This is part seven of our eight-part division preview series. We will pose two questions per team, one about offense and one about defense, and then predict each team’s 2015 record and final standing within the division. Tune in each Sunday for a new part of the series!
Atlanta Falcons (6-10 in 2014,
This is part seven of our eight-part division preview series. We will pose two questions per team, one about offense and one about defense, and then predict each team’s 2015 record and final standing within the division. Tune in each Sunday for a new part of the series!
Atlanta Falcons (6-10 in 2014, 3rd in NFC South)
How will the offensive line perform in 2015?
2014 was a less than stellar year for the Falcons’ offensive line, which gave up 31 sacks in 2014 and was negatively ranked in both pass and run blocking by Pro Football Focus. The offensive line started struggling midway through the season after first round pick, Jake Matthews, received a high ankle sprain while playing against the Saints. Matthews finished out the season as one of the worst ranked offensive lineman in the league, with the rest of the line not doing much better.
However, expectations for rookie left tackles must be tempered as the position is one of the most important ones in the league with a steep learning curve. This year, the Falcons plan on transitioning to a zone blocking based scheme to help alleviate the ground game and open up lanes for running back Tevin Coleman. Additionally, the Falcons released offensive tackle Sam Baker this past season and are looking at replacing him with Ryan Schraeder, who excelled as a pass blocker last year. Overall, these changes only point to an improvement in the offensive line.
Matt Ryan has experienced offensive lines on both ends of the spectrum throughout his career and has proven he can play at an elite level when given solid blocking. He posted a passer rating of 99.1 and was a top-five quarterback in terms of yardage in 2012, the same year his line was ranked positively in both pass and run blocking. With the transition to the zone blocking scheme and Jake Matthews adjusting to the NFL, Ryan may once again have a career year.
How will first-year coach Dan Quinn’s defensive scheme impact Atlanta’s defense?
The Falcons’ rookie coach is the former defensive coordinator for the Seattle Seahawks, and it is no surprise that the front office went with a defensive minded coach after the team ranked last in defense last year, giving up almost 400 yards a game. The team further displayed its commitment to improving the defense after drafting Clemson linebacker Vic Beasley with the eighth overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft.
Quinn brings the “4-3 Under” defensive scheme with him to Atlanta. The scheme mainly consists of four defensive lineman, three linebackers, and four secondary players mainly in the Cover 3. The defensive lineman must be able to take double blocks, especially the defensive tackles. While the tackles focus on securing their gaps, the defensive ends’ main responsibility is getting up field and rushing the passer or snuffing out the run.
The scheme also utilizes the LEO position, a hybrid linebacker/defensive end whose primary responsibility is to rush the passer. Beasley should easily fill this role, as he played a similar position at Clemson and has the athleticism and versatility to transition to the NFL.
Quinn’s defense utilizes three types of linebackers: the SAM, the MIKE, and the WILL. The SAM linebacker has to be an athletic and rangy linebacker that can cover most of the field, keeping up with tight ends and running backs. Justin Durant should be able to fill this role well if he manages to stay on the field—he’s missed sixteen games over the past two seasons.
The MIKE backer must be a bigger, instinctual player that is capable of covering the middle of the field on third down. Falcons fans should consider projected starter Paul Worrilow‘s ability to play the MIKE position after receiving a -12.2 rating from Pro Football Focus in Pass Coverage.
The WILL backer is usually the fastest of the group and the one picking up the tackles. The Falcons signed Brooks Reed this off-season to be their starting outside linebacker, and he should excel in that position, ranking positively in run defense according to Pro Football Focus.
Finally, Quinn’s scheme requires strong, physical corner backs to press the receiver before covering their zone in the Cover 3 base defense. Desmond Trufant, the third-year player already ranked as the #6 corner back in the league, should benefit from this new role because he particularly excels in zone coverage and bumping wide receivers at the line of scrimmage.
Dan Quinn’s arrival in Atlanta appears to be a perfect marriage between scheme and personnel, with most of the critical positions being filled with players that fit the role. While expectations for the unit should still be tempered, anticipating a defense ranked 16-20 should not be unreasonable for Falcons fans.
Prediction: 7-9, 3rd in NFC South
The Falcons are recovering from a disappointing season with the lowest ranked defense, but with a new scheme and head coach, the team should improve in all areas on that side of the ball. The Falcons will be a contender for the division title in 2015 but ultimately fall short.
Carolina Panthers (7-8-1 in 2014, 1st in NFC South)
How will Kelvin Benjamin‘s injury affect the Carolina Panthers?
During practice last week, Benjamin injured his knee, and an MRI confirmed that he had torn his left ACL and will soon require season-ending surgery. Many are concerned about the vacuum Benjamin leaves as the #1 receiver in the Panthers’ offense. The second-year receiver was building a good rapport with Cam Newton at the end of last season, and he was expected to step up and help the young quarterback progress as a passer. His large frame was especially beneficial to Newton, who is known for making wide and errant passes at times in the red zone.
The injury cannot be understated. Without Benjamin, the Panthers are left with Devin Funchess, Jarret Boykin, and Corey Brown at the receiver position. This pushes rookie Funchess to the starting role when he is unprepared for the position and learning curve that comes with being the #1 receiver. Tight end Greg Olsen will most likely be Newton’s favorite target this year and should provide a safety valve for him over the middle.
The Panthers must now compensate for their passing game by running the ball, which fortunately looks to be one of the better units in the league. The team cut DeAngelo Williams last year, the all-time leading rusher for the team, after his worst season as a pro. Jonathan Stewart will be expected to fill the role as the #1 back this year after being named the starter at the end of last year and running for the most yards among running backs during the last four games. Fullback Mike Tolbert looks to be coming back after being injured last year and should help Stewart tremendously.
Ultimately, the Panthers will be forced to rely heavily on their run game to take pressure off of Newton for the time being. Once Funchess has adapted to the NFL, the Panthers can look forward to becoming a dual-threat offense again.
Can the secondary give the defensive line time to pressure the quarterback?
Of all the position groups on the team, the secondary should be one of the team’s smallest concerns. Josh Norman and Bene Benwikere are expected to be the team’s starting corner backs this year and are one of the more underrated corner back duos in the league; Pro Football Focus rated both corner backs in the top 30 at the position last year. Roman Harper will continue to be the starting strong safety for the team, while second-year player Tre Boston should step in as the starting free safety after playing well in the last five games of the season.
However, the defensive line presents a different story. After Greg Hardy was placed on the Commissioner’s Exempt List last year due to off-the-field issues, the defensive line struggled with applying consistent pressure to the quarterback. It wasn’t until the last four games of the season that Charles Johnson and Kawaan Short emerged and recorded seven sacks together.
Playing in the same division as Drew Brees and Matt Ryan means pass rush is absolutely essential if the Panthers hope to slow down either quarterback. The defensive line seemed to come into its own after Boston was inserted into the lineup. One possible reason for this is because Boston quickly informed opposing teams of his ball-hawking abilities and held opposing quarterbacks to an average quarterback rating of 24.2 in the games he started.
The defensive line should be able to apply more pressure this year, as Boston is named the starter. Both of the units work in tandem with each other, so when one suffers an injury or setback, the other is affected as well. With both groups looking rested and ready for the season, Brees and Ryan should be prepared for a tough defense come game day.
Prediction: 9-7, 1st in NFC South
The Panthers were the most complete team in the NFC South last year, and that trend should continue in 2015. While the injury to Benjamin does set this team back in terms of offense, they can expect to repeat as division champions this year.
New Orleans Saints (7-9 in 2014, 2nd in NFC South)
How will Jimmy Graham‘s departure affect the Saints offense?
During this past off-season, the Saints traded Pro Bowl tight end Jimmy Graham for center Max Unger and a first round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, which the Saints used to draft Clemson linebacker Stephone Anthony.
Many fans and analysts are concerned about Graham’s departure. Graham recorded 355 receptions, 4,396 yards, and 46 touchdowns over the past four seasons and was Drew Brees’s favorite target during that time. Graham’s ability to create a mismatch against opposing linebackers and safeties contributed greatly to the Saints offense and made him one of the best receiving tight ends in the league.
However, Saints fans should not be concerned about Graham’s departure as long as Drew Brees is still the quarterback. One of the reasons Brees is in the conversation for the Hall of Fame is his ability to elevate the level of play of those around him. Brees still has Marques Colston, his other favorite receiver, and Brandin Cooks, who is making a name for himself this preseason.
The Saints are also looking to recommit to the ground game this year, putting less pressure on Brees to carry the offense. Mark Ingram quietly had a solid season last year, recording 964 yards and nine touchdowns in 13 games. The Saints drafted Andrus Peat, an offensive tackle from Stanford, with their 13th overall pick in the hope that he can help anchor the left side of the line.
While Graham was certainly an important cog in the Saints offense, the team should not expect any major setbacks in 2015.
How will the departure of Junior Galette affect the Saints pass rush?
In late July, Sean Payton informed Galette, who had signed a four-year, $41.5 million contract extension with the team in 2014, that he would be released in less than a week. The move was based on Galette’s off-the-field issues regarding domestic violence, his lack of leadership abilities as a defensive captain, and his rocky relationship with Payton. Galette lambasted the team for cutting him, claiming it was the worst move the team had ever made. The team was so adamant on releasing Galette that they were willing to pay the $12.1 million he is due in 2016, along with his $5.45 million cap hit this year.
However troubled Galette has been off the field, it is hard to ignore the hole he leaves on the defensive line. Galette recorded 22 sacks over the past two seasons. In his place, the Saints will most likely place Akiem Hicks in the starting lineup, and he will play for an extension in his contract year. Cameron Jordan should continue to be the team’s best pass rusher and can hopefully help rookies Anthony and Hau’oli Kikaha adjust to the NFL.
The pass rush this year will be critical towards the defense as a whole. The secondary looks to improve this year after the team signed former Patriot and Seahawks corner back Brandon Browner to a three-year, $15 million contract. If the pass rush is unable to get to the quarterback and apply the necessary pressure, the team could easily return to being a bottom 10 defense like it was a year ago.
Prediction: 8-8, 2nd in NFC South
The Saints will always be in contention for a division title as long as Brees and Payton are leading the team, but a weaker defense and tougher competition from the Falcons and Panthers this year may prevent the team from playing in January.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-14 in 2014, 4th in NFC South)
How will Jameis Winston lead the offense in 2015?
After a dismal season and a 2-14 record to show for it, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers decided it was time to move on and rebuild the franchise. The team released journeyman quarterback Josh McCown and selected quarterback Jameis Winston from Florida State. It came as little surprise to most that Winston was selected with the first overall pick, as he was lauded as the #1 quarterback in this draft class throughout the entire process.
Winston comes to an offense with more direction than it had last year. The Buccaneers hired former UC Berkeley coach Jeff Tedford as the offensive coordinator, but when he required heart surgery during the preseason, quarterback coach Marcus Arroyo was forced into the role. The result was a 30th ranked offense that put up only 4,672 yards and allowed 56 sacks throughout the season. For reference, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, Andrew Luck, Peyton Manning, and Matt Ryan all threw for more yards than the Buccaneers achieved in total.
This year, the Buccaneers have hired former Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter to help turnaround the anemic offense. Koetter’s vertical offense emphasizes play action passes, two back sets, and passes out of the backfield. Winston helped run a fast paced mix of the Pistol, spread, and pro style offense at Florida State, and he will be expected to lead his receivers and quickly go through his progressions, something he wasn’t required to do in college.
Growing pains are to be expected of Winston, like any other rookie quarterback, but with solid players in skill positions such as Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson, Winston should be able to become a leader for his offense and team.
How effective will the Cover 2 defense be for the Buccaneers?
Last year, the Buccaneers hired former Chicago Bears head coach Lovie Smith to be the head coach of the team and signed former Minnesota Vikings head coach Leslie Fraser as the defensive coordinator. Smith brought his signature Cover 2 defense with him and is looking to improve upon his implementation of the scheme this year.
The basis of the Cover 2 defense is a “bend, but don’t break” philosophy. The defense allows short yards and first downs before eventually stopping the offense or getting a turnover.
The linebackers in this scheme are usually the ones tackling the ball carrier and are responsible for pass coverage across the middle. The corner backs are usually responsible for jamming the receiver at the line of scrimmage to disrupt the offense’s timing and have more responsibility in stopping the run. Alterraun Verner is the ideal corner back for the Buccaneers, as he was ranked the #1 cornerback in run defense last year by Pro Football Focus.
However, the most important part of the Cover 2 defense is the defensive line. The defensive line’s main obligation is to provide constant pressure on the offense so the linebackers and secondary have time to cover their zones. While All-Pro defensive tackle Gerald McCoy can be expected to take double teams for most plays, the rest of the defensive line must be able to step up and apply pressure if the scheme is to work.
Prediction: 5-11, 4th in NFC South
The Buccaneers will definitely improve on last season, but they are still in the rebuilding process. A division title may not be within their grasp, but with all the young, talented pieces they have on both sides of the ball, expect them to be in the conversation in a few years.
Jim Irsay has certainly been busy.
On Aug. 13, the Indianapolis Colts extended wide receiver T.Y. Hilton to a five-year, $65 million deal with $39 million in guaranteed money. The deal keeps Hilton with the team until 2020 and makes Hilton the fourth-highest paid wide receiver behind
Jim Irsay has certainly been busy.
On Aug. 13, the Indianapolis Colts extended wide receiver T.Y. Hilton to a five-year, $65 million deal with $39 million in guaranteed money. The deal keeps Hilton with the team until 2020 and makes Hilton the fourth-highest paid wide receiver behind Calvin Johnson, Dez Bryant and Demaryius Thomas.
Signing was a smart move for Hilton because it provides him with financial security that is relatively unheard of in today’s NFL. The deal is even better for the Colts because they were able to lock down a top-ten deep pass catcher while avoiding messy negotiations next year during free agency. The move also shows Andrew Luck that the team is dedicated to building around him for the foreseeable future. When reviewing the deal, it is imperative to understand why it was offered at a high price and what it means for the rest of the team. Let’s break down T.Y. Hilton’s new contract.
The first and most important area that needs to be analyzed is Hilton’s performance on the field since being drafted by the Colts in the third round of the 2012 draft, the same draft that secured franchise quarterback Luck and tight ends Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen. When looking over his stats, Hilton appears to be a solid, top-15 receiver over the last few years, but not one deserving of a top-five contract.
Hilton caught 162 passes in the last two seasons, accumulating 2,428 yards and 12 touchdowns over that time span. His stature at 5’9″ and 178 pounds does not exactly help strike fear into opposing cornerbacks.
However, Hilton made significant improvement last year, garnering 1,345 yards and 16.4 yards per catch, both good for sixth-best in the league. The former Florida International Panther also appears to be elite in one critical category: the deep passing game. Hilton caught all 14 deep passes that were thrown his way in 2014 for 528 yards and five touchdowns, all top-five numbers according to Pro Football Focus. Since 2013, Hilton has caught 17 passes of 40 yards or more, only behind DeSean Jackson (23) and A.J. Green (19). That’s five more than the rest of the Colts receivers combined in that time frame. He is also efficient with his catches; it is important to note that when looking at Hilton’s efficiency, he ranked in the top ten in yards per route in 2014 per Pro Football Focus.
Hilton’s ability to successfully snag the deep ball is part of the reason why this deal is a great move for the Colts. With a quarterback that is such a frequent and successful deep passer as Luck, who threw for a league-high 88 passes last year, the Colts realized they needed to secure the other end of the connection in order to sustain the success between the duo. Locking Hilton down now bodes well for Luck in the coming years, just as both should be hitting their primes.
Locking up Hilton now may seem a bit premature given that he has only produced two years of noteworthy production. However, the Colts have ensured that they have one of Luck’s favorite targets secured before going into free agency next year. Julio Jones and A.J. Green headline next year’s free agent class, and both will be looking to secure contracts that will most likely exceed Hilton’s. Green has managed to put up over 1,000 yards in every season he’s been in the league while Jones led the NFL in catches of 20+ yards and caught 104 balls for 1,593 yards, good for third in the league last year.
If Hilton was allowed to hit free agency next year, he would most likely wait until Jones and Green signed their contracts, then use their deals as examples of what he expects to receive. Hilton would have more leverage during the process than he did this year because he would have two recent contracts to compare against what the Colts were offering him. This is a tactic often used during free agency to ensure players receive fair contracts according to the market. An example of this can be seen with Thomas’s and Dez Bryant‘s contracts this year.
By signing Hilton now, the Colts have managed to strike a precise balance between securing talent at the receiver position while not overpaying for it; Hilton’s cap hit will only be $1.7 million next year. The Colts save money by not allowing him to hit free agency and garner interest from talent hungry teams, ensuring Colts fans will still be able to see a duo not unlike that of Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison.
The Rest of the Team
The primary reason for the Colts’ success these last three years is the exemplary draft they had in 2012, where the franchise selected offensive cornerstones such as Luck, Fleener, Allen and Hilton. But 2015 will be a contract year for Fleener and Allen along with left tackle Anthony Castanzo. What does investing approximately 8% of their cap space towards Hilton mean for the rest of the team?
Ultimately, it means that the Colts will most likely have to let go of either Allen or Fleener. The team would be hard pressed to let go of Castanzo after he led the league in snaps started with 1,400 and has proven he can protect Luck’s blindside. Finding a left tackle of starter quality is hard enough in this league, let alone a stellar one. Both Fleener and Allen present upside as young recievers, but each struggles with his own flaws. Fleener has a history of inconsistency and inefficiency while Allen has missed 20 games over the past 2 years, including playoffs.
Finally, there is the heart of the franchise itself. At only 25, Luck has established himself as one of the top quarterbacks in the league and will be looking to be paid like one. In fact, many expect for Luck to become the highest paid quarterback in the league once negotiations are concluded. Comparing him to fellow 2012 draftmate Russell Wilson, who is currently the second highest paid quarterback in the league, Luck presents more value to the team simply based on how he has managed to turn this team around since 2012. The center of the offense will soon get his due, and signing Hilton to a long term contract shows the team is dedicated to arming Luck with enough weapons to maintain its status as contenders for years to come.
The T.Y. Hilton contract may seem at first glance to be an over-investment in a position that seems to be full of budding stars on the young team. However, when understanding the emphasis the Colts place on deep passing and the fact that the rest of the market will not be any cheaper, this contract seems like the sort of deal everyone will walk away from the table feeling happy about.
This is part three of our eight-part division preview series. I will pose two questions per team, one about offense and one about defense, and then predict each team’s 2015 record and final standing within the division. The AFC East preview can be found here and the AFC North preview can be found
This is part three of our eight-part division preview series. I will pose two questions per team, one about offense and one about defense, and then predict each team’s 2015 record and final standing within the division. The AFC East preview can be found here and the AFC North preview can be found here. Tune in each Sunday for a new part of the series!
Houston Texans (9-7 in 2014, 2nd in AFC South)
On March 11, 2015, the Houston Texans traded their starting quarterback, Ryan Fitzpatrick, to the New York Jets for a late round conditional pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. That same day, the Texans signed quarterback Brian Hoyer to a two-year, 10.5 million dollar deal. The signing raised some eyebrows, as Ryan Mallet now had competition for the starting quarterback job.
Mallet represents the prototypical franchise quarterback the team has been looking for for the better half of a decade. With his cannon of an arm, Mallet can make all the throws and provides excellent deep ball accuracy. However, Mallet has also been noted for his discomfort in the pocket and an inability to sense and perform under pressure. His slow drop-back is another cause for concern, as it results in him being suspect to pressure.
Hoyer, on the other hand, has proven that he can succeed with a strong offensive line. In the five games he played before Alex Mack, the Cleveland Brown’s starting center, went down, Hoyer threw for 1,224 yards, 7 TDs and 1 interception, and had a 59.98% completion percentage and had three positively rated games according to Pro Football Focus. After Mack went down, Hoyer threw for 2,102 yards, 5 touchdowns and 12 interceptions, and had a 54.28% completion percentage in nine games including just one positively rated game.
Hoyer has been touted as an excellent field general with a strong running game and is particularly proficient in play-action. However, the seventh year quarterback has never posted a season with a completion percentage above 60% when starting and lacks the physical tools and potential Mallet presents.
Nevertheless, Bill O’Brien will most likely select Hoyer to lead the offense in 2015. O’Brien’s offensive philosophy utilizes a diverse variety of short, intermediate, and deep passes that relies on quick throws from the quarterback, which Hoyer can provide.
O’Brien has been known for developing quarterbacks, helping Ryan Fitzpatrick post his best career year last year with the Texans, and with weapons like Deandre Hopkins, Jaelen Strong, and Arian Foster behind a capable offensive line, Hoyer should have little trouble becoming Houston’s signal caller and improving one of the NFL’s least watchable offenses.
Did the Texans sufficiently address the outside linebacker and strong safety positions?
The Texans allowed Brooks Reed and D.J. Swearinger, both starters on the defense, to walk during free agency. As a result, the Texans were left with holes at both the outside linebacker and strong safety positions.
Surprisingly, the Texans did little to address their need at outside linebacker, beyond selecting a project in Reshard Cliett from the University of Southern Florida in the sixth round of the draft. This is especially concerning given the fact that former #1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney is still recovering from a knee surgery and was put on the Physically Unable to Perform List before the start of training camp. The team resigned Whitney Mercilus, who developed into a solid run stuffer, and will most likely take over Reed’s starting duties.
The Texans were more aggressive in addressing the safety position, signing Stevie Brown and Rahim Moore. It has been a few years since Brown’s high interception season as a free safety for the New York Giants, but him and Rahim Moore should be able to secure the position of free safety. Both players have a similar skill-set at the position, so the Texans might look to go for a rotation of Lonnie Ballentine and Eddie Pleasant to fill in the role of run defender.
Prediction: 10-6, 2nd in AFC South
The Texans face one of the easiest schedules in 2015, with visits to Tampa Bay, Jacksonville, and Tennessee. However, with the Indianapolis Colts still securing a firm grip over the division, the Texans cannot afford to make any mistakes this year if they hope to return to the playoffs. With an improved defense and more consistency at the quarterback position, Houston will definitely be a player in the AFC this year.
Indianapolis Colts (11-5 in 2014, 1st in AFC South)
Will Andrew Luck be able to elevate the offense into the top 5 next year?
Nobody from the Colts organization has labeled this year as “Super Bowl or bust”, but the feeling of urgency is definitely present going into the 2015 NFL season. The team added to their already talented skills positions by signing Andre Johnson and Frank Gore, giving Luck the best supporting cast he has ever had around him. After leading one of the NFL’s most watchable offenses last year, expectations are high for the fourth year quarterback.
Questions still linger regarding the offensive line. Injuries plagued the unit, as the team fielded eleven different groups at the line last year. The team brought in Todd Herremans, Demarco Cox, and Joe Reitz in order to fix holes at the right guard and right tackle positions. Reitz offers excellent depth behind Anthony Castanzo and Jack Mewhort at tackle, and Herremans was expected to win over the right guard spot after being released by the Philadelphia Eagles. Offensive line coach Joe Gilbert indicated that there would be a competition at center between Khaled Holmes and Jonotthan Harrison for the spot. Barring an injury bug similar to the one that hit last year, Andrew Luck should see better protection in the pocket and be able to better utilize the variety of weapons around him.
Has the defense improved enough to win the AFC?
In last year’s AFC Championship game, the Colts defense was thoroughly shellacked by the New England Patriots, giving up 148 yards and 3 touchdowns to LeGarrette Blount on the ground. However, this poor performance against the run was not exclusive to one game: the Colts boasted one of the worst run defenses in the NFL, giving up an average of 4.3 yards per carry.
The team retained Josh Chapman as the starting nose tackle, but failed to sign any additional run defenders during free agency. The Colts appear confident that Chapman will be able to improve on his performance from last year, in which he struggled to make an impact in either the run or passing defense. The team will most likely rotate in Montori Hughes and rookie David Parry to supplant Chapman when needed.
The Colts brought in veteran Trent Cole to lead the outside linebackers group with Robert Mathis and Kendall Langford to be the starting defensive end opposite of Arthur Jones. With a stout secondary led by Vontae Davis and a deeper front seven, this Colts defense appears to be more talented and deeper than that of last year.
Prediction: 12-4, 1st in AFC South
The Colts face the second easiest schedule in 2015, with visits to Tampa Bay, Tennessee, and Jacksonville. With an improved defense and healthier offensive line, the Colts should maintain their grip on the division and vie for one of the top seeds in the AFC.
Jacksonville Jaguars (3-13 in 2014, 3rd in AFC South)
Will Blake Bortles be able to take the next step as a signal caller?
The Jaguars were eager to rid themselves of Blaine Gabbert, trading the former ninth overall pick to the San Francisco 49ers for a sixth round pick in the 2014 NFL Draft and a conditional pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. Then with the 3rd overall pick, they selected quarterback Blake Bortles out of the University of Central Florida as the next franchise quarterback.
Bortles struggled initially when named the starter, but finished his rookie campaign on a high note, throwing for 3 touchdowns and 841 yards with only 2 interceptions in his last five games. Much of Bortles’ struggles stemmed from his offensive line: the Jaguars offensive line gave up the most sacks in 2014 with 71. His supporting cast was comprised primarily of rookies and second year players with Allen Hurns, Marqise Lee, and Allen Robinson. Bortles received little help from his running backs. Toby Gerhart posted a disappointing season with 326 yards on 101 attempts and 2 touchdowns, providing Bortles little help in the ground game and leading to one of the five least watchable offenses in the NFL.
Going into 2015, the franchise has tried to help Bortles by bringing in Julius Thomas, the former Denver Broncos tight end that scored 24 touchdowns over the past two seasons. Thomas should greatly help Bortles by providing him with a big target to look for over the middle of the field. With two playmakers in Marcedes Lewis and Thomas, the Jaguars should be leaning towards more two tight end sets next year. In addition to Thomas, the Jaguars brought in Jermey Parnell to shore up the right tackle position. Parnell stepped in for an injured Doug Free last year for the Cowboys and looked good. Both signings should help Bortles develop his confidence as a player and aid in his growth.
How will the loss of Dante Fowler Jr. affect the defense?
One year after selecting Blake Bortles with the third overall pick, the Jaguars used the third overall pick in this year’s draft to select Dante Fowler Jr., a defensive end from the University of Florida. Nine days later, Fowler tore his ACL on the first day of mini camp and the team reported that he would miss the entire season.
The selection of Dante Fowler Jr. was an important part of the rebuilding process for Jacksonville because he helped rejuvenate an enervated front seven devoid of talent. Fowler was intended to help take some of the pressure off of Sen’Derrick Marks in rushing the passer and stopping the run. Now with both players injured, the Jaguars are forced to call the next men up to replace their best defensive ends.
The Jaguars were among the ten worst teams in run defense and pass defense last year according to Pro Football Focus, but the selection of Fowler means the team will most likely be unwilling to commit to any long term options at defensive end next offseason as long as they have Fowler under contract. With both Marks and Fowler being signed this year, the Jaguars will want to see if their investments in them pay off before adding another expensive piece to the front seven.
Prediction: 4-12, 4th in AFC South
The Jaguars face an easier schedule this year, but the holes in the front seven and little change in the secondary and line-backing corps gives reason to believe the defense hasn’t improved from last year. While Bortles and co. may present a more formidable threat in the offense, the team as a whole does not seem to be near playing in January any time soon.
Tennessee Titans (2-14 in 2014, 4th in AFC South)
How will Marcus Mariota perform as the starting quarterback in 2015?
With the second overall pick, the Titans selected quarterback Marcus Mariota out of Oregon. Mariota presents the physical tools, college resume, and off-the-field maturity to fit the role of franchise quarterback.
While at Oregon, Mariota relied primarily on a combination of his excellent presence in the pocket and ability to evade pressure to make plays for the Ducks. He demonstrated the ability to make off balance, difficult throws and consistently play with solid mechanics. However, Mariota struggled with learning the field and making anticipatory throws against defenses that quickly adjusted to Oregon’s game plan. In the NFL, everyone is bigger, faster, and stronger than the players at the college level, so it becomes difficult for players to rely on their feet alone to make plays (see Johnny Manziel).
Mariota will most likely experience growing pains his rookie year, but he is surrounded by a solid support system in wide receivers Kendall Wright, Harry Douglas, and Dorial Green-Beckham and running backs Bishop Sankey and David Cobb. The Titans have a decent offensive line around Mariota, but most importantly, Mariota will be coached by Ken Whisenhunt. Whisenhunt is known for developing quarterbacks such as Ben Roethlisberger, Kurt Warner, and Philip Rivers, and Mariota is one of the most physically gifted quarterbacks he has ever coached. Expect Mariota to improve each week as he grows more comfortable to the NFL.
What effect will Dick Lebeau have on the Titans defense?
Dick Lebeau left the Pittsburgh Steelers this year, where he had a special track record for excellence, helping lead the notorious black and gold to three Super Bowl appearances over the last 11 years. Lebeau joins his friend, Ray Horton, in running the Titans defense. The Titans shrewdly improved their front seven by retaining outside linebacker Derrick Morgan while signing Brian Orakpo. With those two securing the outside and a highly underrated Jurrell Casey at defensive tackle, the front seven should be formidable enough to allow Lebeau to be creative with his signature zone blitzes.
Lebeau will be able to help Zach Brown get back up to speed after missing the 2014 season with injury. Brown will be especially beneficial to Lebeau’s zone blitzes, as he has the ability to effectively cover the middle of the field and any tight end that might come his way, allowing Morgan and Avery Williamson to blitz the passer. Lebeau should help bring a diverse variety of pass rushing plays for the Titans and ease the team more successfully into a 3-4 defense.
Prediction: 5-11, 3rd in AFC South
In the age of instant gratification, it may seem disappointing if Mariota does not immediately set the NFL on fire like Andrew Luck, Russel Wilson, or Robert Griffin III did back in 2012. However, the Titans are currently in a rebuilding mode, and this season will most likely serve the purpose of being a segue to future success.