Sunday, August 28, 2016

NFC North Preview

Can Teddy Bridgewater lead the Vikings to back-to-back divisional titles? 

Minnesota Vikings

Previous Season Record: (11-5)

Key Acquisition(s): Michael Griffin, Alex Boone

Key Loss(es): Mike Wallace, Casey Matthews

Any uptick in offense will be directly related to Teddy Bridgewater’s improvement.  The team has expressed a desire for the 3rd year QB to be more aggressive going down the field (they were 31st in passing yards and 25th in yards per attempt). Coming out of the University of Louisville, Bridgewater was lauded for his quick and quality decision-making and accuracy.  His detractors’ loudest cries during the draft came about how small he was and his lack of arm strength.  Offensive coordinator, Norv Turner’s offense is predicated on 7-step drops and deep throws. The deep drops expose the relatively diminutive QB to more/bigger hits. The throws are something that will certainly challenge his skill set.  Will Bridgewater be capable of being the QB they need? Can Adrian Peterson be a legit receiving threat and add a dimension to his game and the offense as a whole? Will LaQuan Treadwell be able to match the production from surprise standout and fellow receiver Stefon Diggs. Despite returning the core of their offensive players, plenty of questions abound for the Minnesota Vikings offense.

Somehow with the best running back in the League on their team, the defense is the most effective side of the ball. They gave up the 5th fewest points in the League.  They were a “bend but don’t break” mentality, they didn’t take the ball away much (19th in the NFL), and as a result they were on the field more than nearly any defense in the League (28th). The defense should only improve as 3rd year player, Anthony Barr continues to shine from the linebacker position. 

Chicago Bears

Previous Season Record: (6-10)

Key Acquisition(s): Danny Trevathan, Akeem Hicks,

Key Loss(es): Matt Slauson,  Antrel Rolle , Martellus Bennett

On the one hand, Jay Cutler had one of his most productive seasons under new offensive coordinator Adam Gase.  Unfortunately, Cutler won’t have Martellus Bennett nor Matt Forte as both have moved on in free agency. And Gase took a job with the Dolphins. They’ll need second year WR Kevin White to contribute immediately, after he missed all of last season with an injury. There is major turnover on the line with 3 Offensive lineman moving (Bobby Massie, Manuel Ramirez, Ted Larsen). With so many changes on this side of the ball, it’s hard to predict what the offense will actually look like.

Bears fans are itching to see Kevin White in some regular season action (Chicago Tribune)

John Fox was brought in to help a struggling defense.  They improved from 31st to 20th in points allowed per game.  They most noticeably improved in their pass defense, going 30th in yards surrendered through the air to 4th. The organization has clearly made a conscious effort to spend more, and devote more resources to the defensive side of the ball; after years of investing mainly in the offense. The additions of defensive tackle Akeem Nicks and linebacker Danny Trevathan should solidify a run defense that is still in the bottom third for yards allowed per attempt. And three of the first four picks in the draft were defenders.

Prediction: With Green Bay and the Vikings in this division, I can’t see the Bears making a serious push for a playoff spot.

Green Bay Packers

Previous Season Record: (10-6)

Key Acquisition(s): Jared Cook,

Key Loss(es): BJ Raji, Casey Heyward, James Jones, John Kuhn

The Packers are always a fascinating offseason team.  Rarely does the team acquire free agents of any magnitude (their last likely candidate was Julius Peppers two offseasons ago).  Instead, the Packers choose to draft and keep their players—valuing fit and chemistry as highly as anything else.  This offseason was no different.  Health played a huge role in last season’s narrative.  The Packers lost Jordy Nelson before the season began, and saw their offense sputter—particularly at the end of the season.  They ended in the middle of the pack in terms of points scored per game, but they were nearly last in yards per attempted pass.  Considering Aaron Rodgers’ talent, the more conservative play-calling was a marked change considering the Packers led the League in the stat just the year before. Without Nelson available to command extra defensive help down the field, the Packers wide receivers were exposed as mediocre athletes who couldn’t separate.  Rodgers saw a lot of tight man coverage; leaving the defense with additional players to bracket or blitz. Perhaps the offense’s fate rests on the fate of Nelson.

You don't know what you got 'til it's gone. Will Nelson's return mean a return to dominance? (USA Today)

The Packers struggled against the run last season.  Despite his contribution to the Packers’ most recent Super Bowl win, BJ Raji became expendable at the nose tackle position when the team finished 29th in yards allowed per rushing attempt. With their offense struggling a bit more than usual, the defense was exposed.  In order to keep Rodgers off the field, opposition will run the ball. They’ll need to improve in order to return to the top of the division.
Prediction: I think anytime you have a top 3 QB, you’ve got a fighting chance.  Jared Cook will have a big season as tight End, combine that with Nelson’s return and this team will return to the playoffs—but will fall short of winning the division.  

Detroit Lions

Key Acquisition(s): Marvin Jones, Andre Caldwell

Key Loss(es): Calvin Johnson (retired), Reshean Mathis (retire)

You lose Calvin Johnson from a mediocre offense, and conventional wisdom says that your offense will suffer.  Conventional wisdom…is probably completely right in this regard.  They picked up Caldwell and Jones, and Stafford has talked about multiple guys stepping up, and it actually being tougher on teams because they won’t be able to key on anyone. I’m not going to call him a liar…because I’m not sure if he believes what he is saying or not.  Regardless, they won’t be as good scoring the ball—something that they already struggled with. They allowed 44 sacks (21st in the NFL), so much of their draft was devoted to adding talent on the offensive line.  One thing seems clear, as ambiguous as his career has been, Stafford will certainly show his worth this season.

While Mathis leaving isn’t the same as Johnson, he was one of the few bright spots for a largely unremarkable defense.  They were as middling against the run (20th in the league in yards allowed per rush) as they were against the pass (21st in the league in yards allowed per pass).

Prediction: This team is still finding its legs after one of the best players to ever play his position abruptly retired. At least they have experience with this sort of thing, right? No playoffs for the Lions.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

AFC West Preview

Derek Carr & Kahlil Mack will be the stars of the division

Kansas City Chiefs

Last Season Record:  (11-5)

Key Acquisition(s): Rod Streater

Key Loss(es): Sean Smith, Chase Daniel, Donald Stephenson

The KC Chiefs had one of the most interesting regular seasons you’ll see in the NFL.  They started out the season 1-5, then came thundering back to win 10 straight games. Most closely responsible for the turnaround was the defensive effort the Chiefs received. After giving up 30+ points in three of their first four games, the team never surrendered more than 22 for the remaining of the season.  They’ll miss Sean Smith, a rangy corner that was one of the better guys at his position last season.  They’ll still have Eric Berry (who was franchised this offseason) will have to lead that secondary—which includes the defensive player of the year Marcus Peters.  On the front end, the Chiefs still have Tamba Hali…but fellow pass rusher Justin Houston could very well miss the entire season with injury and will start on the PUP list.  The defense was 3rd in points allowed per game, with two major components missing how will they respond?

What will Jamaal Charles give them off his second ACL injury? David E. Klutho (Sports Illustrated)

Somehow the team lost its most potent weapon and managed to succeed.  Jamaal Charles was recently removed from the PUP list and can resume full participation in practice.  They replaced Charles with Knile Davis, Charcandrick West, and Spencer Ware. QB Alex Smith was his usual self, right on his KC averages in terms of TDs, INTs, and yards per attempted pass. The Chiefs (even without their starting runner for the majority of the season), were 29th in pass attempts per game, 30th in yards, and 26th in total pass TDs.  Smith is who he is, a steady (KC had the least INTs of any team) captain on a talented team.

Prediction: There’s no reason to think this team won’t be good again.  Defense and running (they were 6th in yards and first in rushing TDs) travels well; their defense won’t be quite as good so I predict they will compete for a wildcard berth in what will be an extremely competitive division in football.

Denver Broncos

Last Season Record: (12-4) Super Bowl Winner

Key Acquisition(s): Russell Okung, Donald Stephenson, Mark Sanchez

Key Loss(es): Malik Jackson, Danny Trevathan, Brock Osweiler, Peyton Manning (retire)

I didn’t get an appreciation for exactly good the defense was until the QB play became deplorable. At every level of the defense the Broncos sported extreme talent.  But as with any successful team, it was difficult to keep personnel.  Jackson (defensive tackle) and Trevathan (linebacker) are gone and corner Aqib Talib is recovering from…uh…something. Von Miller will have to be just as dominant as he was last season to create the requisite havoc for the opposition. Without major contributors, can this defense be good enough to supplement a changing and, perhaps, diminished offense?

Can Sanchez manage this team well enough to return to the postseason? 

The drama surrounding the team (other than the Miller holdout) was the complete overhaul of the quarterback position. Manning retired, and it was thought that Osweiler (after having some starts last season) would come into camp as the starter.  A game of Free Agent Chicken resulted in Osweiler departing and Sanchez coming in.  Trevor Siemean will compete as well.  Both will be keeping the seat warm for Paxton Lynch, who the Broncos took in the first round of the draft. 

Prediction: The defense won’t be as good, there are real question marks about who will head the offense.  I hope the Broncos fans enjoyed the Super Bowl run last year, because they won’t make the playoffs this season.

San Diego Chargers

Last Season record: (4-12)

Key Acquisition(s):  Travis Benjamin, Brandon Mebane

Key Loss(es): Eric Weddle, Malcolm Floyd, LaDarius Green

Not a lot of reason to smile from Philip Rivers

Last season was a disappointment on a large scale.  With a potential looming move to LA, it felt like the Chargers were going to say goodbye to San Diego on a sour note. The team never came together and puttered to a 4 win season, easily the worst wins total of Philip Rivers’ career. Rivers still put together a solid season even with the losses, he simply didn’t have the weapons at his disposal necessary to win.  It was a bit surprising that the Chargers let promising TE Green go, as Antonio Gates enters the winter of his career. Floyd is retiring, so they will need a big season out of Benjamin—it’ll be interesting to see if he was held back in the tumultuous conditions of Cleveland.

Weddle was a stalwart of that team and defense.  His departure wasn’t a surprise given his age, but it does mark the end of an era.  They were one of the worst against the run last season, so enter in Mebane—a talented nose tackle to sure up a defense that gave up 30th most yards per rush attempt. If they don’t sure up the run defense, it’ll be another dismal season.

Prediction: No playoffs again for the Chargers. They were bad last season, and they’ll be bad again this season.  It really feels like Rivers is doomed to waste the rest of his HoF talent with a ineffectual team.

Oakland Raiders

Last Season’s Record: (7-9)

Key Acquisition(s): Sean Smith, Bruce Irvin, Reggie Nelson

Key Loss(es):   Rod Streater, Charles Woodson (retired), Justin Tuck (retired)

Derek Carr continues to make large improvements from year to year. They were 31st in points per game and 32nd in yards two seasons ago, and last season were 17th and 24th respectively.  Another year should see Carr improve, especially as he builds chemistry with WR Amari Cooper. Running back LaTavius Murray is the presumed starter (coming off his first 1,000 yard season), but keep an eye on 5th round selection DeAndre Washington out of Texas Tech who is making waves leading up to the regular season. They’ll need to improve running the ball, because the team was in the bottom third in terms of rushing yards and rushing touchdowns.  According to Pro Football Focus (people who pay close attention to offensive line play) the Raiders could have one of the best offensive lines in the NFL this season.  Another year under offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave (one that saw the Raiders make franchise history with the first season that had a 4,000 yard passer, 1,000 yard rusher, 1,000 yard receiver) will likely see an improvement on this side of the ball.

As much promise as the offense holds, the defense is the more star-studded side of the ball. Kahlil Mack continues to prove he’s one of the best pass rushers in the League. They’ve added Irvin to bolster the attack and 2nd round pick Jihad Ward is flashing signs of real promise that he will contribute in his first season. The secondary lost Charles Woodson and his experience, and has replaced him with Reggie Nelson and 1st round pick Karl Joseph at the safety positions.  2013 draft pick DJ Hayden looks like he’ll make an impact alongside David Amerson, to totally revamp the lagging secondary.  If they can get Aldon Smith back (he will have an opportunity to apply for reinstatement in November), then this defense can be the best in the League.

Prediction: The Oakland Raiders will win the AFC West. There isn’t a ton of players with winning experience on the team with Tuck and Woodson departing, but there’s just too much talent for me to go anywhere else for this pick.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Perfect Strangers

Winning or abject embarrassment. Those are the only options #GoodLuck

So a weird thing keeps happening on America’s romp to the gold medal in men’s basketball.  These cats keep teetering on the edge of losing. After the Australia game that was a spirited competition throughout, the big test for the team looked to be over (at least for pool play).  Instead, the ten point margin of victory (a bit misleading given the closeness of the majority of the contest) has proven to be their largest in the past three games. Since then, they’ve beaten Serbia and France by three points apiece.

Obviously the international basketball landscape has changed a ton since the 1992 Olympic Dream Team. The NBA employs a large contingent of people from other continents, so the days of the USA jersey making opponents faint like Scarlett O’Hara at the BET awards are done. Instead, the US team has faced two or more current/former NBA players in four of the team’s five opening games (get it together, Venezuela).

The USA program was supposed to be radically different as well.  Following the Assault in Athens (best I could do, there should be some sort of alliteration for that squad) the entire domestic basketball landscape was altered to foster more internationally-friendly basketball teams that are more adept at playing together.  This team is a bit of a throwback.  Despite having multiple wings and interchangeable players, there are few traditional point guards (Kyle Lowry is the most experienced in this regard, and if you saw him in the playoffs…yea).  Moreover, due to some late-ish scratches, the team isn’t as talented as recent ones, hasn’t played as much together at all.

Perhaps even more interesting than the rocky road the US team is currently traversing, the underscoring of the importance of chemistry—and the contrast of on-court vs off-court chemistry.  Anyone that has seen the Snapchat or social media of the team members (look at me not making a Draymond Green joke), can see that they get along.  But on court they still look like talented players from disparate teams.  If this team does end up losing it’ll be because of a lack of communication on the defensive end (watching one play after another get beaten on backdoor cuts, or simple pick and roll defense getting cut to ribbons has been rough) or offensively going 1-on-5.

But hey, if you think they’ll lose you can get some good odds on all the other teams in the tournament. Because what’s more American than finding a way to make money in a tough situation?

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Why You Hating? NFL Edition

We get this matchup at least twice this year, tell me God isn't a sports fan

Think about the person you really don’t like; not the barista that routinely fouls up your name, or the co-worker that laughs at all their own jokes, I’m talking about that person you really can’t stand.  Is it your boss that passed you up for that promotion you deserve? Is it the jerk who hit your car and didn’t even leave a note? Whoever it is, you more than likely seethe whenever you see or think of them.  Sadly, your life doesn’t allow for you to physically assault that person free from repercussion.
That is, unless you’re a football player.
With the 2016 NFL season nearly upon us, it seems like an apt time to get personal. These entities will have more than a passing animosity towards one another.

RGIII vs Washington

No one outside of Dallas will be pulling harder against the football team in the Nation’s capital than RG3.  He may not have been the easiest guy to get along with at his former place of employment, but there definitively seemed to be two sets of rules for how he was treated vs how his successor has been. Watching Washington crash and burn (especially due to poor QB play) will certainly inspire some thinly-veiled, shade-filled meme about perseverance.
There's no real caption needed here. (Getty Images)

And don’t you dare think that guys in that building (particularly ones that made the decision to move on from RG3) aren’t hoping Griffin talks and plays his way out of the good graces of the fans of Believeland.  Remember, Kirk Cousins got franchised—meaning he is only under contract for a year. So a bad season out of the new incumbent starter could mean that a) the team would fail to make the postseason and b) the team would have to get back into the QB market. Both would mean that head coach Jay Gruden could replace Griffin as the most hated Washingtonian, and chopping block resident.

Philadelphia vs Chip Kelly

Chip Kelly came into town like a conquering hero.

And left with the Philly folk trailing him with pitchforks.

His time in Philly gave Kelly plenty of reason to be angry via @JClarkCSN

In his three years in Philly, LeSean McCoy, DeSean Jackson, and Jeremy Maclin all left or were traded (remember, Kelly fought to get personnel power added to his position). Additionally he brought in Kiko Alonso and Byron Maxwell (both of whom were jettisoned soon after Kelly’s departure. Somehow the mess he made in Philly didn’t deter another squad from scooping him up, as the 49ers made sure the coach wouldn’t be unemployed for more than a few weeks.   If he has success in San Francisco while Philly is still rebuild from Kelly’s mistakes, the public vitriol will exceed Donovan McNabb levels.

Chip Kelly allegedly didn’t like people in Philly while he was there. You KNOW he wants to watch the people who fired him struggle as mightily as possible. Plus his success at a franchise that has had so much talent walk out recently would mean that it was his former venue that held most of the fault, and not him. Essentially setting up the most , “It’s not me, it’s actually you” sentiment since Spanglish.

Mario Williams vs Rex Ryan

There’s no way to have a post about NFL beef and not mention Rex Ryan once.  When these two got together last season, the general consensus was that Ryan would be able to get the most out of the former Pro Bowler. Instead the Bills fans were treated to Williams’ least effective year as an NFL player, and some surprising criticisms of Ryan’s defensive schemes. Now Williams is in Miami and will get the opportunity to go against a Ryan-coached team.  It’ll be interesting to see a personally invested Williams against a guy that has never been shy about expressing himself; about Williams or anything else.
Finding an angry picture of Rex Ryan was super easy (USATSI)

It’s Rex Ryan. If you don’t think the 50 cent of NFL coaches enjoys a good scrap, you haven’t been paying attention.  I’m sure their October 23rd meeting will be good for a few soundbytes, if not a few big plays.

Josh Norman vs Odell Beckham Jr.

It looked like the lone meeting between the cornerback and wide receiver would have to be enough for burgeoning rivalry. God and Free Agency felt differently, and now we can look forward to two meetings a year between the starting DB for Washington and the number one WR for the Giants. We all remember the first time these two got together, I’m sure both will play hypeman and talent in their upcoming rematches.

Both Norman and Beckham have had plenty to say since their original matchup. For what it’s worth, Beckham got off easy the last time they played, launching himself like a missile at Norman’s head was dangerous and could have resulted in catastrophic injuries or worse.  Let’s hope that their future confrontations will be spirited, but much safer.

Monday, August 8, 2016

AFC East2016 Preview

Maybe four games off for the 39 year-old QB isn't the worst thing in the world (USATSI)

Round 2 of our preview takes us to the AFC East, which has been dominated by Tom Brady and company for the past 15 years.  With Brady out the first four games of the season due to suspension, perhaps this volume of the story ends differently.

Buffalo Bills

Record Last Season: (8-8)

Key Loss(es): Bacarri Rambo, Mario Williams,
Key Acquisition(s): Shaq Lawson (draft), Reggie Ragland (draft), Reggie Bush

The Bills brought in Rex Ryan after a (9-7) season and promptly went (8-8). The team went from allowing the 4th fewest points in the NFL under then-Head Coach Doug Marrone, to a middling 15thin that category under Ryan. Moreover, the team finished a paltry 25th in sacks per game.  Ryan was brought in because of his previous success and because of his defensive acumen. So far in his tenure, he seems to have brought neither. With a (relatively) new coach, it should come as no surprise that several changes are on the way.  Three starters on the defensive side of the ball are leaving as Mario Williams, Nigel Bradham, and Bacarri Rambo departed. Clemson standout and first round pick Shaq Lawson will try to bolster the pass rushing game, (although he’s been battling an injury). 2nd round pick Reggie Ragland may miss the season with an acl tear. It is a decidedly fluid situation for the side of the ball that must improve.

Rex Ryan gets another year to implement his system (Kevin Hoffman USA Today Sports)

Career backup Tyrod Taylor turned out to be the best quarterback under any Ryan-coached team. He suffered an injury and missed a couple of games and still made his first Pro Bowl.  Number one WR Sammy Watkins and starting running back LeSean McCoy also missed time with injury.  The team still managed to lead the League in rushing touchdowns, rushing yards, and yards per rush. Despite the disappointment on defense, the running game was perfectly indicative of a Ryan team. Taylor will need to stay healthy and increase his aggressiveness to bolster the passing game, which was 31st in attempts and 28th in yards. 

Prediction: A season after a coaching change and despite suffering injuries to the starting QB, WR, and RB, the team was relatively successful. Another year under Ryan has to improve the defense, right? They’ll compete for the division, and likely secure a Wild Card slot.

New England Patriots

Record Last Season: (12-4)

Key Losses: Tom Brady (4 game suspension), Chandler Jones, Jerod Mayo, Brandon LaFell
Key acquisition(s): Martellus Bennett, Chris Long, Frank Kearse

Will Coach Bill Belichick be able to work his magic w/ number 10?

So…Tom Brady…yea. After hundreds of hours of litigation and thousands of speculation, Brady decided to drop his appeal of his suspension for ball-tampering.  That means that Jimmy Garoppolo will start the season behind center.  This case and the resulting penalty have been looming for awhile, so there was a chance this scenario was going to play out last season; as such, Garoppolo should be well-prepared for his starting duties.  New acquisition Martellus Bennett will form a glorious tight end duo with Rob Gronkowski that should aid in Garoppolo’s transition. Dion Lewis (lost last season to an ACL injury), will be alongside LeGarrette Blount to give the QB a full complement of offensive weapons. Add that to Garoppolo’s scrambling ability and the offense that scored the 3rd most points per game last season, and the Patriots will be just fine until Tommy Terrific gets back at the helm.

The defense was top 10 in terms of points per game allowed. They’ve lost Jerod Mayo and Chandler Jones at the starting Linebacker positions.  Both guys provided athleticism to the front seven and helped sure up the rush defense that was top 10 in terms of yards allowed and touchdowns.  Perhaps because of their relative lack of talent in the secondary, the team picked up Long and Kearse to increase the team’s pass rushing talent. If they can apply more pressure to the QB, the secondary won’t have to play defense for that long.

Prediction: Brady missing a quarter of the regular season will be different, but if the team can go .500 over those four games, they should win the division again.

New York Jets

Record Last Season: (10-6)

Key Loss(es): D’Brickashaw Ferguson (retired), Chris Ivory
Key Acquistion(s): Matt Forte, Ryan Clady

Has any team specialized in offseason QB controversy more than the Jets? Last season, right before the season started saw a Jets LB break QB Geno Smith’s jaw and knock him out of the starting lineup.  This season, last season’s starter, Ryan Fitzpatrick, played contract chicken up until the last hour.  The parties eventually settled on a 1 year deal, and Fitzpatrick will reprise his role of starting QB—a good sign considering the season he put together was the best of his career. Matt Forte will replace Chris Ivory at the running back position, and Clady (acquired through trade) should be an improvement over the retired Ferguson.

Winter is Coming, let's see if Fitz will be ready (USATSI)

Head Coach Todd Bowles was brought in for his defensive prowess, and it’s obvious when looking at the draft selections for the Jets. Three of their first four selections were on that side of the ball. Darron Lee from OSU and University of Georgia’s Jordan Jenkins will bolster the LB position. That should aid their already stellar defensive run front—good enough to be top 5 in yards allowed per rush, rushing  touchdowns allowed,  and rushing yards per game. The team was a bit more susceptible to the pass, but the defense was still top 10 in terms of points allowed per game.

Prediction: I don’t believe in Fitzpatrick. It’s as simple as that.  In the last game of the season, and with the playoffs on the line, he tossed three picks and completed less than half of his passes. This team will miss the postseason again.

 Miami Dolphins

Record Last Season: (6-10)

Key Loss(es): Greg Jennings, Olivier Vernon, Lamar Miller, Brent Grimes
Key Acquisition(s): Byron Maxwell, Kiko Alonso, Mario Williams, Arian Foster

It’s not surprising to see multiple starters leave after a disappointing 6-10 season.  Last year they made a huge splash with the acquisition of Ndamukong Suh, and yet the defense was still awful against the pass (25th in touchdowns allowed, and 27th in yards allowed per attempt) and mediocre against the run (23rd and 13th respectively).  This offseason brought in significant players at every level of the defense; Maxwell was brought in to bolster the secondary, Alonso (another trade acquisition) was brought in for the linebackers, and Williams to pair along with Suh along the line. All three have major questions regarding how much they have left, but if they can return to their peak productivity, Miami would’ve instantly improved.

Eventually Ryan Tannehill has to get out of the on-deck circle for exceptional QBs. He can’t always be a year away from stardom.  He either is or isn’t good enough to win games. He was 19th in TDs and 24th in yards per attempt. Any improvement on the offensive side of the ball must start with him.  Running Back Arian Foster was a late offseason acquisition. Despite his production, age and injury concerns limited his market as a free agent.  Again, if he can return to his peak productivity then Miami wouldn’t have lost anything with Miller departing.

Prediction: Too many older acquisitions for my taste.  It feels like Miami isn’t just the destination for retired civilians. It’s suddenly the spot to spend the winter of your playing career. Another year, and another year of disappointment--no playoffs again this season.

Monday, August 1, 2016

2016 NFC East Preview

Eli Manning will lead the Giants out of the NFC East and into the playoffs

With NFL training camps starting around the League, now seems like an ideal time to get your fandom in shape and keep your sports reputation pristine at your next saunter to a PokemonGo  gym. The Sports Shop will preview each NFL division, replete with predictions from the rest of the crew from the show. 

This post will focus on the teams of the NFC East, what they’ve done in the offseason, and what to expect of them this season.

Last Year’s Winner: Washington Football Team


Record Last Season: 9-7 (Division Winner)
Key Acquisition(s): Josh Norman, Josh Doctson (draft)
Key Loss(es): Alfred Morris, Robert Griffin III, Terrence Knighton, Junior Galette (injury)

A year after stunning nearly everyone and winning the division, Washington will still be a large question mark going into the 2016-2017 season.  While the past few years have featured plenty of controversy at the quarterback position, the team desperately needed to address a secondary that routinely ranked in the bottom third in the League in touchdowns allowed the past three seasons.
To address their persistent issues in the back of their defense, they scooped cornerback Josh Norman out of Free Agency. Norman becoming available was a shock to most around the League, but was perfect for a team in need of stability at the position.  Norman is 28 years old and is coming off his best season.  He instantly makes their secondary better with his ball-hawking skills (a preposterous stat? it was more advantageous to throw the ball away than to throw to Norman’s man last year). He’ll be a welcomed addition considering Washington ranked 21st in interceptions last year.  Washington also picked up Safety Su’a Cravens out of USC in the second round of the draft. He’ll play immediately as their dime linebacker, essentially a tweener position that will allow him to play in space on obvious passing downs. They followed the Cravens pick with the selection of Kendall Fuller, a DB out of Virginia Tech.

Kirk Cousins will be the number 1 QB headed into the season (USATSI)

The offense will be fascinating to watch, as Kirk Cousins comes into the season as the starting QB for the first time in his career.  He was Franchise Tagged and essentially has a year to prove he’s the future of the position for Washington.  He’ll have a plethora of talented options in the passing game to buttress his bid for permanence in the Nation’s capital. In addition to DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon, Jamison Crowder’s emergence means that Washington will have one of the best WR corps in the League (to say nothing of 1st round draft pick Josh Docston, who will begin his career on the Physically Unable to Perform list) .  Additionally Jordan Reed, who started the most games of his career last season, will look to make an impact from the TE position. Alfred Morris has moved to the rival Cowboys, which perhaps would be a bigger issue had Washington not ranked 30th in yards per attempt.

Prediction:  The team addressed its most pressing need with the commitment to the secondary in the draft and free agency. There is still the matter of the poor showing at the running back position, but perhaps having a deadly receiving corps will help alleviate defenses’ aggressiveness attacking of Washington’s running backs.

This season will come down to whether Cousins has improved. He didn’t beat a single team with a winning record last season.  It was good enough to win the division last season. But it won’t be this year. They’ll have a shot at a Wildcard berth, but won’t repeat as NFC East champion.  

Philadelphia Eagles

Record Last Season: (7-9)
Key Acquisition(s): Chase Daniels
Key Loss(es): Byron Maxwell, Kiko Alonso, DeMarco Murray, Walter Thurmond, Chip Kelly (coach)

Last season was the last of the Chip Kelly era was entertaining only if you resided outside of Philadelphia. After shipping out LeSean McCoy and DeSean Jackson (under some extreme inauspicious conditions) and letting Jeremy Maclin walk, a 7-9 season just wasn’t going to cut it.  After an overtime win against the Cowboys brought the Eagles to 4-4, the squad never climbed back to .500, dropping two out of their last three games and missing out on the playoffs.
Many of the people Kelly brought in as head of player personnel have been jettisoned to make room for the new coach, Doug Pederson, and returning head of player personnel (from the Andy Reid era) Howie Roseman. With the large amount of upheaval on the roster, and a new guy calling the shots, it will be a surprise to everyone exactly what the team will look like.  One thing is clear, they will huddle, and be more traditional with their play counts—a constant point of contention under Kelly, even with his early offensive success.

The defense was an absolute mess last season. Whatever they thought they were getting in the acquisitions of Alonso and Maxwell soon proved to be a fallacy.  The team ranked 28th in rushing yards per attempt, 31st in passing touchdowns allowed, and 30th in first downs allowed per game.  Almost out of necessity, the defense will be better because…how could it be worse?

Prediction: This will be a season of change.  Keep in mind, while Sam Bradford will start the season at QB, number 2 overall pick arson Wentz will certainly be in the wings—and I’d be surprised if we don’t see him or Daniels at some point this season as the starter. Don’t expect the Eagles to improve in a competitive division, as they will miss the playoffs yet again.

Dallas Cowboys

Record Last Season: (4-12)
Key Acquisition(s): Cedric Thornton, Alfred Morris, Ezekiel Elliott (Draft)
Key Loss(es):  Greg Hardy

The team lost its starting quarterback, and number one Wide Receiver to disastrous (and predictably poor) results.  Watching Kellen Moore,  Brandon Weeden, and Matt Cassel struggle to be even mediocre in Tony Romo’s stead was extremely difficult last season. Even with 36 year-old Romo coming off a third collarbone injury, Dallas has only managed to bring in Dak Prescott from Mississippi State to compete for a backup position. Thankfully Romo will be asked to shoulder less of the load, as the majority of the line is back and Elliott (the highest rated running back in the draft) should bolster the running back corps significantly.  While he is a rookie, everyone is expecting big things from Elliott.  It’s impossible to ascertain any significance from the numbers they put up last season on this side of the ball because of the team’s key injuries so early in the season.

Elliott may be a rookie, but big things will immediately be expected from the OSU RB

The defense has been a hodgepodge of talented-yet-troubled players. The Greg Hardy experiment was a disaster. Ronaldo McClain will miss time due to suspension, as will DeMarcus Lawrence, and Randy Gregory.  Nearly all of those players were brought in to help a struggling pass rush that ended up ranked 25th in the League in sacks. They were decent enough against the run considering how often they found themselves down significantly in games (six of their losses were by 10 or more points). Despite the rash of injuries to the offensive side of the ball last season, the real question will be on defense—something that they attempted to address in the draft.  Three of the team’s first four picks were on the defensive side of the ball, and all were in the front seven. Pressuring the ball consistently will be key for any shot at a successful season.

Prediction: I’m a sucker for teams that can run the ball with defiance—who see the defense stacked against it and still hand the ball off to their back. Romo is older, but having him as a second option (have I somehow neglected to mention one of the best WRs in football, Dez Bryant?) will be glorious. They’ll compete for the division title, and will likely take the Wildcard.

NY Giants

Record Last Season:  (6-10)
Key Acquisition(s): Olivier Vernon, Janoris Jenkins,
Key Loss(es):  Prince Amukamara, Jon Beason (retired), Reuben Randle, Brandon Meriweather

The Giants were no stranger to injury last season. Victor Cruz missed another year with a lower body injury. The dream of a Cruz and Odell Beckham Jr. WR corps may finally be on the precipice of occurring. Certainly Eli Manning will appreciate the additional target, but he’s been quietly very good the past couple of years, despite the lack of team success. He is one of five guys to throw for 60 TDs over the past two seasons.  Another year under Head Coach Ben McAdoo and Manning will almost certainly continue his dynamic play; they were first in the League in passing touchdowns and 6th in points per game.  If Cruz can get back healthy, this offense will be stellar.

As good as the offense was, even it couldn’t pull this team out of the nosedive of the second half of the season.  The Giants dropped six of their last seven games in large part due to their inability to stop the pass.  They were dead last in pass yards allowed per game, and they gave up 31 passing touchdowns; bad enough to be ranked 25th in the League. The injuries piled up in the secondary, and eventually the team was pulling guys off the free agency pile to play significant snaps.

Prediction: This team had an awful run of injuries, it could happen again (I mean, it is football), but I’m betting that if that defense is even mediocre that the team will be the best in the division. I’ve got the Giants taking the NFC East.

Rest of the crew predictions:

Erroll Reese: NY Giants
Michael Shelton: Dallas
L Dub: Dallas

K Mac: Washington