NFL Season Preview: NFC South

Posted by Jack Tumen

Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Stacy Revere/Getty Images

August is rolling on and we’ve got two divisions left to cover before the regular season kicks off. We now take look at the NFC South.

One of the surprise stories of the 2013 season came from this division as the Carolina Panthers rode a stout defense to a 12-4 record and their first division title since 2008. However, New Orleans wasn’t far behind, finishing 11-5 with Head Coach, Sean Payton, back in the fold following his year-long suspension from the infamous bounty scandal.

But we begin with the team that’s starting over from scratch, literally. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers come into 2014 with a new owner (former owner, Malcolm Glazer passed away at 85,) a new General Manager, a new Head Coach, new offensive and defensive coordinators, a new starting quarterback, a new logo and new uniforms. That pretty much screams NEW ERA in just about every way imaginable.

Things appeared to be on the up for Tampa Bay. The Greg Schiano/Josh Freeman era came to such a screeching halt I don’t think Bucs fans knew what hit them. 2013 was supposed to be the year that Freeman took the next step. Well, he certainly took a step…in the wrong direction. Hard to believe he’s currently out of the league.

The Buccaneers have shadily not made the playoffs since 2007 when they “won” the division at 9-7. In fact, the last time the Bucs made the playoffs with double-digit wins was nearly a decade ago in 2005 when Cadillac Williams was a rookie and Chris Simms was their starting QB. They’ve only finished with a winning record two other times since then and were the third-wheel in their division both times.

But Lovie Smith ain’t havin’ none o’that. Cudos to the Bucs for making the best personnel hire of 2014. Lovie coached the Bears for nine seasons – during those nine seasons, his team finished with a losing record only three times and finished .500 just once. Three times, his defense finished in the top five; another time in the top 10. He inherits a young, promising roster in Tampa Bay that with proper coaching (only that which Lovie could provide) has potential to become the class of the NFC sooner than later.

Cliff McBride/Getty Images

Cliff McBride/Getty Images

After the way he performed in 2013, Josh McCown was gonna get his chance somewhere. It’s hard to believe that just a short time ago he was playing for the Hartford Colonials in the now-deceased United Football League. The Bucs made a wise decision by signing the wily ol’ vet to command their offense. Yes he’s 35 years old; but he’s currently playing the best football of his career and the Buccaneers have the offensive tools that brought him success in Chicago – i.e., two towering receivers on either side of the field.

Vincent Jackson has been a total stud his entire career. At 6’5″, 230lbs, it’s a shame the only true contender he’s ever played for was the 2007 Chargers that reached the AFC Championship Game. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s been a waste of talent but it’s been an unfortunate ride for one of the league’s most gifted pass-catchers. Heck, he made the Pro Bowl last year on that dismal 4-12 squad. But if one V-Jax wasn’t enough, Tampa Bay spent the seventh-overall pick on baby V-Jax, a.k.a., Mike Evans. He’s virtually a clone on the other side of the field, standing at 6’5″, 231lbs. Expect his mark to be made.

This defense might have been the most underachieving unit in the NFL last year, playing average football and getting lost in the pack. The problem with that is the players on this defense are anything but average. Lavonte David is suddenly one of the top-five linebackers in the NFL, totaling 145 tackles, 7 sacks, 10 passes defended and 5 INTs last season. Gerald McCoy is one of the best defensive linemen around and is coming off easily his best season as a pro; now he’s got Michael Johnson to help him out. This secondary added CB Alterraun Verner to play with the league’s best safety duo in Mark Barron and Dashon Goldson. I predicted a while back that this defense will finish in the top five; I stand by that.

Other Notables: Doug Martin needs a big-time bounce-back year following his shoulder injury; I never understood the hype around Mike Glennon and I’m glad Lovie didn’t either; Second-year CB, Jonathan Banks, is in good position to up the ante in 2014; Tampa’s three-deep at tight end with Brandon Meyers, Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Tim Wright; Da’Quan Bowers has one more chance to make something out of his career; Tampa Bay got schooled by the Jets in the Revis trade (imagine if Sheldon Richardson was a Buccaneer?)

Seattle’s defense in 2013 was legendary; but Carolina’s wasn’t far behind. The Panthers started the year 1-3 – their opening loss coming in a now-telling 12-7 slugfest with the Seahawks. They proceeded to win 11 of their final 12 games while allowing just 15.1 PPG and a smidgen over 300 yards per game as their season totals. That’s insane!

Led by NFL Defensive Player of the Year, Luke Kuechly, this unit was formidable. Thomas Davis was finally able to stay healthy all season and racked up 123 tackles, 4 sacks and 2 picks. DE Greg Hardy solidified himself as a household name, collecting 15 sacks while totaling 26 over the past two seasons. Charles Johnson played up to his contract extension as well, tallying 11 sacks following his 12.5-sack performance in 2012. Star Lotulelei looks the part of a first-round defensive tackle as well.

However, this sixth-ranked secondary lost some key pieces from a year ago. Strong safety, Mike Mitchell, finally played like the second-round pick he was drafted to be in Oakland, setting career marks across the board – he’s now in Pittsburgh. Cornerback, Captain Munnerlyn, deflected 12 passes while intercepting 2 and tallying 3.5 sacks – he’s now in Minnesota. Vets, Drayton Florence and Quintin Mikell, are also gone. Charles Godfrey will return from a torn achilles to button down the hatches and should be a welcomed sight along with free-agent signing, Antoine Cason, who’s never intercepted fewer than 2 passes in each of his six NFL seasons. Safety is looking rather spry with former NFC South rivals, Thomas DeCoud and Roman Harper, joining the party along with youngins Robert Lester and rookie Tre Boston.

Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Cam Newton is a nice quarterback to have for your franchise. He came into the league red-hot; finishing as a top-10 passer his rookie season. Since then, his play has plateaued. He had career-highs in TDs and completion percentage last year – albeit not by much – but threw for the fewest yards of his career. On the ground, his workload has been scaled back significantly; After what happened to RGIII, teams are unwilling to expose their quarterbacks to excessive contact, and rightfully so. However, this has muted half of Cam’s game; his legs were what put him over the top as an athlete and a playmaker. His carries have steadily declined over his three-year career while his rushing touchdowns have been cut by 57% since his rookie season. The thing is, that shouldn’t matter because Cam Newton gets paid to throw the ball. Yet, here we are discussing his legs when something’s gotta give for the league’s 29th-ranked passing offense. It doesn’t help that Jordan Gross, Geoff Hangartner and Travelle Wharton have departed from his offensive line – but such is life in the NFL; the great ones will find a way to overcome such obstacles.

Earlier this offseason, it was looking like the Panthers were going to have the worst receiving corps in the NFL this year. Steve Smith – the greatest Panther of all time – has moved on to Baltimore in the twilight of his career; the Brandon LaFell project has been dumped on the Patriots; Ted Ginn moved out following his mini-breakout season; and it’s usually not a good thing when your tight end is the team’s leading receiver. Now, their receiving corps is arguably better than last years’. Kelvin Benjamin was drafted in the first round to be “the guy” while Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant were brought in as veteran stop-gaps. It’s not the prettiest group around but Greg Olsen is still the man at tight end and this crew will hold its own for the time being.

Other Notables: Second-round DE, Kony Ealy, can make this defense even nastier; Ryan Kalil is still one of the top centers in football; I’m not sold on Ron Rivera as a Head Coach; FB, Michael Zordich, could have an impact in this ground game; Doesn’t it feel like DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart have been around forever? This backfield needs a fresh face.

The Hard Knocks cameras are rolling – and so far, 2014 hasn’t looked much prettier than 2013 for the Atlanta Falcons.

This team is a mess. Mike Smith has zero control over his players and it shows. They could in-fact be one of the most undisciplined teams in the league. It’s pretty telling when your former first-round pick, Peria Jerry, retires on the spot and walks out the door in his prime. I don’t know about you, but through the first three episodes, I find it hard to believe that Mike Smith is a Head Coach in the NFL; he seems like he’d be more well-suited being a swimming instructor. Having said that, he’s got a heck of a coaching staff around him with guys like Mike Tice and Mike Nolan coaching up his players on their swim moves.

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

One thing Hard Knocks has shown is that Matt Ryan is the unquestioned leader of this team. He holds everyone accountable for their mistakes and I’m starting to feel badly for him that this franchise is visibly crumbling around him. He luckily has two of the league’s best wideouts in Julio Jones and Roddy White; but with LT Sam Baker going down, it really puts a damper on this offense’s plans for 2014. On top of that, Steven Jackson’s been injured most of camp and Devonta Freeman has flashed ability but is still a work-in-progress as a rookie running back. Not good news for the NFL’s worst backfield in 2013.

My favorite player so far has been rookie CB, Ricardo Allen. He’s funny as hell and has got the right personality for the NFL. On top of that, he was a nice player at Purdue. He’s part of a solid group of corners for Atlanta that includes second-year players Robert Alford and Desmond Trufant along with vets Josh Wilson and Javier Arenas.

It’s no secret that the biggest loss for this team is the departure of Tony Gonzales. He brought so many intangibles to Atlanta and his presence leaves a gaping hole not only at tight end but in this franchise as a whole.

Other Notables: Rookie tackle, Jake Matthews, looks like the real deal and will be thrown to the wolves now that Sam Baker’s season is over; The crew at safety is slightly above-average with William Moore, Dwight Lowery and rookie Dezmen Southward; Rookie RB Jerome Smith was one of my favorite RBs in this years’ draft class; Rookie DT Ra’Shede Hageman needs to stop being such a big baby; Harry Douglas is a total diva.

Once a year, no matter what, there’s always the mid-season debate about whether Drew Brees is the best quarterback in the NFL or not – and for good reason.

For a team with such a miserable history, the Saints have unquestionably been the class of their division since the turn of the century; they’ve finished with a losing record just four times and only one of those times they finished with fewer than 7 wins. They’re tied with Atlanta for the most playoff appearances (6), they’ve made the playoffs four out of the last five seasons and won a Super Bowl five years ago. If Sean Payton hadn’t been suspended for 2012 they would have made the playoffs five straight seasons, no doubt.

This team has had steady leadership and production from its veterans, which has translated into sustainable success over the past decade. Other than Drew Brees, key guys like Marques Colston and Jahri Evans have been cornerstones of this franchise.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Looking at the offense, it’s a masterful system. Jimmy Graham is one of the best weapons in football and I have to say I think it’s total bullshit that the league created a penalty for goal-post-dunking. What’s football if not entertainment? Hey, Commish, Jimmy Graham asserting his beastliness on the goal post is entertaining. The No Fun League strikes again.

But I digress. New Orleans smartly traded up to grab Brandin Cooks in the draft and he’s far-and-away been the most outstanding rookie thus far in training camp and preseason. This offense was built for spark-plugs like Cooks and he’s gonna tear defenses up with Drew Brees.

I find it interesting that the Saints haven’t had a true no. 1 back since Deuce McAllister retired after the 2008 season. They’ve employed a constant mix of guys like Pierre Thomas, Darren Sproles, Chris Ivory, Mark Ingram and, believe it or not, both Reggie Bush and Joique Bell – the current Lions’ backfield. This year, Pierre Thomas rolls on with Ingram and the new new guy, Khiry Robinson.

The Saints scooped up Rob Ryan to coordinate their defense last season and boy did that decision pay off. Their unit finished fourth in the league in total yards allowed while placing second in passing yards allowed; only behind the champion Seahawks. This year, the cast is different; this defense adds star safety Jairus Byrd to play alongside Kenny Vaccaro and a 36-year-old version of Champ Bailey while returning MLB Curtis Lofton and breakout defensive end, Cameron Jordan, among others.

Other Notables: Jahri Evans and Jermon Bushrod are two Pro-Bowlers along that stoud offensive line; Kenny Stills will stretch the field on offense while Robert Meachem does whatever he does; Don’t sleep on rookie safeties Vinnie Sunseri and Ty Zimmerman; Rookie QB Ryan Griffin could be the quarterback of the Saints’ future.

Final Standings:

  1. New Orleans: 11-5

  2. Tampa Bay: 8-8

  3. Atlanta: 7-9

  4. Carolina: 7-9

This is one of the better divisions in the league from top-to-bottom. I don’t have any team winning fewer than seven games…but I only have one team with a winning record. These guys get the NFC and AFC North divisions in 2014 – no small task. New Orleans should cruise. They’re looking the best they’ve looked on both sides of the ball in a while. Their defense now is much better than the defense they won the Super Bowl with; Lovie Smith is going to turn the Bucs into contenders – but not just yet. This team needs to shake off the cobwebs left by Greg Schiano and play up to its potential. With a fresh start on offense and a defense on the rise, they’ll double last years’ win total; Atlanta will be better than last year…I guess. They definitely won’t finish 4-12 again, right? I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt because this division gets shuffled year after year, but Mike Smith should still be giving swimming lessons at the YMCA; Sadly, Carolina will regress. Even if their receiving corps looks a bit better than last years’, their offensive line is in shambles, their backfield is aging and their franchise quarterback hasn’t shown he can truly take the next step. Even if this defense finishes in the top-5 again, points could be hard to come by for last year’s NFC South Champions.

Next Up: NFC West

Top U-25 Wide Receivers

Posted by Jack Tumen

Sean M. Haffey/UT San Diego

Sean M. Haffey/UT San Diego

The NFL is in the midst of a massive youth movement; alas, new stars will arise in the coming seasons. It’s time to take a look at some of those stars as I rank my top five wide receivers under the age of 25. The only other rule is that no one on this list can be a rookie; since they haven’t proven themselves as professionals yet despite apparent “upside,” i.e., Sammy Watkins.

Before we start, some honorable mentions who didn’t make the cut:

  • Kendall Wright
  • Randall Cobb
  • Justin Hunter
  • Michael Floyd

Wright was the closest to making the cut. He was 7th in the league last year with 94 receptions and was basically Tennessee’s entire offense but only found the end-zone twice. If Cobb wasn’t injured last season, he’d more than likely be on this list but has yet to prove he can return to his explosive ways on an every-down basis. Floyd is such a solid receiver and he’s so close to taking over that offense from Larry Fitzgerald; but until that happens he’s just barely on the outside looking in. Justin Hunter has all the credentials of a star-in-the-making. His 6’4″ frame and freakish leaping ability make him an exceptional red-zone target. Tennessee’s future stock at the position is sky-high.

And now, your top five receivers under 25.

TY Hilton - Gregory Shamus:Getty Images

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

5. T.Y. Hilton – Now entering his third season at age 24, Hilton has emerged as one of the best young speed demons in the NFL. He’s great on short crossing routes and loves to burn defenses over the top. At this point in time, he’s Indy’s top receiving threat. He’ll be Andrew Luck’s favorite target for the foreseeable future.

4. Cordarrelle Patterson – There are few players in the NFL with more hype surrounding them than the 23-year-old Patterson. As a rookie, he scored multiple touchdowns as a receiver, rusher and returner with nothing but raw athleticism. He also led all wide receivers in rushing, if that means anything to you. Once Patterson starts refining his game, he’ll be one of the top-5 weapons in the NFL. Now that Minnesota has a potential quarterback-of-the-future in Teddy Bridgewater, the sky is truly the limit for the new #84.

3. Keenan Allen – This kid burst on the scene last year to lead the Chargers in receiving and it was clear from the start he has the it factor. His game reminds me of Bills H.O.F. wide receiver, Andre Reed. At age 22, he plays with virtue beyond his years and was the centerpiece of San Diego’s 4th-ranked passing offense in 2013. Allen will be San Diego’s go-to guy for the remainder of the decade and beyond.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

2. Alshon Jeffery – The league’s 6th-leading receiver a year ago, Jeffery is the newest Monster of the Midway. Right now, he could be the number one receiver on nearly half the teams in the league. It’s a wonder that players like A.J. Jenkins, Brian Quick and Stephen Hill were all drafted ahead of him. Playing across from Brandon Marshall is a huge plus for his production since defenses can’t double-cover one guy or the other. With a big-armed QB like Jay Cutler throwing him the ball, the 24-year old Jeffery will continue putting up hefty numbers for years to come.

1. Josh Gordon – The 23-year-old Gordon led the NFL in receiving last year – and he had two-fewer games than everyone else to do so. His offseason, however, has been headlined by multiple off-field incidents as he’s currently facing an 8 to 16-game suspension for another failed drug test. Although his immediate future is in doubt, Gordon’s long-term outlook is as good as anyone’s if he can just stay out of trouble.

NFL Season Preview: NFC North

Posted by Jack Tumen

Nuccio DiNuzzo/Chicago Tribune

Nuccio DiNuzzo/Chicago Tribune

The NFC North has always been one of the most consistent divisions in the NFL in terms of competition and age-old rivalries. Even with three new head coaches (if you wanna count Marc Trestman from last year,) the same remains true for this group heading into 2014.

Chicago’s been royally-screwed from the playoffs over the last two years. They finished 10-6 in 2012 but weren’t even the Wild Card team to advance out of their division. Last year, the North was a bloodbath and 8-8 would have been good enough to take the cake – but then Aaron Rogers happened; stealing away the division title at Soldier field in week 17 to finish 8-7-1.

8-7-1. That was the winning record in the NFC North last season (but  seriously, who the heck ties anymore?) The Bears have been oh-so-close to emerging from the shadow of the Green Bay Packers; the winners of the division for three years running.

Formerly known as the place where receivers go to die, Chicago is now more or less receiver heaven. Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery are the best wideout-duo in the NFL today. Some will argue that title belongs to Julio Jones and Roddy White but that’s a discussion for another time.

Marc Trestman was hired over from the CFL to be the Head Coach, injecting new life into the Bears’ offense. They finished 5th in the NFL with 267.6 passing YPG while tying for second with 27.8 PPG, only behind Denver’s historic offense. The real kicker is that all this was accomplished with two different starting quarterbacks. This year, Jay Cutler will need to stay healthy throughout if the Bears want to see their lofty goals to come to fruition.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Matt Forte was the number-two rusher in the NFL last year, finishing with 1,339 yards and 9 TDs. He’ll once again be a top-notch back in this dynamic offense. Chicago drafted one of my favorite RBs in this year’s class, Arizona’s KaDeem Carey. He won’t get much run while Forte’s still in town but he’s only 21; and with Forte set to turn 29 this December, Carey could be looking to take over as the Bears’ back-of-the-future 2-3 seasons from now.

We know Chicago’s offense will thrive; but the defense needs to step it up if this team wants to be playing in January. The Bears’ D allowed nearly 400 yards of offense per game last season and were far-and-away the worst rushing defense in the league, allowing 161.4 YPG in that category.

The star defensive-ends in this division have been playing musical chairs; and right now Jared Allen is sitting in the Bears’ chair. He’ll replace Julius Peppers, who’s now sitting with the Packers. At age 32, Allen was in the tied for 8th last year with 11.5 sacks. He’ll bookend the defensive line with former Raider, Lamarr Houston. The linebacking corps looks hopeful. Vets Lance Briggs and DJ Williams will lead a group with young guns Shea McClellin, Jonathan Bostic and Christian Jones. This is an aging secondary with Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings at corner. However, first-rounder Kyle Fuller has been one of the most impressive rookies throughout the entire league during training camp and gives this group a set of much-needed fresh legs.

Other Notables: Second-year wideout, Marquess Wilson, will be the team’s third receiver and has stepped his game up big time; TE Martellus Bennett was suspended from the team recently for attacking Kyle Fuller in practice but will still be an athletic option in the passing game; Safety is not a strength for this defense; the O-Line will need to keep plowing holes for Matt Forte.

Patience is running low in Detroit. Jim Caldwell takes over for the joke of a Head Coach named Gym Shorts – I’m sorry, Jim Schwartz. Nobody’s questioning Matthew Stafford as a top-notch fantasy quarterback – but in real life, the Lion’s offense has lacked the discipline and intelligence required to be an elite squad. Often described as a “hat-backwards” guy, Stafford seems to have the presence of a frat star rather than that of a veteran NFL quarterback. You can see it in his demeanor on the sidelines and in his body language at times.

Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Regardless, that hasn’t held him back from eclipsing 4,500 yards passing in each of the last three seasons. In each of those seasons, Stafford also finished in the top three among all quarterbacks. That’s an impressive feat, especially when you consider some of the names out there that many still put ahead of Stafford in the QB hierarchy. In fact, Drew Brees is the only quarterback that Stafford hasn’t managed to surpass in yardage during that time-span. We know what he’s capable of – but he has to play like it’s 2011 every year, where he threw for 5,038 yards, 41 TDs and 16 INTs while completing over 60% of his passes for the only time in his career. Still only 26, Stafford has time to right the ship.

Calvin Johnson is the best wide receiver on planet Earth at the moment. Although, he’s never had much help in Detroit’s passing game. The Lions attempted to change that this offseason by signing former Seahawk, Golden Tate. Now, Tate is a fine receiver, but he’s nowhere close to being the addition that changes everything for this offense. Yes, Detroit spent the 10th overall pick on consensus top-tight end, Eric Ebron – but it’s been a rocky start for the rook and all signs point to him having a minor role in Detroit’s offense at least for this season. What they need is another big body across from Megatron; and if they could then slide Tate into the slot, now we’re talking about an elite offense. Until then, I’m not sold.

They do, however, have one of the league’s better backfields with Reggie Bush and Joique Bell. Bush surpassed 1,000 yards rushing for only the second time in his 8-year career, and by surpassed I mean dipped his pinky toe 6 yards over it. Regardless, he’s managed to revive his career as a multi-dimensional threat that keeps the defense on it’s toes. Joique plays the thumper and has managed to improve his game each season. However, he’s shadily 28 years old but hasn’t been in the league for very long so his body is well-preserved – much like Rashad Jennings.

Elsewhere, Ndamukong Suh is on the books for a league-high 22 and a half million dwollas going into the final year of his rookie contract. He’s joined by Nick Fairley, Ziggy Ansah and Jason Jones along one of the meanest defensive fronts in football. This defense also returns 100+ tacklers in Stephen Tulloch and DeAndre Levy at linebacker. Second-year corner, Darius Slay, is now the default no. 1 at the position and will be asked to handle a heavy workload. Rashean Mathis will be the savvy vet to help him out, but it’s a thin secondary overall. They did add journeyman safety, James Ihedigbo, who had over 100 tackles with Baltimore last year – but it’s never good when your top safety is a journeyman.

Other Notables: RB Mikel Leshoure wants to stay involved in the offense; Brandon Pettigrew will be the top tight end once again while Eric Ebron learns the ropes; Ryan Broyles’ career has been riddled with injuries but that won’t stop him from fighting for the third receiver job with Kris Durham; this O-Line is surprisingly one of the better groups in the league with no one you’ve ever heard of.

It’s good to be a Green Bay Packer.

Your quarterback is named Aaron Rogers. He’s a Super Bowl MVP and one of the top-three quarterbacks in professional football. In six years as a starter, he’s never completed less than 63% of his passes. Going on 31, he’s got another half-decade of top-notch football left in him. He’s a class act and he’ll be the last Packer to ever wear number 12.

Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Your running back is named Eddie Lacy. As a rookie, he was 8th in the league with 1,178 yards and 11 touchdowns. He’s shaping up to be one of the games most-durable backs and looks to be the best out of the ‘Bama bunch. He’ll also go in the first round of every fantasy draft for the next five years.

Your number one receiver is Jordy Nelson. He finished in the top-10 in receiving last year and has proven to be one of the games’ most reliable wideouts. You also have Randle Cobb, who’s a dynamic ‘joker’ in your offense. He lines up out wide as a receiver, in the backfield as a runner and back deep as a returner; and he’s good at all of it.

Your head coach is Mike McCarthy. He’s been your head coach since 2006 and is the fourth-longest-tenured head coach in the league. He’s won you a Super Bowl and four division titles and looks to win you four more before it’s all said and done.

To top it off, your GM is Ted Thompson. He doesn’t waste money on big-name free agents; he builds through the draft and breeds exceptional football players in-house. It’s a strategy that’s brought a Lombardi Trophy back to Title Town in this decade.

The only things left to be desired lie on defense. It’s a group with below-average players. Ironically, one of the faces of the Packers’ franchise is a defensive player; Clay Matthews was a little banged up last year, but he should be back to flexing those guns in no time. Mr. Thompson has recognized this defensive deficiency and used Green Bay’s first-round pick on a defensive player each of the last three years; Nick Perry, Datone Jones and Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix. Tramon Williams and Sam Shields are solid corners and AJ Hawk is still racking up 100+ tackles. In un-Thompson-like fashion, Green Bay signed Julius Peppers to bolster that defensive line. Even in the twilight of his career, Peppers is still a double-digit-sack caliber player.

Other Notables: Second-round wideout, Davante Adams fumbled twice in his first preseason game but expect him to shake off the rust and become a weapon for this offense; WR Jarrett Boykin has the inside track to the no. 3 receiver spot; Aaron Rogers takes too many sacks; Look for rookie, Richard Rodgers, to emerge as the top tight end in this offense; WR Chris Harper has bounced around a few rosters in just one year in the league but I love his potential as an Anquan Bolden-type receiver; This team won’t miss James Jones or Jermichael Finley.

Minnesota doesn’t get enough love – they’ll get even less of it now that Kevin Love is a goner, but I digress.

Former Bengals’ Defensive Coordinator, Mike Zimmer, takes over as the new head coach. This was a fantastic hire in my opinion. Zimmer has been one of the top coordinators in the league for a while now and it was only a matter of time before he’d be rewarded with his first head coaching gig. Minnesota is the perfect place for him, too. Zimmer inherits a defense that was second-to-last in the league in yards allowed. With plenty of young talent, things will get turned around sooner than later for the Vikings.

Adam Bettcher/Getty Images

Adam Bettcher/Getty Images

Let’s start with the obvious; they drafted Teddy Bridgewater in the first round. It was the second year in a row that Minnesota traded back into the first round to make an additional selection; they’ve made five first-round picks over the last two drafts – Sharrif Floyd, Xavier Rhodes, Cordarrelle Patterson, Anthony Barr and Bridgewater. That’s a lot of talent acquired in a short period of time.

The quarterback battle is curious, indeed. They resigned Matt Cassel to essentially be the ‘default’ starter, but Teddy has been pushing him pretty hard and has a chance to be the first rookie QB of this class to start out of Bortles, Manziel and Carr. We’ll see what happens with that. I’m just not even gonna mention Christian Ponder.

At running back, Adrian Peterson.

The receiver picture is strange as well. Greg Jennings has shown to be just an average wideout in this offense but if one quarterback can start excelling, Jennings’ production should increase once again; but all eyes are on Cordarrelle Patterson. He was considered extremely raw as a rookie but immediately showed why he was worth a first-round pick, making plays one-hundred different ways. The Vikings have expressed the desire to force feed him targets in Norv Turner’s offense and he should propel himself into the top-10 conversation at his position in a year from now.

The X-factor will be tight end, Kyle Rudolph. He just got paid the other week and should break out in the offense that made Jordan Cameron last year. He’s got the tools; it’s time to see the production.

This is a young defense but it’s led by veteran linebacker, Chad Greenway, who finished top-10 in tackles with 134, 3 sacks and 3 INTs. With Erin Henderson on the streets, there’s reps to be gobbled up. Anthony Barr comes to mind as the first to step in, but don’t discount my Penn State homies, Gerald Hodges and Mike Mauti. Those are two mean sons-of-bitches that will make their cases to start this year.

Everson Griffen is the big name on this defensive line. They signed Linval Joseph in free agency but it was reported he was struck by a stray bullet at a bar after the Vikings preseason game on Friday…so, um, he should be out for a bit. They also drafted Oregon State standout, Scott Crichton, in round three.

In the secondary, Minnesota added Captain Munnerlyn, Chris Crocker and Kurt Coleman. They also drafted Antone Exum, who has the potential to be their starting safety next to Harrison Smith down the road.

Other Notables: Rookie RB, Jerrick McKinnon, has looked awesome this offseason and even drew praise from AP; Don’t sleep on rookie WR, Kain Colter, who played both QB and WR at Northwestern; Rookie guard, David Yankee, was a nice grab for one of the better offensive lines in football.

Final Standings:

  1. Green Bay: 11-5

  2. Chicago: 9-7

  3. Minnesota: 6-10

  4. Detroit: 6-10

This division gets to play the AFC East and NFC South this year. Green Bay is really on an upswing and I expect them to be playing deep into January as the class of this division; Chicago will basically be the exact same team as last year. Their offense is good enough to win them games but Jay Culter will never win them a Super Bowl. He’s got one of the strongest arms in the league and is tough as nails but his demeanor and inconsistency will always hold him back; It’s not gonna come together just yet for Minnesota but they have one of the best young rosters in football and Mike Zimmer is building a long-term winner. They’ll be a dynamic squad by the time they move into their new stadium in two years; I really don’t like Jim Caldwell as a head coach. What’s that you say? He took the Colts to a Super Bowl? Um, no. Peyton Manning took him to a Super Bowl. He’s one of those unenthusiastic, expressionless coaches that stands on the sidelines with his arms crossed and looks like he’s doing something. Detroit has always had the pieces to the puzzle but has had an extremely hard time making them fit together. The Motor City is running on fumes.

Next up: NFC South

NFL Season Preview: NFC East

Posted by Jack Tumen

Elsa / Getty Images

Elsa / Getty Images

After a minor image makeover, it’s time to kick off the Jacked Up Sports preview of the National Football Conference.

We begin with the NFC East. When it comes to history, rivalries and late-season playoff races, this division never fails to disappoint. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the best teams reside in this division (because frankly, they don’t) but the long-standing reputation of these four teams keeps the interest level relatively high no matter what the weather. The theme this year?; lots of offense and little defense.

All eyes were on the Philadelphia Eagles last year as Chip Kelly unveiled his innovative Oregon offense to the NFL. Things didn’t start out so smoothly; Philly was only 3-5 at the halfway point. However, they finished the season 7-1 on their way to 10-6 and a division title.

The headlines were all about Nick Foles, who relieved an injured Mike Vick in week 6 and never looked back. He threw an astonishing 27 TDs to 2 INTs, including a 7-TD performance against Oakland. But once January came, the magic was over as the Eagles lost in the Wild Card round to Nawlins. When I ask my Philly friends if they like Foles as their QB, the general response I get is “Yeah. Kind of. Actually, I don’t know. Yeah. Yes. Ehh, we’ll see.” Well said, Eagles fans. Truth be told, we don’t know what Nick Foles is yet. He could be a level-headed passer who’s a product of his system; he could actually be this good; or he might be a fluke. We’ll know more after he gets a full season as a starter under his belt; until then, stay tuned.

Getty Images

Getty Images

One thing we do know is that the Eagles have a top-5 NFL player in LeSean McCoy, whose stock has never been higher (and not just in fantasy leagues.) He torched opposing defenses last season, rushing for a league-high 1,607 yards behind Jason Kelce and co. on 5.1 yards-a-pop while averaging 100.4 yards per game. This season, the league’s no. 1 rushing attack somehow gets even more dynamic with the addition of Darren Sproles. Helluva compliment to Shady, I’ll say.

With DeSean Jackson now wearing burgundy, Jeremy Maclin gets to be the main man at wideout on a one-year “prove it” deal. The jury’s still out on Riley Cooper, but he’s shown well and has the physical tools at 6’4″, 230lbs to be continuously successful. I’m a HUGE fan of Jordan Matthews (yes, that huge.) He was my second-favorite receiver in this draft class and he’s gonna flourish for Philadelphia. The tight ends in this offense basically act as receivers, so throw in Zach Ertz – one of the best young tight ends in football – along with Brent Celek, who I think gets a little overlooked.

The major questions on this roster lie on the other side of the ball. This team was dead last in pass defense last year. Ironically, Brandon Boykin tied for second in the NFL with 6 interceptions. They added safety, Malcolm Jenkins, to sturdy up the back end and with Bradley Fletcher and Cary Williams, they should be better than they were last year. Elsewhere, LB, Mychal Kendricks was an active body for this defense, recording 4 sacks, 3 INTs and 108 tackles alongside stalwart, DeMeco Ryans.

Other Notables: DE Fletcher Cox has failed to impress as a first-round pick and needs to step it up; Rookie LB, Marcus Smith will have to make plays early and often; S Nate Allen is a wild card in this secondary; Chip Kelly loves big WRs and has 6’7″ Ifeanyi Momah on this roster at the moment; First-round G, Danny Watkins, was one of the biggest busts of the 21st century.

There’s much unrest for the team in our nation’s capital. Last offseason was non-stop RG3 rehab news about how Washington wouldn’t rush him back from his ACL injury and wait ’til he felt 100% to return to action. Well, that’s the complete opposite of what they did as Griffin and others admitted he still wasn’t truly healthy during their dismal 3-13 campaign last season. On top of that, the franchise is fighting to keep its name, but that’s another story. Jay Gruden takes over for Mike Shanahan as the Head Coach, hoping to turn things around after the arrow was pointing up in 2012. He’s an offensive mind and he’ll have a huge responsibility getting RG3 back on track.

J. Meric/Getty Images

J. Meric/Getty Images

Washington’s offense certainly has plenty of weapons. They added DeSean Jackson to play alongside Pierre Garçon, who led the NFL in receptions with 113. Second-year tight end, Jordan Reed, battled a head injury late last year but is a crucial piece to the success of this passing game.

Alfred Morris is one of the most solid backs in the league, with nearly 3,000 yards and 20 touchdowns through his first two seasons. There isn’t much behind him, though; Roy Helu has flashed ability but struggles to stay healthy. They certainly don’t want Robert Griffin running as much as he used to, so the load in the running game will largely fall on Morris’ shoulders.

The defensive trend continues – or lack thereof. The Redskins were in the bottom half of the league in both rush and pass defense and were tied for second-to-last in PPG allowed with 29.9, just one-tenth of a point better than the last-place Vikings. With London Fletcher finally retired, the center of this defense is…Perry Riley? Well, he led the team with 115 tackles a season ago but one would imagine that the best players in this unit are Ryan Kerrigan, Brian Orakpo and DeAngelo Hall; that’s not saying much.

Other Notables: The additions of Tracy Porter and Ryan Clark will be a huge help for this secondary; Second-year CB, David Amerson needs to take the next step; Rookie WR, Ryan Grant, has drawn rave reviews from the coaching staff during training camp; Santana Moss is still a capable veteran option in the passing game; Trent Williams anchors an offensive line with plenty of question marks.

Ok, Ross, it’s time to look at the Dallas Cowboys. Let’s get the bad out of the way first. When it comes to Big-D, the Cowboys have none of it. DeMarcus Ware is gone. Barry Church was 8th in the league last year with 135 tackles – and when your teams’ safety is the one making all the tackles, it’s never a good sign. They’ve being pegged early as the worst defensive team in football for 2014. Yup, sounds about right to me. In fact, Dallas is so bad on defense that they traded for former first-round linebacker, Rolando McClain, who’s only 24 and has retired and un-retired from the NFL like 20 times already. The biggest blow came when Sean Lee suffered his annual season-ending injury, this year an ACL. They’ll hope to have Anthony Spencer back for week one following knee surgery. But then tack on a broken foot for second-round DE, DeMarcus Lawrence, and I’m next up on the depth chart.

Jeff Gross/Getty Images

Jeff Gross/Getty Images

Dallas will have to score more points than Peyton Manning to keep ahead of themselves this season. Luckily for them, their offense is in good shape. They were able to put up 27.4 PPG last season, good for 5th in the league. DeMarco Murray is one of the better running backs in football and he’s got a relatively stout offensive line to block for him. He finished 10th in rushing last year with 1,121 yards and finished 4th with 5.2 YPC. With a nice set of hands as well (53 receptions in 2013,) Murray will be the keystone of this offense.

Dez Bryant has established himself as a top-5 wideout in the game. He fits the profile of a Cowboys wideout for sure; a superstar drama-queen. No doubt about it, all eyes will be on 88 when Tony Romo drops back to pass; but some new names have surfaced that will determine the ultimate success of this offense. Second-year man, Terrance Williams, will be the no. 2 option with Cole Beasley manning the slot. And don’t overlook 5th rounder, Devin Street, who was one of my under-the-radar widouts out of Pitt.

There’re a lot of first-round picks on this offensive line they’ll have to perform if this team’s to have any success whatsoever. Tyron Smith just got paidddd. $110 mil to be a Cowboy for life? Yeah, I’d take it. In un-Jerry-like fashion, Dallas bypassed the chance to grab J. Football and used its first-round pick on tackle/guard, Zach Martin, who then proceeded to tear Sean Lee’s ACL. Travis Frederick has turned out to be a pretty solid center after many people questioned him as a first-rounder.

Other Notables: Jason Witten will still eat up yards in between the hashes; Jason Garrett’s seat gets hotter each year; Second-year TE, Gavin Escobar, could be the weapon that puts this offense over-the-top, CB Morris Claiborne has failed to live up to expectations after being the 6th-overall pick in 2012, CB Brandon Carr was one of the worst corners in football in 2013; DT Henry Melton might be the best player on this defense until Anthony Spencer returns.

The only franchise from this division to win a Lombardi Trophy (or two) in this millennium has been the New York Football Giants. But sometimes it’s hard to remember how they won them in the first place.

This offense was badddd last year – like, worse than the Jets offense. No, seriously. They only averaged 307.5 yards of offense per game in 2013, good for 28th. Their season was over before it even started as they army-crawled out of the gates to an 0-6 start. Then, somewhere along the way, they realized it was football season and decided to start playing. They ended the year 7-3 but too little too late as they finished 3rd in the division at 7-9.

Jeff Gross/Getty Images

Jeff Gross/Getty Images

New York is in the middle of an interesting roster project. New offensive coordinator, Ben McAdoo, comes over from Green Bay where he’s installing a quick-hitting passing attack for this young group of wideouts. Word is that he wants Eli Manning to complete 70% of his passes this season. The chances of that happening are about the same as my name being Eli Manning – so like, no chance.

Eli certainly has a nice receiving corps to work with; one that I feel is underrated. Victor Cruz is still the top-dog and will be a targets-machine in the slot. Reuben Randle led the Giants with 6 touchdowns and is ready to break out of his shell and improve on his 41 receptions from a year ago. Rookie Odell Beckham Jr. has been bothered by a hamstring but if he can get healthy he’ll do wonders for this passing attack. Also don’t discount Jerrel Jernigan, who had a productive December and can do some damage from the slot.

This backfield will be the key to the Giants’ success. Rashad Jennings was brought in as a free agent to be the no. 1 runner for New York. Even at 29, he plays like he’s 26 and does everything well; he’s a smooth, fluid runner with soft hands in the passing game and can pick up the blitz. With the unfortunate and sudden end of David Wilson’s career, rookie Andre Williams will have an increased role right off the bat – he showed well in the Hall of Fame Game and with Peyton Hillis dealing with a new injury, Williams could in fact be crucial to this offense.

This defensive secondary is the class of the division. Cornerback, Prince Amukamara, gets some help from free agent additions Zack Bowman, Walter Thurmond III and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. At safety, Antrel Rolle returns as the team’s leading tackler with ball-hawk, Stevie Brown and former Chief, Quintin Demps.

Other Notables: MLB Jon Beason hopes to be ready for week one to anchor the middle of this defense; The tight end situation is a mess and could really hinder the Giants’ offensive output; The Giants need to start grooming a quarterback of the future because Ryan Nassib is not that quarterback; JPP hopes to return to his 2011 form; Rookie LB, Devon Kennard (whom I interned with last summer in LA,) could be a nice player down the road.

Final Standings:

  1. Philadelphia: 9-7

  2. New York Giants: 8-8

  3. Washington: 6-10

  4. Dallas: 5-11

There’s no shortage of offense in this division, as we can expect some high-scoring rivalry games this year. The problem is the absence of defense. This division gets a break by facing the weak AFC South but is also unfortunate to play the NFC West as well. Philadelphia has the most amount of talent and I expect them to keep a steady pace ahead of the pack in Chip Kelly’s second season; The Giants are always a mix bag. The new quick-trigger offense will keep Eli and co. moving the chains but this is also a team that’s known to drop games they should win. They’ll be in the hunt but one more season of roster development and familiarity with a new system will have them looking better in 2015; Jay Gruden is walking into a sticky situation in Washington. The offensive personnel suggests the Redskins should put up points but no one knows which version of RG3 will show up this season. Defense is a major weakness and Gruden will have a rebuilding project on his hands as a rookie head coach; The Cowboys offense will be their life-preserver this season. Unless they go out there and put up 30+ points every week, Big-D is in big doo-doo. I just don’t see the consistency being there week-in and week-out. The over/under on Dez Bryant shit-fits is set at 5.5 and Jason Garrett gets his walking papers come January.

Next up: NFC North

Earn Your Stripes, Andy

Posted by Jack Tumen

John Grieshop/Getty Images

John Grieshop/Getty Images

We all knew they’d do it; we all knew the Bengals were dumb enough to pay Andy Dalton.

Upon the news of Dalton’s new six-year, $115 contract extension, I could only chuckle to myself. It was sad news that overshadowed other sad news about David Wilson’s career being over. While one player (Wilson) should still be playing had he not been misused by his head coach, the other player (Dalton) had his career extended when in all honesty it didn’t warrant much extension.

In the wake of illustrious quarterback contracts like Colin Kaepernick’s and impending ones like Russell Wilson’s, Cincinnati must have felt a little left out that their quarterback didn’t have a shiny new nine-figure contract.

Looking at the numbers, it’s a relatively team-friendly deal; structured much like Kaepernick’s, Dalton gets paid year-to-year based on his performance but will make $18 mil. guaranteed in the first year. In-fact, Dalton is getting more guaranteed money than Kaepernick, who’s taken his team to a Super Bowl and a conference championship game in his first two years as his team’s starter.

But forget all the numbers; forget the year-to-year incentives and the signing bonuses; even forget the guaranteed money. The fact of the matter is that Cincinnati paid a nice chunk of change to a quarterback that hasn’t proved diddly-squat in the NFL. He’s been good enough to keep the Bengals treading water during the regular season while they ride their exceptional defense to the playoffs each year – but once he’s gotten there; 0 wins, 3 losses, 1 touchdown, 6 interceptions and a QBR of 18.1. 18.1! That’s god awful! The last time this team won a playoff game, I was a cell in a sea of cells, 23 years ago – and the Bengals basically said “thanks for almost winning us a playoff game, Andy. We can settle for you.”

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

You know what the Bengals should be doing instead? Forcing Dalton to prove his worth by bringing in competition. By settling for “almost,” Dalton settles for “almost.” Cincinnati should be bringing in a veteran or even using a high draft pick on a young quarterback prospect to push Dalton and see what he’s made of; he should be forced to improve his game.

What’s even funnier to me is that Hue Jackson is now Cinci’s offensive coordinator. You know what kind of offense he runs? A run-heavy offense. Heck, if Dalton was actually any good, they’d have hired a pass-happy offensive coordinator to make him throw to that wonderful target he has in AJ Green. Instead, they’re essentially going to pay him more money to throw the ball less. That makes no fuckin’ sense.

But it seems as if the Bengals prefer to be an above-average regular season team rather than take the next step and start winning playoff games in the 21st century. It’s just another example of today’s over-paying sports world where teams are becoming slaves to their players and feeling inclined to pay them when they haven’t truly earned that money – like Gordon Hayward of the Utah Jazz. He’s not even close to a max-contract type of player, but yet, he’s been maxed.

At the end of the day, Dalton got paid and we all move on. His level of play over his career certainly did not warrant a new contract in my eyes, but in the eyes of the Bengals, Andy had earned his Bengal stripes.

The Ballad of David Wilson

Posted by Jack Tumen

Robert Sabo/New York Daily News

Robert Sabo/New York Daily News

With the final pick in the first round of the 2012 NFL draft, the New York Giants selected running back, David Wilson – fresh off a monster season at Virginia Tech where he rushed for 1,709 yards and 9 touchdowns. For all we know with the way the NFL is changing, he could be the last first-round running back we ever see. Two years later, his career ends like a firework that was shot off but never exploded.

Blessed with remarkable talent, Wilson was about to be the next big thing. When he stepped on the football field, he was the most athletic player out there. When he touched the ball, he had a chance to go all-the-way. The only thing standing between Wilson and greatness was his head coach, Tom Coughlin.

It’s no secret that Tom Coughlin is a wonderful head coach; he’s led the Giants to two Super Bowl titles and even brought the expansion Jacksonville Jaguars to the AFC Championship Game way back when – It’s also no secret that Tom Coughlin is a strict head coach that doesn’t always get along with his players, most notably newly enshrined hall-of-famer, Michael Strahan. But if there’s one head coach that David Wilson should not have been paired with, it was Tom Coughlin.

Geoff Burke/Getty Images

Geoff Burke/Getty Images

First-round rookies usually contribute right away – but Wilson was forced to earn his stripes; so off to special teams it was. The Giants slapped the rook with kick return duties as he simultaneously tried to push for carries behind Ahmad Bradshaw and Andre Brown. Returning kickoffs was nothing new to Wilson – he returned two kickoffs for touchdowns in college.

But returning kickoffs wasn’t the long-term plan the Giants had in mind for their first-round pick – he was to be groomed into their back-of-the-future. As a rookie, Wilson was third on the team with 71 carries for 358 yards and 4 touchdowns; he also had a receiving touchdown and fumbled once – not bad for a rookie in a committee backfield. But the only way a player can improve is by playing, making mistakes, learning from those mistakes and fixing them by playing some more.

While he slowly toiled his way for more playing time, two other first-round running backs were bursting onto the scene as the focal-points of their respective offenses. Doug Martin, taken one spot ahead of Wilson, exploded for 1,454 yards on 319 attempts and 11 touchdowns as a rookie for the Buccaneers while Trent Richardson finished his rookie season with 950 yards on 267 attempts and 11 touchdowns while fumbling 3 times; the total number of fumbles that Wilson would ultimately finish his career with.

So in 2013, Wilson opened the season as the Giants’ number one back. Andre Brown broke his leg during the preseason, leaving the door wide open for Wilson to take the job by the horns and never look back. But in the opening game, he fumbled twice on seven attempts – and if Tom Coughlin’s angry face is Crimson, this time is was Burgundy.

To the dog house Wilson went; never amassing more than 13 carries in a game from then on out. With his reps scaled back, Wilson was never able to find a rhythm to his game. When given touches, he squeezed the pigskin so tightly it nearly popped; he was more afraid of fumbling again and feeling his coach’s wrath than simply being a running back and making plays – and in the NFL, if you’re playing afraid, you’re going to get hurt -

- And hurt he got, suffering a season-ending neck injury in a week 5 loss to Philly. It was the beginning of the end for Wilson, whose future was in doubt after going under the knife for spinal fusion surgery to fix a herniated disk – but not all hope was lost. In fact, Wilson looked like he had made a remarkable recovery from a dangerous injury and was on pace to return in time for the season (although, in a committee once again.) But just days before the Giants’ first preseason game, Wilson suffered what coaches referred to as a “neck burner” in practice. After being looked at by team specialists, Wilson was advised not to play football again.

And that was it. His career was officially over. No more big play breakaways, no more comeback hopes. The book had been closed on Wilson’s playing days. In the wake of the news, Wilson released a statement to the media; the most important part which read:

“I don’t want anybody to feel sorry for me, or pity me…I lived my dream. A lot of people only get to dream their dream. I lived that dream. Now I have a chance to dream another dream and live that, too.”

Wise words from a bright young man. O.K., David, I won’t feel sorry for you – I’ll feel sorry for the rest of the football world that will never get to witness the full potential of what you could’ve become.

Al Bello/Getty Images

Al Bello/Getty Images

Wilson ends his career with 115 carries for 504 yards and 5 touchdowns and 6 receptions for 42 yards and 1 touchdown.

So, reader, to answer the question I know you’re wondering – yes, I blame Tom Coughlin for Wilson’s downfall. With a young running back as talented as Wilson, you put that kid back on the field, let him learn from his mistakes and give him the opportunity to make plays for your team (and I promise I’m not saying that because I owned him in fantasy last year.) Holding him back not only killed the Giants’ season and ruined Wilson’s career, but perhaps even changed the course of the franchise. The sky was the limit for this kid and he was hindered by a coach who, more-so than any other head coach, embraces a strict disciplinary approach when it comes to mistakes. On a different team, in another offense and under a different head coach, Wilson could be one of the top-5 running backs in the NFL today. Instead, he hangs up the cleats at age 23, leaving us all wondering just what could’ve been for the once-promising career of David Wilson.

NFL Season Preview: AFC West

Posted by Jack Tumen

It’s time to wrap up the AFC by analyzing the division that was the best in the conference last year by producing three playoff teams; the AFC West.

We start from the bottom up. Listen, I want to be able to root for the Raiders but their brass just makes terrible decision after terrible decision, like signing Matt Schaub to be their starter after the worst season of his career or publicly considering a move to San Antonio. Listen up Mark Davis; if your father was still alive he’d fucking kill you if you tried moving his perennial Golden State franchise to Texas. By the way, you have the worst haircut in the history of haircuts.

Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

About football, though. Last year’s Raiders look very different from this year’s Raiders. They added a number of big names through free agency on both sides of the ball. The only problem is that everyone they signed is past their prime; Justin Tuck, Maurice Jones-Drew, Carlos Rogers, Antonio Smith, Kevin Boothe, Donald Penn, James Jones, Tarell Brown, LaMarr Woodley and of course, Matt Schaub. Seven of those guys are 30 or older and the other three are 29, one of which will turn 30 during the season. That’s not to say these guys have nothing left in the tank – that’s a solid crew right there – but it doesn’t help this franchise improve in the long-term. It’s another quick-fix for a team that needs to be investing in its future, like the Jacksonville Jaguars and Cleveland Browns- two franchises that recognize they’re in a downswing and are gradually and patiently acquiring young talent the way it should be done.

It also doesn’t help that the Raiders absolutely suck at drafting. This year, however, Khalil Mack was considered a no-brainer at no. 5. Then again, so was Aaron Curry for the Seahawks at no. 4 so time will tell. Without much of a choice, they used another high draft pick on a hopeful quarterback-of-the-future in Derek Carr; my favorite QB in this draft class. Again, time will tell. I’m also a fan of third-round guard, Gabe Jackson.

Looking at this roster, the talent level is fairly even across the board between youngsters and vets alike. There’s an obvious running back battle between MJD and DMC. In all honesty, Oakland should have held on to Rashad Jennings, who admirably filled in for McFadden by setting career-highs in rushing yards and receptions. Instead, they went after the guy Jennings used to back up in Jacksonville. At this point in time, though, Jennings seems to have surpassed MJD on the running back totem pole. They’re virtually the same age – both 29 and born three days apart from one another – but Jennings’ body is much more preserved from being a career backup and playing four-fewer years of professional football than Jones-Drew’s; that’s why he’s the clear-cut starter for the New York Giants.

On defense, Chimdi Chekwa has reportedly been standing out in the secondary. Chimdi Chekwa. He’s playing back there with a 37-year-old version of Charles Woodson and Tyvvon Branch, who missed all but two games in 2013 after breaking his leg. Nick Roach unquestionably had his best season ever as the starting middle linebacker and he’ll get some help from the Mack Truck.

Other Notables: Matt Schaub will be the 18th quarterback to start a game for the Raiders since 2003 (Derek Carr will soon be the 19th;) Tackle, Austin Howard was a solid free agent pickup; James Jones headlines a WR group with Rod Streater and Andre Holmes; Tight ends, Mychal Rivera and David Ausberry, are battling it out at training camp for the starting job; QB Matt McGloin could find a way to reunite with college coach, Bill O’Brien.

The Chargers offense experienced a revival in 2013 under new Head Coach, Mike McCoy. Philip Rivers completed a career-high 69.5% of his passes while Ryan Matthews rushed for a career-high 1,255 yards while starting all 16 games for the first time ever. Rookie wideout, Keenan Allen, burst on the scene to lead the Chargers in receiving yards and tie for first in touchdowns as the squad finished 9-7 and earned themselves a wild-card berth.

Sean M. Haffey/UT San Diego

Sean M. Haffey/UT San Diego

It was a close call, though. San Diego’s defense was awful, particularly in the secondary where they allowed 255.8 pass YPG, good for 28th in the league. With their priorities in order, the Chargers used their first round pick on TCU standout, Jason Verrett. They followed that up by scooping Brandon Flowers off the market when the Chiefs surprisingly cut him loose after a pro-bowl season. The two will join safeties Marcus Gilchrist and Eric Weddle on the back side.

Elsewhere on defense, San Diego’s front office chose to pull the plug on former first-round OLB, Larry English, while drafting Gerogia Tech’s Jeremiah Attaochu in the second round as his replacement. Dwight Freeny will try to rebound after missing much of last year with a torn quad muscle. Donald Butler was yet again solid for this linebacking corps, finishing second on the team with 84 tackles behind Eric Weddle.

The Chargers’ offense has a nice mix of players. Danny Woodhead has been a great compliment to Ryan Matthews, catching 76 balls last year behind only Antonio Gates. Speaking of Gates, he might be a bit underrated at this point in his career. However, keep an eye on the athletic freak behind him named Ladarius Green, who’s waiting to be unleashed in this high-flying passing attack. Malcolm Floyd will return from a scary neck injury to start once again for this offense opposite Keenan Allen while Eddie Royal mans the slot.

Other Notables: WR Vincent Brown has failed to produce when given opportunities; the offensive line is looking rather strong again; remember the name Manti Te’o?

The most impressive team turnaround in the NFL last year was the Kansas City Chiefs under new Head Coach, Andy Reid. With a new starting quarterback in Alex Smith, KC took the field with newfound confidence, winning its first nine games on the way to an 11-5 record.

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Jamaal Charles was one of the most impactful players in the NFL in 2013, single-handedly carrying the Chiefs’ offense by leading them in rushing and receiving while scoring 20 total touchdowns – just three fewer than Alex Smith threw for. It was quite a feat for a player that’s dealt with his fair share of injuries throughout his career.

The only problem was that it made Kansas City incredibly one-dimensional; and even though everyone knew they’d make the playoffs, everyone also knew that they wouldn’t get too far once they got there. Regardless of the moderate upgrade of Alex Smith at QB, they had no depth at wideout or tight end. This year, the problem is much of the same. They had the opportunity to select a number of big name wideouts early in the draft and passed on each chance they got, leaving their wideout corps consisting of 29-year-old Dwayne Bowe and 30-year-old Donnie Avery.

The Chiefs’ defense was 70% of the reason they were as good as they were in 2013, allowing under 20 PPG. They seemed to be returning fumbles and interceptions for touchdowns on nearly every other play (they were a fun fantasy defense to own last year.) With marquee players like Derrick Johnson, Eric Berry, Tamba Hali, Dontari Poe, Sean Smith and Justin Houston, KC had veteran experience everywhere. Even unheralded players like Husain Abdullah and Marcus Cooper – who lead the defense in passes defended – made big plays in the secondary on numerous occasions. However, two of their top defensive backs, Kendrick Lewis and team interceptions leader Quentin Demps, left via free agency. So KC went out and drafted CB Phillip Gaines out of Rice and signed safety, Steve Gregory, to fill those holes.

Other Notables: First-round rookie defensive end, Dee Ford, will keep this defense mean; WR Junior Hemingway has the opportunity to make a name for himself this year; Last year’s number one overall pick, Eric Fisher, will need to make a huge leap this season; Rookie QB, Aaron Murray, fits very well in this offense and has an Alex Smith-like style of play; Second-year TE, Travis Kelce, needs to stand out from a thin position group; Rookie RB, De’Anthony Thomas, adds much-needed speed in both the running and passing game.

The 2013 Broncos rode to the Super Bowl with the best offense of all time, led by the best quarterback of all time (yep, I said it.) They set all kinds of records while emulating a better version of any Madden offense you’ve ever played with. Yet, when super offense met super defense – well, we all know how that ended.

Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

So Denver went into the offseason with the goal in mind of beefing up it’s own defense – and boy did they ever, signing big-time free agents Demarcus Ware, Aqib Talib and TJ Ward. They add much needed experience and veteran leadership to a defense that could’ve used more of it last year. Will it be enough to get them back to the big one and then some? We’ll just have to wait and see.

One thing’s for certain; this defense is certainly a deep unit now with players like Derek Wolfe, Terrance Knighton, Von Miller and Danny Trevathan. First-round rookie CB, Bradley Roby, will look to make an impact early and often for this secondary with Chris Harris returning from injury.

The cast will be much of the same for Denver’s offense – key players like Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker and Julius Thomas will continue to put up big numbers. However, some new faces will contribute in key roles. Montee Ball takes over as the starting running back following the release of Knowshon Moreno and Emmanuel Sanders will fill the third receiver role now that Eric Decker is on the Jets. Another name to watch will be rookie wideout, Cody Latimer, who’s reportedly had a great camp and will be the team’s fourth wide receiver.

Will this be Peyton Manning’s last season? That’s the biggest question surrounding the Broncos this year. One thing’s for certain, he doesn’t have many left – and with that, the Super Bowl window for this franchise continues to close ever-so-quickly. It’s as much a “win now” situation as any script-writer could conjure up.

Other Notables: RBs Ronnie Hillman and CJ Anderson are battling it out in camp for the number two spot; Rookie WR, Bennie Fowler was one of my underrated wideouts in the 2014 draft class; Will the baton eventually be handed to Brock Osweiler or will Denver look to draft another young quarterback next year?

Final Standings

  1. Denver: 13-3

  2. Kansas City: 8-8

  3. San Diego: 8-8

  4. Oakland: 5-11

It’s gonna be tough sledding for this division in 2014 as they play the AFC East and the dominant NFC West. It’s no secret this is the Broncos’ division; San Diego will essentially be the exact same team as last year, gutting out some tough wins but not talented enough all around to excel where they should. .500 should be attainable but it might not be enough to earn a wild card berth; With no major improvements to its roster, Kansas City will regress in 2014. Jamaal Charles needs help carrying this offense and without any new playmakers at wideout or tight end, it won’t be hard to key in on what the Chiefs want to do on offense in 2014. Their schedule was also epically easy last year; Oakland needed to get younger and ended up getting older – and while they gained a great deal of veteran leadership, winning the free agent game off the field doesn’t always translate to wins on the field. The future could be brighter with Derek Carr lying in wait – but for now the Raiders get sucked deeper into the black hole.

Next up: NFC East