Reviewing the Latest Super Bowl Odds, Post-OTAs Edition
Not a lot has changed in Vegas' assessment of the 32 NFL teams' Super Bowl odds since the last time we covered them after the draft, but there have been some developments after the conclusion of OTAs and at the beginning of mandatory minicamps that have caused some teams to rise and others to fall.
Which draft stars have been slow to contribute during the offseason program? Which veterans have missed time due to injury or are holding out of either voluntary or mandatory offseason practices? And, most importantly, can any team push Seattle out of Vegas' favor to win it all again in Glendale, Arizona, in 2015?
And get ready to place some bets, because some of the teams Vegas has awarded low odds could be Super Bowl sleepers.
Keep reading to find out if your team has a shot of hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in 2015, and for an assessment of whether the odds for each team are fair, given strides made since the draft in May.
The Jacksonville Jaguars, for the second year in a row, have the lowest chances of any team to make the Super Bowl in 2015.
If Blake Bortles develops into the franchise quarterback Jacksonville thinks he is, there's still no way this team is doing well enough in the AFC South to earn a Wild Card berth. But it's a steppingstone on which to build so that the Jaguars can improve their postseason chances in years to come.
Gus Bradley said during OTAs that he felt Bortles' "poise is coming around," per Jaguars.com's John Oehser.
Even with the bleak odds, there's no denying that Jacksonville effectively filled its most gaping holes in the draft and improved the team as a whole.
Snapping up wide receiver Marqise Lee, a Round 1 talent, at No. 39 overall was a great value, supporting Bortles by giving him weapons along with Allen Robinson. This is a team in rebuilding mode, and Jacksonville identified the right positions to flood with talent.
If Lee can't stay healthy—he injured his wrist in OTAs, recalling his struggle with knee, shin and shoulder injuries at USC, but says he's "100 percent healthy" now, per Shutdown Corner's Eric Edholm—the Jaguars can still get a passing game going for Bortles with Robinson, Cecil Shorts and Ace Sanders.
The Titans' problem isn't necessarily that they're a low-performing team. They finished the 2013 season 21st in passing offense, 14th in rushing offense, 11th in passing defense and 20th in rushing defense.
No, Tennessee's problem, and the reason they have the second-worst Super Bowl odds of any team in the league, is that it doesn't really have any game-changers on the roster.
Losing Chris Johnson, a big reason why they finished just outside the top 10 in rushing offense, and Kenny Britt in free agency didn't help.
The Titans did draft running back Bishop Sankey in the second round of the draft, and Zach Mettenberger is good insurance, though Jake Locker has been impressing coach Ken Whisenhunt in OTAs and minicamp practices, per Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean.
Locker expected to be fully recovered from his November Lisfranc surgery come training camp, so his ability to learn the new offense and participate in drills in June puts him ahead of the curve.
Still, he doesn't have many weapons. Nate Washington got the most snaps of any receiver in 2013, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), but failed to crack 1,000 yards and had only three touchdowns. Kendall Wright had 1079 yards but just two touchdowns.
The Titans scored on only 57 percent of their red-zone trips in 2013, per TeamRankings.com, a stat they'll need to improve in 2014 before they can begin thinking about any postseason appearances.
Back in May, I named the Oakland Raiders as the most-improved team after the 2014 NFL draft. And while that is still true—they satisfied nearly every major need they had with top-rated talent—this franchise needs to percolate and come together as a unit to even think about winning a division title in a few years, let alone the Super Bowl.
Landing Khalil Mack at No. 5 started the Raiders off on the right foot in the draft. General manager Reggie McKenzie added other playmakers to his defense after signing LaMarr Woodley, Antonio Smith and Justin Tuck in free agency. All those signings have instant contributor potential in 2014.
But most importantly this offseason, Oakland needed to address the quarterback position. Selecting Derek Carr at 36th overall was well-played—Carr graded out as a Round 1 talent. The Raiders also acquired Matt Schaub via a trade with Houston in free agency, but Carr is their franchise quarterback of the future.
According to NFL Media's Albert Breer, after OTAs “there is now an internal belief [Schaub] will be pushed by rookie Derek Carr, who has displayed the talent and intelligence early on to shed his red shirt and play right away.”
And the addition of James Jones in free agency gives Carr a go-to weapon in addition to Denarius Moore and Rod Streater.
Though the Raiders won't compete for a Lombardi Trophy anytime too soon, they may be able to finish above 8-8 in 2014, a feat they haven't accomplished since 2002.
The Buffalo Bills made a bet on Sammy Watkins when they gave up two first-round picks and a fourth-rounder to select him in May. Vegas isn't impressed, as the Bills are in the bottom eighth of the league in Super Bowl odds.
Watkins told Eric Edholm of Yahoo Sports' Shutdown Corner that the Bills' goal "is to go fast, run a lot of plays, and go as quickly as possible." It's a good goal, but an unsustainable one if quarterback EJ Manuel can't stay upright.
Buffalo's offensive line was in bad shape last season, and it's not clear that the selection of Cyrus Kouandjio in the second round will ameliorate that. The Bills allowed an average of three sacks per game in 2013, according to TeamRankings.com, the fourth-most in the league.
The move to draft Watkins was clearly meant to give the Bills the ability to win games now, but sacrificing two firsts and a fourth to get him could continue to keep them from the postseason, where they haven't made an appearance since 1999.
New York Jets
Again, Vegas doesn't like teams that have questions at the quarterback position. The Jets' uncertainty there is one factor that earned them a 66-to-1 shot of winning the Super Bowl despite having made it to the conference championship two of the last five years.
The Jets haven't yet named their starting quarterback, but per Lorenzo Reyes of USA Today, Geno Smith seemed to have an edge over veteran Michael Vick at the Jets' first minicamp practice Tuesday.
Calvin Pryor was a fantastic pickup for New York in Round 1 in a division filled with so many offensive weapons to contain. And the Jets added a few offensive weapons of their own this offseason in signing free agent receiver Eric Decker and running back Chris Johnson and drafting tight end Jace Amaro.
The pieces are all in place for the Jets to contend for a Wild Card spot in 2014 and prove these Vegas odds wrong...but it all hinges on quarterback play. If Smith continues to show the inconsistency he displayed last season, throwing 21 interceptions, Vick may make his first start sooner rather than later.
Immediately after their excellent 2014 draft, Minnesota's Super Bowl odds jumped from 100-1 to 50-1...but now, after OTAs, they've moved back in the wrong direction.
Any team that doesn't have a go-to starting quarterback tends to end up with lower odds, and the Vikings' three-man race between Matt Cassel, Teddy Bridgewater and Christian Ponder isn't raising their stock in Vegas.
As Vikings mandatory minicamp began on Tuesday, coach Mike Zimmer said that the rumors that Cassel would enter training camp the presumptive starter are false and that each quarterback would get a "legitimate opportunity" to win the starting job, according to ESPN's Ben Goessling.
Bridgewater and Anthony Barr were excellent additions in the first round of the draft, and both filled major holes for Minnesota. Barr especially will help them by attempting to fill the void left by Jared Allen's departure.
But until Minnesota names a starting quarterback, their Super Bowl odds will be the lowest of all the NFC North teams. Zimmer said he doesn't "want to rush into anything," per Goessling, and that's a solid long-term strategy. Unfortunately, it won't improve their present odds.
A big step toward winning the Super Bowl in any given year is winning, or at least having the second-best record in, one's own division.
Washington has the worst Super Bowl odds of any NFC East team and Robert Griffin III needs a season more like 2012, in which he threw 20 touchdowns (and rushed for seven) to just five interceptions, than 2013, in which he threw 12 interceptions and scored just 16 touchdowns (zero rushing).
Having DeSean Jackson and Andre Roberts should help Washington's offense become more multifaceted, meaning Griffin won't need to carry the team with his legs.
And drafting Trent Murphy, who was a leader in college sacks in 2013, should help the Redskins knock down some of their opponents—including division rivals Tony Romo, Eli Manning and Nick Foles, as well as Murphy's former Stanford teammate Andrew Luck in Week 13, whom Murphy said "it'd be fun to finally" be able to hit, per NFL.com's Mike Huguenin.
The Giants and Cowboys have been inconsistent recently while the Eagles have emerged in the division, but the NFC East has probably the greatest amount of parity in the league. So the door is open for the Redskins, but not by much.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht thinks his franchise can go from worst to first in the NFC South this season, but Vegas clearly doesn't.
But Tampa Bay is going to be an entirely different team from its 4-12 showing in 2013.
This offseason, the Bucs hired Lovie Smith; acquired left tackle Anthony Collins, center Evan Dietrich-Smith, defensive end Michael Johnson, cornerback Alterraun Verner and quarterback Josh McCown in free agency; and drafted top-talent weapons in receiver Mike Evans and Austin Seferian-Jenkins.
Plus, they'll return one of the best running backs in the league in Doug Martin and added Charles Sims in Round 3 to strengthen the backfield behind him.
The Saints and Panthers will be tough to beat, and the Bucs also drew the unenviable task of having to face the AFC North and NFC North and thus the Steelers, Ravens, Bears, Lions and Packers. But this could be a Wild Card team in 2014.
St. Louis Rams
The St. Louis Rams have the same odds of winning Super Bowl XLIX as the Houston Texans and Dallas Cowboys. Let that sink in for a moment.
Playing in the same division as the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers and Arizona Cardinals, the Rams' road to earning a Wild Card berth would be long and arduous. But with Sam Bradford healthy and the playmakers it added through the draft, St. Louis could have its first winning season since 2003.
With two picks in Round 1, St. Louis came out of the draft with the two best players at their positions: offensive tackle Greg Robinson and defensive tackle Aaron Donald.
Robinson satisfied one of the Rams' biggest needs on offensive line. And though the Rams already had arguably the best defensive front in the NFL, they added another first-rounder in Donald to their line consisting of Chris Long, Robert Quinn and Michael Brockers—all first-rounders as well—to help contain the read-option offenses they frequently face.
The Rams needed to upgrade the secondary as well, and they traded up four spots to get cornerback Lamarcus Joyner, who coach Jeff Fisher plans to start as his nickel corner in Week 1.
This offseason, the Rams upgraded the areas where they had holes with value picks—and then went ahead and upgraded areas where they were already excelling. The difficulty of their division makes it hard to argue their odds should be better than 50-to-1, but there's no denying they'll be markedly improved in 2014.
Many of the Dolphins' problems last season stemmed from their offensive line—and we're just talking about the on-field ones. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill was sacked a league-high 58 times, which made it impossible for him to help the team to more than a mediocre 8-8 record.
But Tannehill showed flashes of excellence in 2013 and with the protection the newly configured offensive line, consisting of rookies Ja'Wuan James and Billy James and free-agent additions Shelley Smith and Branden Albert, will offer him, he could emerge in 2014.
Mike Wallace wasn't nearly the difference-maker he was meant to be when Miami acquired him last season, and it was likely in large part due to Mike Sherman's uninspired offensive scheme. Now, the scheme is more uptempo, and Wallace called it a “big play offense,” per Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald.
It seems to be clicking so far in minicamp practices: On Wednesday, Tannehill threw a pretty 30-yard touchdown pass to Wallace, who got behind safety Louis Delmas in zone coverage. The Dolphins could use more of that in 2014, and rookie Jarvis Landry should help.
The AFC East is never an easy division, but the Dolphins have a good shot of finishing above 8-8 this season. How things shake out in the rest of the AFC will determine whether that's good enough for a Wild Card berth.
Sure, their quarterback situation is up in the air, but these odds feel very low for a team that walked away from the draft with the best player in the 2014 class in Jadeveon Clowney, the highest-graded guard in Xavier Su'a-Filo and a Round 1 talent in Louis Nix.
They got stronger and bigger on the interior on both sides of the ball and mitigated the loss of tight end Owen Daniels in free agency with Iowa's C.J. Fiedorowicz, who will join Garrett Graham on the depth chart.
Oh, and they still have somebody named J.J. Watt. Houston now has arguably the best pass-rushing duo in the league.
Ryan Fitzpatrick is expected to be Houston's Week 1 starter, per Brian T. Smith of the Houston Chronicle, but Tom Savage has already made a strong impression with his willingness to learn and dedication to understanding a new system.
Savage's arm strength and size, at 6'4" and 228 pounds, are physical gifts head coach Bill O'Brien, who will call plays himself, can develop.
Still, the Texans' struggles in 2013 are largely due to inconsistent, oftentimes poor, quarterback play. The ideal situation to prove these odds wrong would be for either Fitzpatrick or Savage to establish himself as the No. 1 and to maintain consistency at the position after last year's rotation between Matt Schaub and Case Keenum.
Dallas already made it a three-peat in 2013 when they finished 8-8 for the third time in as many seasons. Will they go for four in 2014? And will Tony Romo's December back surgery, his second in less than nine months, be one of the factors that keeps this team out of the playoffs?
Vegas' low odds for this team reflect the uncertainty surrounding Romo's status. The depth chart behind him is uninspiring. Brandon Weeden took the first-team reps in mandatory minicamp exercises Tuesday after Kyle Orton skipped practice, according to Brandon George of the Dallas Morning News.
Not that Romo doesn't want to practice—he tried to sneak into 7-on-7 drills on Tuesday by wearing Caleb Hanie's jersey, only to be thrown out by Jason Garrett, per Jarrett Bell of USA Today. When Romo does return, he should be well-protected behind Zack Martin, Tyron Smith and Travis Frederick.
The Cowboys also experienced a net loss on defense this offseason. The sum of Henry Melton and Demarcus Lawrence does not mitigate the loss of DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher, compounded by starting middle linebacker Sean Lee tearing his ACL and missing the entire 2014 season.
On paper, Dallas' defense should have been solid in 2013, and instead finished with just 34 sacks, eighth-worst in the league. Eleven of those came from Hatcher and six from Ware.
Unless their new additions on defense can produce even better than last year's squad, and given Romo's situation, the Cowboys' chances of making the postseason, much less the Super Bowl, seem slim at this point in the year.
Vegas must have liked the moves Cleveland made in the 2014 NFL draft, as the perennially struggling Browns have the 20th-highest Super Bowl odds among all NFL teams. Sure, they're not soaring odds—but they're a glimmer of hope.
Those odds feel even higher considering that at this time last year, post OTAs, the Browns' odds were 75-1.
Cleveland knocked its first two selections in the draft out of the park. Justin Gilbert is widely considered the best cornerback in the 2014 class, and though the Browns didn't reach for a quarterback at No. 8, they did give up a third-round pick to move to No. 22 to land Johnny Manziel.
Even after the news of Nate Burleson's arm injury and Josh Gordon's failed drug test surfaced, the Browns did not draft a wide receiver. Burleson is back at practice now and the Browns have not yet learned how long Gordon's suspension will be, which has frustrated coach Mike Pettine and slowed preparations, per Cleveland.com's Mary Kay Cabot.
If Gordon misses the full season, the Browns' chances of making the Super Bowl will decrease significantly.
Manziel, who "doesn't want to have anything handed to him" according to Pettine per NFL.com's Chris Wesseling, will compete with Brian Hoyer, who will enter training camp the starter, for the No. 1 job.
Whichever quarterback opens the season for Cleveland will stand behind an improved offensive line, where second-rounder Joel Bitonio can play either guard or tackle.
If Manziel delivers on the hype and has someone to throw to, the Browns could be a legitimate contender in the AFC North, where they do not sit far behind the Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals in projected Super Bowl odds.
San Diego Chargers
Given the Broncos' dominance in the AFC West, the Chargers should not head into 2014 expecting to finish higher than second in the division...but that standing, depending on their record, should be enough to earn them a spot in the playoffs.
Philip Rivers continues to quietly be one of the league's most efficient quarterbacks. In 2013, he finished with the fourth-highest passer rating (105.5), completing a league-best 69.5 percent of his passes and throwing 32 touchdowns.
The offense didn't need to add many pieces this offseason. Wide receiver Keenan Allen graded out as Pro Football Focus' (subscription required) No. 10 receiver in 2013, while Danny Woodhead was sixth among all running backs. The Chargers have a multidimensional offense in place.
The defense already looks improved with the addition of first-round corner Jason Verrett and pass-rusher Jeremiah Attaochu. But Dwight Freeney has yet to compete in 11-on-11 drills in minicamp, according to ESPN's Eric D. Williams, and San Diego will need him healthy in 2014.
New York Giants
How far the mighty have fallen. The Giants, winner of two Super Bowls in the last seven seasons, failed to make the postseason in 2012 and 2013.
This is a bet to take on, however. 2013 was a fluky season for the Giants. While Eli Manning has never been a beacon of consistency, his 18 touchdowns were a career low (barring his first season in which he played just nine games) and his 27 interceptions were a career high.
Manning was also sacked 39 times, by far the most in his career. The Giants were expected to address the offensive line in the first round of the draft, so it was somewhat surprising to see them select Odell Beckham Jr. there. Manning will appreciate having another weapon in his stable with Victor Cruz after losing Hakeem Nicks in free agency, but it won't help if he can't stay upright to throw to them.
Still, Manning's arm looked to be in fine shape during Tuesday's minicamp practice, as he made several impressive throws.
The defense also produced just 34 sacks in 2013, finishing seventh-worst in the league. The Giants dodged a bullet Tuesday when they learned linebacker Jon Beason will not require surgery on his foot injury, a ligament tear and small fracture sustained last week, according to NFL.com's Michael Eisen. He's targeting the season opener as his return date.
Beason had 93 total tackles in 2013, second only to Antrel Rolle.
The Eagles are the current favorites to win the NFC East, but if the Giants' defense can perform better than it did last season and if Manning is back to form, the Giants can improve these odds.
Kansas City Chiefs
Vegas isn't impressed with Kansas City's 11-5 performance last season, including an 8-0 start. These 40-to-1 odds are factoring in the worrisome moves the Chiefs made this offseason, including failing to draft more weapons for Alex Smith.
Dwayne Bowe, Donnie Avery and A.J. Jenkins combined for just 1,398 yards and seven touchdowns, and the Chiefs gave up on second-rounder Dexter McCluster. That group will have to show up if Smith hopes to attack through the air, while, on the ground, De'Anthony Thomas will join Jamaal Charles in the backfield while contributing on special teams.
Bowe and Charles have star potential, but the depth charts behind them are uninspired.
Dee Ford could develop into a star pass-rusher, and the Chiefs were doing well in that area for most of 2013, finishing with 47 sacks. He should be able to help revitalize that group and get after Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers. And with Justin Houston continuing to hold out from practice, Ford was given starting reps in minicamp practice on Tuesday, per ESPN's Adam Teicher.
The Chiefs gambled when they parted ways with their best cornerback, Brandon Flowers, on June 13. Kansas City saved some money, but Sean Smith and Marcus Cooper, who have been their starters in the offseason, per Teicher, are not an intimidating duo, while rookie Phillip Gaines hasn't shown much in practices.
Kansas City can choose to use those cap savings to extend Smith and Justin Houston, but drafting Aaron Murray in Round 5 gives them options down the road. Smith has had moments of brilliance, but just hasn't found the right scheme to show them off. We'll see in 2014 if Andy Reid and Smith are the perfect pair and if this offense can get something going, but it'll be tough to emerge from the shadow of Denver and San Diego.
The Detroit Lions could have, and should have, won the NFC North in 2013, but their penchant for forcing their own elimination from the playoffs late in the season reared up again last season.
On paper, there's no reason this team shouldn't be able to contend with Green Bay and Chicago for the division, but in actuality, they don't play up to their potential. Matthew Stafford is an above-average quarterback with a cannon arm who threw the most yards (4,650) last season after Peyton Manning and Drew Brees and had the second-most in 2012 after Brees.
The Lions already had a potent offense with weapons Calvin Johnson, Brandon Pettigrew, Reggie Bush and Joique Bell, though they lost Nate Burleson in free agency. But surprisingly, they chose to add more this offseason, selecting tight end Eric Ebron in Round 1 and acquiring receiver Golden Tate in free agency.
The defense got some upgrades as well, in linebacker Kyle Van Noy and cornerback Nevin Lawson.
The Packers' and Bears' pass defenses both struggled in 2013, and if they don't improve this season, they'll have their work cut out for them containing all those weapons, not to mention Stafford's arm. But though they're a team on the rise, the Lions still have a very likely chance of finishing third in the NFC North, not usually a spot from which to contend for a Lombardi Trophy.
Despite playing in the same division as the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers, both of whom improved significantly this offseason, the Bengals have made it to the Wild Card round four of the last five years, only to have their season unceremoniously cut short there.
Word out of Bengals offseason practices is that Andy Dalton has improved his throwing motion, drawing praise from offensive coordinator Hue Jackson.
"He's more compact. The ball comes out quicker. There's more urgency in his body," Jackson said, per ESPN's Coley Harvey. "All the way around he's improved."
Dalton sought the guidance of throwing instructor Tom House this offseason, per Harvey, and the results are already apparent. His improved mechanics should decrease his interceptions, after throwing 20 last season.
Perhaps Dalton is also protecting his future position as the starter from rookie A.J. McCarron.
With one of the best receivers in the league in A.J. Green and an emerging talent in running back Giovani Bernard, in addition to Tyler Eifert and BenJarvus Green-Ellis, the Bengals aren't hurting for playoff-caliber talent. They made a move to improve their secondary in Round 1 of the draft, selecting cornerback Darqueze Dennard, and had the No. 5 rushing defense in 2013.
The top of the AFC North is open, with even the Browns looking to contend this season. The Bengals could certainly win a title, but it remains to be seen if a team that can't seem to make it past the Wild Card round could win a Super Bowl.
Coming in with the same Super Bowl odds as the Cincinnati Bengals, the Baltimore Ravens continue to prove just how much parity there is in the AFC North.
Though the Ravens missed the playoffs in 2013, they put together a fantastic offseason to push them right back. Adding wide receiver Steve Smith in free agency gave Joe Flacco an explosive offensive weapon, and drafting linebacker C.J. Mosley, defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan and safety Terrence Brooks in May is an injection of youth and ability that will serve this once-vaunted defense extremely well.
Baltimore will institute a new-look offense in 2014 under offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, and it may suit Flacco very well. According to ESPN's Jamison Hensley, Kubiak is teaching Flacco to throw when he hits the ball of his foot on the three-step drop, which will help him get the ball out quicker and, in turn, limit sacks.
Flacco was knocked down the second most of any quarterback in 2013, taking 48 sacks, which was a career high. As he's performing better with less time in the pocket, that gives Kubiak and coach John Harbaugh multiple ways to use Smith, Dennis Pitta and Owen Daniels on short-to-intermediate routes.
But the Ravens struggled while Ray Rice was injured last season, and now it looks like he could be facing a four-six game suspension, per Bart Hubbuch of the New York Post. No matter how potent Baltimore's passing attack looks, it'll need a run game to beat Pittsburgh and Cincinnati for the division title.
The Cardinals have the tall order of performing well enough against the Seahawks and 49ers twice a year before they can even think about a Super Bowl push, but Vegas feels cautiously optimistic about their chances.
Finishing their 2013 season 10-6 in that division was a huge coup for Arizona, and so far the team has spent its offseason trying to get into a position to do even better in 2014. While Carson Palmer hasn't yet played in a Super Bowl, the Cardinals are trying to put a contending team together around him, with Troy Niklas joining Larry Fitzgerald as a go-to option for Palmer. He'll also be reunited with left tackle Jared Veldheer, with whom he played in Oakland.
Though Niklas experienced two setbacks this offseason when he had to have hernia surgery and then broke his hand during the final week of OTAs, Palmer is looking forward to Niklas increasing his workload during training camp when he's healthy, per ESPN's Josh Weinfuss.
The Cardinals also built up their defense to contain Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson, drafting safety Deone Bucannon in Round 1. Together with Patrick Peterson and Antonio Cromartie, Arizona's secondary looks stout.
Arizona will look to linebacker Kevin Minter to mitigate the loss of Karlos Dansby in free agency.
This is a team that is trying to match Seattle and San Francisco beat-for-beat, and slowly but surely the defense is taking on the shape of something resembling Seattle's. But Arizona's playoff chances will hinge almost squarely on Palmer.
The Steelers have the best odds of any AFC North team to win the Super Bowl in 2015, but not by much. Much-improved Baltimore and Cincinnati will be nipping at Pittsburgh's heels this offseason, and as those two teams, as well as Cleveland, have been infused with young talent, the Steelers tried to do the same via the draft.
Pittsburgh hasn't made the postseason since 2011, but attempted to address that by drafting linebacker Ryan Shazier, injecting some speed into the defense, and defensive end Stephon Tuitt, bringing some youth to the defensive line, and giving Ben Roethlisberger another weapon in receiver Martavis Bryant.
Offensive coordinator Todd Haley has had high praise for his receivers this offseason in OTAs and mandatory minicamp. Antonio Brown and free-agent acquisition Darrius Heyward-Bey will have big roles, while Lance Moore will most likely play in the slot, per Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Rookie Bryant has impressed receivers coach Richard Mann. I think he’s going to contribute, I really do,” Mann said, per Fittipaldo. “He’s got good speed, he’s a big guy and he can run and catch, that’s the bottom line." Mann also noted Bryant would be a red-zone target.
Of course, the Steelers have to move the football on the ground to give their passing game a chance to be elite. Pittsburgh was in the top 10 in passing touchdowns in 2013, but their rushing offense was 27th.
If the Steelers can develop a multidimensional offense, getting help from Le'Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount in addition to rookie Dri Archer, they can capture their division in 2014 and think about making a push deep into the offseason.
The Panthers' future hinges on Cam Newton, and Newton's future hinges on having somebody, anybody to throw to. For now, that's first-rounder Kelvin Benjamin.
Carolina didn't do an adequate job strengthening its receiving corps after cutting Steve Smith this offseason, so a lot is riding on Benjamin. The receiver has developed a close relationship with Newton, frequently spending time with him off the field, according to the Charlotte Observer's Joe Person, but whether their chemistry will translate to the field this season remains to be seen.
Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant and Tiquan Underwood certainly aren't going to get this team to Glendale come February, so a lot is riding on Benjamin.
General manager Dave Gettleman also failed to improve Newton's protection by electing not to draft a top offensive tackle. Carolina did pick up guard Trai Turner, but Newton was sacked the fourth-most times (43) of any quarterback in the league in 2013.
The Panthers did sign tackle Nate Chandler to an extension on June 18, and he is battling for a startling tackle spot, according to Max Henson of Panthers.com.
Carolina's strength in its defensive line, so while Kony Ealy was a luxury pick, Carolina is ensuring it has a top-notch pass rush so that it can contend with NFC South powerhouse New Orleans. The question will be whether Newton and his mixed bag of receivers can score enough points to keep up, as the Falcons and the Bucaneers have weapons of their own as well.
The Philadelphia Eagles have the best odds of any NFC East to win the Super Bowl, and though the rest of the division underneath them is fairly even, the Eagles sit higher at the top.
The Philadelphia Inquirer's Jeff McLane noted after the Eagles' first day of minicamp Wednesday that though Nick Foles lacks ideal power in his arm, he has been the most precise of the Eagles quarterbacks this offseason.
Mark Sanchez, in McLane's observation, has been inconsistent, and Matt Barkley has thrown many interceptions. Though none of the three has cannons for arms, Foles is clearly the most accurate and will head into the season as the starter.
Foles looked great last season when he had DeSean Jackson to throw to, so Chip Kelly and general manager Howie Roseman made sure to give him some weapons via the draft in receivers Jordan Matthews and Josh Huff. Matthews took first-team reps, per McLane, and together with Jeremy Maclin and Riley Cooper the receiving corps looks solid.
Meanwhile, free-agent addition Darren Sproles left the Saints for the Eagles and joins LeSean McCoy in a potent backfield combination.
Drafting Marcus Smith in Round 1 should go a long way toward increasing the Eagles' sack production. Taken as a whole, Philadelphia's offseason and promising performances at OTAs puts the team in even stronger position not only to contend for the NFC East title, but for the conference title and beyond.
Heading into the 2013 season, Atlanta's playoff odds were an extremely high 14-to-1, before the team was ravaged by injuries and the wheels came off in a big way, ending with a 4-12 record. But once again this offseason, Vegas has high confidence in the Falcons' chances of playing in the University of Phoenix in 2015.
But Atlanta had a lot of problems in 2013, and though they've made moves to correct them, a few different moving pieces have to come together for this squad in 2014 to make them Super Bowl contenders.
The offensive and defensive lines were two big ones, and general manager Thomas Dimitroff did a good job addressing those needs this offseason by acquiring Jon Asamoah, Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson in free agency, and then drafting tackle Jake Matthews and defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman.
But Hageman "hasn't been too noticeable" in practices so far, according to ESPN's Vaughn McClure, and left tackle Sam Baker has engaged in a couple skirmishes in as many days of minicamp. Matt Ryan was sacked 44 times in 2013, so it's important that unit gets disciplined and down to business sooner rather than later.
As Andy Benoit of MMQB.com pointed out last season, the types of throws Ryan was willing to make changed dramatically when he didn't trust his protection last season.
A big question mark for Atlanta in 2014 will be whether Julio Jones and Roddy White, who missed 14 games between them in 2013, can stay healthy. Harry Douglas stepped up in their absence, netting 1,067 yards on 85 receptions, but scored only two touchdowns.
Atlanta's chances of making a Super Bowl appearance in 2015 boil down to three factors: keeping Ryan adequately protected, getting after opposing quarterbacks and finding new ways to get into the end zone in the absence of Tony Gonzalez while hoping their star receivers stay healthy.
The once-vaunted Chicago defense was downright poor in 2013, finishing the season at No. 30. It undid all the efforts of an explosive offense to win the division title, spearheaded by Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, the only receiver duo from the same team to both make Pro Football Focus' (subscription required) top 10-ranked receivers.
Though Chicago lost Julius Peppers to archrival Green Bay in free agency, the Bears made a solid effort in free agency and the draft to improve the defense. Chicago signed defensive ends Lamarr Houston, Jared Allen and Willie Young. In the draft, the Bears moved swiftly to draft cornerback Kyle Fuller, defensive tackle Ego Ferguson, defensive tackle Will Sutton and safety Brock Vereen in the first four rounds.
The Bears appear to be gambling with their backup quarterback spot. Jay Cutler's January extension includes $16 million to be paid in 2016, which is guaranteed against injury, according to Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune (subscription required)
That's a lot of faith to put in the health of a quarterback who has not played a full 16 games since 2009.
Chicago's Super Bowl chances rest entirely on its ability to win division games. The Lions and the Packers will be difficult foes and will make up a quarter of Chicago's season. Their improved defense will be the key to slowing down Aaron Rodgers and Matthew Stafford and their potent assortment of weapons, while the Bears must stop the run to win in 2014.
The Colts didn't make a lot of noteworthy moves in this year's draft, but then again, they have Andrew Luck and compete in the AFC South, so they didn't really have to.
Indianapolis easily took the division title last season. In fact, the AFC South was the only division in which just one team had a record at .500 or better.
But the Colts continued to feel the effects of their ill-advised trade for Trent Richardson last season when they didn't have a first-round pick in this draft, and none of their selections, from tackle Jack Mewhort to receiver Donte Moncrief to tackle Ulrick John, was overly impressive. They also lost safety Antoine Bethea in free agency.
The Colts did a little more in free agency, signing Hakeen Nicks, who could be part of a fearsome receiving corps with Reggie Wayne and T.Y. Hilton if Wayne is healthy. He said at Wednesday's minicamp that he'll be ready to go for training camp, per Mike Chappell of the Indianapolis Star.
But mainly they invested in their own veterans, re-signing defensive end Fili Moala, running back Ahmad Bradshaw and cornerback Vontae Davis.
If the Texans struggle in 2014 as much as they did in 2013, the Colts could coast to another division win. Luck alone elevates their postseason chances considerably. But if Houston proves a difficult division foe the Colts could face a little more resistance on their path to the top this season, not to mention having to potentially navigate through Denver on a possible Super Bowl campaign.
New Orleans Saints
It almost wasn't fair that Drew Brees, who consistently lands near the top of the NFL season after season in passing and has potent weapons at his disposal, got yet another one in Round 1 of the draft in Brandin Cooks. With bigger needs at cornerback, outside linebacker and offensive line, general manager Mickey Loomis and coach Sean Payton went ahead and made the aggressive move to trade up for Cooks.
With Marques Colston and Jimmy Graham already in place, Cooks will give Brees yet another option to stretch the field. But the Saints did lose offensive weapons Lance Moore and Darren Sproles in free agency, so Loomis and Payton were clearly thinking to the future—and to winning another Super Bowl with Brees—with the selection of Cooks.
As minicamp wrapped up, Brees was feeling excited about what Cooks can do for this offense. "He's a very versatile player, very explosive player that you just want to get the ball in his hands and get it to him in space and good things will happen," he said, per NFL's Chris Wesseling.
The Saints also made the splashy signings of free-agent safety Jairus Byrd and cornerback Champ Bailey and then drafted corner Stanley Jean-Baptiste, upgrading their secondary in a division that now includes Mike Evans, Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Kelvin Benjamin in addition to mainstays Julio Jones and Roddy White.
Wesseling thinks the Saints have a shot at the NFL's best record this season. While Brees always makes the team a legitimate contender, New Orleans has done a great job building a formidable team for 2014. These Super Bowl odds are extremely likely.
Green Bay Packers
Nevermind the improvements Green Bay made this offseason via an uncharacteristic splashy free agency and astute draft by Ted Thompson. When Aaron Rodgers is healthy, this team is always a Super Bowl contender.
But now, a high-octane offense finds itself more multidimensional with a thriving and developing run game and a defense that had some clear holes in 2013.
Drafting Ha Ha Clinton-Dix in Round 1 solved two of Green Bay's most troubling problems in 2013: missed tackles and zero interceptions produced by safeties. He instantly upgrades a pass defense that was too generous in 2013, just in time for the Packers to face some of the league's best pass-catchers in 2014 in Calvin Johnson, Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, Eric Decker, Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham and rookies with huge potential in Sammy Watkins and Mike Evans.
Green Bay may also have the most diverse and dynamic pass rush in the league, combining Clay Matthews with Julius Peppers and planning to run multiple rush packages with Mike Neal, Nick Perry and Mike Daniels and rookie linebacker Carl Bradford out of Arizona State.
But it all comes down to Rodgers and his weapons. The Packers may carry six receivers into the regular season with the depth they have at the position in Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, Jarrett Boykin and rookies Davante Adams, Jared Abbrederis and Jeff Janis.
That potent passing attack, combined with Eddie Lacy leading the charge in the backfield, makes the Packers a very good Super Bowl bet in 2014.
New England Patriots
Tom Brady can do it all himself, as he demonstrated in 2013. Without his top receivers from 2012—Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, Danny Woodhead, Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski (for much of the year)—Brady set to work making do with Danny Amendola, who struggled with injuries to both his head and his groin, Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins and Julian Edelman.
The Patriots still found themselves in the AFC title game for the third year in a row, due largely to Brady's efforts.
The defense, which finished 26th overall in 2013, was in need of some help, and Bill Belichick addressed that in both free agency and the draft, acquiring cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner and then taking Dominique Easley in Round 1.
Belichick also gave Brady another weapon in Michigan's Jeremy Gallon, but more notably, he may have finally targeted Brady's eventual replacement in second-round pick Jimmy Garoppolo. In minicamp, WEEI.com's Christopher Price notes that Garoppolo has had some "ugly drops" from his receivers, but looked improved on Wednesday. He'll benefit from continuing to develop in Belichick's system.
With Brady at the helm, the Patriots could continue to vie for the AFC title year after year; this season, the only obstacle in their path to the Super Bowl, as in 2013, looks to be Denver.
San Francisco 49ers
San Francisco didn't need to have a stellar offseason to earn high Super Bowl odds from Vegas...but it went ahead and did anyway.
General manager Trent Baalke and coach Jim Harbaugh essentially had the luxury of selecting the best players available on the board without as much regard for need, and improved an already-elite roster in the process.
In Round 1, Baalke drafted safety Jimmie Ward, which wasn't necessarily a need (though cornerback was).
Carlos Hyde in Round 2, with Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter on the roster already, was another luxury that will nonetheless make the 49ers even more dangerous on the ground.
USC center Marcus Martin did actually satisfy a big position of need for the 49ers—arguably their most important, as Jonathan Goodwin started every game at center for three seasons before departing in free agency.
With that need addressed, the 49ers added playmaking linebacker Chris Borland and receiver Bruce Ellington for good measure.
Colin Kaepernick has enjoyed unmeasured success in his young career, but for the 49ers to bring home the Lombardi Trophy, he'd benefit from becoming a better pocket passer and working on an ability to throw his receivers open. Defenses have exposed the read-option, and the 49ers must rely on more than Kaepernick's playmaking ability to win games. He had his share of mediocre performances in 2013.
Still, the 49ers have proven that they are the cream of their conference, making the NFC title game for three years in a row now. Unless another powerhouse like the Saints or Packers can beat them out, it looks like San Francisco's odds of making it a fourth are extremely good.
Denver looked like the best team in the league for most of the 2013 season, due mainly to Peyton Manning's heroics in his record-setting year. But when they had the chance to prove they were the NFL's finest, the Broncos crumbled on the big stage in an embarrassing 43-8 loss.
John Elway has taken steps to ensure any deficiencies that were exposed in what appeared to be a near-flawless team were corrected this offseason, having probably the most active free agency of any franchise. Denver signed DeMarcus Ware, cornerback Aqib Talib and safety T.J. Ward in free agency, and drafted Bradley Roby, replacing the losses of corners Champ Bailey and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.
To mitigate the loss of Eric Decker, Elway signed Emmanuel Sanders in free agency and drafted Cody Latimer in Round 2. The rookie has impressed offensive coordinator Adam Gase so far this offseason.
"He's a physical specimen, and when he plays, he plays his size," Gase said, per CBS Sports' Rob Rang. "To see him catch the ball as well as he does and then his blocking is unbelievable. I don't think I've really seen a college guy go after it the way he has in the past, and hopefully he just carries that over to this level."
Julius Thomas, who emerged as one of Manning's most reliable scoring targets in 2013, also returns this season, and the receiving corps as a whole should give Manning the opportunity to light it up again in 2014.
Unless the Patriots can push them out of the conference title, the Broncos may get an opportunity for a do-over of last February's debacle in Super Bowl XLIX.
The Seahawks have hoisted the Lombardi Trophy just once as a franchise, but in 2014 they look to join the company of the Green Bay Packers, Miami Dolphins, Pittsburgh Steelers, San Francisco 49ers, Dallas Cowboys, Denver Broncos and New England Patriots as a team that has won two consecutive Super Bowls.
Is there a more complete team in the NFL than Seattle? Probably not. Russell Wilson is a multi-threat quarterback who excels through the air and on his feet, and Seattle's offense is quickly catching up to its vaunted defense. Second-round offensive tackle Justin Britt will help give Wilson time to do his thing.
The Legion of Boom is stronger than ever, with Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, Michael Bennett and Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith all returning.
The Seahawks defense is a highly physical one, and that physicality is not always directed at opponents. More than a few skirmishes have broken out in minicamp as the offensive players have felt like the defensive players have been going too hard. Per Bob Condotta of the Seattle Times, punches were thrown between receiver Phillip Bates and cornerback Sherman after Bates, who was being covered by Sherman in the slot, lost his helmet.
Condotta also reported some jawing between receiver Doug Baldwin and Thomas. Coach Pete Carroll had to remind his squad that they all play for the same team, but that fire is part of what makes Seattle's defense so ferocious. If emotions and drive is this high in June, opponents should fear the fever pitch it could reach come the regular season.
As things stand after OTAs, it seems there are very few teams that could legitimately keep Seattle out of Glendale next February.
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