Happy Friday, friends, and welcome officially to the NFL regular season. Today, due to scheduling constraints, it’s time to predict half of the AFC.
We’ll start out in the east, and then hit the silly south, and then Saturday, we’ll move back to the north, and finish up on the west side/best side.
Follow me across the pond, and we’ll embark upon what will be a fantastic voyage. (I heard Coolio on Backspin the other day.)
The Best Team – New England Patriots
The Patriots stay the Patriots, man. Once again, they loaded up in the offseason, and then traded away an aging former star right before the season started. Last year, the Patriots were weak on the corners, and this year, they’ll feature Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner (who is suspended for four games). You have to think that those acquisitions were made with the Broncos in mind.
On offense, the Patriots will continue to be good, but nobody they have at WR scares me. Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola are both slot kind of guys, and Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins haven’t shown much downfield ability to me. Brandon LaFell was a #2 in Carolina who has #3 or #4 talent.
Where the Patriots can hurt you is with TE Rob Gronkowski and RB Shane Vereen. Tim Wright was a good player for Tampa Bay last season too. This is a good all-around team, and you know they’ll be in the mix unless Tom Brady gets hurt.
The Worst Team – Buffalo Bills
I feel like I’m going with the obvious choice here, but I really don’t have much faith in E.J. Manuel, and a good rule of thumb is that the team with the worst QB in a division will probably be the worst team. I wouldn’t be too surprised if Kyle Orton is starting by midseason, because Manuel really hasn’t shown very well yet.
I do like the Bills’ young offensive line group, in terms of their talent, and I think they have a good set of four receivers in Sammy Watkins, Mike Williams, Robert Woods, and Marquise Goodwin. C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson are a good pair of RBs, and Bryce Brown can fill in ably if either gets hurt.
On defense, there are some pieces to like. The defensive line is well-staffed, with Marcell Dareus, Kyle Williams, and Mario Williams, and I’ve always been a fan of MLB Brandon Spikes. CB Stephon Gilmore and FS Aaron Williams are also good players.
The bottom line is that I think the Jets, Bills, and Dolphins all have similar chances to improve, but I have more faith in Ryan Tannehill and Geno Smith than I do in Manuel.
The Improving Team – Miami Dolphins
I liked the way that head coach Joe Philbin held the team together last season amid the Jonathan Martin/Richie Incognito controversy, and I think it bodes well for a step up in 2014. It starts with Tannehill, who has very impressive talent. Tannehill came into the NFL with limited QB experience in college, and he needs to show more progress in his third year.
The Dolphins have five new starters on the offensive line, headlined by free agent signee Branden Albert at LT, and rookie first-rounder Ju’Wuan James at RT. The hole may be at right guard with Shelley Smith, who has been a career backup-type.
On defense, if Dion Jordan makes a jump in his second year (when he is no longer suspended), the Dolphins could be pretty tough. I think CB Cortland Finnegan is washed up, and I’m not sure about Miami’s plans to use him as a starter.
The Flawed Team – New York Jets
What we know about the Jets is that they favor a scheme which requires cornerbacks who can play tight man-to-man coverage. It looked really good when Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie were in their primes.
Now, though, they’re counting on Dee Milliner (who has talent, but isn’t good yet) and Antonio Allen, who will probably never be good. I just don’t think they have DBs to play the way Rex Ryan wants to play, and I wonder if he’ll alter his schematic approach to account for that.
One acquisition for the Jets that intrigues me is Jason Babin. He’s a one-trick pony, but he may still be able to help as a speed rusher. If he can play well, and if Quinton Coples can finally get the whole NFL thing down, the Jets will hit the QB with Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson. A name to know is Damon Harrison, who is a gigantic and effective nose tackle.
Offensively, a lot rides on the improvement of Geno Smith, and I thought he showed very well in the preseason. I always thought Smith was the best QB of the 2013 draft class, and that hasn’t changed. Eric Decker will probably see some double teams, and he’ll probably trip on his penis in the open field, because he’s Eric Decker.
The Best Team – Indianapolis Colts
Congratulations, Colts, on again being the best team in the NFL’s weakest division. They’re really not a very good team, other than the fact that they possess the NFL’s best young QB in Andrew Luck. Luck still isn’t as consistent or efficient as he someday will be, but he can make accurate downfield throws that nobody else in his twenties can make.
Luck has some solid weapons to throw to in WRs Reggie Wayne, T.Y. Hilton, Hakeem Nicks, and TE Coby Fleener. I’m especially going to be watching for Nicks, because he’s a legit #1 receiver when he’s right physically. He’s playing on a modest one-year deal, so I am looking for big things.
Count me among the doubters of RB Trent Richardson. I think the Colts took a big risk in letting Donald Brown walk, and putting their eggs in Trent’s basket.
The defense is where the Colts are lousy, especially while Robert Mathis is suspended. I think they’re equally vulnerable against the run and the pass, although they did a great job against the Broncos' passing game last year in a game where the referees decided to allow a lot of defensive holding. Because of the defense, I think this is a one-and-done team in the playoffs.
The Worst Team – Houston Texans
Again, this is tough, because I think that Houston has as much upside as either Jacksonville or Tennessee. Again, I’m breaking the tie on the QB situation. If I thought that Ryan Fitzpatrick was going to start all year, I’d put him ahead of either Chad Henne/Blake Bortles or Jake Locker/Zach Mettenberger. I think that after a month or so, though, the Texans will want to start Ryan Mallett to see what they have, and I’m not his biggest fan.
Also, I think the Houston roster is generally thinner than the other two. Their offensive line is well below average, except for LT Duane Brown, and I think that they’re a poor scheme fit, playing for a scheme focused head coach. Andre Johnson needs to fall off at some point, even as DeAndre Hopkins seems likely to improve in his second year.
On defense, there’s talent mixed in with subpar guys. Remember Mike Mohamed? He’s listed as a starting inside linebacker for Houston. I do think that J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney make a pretty fearsome pair, but it’s not enough to make this a good defense. It’s just going to be a matter of going after the holes.
The Improving Team – Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jags seems to me to be doing just about everything right. My one quibble with them is I think they should be starting Blake Bortles from Day 1, because he’s not developing on the sideline. In the preseason, Bortles looked a lot more ready than I thought he was, and he made some really impressive throws.
I’m not really too sure about Toby Gerhart as a starting running back, but I think he’s fine if he splits carries with somebody else. I’m interested to see if Denard Robinson will be able to work his way into that mix at all. I like the young receivers that Jacksonville is trying to develop – Marqise Lee can run precise routes, and Allen Robinson is a big physical guy who can catch in traffic.
I think the Jacksonville offensive line is going to be much better, with LT Luke Joeckel getting healthy, and being joined by old friend Zane Beadles at LG.
On defense, the Jags imported some real talent in DEs Chris Clemons and Red Bryant. I think very highly of second-year CB Dwayne Gratz and SS Jonathan Cyprien, too. This group is on the right track, and I think they’ll be a top-12 group this year.
Overall, I see the Jags making a push for 7-9 or so, and setting themselves up for a strong push in the third year of their program in 2015.
The Team At A Crossroads – Tennesee Titans
The crossroads is called “Who is our quarterback?” Jake Locker is a talented guy, and quietly, he was having a solid year in 2013 until he got hurt. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if he got hurt again, though, and Zach Mettenberger took over the job for good.
Mettenberger has excellent talent, and I really thought he’d sneak into the first round. He’s much more talented as a thrower than a guy like Kirk Cousins, who gets mentioned as a possible starter. The word out of Titans camp was that Mettenberger was clearly the most talented guy there too; write this one down – he’s getting the job sooner or later.
The Titans have a good group of offensive linemen, but their skill position guys are below average right now. That can change a bit, though, if Justin Hunter takes the kind of step that I think he’s capable of. He can be a really dangerous outside deep threat with some more consistency.
The Titans have switched to a 3-4 scheme, and I think it might fit a couple of their holdover players pretty well. Jurrell Casey becomes the Darnell Dockett type, and Kamerion Wimbley has always been more of a rush LB than a DE.
I do wonder about old friend Wesley Woodyard as an ILB playing over a bubble; he’s never been a guy who’s great at getting off of blocks.
The Titans aren’t good enough to make the playoffs, but if they can develop either Locker or Mettenberger, and see some improvement out of Hunter, they can have a successful year.
That’s what I have for today, friends. Come back on Saturday for the finale.