And we’re back to preview the South and the West with T-4 days until the start of the regular season. Rest assured that I’ll have the North and the East up before the season starts. I’ve been delayed by trying to secure a kicker and agonizing about my safety situation. Seriously? Cutting Brandian Ross? Y’all is still NUTS, Oakland!
Owner: Richard Griffith
2013 Record: 11-5 (AFC Champion, Lost Super Bowl)
RDR 2014 Projection: 10-6
I really don’t like writing about the AFC South. There’s some sort of foggy haze that hangs around the AFC South that makes my predictions even more wrong than usual (and that’s saying something!). Last year, I confidently predicted that the Houston Texans would cruise through the AFC on the way to a Super Bowl Championship. Instead, they finished 6-10, missed the playoffs and lost their owner.
I also predicted a 7-9 finish for the eventual AFC Champions, and wrote the following:
On the flip side of the ball, though, Indy has some question marks. Free agent signings have threatened the playing time of some core franchise veterans, and secondary playmaker Louis Delmas has already had run-ins with his dear friend the injury bug.
Still, if the Colts can bolster their defense, they have the offensive horses (get it? Haha. Horses. Colts. Because a colt is a horse. See? Yeah, I crack myself up…) to compete for a playoff spot.
Bad jokes aside (yeah, those aren’t going away), not only did I completely miss on the Colts overall talent level, I completely missed on the strength of their team. The Colts Offense was only 16th in the league, while the Defense recorded a top 10 finish over the second half of the year and throughout the playoff run.
This year, I once again struggle with where and how to rank GM Richard Griffith’s squad. On the plus side, the Defense returns intact and even better than last year’s playoff unit. The offensive line is scary good, anchored by Patriots Nose Tackle Chris Jones and featuring strong scoring ends Brian Robison and LaMarr Woodley. The linebacking core is full of proven studs, featuring Jerrell Freeman, Brian Orakpo, and the emerging Jason Worilds, as well as the always polarizing Trent Cole. Justin Gilbert and Darqueze Dennard form a high-pedigree, all-rookie cornerback core that should, for all their youth, improve on last year’s CB group. And Louis Delmas and Antoine Bethea are both secure starters who, while not the strength of the defense, should be serviceable. There are no holes on this unit.
How can I question the defending AFC Champion with a defense that solid?
Well, the Offense has taken a step back. Andrew Luck is still the ridiculously talented young Quarterback, lying in wait to seize the “Best QB in football” title from Peyton Manning, and both Reggie Wayne and Julian Edelman should have nice seasons. Beyond that, though, questions abound. Ahmad Bradshaw may or may not have a starting role in Indy, depending on how things go with the biggest bust that everybody still loves, Trent Richardson. Kellen Davis just got hisself cut, leaving Troy Niklas as the starting TE – a nice rookie, but certainly unlikely to take the league by storm. Jarius Wright remains stuck as a WR4 in Minnesota, and Kyle Jusczyk is both a fullback, and, judging by his name, an Alien.
End of the day, I think that the Colts use that defense and a little Luck to defend their title in a weak division. But with the offensive questions on this squad, it’s no sure thing.
Owner: David White
2013 Record: 6-10
RDR 2014 Projection: 9-7
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice… well, I endure enough shame from poor predictions that a little more won’t bother me. Yes, I like the Texans again. Like them enough that I predict they pick up the second AFC wild card and give Indy a run for their money at the top of the division.
Why? Because last year’s Texans weren’t as bad as they appeared. They faced the 5th hardest strength of schedule in the entire league, and scored under 100 points less than the Colts throughout the full season, a difference of only about 5 points per game. Also relevant, the Texans can expect a bounce-back year from Matt Schaub (and/or Derek Carr) and Arian Foster (assuming he stays healthy). The Texans can also expect more production from the bottom of their roster, as Falcons Giant Levine Toilolo should become productive, as should rookie RB Carlos Hyde.
On defense, the Texans get Brian Cushing back, and should have a defense that can rival Indy’s, as Cushing joins the best defensive player in football (JJ Watt) and newcomers with real chances to impress, such as Henry Melton (the savior of Soldier Field), Bjoern Werner (He who replaces Robert Mathis), and Whitney Mercilus (He of the best name in Linebacking). The Cornerback group is already solid and should be even better than last year, as Jonathan Cyprien and Desmond Trufant get a year older and a year better, joining established studs Johnathan Joseph and Earl Thomas.
Are there question marks for this team? Absolutely. The injury bug bit hard last year, and it could bite again this year. The Texans youngsters on both sides of the ball might not take the necessary steps forward, and there are guys on the defense (Jameel McClain, Ziggy Hood, and even Melton and Werner) who could play themselves out of a job by seasons end.
But I still like this team (and their schedule!) enough to predict a nine win season and a wild card birth, even simply on regression to the mean.
Owner: Zach Goad
2013 Record: 9-7
RDR 2014 Projection: 6-10
One of a handful of teams to miss the playoffs on a tie-breaker in the AFC’s 9-7 logjam of mediocrity (Great album title, no?), I unfortunately think the Jaguars are going the wrong direction after a surprisingly competitive 2013 campaign.
The AFC South is a division predicated on smashmouth, hard-nosed defensive football, much like the classic NFC Norris in its hey-day. That’s the “glass half-full” way of looking at it. The other way to look at it would be that most of these teams are not going to be able to find their way to the endzone with a GPS, three seeing-eye dogs, and a Crossing Guard. And that’s assuming they start from the extra point line.
Jacksonville’s Defense is, like the rest of the division, solid. Paul Posluznsky and Mason Foster provide an outstanding anchor in the heart of the defense, and should make approximately 2,892 tackles apiece. The secondary should be outstanding as the Jaguars follow the divisional blueprint: Established safeties (Kenny Vaccaro and Michael Griffin) along with rising young rookies at CB (David Amerson, Xavier Rhodes, Dwayne Gratz). The defensive line is serviceable, if unspectacular, and the Jaguars should field a competitive defense.
The offense, however, also follows the defensive blueprint – which appears to be for a ramshackle hut with an
outhouse. Indianapolis is the only team in this division with a truly strong Quarterback situation (not a small factor in my title prediction). The rest of the division is relying on youngsters who have yet to really prove they can hang (Locker in Tennessee, Carr in Houston, and EJ Manuel right here). The hype for Manuel, his mobility, and his big arm is high, but results last year were mixed. The sophomore QB has looked terrible in the pre-season, and Sammy Watkins has shown a surprising affinity for the trainer’s room, making EJ Manuel a substantial question mark for the Jags. Beyond EJ, it’s more of the same. MJD appears to have successfully fought off DMC for the starting acronym role in Oakland – and laid claim to the glorious privilege of averaging 2.4 yards per carry. Miles Austin is the best thing in Cleveland (an indictment of Cleveland more than an endorsement of Austin). And Jordan Todman and Brandon Tate will struggle for playing team and touches on their respective squads.
Could this team over-perform? Absolutely. IF the light comes on for EJ Manuel. IF Gronk actually stays healthy. IF Austin, Malcolm Floyd, and MJD discover the fountain of youth during a fishing expedition to Peru. IF Cecil Shorts has another solid year and doesn’t suddenly realize he plays for Jacksonville. There’s certainly talent here. But I just can’t see enough of these things happening to put Jacksonville back into the playoffs.
Owner: Bryan Luhrs
2013 Record: 4-12
RDR 2014 Projection: 4-12
You know those high school engineering competitions where promising young nerds build cars and boats and ovens and girlfriends from spare parts? Some unfortunate sponsor lugs random bits of metal, super glue and arts and crafts supplies to the center of a schol cafeteria, and each group tries to duct tape, sauter, and otherwise build something functional from the supplies? It’s super-impressive. A triumph of human ingenuity. But the cars made from such pieces, while impressive, only compete with really terrible cars – Geos, Ugos, Chevys and the like. They don’t really stand a chance on the NASCAR circuit.
I feel like that when I look at Commish Bryan Luhrs’ squad. This team is an actual, functional fantasy football squad, cobbled together from the craziest collection of spare parts this side of Memphis. It runs. It plays. It even has a microwave built into its torso. It will even win some games and give some of its scarier NFC opponents a run for their money. But when it comes to actually competing for a title, or even a playoff spot, it just won’t go. An engine made of duct tape and Gilberry just won’t compete with Denver’s V-36.
Defensively, I’m not even sure who to call out. You’ve got Duct Tape (Charles Johnson and Zach Brown), Poles (Jason McCourty and Nico Johnson), PVC Pipe (Silvester Williams, Brad Jones), some sort of odd adhesive chemical (Nick Fairley, Wallace Gilberry), and a few genuinely useful pieces like LaRon Landry, David Hawthorne, and Stephon Gilmore. And a whole bunch of spare parts that can’t really fit into the machine (Darius Slay, Kam Wimbley, Jared Crick, etc and so forth). It’s a defense that should be surprisingly functional. But probably can’t keep pace with the rock-solid squads in the rest of the division.
Offensively, my comparison breaks down. The Titans will run out Jake Locker at QB, throwing to the ultimate spare part, Kenny Britt. However, after that, I’ll choose a different analogy – making wine. Or smelly cheese. Young players Jeremy Hill, Justin Hunter, Ladarius Green, Andre Williams, Dwayne Allen, and Odell Beckham Jr. are all poised to be excellent players, but aren’t there yet. And therein lies the brilliance of Luhr’s plan.
2014 Offense (Bleh): Locker, Hill, Hunter, Green, Williams, Allen, Britt
2015 Offense (Very good): Bortles, Hill, Hunter, Green, Williams, Allen, Beckham
2016 Offense (World-beating): Bortles, Hill, Hunter, Green, Williams, Allen, Beckham
Those sly Titans! All they have to do is run that team out there game after game, let it age like a stinky cheese, and they
will be good! Add a few defensive parts with high draft picks… and this team might be a Terminator class robot with a confection oven in its stomach and a gourmet cheese platter.
Owner: Stuart Seraphim
2013 Record: 12-4 (Lost AFC Championship Game)
RDR 2014 Projection: 13-3
Last year, there was the NFC. And then not really much else. The one exception was the Denver Broncos, who exploded out of the gate with a 300 point week one, and rode the arm of Peyton Manning to an easy division title, before being upset by the Colts in the AFC Championship game.
I don’t think anyone quite appreciates how much better than the rest of the AFC Denver was last year. Denver scored the 3rd most points in the league last year, with 3331. The next closest AFC team was Miami, at #10, with 2868. Indianapolis, the team that knocked the Broncos out of the playoffs and took the AFC title, was #13, with 2769. And Kansas City, the closest team to the Broncos within their division, was 14th with 2746. The Broncos won their division by nearly 600 points, which translates out to almost 40 points per game. They were the best team in their CONFERENCE by almost 30 points per game. That’s dominance. In last year’s AFC, there was Denver. Then there was a long, awkward wait, during which you could go to the concession stand, use the bathroom, and cancel your Comcast subscription. And then there was everybody else.
The rest of the league has narrowed the gap a bit, the Broncos did tail off in the second half a bit, and it is unlikely that the Broncos offense will have a season quite so spectacular. But it was such a wide gap that I see no way the Broncos don’t cruise to another division title and first round bye. They have to be considered the heavy favorites to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.
Let’s take a look at the this team. The immortal Godfather of passing glory, Peyton Manning, captains a team that includes Wide-outs Anquan Boldin (PPR monster), Wes Welker (PPR monster when not concussed), Demaryius Thomas (monster in any setting), and Jeremy Ross (Kick returner. He’s cuddly. A Monsters Inc. kinda monster). Even scarier, the Broncos should be much better at both RB and TE. At RB, Montee Ball should be a certifiable top ten running back this year in PPR. Knowshown Moreno scored a bajillion fantasy points in this offense last year, and Montee (shouldn’t it be Monte? My French lessons suggest that Montee is the feminine form) Ball is much better than Moreno. At TE, the completely mortal Benji Watson will be replaced by either John Carlson or Brandon Bostick, both of whom will be better.
On Defense, however, the Broncos did experience some significant turn-over and were heavy players in free agency, signing EIGHT guys to OFF-FA contracts, including three defensive linemen and three linebackers. As might be expected, all of these guys are talented, but many also have question marks. On the veteran side, Vince Wilfork looks good, but he’s returning from a very challenging injury – will he hold up all year? John Abraham could also carve out a starting role, but is facing a suspension at some point in the season for substance abuse. Malik Jackson and Steven Means are both talented young ends, but both fit the “situational” role more than the starting role, and will need to notch power stats like sacks to really fill up the stat sheet. Calvin Pace and Matt Shaughnessy are also high upside guys and legitimate star power – but it’s fair to wonder if both will truly have a breakout year this year. The Broncos are also waiting for starters Chris Harris and Jon Beason to return from injury.
So let’s recap. The Broncos destroyed the AFC last year. They looked like the Miami Heat of Real Deal, but without an Indiana Pacers to challenge them. The offense looks even better on paper, though a regression to the mean from guys like Peyton and Demaryius should keep it about where it was last year. The defense is full of upside, but with many question marks.
All told, I don’t think this team is quite as good as it was last year, and I think that several other AFC squads are close enough to threaten (Buffalo, Cincinnati and Indianapolis all come to mind as strong threats) – but the schedule is even easier this year than it was last year, and I say that this is the year the Broncos get to the Super Bowl.
Kansas City Chiefs
Owner: Eric Duncan
2013 Record: 9-7 (Lost AFC Wild Card Game)
RDR 2014 Projection: 9-7
Say what you will about the Chiefs – they are tireless and relentless in their insatiable pursuit of mediocrity. Pulling off a startlingly silly 27 trades since the conclusion of last season, the Chiefs have nearly turned over their entire roster – Alex Smith is the only offensive player who was on the Chiefs roster exactly 1 year ago, and only 6 players on defense were on the roster a year ago. That means that out of 32 active slots, 24 of them have been turned over since the beginning of last year (can’t forget the Punter!)
So what does obsessive and uber-handsome GM Eric Duncan have to show for his efforts? Has his team actually improved in this massive overhaul? The answer appears to be no. Last year’s good luck squad squeaked into the playoffs by dint of an incredibly easy schedule and a few lucky breaks. This year’s version should be better, but the schedule should be much harder. Combined, this means that the Chiefs are looking at the same record and same situation as last year – a Wild Card berth.
On the offensive side of the ball, the Chiefs are relying heavily on return yards, with Randall Cobb, Tavon Austin and Jacoby Jones penciled in as offensive starters, and Travaris Cadet functioning as a key reserve. Giovani Bernard should be a top 10 back, particularly in this scoring system, and if Cardinals WR Michael Floyd can truly break-out across from Larry Fitzgerald, this offense could put up some points. The biggest upgrade is at Tight End, where the inept Fred Davis (It is NOT good to be Fred in Brazil, or anywhere else) is replaced by a pair of Air Jordans – Reed and Cameron.
On Defense, the Chiefs are a bit more stable, with six starting spots taken by players on franchise contracts. Everson
Griffen and Dontario Poe anchor a decent line, Justin Houston, Derrick Johnson and D’Qwell Jackson form a formidable line-backing core, and Eric Berry and Bernard Pollard team up to make a nice franchise safety tandem. Potential holes exist at Defensive End and in the secondary, however, where KC’s depth has been threatened by Dmitri Patterson, who disappeared for 48 hours to save the world from Kyle Juczczyk, only be castigated and cut by a guy with a foot fetish. It’s a cruel, cruel world.
All told, this team is better than last year, and is loaded with potential breakout players. However, almost every player comes with real question marks, and this team also has the potential to be extremely mediocre. Combined with a much tougher schedule, this team should make the playoffs, but doesn’t have much shot at dethroning the Broncos.
San Diego Chargers
Owner: P. Ackerman
2013 Record: 7-9
RDR 2014 Projection: 6-10
The San Diego Chargers are a team of solid players who have the misfortune to play in a division with Denver. From top to bottom, the word that best describes this team is “decent”. No glaring holes. But very few explosive players. Good enough to be competitive, but probably not good enough to win, even in a watered down AFC.
On offense, Phillip Rivers is a decent quarterback – the closest thing to a star the Chargers have. Ryan Matthews was supposed to be a star – but instead is decent. Antonio Gates once was a star – now he’s only decent. Jacquizz Rodgers and James Jones are the very definition of decent, and even Jermaine Kearse is decent as a seventh man. The one guy I’m having a hard time figuring out is Darrius Heyward-Bey – who was expected to be a star and was never even decent. He doesn’t quite fit the mold. This team is decent from top to bottom – every starter besides Heyward-Bey should get double digit points per game this year. But I’m not sure there’s anyone on this team who gets 20.
On defense, the same story holds true, with the notable exception of linebacker. Corey Liuget, Domata Peko and Shaun Phillips form a decent offensive line, and Nolan Carroll and Robert Mclain (the more motivated and less retirement-prone version of Rolando) should form a nice core secondary along with Eric Weddle, the defensive captain and the only guy on the entire team who is truly far better than mediocre. The second safety spot is likely to be filled by Jets up-and-comer Calvin Pryor, and if he is who Rex thinks he can be, the secondary could be a very strong suit for the Chargers.
That said, the linebacking core is a mess for the Chargers right now. Kevin Burnett was waived in a recent surprise move, which leaves Donald Butler and Jarvis Jones as the only Linebackers on the roster. San Diego, meet Atlanta and Arizona. Atlanta and Arizona, meet San Diego. Y’all should talk. The recent waiving of Alan Branch further hurts the depth of the team, as it means that another DT/LB spot that will need to be filled by a rookie lineman.
This year’s Chargers squad has only one glaring hole. But it also mostly consists of replacement level players. It won’t be as bad in the AFC as it would be in the NFC – but I don’t think those games against the Broncos star-power are going to be much fun.
Owner: Nick Tomanelli
2013 Record: 5-11
RDR 2014 Projection: 6-10
One might read this projected record and assume that the Raiders had not gotten any better. Nothing could be further from the truth – it’s just that this improvement may not show up in the Wins column for another year. Make no mistake though – this team is better. And it is poised to be a serious contender in 2015.
It’s on offense that the big names really jump out at you, and where the Raiders will look to make their biggest jump. Carson Palmer should provide real points at an affordable price on offense, as the Raiders won the off-season Free Agency sweepstakes. Hakeem Nicks should also have a real role and a chance to score some serious points. It’s in the future that this receiving core should really shine, though.
2014 starters: Carson Palmer, Eddie Lacy, Nate Burleson, Hakeem Nicks, Tyler Eifert, Jordan Mathews, Andre Holmes. First guy of the bench De’Anthony Thomas.
2015 projected starters: Carson Palmer (same), Eddie Lacy (even better than 2014), Josh Gordon (back from suspension), Hakeem Nicks, Tyler Eifert (even better than 2014), Jordan Mathews (better), Andre Holmes (better). And De’Anthony Thomas (better).
This team may struggle a bit as guys get accustomed to roles in 2014. By 2015, the Raiders should be an offensive machine. And we haven’t even said anything about Practice Squad stash Davante Adams.
On defense, this team has some very nice playmakers in Charles Woodson, Nick Roach, and Paul Worrilow, but may struggle outside of the top guys. Lamarr Houston is a nice player, but isn’t worth his contract, and Rey Maualuga and Pat Sims are semi-nice players who play football. The rest of the defense, like the offense, consists of guys looking for their big break or guys looking to produce in their first or second year as a starter – Damontre Moore, Jonathan Hankins, Corey Wootton, Tyvon Branch and Melvin While all fall into these categories. Should these guys find their stride, this Oakland defense could look a lot better by the end of the year than by the beginning.
Oakland GM Nick Tomanelli appears to have his run perfectly timed… He’ll give Manning, Welker, and the Denver oldsters another year or two – but when the sun sets on their empire, he’ll have one of his own to raise.
Back soon with the final two divisions and my playoff picks – in the meantime, what do you think? Agree? Disagree? Let me know below!