Stock Up, Stock Down for Every NFL Team at the Start of 2014 Training Camp
As you read this (hopefully), know that the rookies for the Baltimore Ravens, Buffalo Bills and San Francisco 49ers have reported for work in 2014.
As players prepare for drills, two-a-days and perhaps a harmless prank or two, we have taken the time to sum up every team’s prospects for the season entering the summer ritual.
Which of these teams are headed in the right direction, which have some issues, and which are basically status quo? We will obviously take into account the moves made by each team via free agency and trades, as well as May’s draft.
Here, we will use “Stock Up” and “Stock Down” as a gauge. We have also mixed in a few “Even” ratings for clubs that figure to be about where they were at the conclusion of the 2013 season, be it good or bad.
So sit back and enjoy our thoughts. And while you are busy somewhere applying the sunscreen, know that there’s some blocking (and tackling) of a different sort going on.
Arizona Cardinals: Stock Down
There’s a feeling that the Arizona Cardinals may have one of the most improved offenses in the league this season.
They may need it.
Bruce Arians and Co. surprised the NFL world in 2013 by finishing 10-6. The key was a solid second half by quarterback Carson Palmer and the season-long play of the league’s sixth-ranked defense.
This offseason, the Cards made free-agent deals with left tackle Jared Veldheer, tight end John Carlson and wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. They drafted wide receiver John Brown, who along with Ginn will add some speed to the offense and the return game.
But the Cardinals’ top three tacklers from 2013—Karlos Dansby, Daryl Washington and Yeremiah Bell—will not be playing for the club in 2014, each for various reasons. Second-year pro Kevin Minter and veteran Larry Foote look to fill the bill at inside linebacker spots, while rookie strong safety Deone Bucannon takes over for Bell.
Defense has been the calling card for the NFC West in recent seasons, and you better have a very good one to compete. Just how good these Cards are on this side of the ball may now be a little bit in doubt.
Atlanta Falcons: Stock Up
There is not much to say after you go from tying for the best record in the league one year to the sixth pick in the draft the next.
But we look ahead. And it’s an apparent change in philosophy that has raised hopes this upcoming season for the Atlanta Falcons.
In recent years, the team had become unbalanced on offense, which had residual effects on a defensive unit that was not equipped to stop the run or rush the passer.
Previous to finishing last in the league in rushing this past season, the Falcons were 29th in this same department in 2012. However, a bolstered offensive line featuring rookie right tackle Jake Matthews and a ground attack led by veteran Steven Jackson and rookie running back Devonta Freeman may surprise some people this season.
Mike Smith’s club also added some run-stoppers in defensive end Tyson Jackson and nose tackle Paul Soliai. A questionable pass rush (61 sacks in 32 games from 2012-13) could benefit from that as well.
This year, you may be seeing less of the aerial game for an entirely different reason, and that could add up to some very good things.
Baltimore Ravens: Even
This past season, the Baltimore Ravens not only failed to defend their Super Bowl title but missed the playoffs for the first time since 2007.
With general manager Ozzie Newsome at the controls, you can always expect this team to be in the playoff hunt.
The defense figures to get a boost from the addition of inside linebacker C.J. Mosley, the club’s first-round pick.
The free-agent additions of veterans such as wide receiver Steve Smith and tight end Owen Daniels should give quarterback Joe Flacco some additional options that he basically wasn’t afforded in 2013. His two favorite targets the previous season were Anquan Boldin and Dennis Pitta, but the veteran wideout had been traded to the San Francisco 49ers and the emerging tight end missed the first 12 games of the season.
However, the uncertainty surrounding running back Ray Rice and his availability in 2014 reminds us that this team ranked 29th in total offense a year ago. Only two teams in the NFL gained fewer yards rushing.
So while there are some things to look forward to with John Harbaugh’s club this season, there’s also a feeling of trepidation when it comes to this traditional contender.
Buffalo Bills: Stock Up
Wait a minute.
Didn’t the Buffalo Bills, who haven’t been to the playoffs since 1999 and finished dead last in the AFC East each of the last six seasons, just lose one of their best young players?
Despite the fact that they will be without linebacker Kiko Alonso for the entire season, it has been a solid offseason for a franchise that needed one in the worst way.
The expectations are high for quarterback EJ Manuel, who started just 10 games a season ago. His new-look receiving corps includes veteran Mike Williams (Tampa Bay Buccaneers) and rookie Sammy Watkins. They join Marquise Goodwin and a very promising Robert Woods.
New defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz inherits a unit that finished second in the league with 57 sacks but continues to have its issues against the run. The addition of middle linebacker Brandon Spikes should help.
Is Doug Marrone’s team headed to the playoffs in 2014? Getting by the New England Patriots in the AFC East is a tall order. But grabbing a wild-card berth is far from a reach.
Carolina Panthers: Stock Down
A year ago, the Carolina Panthers overcame a 1-3 start by winning 11 of their last 12 games and capturing the NFC South title for the first time since 2008.
That already seems like a very long time ago. While quarterback Cam Newton returns for his fourth season, he’ll be throwing to a new set of wideouts that includes free-agent pickups Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant and Tiquan Underwood, as well as rookie first-round draft choice Kelvin Benjamin.
The Panthers don't have a true No. 1 receiver, but head coach Ron Rivera apparently doesn't believe that's as big a problem as many have suggested, per David Newton of ESPN:
I don't think you need a true No. 1 that needs to do everything. I don't think you need to have a guy like Detroit's Calvin Johnson. You don't need to have that. You need to have a guy that is going to account for, if there are 10 catches in a game for your wide receiver, he gets six of them.
Still, there is some uncertainty on the offensive line as well, due mainly to the sudden retirement of left tackle Jordan Gross earlier this year. The league’s second-ranked defense from 2013 will have a few new faces in the secondary as well.
There is also the matter of Pro Bowl defensive end Greg Hardy. Michael Gordon, Joseph Person and Jonathan Jones of the Charlotte Observer have the latest on the defender’s legal issues.
It's safe to say it has been an unsettling offseason for Ron Rivera’s club.
Chicago Bears: Stock Up
You know something is amiss when the Chicago Bears don’t play good defense. Or even respectable defense.
No team in the league gave up more rushing yards than the Bears in 2013, who allowed 197.1 yards per game on the ground in their final 10 games alone. Add in the fact that Marc Trestman’s team only managed 31 sacks and allowed 478 points, and massive changes were in order.
The team added defensive tackles Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton in the second and third round of the draft, respectively. General manager Phil Emery signed defensive ends Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston and Willie Young. The secondary now features rookie first-rounder Kyle Fuller and veteran safety Adrian Wilson.
Notice we haven’t said a lot about the Chicago offense. This unit utilized two different starting quarterbacks last season and finished second in the league in points scored. Quarterback Jay Cutler has a bevy of weapons at his disposal, including running back Matt Forte, wide receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, and tight end Martellus Bennett.
This team bears serious watching in 2014. For their sake, the Bears will be something to see in January.
Cincinnati Bengals: Even
The longest active playoff streaks in the NFL belong to the Green Bay Packers and New England, who have each been to the postseason five consecutive years.
Tied for third on that list are the Denver Broncos, San Francisco 49ers...and Cincinnati Bengals.
If you weren’t aware that the Bengals were on the list, don’t be too hard on yourself. The team’s current playoff streak is a franchise record. Of course, the club is still seeking its first postseason win since 1990.
The Bengals continue to add youth to a solid roster that is one of the deepest in the league. The first-round selection of cornerback Darqueze Dennard could be a major coup. Still, making up for the free-agent defections of defensive end Michael Johnson and tackle Anthony Collins will be somewhat easier said than done.
On offense, quarterback Andy Dalton has plenty of options. The newest is second-round running back Jeremy Hill, who has impressed to date.
Cincinnati will be hard to topple from its perch in the AFC North. But that’s not the biggest issue surrounding Lewis, Dalton and a team overdue for postseason success.
Cleveland Browns: Stock Down
So will Johnny be playing some football in 2014?
A lot has been written and seen regarding Cleveland Browns rookie signal-caller Johnny Manziel so far. And the team hasn’t even opened training camp yet.
Will the former Heisman Trophy winner challenge Brian Hoyer for Week 1 starting honors? It depends on who you ask, including Manziel.
Still, when it comes to the offense and additions such as running back Ben Tate, all is far from rosy for this unit. Despite free-agent pickups such as Miles Austin, Nate Burleson and Andrew Hawkins, the potential season-long loss of Pro Bowl wide receiver Josh Gordon looms large for this team.
Still, that is not to say that the team’s offseason was a total disappointment. New head coach Mike Pettine now has veteran defenders such as inside linebacker Karlos Dansby and strong safety Donte Whitner on hand. Rookie cornerback Justin Gilbert, the team’s actual first pick in the 2014 draft, will team with Pro Bowler Joe Haden on a defensive unit that is on the rise.
Despite some positives, the Gordon situation still leaves you a bit uneasy. And have the Browns truly done enough to vault past all three teams in the AFC North? Baby steps, please.
Dallas Cowboys: Stock Down
You would think just based on the last three seasons, no team is more qualified for an “even” stock rating than the Dallas Cowboys.
Three consecutive 8-8 campaigns will do that for you. But the bottom line is that Jason Garrett’s team was at the bottom of the league when it came to total defense in 2013.
First things first, and that’s an offense that figures to be tough to stop again. Quarterback Tony Romo has veteran tight end Jason Witten and wide receivers Dez Bryant and the emerging Terrance Williams to throw to. Coach Scott Linehan will be calling the plays this season, and hopefully that means more from running back DeMarco Murray, who had a somewhat quiet 1,121 yards rushing in 2013.
Back to the defensive unit, which no longer has veteran DeMarcus Ware but has 2014 second-round pick Demarcus Lawrence. Nick Hayden will team inside on the defensive line with free-agent pickup Henry Melton, who played for new defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli in Chicago. Meanwhile, veteran linebacker Justin Durant fills in for injured middle man Sean Lee, who is out for the season with a torn ACL.
Are the Cowboys ready to end their mediocre ways in 2014? For their sake, you hope that means the number in the win column goes up.
Denver Broncos: Stock Up
If the Denver Broncos are to become the first team since the 1972 Miami Dolphins to win a Lombardi Trophy the season after losing the Super Bowl, they will be doing it with some new faces in the starting lineup.
This offseason, general manager John Elway added the likes of defensive end DeMarcus Ware, strong safety T.J. Ward, cornerback Aqib Talib and wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders via free agency. Second-year pro Montee Ball is now the main man in the backfield. Taken in the first round of the draft, cornerback Bradley Roby will push for playing time in the club’s new-look secondary.
Denver also gets back two of its better players in left tackle Ryan Clady and outside linebacker Von Miller, who missed more than their fair share of time in 2013.
Then there’s ageless quarterback Peyton Manning, who is coming off an MVP season in which he set NFL records for passing yards (5,477) and scoring passes (55). Even with the challengers in the AFC West, it will be hard to keep this team from winning a fourth straight AFC West title.
As for the playoffs, well...
Detroit Lions: Stock Up
Here we go again.
The Detroit Lions have not won a playoff game since 1991 and have only made one postseason appearance since 2000. Now it’s up to soft-spoken head coach Jim Caldwell to restore the roar in the Motor City.
This past season, the Lions committed a whopping 21 turnovers in their final seven outings and dropped six of those contests, squandering a 6-3 start. That spelled the end for the Jim Schwartz era in Detroit.
With quarterback Matthew Stafford, wide receiver Calvin Johnson, running back Reggie Bush and new pass-catchers in free agent wideout Golden Tate and first-round tight end Eric Ebron, this team isn't lacking on offense. Additions such as outside linebacker Kyle Van Noy—taken in the second round—and strong safety James Ihedigbo—late of the Baltimore Ravens—should add to a defense that includes defensive linemen Ndamukong Suh and Ziggy Ansah, as well as productive linebackers Stephen Tulloch and DeAndre Levy.
The Lions will once again make some noise this season. How loud is usually the biggest question when it comes to this club.
Green Bay Packers: Even
Do the math.
Four different starting quarterbacks added up to a third straight NFC North title for the Green Bay Packers in 2013.
That’s not the kind of habit head coach Mike McCarthy would like to get into. We are talking about the quarterbacks, not the division titles.
Even with Aaron Rodgers shelved for much of the year, Green Bay finished third in the league in total yards and was in the top 10 in both rushing and passing.
The Packers weren’t anywhere near those figures when it came to defense, which has been the team’s shortcoming each of the last three seasons. Since winning Super Bowl XLV, the Packers have yet to reach the NFC Championship Game despite a combined 34-13-1 record the last three seasons.
They added defensive end/outside linebacker Julius Peppers, and first-round safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix was one of four draft choices on this side of the ball in the 2014 draft. But will those reinforcements be enough to reverse this current defensive digression?
According to Rob Demovsky of ESPN, Mike McCarthy seems to be working on that:
Simply plugging in replacement players and asking them to do the same jobs has not always worked.
To combat that, he and defensive coordinator Dom Capers have agreed on some changes.
At the root of those changes isn't necessarily Capers' scheme or whether it will continue to be his traditional 3-4 alignment in his base package, or a regular nickel or dime in sub packages. But rather, it is a plan to develop players who can play multiple positions in different defensive looks in order to better combat issues that could arise during the season.
Winning division titles is a nice habit to get into, but winning a Super Bowl is a lot more fun for the Packers, who would love to add championship No. 14 to Titletown.
Houston Texans: Stock Up
It was an open-and-shut case for the Houston Texans two months ago. The team was both the first and last on the clock in the 2014 draft. That’s what happens when you open 2-0 and proceed to lose your final 14 games in 2013.
From first overall pick Jadeveon Clowney to 256th selection Lonnie Ballentine, the club used the draft more than free agency this offseason.
There’s a new head coach in Bill O’Brien, a new quarterback in Ryan Fitzpatrick and a new defensive coordinator in Romeo Crennel, who hopes to crank up a unit that added defensive tackle Louis Nix III in the draft and veteran safety Chris Clemons late in free agency.
Keep in mind that this team is not short on talent, with the likes of running back Arian Foster, wide receiver Andre Johnson, defensive end J.J. Watt and linebacker Brian Cushing, to name just a few. When or if Johnson returns in 2014 is a different story for another day.
With some luck, the Texans could be playing an extra day or two in January. Don’t look for another disastrous showing this fall.
Indianapolis Colts: Stock Down
Although you couldn’t really tell by the time the playoffs rolled around, Andrew Luck was a much-improved quarterback in his second NFL season.
The Indianapolis Colts’ talented signal-caller cut back on his turnovers and did so with the likes of wide receiver Reggie Wayne and tight end Dwayne Allen missing considerable playing time. The lack of a consistent running game, despite the addition of Trent Richardson, didn’t help the cause.
Neither did the Indianapolis defense, which was less than mediocre in 2013 and even worse during the playoffs, surrendering a combined 87 points and 384 yards rushing in the postseason split with the Kansas City Chiefs and New England Patriots.
General manager Ryan Grigson added inside linebacker D’Qwell Jackson, defensive tackle Arthur Jones and safety Mike Adams during free agency. But this is also a defense that will be minus outside linebacker Robert Mathis (19.5 of the team’s 42 sacks in 2013) for the first four games of 2014 due to a league suspension.
Will the Colts need a little luck to make a third straight postseason appearance? They may need a whole lot of Luck.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Stock Up
When you have won a combined 11 games over the past three seasons, you would think there was nowhere to go but up.
After a franchise-worst 0-8 start in 2013, the Jacksonville Jaguars won four of their next five contests before a three-game losing streak gave the team a 4-12 record.
Still, it was a pretty successful debut for head coach Gus Bradley, whose forte is defense. He will have some new additions to that unit this season in the form of linemen Chris Clemons and Red Bryant—both former Seattle Seahawks who played for Bradley—as well as Ziggy Hood.
Jacksonville scored a league-low 247 points in 2013, which is a major reason general manager Dave Caldwell used six of his nine draft choices on the offensive side of the ball. That includes quarterback Blake Bortles—the third overall pick in May who won’t challenge starter Chad Henne in 2014—as well as wide receivers Marqise Lee and Allen Robinson, a pair of second-round selections.
The Jaguars don’t appear to be ready to challenge for the playoffs this season, somewhere they haven’t been since 2007. But things appear to be on the upswing with the club.
Kansas City Chiefs: Stock Down
It’s hard to forget the second half of the 2013 season when it comes to the Kansas City Chiefs.
No doubt head coach Andy Reid is hoping his players have a little amnesia. His club dropped five of its last seven games and then proceeded to blow a 28-point, third-quarter lead in a 45-44 playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts.
A number of players won’t be around to reminisce. Performers such as cornerback Brandon Flowers, left tackle Branden Albert, wide receiver Dexter McCluster, defensive end Tyson Jackson and guards Jon Asamoah and Geoff Schwartz are now elsewhere.
That’s a lot of departures for a club that lost its way down the stretch a year ago. Are young defensive players such as Allen Bailey, Nico Johnson and rookie Dee Ford ready to step up?
Fortunately, Reid still has Pro Bowl running back Jamaal Charles, veteran quarterback Alex Smith and star defenders Justin Houston, Tamba Hali and Dontari Poe.
Still, in an AFC West where the other three teams seem to be on the rise, the Chiefs look like a club that may be headed south.
Miami Dolphins: Stock Down
Entering training camp a year ago, the Miami Dolphins were a popular choice as one of the surprise teams for 2013.
When it was all said and done, the campaign added to disappointment both on and off the field, leaving the franchise out of the playoffs for the fifth straight year and the 11th time in 12 seasons dating back to 2002.
One of the biggest issues last season was the showing of an offensive line that had a plethora of issues. For their part, the Dolphins addressed the unit this offseason with free agents such as tackle Branden Albert and guard Shelley Smith and rookies Ja’Wuan James and Billy Turner. But what they couldn’t have foreseen was Pro Bowl center Mike Pouncey (hip surgery) not being available for the start of 2014.
In an attempt to bolster the league’s 26th-ranked ground game, Miami signed running back Knowshon Moreno.
Unfortunately, the former Denver Broncos performer is currently recovering from surgery.
This is not a team without talent. Additions in the secondary include safety Louis Delmas and cornerback Cortland Finnegan, adding to a more-than-respectable defensive unit that must play better this season.
The parts seem to be in place for Joe Philbin’s club. However, something still seems to be missing, and it’s hard to put a finger on it.
Minnesota Vikings: Stock Up
When you win only five games, finish last in your division and give up the most points in the league, there’s bound to be a bevy of changes.
One of those changes came at the top, and Minnesota Vikings general manager Rick Spielman hopes that he found the right man to lead his team in new head coach Mike Zimmer.
The former defensive coordinator of the Cincinnati Bengals will trot out a new-look unit that won’t have veterans such as Jared Allen and Kevin Williams but will feature free-agent additions such as defensive tackle Linval Joseph and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn. Young players such as Everson Griffen and Sharrif Floyd will step into bigger roles as well.
We are still not 100 percent sure who the quarterback will be. Rookie Teddy Bridgewater is in the mix with Matt Cassel and Christian Ponder. We are very sure that Adrian Peterson will be the running back.
Despite their last-place finish in the NFC North a year ago, the Vikings finished just three games out of the top spot in 2013. We will soon see if the team’s various changes can make up that difference.
New England Patriots: Stock Up
Should we simply pencil the New England Patriots into the AFC Championship Game right now?
No doubt head coach Bill Belichick would prefer something a little more like a permanent marker and a berth in Super Bowl XLIX.
You have to like their chances. Quarterback Tom Brady did not have the best of years in 2013, but that should change with more rapport with his receivers, as well as the availability of a healthy Rob Gronkowski. The New England running game has been ranked in the league’s top 10 two straight years.
This offseason, the Pats added veteran cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, defensive end Will Smith and outside linebacker James Anderson to a defense that was missing defensive tackles Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly and linebacker Jerod Mayo for a big chunk of 2013. Young players like outside linebacker Jamie Collins and surging defensive end Chandler Jones bear watching.
And so may the Patriots come early February in Glendale.
New Orleans Saints: Even
Just because we think that the New Orleans Saints may be status quo from a year ago doesn’t mean that they are not in the mix for the NFC South title and perhaps more.
When you finish the season with 11 wins, reach the playoffs for the fourth time in five seasons and also rank fourth in the league in both total offense and total defense, steady as it goes is not so bad.
Don’t misunderstand; offseason additions such as three-time Pro Bowl free safety Jairus Byrd and first-round wideout Brandin Cooks were solid pickups. The former should help the team improve on a mere 19 takeaways this past season. Cooks is a playmaker who hopes to make up for the departure of running back Darren Sproles, who was dealt to the Philadelphia Eagles this offseason.
Now that Pro Bowl tight end Jimmy Graham is back in the fold via a four-year contract, per Adam Schefter and Mike Triplett of ESPN.com, it seemingly all adds up to a strong run to a division title for Sean Payton’s club.
However, there may still be a few misgivings about a defensive unit that had some issues against the run in 2013. If Rob Ryan’s group improves here, there’s no telling where this team is headed this upcoming season.
New York Giants: Stock Down
It almost sounds inaccurate.
The New York Giants, winners of Super Bowl XLVI in 2011, have missed the playoffs four of the past five seasons.
Safe to say it has been the biggest hit or miss for Tom Coughlin’s team, which comes off its first losing season since 2004.
Of course, an ineffective offense, a league-high 44 turnovers and a less-than-scintillating pass rush will do that.
This upcoming season, the Giants look to build on last year’s finish, one that saw them win seven of their last 10 games following a stunning 0-6 start.
Quarterback Eli Manning led the NFL with 27 interceptions and had offseason ankle surgery but looks ready to go. The league’s 29th-ranked running game of a year ago will now lean on free-agent pickup Rashad Jennings, and Manning will have rookie wideout Odell Beckham Jr., as well as Pro Bowler Victor Cruz, to throw to.
The NFL’s eighth-ranked defense will have a lot of new faces in the secondary, including cornerbacks Dominique-Rodgers Cromartie, Walter Thurmond and Zack Bowman. Meanwhile, Veteran Giants Jason Pierre-Paul and Mathias Kiwanuka hope to better their sack numbers from a season ago.
Still, tight end is a question mark. So may be one of the team’s best offensive linemen, as Jordan Raanan of NJ.com has an update on the status of guard Chris Snee.
It’s been an offseason of change for these Giants. But will things really change for Coughlin and Co.?
New York Jets: Stock Up
Thought to be one of the league’s laughingstock teams entering 2013, head coach Rex Ryan and his New York Jets had the last laugh a year ago.
Three wins in their final four games enabled the Green and White to finish with a surprising 8-8 record last season. Now, expectations may be a bit higher for a team that made its share of moves this offseason.
It was a learning experience for quarterback Geno Smith, who committed 25 of the club’s 29 turnovers in 2013. He’ll have some new weapons to lean on this season in running back Chris Johnson, wide receiver Eric Decker and a trio of rookie pass-catchers in tight end Jace Amaro and wideouts Jalen Saunders and Shaquelle Evans.
The team’s first-round-laden defensive unit has a rookie strong safety in Calvin Pryor, the team’s first pick in May’s draft. He joins underappreciated defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson, 2013 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Sheldon Richardson and veteran inside linebacker David Harris.
Are the Jets playoff-bound in 2014? In terms of perception, it’s amazing the difference a year can make.
Oakland Raiders: Stock Up
Common sense says that there’s nowhere to go but up after 11 straight non-winning seasons.
And the sense is that these Oakland Raiders are headed upward in 2014. How far may be the bigger question.
That latter statement is in regard to the team’s AFC West neighbors in the Denver Broncos (13-3), Kansas City Chiefs (11-5) and San Diego Chargers (9-7), who were a combined 33-15 a year ago and all made the playoffs.
These Raiders look like a more talented team. General manager Reggie McKenzie gave up a sixth-round pick to get Matt Schaub and also drafted Derek Carr in the second round. Will there be a quarterback battle in camp?
Elsewhere on offense, veteran running back Maurice Jones-Drew will pair with oft-injured Darren McFadden in an attempt to boost the ground attack. Wideout James Jones comes over from the Green Bay Packers. McKenzie also added three new starters on the offensive line via free agency.
The additions on defense include players with Super Bowl experience in defensive linemen Antonio Smith, LaMarr Woodley and Justin Tuck, as well as cornerbacks Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers. But the excitement on this unit revolves around rookie linebacker Khalil Mack.
Head coach Dennis Allen has won a combined eight games in his first two seasons. That figure seems to be in range for 2014 alone. Anything less may be considered a disappointment...or, sadly, business as usual.
Philadelphia Eagles: Stock Up
The potential is there for an interesting year in the City of Brotherly Love.
Last season the Philadelphia Eagles parlayed a 7-1 finish into the team’s first NFC East title since 2010. Kudos to new head coach Chip Kelly, who wound up settling on quarterback Nick Foles, who responded with 27 touchdown passes and just two interceptions.
He also had the league’s best ground game at his disposal in All-Pro back running back LeSean McCoy, who ran for 1,607 yards and totaled 2,146 yards from scrimmage, both NFL highs in 2013.
While wide receiver DeSean Jackson was DePorted from Philadelphia, Foles still has weapons such as Jeremy Maclin (who missed all of 2013) and Riley Cooper, as well as tight ends Brent Celek and Zach Ertz. In addition, second-round wide receiver Jordan Matthews certainly bears watching.
So does the defense, which added pieces such as free safety Malcolm Jenkins and cornerback Nolan Carroll in free agency, as well as pass-rushing threat Marcus Smith in the first round of the draft. And that’s the key to the season for these Birds, who played better on this side of the ball later in 2013 but figure to make bigger strides in Year 2 of Billy Davis’ system.
So will that mean a leap of faith when it comes to putting the Eagles in Super Bowl XLIX? Let’s not jump to any conclusions just yet.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Even
This offseason, the Pittsburgh Steelers were looking for a quick solution to their recent run of mediocrity.
That wound up meaning a fast start during free agency while emphasizing speed in the draft. Draftees like inside linebacker Ryan Shazier and versatile running back Dri Archer hope to add a dimension that has not been seen in recent seasons.
Head coach Mike Tomlin is also hoping that his club picks up where it left off a year ago. This past season, the Steelers won eight of their final 12 games, including their final three contests, following an 0-4 start. That was a nice turnaround considering that in 2012, Pittsburgh dropped five of its final seven games following a 6-3 start.
But the one thing you can never count on is one of the factors that have been missing from Dick LeBeau’s defense in recent seasons. The pass rushing has been somewhat ordinary, and performers such as outside linebackers Jason Worilds and Jarvis Jones must step to the forefront. The Steelers have also forced only 55 turnovers in their last 48 regular-season contests.
Simply put, if this club can put the “steal” back in the Steelers, we will be seeing veteran quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and talented performers such as Pro Bowl wideout Antonio Brown and second-year running back Le'Veon Bell in the playoffs sooner than later.
But that may be one the one “if” that can’t be counted on.
St. Louis Rams: Even
It’s been far too long.
It is somewhat unfathomable that the St. Louis Rams haven’t enjoyed a winning season in more than a decade (2003) and haven’t been to the playoffs since 2004.
General manager Les Snead and head coach Jeff Fisher, the latter in his third year with the club, are hoping that the young talent develops sooner than later.
The team addressed the trenches on both sides of the football in the first round in May with the selections of offensive lineman Greg Robinson and defensive tackle Aaron Donald.
The Rams are also hoping for much more from wide receiver Tavon Austin, who came on late as a rookie. Tight end Jared Cook was a terrific addition last offseason. Running back Zac Stacy also came on strong down the stretch in 2013.
That brings us to quarterback Sam Bradford, who hopes to stay healthy this season after playing in only seven games a year ago. His continued presence is the key to a team that already has its work cut out for it in the league’s toughest division. And until he can develop some consistency, the jury remains out on the Rams’ playoff chances.
San Diego Chargers: Stock Up
If the San Diego Chargers play the kind of football that they did down the stretch in 2013, there’s no reason to believe that this is anything but a Super Bowl contender in 2014.
Led by rejuvenated quarterback Philip Rivers and a career year from running back Ryan Mathews, the team took advantage of a rebuilt offensive line and an offense that ranked fifth in the league in total yards. The unit also got solid years from running back Danny Woodhead, ageless tight end Antonio Gates and wideout Keenan Allen, who totaled 1,046 receiving yards and eight touchdowns as a rookie.
The defense has a few question marks, but additions such as rookie cornerback Jason Verrett should help. Mike McCoy’s team needs to better that total of 17 takeaways from a year ago, the second-fewest in the league in 2013.
Making a move in the AFC West doesn’t figure to be easy. But it’s the Chargers and not the Kansas City Chiefs who may be challenging the Denver Broncos for division supremacy this upcoming season.
San Francisco 49ers: Even
Under head coach Jim Harbaugh, the San Francisco 49ers have reached three straight NFC title games in as many years with him on the sidelines.
One of those resulted in an appearance in Super Bowl XLVII, a 34-31 loss to the Baltimore Ravens.
Is this club ready to close the deal in 2014? Why not?
Thanks to general manager Trent Baalke, the team has added a lot of talent via the draft the last two years. Since 2013, the club has drafted a total of 23 players. And some of those young performers could be counted on to step in this year given the team’s various issues.
Those issues include the early absence of inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman, the possible absence of outside linebacker Aldon Smith and a potential training camp no-show in tight end Vernon Davis.
So why not "stock up"? It’s hard for the team to be much better than it has been for the last three seasons, with the exception of winning a Super Bowl. The Niners will be once again in the thick of the championship chase, but we will be a little conservative here until some of their possible shortcomings are addressed.
Seattle Seahawks: Even
Champions until dethroned.
That’s the rallying cry for those clubs that have walked away with titles in any sport, and with good reason.
They’ve earned it.
So what will the Seattle Seahawks do to follow up one of the most impressive performances in Super Bowl history?
We are not sure. We do know they will be doing it with some different faces. It remains to be seen what the effects of not having wide receiver Golden Tate, defensive ends Chris Clemons and Red Bryant and defensive tackle Clinton McDonald will actually have on Pete Carroll’s club...perhaps none at all.
In any case, there’s still plenty of defense in the Pacific Northwest with free safety Earl Thomas, cornerback Richard Sherman and many other pieces that helped Seattle give up the fewest yards and fewest points in the league in 2013.
Quarterback Russell Wilson and running back Marshawn Lynch remain the keys to the offense. Doug Baldwin is an emerging wide receiver. But can both Percy Harvin and Sidney Rice remain healthy this upcoming season?
We are not ready to say that this is a better Seattle team than the one that won it all in 2013, hence the even grade. But the Seahawks remain the favorite to get back to the Super Bowl this February.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Stock Up
It’s not going out on a limb to say that a lot of people have been enamored with what the Tampa Bay Buccaneers did this offseason...and with good reason.
It’s not just the fact that the team, now with head coach Lovie Smith at the helm, added quality free agents in cornerback Alterraun Verner, defensive end Michael Johnson, left tackle Anthony Collins, center Evan Dietrich-Smith and veteran quarterback Josh McCown, to name a few.
The Bucs already include standouts such as Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, outside linebacker Lavonte David, wide receiver Vincent Jackson and running back Doug Martin; the latter is looking to bounce back from an injury-shortened season. Add in rookies like wide receiver Mike Evans, tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins and running back Charles Sims, and the roster features a ton of potential.
Still, this franchise hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2007 and has finished last in the NFC South three years in a row. However, a combination of mainstays and new faces along with the presence of Smith and his coaching staff makes it easy to like what you see as training camp approaches.
Tennessee Titans: Stock Up
Perhaps the back end of the headline above should read "Stay Up" instead of "Stock Up."
The staying up is in reference to quarterback Jake Locker, who in his two seasons as the starter of the Tennessee Titans has missed almost as many games (14) as he has played in (18).
When available, the former first-round pick has performed well. And new head coach Ken Whisenhunt hopes to help Locker be around a lot more often.
The running game features Shonn Greene and newcomers Dexter McCluster and rookie Bishop Sankey, who was the first running back taken in the 2014 draft. Wide receiver Kendall Wright and tight end Delanie Walker were the team’s top two pass-catchers a year ago.
New defensive coordinator Ray Horton brings the 3-4 defense to Nashville. Emerging Jurrell Casey lines up at nose tackle, while former Denver Broncos linebackers Wesley Woodyard and Shaun Phillips arrived via free agency.
The last time the Titans reached the playoffs was 2008. Don’t be surprised if they push the Indianapolis Colts for the AFC South crown this fall and winter.
Washington Redskins: Stock Down
If this question was tailored toward the offense of the Washington Redskins, there are some very encouraging signs when it comes to that unit.
Unfortunately, we are looking at the lay of the land in terms of the entire team. And the club’s defensive unit leaves you a little empty these days.
Back to the business of scoring points. New head coach Jay Gruden should have a healthy and rejuvenated Robert Griffin III behind center. He will be giving the football to workhorse runner Alfred Morris, who has already totaled 611 carries for 2,888 yards and 20 touchdowns in two seasons.
The addition of three-time Pro Bowl wide receiver DeSean Jackson should help other targets such as fellow newcomer Andre Roberts, late of the Arizona Cardinals, as well as promising tight end Jordan Reed.
But this team allowed 478 points and 52 offensive touchdowns a year ago. Star outside linebackers Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan should get a little help from free-agent pickups such as defensive tackle Jason Hatcher and free safety Ryan Clark. However, it doesn’t seem to be nearly enough.
And the fact that Washington was the only team in the league in 2013 not to win a game within the division means it has more questions than answers.