The 2014 NFL Playoffs were one of the most entertaining in recent history. Big name teams like the New England Patriots, Denver Broncos, Dallas Cowboys, Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers provided star power and entertainment. Whether it was the Baltimore Ravens-Pittsburgh Steelers Wild Card grudge match, the Patriots coming from down 14 to beat the Ravens with their creative offensive play calling, the Packers beating the Cowboys with the Dez Bryant “catch/not catch”, and the student (Andrew Luck) defeating the master (Peyton Manning) to go the AFC Championship game.
That was just the warm-up, as the Packers had an improbable and almost improbable collapse after Seattle tried to give the game away repeatedly in the first half of the NFC Championship game. Over in the AFC, the Patriots blew out the Colts but the game was forgotten as the NFL league office monopolized the entire offseason and preseason with their “Deflategate” allegations against Tom Brady and the Patriots. It ended with a back-and-forth heavyweight battle in the Super Bowl as two champions went head-to-head for 15 rounds. It ended with the improbable Malcolm Butler interception at the end zone and the conclusion of an amazing NFL season.
To preview the 2015 NFL season, I will break it down into two articles–this one for the AFC and the other for the NFC. Looking at each division within the conference, each team will have a designation attached to them indicating their expected category for the coming season. They are ranked as “Elite Title Contenders” meaning they are an expected Super Bowl contender, “Contender” meaning they are in competition to make the playoffs, “Pretenders” meaning they may have high hopes coming into the season but are in the five to eight wins category, and finally the “Out of the Race” teams who are building for the future still and looking for growth and development more than wins.
(I’ll apologize in advance for the AFC East teams getting extra attention, but since I study that division more than the rest of the league, think of it as a bonus!)
Denver Broncos – Elite Title Contenders
The Denver Broncos upgraded their offensive line bringing in Evan Mathis at guard but lost starting left tackle Ryan Clady to an ACL tear in camp. They lost tight end Julius Thomas but replaced him with Owen Daniels. Quarterback Peyton Manning took a pay cut, but he still has running back C.J. Anderson and wide receivers Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. Denver should be able to score enough to win consistently in 2015 especially if second-year wide receiver Cody Latimer improves.
The Broncos defense revolves around linebacker Von Miller. Miller is simply the best defensive player not named J.J. Watt. With DeMarcus Ware and rookie Shane Ray, the Broncos will get to the quarterback in 2015. The secondary has two strong cornerbacks in Chris Harris and Aqib Talib. Bradley Roby should build upon his rookie season and be a solid third cornerback. The defensive line lost Terrance Knighton but still has Sylvester Williams, Malik Jackson and Derek Wolfe to make up for the loss.
The Broncos are good for 12 wins and as long as Manning stays healthy are a threat to return to the Super Bowl.
San Diego Chargers – Contenders
Philip Rivers is nearing the end of his peak as a quarterback and sadly has not had a chance to play in the Super Bowl. This season the Chargers drafted running back Melvin Gordon to join Keenan Allen as weapons. Antonio Gates may not catch a dozen touchdowns again, but he has the veteran smarts to work his way open in the end zone.
The defense is basically intact heading into 2015 with rookie Jeremiah Attaochu replacing an ineffective Dwight Freeney. The secondary added Jimmy Wilson to play next to superstar safety Eric Weddle. Brandon Flowers and Jason Verrett are solid at cornerback and the defensive line is solid if not spectacular. The Chargers lack pass rush, and they did not do enough to improve it in the offseason.
The Chargers are a solid 9 or 10 win team who should make the playoffs, but another year without a Super Bowl seems to be in the cards for Rivers.
Kansas City Chiefs – Contenders
It can be difficult to figure out the Kansas City Chiefs. At times last year they looked like a legitimate contender, and then they disappeared after starting 7-3 and finished 9-7. Alex Smith is a quarterback who is consistent but not a superstar. Adding Jeremy Maclin should help, but they still lack playmakers on offense. Jamaal Charles and Knile Davis are a strong combination at running back but injuries derail the rushing attack too often.
On defense, the Chiefs were vulnerable against the run. They did little to go get any help this offseason and will need improvement from their incumbent players to fix the problem. They do have Justin Houston and Tamba Hali to rush the quarterback and first round draft pick Marcus Peters is a boom-or-bust prospect who could be a weapon opposite Sean Smith.
The Chiefs open against the Broncos, Packers, Bengals and Texans and need to at least break even to get buried in the ultra-competitive AFC West. Anywhere from 7 to 9 wins seems right for the Chiefs in 2015.
Oakland Raiders – Pretenders
The Oakland Raiders are definitely moving in the right direction. First round draft pick wide receiver Amari Cooper looks to be a superstar in the league and he and veteran Michael Crabtree will make second-year quarterback Derek Carr better. Latavius Murray could be an impact running back if he stays healthy.
On defense the Raiders have linebacker Khalil Mack to build around. Free agent Dan Williams and rookie Mario Edwards add heft to a weak defensive line. Oakland is very weak in the secondary and will struggle against good quarterbacks. The defense is a few drafts away from having enough impact players to compete in the AFC West.
Oakland is improved on offense and have a better offensive line but the defense will hold them back in 2015. They are improving, but still need time and more impact players to get over the hump.
Indianapolis Colts – Elite Title Contenders
As long as Indianapolis has an elite quarterback, they are in the conversation each year. Andrew Luck is probably the best young quarterback in the NFL since…well, since his predecessor Peyton Manning. Unlucky Luck, however, has run into the same nemesis as Manning in Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots the past two playoffs. This year the Colts imported veterans Frank Gore at running back and Andre Johnson at wide receiver while letting Reggie Wayne leave. With T.Y. Hilton, emerging talents Donte Moncrief and Coby Fleener, and first round draft pick Phillip Dorsett the offense remains good enough to put the Colts in Super Bowl contention.
On defense, however, the Colts are still trying to find the right mix. Pass rusher Trent Cole was brought in via free agency as well as Kendall Langford on the defensive line while letting Cory Redding and Ricky Jean-Francois walk away. The secondary revolves around cornerback Vontae Davis who has blossomed into a top defender. However, the rest of the secondary and the linebackers are just average at best.
The Colts can outscore just about anyone and the defense can put it together for a game or so when they need to do so. If the Colts can gel on defense in 2015 they are in position to take the next step and challenge for a Super Bowl championship.
Houston Texans – Contenders
Head coach Bill O’Brien may be the first Bill Belichick assistant to figure out how to succeed without the genius behind him on his own. O’Brien turned around Penn State and somehow got 9 wins out of anemic Texans offense last year. In 2015 he has former New England back-up quarterback Brian Hoyer running the team, which is the difference between being an elite team and just a contender. They will have to deal with the usual Arian Foster injury at running back and no longer have Andre Johnson at wide receiver. However, DeAndre Hopkins is a fantastic talent and the offensive line is solid.
On defense, the Texans have J.J. Watt who is simply the best defensive player on the planet. Without watching him each week it is hard to see the impact he has on every game for Houston. His drive and motor are impressive as he never takes a play off and seemingly spends the entire game in the offensive backfield. Jadeveon Clowney could help if he ever gets healthy and replaces the weak Whitney Mercilus opposite Watt. Houston added veteran run-stuffer Vince Wilfork and replaced weak linebacker Brian Cushing with rookie Benardrick McKinney. The secondary is deep and talented and Rahim Moore was a great pickup in free agency.
The defense is top-notch in Houston, but the offense may not be up to snuff to take the next step and challenge the Colts in the AFC South. If O’Brien can snag a young quarterback to build around and another offensive skill position player they could take advantage of the strong defense rather than wasting it. Until then, they are good enough to be a Wild Card team but not challenge for the Super Bowl.
Jacksonville Jaguars – Pretenders
After the past few seasons, the Jaguars are no doubt happy to be pretenders rather than out of the race. Drafting quarterback Blake Bortles was prescient as he is in line to make big strides under quarterback guru/offensive coordinator Greg Olson. The Jaguars targeted the offensive line this offseason to protect their investment and drafted T.J. Yeldon to get a running game to take pressure off Bortles. Tight end Julius Thomas is a huge upgrade over Marcedes Lewis and with young wide receivers Marqise Lee, Allen Robinson, and Allen Hurns the future is bright for the Jaguars on offense.
On defense, Jacksonville already lost top draft pick and potential impact player Dante Fowler to an ACL injury in OTAs. Chris Clemons is back in that role and emerging star Jared Odrick was signed to step in on the defensive line and add pass rush. The secondary is young and developing after some growing pains in 2013 and 2014. The return of Paul Posluszny helps a young linebacking group that should continue to improve in 2015.
The Jaguars are good enough on both sides of the ball to be in position to finish close to .500 in 2015. Now the question for Jacksonville is if Bortles can accelerate his development and take the Jaguars to the next level. It may not be this season, but the Jaguars appeared poised to develop over the next few years.
Tennessee Titans – Out of the Race
Coming off a two win season the Titans were rewarded with quarterback Marcus Mariota. Mariota has the tools to be a franchise quarterback and should be eventually a Russell Wilson type mobile quarterback. What Seattle had that the Titans do not have is a strong offensive line, superstar running back, and dominating defense. Bishop Sankey is a third-down back and rookie David Cobb is not ready to carry the load as a starter. Kendall Wright is a solid option at wide receiver as is Delanie Walker at tight end and rookie wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham is loaded with potential. However, the offense needs time to grow and import more offensive line talent.
The Titans were terrible on defense last year and turning it around in one year is too much to ask. Brian Orakpo is a solid signing if he can remain healthy. Jurrell Casey is the best defensive player that no one knows outside of Tennessee. Veterans Perrish Cox and Da’Norris Searcy will help in the secondary but Coty Sensabaugh and Jason McCourty need to turn it around after a bad 2014. The linebackers are solid but not spectacular in any way.
The Titans will be better than in 2014, but while doubling their win total sounds like a big improvement but that would just be four wins. However, Mariota gives hope for the future and that will have to be enough for the Titans in 2015.
Pittsburgh Steelers – Elite Title Contenders
Yes, center Maurkice Pouncey’s broken ankle is a concern. As are the suspensions of wide receiver Martavis Bryant and running back Le’Veon Bell. However, the rest of the offensive line is solid, rookie Sammie Coates is a sleeper at wide receiver and Antonio Brown can carry the load, and DeAngelo Williams can carry the ball for a few games until Bell is back. Add in that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is coming off his best season as he passed for over 30 touchdowns and almost 5,000 yards in 2014 and the Steelers offense will be just fine in 2015.
On defense the Steelers will be without such long-time starters as Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor, Brett Keisel and Jason Worilds. Pittsburgh is leaning heavily on the development of the young defensive players they have brought in the past few years. Rookie Senquez Golson should contribute along with Doran Grant. Young secondary players Antwon Blake and Shamarko Thomas will be counted on to contribute as well. First round draft pick Alvin Dupree should add speed and pass rush ability to the defense opposite veteran James Harrison. Cameron Heyward is a strong defensive lineman and now second-year player Stephon Tuitt needs to improve. If linebacker Ryan Shazier is healthy the defense gets a big boost.
The defense may take time to gel and the offense will have to tread water for the first two weeks. The Steelers have a tough schedule playing New England, San Diego, Seattle, Indianapolis and Denver in addition to their inter-division games, but if they survive the gauntlet, they could be a tough team to face in the playoffs and should be in the Super Bowl conversation.
Baltimore Ravens – Elite Title Contenders
The Ravens can be difficult to figure out as they churn over talent year after year but still win. They lost starting wide receiver Torrey Smith and tight end Owen Daniels and replaced them with rookies Breshad Perriman and Maxx Williams. Veteran wide receiver Steve Smith is in his final season and they did re-sign running back Justin Forsett who flourished in his first opportunity for regular playing time. Baltimore has a stable offensive line anchored by the best guard in the NFL, Marshal Yanda. This is officially quarterback Joe Flacco’s offense and the burden is on him to carry the offense week after week in 2015.
On defense, the ageless Terrell Suggs anchors the defense with aging Elvis Dumervil. The team has to replace Pernell McPhee and Haloti Ngata. Timmy Jernigan is an emerging young player and should step in and be yet another draft steal for general manager Ozzie Newsome. Linebackers Daryl Smith and C.J. Mosley do not get the attention they deserve as key contributors. The Ravens added cornerback Kyle Arrington and have Jimmy Smith healthy to start across from Lardarius Webb in the secondary. Will Hill is a fantastic talent at safety and replaces Matt Elam who was a liability.
Baltimore always gets written off after key losses and yet year-after-year they are one of the most dangerous teams in the playoffs. They have the ability to elevate their game at end of the season and make a Super Bowl run anytime. This team is too talented on both sides of the ball to overlook in 2015.
Cincinnati Bengals – Contenders
If anyone can figure out the plan in Cincinnati, let me know. The Bengals look good in the regular season, drop a couple of winnable games, make the Wild Card, and then flame out in the playoffs when Andy Dalton turns into Ryan Lindley. Keeping wide receiver A.J. Green is essential as without him the Bengals are average. Untested Tyler Eifert take over at tight end and the rest of the wide receivers are average. Jeremy Hill is a solid number one running back while Gio Bernard is a solid receiving back. The offensive line is strong.
On defense, tackle Geno Atkins has aged badly and Domata Peko is big but weak. Michael Johnson is back, but what he has left is up in the air. At least Carlos Dunlap is a known quantity. If Vontaze Burfict returns to form after microfracture surgery the defense has a boost but he is likely stuck on the PUP list to start the year. Vimmy Rey is not starter quality and free agent A.J. Hawk was a liability in Green Bay last year. The secondary remains strong even with Terence Newman not returning in 2015.
The Bengals could win ten games this season, but they have to survive a strong AFC North with Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. Even if they make the playoffs, Andy Dalton has shown time and again he is not the answer. It looks like a repeat of 2014 for Cincinnati in 2015.
Cleveland Browns – Pretenders
The term attached to the Browns fans is “long-suffering”. Unfortunately, the leadership in Cleveland remains lost and wandering in the desert. The Browns imported Josh McCown, a below average quarterback, added underachieving tight end Rob Housler, and aging wide receivers Dwayne Bowe and Brian Hartline. Former first round draft pick Johnny Manziel could not win the starting job at quarterback and the Browns have a three-headed rushing attack that is still muddled and unsettled. The offense is mess and has somehow taken a step backwards.
On defense, the Browns brought in nose tackle Danny Shelton in the draft and Randy Starks in free agency to shore up the run defense. Barkevious Mingo needs to improve in the pass rush and Paul Kruger returns as linebacker Jabaal Sheard left in free agency. Joe Haden leads the secondary with import Tramon Williams at cornerback and Donte Whitner and Tashaun Gipson will start at safety in the secondary, but first round draft pick cornerback Justin Gilbert has been a huge bust so far.
As usual, Cleveland should have a solid enough defense that gets worn down by an offense which specializes in three-and-outs. The offense will remain a disaster and they could just as easily win eight games or two games. Either way, another year of disappointment is the forecast in Cleveland for 2015.
New England Patriots – Elite Title Contenders
As the defending NFL champions the Patriots have faced probably their most taxing and stressful offseason. With the absurd “Deflategate” allegations leading to a four game suspension for future Hall-of-Fame quarterback Tom Brady which is still in the courts, the Patriots are unsure if they will even have their quarterback for the first quarter of the season as they try to defend their title.
The Patriots said goodbye to starting cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner and then jettisoned their top back-ups Kyle Arrington and Alfonzo Dennard for good measure. They re-signed free safety Devin McCourty but let veteran nose tackle Vince Wilfork leave as well. On offense, receiving running back Shane Vereen left for the Big Apple as he signed with the Giants.
New England still has Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman on offense and added tight end Scott Chandler and have a number of competitors to replace Vereen. On defense, rookie Malcom Brown is a beast and joins last year’s top pick Dominique Easley on the interior defensive line. They drafted three defensive ends and signed Jabaal Sheard from Cleveland. The cornerbacks are a mix of “young and untested” and “non-superstar veterans”.
New England is still the elite team in the AFC East and are expected to be a Super Bowl favorite. Even if they have Brady only 12 games, they are still a threat in the playoffs as long as they have Brady and Gronkowski. Look for New England to win 10-13 games again and win the AFC East.
Miami Dolphins – Contenders
The Miami Dolphins were expected to make the next step first in 2013 and then again last season and challenge the Patriots in the AFC East. Instead, after defeating the Patriots in week one they finished 8-8 and outside the playoff picture. Although the defense regressed in 2014, quarterback Ryan Tannehill catapulted himself into the conversation of top-ten NFL quarterbacks with an impressive season.
The Dolphins rewarded Tannehill with a huge contract extension but the big news was on defense. Replacing Jared Odrick and Randy Starks in the middle of the defensive line the Dolphins signed Ndamukong Suh. They still have pass rushers Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon. In the secondary, Brent Grimes is a premier cornerback and safety Reshad Jones is underrated, but veteran Louis Delmas is already out for the year and Brice McCain is not starting cornerback material.
The linebacking corps was not mentioned, mainly because other than Jelani Jenkins they are not good.
On offense the Dolphins imported a new group of receivers with tight end Jordan Cameron from Cleveland signed as Charles Clay departed. Cameron is a threat–if healthy. Wide receiver Kenny Stills was brought in from New Orleans to join the impressive Jarvis Landry. Veteran Greg Jennings will try to jump-start after a so-so 2014 and rookie DeVante Parker is still trying to get healthy.
The Dolphins began last year 6-4 before collapsing but they have too many question marks in the linebacking group and secondary on defense and the offensive line is weak and could torpedo a young group of offensive skill players. If Jennings bounces back, Stills improves, Parker gets healthy, and Cameron stay healthy, the Dolphins could compete for the AFC East. But another season of 7 to 9 wins and inconsistency seems more likely.
Buffalo Bills – Pretenders
The Buffalo Bills finished the 2014 season 9-7 and second in the AFC East in 2014. However, head coach Doug Marrone shockingly bolted in the offseason. The loud and boisterous Rex Ryan was brought in from division rivals the New York Jets. Of course, Ryan took over the 9-7 Jets in 2009 and after two consecutive AFC Championship Game losses his teams failed to finish over .500 from 2011 through 2014.
A key issue with Ryan’s Jets teams were the inconsistent offenses and inability to develop a solid starting quarterback. With Buffalo already boasting the number four ranked defense in the NFL in 2014 allowing just 18.1 points per game, it was a surprise to see the front office pass on an offense-based coach and bring in a defensive specialist and new defensive system.
The Bills defense is led by a strong defensive line anchored by Mario Williams, Kyle Williams, Marcell Dareus, and Jerry Hughes. The linebacking group has Preston Brown and emerging talent Nigel Bradham. Top cornerback Stephon Gilmore anchors the secondary and cornerback Leodis McKelvin–who was injured in the second half of the season–should return as a starter.
On offense, the Bills traded linebacker Kiko Alonso for Philadelphia Eagles running back LeSean McCoy to jumpstart their offense. With newly signed tight end Charles Clay joining Sammy Watkins, Buffalo expects improvement from an offense which was eighteenth in passing yards and fifteenth in passing touchdowns in 2014. Unfortunately, with the unexpected retirement of quarterback Kyle Orton, the Bills were forced to dredge the bottom of the quarterback barrel to get Tyrod Taylor and Matt Cassel to compete with former first round draft pick E.J. Manuel.
Besides bringing in Cassel and, the only help on the offensive line came in Richie Incognito who will be 32 years old and was out of the NFL last year. The Bills had a solid left tackle in Cordy Glenn last year. The Bills lost backup tackle Chris Hairston and guard Erik Pears. Eric Woods is serviceable at center, but the rest of the line was terrible.
Adding LeSean McCoy is a significant upgrade of the perennially injured and since departed C.J. Spiller and veteran Fred Jackson. The defense is also still strong and Rex Ryan may be full of hot air, but he can coach the defense. Without a quality quarterback, however, it is tough to win in the NFL. It will be tough for Buffalo to match last season’s total of 9 wins in 2015.
New York Jets – Out of the Race
The New York Jets swept head coach Rex Ryan out the door, but the Jets still have the same problem: quarterback. Starting quarterback Geno Smith got his jaw broken in a locker room tussle with a teammate and now journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick is the starter. The Jets traded for Brandon Marshall to join Eric Decker and give them a pair of overpaid possession receivers. The best wide receiver on the team may be former Ohio State speedster Devin Smith who was a second round draft pick.
Chris Ivory is hard-running back but again has a weak offensive line blocking for him. Last season the Jets overpaid for Seattle cast-off Breno Giancomini. He was a disappointment so of course they went and grabbed another Seattle cast-off and signed James Carpenter. The Jets will struggle on offense in 2015 as they run the Chan Gailey offense in 2015.
The Jets have always been strong on defense and their front line is strong. Even with Sheldon Richardson looking at another suspension for his 143 mile an hour joyride and resisting arrest on top of his substance abuse policy violation giving him 4 games off. Muhammad Wilkerson is great and the Jets got a steal in rookie Leonard Williams added to the defensive line.
The linebackers are nothing special but they spent a ton of money bringing back Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie along with slot cornerback Buster Skrine. Anyone who watched the Cleveland Browns regularly last year is still struggling to see why the Jets overpaid for Skrine–who was downright terrible. Cromartie is slowing down and the safeties in New York are inconsistent youngster Calvin Pryor and inconsistent veteran Marcus Gilchrist who came over from San Diego.
The Jets faithful are fired-up with Revis and Cromartie back, but the Jets are filling in cracks as they rebuild on both sides of the ball. The Jets do not have a quality quarterback and a weak offensive line. They need Calvin Johnson and Odell Beckham Jr., not Decker and Marshall, if they want to compete in the AFC East. Six wins would be a good year for New York in 2015.