NFL fever has taken over Pundit Arena HQ and Michael McCarthy is here to put his reputation on the line and give us his five predictions for the 2014/15 campaign.
1. Miami to win the AFC East
Might as well start with a bang. The AFC East has been the most predictable division in football for more than a decade. Bill Belichik and the Patriots have won 10 of the last 11 divisional titles. Admittedly, if I had to put my life on it, I’d probably pick the Patriots again this year, so maybe this is a prediction based on heart over head.
Some of this feeling stems from the belief that the Patriots are in decline and the fact that neither the Bills nor the Jets can ever seem to get their act together. But, mostly this comes down to the fact that I believe in Ryan Tannehill. Tannehill’s 2013 season may not be spectacular in terms of statistics but he was playing behind the worst offensive line in the NFL.
Tannehill was sacked an incredible 58 times in the 16 games last season, at an average of over 3 sacks per game – by far the most in the league. In week 15 he delivered a career best performance in leading a 4th quarter comeback to defeat the Patriots. Tannehill finished that game with 3 touchdown passes and no interceptions as well as taking his standard 4 sacks.
By investing in left tackle Brandon Albert, the Dolphins have radically improved an offensive line crippled last year by the loss of both Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin to the infamous bullying scandal. If Tannehill can remain upright, and if he can develop his relationship with star wide receiver Mike Wallace, the Dolphins can take their first divisional title since 2008.
2. San Diego Chargers are dark horses for the Super Bowl
If you are an NFL neophyte, or even a casual fan looking for a team to support this season, the easy option is to go for the Broncos, Seahawks, Patriots or Packers (all among the favourites for the Super Bowl). But where’s the fun in that? If you would prefer to root for a plucky not-quite-outsider then the Chargers are the team for you. There’s a lot to like about the current Chargers team and a lot of reasons to think they could have a good 2014 season.
After the disaster of 2012, quarterback Philip Rivers bounced back to prove his doubters wrong and secure a 5th Pro-Bowl selection, as well as Comeback Player of the Year award in 2013. Now 32, Rivers is still in his prime and having sneaked into the play-offs last season, the Chargers were narrowly defeated by Peyton Manning and the Broncos in the divisional round.
Why is this year going to be better you ask? Well, the 2013 draft may well prove to be one of the best in Chargers history. With their first three picks they selected offensive tackle DJ Fluker, linebacker Manti Te’o and wide receiver Keenan Allen. Whilst Fluker and Te’o enjoyed mediocre rookie years, both are expected to improve in their sophomore season.
But, in Keenan Allen, the Chargers may have grabbed the steal of the 2013 draft class. He started 14 games in his rookie season and improved each week, finishing the season with a stunning performance against Denver where he racked up 142 receiving yards and two touchdowns.
The running back group is among the deepest in the league, while the linebacker corps has a blend of youth and experience as Te’o is joined by 2012 first round pick (potential star) Melvin Ingram and veteran Dwight Freeney. Rookie Jason Verrett and newly-acquired Pro-Bowl cornerback Brandon Flowers are joined in the secondary by star safety Eric Weddle giving the Chargers a balanced roster.
With the Chiefs certain to regress, the Raiders still a shambles and the Broncos unlikely to score as many points as last season, the AFC West could be there for the taking.
3. Dallas Cowboys to finish 8-8…again
Yes, the AFC East has been the most predictable division but forget Bill Belichik and the Patriots, the Cowboys have been the most consistent team in the NFL for the past three years. Back-to-back 8-8 records is a rare feat but the Cowboys are currently riding a three year 8-8 streak. The odds are against them making it four in a row but they remain one of the most well balanced teams in the league – their offense is almost exactly as good as their defence is bad.
Going 8-8 may seem like a fairly boring season, but not the way the Cowboys are likely to do it. With quarterback Tony Romo, tight-end Jason Witten and the excellent but temperamental wide receiver Dez Bryant, the passing game looks set to shine once again. Romo is as capable as any quarterback in the league of racking up a big score, as he showed in week 5 last year by putting 48 points on the Broncos. Of course, in true Cowboys fashion, the defence conspired to concede 51 points in that game.
In the ground game, DeMarco Murray is one of the better running backs in the league and will probably anchor a lot of fantasy football teams. It is safe to say the offense is good, at least above league average, but what about the defence?
Well, last year they were one of the worst defences in the league. And 2014 doesn’t bode much better as the Cowboys have lost the two best defensive players on the roster this off-season. DeMarcus Ware will be scaring the bejesus out of quarterbacks in Denver instead of Dallas this season, whilst Sean Lee’s knee injury ended his season before it even began.
All that adds up to some exciting, high scoring wins and possibly an equal number of high scoring defeats. If you’re a Cowboys fans, surely you don’t expect to win the Super Bowl this year? So why not root for the only thing they’ve got going for them – the incredible streak of mediocrity?
4. Rookie QBs getting a chance to shine.
The age old method of developing a rookie quarterback was to draft them early but make them sit behind a veteran for a couple of seasons while they learn the offense and acclimatise to the demands of the NFL. Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay is a perfect example, drafted in 2005, he waited behind Brett Farve for three seasons before finally getting his chance as a starter in 2008. That has proven to be a master stroke as Rodgers is considered by many to be the best quarterback in the league right now.
Although it isn’t that long ago in real time, 2005 is lifetime ago in the NFL. These days, much like society in general, the quarterback development process has been sped up. Fans of the Twitter-era demand things happen right now. Nobody has time to wait three years to start their highly touted rookie.
As a result, rookie quarterbacks are getting their chance earlier and earlier. On the opening weekend, there are likely to be 6 starting QB’s who were drafted in either 2012 or 2013, whilst two further QB’s from those drafts (Brandon Weedon and Mike Glennon) were starters at various points in the last 2 seasons. By the end of the 2014 season, ten of the league’s 32 franchises could have a quarterback as their starter who was in college in the last 28 months.
Of the rookie QBs entering the league this year, four are almost certain to win starting jobs during the season; Blake Bortles (Jaguars), Johnny Manziel (Browns), Teddy Bridgewater (Vikings) and Derek Carr (Raiders). As pre-season began, all four were told by their head coaches that they will be on the bench this season. The question then became which head coach will blink first?
Mike Pettine of the Cleveland Browns was my early favourite as the Browns open their season with difficult games against the Steelers in Pittsburgh, before New Orleans and the Baltimore Ravens come to town. If the Browns go 0-3 they will enter their bye week with demands for Johnny Football too loud to ignore.
Similarly the Jaguars are desperate for a decent QB and Bortles has looked NFL-ready. How long they can persist with Chad Henne is questionable but I’d be surprised if they make it past week 5. Teddy Bridgewater faces the toughest challenge as Matt Cassell is almost a dictionary definition of average and the Vikings have enough talent elsewhere to win games. The Bridgewater era may not begin until the second half of the season.
Derek Carr originally seemed the second most likely to win this particular race, as only the rotting husk of Matt Schaub stood in his way. However, Schaub’s poor performances in pre-season have seen the hapless Raiders turn to their rookie before the season has even kicked off. Carr may be the first of this year’s rookie QB’s to win a starting job, but he wont be the last.
5. Nick Foles to continue to surprise
Statistically Foles was the best quarterback in the NFL in 2013. In a sport obsessed with statistics, this is no mean feat. Foles’ passer rating was the highest in the league, helped by his incredible touchdown-interception ratio (27-2). Peyton Manning may have thrown just over twice as many touchdown passes but he also threw five times as many interceptions.
Yet Foles’ season was widely written off as a statistical anomaly, a combination of a hot-streak and poor opposition. His week 9 performance against the Oakland Raiders saw Foles throw 7 touchdown passes with no interceptions (a league record) and also saw him score a perfect passer rating.
The main argument against Foles continuing to perform at such a high level is that the Eagles have lost star wide receiver DeSean Jackson. However, Foles showed in 2013 that he was developing a strong understanding with Riley Cooper as the pair connected for 7 touchdowns. In addition I expect tight-end Zack Ertz to emerge this season as a consistently effective target for Foles. These two can help make up for the loss of Jackson and with the electric LeSean McCoy still in place, the Eagles offence can continue to entertain.
Admittedly, it is unlikely that Foles will lead the league in passer rating for the second season in a row, and he may not quite hit the same heights as last year, but I don’t believe he will suffer the kind of drop off many are predicting. 2013 was the year he showed he could do it in the NFL, 2014 will be the year Foles shows he can do it consistently and be considered a top-10 quarteback.
Michael McCarthy, Pundit Arena.