Clinically ill sports fans are 30 days from receiving a dose of their craved medication: the NFL. The Thursday night season-opening rematch between the Carolina Panthers and Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos is just a month away.
With each team’s training camp underway, predictions veer in every which direction, much like Denard Robinson’s Chevy Impala. Hence, one extra set of season projections shouldn’t hurt. Let’s reel through three teams that will sadly watch the NFL Playoffs from their Cheetos-infested couches, along with another trio that will inherit a shot at battling for the Lombardi Trophy come mid-January.
1. Washington Redskins: Sorry, Kirk Cousins, but you won’t like this. In spite of newcomers Josh Norman and David Bruton Jr. helping provide the defense with one of the top secondaries in the league, issues lie on the other side of the ball.
Cousins’ quarterbacking heroics to carried his team into the postseason, racking up 12 touchdowns over the final four regular season games, along with just one interception. Yet his first half stats rang up plenty of concern, tossing 10 touchdowns and nine interceptions, while accumulating a 66.9 completion percentage. Hence, he failed to weave together a 16-game stretch that boasts consistency.
Additionally, his receiving core has suffered a considerable amount of injuries in the last few campaigns. Although Jordan Reed stayed relatively healthy last season, missing only two games, he combined to watch 12 games from the sidelines during the previous two seasons. Justifiably, Sports Injury Predictor labeled him with an 81 percent chance of injury in 2016, and the tight end already tweaked his ankle in training camp.
Moreover, wideout Desean Jackson suffered from hamstring and shoulder injuries in 2015, keeping him out for seven games. If Cousins routinely steps onto the field with Pierre Garcon as his No. 1 target, the Michigan State alum would undoubtedly struggle.
In the backfield, following the departure of Alfred Morris, Matt Jones strives to seize the majority of the touches. His combination of size and speed is appealing, but after eliminating his 123-yard, two-touchdown performance against the Rams in Week 2, Jones tallied 367 yards on 125 carries (2.93 YPC). Translation? Sporadic elusiveness. If he’s unable to create space this season, defenses will happily sit back, waiting for Cousins to throw the pigskin their way.
2. Denver Broncos: Due to impending free agents exhibiting their worth during a playoff run, the eventual Super Bowl champion tends to inherit a semi-massive rebuild in the offseason. The Broncos’ experience was comparable, losing defensive end Malik Jackson, linebacker Danny Travethan, the aforementioned Bruton, offensive tackle Ryan Clady, quarterback Brock Osweiler and, of course, Peyton Manning, who, oh, posted one of the worst quarterback ratings a season ago on Pro Football Focus.
Defensively, even with the likes of Von Miller, Derek Wolfe, Brandon Marshall and Chris Harris, Wade Phillips’ unit should regress from its No. 1 overall ranking in 2015. Expecting the group to hover around their eye-popping sack (52) and forced fumble (25) totals, both placing No. 1 overall in the league, is too generous. Jackson, Travethan and Bruton didn’t trigger many of those stats, but without their stability, the others wouldn’t have encountered as many opportunities to hand the ball back to the offense. Now, cornerback Aqib Talib could miss eight games by virtue of a gunshot investigation.
On the flip side, John Elway made shrewd decisions in letting Osweiler walk and acquiring left tackle Russell Okung to replace Clady. Still, the unknown remains who will shout “Omaha!” at the line of scrimmage, and none of the options are close to impressive.
So far, the riveting Mark Sanchez, who attained a 38.8 Quarterback Rating (QBR) last campaign, is dueling it out with 2015 seventh-round pick Trevor Siemian, as rookie Paxton Lynch attempts to learn the offense. The offense clearly revolves around its ground game with C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman, combining for 1,583 yards a year ago. Yet there’s no reason to envision any of the possible starting quarterbacks delivering quick and accurate throws to stud receivers Demaryius Thomas and Emanuel Sanders in the West Coast offense.
— Def Pen Sports (@DefPenSports) December 20, 2015
3. Minnesota Vikings: Similar to the teams above, the Vikings’ question marks start with their signal caller. Teddy Bridgewater showed some promise in a few games, producing 335 yards and a touchdown in a back-and-forth affair with the Cardinals in Week 14, for instance. But overall, Bridgewater collected the same amount of touchdowns a season ago (14) as in 2014. Plus, both his 3,231 passing yards and 88.7 QBR ranked No. 22 overall in 2015.
Even though the offense revolves around Adrian Peterson, the tailback is already 31 years old. Assuming his efficiency begins to slowly dwindle during the next couple seasons, the former No. 32 overall pick in 2014 needs to display he can grasp extra responsibility in the passing attack. Unfortunately, his hesitancy on the field in the past slashes through the belief that he’ll break through in that aspect of the offense.
Conjointly, beyond Stephon Diggs and rookie Laquon Treadwell, Bridgewater’s targets — including Cordarrelle Patterson, who’s seemingly always given another opportunity to flop — appear fairly underwhelming. The up-and-coming defense, led by safety Harrison Smith, should generate numerous close contests, but without a game-changing quarterback, as well as the eighth-toughest schedule in the NFL, head coach Mike Zimmer’s club will stumble in attempt to replicate last campaign’s success.
1. New York Giants: GM Jerry Reese conjured up his magic once free agency began, especially for his defense, which yielded 6,725 yards in 2015, good for most in the league.
Compared to last season, this bunch contains the weapons to operate a 4-3 scheme, bringing in defensive tackle Damon Harrison, defensive end Olivier Vernon, linebacker Keenan Robinson and re-signing Jason Pierre-Paul to bolster the front-seven. The three newbies supply a much-needed boost against the run and pass. Furthermore, Vernon’s ability to pin the quarterback to the turf (7.5 sacks last season) breathes a sense of confidence into a core that notched the third-lowest total in the league (23). After brushing off injuries, defensive end Owa Odighizuwa, dubbed the No. 5 breakout prospect on ESPN, should assist in the category, too.
In the secondary, the additions of cornerbacks Janoris Jenkins and first-rounder Eli Apple lend a helping hand to a formerly concerning secondary. Jenkins placed No. 15 in passes defended a year ago, surpassing loads of talented defensive backs, such as Richard Sherman, Brent Grimes and Talib.
Offensively, although the Giants tightened their lips about who will call plays, expect former offensive coordinator and now-head coach Ben McAdoo to continue playing a big role in that department. Under McAdoo’s guidance, quarterback Eli Manning’s numbers have spiked in their two seasons together, posting a career-high 35 touchdowns a campaign ago.
The running back depth, led by Rashad Jennings, seems a tad worrisome, but the eighth-year back generated 4.4 YPC last campaign.
With rookie wideout Sterling Sheppard joining Odell Beckham Jr. on the outside, along with the return of an apparently healthy Victor Cruz in the slot, Manning will assemble a wonderful 13th season in the league and supply “Big Blue” with the NFC East crown.
2. Oakland Raiders: 13 straight campaigns without a playoff appearance. Finally, the drought ends for the Silver and Black.
Following a season in which the Raiders allowed 22.4 points per contest, listing No. 17 in the category, GM Reggie McKenzie spent a few dollars in the offseason. First, the organization brought in cornerback Sean Smith and linebacker Bruce Irvin, pairing him with ex-Seahawks linebacker Malcolm Smith again. Beyond solidifying their respective positions, the two carry a winning mentality via Kansas City and Seattle, something Oakland has desired for years. With physical safety Reggie Nelson — who will aid in mentoring rookie counterpart Karl Joseph — lured into the mix as well, head coach Jack Del Rio’s group should elicit a wealth of fear into opposing offenses.
Don’t overlook the beast that is Khalil Mack, either. The third-year linebacker manufactured 15 sacks last season, placing behind only J.J. Watt (17) for the second-highest amount in the NFL. Since he’ll keep developing, Mack’s ceiling reaches as far as Pluto or Neptune. Take your pick.
Shifting sides, for offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave, quarterback Derek Carr was the missing link to the bromance he was searching for. Carr exceeded expectations in his second season, accumulating a 32:13 touchdown/interception ratio, the eighth-best in the league. He could eclipse those totals with a very skilled receiving core of Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree.
With offensive tackle Donald Penn returning and the signing of guard Kelechi Osemele, running back Latavius Murray should see extra daylight (4.0 YPC), while Carr will get time to run through his reads. Look for the Raiders to hop into one of the two wild-card spots.
3. Chicago Bears: After missing the playoffs for eight of the past nine seasons, head coach John Fox’s squad breaks through in 2016.
Surprisingly, Jay Cutler delivered the highest QBR of his career (92.3) last year. On top of that, the veteran posted just one game with over one interception. While his most recent offensive coordinator Adam Gase departed for the Dolphins head coaching gig, new OC Dowell Loggains is believed to retain a similar-style offense this campaign.
Cutler’s arsenal receives a boost, too, inheriting last season’s seventh overall pick in Kevin White, who suffered from a stress fracture in his shin last season. If he’s able to find a rapport with the signal caller, the New Jersey native and Alshon Jeffery could form the No. 1 receiving tandem in the game. In Jeffery’s previous 16 matchups, he piled up 95 catches, 1,314 receiving yards and 11 scores. Health is an obvious concern for him, though.
Despite the backfield losing all-around tailback Matt Forte, a Fox-led team owned a tailback with over 60 percent of the carries just once. Hence, the combination of Jeremy Langford, rookie Jordan Howard, Jacquizz Rodgers and Ka’Deem Carey should contribute enough support for the often-maligned quarterback. The offensive line will jack up its productivity as well, drafting left guard Cody Whitehair, signing right tackle Bobby Massie and moving Kyle Long back to right guard.
On defense, Vic Fangio’s unit will progress mightily with GM Ryan Pace’s fabulous acquisitions. The Bears scooped up the aforementioned Travethan, linebacker Jerrell Freeman, defensive end Akiem Hicks and drafted outside linebacker Leonard Floyd. Even though the secondary didn’t garner an upgrade, the enhanced pass rush, which ranked No. 22 in sacks last campaign (35), should allow it to stay afloat.
OLB Pernell McPhee exemplifies the key to bringing pressure, obtaining six sacks and 32 quarterback hurries, the sixth-most in the NFL in 2015. He’ll also take on fewer double-teams this season with the addition of Floyd. Still, his recovery from left knee surgery must pick up the pace prior to Week 1.
In the wake of their two-year overhaul, anticipate the Bears sneaking into wild-card weekend.