Now that free agency is over and the draft has taken place, it seems like the perfect time to look at the effect this has had on the prospects of every franchise heading into the 2015 season. It is very early days, and things change very quickly in the NFL, but teams can usually be split into groups: Super Bowl contenders, playoff contenders, rebuilding projects and possible catastrophes.
New England finished top of the pile in February, but with the loss of key cogs in free agency such as Darrelle Revis, they have not been able to take the next step to put themselves out of reach of the rest. At the other end of the scale, teams like Tampa Bay and Tennessee have been able to draft possible franchise quarterbacks, but will they be able to have an impact from day one?
Are the Colts closer to the Patriots after their offseason dealings? Has Chip Kelly made the Eagles better or worse with all his transactions? Where are your team ranked? It’s time for you to read and shake your heads as you disagree with all I believe:
1. Seattle Seahawks
I find it hard to look past Seattle as the best team in the league right now. Their draft has some huge question marks – such as the decision to take Frank Clark – but the fact is that they were one yard short of consecutive Super Bowl victories and thanks to the Jimmy Graham trade, they have gotten better. The offensive line is still a worry, but it has been ever since Walter Jones retired and it has not stopped Russell Wilson or Marshawn Lynch moving the chains. The defense returns all its starters except for Byron Maxwell, but I expect Pete Carroll to plug-in some other low round draft pick to become the next superstar at cornerback.
2. New England Patriots
The reigning champions should probably be ranked number one, but I cannot help feeling that they are a weaker team since that February night. The secondary will be unrecognisable come September from that which last took the field, and the impact of “Deflategate” – as pathetic as it is – will have an impact in terms of suspension for Tom Brady. If his suspension holds up, I expect them to at least go 2-2 through those four games, which was the same record they had in 2014. Still, they should rock through the regular season and will be fancied to go deep once again.
Another quiet offseason for the Packers, who took care of all their major signings before the free agency period, locking up their main targets before they could speak to other teams. Aaron Rodgers will be surrounded by a stellar cast of players, but the spotlight will once again fall on Dom Capers and his defense. It has been an Achilles heel for too long. The Pack cannot keep wasting the prime years of Rodgers career with shoddy play on the defensive side of the ball.
I like what the Steelers have done over the past few months, but with a new defensive coordinator in place, it will be interesting to see how they adjust. The offense is one of the best in the league and boasts stars in the shape of Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell. Whilst Bell’s 3 game suspension will hamper them to start with, if he has a few weeks extra rest in his legs it could be a blessing come the end of the season.
People seem to have written off the Broncos, and yes, Peyton Manning dropped off last year, but even when he dropped off he was still a top eight quarterback. If he can do the same this year, and gain support from the run game which Gary Kubiak is so keen to use, the Broncos will once again be in contention in January. The defense is still strong and should do enough to stop Manning needing to put up 40 points per game.
The Cardinals have solidified their offensive line with the signing of Mike Iupati in free agency and then the pick of DJ Humphries in the first round of the draft. It all stacks up to extra time in the pocket for Carson Palmer to take shots down field in Bruce Arians’ ultra aggressive attack. They surely cannot be hit by the injury bug as hard this year which should allow them to sustain the good form they showed through 12 weeks of last season.
Hands up who believed the Colts problem last season was their offense? Anyone? No? Oh, so it was only Ryan Grigson and Chuck Pagano then. The signings of Andre Johnson and Frank Gore are nice, but it is hard to see them being the difference that will take the Colts that extra step from AFC Championship runners-up to Super Bowl champions. The first round pick of Phillip Dorsett was a luxury pick, when clearly the defense needs so much help. With Andrew Luck, they will continue to win, but he needs help in the shape of a defense that keeps scores low.
Quite the offseason in Philadelphia. The comings and goings have left everyone guessing what the next move will be. I was firmly on the ‘Chip Kelly is crazy’ bandwagon a few weeks ago when he let LeSean McCoy go, but having listened to some of the trash he has perpetuated since, I cannot say I blame Kelly for ridding himself of the running back.
Torrey Smith departs, Breshad Perriman drops into their laps in the draft. It all just seems to come up rosy for the Ravens, does it not? Ozzie Newsome is a wizard when it comes to roster building and the Ravens should have no worries in building on last seasons playoff appearance. Trading away Haloti Ngata is a risk, but I trust Newsome.
Having realised that Philip Rivers is still the man to play quarterback, the Chargers made the move for Melvin Gordon in the first round of the draft. If Keenan Allen can come back to life on the outside, there is every chance the Chargers challenge the Broncos in the AFC West.
They draft so well and build their team from the trenches. Picking two offensive tackles in the first two round is long-term thinking, but shows how well run they are. However, they are stuck in purgatory with Andy Dalton at quarterback and this leads me to keep them outside of the top ten. It is like trying to swim with weights around your ankles.
This may seem high for a team that is in the midst of a playoff drought, but one man has given me cause for great optimism: Mr Odell Beckham Jr. He is a talent that has changed this team from dull and dour to exciting and inspiring. If they can find a way to get after the quarterback consistently on defense and keep Beckham involved in the game, the Giants can quench their thirst for a postseason berth.
The Cowboys may well have built the best offensive line in the league, but without a quality back to run behind it, it is like a luxury cruise ship being moored in a dry dock. Whatever people might say, the defense still needs much more help, particularly in the secondary, and with Romo’s health being so precarious, it could take just one hit to end the Cowboys hopes and dreams.
The awful statistic of having no wide receiver catch a touchdown pass last year should end with the signing of Jeremy Maclin, albeit to a vastly bloated contract. Andy Reid seems to be using the strengths of Jamaal Charles and needs to keep doing so. Justin Houston deserves a huge contract and that needs to be solved soon; he is the best pass rusher not named JJ Watt in the league.
Atlanta impressed me this offseason. They waited for Dan Quinn to become available rather than panicking and taking any coach that was free, and teaming him with Kyle Shanahan should mean the offense hums along nicely too. Matt Ryan and Julio Jones could be true superstars next season, both in real life and fantasy football, while Quinn will turn the defense around quickly. It will take a little more time for it to become Seattle 2.0, but Quinn is a true defensive master.
The Vikings are my dark horse for the year. I love Mike Zimmer as a coach and he has helped build a defense in his image in just two offseasons, with a secondary that could be in the top five in the league for talent. Offensively, Norv Turner’s unit can only grow and become better, especially if Adrian Peterson is on the field. I admire the way the Vikings have steadfastly refused to entertain the notion of allowing him leave, as Peterson should simply be thankful he is allowed to play at all.
Count me in on Bill O’Brien as a coach. He quietly performed a minor miracle last season, taking a 2-14 squad and turning it into a team that just missed out on the playoffs. All this with their number one draft pick Jadeveon Clowney out injured for most of the season and a mix of quarterbacks that would have made a college program blush. The Colts are by no means a certainty to run away with the AFC South if the Texans can play as they did a year ago. Plus a certain JJ Watt just makes football fun to watch in Texas.
The Moneyball approach that GM Dave Gettleman uses seems to pay dividends each year. The Panthers were on fire over the closing six weeks of the season and have kept the majority of their roster together. They have probably the best linebacking unit in the NFL, led by Luke Kuechly, and with Cam Newton pulling the strings, they will always be competitive. Newton enters his contract year so he is truly playing for millions of dollars which could be a huge incentive.
19. New Orleans Saints
Trading away Jimmy Graham still seems like too big of a hole to fill. Who is going to step up and fill his shoes as a receiver? The defense was abysmal a year ago, but Rob Ryan’s defenses only seem to do well in odd-numbered years (honestly, look at his history). It would not shock me if they won the NFC South, but I think that is more an indictment of the openness of the division than a nod to the Saints strengths.
I feel harsh for ranking the Lions here, but I just do not trust Matthew Stafford to the extent that I can put them higher right now. Despite that, while losing Ndamukong Suh was a blow, the addition of Haloti Ngata was a bonus, especially considering it cost them a fourth and a fifth round pick that through wheeling and dealing on draft day they were able to regain. It was good work from Matthew Mayhew. The Lions could easily fly up these rankings but will struggle to overturn the Packers in the NFC North.
Jim Harbaugh out, Jim Tomsula in. A new OC and a new DC, two star linebackers retired, Justin Smith is still undecided and Frank Gore will be plying his trade for the Colts. It has been an offseason of change for the 49ers and I do not believe they are better in any way for it. It could be a baptism of fire for Tomsula with a very tough schedule, including games against not only their divisional NFC West foes, but also against the NFC North and AFC North.
I certainly have not bought into the AFC East arms race. Until the teams not named New England show me proof to the contrary, I will remain sceptical. Ryan Tannehill should continue to progress in Bill Lazor’s offensive system, but he still does not have a strong enough arm to truly stretch defenses and has not got the running game to support him to keep defenses honest either. While the defensive line is nasty following the addition of Suh, it will not be enough to close the gap enough on New England.
It has been a busy few months considering the team had no first round pick in this years draft, highlighted by the signing of LeSean McCoy. While he has yet to be quiet since his move, he should have a good impact on a team that will need to emphasise ball control and a nasty defense to win games, because the last time I looked, Matt Cassell was not an answer at quarterback for anyone. Quarterback will once again limit the ceiling in Buffalo.
Having Leonard Williams fall into their lap was too good an opportunity to pass up and gives Todd Bowles a plethora of defensive options to harass opposing quarterbacks. With the secondary looking solid for the first time in years, it may well be that Geno Smith has the opportunity to play safely and develop this year. He has been surrounded with solid targets in Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker and needs to deliver to keep his job.
The trade of Sam Bradford for Nick Foles was a slightly perplexing one that did not truly upgrade the position. There is a good chance that Foles plays all 16 games which I suppose would represent progress in St. Louis. However, the chances are that they will go 7-9 and Jeff Fisher will talk once again of an unfortunate season that failed to deliver and build again for the future. Sound familiar?
I have loved what new GM Scot McCloughan has done since taking over in DC. His pick of Brandon Scherff over Leonard Williams raised some eyebrows, but it merely showed that he has his way of building a roster and that will not be swayed. He built the 49ers up and was a major influence in Seattle’s rise too, so I trust him. Jay Gruden needs to be less stubborn and play to the strengths of Robert Griffin if they are to progress though, and the defense still requires work.
Jay Cutler is still at quarterback, the defense last year was embarrassing, and yet the Bears used three of their first four draft picks on offensive players, none of whom were quarterbacks. To be honest, the Bears are saddled with Cutler for the foreseeable future due to the ridiculous contract he was handed by the previous regime. Adam Gase has his work cut out making Cutler look good after working with Peyton Manning for the last two years, while Vic Fangio has a much less talented unit than he previously did in San Francisco. A good coaching job is needed here.
The soap opera that you cannot take your eyes off. If they ride with Josh McCown into the new season, it will be as limited as it was with Brian Hoyer at the helm. Losing Kyle Shanahan as OC could be the toughest blow to take. There is a young guy waiting in the wings who has apparently overcome some personal demons and played a bit of quarterback in his college days. His name escapes me…
For all the plaudits that Derek Carr received last year, he was unable to really move his offense when it mattered. The caveat was that he had no running game and no weapons to throw the ball to, but the pick of Amari Cooper has taken that excuse away. If Khalil Mack can continue to develop as a dominant pass rusher then the defense could truly help out too.
Jameis Winston has wonderful football intelligence, but he needs to make it show by being intelligent off the field too. With Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson on the edges, he has a great chance to make an immediate impact as a rookie. The defense needs to play better than it did a year ago, and it has a good spine to build around. Lovie Smith’s system seems outdated though and he needs to be willing to move away from the obvious Cover-2 he has always employed to make sure his team are not an easy target to be dissected by some high quality quarterbacks in their division.
Marcus Mariota and Dorial Green-Beckham have suddenly made the Titans an interesting team. While there are holes all over the roster, they truly have grabbed two intriguing talents who could garner an enthusiasm the Titans fans have not had since the days of Steve McNair at quarterback. The defense is still way below the required standards of a challenging NFL team, but the chance taken to draft Mariota had to be done to give this franchise a chance to become relevant again.
The loss of third overall pick Dante Fowler for the season to a torn ACL is a crushing blow to a franchise that is devoid of many difference makers. Blake Bortles will shoulder the load and hope that tight end Julius Thomas can become a productive target, particularly in the red zone. They have spent many draft picks on infusing the offense with young talent but it needs to gel quickly and show significant improvement to help coach Gus Bradley and GM David Caldwell to keep their jobs into a fourth season.