Sorry for the delay everyone! I’ve been traveling about the Midwest getting rained on in Cleveland and thoroughly enjoying some one-on-one road trip time with my ten year old daughter. It’s made me neglect my writing. I’m sorry. What can I say? She’s cuter than you all and I like her more than you all 🙂
But I do love you all, and I do love outstanding fantasy squads, and this week’s installment brings us SIX teams that I predict will be in the top ten in the league this year. The NFC East and NFC North are the best two divisions in football, hands down. I think the Super Bowl Champion comes from one of these two divisions, and I think that watching these races will be some of the most compelling theatre in our league this year.
Who will win? I’m so glad you asked…
1 PM Edit – I got so confused by how good this league is, that I mistakenly suggested the NFC would have seven play off teams. The article is now updated to reflect that. Sincere apologies to Dallas and Chicago.. 🙁
Predictions – NFC North:
Owner: Michael Seraphim
2013 Record: 9-7
RDR 2014 Projection: 13-3
This prediction may not make me many friends. But I’m a journalist at heart! I report what I see! Actually, I do market
research at heart and I have absolutely no journalistic credentials nor integrity. But this is fantasy. Hmm…. since this is fantasy… actually, I’m a superhero with the ability to fly, shoot lasers out of my eyes, predict the future, and actually derive insight from stuff Chris Berman says. So listen to me on this one, because I say that Detroit is rumblin’, fumblin’ and stumblin’ to an NFC North crown this year.
Seriously? With all those rookies? Yes. Here’s why Detroit scares me, and should scare everyone else too.
First, because the top five on that offense are INSANE. Insane. Like John Rocker insane. Matthew Stafford. Calvin Johnson. Reggie Bush. Cordarelle Patterson. And Brandin Cooks. Last year, the four of those guys who aren’t rookies combined for 85 points per game. There’s no reason to expect a real regression unless Reggie gets hurt, and Cordarelle Patterson played only a miniscule role in the Vikings’ passing game last year. This year he is STILL the primary return man, but is moving up the depth chart at Wide Receiver with improved skills and a much better Quarterback situation. It is not at all out of the realm of possibility that Cordarelle could equal Calvin Johnson in scoring. His floor is 15 ppg. His ceiling is 30.
And then you add in Cooks, likely to take over the “I line up everywhere because I’m ridiculously fast and dangerous like Percy Harvin, but don’t miss 60% of my games with menstrual cramps like Percy Harvin” role. That’s a top five that should asily eclipse 100 points every single week. If you get even decent contributions from Cardinal Sankey and Deacon Pettigrew, this offense is competing with Denver for best in the league. And if Sankey somehow busts, Cody Latimer and Kenny Stills (and Nash?) are first off the bench.
The defense is almost as good, and should rival the Saints, Giants and Bucs for best defense in the NFC. A linebacking core of Karlos Dansby, Stephen Tulloch, and breakout Pats starter Jamie Collins joins Ndamukong Suh up front and James Ihedigbo and Mike Mitchell in the back. The vets are joined by a passel of talented rookies and the potential (likely) return of Anthony Spencer. There are more questions on the defense then the offense, but they are question marks that most likely have good answers.
End of the day, the NFC is stacked. Anything can happen. But I have the hard luck Lions (missed the playoffs last year despite finishing 5th in the entire league in points scored) as a good 10-15 points better than the Packers, Saints, and Giants in the race to the Super Bowl.
Green Bay Packers
Owner: Matt Minelli
2013 Record: 13-3 (Won Super Bowl)
RDR 2014 Projection: 12-4
Yes, I definitely think the NFC North is a powerful league. And I think the battle between Green Bay and Detroit for the league will rival only the NFC East in pure intrigue this year. The difference is going to come down to one thing and one thing only: Draft Picks. Detroit came into this year with more than 20 draft picks, many of them early. Green Bay had two late round picks. It doesn’t matter at the top. But it’s going to matter in terms of depth, injuries, and final starters – which is why I give the slight edge to Detroit in this titanic struggle of legendary northern sasquatches.
Green Bay boasts the best QB-WR-RB combo in RDFL, pairing Aaron Rodgers with Jamaal Charles and Jordy Nelson for a trio that could average 70 points all by themselves. This ridiculous trio is joined by eternally under-rated PPR maven Danny Woodhead and last year’s breakout Tight End, Mr. Charles Clay (who I believe is one of the characters you can murder with a candlestick in Clue).
Where Green Bay falls off the pace a tiny bit is in their depth. Where Detroit loaded up this off-season on stud draft picks like Bishop Sankey and Brandin Cooks, previous Green Bay owner Shane Katz mortgaged those draft picks and that depth on last year’s title run, forcing incoming owner Matt Minelli to run out the like of Jarrett Boykin, AJ Jenkins, Kris Durham or Robert Meachem at the last two starter spots. The drop off is simply more noticeable.
It’s a similar story on the defensive side of the ball. The top of the defense, with guys like AJ Hawk, Daryl Smith, Morgan Burnett, and Chandler Jones will be an absolute force. But the Packers will also need to start guys like Barry Cofield, David Bass, and Alfonzo Dennard to round out the defense.
It’s going to come down to a simple question – rookies vs. veterans. Who will perform better? Will Detroit’s touted rookie class flip the division to the Pride of Michigan? Or will the veteran acquisitions that the Packers have brought in step up their game and outperform Detroit on their way to another title? I think the Packers are going to be an outstanding team and are one of five or so legitimate super bowl Contenders. But I give the slightest of edges to Detroit.
And I blame it on the draft picks.
Owner: Howard Roher
2013 Record: 10-6
RDR 2014 Projection: 9-7
If I were Bears owner Howard Roher, I would be inspired to either break something, or try to take my talents to Cleveland. Or Miami. Or really anywhere but my own division. After a brutal finish to last year where they missed the playoffs in a tie-breaker with Carolina (who won multiple games by less than a single point, by the way), the Bears are eying a scarily similar possibility this year. With Green Bay and Philadelphia set to grab the two NFC wildcards, the Bears may be looking at another year on the outside – along with the similar tough luck Cowboys.
Here’s what you need to know about the Bears – they are Green Bay – but with even less depth. Cutler, Forte and Brandon Marshall can hold their own with anybody as a top three. But Jerome Simpson and Brian Hartline won’t inspire much fear in the opposition, and seeing Tim Wright starting at TE opposite might actually inspire the opposition. It’s almost like seeing Mark Sanchez at QB for the other team – total confidence boost. I think Martavis Bryant is going to have a really nice year, and this is going to be a really strong offense. But compared to the ridiculous scoring machines that are Green Bay and Detroit, it’s only third in the division.
The same is true on the defensive side of the ball, where Lance Briggs, Da’Norris Searcy, and Charles Tillman join Joe
Vellano and up-and-coming linebacking stud Kevin Minter as likely double digit performers. But after that – question marks. Does Julius Peppers still have it? Is Junior Galette really the best a man can get? Even a junior man? Can Terrance Brooks or Bacarri “Bacardi” Rambo (seriously, I need him to start tackling and become good, because Bacardi Rambo is probably the coolest NFL name EVER. Or at least since Will Clarke) step up at safety? Good on the top – questions on the bottom. That’s Chicago’s story again this year.
The other thing to note about the Bears is that this Bears core is getting long in the tooth. Every Franchise player with the exception of the newly franchised Vellano and Matt Forte is 30 or older, and Matt Forte is 28, which is about 35 in Running Back Years. This team has one, maybe two more years before this core needs significant adjustments. How the Bears play it, and how they compete in this division will be a fascinating story of 2014.
Owner: Pedro Fiadeiro
2013 Record: 3-13
RDR 2014 Projection: 4-12
You know who hates his life? Adrian Peterson. The guy is a certifiable stud. Now if I have super powers, this man has SUPER powers. He can not only draw insight from something Chris Berman says, he can lay hands on the man, impart some blessing, and probably actually MAKE Chris Berman insightful. Hell, he could probably make DICK VITALE insightful if he wanted. All while running for 2,000 yards, putting Chris Johnson in time-out, and rehabbing from a bad case of the gout in every extremity. He took Christian Ponder to the playoffs, for crying out loud!
But he can’t take this team to the playoffs. Not in this division. Not in this conference.
It’s a shame, really. Pedro Fiadeiro’s squad is actually much improved from last year – but the record probably won’t show it. The improvement starts on offense, where AP is joined by Quarterback Matt Cassell, who (assuming he keeps his starting job for a while) should put up competitive numbers. Greg Jennings and Kyle Rudolph should also improve, primarily because Matt’s first name is not Christian, his last name is not Ponder, and he can throw a football at least somewhat accurately. This group will be joined by a solid rookie crop including Allen Robinson, Jace Amaro, and Kelvin Benjamin.
Remember what I said about Chicago getting older? Well, I believe in this Vikings team long-term. Give this group another couple of years to grow around the young talent on this squad and the Vikings could be startlingly competitive come 2016. Of course, by then it will be too late for AP…
The Vikings defense is actually quite solid, particularly in the secondary, where the Williams brothers, Serena and Venus, err… Cary and Tramon, join stud safety Harrison Smith and serviceable sidekick MD Jennings. This group should average double digits per person per game. Chad Greenway and Jared Allen should be their studly selves, Paul Kruger is a nice fourth LB, Jonathan Bostic should take a step forward, and Andre Branch should see more playing time now that Jason Babin has gone to play for Sexy Rexy.
All told, the offense is young – but not bad. And the defense is sneak-up-on-you-and-shiv-you-in-the-side-with-a-sharpened-waffle-cone good. But the primary story in Minnesota is going to revolve around AP – does he toil forever in vain, only to see his dreams realized when he is no longer a part of this saga? Or will he go to a contender to hasten the rebuild? Only time will tell.
New York Giants
Owner: Chris Adamson
2013 Record: 1-15
RDR 2014 Projection: 12-4
Last year, the New York Giants were the laughingstock of the league. Actually, they weren’t really a laughingstock. Mostly, we all just ignored them unless we saw them on our schedule. Then, we rejoiced and celebrated by drinking wine, partying with friends, and eating Sir Robin’s minstrels. This team was an epic disaster, trading away franchise players and starter picks for rookie picks. In the off-season, the original owner who began the rebuild left, and a new owner took over who we all expected to pursue a long, slow build with all those picks.
New owner Chris Adamson flashed that plan a Johnny Manziel caliber-bird, and immediately started trading pick after
pick after pick for player after player after player. Gone are Darius Reynaud, Jeff Maehl, Brandon Pettigrew, Marcel Reese, and Brian Spurlock. Replacing them are Rashad Jennings, Antonio Brown, Heath Miller, Torrey Smith, CJ Spiller and DeAndre Hopkins. And that’s not even counting ‘slammin Sammy Watkins, he of the corked hands.
The transformation on Defense has been just as compelling, with fresh blood at every position in the form of Akiem Hicks at DE, Justin Smith at DT, a completely new linebacking core headlined by Jarod Mayo, Patrick Willis and incoming stud Chris Kirksey, William Gay at CB, and safeties Stevie Brown and Ryan Mundy. When all is said and done, the only position that hasn’t changed for the Giants is Quarterback, where Eli Manning returns to stink up the joint and pose the most significant threat to the Giants achieving their dreams.
So now that the dust is settled, how good is this team? Did Adamson really do enough to turn a one win team into a division champion? A stacked NFC East division champion, at that? Wow that’s tough. I have Dallas, the Giants and the Eagles all within ten points per game of each other, and each team has question marks. I think it’s legitimately possible that the NFC East has three playoff teams.
I give the Giants the slightest of edges – and here’s why – they have the best guys first off the bench. While the Eagles have an equally insane starting line-up, and the Cowboys have more overall roster depth, the the Giants can bring in guys like CJ Spiller and Sammy Watkins as first off the bench – and I think that depth, particularly on offense, gives them just enough to edge past Philadelphia and Dallas.
Owner: Mike Stagg
2013 Record: 12-4
RDR 2014 Projection: 12-4
Did I mention that the NFC North and NFC East are sick leagues? In the North, Detroit and Green Bay are legitimate super bowl competitors, the Bears are an excellent team, and the Vikings are quietly under-rated. It’s even WORSE in the NFC East. I just listed that ridiculous Giant roster, purchased with a mother-load of 1st round picks. But the Eagles are just as good. Last year’s division champs finished 12-4 and scored the 4th most points in football with 3127. And that was WITHOUT Jeremy Maclin for the entire year and Shane Vereen out for most of it.
This year, Stagg’s reloaded Eagles will have a full year of RGIII and get Maclin and Vereen back totally healthy. New draft pick Austin-Sefarian Jenkins replaces Lance Kendricks at the final flex, and rookie Kyle Fuller will bolster an already solid Defense.
And did I mention Shady McCoy is on this football team?
The offensive starting lineup the Eagles can trot out can compete with anyone – if everyone stays healthy and plays to potential. But to me, this team has more questions on offense than the Giants and slightly less depth. Will RGIII stay healthy and return to form? Will DeSean Jackson play as well away from Chip Kelly’s video game offense? Will Jeremy Maclin return to form after a brutal season-ending injury? Will Shane Vereen keep his role in the evil Bill Belichick’s ever-shifting backfield? And what about the drop-off after the starting eight? Where the Giants can trot out Sammy Watkins and CJ Spiller, the Eagles top back-ups are Kenbrell Thompkins, DuJuan Harris and Lance Kendricks – serviceable certainly, but not the same caliber of stud.
Stagg’s squad might make up for it on defense, though, particularly in the secondary, where Tyrann Mathieu and Tashaun Gipson make up the most opportunistic, ball-hawking safety pair in the league. These guys are bloody ruthless. I tossed an apple core towards my trash can the other day and Gipson intercepted the damn thing and returned it to the kitchen for a touchdown. And I saw the Honey Badger absolutely deck a four year old girl who was trying to leave her pre-school time-out without permission. These guys are everywhere. And while the rest of the defense doesn’t boast a lot of big names, there’s a ton of breakout potential this year – Fletcher Cox, Ziggy Ansah, Chris Long, Kyle Fuller – it’s a who’s who list of potential breakout players, especially up front.
In short – lots of questions. In one model, Philly’s offensive stars all shine, their break-outs go crazy Great Escape style, and they blow everybody else out of the division. In another scenario, though, injuries hit hard, the break-outs stay mediocre, and the Eagles finish third in the east and miss the playoffs – even with that sick-nasty line-up. The truth will likely fall somewhere in the middle – and who can say it will be enough to win the division? I think Philly and New York split their regular season series, finish with the same record, and the Giants win on a points tie-breaker.
But even then, you can’t forget about…
Owner: Robert Walters
2013 Record: 9-7
RDR 2014 Projection: 10-6
Watching this off-season, you had to feel bad for the Eagles. Stagg’s squad started the off-season head and shoulders above the competition with a great team expected to get even better with the return of key players from injury. However, both Dallas and NYG took substantial leaps forward. Instead of a cake walk to the playoffs, the Eagles face a three-way dogfight with New York and Dallas.
We talked about New York’s flashy off-season already. But while Dallas’ off-season makeover was more subtle, it was equally effective. The addition of Dexter McCluster to the big three of Romo, Murray and Bryant adds another guy with the potential to score substantial points from both the RB and WR positions. McCluster also highlights an important offensive strength for the Cowboys – versatility. While the Cowboy offense does not run seven deep with studs, it does have multiple upside guys at every position. Chris Thompson, Terrance West and Lamar Miller join Murray to form the deepest backfeld in the league, the ‘Boys have a pair of viable tight-ends in Garrett Graham and Delanie Walker, and a pair of secondary receivers to mix and match with. This depth, combined with McCluster’s versatility, should allow Dallas owner Robert Walters to pick his match-ups week-to-week and maximize his talent.
Walters has also significantly upgraded the defense – again in ways that have flown under the radar. The secondary especially should show substantial improvement this year. Gone are Richard Marshall and Darian Stewart, replaced by Bradley Fletcher and Antrel Rolle – both of whom should provide improvements of at least 4-5 ppg. While the loss of Jurrell Casey will sting, Walters has done a nice job of plugging defensive holes in free agency, bringing in AJ Klein, Chris Clemons, Jerrell Powe and Audie Cole. This defense is both better and deeper than last year.
Compared to Philly (Maclin and Vereen back) and the massive overhaul undergone by the Giants, the Cowboys don’t seem to have done a lot. But at 9-7 last year, Walters’ squad didn’t need to. This team has suddenly become very deep, and upgraded itself at key positions. I don’t think the Cowboys have the firepower to overcome the explosive teams ahead of it in the division – but they are arguably the deepest team in the division, and should injuries strike key players, this team will be lying in wait. Even if neither Philly nor the Giants stumble, the Cowboys could challenge Green Bay for the second wild card.
Owner: Matt Finn
2013 Record: 7-9
RDR 2014 Projection: 5-11
Ok… well, maybe I feel worse for new owner Matt Finn than I do for Philly. Nothing like coming into what is arguably the best division in football with a new team and finding that your four team division consists of three super bowl contenders and you. Moreover your starting QB has left to become a third-stringer, your second best receiver is Aldrick Robinson, half your defense has retired, and Alfred Morris suffers more than any other single player from a PPR scoring system that rewards big plays.
So what’s a new owner to do? Courageously fill holes and build for the future. Rather than launch into a tanking frenzy, Finn has approached the off-season deliberately and with purpose, filling the QB hole with Ryan Fitzpatrick and flipping concussion-risk star Jordan Reed to fill multiple holes on the defense. Pierre Garcon should be even better with DeSean Jackson to stretch the field and open things up for him underneath, Andre Ellington and Brent Celek should be decent complements to Morris this year, and Travis Kelce should be a high-upside replacement for Reed. This is a solid, under the radar offensive squad with some potential for upside if things break right.
On the other side of the ball, holes have been plugged but question marks remain, particularly in the center of the field and up-front. Linval Joseph and Ray McDonald anchor Washington’s new 3-4 look this year, and will provide some strong push up the middle. However, the outsides of the line are less imposing, as both Antonio Smith and Derrick Morgan should have secure starting roles, but have historically struggled to put up serious points, particularly Smith. Morgan has a higher upside – provided he can learn a new position in Tennessee. It is Middle Linebacker where the biggest questions will arise for Washington.
Rolando McClain will look to replace Sean Lee at middle linebacker, which I think is actually a great fit. Here’s why.
Sean Lee is one of the all-time leaders when measured by the new and advanced sabermetric of IR/16 – number of trips to the injured reserve per 16 games. It is difficult to replace a player with such a historically great achievement, but Rolando McClain is currently third all-time in a similarly prestigious statistic – R/16 – number of retirements per 16 games. McClain trails only Brett Favre and Michael Jordan in this category, and will look to gain on these two greats by retiring again at least once this season.
CJ Mosley is the other question mark in the middle. As a rookie with great potential, he is likely to become a mainstay on this defense. But to ask McClain and Mosley to man the middle in a brutal NFC East is asking too much. The Redskins are doing a nice job building for the future, but they will take an inevitable step back this year as the Cowboys and Giants step forward.
Oh… and guys – the basketball league just got started with their initial power rankings – and they got 15 comments in less than 24 hours! We’re getting put to shame by dudes who love watching tall guys in short shorts! Let’s get some trash-talk going in the comments section!