NFL Teams Taking a Step Backward in 2015

Russell S. Baxter@@BaxFootballGuruContributor IMay 21, 2015

NFL Teams Taking a Step Backward in 2015

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    AJ Mast/Associated Press

    With every NFL season comes change. Teams have used free agency, trade and the draft to upgrade their rosters with the hopes of getting to where the New England Patriots were that first weekend in February in Glendale, Arizona.

    While some manage to achieve their goals for the most part, some clubs inevitably fall short of their objectives.

    Here, we take a look at five franchises that may not be as successful this upcoming season as they were in 2014. The teams are listed in alphabetical order and include four squads that reached the playoffs this past season.

    Keep in mind that “a step backward” doesn’t mean one of those aforementioned four clubs won’t win their division or return to the postseason. It’s just a matter of the club perhaps not winning as many games as it did in 2014 or simply not doing enough to convince us it is headed in the right direction.

    So for those concerned, we are not forecasting utter doom for these five teams. Simply put, the road in 2015 may be a bit of bumpy for this handful of clubs.

Cincinnati Bengals (10-5-1 in 2014)

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    Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

    The Bengals have been to the postseason a team-record four straight years but unfortunately have nothing to show for it other than a streak.

    Head coach Marvin Lewis and Cincinnati will try to make it five consecutive postseason appearances in 2015 but will have to perform better this upcoming year to make that happen.

    One positive is the hopeful health of wide receivers A.J. Green and Marvin Jones; the latter missed all of 2014 due to injury. The backfield combination of running backs Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard is a major plus and one reason the team finished sixth in the NFL in rushing this past season. The offensive line is solid for the most part, and the Bengals used their first two picks this year on tackles Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher, respectively.

    However, defense was an issue in 2014, and we are not sure the team is any better off than it was a year ago. The team brought back former free-agent defectors such as defensive end Michael Johnson, defensive tackle Pat Sims and cornerback Brandon Ghee, plus added inside linebacker A.J. Hawk, who was cut loose by the Green Bay Packers. Having outside linebacker Vontaze Burfict healthy is a major plus.

    Still, quarterback Andy Dalton has had his issues with mistakes (99 touchdown passes, 77 turnovers) throughout his career. And that’s not including his postseason woes. Unless the four-year signal-caller tightens up his play and the defense bounces back in a big way, the Bengals won't have an easy ride to the playoffs.

Denver Broncos (12-4 in 2014)

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    Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

    Something seems amiss with the Denver Broncos, winners of four straight AFC West titles and a 38-10 regular-season record the past three seasons under the guidance of quarterback Peyton Manning.

    The team took its share of big hits in free agency, losing two-time Pro Bowl tight end Julius Thomas, left guard Orlando Franklin and defensive tackle Terrance Knighton. Veteran wide receiver Wes Welker hasn’t been re-signed, and wideout Demaryius Thomas hasn’t signed his franchise tender to date.

    Along with the departure of Franklin, the offensive line appears muddled with changes at center, and this was an area of concern this past season. General manager John Elway has filled in some of the gaps with tight end Owen Daniels, guard Shelley Smith and defensive tackle Vance Walker.

    It’s a reunion of sorts at the coaching staff with Gary Kubiak, offensive coordinator Rick Dennison and defensive coordinator Wade Phillips—all past members of the organization. Of course, there’s also Manning, who is back after a late-season slump due in part to a quad injury, and there figures to be an increased emphasis on the running game from Day 1.

    The Broncos are still in contention for not only a division title but a Super Bowl appearance. But they don’t have that 12-plus win feel to them at the moment.

Detroit Lions (11-5 in 2014)

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    Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

    Back in 2011, the Detroit Lions made their first playoff appearance since 1999. This past season, they returned to the postseason for the second time in four years, and their 11 regular-season wins were the most by the franchise since 1991.

    In 2014, the team was propelled by a defensive unit that gave up the second-fewest total yards in the league and was ranked first overall against the run. One season after surrendering 376 points, the Lions gave up 282 points—the third-fewest in the NFL.

    On offense, head coach Jim Caldwell has weapons such as quarterback Matthew Stafford, wide receivers Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate and tight ends Brandon Pettigrew and Eric Ebron. Joique Bell and Theo Riddick are the key members of the backfield.

    Let's go back to the defense, which kept the team in games all year and watched Stafford work some fourth-quarterback magic on more than one occasion. The losses of Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley along the defensive front are a concern. Veteran C.J. Mosley wasn’t re-signed, and defensive end George Johnson was dealt to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The addition of five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata is a huge plus, but have the Lions done enough to shore up this area?

    Combine those issues with some concerns along the offensive line, and 11 or more victories could be a tall order for this club.

New England Patriots (12-4 in 2014)

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    Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

    Let’s make one thing clear: We are not sure how long quarterback Tom Brady will be out of the lineup at this point, given his appeal of his four-game suspension. So his presence or lack of it early in the season just doesn’t factor in here.

    Still, the defending Super Bowl champions have their work cut out for them in 2015. Then again, any attempt at counting out the New England Patriots is futile.

    Simply put, Bill Belichick’s defense that bears watching. The team watched standout cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner leave via free agency and then recently jettisoned corners Alfonzo Dennard and Kyle Arrington as well. This offseason, New England inked cornerback Chimdi Chekwa, who was cut earlier this week and is now back with the Oakland Raiders, according to Raiders.com.

    While inside linebacker Brandon Spikes is back with the club after a one-year stint with the Buffalo Bills, veteran defensive tackle Vince Wilfork has moved on. Middle linebacker Jerod Mayo is coming off another injury-shortened campaign, while Dont’a Hightower is on the mend from offseason hip surgery.

    Offensively, the Patriots will no longer have the services of running backs Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley; the former was a key part of the team’s passing attack and a major factor in the Super Bowl XLIX win over the Seattle Seahawks.

    This is a team that has won 10 or more games for 12 consecutive years and has posted 14 straight winning seasons. Both streaks don’t appear to be in any danger, but the Pats may be pressed a little harder than usual in an improving AFC East, as well as due to the ramifications of the team’s numerous changes.

San Francisco 49ers (8-8 in 2014)

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    Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

    While you often can’t count on a team that has made a ton of free-agent acquisitions, it’s also hard to get a grasp on a club that has made so many notable changes this offseason.

    The San Francisco 49ers suffered through eight straight seasons (2003 to 2010) without a winning record before the franchise hired head coach Jim Harbaugh. He would lead the team to three straight postseason appearances and a berth in Super Bowl XLVII in 2012 before the wheels came off this past season.

    Harbaugh is now the head coach of the Michigan Wolverines, and other members of his staff are gone as well. As for the players, linebackers Patrick Willis and Chris Borland and defensive tackle Justin Smith retired. Running back Frank Gore (the franchise’s all-time leading rusher), three-time Pro Bowl guard Mike Iupati and productive wide receiver Michael Crabtree departed via free agency.

    Free agency also claimed cornerbacks Chris Culliver and Perrish Cox, who signed with the Washington Redskins and Tennessee Titans, respectively.

    The decision to elevate defensive line coach Jim Tomsula to the top spot has been debated, but it’s obvious that general manager Trent Baalke wanted to keep as much continuity as possible, hence the promotions of Geep Chryst (offensive coordinator) and Eric Mangini (defensive coordinator).

    Free-agent additions such as wide receiver Torrey Smith, running back Reggie Bush and defensive tackle Darnell Dockett figure to help. But the Niners have an uneasy tone as they look to recapture that playoff feeling, which is always easier said than done for even the best of teams.

    All free-agent information and player signings/transactions are courtesy of Spotrac. Depth chart information comes via Ourlads. Unless otherwise noted, all player and team statistics come from Pro Football Reference.

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