Are you ready for some regular season NFL football? If you are, the wait – thankfully – won’t be much longer. The 2014 NFL season is due to kickoff on Thursday night with the reigning Super Bowl champs Seattle Seahawks hosting my Green Bay Packers. Here are five teams – including the Packers, of course – that I’ll be keeping an eye on as the pros return to gridirons all across the United States for games that really matter.
Green Bay Packers
The Packers can be expected to have another stellar offensive year if the typically steady right hand of star QB Aaron Rodgers remains on the controls throughout the 2014 season. The departure of veteran wideout James Jones via free agency opens the door for Randall Cobb to firmly establish himself as the team’s No.2 receiver behind Jordy Nelson. With hard-charging Pro Bowler and NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year Eddie Lacey leading the ground attack, the Packer’s offense has the potential to be one of the most dynamic and versatile in the NFC.
The defensive side of the ball is where the biggest question marks currently exist. The season-ending injury to nose tackle B.J. Raji seemingly thrusts offseason acquisition Letroy Guion, who’s had an undistinguished NFL career to date, into a starting slot at one of the unit’s most important positions. If he and the rest of his D-line mates play well, it could free up the potentially destructive pass rushing duo of perennial Pro Bowler Clay Matthews and one-time Chicago Bears sack machine Julius Peppers to wreak havoc in opposing backfields. If they don’t, Green Bay’s secondary, which gave up over 247 passing yards per contest last season, could again find itself under pressure.
It’s very unlikely that another 8-win campaign will be good enough to take the NFC North crown this time around. Then again, if Rodgers remains healthy, the Pack should at least break into double figures.
The Denver Broncos put up some video game numbers on offense last year as they swaggered all the way to the Super Bowl. Having made it there, however, they were ruthlessly roughed up by the much more physical Seattle Seahawks, ultimately losing one of the most lopsided games in Super Bowl history by a 43-8 margin. Despite the offense’s underwhelming performance in the Super Bowl, the Peyton Manning-led unit remained largely intact throughout the offseason – and justifiably so, too.
The same can’t be said for the defense though. An eventful offseason in the “Mile High City” saw a number of potential difference makers joining the fray. The likes of Pro Bowl cornerback Aqib Talib, Dallas Cowboys career sack leader DeMarcus Ware, Pro Bowl safety T.J. Ward, and playmaking rookie corner Bradley Roby have all come in. On the flipside, all four members (Champ Bailey, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Duke Ihenacho, and Mike Adams) of the secondary which started the Super Bowl just a few short months ago have either been waived or opted to sign elsewhere. They’ve also bid adieu to productive linebackers Shaun Phillips and Wesley Woodyard.
While all of the abovementioned moves will have some impact, it’s the return of a fit and firing Von Miller which could just make the biggest difference. At his Pro Bowl-going best, as he was in 2012, Miller is a pass rushing, quarterback crunching demon with the potential to approach 20 sacks over any 16-game stretch. Regaining the type of explosiveness required to achieve these feats immediately after a serious ACL tear is never easy though.
Even an average season (by his lofty standards) will see Manning claim the NFL record for most passing touchdowns, which is currently held by the legendary Brett Favre. However, it’s an elusive second Super Bowl title that would significantly strengthen his case in the G.O.A.T. debate.
Based solely on their 2-14 record, one could be forgiven for thinking that the Texans were terrible on both offense and defense during the 2013 season. That conclusion would actually be pretty close to the truth. Their turnover-prone offense, which was led by Matt Schaub for most of the season, stunk up the joint to epic proportions. They were third to last in touchdowns scored (28) and second to last in points tallied (276). The toxic combination of interceptions and fumbles also conspired to confine them to dead last in the critical turnover differential (-20) battle.
Their defense was only marginally better – if at all. They gave up almost 27 points per game while recording just 32 sacks and a league-low seven interceptions.
For their ineptitude, the Texans were “rewarded” with the 1st pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. They used it to select defensive end/outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney, who quite a few people have suggested is a once-in-a-generation type talent. Suddenly, with a young defensive core in place that also includes former NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt and the returning inside linebacker Brian Cushing, the Texans actually seem to have the makings of a very solid defensive unit. After all, the stinginess of their secondary was one of the few bright spots last year.
If the serviceable Ryan Fitzpatrick can manage the offense effectively, they should also be much better than they were a season ago on that side of the ball. Providing that many-time Pro Bowler Andre Johnson is fully fit again, he should pair with second-year man DeAndre Hopkins to form one of the most potent wide receiver combos in the NFL. A hale and hearty Arian Foster could also go back to being the dynamic 1000-yard back that he’s been for three out of his five seasons in the league.
A dismal 4-12 record, which ensured that their postseason drought stretched beyond 10 consecutive campaigns, spurred the Raiders to embark on yet another offseason marked by frenzied activity. A lot of players went. A lot of players came. However, it appears that many of the major issues – such as the lack of stability and continuity at quarterback – behind the franchise’s precipitous fall from grace still remain.
To the Raiders credit, they’ve added quite a few players who know what it’s like to win – and win consistently – in the NFL. (It’s obvious that changing a seemingly ingrained culture of losing demands such injections.) They also added a couple players via the 2014 NFL Draft who have the ability to become important contributors to the team’s (hoped) success in the near future.
The crop of veteran additions is headed by former Pro Bowl defensive end Justin Tuck and center Kevin Boothe, who both fitted two Super Bowl rings while New York Giants. Wide receiver James Jones and defensive end LaMarr Woodley also bring one apiece from their days with the Packers and Steelers respectively.
Meanwhile, the rookie class is led by the team’s new franchise quarterback Derek Carr. David Carr’s big-armed younger brother outplayed veteran Matt Schaub, who the Raiders had traded for earlier in the offseason, for the starting gig that’ll make him about the 16th different QB to start a game for the franchise since Rich Gannon retired.
It also includes the highly rated middle linebacker Khalil Mack, who many experts had rated as one of the best prospects in this year’s draft class.
Even with a rookie under center, the Raiders appear to be significantly enough improved to post a better record than the one they labored to last season. (They also added former Jacksonville Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew who, if at his best, should relieve a lot of the pressure already being piled on the shoulders of the young triggerman.) However, the odds of them breaking their lengthy playoff drought are still very long.
San Francisco 49ers
The last three seasons have seen the 49ers re-emerge as one of the NFL’s best teams. In all three of these campaigns, they’ve made it at least as far as the NFC Championship Game. From there, however, it’s invariably turned out to be a case of so near and yet so far away. They came out on the wrong end of very tight NFC title contests in both 2011 and 2013, losing by a grand total of nine points to eventual champions New York and Seattle respectively. Meanwhile, when they made it to the Super Bowl in 2012, they were pipped 34-31 by the Baltimore Ravens.
Theoretically, the pass offense is in the best position to succeed that it’s been in for a while. Improving quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who inked a “loaded” contract extension during the offseason, should continue his maturation into a truly elite quarterback behind one of the league’s most physical offensive lines. This process should be aided by the addition of new weapons like former Bills receiver Stevie Johnson and the athletic rookie Bruce Ellington. Having a fully fit Michael Crabtree for the entire season should also make a big difference to a team which averaged just 186 pass yards per game in 2013.
Former Ohio State running back Carlos Hyde should provide an extremely physical complement to the underrated Frank Gore. Behind the likes of Pro Bowlers Joe Staley and Mike Iupati, these two should have very productive seasons.
Unusually, it’s on defense that things appear a bit cloudy for the Niners. Serial sacker Aldon Smith’s 9-game suspension is the type of blow that very few teams can overcome. His lengthy timeout coupled with the injury-induced absence of NaVorro Bowman means that they’ll likely be without two of the NFL’s best linebackers for most of the regular season. They’ll also be working with a rejigged secondary that should include freshly signed former Pro Bowl safety Antoine Bethea, who moved from Indianapolis during the offseason.
If any team can overcome these issues, one figures it would be the rough and ready 49ers though.
The cyclical nature of sporting dominance dictates that San Francisco’s stellar run won’t last forever. Despite having a relatively young core of key components, their window of opportunity could close in a hurry – like it has for so many teams and athletes before them. Only time will tell if they can convert their elite talent into a Super Bowl trophy at the end of the 2014 season.