – Emery’s Chicago Bears are going to be one of the best teams in football and he is the biggest reason why.
9. NFC Rookie of the Year
Aaron Donald – Donald is in the perfect position to be an immediate impact player on a team that could potentially contend for the NFC West this season. His talent is incredible and many teams should regret passing on him in the top 10 of the draft.
10. AFC Rookie of the Year
Jadeveon Clowney – He will probably play on a terrible team, but his talent will shine through.
11. AFC South
Indianapolis Colts, 12-4: Andrew Luck improved from his first season to his second in spite of the fact that his surroundings remained a major hinderance for his development. Things aren’t a whole lot better this year, but a hopefully altered approach on offense and the addition of a few key weapons should allow him to prosper and carry the Colts to the playoffs once again.
Tennessee Titans, 7-9: If Jake Locker stays healthy, this offense could be amongst the best in the NFL. The Titans have plenty of weapons at receiver, while the offensive line is set up to be very effective this year. The franchise did waste their first round pick in terms of short-term impact by selecting Taylor Lewan, but Bishop Sankey should make an impact immediately. The defense lost Alterraun Verner, but should be better coached this year going from Jerry Gray to Ray Horton.
Houston Texans, 6-10: Ryan Fitzpatrick is a nightmare, but he will at least be able to hand the ball off to Arian Foster and rely on two very talented starting receivers while playing behind a strong offensive line. On the defensive side, there are going to be many offenses who simply don’t know how to handle Jadeveon Clowney and J.J. Watt together.
Jacksonville Jaguars, 4-12: Blake Bortles may ruin this prediction by forcing the Jaguars to start him over Chad Henne, but right now it appears that is not going to happen. Henne can be an effective player, but he has too many bad throws during games to be relied upon. The Jaguars may be a better team this year, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be significantly better in terms of their record.
12. With the First pick of the 2015 NFL draft…
the Oakland Raiders select Marcus Mariota, quarterback out of Oregon.
13. AFC West
Denver Broncos, 12-4: The Broncos don’t look like a significantly better team this year, unless DeMarcus Ware can return to being a dominant pass rusher across from Von Miller. With Peyton Manning and that cast of receiving talent, it won’t be difficult for the Broncos to sweep by inferior opposition during the regular season. The only question for this team is: Can they beat an NFC team in the postseason?
Kansas City Chiefs, 8-8: It was a successful first season for Alex Smith and Andy Reid in Kansas City by any measure, but entering the 2014 season there doesn’t appear to be significant improvements on the roster. The loss of Branden Albert will hurt in the immediate future, but the loss of Kendrick Lewis should help. A much bigger secondary doesn’t necessarily point to a much better secondary though.
San Diego Chargers, 7-9: Philip Rivers played maybe the best football of his career in 2013. He will likely need to repeat that feat in 2014 if the Chargers want to make it to the playoffs. The team had a good draft and Brandon Flowers should help the secondary, but the overall quality of the front seven and the offensive line remain major concerns.
Oakland Raiders, 4-12: Maybe they are better than they were last year, but there are a lot of veterans who were happily left go by their last franchises acting as leaders on this team. The biggest issue is Matt Schaub’s presence at quarterback. Schaub looked like the oldest player in the league last year and there is little reason to think he can rebound in 2014.
14. Dead Coach Walking
Dennis Allen – The Oakland Raiders coach has been lucky to survive to this point considering some of the reports that have come out from Oakland during his tenure. Mark Davis seemingly expected him to work miracles in the past with worse rosters, so I shudder to think what he expects with this supposedly improved roster
Joe Philbin – Philbin needs Ryan Tannehill and Bill Lazor to save his job at this stage. Nothing has gone right for him since he took over two years ago.
16. NFC East
New York Giants, 9-7: Eli Manning didn’t play as poorly as his production suggests he did last year. Much of the issues came from playing in an offense that didn’t play to the strengths of the players and put too much pressure on Manning to consistently make difficult throws down the field. Furthermore, lots of his turnovers were due to receiver mistakes. The alteration of the offensive system and the addition of Odell Beckham and multiple offensive line pieces should be huge for his production in 2014. The defense has invested heavily in the secondary and Jason Pierre-Paul appears to be somewhat healthy this year.
Dallas Cowboys, 9-7: Tony Romo’s health and an awful defense make this a dangerous prediction, but if Romo is healthy he and his offensive line should allow the Cowboys to have one of the best offenses in football. 9-7 isn’t a great record, but in the NFC East it will allow them to challenge for a playoff spot.
Philadelphia Eagles, 7-9: It’s hard to bet against Chip Kelly and his beautifully designed offense. However, now that the league’s defensive coordinators are more familiar with the workings of his system, they should be able to catch up to it somewhat. Nick Foles was a huge benefactor from the system and the dominant offensive line that the unit could boast last year. This year, if teams get more pressure on him, cracks are likely to appear. DeSean Jackson’s loss is being marginalised, but he is a very talented receiver who shouldn’t be so easily brushed aside.
Washington, 5-11: Jay Gruden should be a good head coach. He worked wonders with a subpar quarterback in Cincinnati in recent years. However, it’s going to take Gruden some time to turnover the roster talent in Washington. This year will be about determining if Robert Griffin III is going to be part of that turnover or not.
17. BreakOUT Candidates
Tavon Austin, WR, St. Louis Rams. Justin Hunter, WR, Tennessee Titans. Chance Warmack, G, Tennessee Titans. Toby Gerhart, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars. Kyle Rudolph, TE, Minnesota Vikings. Tyler Eifert, TE, Cincinnati Bengals.
18. BreakDOWN Candidates
DeAngelo Williams, RB, Carolina Panthers. Justin Smith, DE, San Francisco 49ers. Carson Palmer, QB, Arizona Cardinals.
19. Comeback Player of the Year
Sam Bradford – Bradford played well last year considering the circumstances created by the offense around him. With a much improved running game, he should be much more effective as he returns from his torn ACL injury.
Julio Jones – Jones has apparently been explosive in training camp. His foot injury may affect him more when the games start to come thick and fast, but he should be a difference-maker for the Falcons next year regardless.
21. NFC North
Chicago Bears, 12-4: No other team in the league can boast that they have two dominant receivers, a top 10 tight end, a top 10 running back, a top 10 quarterback, a top 10 offensive line and a highly regarded offensive-minded head coach. On the defensive side of the ball, the Bears just need to be good enough to complement the offense. They appear to have that after a lot of turnover during the offseason.
Green Bay Packers, 11-5: The Packers have been overrated a bit recently. Their defense still looks like a major problem, but having the best quarterback in the league healthy for 16 games should prevent it from dragging them down too much.
Minnesota Vikings, 7-9: Some combination of Teddy Bridgewater and Matt Cassel should start for the Vikings at quarterback. This is a transitional season for the Vikings, but the talent on the offensive side of the ball combined with Mike Zimmer’s coaching on the defensive side of the ball should make them a competitive team on a weekly basis.
Detroit Lions, 6-10: It’s hard to believe that Jim Caldwell is going to fix Matthew Stafford. Obviously the potential remains on this roster so long as the individual talent is there, but Stafford has proven to be a problem for a while now. Decision-making and accuracy are two very, very difficult things to fix once you arrive in the NFL.
22. Coach of the Year
Sean Payton – Payton’s Saints will become a real threat to the NFC West teams in their conference, leading to Payton earning the plaudits.
Marc Trestman – Similar to Payton, Trestman will lead a much-improved team in 2014 and benefit from their success.
24. The NFC Team Most Likely to Surprise
The St. Louis Rams – Maybe it’s a year too early, but the Rams roster appears to be built to compete for the NFC West now.
The Minnesota Vikings – If Zimmer quickly turns the defense around, the quarterback position won’t need to be anything more than average for this franchise to reach the playoffs.
26. The AFC Team Most Likely to Surprise
The Buffalo Bills - Everything about the Bills is impressive on the field, except the quarterback position. If Manuel can be average, the team could be above average.
The Jacksonville Jaguars – If Blake Bortles starts, the Jaguars could take advantage of a relatively soft schedule to push for a playoff spot.
28. NFC Player Who Will Feel the Most Pressure
Drew Brees – The Saints are set up to be a brilliant team this year, but Brees needs to erase his inconsistency if he is to overcome the Seattle Seahawks and the rest of the top teams in the NFC. The window is closing.
29. AFC Player Who Will Feel the Most Pressure
Geno Smith – Smith’s numbers were horrible as a rookie, but they were also excusable because he was a rookie in a desperate situation. Now he is in his second year and Michael Vick is his backup quarterback. Expectations have definitely been raised.
30. NFC South
New Orleans Saints, 12-4: By re-tooling their secondary, re-signing Jimmy Graham and adding Brandin Cooks, the Saints set themselves up to be the best team in the NFC South this year. Winning the division shouldn’t be considered a successful season for Sean Payton’s side. This team should be focused on reaching the Super Bowl from Week 1 to Week 17.
Carolina Panthers, 7-9: The Panthers didn’t suffer major losses on the field this year, but the turnover is going to take an affect on their record. The biggest loss will be left tackle Jordan Gross who decided to retire despite playing well last year. Cam Newton’s presence will prevent them from falling to the bottom of the draft order.
Atlanta Falcons, 6-10: Without Matt Ryan, this team would be in major trouble. With Matt Ryan, they might still be. Ryan made up for much of their offensive line issues last year with his quick release and quick thought process. Now he has Jake Matthews and Sam Bakers as his offensive tackles, but Baker is coming off an injury and rookie starters at the tackle position have struggled recently. On the defensive side, the front seven looks like a complete disaster.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 5-11: You can invest as much as you want into your offense and on the defensive side of the ball, but if you don’t have strong quarterback play and you put that quarterback play behind a porous offensive line, you’re not going to win many football games.
31. AFC Team Most Likely to Flop
The Pittsburgh Steelers – The Steelers are being sold as a potential playoff team and a threat in the AFC. Not much about their play on the field recently has suggested that they can be this caliber of team. The defensive front can’t stop the run, the secondary can’t stop the pass and the quarterback needed the offense to stop throwing the ball down the field during last season. What is to like?
The Cincinnati Bengals – Staying in the AFC North, high expectations for a team led by Andy Dalton are always dangerous. Dalton can be the quarterback of a playoff team, but this version of the Bengals doesn’t look to be as good as the ones he has played on to this point.
33. NFC Team Most Likely to Flop
The Green Bay Packers – The Packers always have huge expectations because of Aaron Rodgers’ presence. They handled an injury to Rodgers last year, but they again flopped in the playoffs. Making the playoffs in the first place was primarily a result of the futility of the division they play in.
The San Francisco 49ers – It’s hard to be a championship contender for such an extended period. The 49ers have some very old key players and are already being hit with some injury issues in training camp. If Colin Kaepernick doesn’t develop as a passer, then this team’s consistency my finally crumble.
35. NFC West
Seattle Seahawks, 13-3: The defense shouldn’t be as good as it was last year. Losing Red Bryant and Chris Clemons isn’t a huge hit, but it will likely hurt their rotation and run defense. On the offensive side of the ball, Russell Wilson and the passing game should take on more responsibility and keep the team on track to be one of the very best, if not the best in the NFL.
St. Louis Rams, 11-5: By adding Aaron Donald to Robert Quinn, the Rams have created a pass-rushing threat that is just as intimidating as what Jadeveon Clowney and J.J. Watt will be in Houston. Quinn and Donald could even be more effective than those two in 2014, because Donald is more developed as a pass rusher than Clowney. On the offensive side, the Rams should run the ball a lot and run it well. This will allow Sam Bradford more space to work in and to drop some of the responsibility of carrying the offense.
San Francisco 49ers, 10-6: The 49ers have a very talented roster, but also a number of question marks. Frank Gore and Justin Smith can’t continue to be dominant players forever and both are past due to drop off physically. Neither will be easily replaced. Starting right guard Alex Boone appears to be on his way out because of a contract dispute, while NaVorro Bowman is expected to miss most of the season as he recovers from his torn ACL. A slight, but no massive drop off could be on the cards for San Francisco.
Arizona Cardinals, 5-11: For a very long time, the Cardinals had an outstanding defense. During that time, they had an atrocious offensive line that prevented the defense from turning their on-field displays into wins. Now, the offensive line appears to be in better shape, but the defense is a major problem. Both Karlos Dansby and Daryl Washington won’t play this year, while John Abraham is yet to turn up at training camp because of an offseason DUI. Tyrann Mathieu is returning from a torn ACL injury and Antonio Cromartie is expected to start despite playing very poorly in New York last year.
36. Team with the Best Chance to Go Undefeated
The Seattle Seahawks – Don’t overthink it.
37. Team with the Best Chance to Go Winless
The Oakland Raiders – A severe lack of talent and a division with no easy games.
38. AFC Championship
The Denver Broncos over the Indianapolis Colts – Oh how the media will enjoy this. The two top seeds in the AFC face off as Peyton Manning returns to Indianapolis to remind them one final time of what they once had. A second consecutive Super Bowl for the Broncos says more about the state of the AFC than the quality of this team.
39. NFC Championship
The Seattle Seahawks over the New Orleans Saints – The home-field advantage Championship game. The two teams with the best home-field advantage in the NFL face off and, predictably, the home team wins. The Seahawks set up a rematch with the Broncos but Richard Sherman avoids the cameras this time.
40. Super Bowl
The Seattle Seahawks over the Denver Broncos – Yes, again. Yes, it’s boring. Yes, it’s very possible. The Seahawks would enjoy another comfortable victory, as the Broncos again lack the talent on the offensive line to run their offense effectively against this group of athletes. The defensive improvements allow the Broncos to remain competitive for a while, at least a lot longer than they did last year, but ultimately they aren’t a worthy competitor for the Seahawks.