We’re less than 48 hours away from the kickoff of the 2016 NFL season, meaning i’m so excited that I should be one of the extras in a music video for The Pointer Sisters.
So, as Part One of my third annual NFL preview “extravaganza” (if you really want to call it that), I’m examining five teams that particularly intrigue me this season. I’m not necessarily saying any of these five teams are my favorites to make it to the Super Bowl, or even appear in the playoffs. Rather, these are my Dos Equis-esque “most interesting teams in the NFL” for the purposes of this year. They — and their respective storylines — are five things I’ll be keeping an eye on this year, and you should be too.
1. Could the Arizona Cardinals be even better this year? — After finishing last season with 13-3 record, winning the toughest division in football, and advancing as far as the NFC Championship game, I think the Arizona Cardinals might actually be even better in 2016. While they have a couple of substantial question marks — especially at middle linebacker, and from Center onwards to the right on their offensive line — this team is absolutely loaded with talent; Cardinals General Manager Steve Keim has become one of the very best at his role in the NFL.
Arizona finished the season ranked fifth in the NFL in yards allowed per game, seventh in points allowed per game, and third in Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) rankings. As if they weren’t good enough already, they acquired defensive end Chandler Jones (fifth in the NFL with 12.5 sacks last season) from the New England Patriots, and drafted defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche from Ole Miss with their first round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. Sure, both players come with major red flags. Nobody disputes Nkemdiche’s talent (he might have the most upside of any player drafted this year), but everyone wonders whether he’ll actually apply it on the field; he’s a little eccentric in a Ricky Williams kind of way, so it’ll be interesting to see whether his outside-of-football pursuits take away from the time he devotes to the game. With Jones, just ask yourself: if he was really so good, why would Bill Belichick, of all people, trade him away? All of that being said, I love the idea of guys like this going into a Cardinals locker room with established high-character leaders like Calais Campbell, Patrick Peterson, and Tyrann Mathieu on defense. Those guys set the tone for the team, and can help keep the knuckleheads on the straight and narrow.
The Cardinals offense — which led the league in total yards per game, finished second in points per game, and ranked fourth in offensive DVOA — has as much talent at the skill positions as anyone in the NFL. Arizona’s coaching staff can’t stop gushing about running back David Johnson during this year’s training camp; it wouldn’t be surprising to see him finish as the league leader in yards from scrimmage (rushing + receiving) in 2016 (side note: the fact that Johnson was the sixth running back taken in the 2015 NFL Draft just reinforces the idea of how flawed the NFL Draft scouting process really is, especially when it comes to the running back position). Johnson’s backups are Chris Johnson (who had 676 yards rushing last season before giving the job up to the younger Johnson) and Andre Ellington (who’s a more-than-capable third down/change-of-pace back). I can’t think of a single team in the NFL with a better 1-2-3 at wide receiver than Arizona, with the ageless Larry Fitzgerald (1,215 yards and nine touchdowns receiving last year), John Brown (1,003 yards and seven touchdowns receiving last year), and Michael Floyd (who’s entering a contract year and might very well be in line for a breakout season of his own).
To me, Arizona’s season really comes down to two things: how far can Tyrann Mathieu’s (surgically reconstructed) knee, and Carson Palmer’s arm take them?
To a man, the guys on the Cardinals all agree that losing his teammates all agree that losing Mathieu — who was firmly in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year, alongside JJ Watt and Aaron Donald — might’ve been what really derailed their very promising 2015 season. As one of the emotional leaders of the defense (and arguably the group’s best player), losing Mathieu to another torn ACL injury in Week 15 was a devastating and heartbreaking blow to the team. They simply couldn’t replace the energy — and the level of play — he brought to the team. When Mathieu shredded the ACL, MCL, and LCL in his other knee, in a late-season game against the Rams in 2013, he just wasn’t the same player for most of the 2014 season; it wasn’t until 2015 when Mathieu became the guy we know now. For a team that’s built to win now, they need Mathieu to be as close to 100% this season as they can, if they’re going to try and make a run this year in a top-heavy NFC.
With Palmer, it comes down to the same old question: can he perform when it matters most? He played as well as anyone for the first 13 or 14 weeks of the year, and was neck-and-neck in the NFL MVP race with guys like Cam Newton and Tom Brady. He threw for 4,671 yards (a career high for Palmer and fourth among all quarterbacks in the NFL last year), 35 touchdown passes (another career high, and tied for second among all quarterbacks), and only 11 interceptions (his lowest career total in any season where he played in more than 10 games). He finished the season with a passer rating of 104.6 (third in the NFL), and registered a passer rating of over 98 or more in 13 of the Cardinals 16 regular season games last year. But he looked far more pedestrian — and that’s perhaps putting it very kindly — over the last four to six weeks of the season (including the postseason, which included his 235 yard, one touchdown, and four interception stinkbomb against Carolina in the NFC Championship game).
When it’s all said and done, I think the Cardinals will be the second best team in the NFL this season. The problem is, I don’t see them taking that one last step towards a Super Bowl appearance, because I think the best team in the NFL this season will also be in the NFC.
2. Is Houston the “Quiet Giant” in the AFC? — If there’s a team that feels a little “Denver-esque,” in that they’ve got the defense that could help them pull off some major upsets in the playoffs, it’s the Houston Texans.
Yes, the Texans went to the playoffs last year and absolutely embarassed themselves in their Wild Card loss against Kansas City (losing 30-0 to Kansas City, in Houston), so it’s no surprise that they spent the offseason totally renovating their albatross of an offense. They (mercifully) said good riddance to Brian Hoyer (and his 15.9 passer rating atrocity from said playoff loss), and signed the guy that was “supposed” to be the Broncos starting quarterback this season: Brock Osweiler (see the symmetry?). If Osweiler can simply run the offense and challenge a defense vertically, the Texans will be a lot better off (and so far, in training camp, there’s been nothing but positive reviews on the way Osweieler has taken command of the huddle, and the accuracy he’s demonstrated in his passes). He’ll have a lot better support cast than Hoyer had, too. DeAndre Hopkins is still there, but he won’t be forced to be the one-man offense he had to be last season. The Texans drafted wide receivers Will Fuller from Notre Dame (their first round pick who reminds you a lot of a poor man’s DeSean Jackson) and Braxton Miller from Ohio State (their third round pick from Ohio State, who the coaches absolutely love as a potential yards-after-catch demon as a slot receiver). At running back, they’ve added Lamar Miller, who can easily provide Houston the same dual-threat capability that they had with Arian Foster (assuming the Texans use Miller correctly and often enough, which definitely wasn’t the case when Miller was with the Dolphins). There are questions at all five spots on the offensive line — Are left tackle Duane Brown’s best years behind him? Can Xavier Su’a-Filo finally live up to his pre-draft potential? Will second round pick Nick Martin (from Notre Dame) be the opening day center? Can free agent acquisition Jeff Allen (from Kansas City) stay healthy? Is right tackle Derek Newton too much of a liability in pass protection? — but collectively, the group is good enough to get by.
The defense? Like I said: it has the potential to case a lot of havoc, if Houston does get into the postseason. There’s that J.J. Watt guy, who led the NFL with 17.5 sacks, 29 tackles for loss, and 50 QB hits (and won defensive player of the year), even after playing most of the season with one hand. I know he could possibly miss a game or two with his recent back surgery, but would you really count out a guy who might seriously be cybernetically created, in the farmland of Southeastern Wisconsin, to singlehandedly dismantle opposing offenses?
But even without Watt, the Texans still have Whitney Mercilus (12.5 sacks last year) and Jadeveon Clowney (the former #1 overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft) at outside linebacker. Clowney, in particular, will be interesting to watch; this is the first time that he’s gone through a full healthy offseason, and he came into camp almost 20lbs lighter than the weight he played at last season. He still needs a bit of developing (considering how much time he’s missed early in his career), but in training camp, he’s starting to show that explosion and pure pass rushing ability that made him a can’t-miss guy a couple of years ago. Brian Cushing and second-year guy Benardrick McKinney are rock solid inside linebackers. Jonathan Joseph is a bit past his prime, but still among the top 10 or 12 cornerbacks in the league, and they’ve got youth and talent — in the form of Kareem Jackson and Kevin Johnson — behind Joseph.
Houston managed to go 9-7 last year with dreadful-levels of play from the quarterback position (albeit in an absolutely putrid division). I think they’re a much more complete team than Indianapolis, and given that their defense — which finished the season ranked third in the NFL in 2015 — could actually be a bit better, they make for an interesting contender in the AFC.
3. Look For The Green Bay Packers To Bounce Back — The Packers might’ve gotten as far as the NFC Divisional Playoffs last season, and they might’ve looked like they had the Cardinals on the ropes for just a brief second in said playoff game; but otherwise, the season was actually rather disappointing for them.
But heading into 2016, i’m actually expecting a BIG bounce-back year from Aaron Rodgers and the Packers offense. Rodgers spent the offseason training harder than ever (working out together with Olivia Munn, while she was preparing for her role in “X-Men: Apocalypse”) and cleaning up his diet (going heavily vegan: eating mostly fruits and vegetables, with a little bit red meat and chicken thrown in). He reportedly lost about 13lbs in the offseason, and came into camp at his lowest weight since his rookie year. Eddie Lacy spent the offseason training (and even living) with P90X creator Tony Horton, and lost close to 20lbs as well; from all accounts, he might be in the best shape of his professional career. Rodgers will also get wide receiver Jordy Nelson — his favorite target — back from injury (although he’s starting training camp on the physically unable to perform list as a precautionary measure). Adams is finally healthy and very cognizant of his under-performance last year. There’s been a lot of buzz in this year’s camps around wide receivers Jeff Janis and Jared Abbrederis. The Packers also signed tight end Jared Cook (formerly of the Rams), and incumbent tight end Richard Rodgers has come into camp in great shape, potentially poised for a breakout year.
If the offense plays closer to its 2014 form, then the defense should be just good enough to not ruin things for the offense. Defensive lineman Mike Daniels is an absolute stud, and one of the most underrated defensive linemen in the NFL. Clay Matthews still plays like a bat out of hell; he’ll likely spend more time at outside linebacker to help with the pass rush, but could kick inside in passing situations. The real strength of the defense, though, is the secondary, where the Packers have devoted a lot of valuable draft capital over the last few years. Free safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix — their first round pick in 2013 — is one of the most underrated players at his position in the NFL; Danny Kelly of The Ringer did a great job of breaking down the problems he creates for opposing offenses in coverage. He and Damarious Randall — the team’s first round pick in 2015 — could be the great safety duo in the NFL. The coaches there absolutely love Randall, and spent much of this year’s OTA’s and training camp moving him around between nickel cornerback and free safety (with Clinton-Dix playing more of a strong safety look), trying to develop Randall into their own version of Tyrann Mathieu.
Ultimately, I think the front seven of the defense isn’t quite strong enough to hold their end of the bargain, but they’ll be fine during the regular season. I like the Packers to reclaim the NFC North crown from the quarterback-less Vikings (you know your situation is in dire straights when you surrender a first round pick for the likes of the noodle-armed captain of the checkdown that is Sam Bradford) But as the Broncos proved last season: defenses make the ultimate difference in the playoffs, and the Packers simply don’t have the same caliber of defense that some of their conference counterparts have. I’ve got Green Bay making it to the NFC Championship Game, and losing there (more on that tomorrow).
4. The Rise of the Oakland Raiders — More often than not, teams that win the offseason championship don’t amount to diddly poo in the regular season (Redskins fans can tell you this with PLENTY of familiarity). That being said: at least on paper, what Oakland did this offseason was very impressive, if not downright alarming for fans of other teams in the AFC West.
The Raiders made one of the biggest headline moves in free agency, signing prized offensive lineman Kelechi Osemele to a five year, $60 million contract. But in addition to signing the best offensive lineman available on the market, the Raiders actually doubled-down on the move by shrewdly re-signing left tackle Donald Penn, allowing Osemele to play inside at right guard (where he’s an All-Pro caliber player) instead of left tackle (where he filled in for the Ravens last season). Given both of those signings, the Raiders starting offensive line will be (from left to right): Penn, Gabe Jackson, Rodney Hudson, Osemele, and Austin Howard. In other words: that hellacious group now forms the second best offensive line in the NFL, only behind that of the Dallas Cowboys.
But as impactful as the signing of Osemele may end up being, the moves the Raiders made on defense might actually be even scarier. They turned their secondary, a source of headaches for them last season, into one of the strongest units in the league. First, they lured away cornerback Sean Smith from the Kansas City Chiefs, giving them a two-for-one benefit: getting a #1 cornerback to pair with the resurrected David Amerson, and simultaneously hurting a division rival. They needed upgrades at safety, so they went ahead and overhauled both safety spots, signing Reggie Nelson to play free safety (he was one of the very best at that position in 2015) and drafted Karl Joseph out of West Virginia University (who plays like a cross between Earl Thomas and TJ Ward, and might’ve been my favorite player in the 2016 NFL Draft) to play strong safety.
To upgrade the front seven, the Raiders signed Bruce Irvin — a versatile, pass-rushing linebacker who can play both defensive end or outside linebacker — and reunited him with his former linebackers coach in Seattle, Ken Norton Jr. (who’s now the Raiders defensive coordinator). Norton had a huge influence on Irvin when they were both in Seattle, and the former will pair the latter opposite the emerging force of nature that is Khalil Mack. As fearsome as Mack was last season, he should be even better now, as he’ll face more one-on-one blocking situations as teams try to figure out how to block him, Irvin, and second year defensive end Mario Edwards Jr..
Yes, the Raiders still have their fair share of questions that need to be answered — Will Derek Carr continue to develop as a quarterback? Will Amerson keep playing like he did last season? Will Amari Cooper suffer a bit of sophomore slump? Can we really expect Michael Crabtree to repeat last season’s performance, when he was on a one-year “prove it” deal, now that he got paid? Is Lavatius Murray, essentially by himself, enough of a viable running game? — but they’re also very intriguing. Their biggest rival in the division (Denver) got weaker. San Diego appears to be one step away from firing their head coach (more on that second) and undergoing a total rebuild. Kansas City doesn’t have the pure talent and firepower that the Raiders do.
I honestly think Oakland is one upgrade at running back (Latavius Murray is passable but not much more), wide receiver (I don’t have a good feeling about Michael Crabtree this season), and inside linebacker (Ben Heeney is probably better suited as a role player versus a full time starter) away from being the second best team in the AFC, right behind New England.
5. Are the Jacksonville Jaguars the scariest young team in the NFL? — I’m fascinated to see what the Jaguars look like this season.
Those who actually watched Blake Bortles up close last season know that his stat line looks a lot sexier than his actual performance as a quarterback, but the talent at the skill positions surrounding Bortles is incredible. Allen Robinson would squarely be in the conversation for top five wide receiver in the NFL, if he wasn’t toiling in the obscurity of Jacksonville. Allen Hurns had 1,000 yards receiving and a touchdown reception in seven straight games last year. Rashad Greene showed flashes of being a capable slot receiver. Marqise Lee had a great camp and could be primed for a breakout of his own. And, we haven’t even gotten to tight end Julius Thomas, who’s entering this season a lot healthier than he was for most of his (disappointing) 2015. They added Chris Ivory — who Jon Gruden referred to as “a ball of butcher’s knives” — alongside TJ Yeldon, giving them a formidable one-two punch at running back. The only thing stopping this offense from truly being elite are the occasional Bortles brain farts, and their hot mess of an offensive line.
After the team spent the offseason working to solidify the other side of the football, the Jaguars defense is suddenly REALLY interesting in its own right. They made two high-impact free agent acquisitions — defensive end Malik Jackson (formerly of Denver) and safety Tashaun Gipson (formerly of Cleveland) — who’ll make this group so much better, collectively. Jackson alongside Sen’Derrick Marks could be a pair of studs along that defensive line. Gipson can play the single-high safety in Gus Bradley’s Seattle-esque Cover 3, allowing Jonathan Cyprien to play more of a Kam Chancellor-type role opposite Gipson (which he’s FAR better suited for).
Then, they managed to walk out of the 2016 NFL Draft with two superstuds: defensive back Jalen Ramsey (my #1 overall player in this past draft) and linebacker Myles Jack (who will be the steal of this draft if the worries around his knee turn out to be much ado about nothing). In other words, with their first two picks, they got guys who remind you of a young Richard Sherman and Lavonte David. I’d call that a win.
They still have Telvin Smith, who’s one of the best linebackers in the NFL that nobody has ever heard of (because he plays in Jacksonville). Paul Posluszny is still a tackling machine, finishing in the top three in the NFL in tackles in two of the past three years. Davon House is not a bad option as a #2 cornerback. Aaron Colvin is a sneaky good slot cornerback (once he returns from suspension, anyway). And people are raving about defensive end Dante Fowler — last year’s first round pick — in training camp; all the reports say he might actually look even better than he did last year, before he tore his ACL (forcing him to miss his entire rookie season).
This team is loaded with talent. The question is whether they can develop this talent and maximize its potential. They’re probably another year or two away from really being contenders for the AFC South title, but from a pure talent standpoint, i’d MUCH rather have this Jaguars roster, as opposed to the rosters of the Colts or Titans.