Predicting Each NFL Team's Biggest Training-Camp Revelation
On Wednesday, July 22, the rookies for the Baltimore Ravens, Cleveland Browns and New Orleans will arrive at training camp.
Slowly but surely, all 32 NFL teams will have all of their players ready for the traditional summer session, followed by the preseason and then the start of the regular season when the New England Patriots host the Pittsburgh Steelers on Thursday night, September 10.
That opener is a mere 51 days away. But so much will happen between now and then as every club looks to get better and make a run to Super Bowl 50.
We are making a prediction for each team in terms of what we could see eventually happening in training camp…and beyond. In other words, some of what we see this summer will translate into what we expect to see this upcoming season.
Please keep in mind that these are predictions, not facts. What you see is not set in stone. And as usual, we’re not afraid to be a little bold (within reason, of course).
Arizona Cardinals: Tight End Not Irrelevant
Revelation: Cardinals are still searching for a veteran tight end, but…
By the end of last season, the Arizona Cardinals were seemingly competing with smoke and mirrors…and perhaps a little glue and scotch tape.
Last season, the offense was racked by injuries at quarterback and running back. This offseason, the Cards are looking for help at tight end. John Carlson announced his retirement after totaling 33 catches for 350 yards and one touchdown in 2014. Rob Housler left via free agency for the Cleveland Browns.
According to both Ian Rapoport of NFL Media and Adam Schefter of ESPN (via Fox Sports Arizona), free agent Jermaine Gresham will visit the Cardinals on Tuesday. The two-time Pro Bowler was not re-signed by the Cincinnati Bengals this offseason and is still recovering from offseason back surgery. Gresham has also visited the New Orleans Saints this year, and we think that’s where he will wind up.
For now, 2014 second-round pick Troy Niklas is atop the depth chart. But the Cards also took former Louisville product Gerald Christian with the final selection in this year’s draft. This one-time Cardinals standout could be this year’s surprise for Bruce Arians’ Cardinals.
Atlanta Falcons: Seminole Point
Revelation: RB Devonta Freeman will be the workhorse in the backfield this season.
With new head coach Dan Quinn and new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan in the fold, the anticipation is that the Atlanta Falcons attack will stress more of the run in 2015.
That speculation increased with the addition of running back Tevin Coleman in the third round of this year’s draft.
But we still think that second-year pro Devonta Freeman is the guy to watch in the backfield this season. In 2014, he finished second on the team with 248 yards rushing and one touchdown on 65 carries. He also added 30 catches for 225 yards and a score.
Coleman will get his carries, and you can look for the Falcons to improve on last year's 93.6 rushing yards per game. But it will be Freeman who earns the majority of the workload.
Baltimore Ravens: Can He Get off the Mat?
Revelation: SS Matt Elam will be pushed hard in training camp.
There were a lot of positives when it came to the Baltimore Ravens this past season. Following an 8-8 showing in 2013, John Harbaugh and Co. rebounded to reach the playoffs for the sixth time in seven years.
The play of the secondary was not one of the highlights of 2014, however. Injuries and inefficiency saw this unit give up its share of yards (23rd in the NFL) and touchdown passes (22). And let’s not forget that New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady threw for 367 yards and three touchdowns (one interception) in the playoffs in January.
Elam has been a disappointment, to say the least. Or we can simply quote Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome, per Aaron Wilson of the Baltimore Sun: “I think it’s readily known that we have not been satisfied with the way he’s played thus far,” said Newsome back in May. “And I don’t think Matt has been satisfied with the way he’s played thus far.”
The two-year pro lost his starting safety job midway through 2014. Could Elam lose his job altogether this summer?
Buffalo Bills: EJ Will Make It an EZ Call
Revelation: QB EJ Manuel will be the team’s starter for all 16 games.
Sorry, but a total of 15 games (with 14 starts) in two seasons does not a career make.
Due to the fact that former Buffalo Bills head coach Doug Marrone pulled the plug on quarterback EJ Manuel after four games this past season, the label of bust when it comes to the 2013 first-round pick is floating out there.
But Marrone is gone, and Manuel remains and is ready to assume command of new offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s attack. The young signal-caller’s resume includes a 58.6 percent completion rate with 16 touchdown passes and 15 turnovers (12 interceptions, three lost fumbles).
However, Rex Ryan is now at the helm of the Bills, who have 2013 NFL rushing leader LeSean McCoy in the backfield. And perhaps the better battle these days is at backup quarterback, where veteran Matt Cassel hopes to hold off Tyrod Taylor.
Carolina Panthers: Lightning Strikes the Same Position
Revelation: Rookie WR Devin Funchess will be the starter opposite Kelvin Benjamin.
One year ago, the Carolina Panthers struck gold in the first round of the draft with the selection of wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin.
The former Florida State Seminole finished second on the team with 73 catches and tied for the lead with 1,008 receiving yards. He also led the Panthers with nine touchdowns.
This spring, general manager David Gettleman used a second-round pick on Michigan wideout Devin Funchess. Look for him to supplant Jerricho Cotchery as a starter and give the team its best wideout tandem since the days of Steve Smith and Muhsin Muhammad.
Chicago Bears: Defense to Get Even Young-er
Revelation: Willie Young will emerge as the standout at right outside linebacker.
Face it: The Chicago Bears have been a pretty poor defensive team in recent years.
This year, the team will be led by head coach John Fox. New general manager Ryan Pace has also enlisted the aid of defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, who brings his version of the 3-4 to the Windy City.
While the team is set at left outside linebacker with the addition of free-agent Pernell McPhee, former defensive ends Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston and Willie Young are making the transition to outside linebacker.
Allen gets the nod as the starter for now, but you can look for Young to eventually supplant him as a regular part of the lineup. And look for the one-time Detroit Lions performer to lead the club in sacks in 2015.
Cincinnati Bengals: Andre Smith Faces Giant Task
Revelation: RT Andre Smith could lose job to rookie Jake Fisher.
Ever since being drafted with the sixth overall pick in 2009, Cincinnati Bengals tackle Andre Smith has been a bit of an enigma.
But the bottom line is that in six seasons, he’s played all 16 games just once. This past season, the former University of Alabama product started only nine contests. And the folks at Pro Football Focus tell us that when he was available, Smith was less than adequate.
This spring, the Bengals used a first-round pick on Cedric Ogbuehi and a second-round pick on Jake Fisher as the franchise’s bookends of the future. The latter stands 6’6” and 306 pounds, and he will supplant Smith as the starter this season.
Cleveland Browns: Danny Shelton a Huge Addition
Revelation: Rookie Danny Shelton immediately helps run defense.
When you allow the most rushing yards in the league during a season, you apparently have some big issues on defense.
So why not go out and find a sizable solution? That was the case when the Cleveland Browns used the first of their two first-round picks on April 30 on University of Washington defensive lineman Danny Shelton, a 6’2”, 339-pound prospect who will succeed where a number of rookies at the position (or defensive tackle in the 4-3) have failed.
“Cleveland was No. 32 against the run last season,” said NFL.com’s Mike Mayock following his selection. “That stops now. The Browns are better right now…He plays with leverage. I'm amazed a guy that big has vision and instincts like that.”
Who are we to argue?
Dallas Cowboys: A Good Offseason for the Receiving Corps
Revelation: Third year will be the charm for Terrance Williams.
While the Dallas Cowboys have been busy inking wide receiver Dez Bryant and Cole Beasley to new contracts this offseason, another one of their wideouts has been money this year.
“Terrance has improved across the board,” quarterback Tony Romo told Brandon George of the Dallas Morning News last month. “Terrance has had one of the best offseasons I’ve seen in a while.”
That would be Terrance Williams, who totaled 37 catches for 621 yards and eight touchdowns this past season. But 25 of those receptions and six of those scores came in the team’s first eight games.
Look for the former Baylor standout to have a more compete season from top to bottom in 2015. Romo and the offense will be the big beneficiaries.
Denver Broncos: Familiar Surroundings for Chris Clark
Revelation: Chris Clark will be primary starter at left tackle.
As it stands right now, 39-year-old Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning will have rookie left tackle Ty Sambrailo protecting his blind side.
Is that a good thing?
The team will be without four-time Pro Bowl left tackle Ryan Clady (again), who tore his ACL this offseason. Yes, this offseason the Broncos did bring back veteran tackle Ryan Harris, who began his career with Denver but a year ago started 15 games at right tackle for the Kansas City Chiefs.
But when Clady went down in 2013, it was Chris Clark who took over as his replacement. Sambrailo will have his time, but look for Clark (who struggled on the other side in 2014) to wind up at left tackle, with Harris on the right side.
Detroit Lions: Devin Taylor-Made for Success
Revelation: DE Devin Taylor will emerge as eventual starter on left side.
When you talk about the defensive line for the Detroit Lions, the conversation no longer includes defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley, C.J. Mosley and Andre Fluellen, as well as defensive end George Johnson. That group combined for 20 of the team’s 42 sacks in 2014.
New starters up front include defensive tackles Haloti Ngata and Tyrunn Walker. You may be able to add third-year pro Devin Taylor to that list. While veteran defensive end Jason Jones (five sacks in 2014) is expected to return as the starter on the left side, don’t be stunned if Taylor upends the veteran defender.
That would not be a bad thing for the Lions, who need as much help on the defensive front as possible.
Green Bay Packers: Rodgers to Rodgers?
Revelation: TE Richard Rodgers will emerge as bigger factor in 2015.
Last offseason, the Green Bay Packers added tight end Richard Rodgers via the draft. Expected to win the starting job, he wound up giving way to Andrew Quarless.
But that will change in 2015. The talented performer totaled 20 catches for 225 yards and two touchdowns as a rookie during the regular season but was more of a factor in the playoffs. Look for him to pick up where he left off.
Houston Texans: Ryan Will End What Brian Starts
Revelation: Brian Hoyer wins quarterback job at camp, but…
If he has it his way, new Houston Texans quarterback Brian Hoyer won’t be dealing with any deja vu in 2015.
You will recall that the journeyman signal-caller began last season as the starter for the Cleveland Browns. But a second-half slump saw him lose his job down the stretch.
Don’t be shocked if that’s the case again with the Houston Texans, as the free-agent addition wins the job in camp but eventually gives way to Ryan Mallett.
Indianapolis Colts: Trent Cole Will Be Stalking Quarterbacks
Revelation: OLB Trent Cole will have bigger impact than Robert Mathis.
The Indianapolis Colts are hoping outside linebacker Robert Mathis can bounce back from a forgettable and lost 2014 season.
But it will be free-agent addition Trent Cole, who piled up 85.5 sacks in 10 years with the Philadelphia Eagles, who will make the Colts defense better in 2015.
This past season, Chuck Pagano’s squad totaled a respectable 41 sacks, with eight players totaling at least a pair of quarterback traps. Still, the Colts allowed 41 offensive touchdowns, including 27 scoring passes, and 27 or more points seven times.
If Mathis is healthy, he and Cole could make quite a tandem. And since both have lots of experience as defensive ends, they could be a factor in any 4-3 defensive package.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Dan Skuta Will Prove to Be the Man
Revelation: OLB Dan Skuta will be big factor on improving pass rush.
After totaling a combined 51 sacks in 32 games from 2012 to 2013, the Jacksonville Jaguars got to opposing quarterbacks 45 times this past season. Defensive tackle Sen’Derrick Marks (8.5) and defensive ends Chris Clemons (eight) and Ryan Davis (6.5) led the way for Gus Bradley’s club.
The team was hoping that rookie Dante Fowler Jr. would help the defense this season, but he’s out for all of 2015 with a torn ACL.
Now add outside linebacker Dan Skuta to the mix. He was signed before the draft and comes off a season in which he totaled 33 tackles, a career-high five sacks and three forced fumbles for the San Francisco 49ers.
Those numbers could all go up this year as Bradley continues to build his defense in Jacksonville.
Kansas City Chiefs: No Backpedaling on Sean Smith
Revelation: CB Sean Smith primed for first Pro Bowl season.
Although they fell short of the playoffs this past season, the Kansas City Chiefs made some strides from a club that slumped down the stretch a year earlier.
You will recall Andy Reid’s club opened 2013 with nine straight wins. But the club would drop six of its last eight overall outings, including a playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts in which the Chiefs squandered a 28-point third-quarter lead.
In 2014, only the Seattle Seahawks allowed fewer points than the Chiefs, who also ranked seventh in the NFL in total defense (but a disappointing 28th versus the run). Still, the club ranked second in the league in pass defense, thanks to a solid season from cornerback Sean Smith. He amassed 50 tackles and a team-high 18 passes defensed.
However, Smith totaled only one interception, and Kansas City managed a mere 14 takeaways after forcing 36 turnovers one year earlier. The veteran cornerback has a mere eight interceptions in six NFL seasons despite notching 71 passes defensed. But Smith will finally hang onto some of those balls, so you can look for that Kansas City takeaway total to increase.
Miami Dolphins: The Latest Stop for C.J. Mosley
Revelation: DT C.J. Mosley will enjoy reunion with Ndamukong Suh.
In joining his sixth NFL team in 11 seasons, veteran defensive tackle C.J. Mosley hopes to help the Miami Dolphins where they need him most.
The well-traveled pro took over for Nick Fairley in the second half of 2014, pairing with Ndamukong Suh, and the Detroit Lions finished second in the NFL in total while giving up the fewest rushing yards in the league.
Meanwhile, the Dolphins have ranked 24th in the NFL in rushing defense the past two seasons and in their final six games in 2014 and allowed a whopping 165.3 yards per game on the ground.
This past season, Mosley totaled 26 tackles, 2.5 sacks and a forced fumble for the Lions. He will amass bigger numbers in South Florida in 2015.
Minnesota Vikings: Scott Crichton Should Make Greater Impact
Revelation: DE Scott Crichton will be bigger factor in second season.
One year after ranking 31st in the NFL in total defense, the Minnesota Vikings improved to 14th in the league in yards allowed.
Give credit to head coach Mike Zimmer, as well as a slew of young defensive linemen who are now the face of this defense. And that includes defensive end Scott Crichton, who hopes to make a much bigger impact in his second year than his rookie campaign in which he played in a mere eight games and totaled only two tackles.
Where the Vikings need to do most of their work is on run defense. The team ranked 25th in the league in that department this past season, allowing 121.4 yards per game on the ground. Minnesota also could use more of an outside pass-rushing threat to partner with Everson Griffen, who totaled 12 sacks this past season.
We expect Crichton to step up his game in 2015.
New England Patriots: Brandon LaFell Continues to Catch on
Revelation: WR Brandon LaFell primed for career year.
While the New England Patriots offense just churns along every year regardless of its parts, there could be something brewing in Foxborough, and it’s not Boston Lager.
Keep an eye on wide receiver Brandon LaFell, who finished third on the club this past season with 74 catches. But he also ranked second with 953 receiving yards and seven touchdown receptions.
LaFell’s 2014 catch total was 25 more grabs than his best season with the Carolina Panthers, when he racked up 49 receptions in 2013. Could he actually press wideout Julian Edelman for the team lead in catches this upcoming season? It will be an intriguing race.
New Orleans Saints: Anthony Spencer Has Been Hired
Revelation: OLB Anthony Spencer will excel in reunion with Rob Ryan.
Let’s rewind to 2012, when Rob Ryan was the defensive coordinator of the Dallas Cowboys and outside linebacker Anthony Spencer totaled a career-high 11 sacks, led the team in tackles and went to the Pro Bowl.
The former first-rounder is now a member of the New Orleans Saints. After a few injury-plagued years, look for Spencer to rebound for a team in search of a lot of help on his side of the ball.
New York Giants: This Team Will Need More…Moore
Revelation: DE Damontre Moore will emerge as bigger factor.
This past season, the New York Giants saw a return to glory by their pass rush but not much else on the defensive side of the ball.
The team is hoping new coordinator Steve Spagnuolo can get the most out of a unit that finished 29th in the NFL in total yards allowed and 30th in rushing defense.
With defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul now a question mark, look for emerging defensive end Damontre Moore to build on his 5.5 sacks in 2014. He also totaled 32 tackles and knocked down a pair of passes, a far cry from his rookie season in which he managed only 11 stops and zero sacks in 15 contests.
The Giants come off a season in which they totaled an impressive 47 sacks. They also allowed a disturbing 135.1 yards per game on the ground in 2014. Moore hopes to help the team in both aspects this year.
New York Jets: Dee Will Try and Get an 'A'
Revelation: CB Dee Milliner will benefit most from Jets’ offseason additions.
You will recall at one time a year ago that New York Jets cornerback Dee Milliner kind of claimed he was the best cornerback in the NFL.
What he probably meant to say was that in 2015, he would be playing with some of the best cornerbacks in the league.
The Jets have added Darrelle Revis, Antonio Cromartie and Buster Skrine this offseason. Look for Milliner to benefit from their experience in a big way.
The former first-round pick was part of a secondary that saw opposing quarterbacks ring up 31 touchdown passes in 2014. Forgetting all of that may be the biggest task for Milliner.
Oakland Raiders: Say Helu to a New Pair of Hands
Revelation: QB Derek Carr will benefit most from the addition of RB Roy Helu.
This offseason, the Oakland Raiders added wide receiver Michael Crabtree in free agency and wide receiver Amari Cooper with the fourth pick in the 2015 draft.
The team also has young tight end Mychal Rivera and other talented pass-catchers in Andre Holmes and Rod Streater.
But Derek Carr’s best friend this season will be running back Roy Helu, who will take a lot of pressure off the second-year quarterback via his receiving skills.
Philadelphia Eagles: These Birds Won’t Miss Their Mark
Revelation: QB Mark Sanchez will wind up the team’s starter behind center.
The Philadelphia Eagles have a bunch of impressive names at quarterback. The problem is that there haven’t been a ton of impressive performances.
But Mark Sanchez started eight games for Chip Kelly’s club this past season. And when the smoke clears from the cheese steaks, you can look for him to be the Birds’ regular quarterback.
We are well-aware of Sanchez’s history. In 71 regular-season games with the Jets and Eagles, he has thrown 82 touchdown passes and committed 103 turnovers. This past season in Philadelphia, he threw for 14 scores but also matched that with 14 miscues.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Another Bryant to Keep an Eye on
Revelation: WR Martavis Bryant will be the starter opposite Antonio Brown.
This past season, we saw Antonio Brown become the first Pittsburgh Steelers player in history to lead the NFL in receptions.
We also saw quite the debut for rookie wideout Martavis Bryant, who missed the first six games of 2014 but finished with 26 catches for a whopping 549 yards (21.1 yards per reception) and eight touchdowns.
Look for the Clemson speedster to upend Markus Wheaton this summer on a suddenly deep Steelers’ wide receiving corps. The young wideout finished with more than twice as many receptions (53) as Bryant this past season but seemingly doesn’t possess the same big-play ability, as those catches amounted to just 644 yards (12.2 yards per reception).
St. Louis Rams: Fairly or Un-Fairley?
Revelation: DT Nick Fairley could be a free-agent disappointment.
When you are as loaded on the defensive line as the St. Louis Rams are, there’s nothing wrong with a little insurance.
But is former Detroit Lions first-round pick (2011) Nick Fairley capable of being a consistent force? Jeff Fisher’s team features four first-round picks up front, but Chris Long, Robert Quinn, Michael Brockers and 2014 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Aaron Donald have all lived up to the billing.
As for Fairley, he has yet to play a full season and comes off a year in which he missed the final eight contests. The former Auburn standout has totaled 13.5 sacks in 46 regular-season contests and has only made 30 starts in four seasons.
The stout defender could help this team in terms of run defense, something he excels in when available. Perhaps it is the "available" part that is the biggest question.
San Diego Chargers: In a Rush to Find a Rush
Revelation: OLB Jeremiah Attaochu will lead team in sacks in 2015.
The league’s ninth-ranked defense of a year ago is still in search for a consistent pass-rusher.
Look no further than second-year outside linebacker Jeremiah Attaochu, who totaled only two sacks as a rookie on a team that got to the opposing quarterback 26 times this past season.
That number should at least triple in 2015, as the San Diego Chargers look to make a move in the AFC West following a disappointing non-playoff appearance this past season.
San Francisco 49ers: Recipe for a Successful Secondary
Revelation: CB Chris Cook will respond in second season with 49ers.
Chris Cook has spent five NFL seasons with the Minnesota Vikings and San Francisco 49ers with a total of 40 games played.
And still no interceptions.
The Niners defense will look a lot different this season, not only with the retirements up front but with the free-agent departures of starting cornerbacks Chris Culliver and Perrish Cox.
That opens the door for Cook, who will not only finally grab his first pick but will lead San Francisco in that category in 2015.
Seattle Seahawks: Slow Down in Seattle?
Revelation: QB Russell Wilson will see his 2014 rushing yards cut this season.
The addition of three-time Pro Bowl tight end Jimmy Graham should do wonders for the Seattle Seahawks offense.
It should also reduce a lot of wear and tear on quarterback Russell Wilson.
In 2014, the third-year pro ran for 849 yards, the fifth-highest total by a quarterback since the merger. He and running back Marshawn Lynch were the reason the team ranked first in the NFL in rushing yards.
That will change in 2015 as Graham gives Wilson a big-time weapon who will keep him looking downfield a bit longer.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: A Tight End Ready to Break Loose
Revelation: TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins will be a bigger focus of passing game.
It’s the latest new beginning for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, losers of 31 of their last 38 games following a 6-4 start in 2012.
Lovie Smith returns as head coach for a second straight year, but there’s a new offensive coordinator in Dirk Koetter and a new starting quarterback in rookie Jameis Winston.
This past season, the Bucs got big years from a pair of big wideouts in 6’5” targets Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans, both of whom totaled 1,000-plus receiving yards. Meanwhile, rookie tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins (also 6’5”) played in just nine games and ended up with only 21 catches for 221 yards and a pair of scores.
Those numbers will increase greatly with Winston, who will find the tight end to be a nice security blanket during his debut campaign.
Tennessee Titans: Bishop One of Many Pawns in Backfield
Revelation: There will be a new rushing leader in 2015.
It wasn’t that long ago that the Tennessee Titans backfield was led by Chris Johnson and backed up by Shonn Greene.
Both running backs are no longer with the organization. John Glennon of the Tennessean speaks about the battle to improve the league’s 26th-ranked ground game in 2014. While Bishop Sankey (the first running back taken in the 2014 draft) led the Titans in rushing with 569 yards this past season, his competition this year includes a pair of rookies in Jalston Fowler (fourth round) and David Cobb (fifth round).
We think Sankey’s days as the starter are numbered, so don’t be surprised if it’s the rookie Cobb who actually leads the team in rushing. It would mark the third consecutive year the Titans have a different player pace the team in this category.
Revelation: CB Chris Culliver will emerge as leader in Redskins secondary.
Yes, we are aware that the Washington Redskins finished 24th in the NFL in passing yards allowed and surrendered a league-high 35 scores through the air this past season.
We are also aware that the addition of cornerback Chris Culliver gives new defensive coordinator Joe Barry some hope as he attempts to fix a unit that ranked 29th in the NFL in total yards allowed and 24th in pass defense.
Washington also traded for former Pro Bowl free safety Dashon Goldson, who struggled in two seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. And that’s one reason that Culliver will be the newcomer who emerges as a force in the Redskins' revamped secondary.
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 and ESPN.com.