Indianapolis Colts 2015 Preview

The Indianapolis Colts and their fans are thinking “Super Bowl or bust” for every single season in which Andrew Luck is the starting quarterback.  Although one can’t blame them for taking that simplistic route to elevate their expectations, there has to be a dose of reality sprinkled in here and there, just to “level the playing field” – so to speak.   The Colts play in a division that they win by default (in a worse case scenario, they split games with the Texans and sweep the Jaguars and Titans) and they have one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL in Andrew Luck.

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Luck has been money for the Colts since day one.  Last season he lit up the scoreboard with forty touchdown passes and threw for over 4,700 yards.  His sixteen interceptions may look like a high amount but if you look at his work as a whole, it’s amazing it’s only sixteen.  The Colts defense usually lets down Luck enough times that he has to throw from behind and the run attack has never complimented Luck well.  Add to the fact he threw 616 times last season – to only come out of that with sixteen interceptions is impressive.

The Colts hope to have balance this year in their offense with the additional help coming from veteran Frank Gore in the backfield.  The former 49er is working with easily the best quarterback he’s ever been on the field with and brings with him a workhorse work ethic.  Gore has kept himself healthy the last few years and it’s key that he does that again before the likes of Boom Herron and Zurlon Tipton start getting carries.  If that happens, this offense is back to square one.

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The Colts found a strong offensive linemen in the second-round of last year’s draft in Jack Mewhort.  He was impressive enough at left guard that he is being promoted to right tackle this season.  That gives the Colts a nice combo at the tackle spots where left tackle Anthony Castonzo protects Luck’s blindside.  The Colts scout team took things to new levels by signing the number-one-overall pick in the 2012 Draft. . . the 2012 Canadian Football Draft, but it’s a number-one-overall pick regardless. Ben Heenan left the CFL to join the Colts and is expected to pick things up quickly and help fill a much needed void at their guard position.

TY Hilton has proven he was steal in the third-round of the 2012 NFL Draft and was rewarded for his efforts this off-season with a five-year, $65 million deal.  TY is one of those non-prototypical number-one wide receivers, similar to a DeSean Jackson – both small in stature but speedy and aggressive.  Hilton is a competitor and along with Andrew Luck, has helped to form one of the better quarterback/receiver threats in the league.  The Colts signed veteran Andre Johnson in the off-season, which gives Johnson his opportunity to take his greatness to another level now playing with Luck.  Unfortunate thing for Johnson is that he is more on the downside than the upside of his career – but don’t tell him that.  The Texans were a mess at the quarterback position and he still had eighty-five receptions.  Donte Moncrief has the potential to be a good receiver in this league but he’ll be fighting off first-round pick Phillip Dorset to be number-three on the depth chart.

This 3-4 defense will need all the help from their linebackers while the front three get it together during the season.  Josh Chapman returns to play mediocre nose tackle and he’ll be joined by new defensive end Kendall Langford who the Colts are hoping will bring some of the intensity from the St. Louis Rams’ attack with him.

Adding Trent Cole in the off-season was a “big-get” and will help their pass rushing immediately.  Some thought the Colts paid too much for veteran D’Qwell Jackson last season, but he continued to be a tackling machine, racking up 138 last year.  Robert Mathis is expected back by mid-season which means the youngster Bjoern Werner and Johathan Newsome will get their chances to show what they got.  Werner was a former first-round selection in 2013 and Newsome was a fifth-round pick out of Ball State who surprised many and found himself out on the field a lot.

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Safety Mike Adams is more of a ball-hawking safety than an aggressor but did the job well enough to earn a trip to the Pro Bowl last season.  The star of the secondary though is Vontae Davis who had four interception and nineteen passes deflected last year.  Greg Toler hasn’t stood out as anything more than “another guy in the secondary” but he is in a contract year, so if he is ever going to make any noise, now would be the time.

The Colts added some veteran help in the two former Miami Hurricanes Frank Gore and Andre Johnson but did not do much to shore up this defense.  Head coach Chuck Pagano has to show that he is a good head coach that can rely on more than his quarterback bailing him out, week to week.  Getting into the playoffs should be relatively easy, but the playoffs will be another story.

Predicted Record: 10-6

Predicted Pro Bowlers: Andrew Luck, TY Hilton, Jack Mewhort, D’Qwell Jackson

G.W. Gras

twitter @GeeSteelio

 

Dallas Cowboys 2015 Preview

Not quite sure if the Cowboys are more “America’s Team” or “America’s Most Hated Team” but either way, to earn a moniker like that means you’re doing something right.  The Cowboys relied on the strength of their offensive line to roll through their schedule last season and expect more of the same this year.

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The Cowboys offensive line is a young and talented bunch that is easily the best in the league.  They drafted guard Zack Martin last year who earned a Pro Bowl nod as a rookie and to the left of him is another Pro Bowler – Travis Frederick at center.  Tyron Smith is one of the best left tackles in the league and was recognized as such by his peers by being voted as number thirty-six in the annual NFL Top 100 Players listing.  Smith hasn’t played much in pre-season but most of it is precautionary because of a prior biceps injury.  The Cowboys may have hit the jackpot in signing free agent rookie La’el Collins.  Collins was projected to be a first round offensive lineman, but there was a murder story that broke out, which had his name linked to it.  After it was known that Collins had nothing to do with it, it was too late and the draft was over.  Cowboys got yet another gem on their line now.

DeMarco Murray was a workhorse last year and was the most dependable back in the league last year.  His services were not rewarded with a new contract from the Cowboys though, so that leaves the door open for a few names.  The most obvious to run behind this line is Joseph Randle.  Randle is a bit of a knucklehead off the field but when given opportunities behind this offensive line, he ran for 6.7 yards a carry.  The Cowboys signed former Raiders running back Darren McFadden who has not lived up to his first-round potential, mostly due to consistently getting injured.  Lance Dunbar had a modest four yards a carry last year but just doesn’t have that next gear.  Former Virginia Tech alum and Arizona Cardinal Ryan Williams, will look to get on this roster and if healthy may be the best of all the backs.  Williams is another back with a vicious injury history, but is the best natural running back out of the bunch.  With that being said, Randle should be the number one back all year, getting sixty-five to seventy percent of the carries.

Nobody is happier than Tony Romo for the emergence of the offensive line and a running game to compliment him.  Romo came off back surgery and delivered a ridiculous season throwing for thirty-four touchdowns and 3,705 yards.  Romo’s completion percentage was one-tenth of a point shy of 70% and was still able to avoid pressure with his footwork in the pocket.  Romo is a top-tier quarterback in the league who is primed for another big year.

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Wide receiver Dez Bryant was able to get the contract he wanted before the season started.  The Cowboys are set to pay the wide out seventy-million dollars over the next five years and it’s money well spent.  Bryant could be the best receiver in the league, last year racking up over 1,300 yards in the air and catching sixteen touchdown passes. He’s a red-zone animal and even double-teams can’t seem to slow him down.  The emotionally driven star is paired up with Terrance Williams who is turning out to be a good number two guy, but coming into his third season there is still room for growth, especially since he’ll be getting one on one opportunities on nearly every down.  Cole Beasley is a nice slot piece as long as they keep him in the slot and Jason Witten still carries around one of the most dependable set of hands at the tight-end position.

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Owner Jerry Jones was sick of how this defense looked last season.  They couldn’t get to the quarterback and they struggled in the secondary.   Jones went out and made two controversial pick ups to help out the defensive line with second-round pick Randy Gregory and veteran Greg Hardy.  Gregory slipped in the draft due to a failed drug test at the combine, but was the best pure pass rusher in this year’s draft class, while Greg Hardy is suspended the first four games of the season after a violent and ugly domestic abuse charge. . . The interior of the line will only show up for this line if these two volatile pieces prove that they were worth the gamble.

Linebacker Rolando McClain is a bit of a weirdo but his 2014 comeback was a positive sign for the Cowboys who are hoping they can continue to build with the young line backer.  Sean Lee is the biggest question mark in the Cowboys defense because if he plays it makes them a marginally better defensive unit.  The former Penn State alum played well in 2012 and 2013 but both were either cut short or hampered by injuries.  He missed all of 2014 with an ACL injury so this season is pretty much his “make it or break it” year with the Cowboys.

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The Cowboys just lost corner back Orlando Scandrick for the year which makes their first round pick of UConn’s Byron Jones look like a smart one. Jones can play any of the secondary positions and is a ball-hawking type of player who can get burned because of his slow reaction time.   Brandon Carr is pretty solid but nothing to get over excited about and Morris Claiborne looked his best at times last season, but that’s not saying much because he hasn’t looked to good thus far in his short career.   Jones might actually find himself starting the season at safety because the Cowboys really don’t have a steady answer at that position as is.

If the front seven can come together – even by mid-season – to help out this secondary, the defense should do enough to stop the opposition from scoring more than twenty points a game.  Which would be more than enough for an offense that should ring out thirty points a game, weekly.

Predicted Record: 11-5

Predicted Pro Bowlers: Tony Romo, Sean Lee, Joseph Randle, Zack Martin, Tyron Smith

G.W. Gras

twitter @GeeSteelio

Philadelphia Eagles 2015 Preview

A team that everyone should be eager to see this year is the Philadelphia Eagles.  Chip Kelly is the NFL’s “mad scientist.”  He has let go of and traded players in the organization that have made many scratch their heads but it’s Kelly’s belief in his “system” that doesn’t make him lose any sleep at night.

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Chip Kelly decided to hop off of the optimistic ride that is Nick Foles’ potential and swapped quarterbacks with the St. Louis Rams, bringing the often-injured Sam Bradford to Philly.  Bradford has been in the league for four years – two of those years were cut short due to injury and in the other two full seasons he played – he put up “okay” statistics.  Bradford has never lived up to the billing of being an overall number-one draft pick, but he is definitely serviceable.  More importantly there is something that Kelly sees in Bradford that he obviously doesn’t see in Foles.  Behind Bradford is a “who’s who” of former collegiate heroes in Mark Sanchez, Tim Tebow and Matt Barkely.  Tebow’s versatility may keep him on the roster for the creative Chip Kelly; Sanchez was re-signed to a two year deal after last season and Matt Barkely has looked somewhat impressive in pre-season – expect all four to remain on the roster.

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Chip Kelly found a way to irk the fans of Philadelphia when he traded star running back LeSean McCoy to Buffalo for linebacker Kiko Alonso.  McCoy and Kelly had a rocky relationship and that led to Shady’s departure but the Eagles went and spent money on two backs to share the load in the backfield.  Last year’s rushing leader DeMarco Murray ran for over 1,800 yards with the Cowboys last season and although he isn’t running behind the best line in football, the drop off to now running behind the Eagles offensive line isn’t that drastic.  He won’t be rode on all the way as he was in Dallas though because the Eagles plan on splitting carries between Murray and former Charger, Ryan Matthews.  Matthews is a good all around running back but he, much like previously mentioned Sam Bradford, has issues staying healthy.

Darren Sproles’ production dropped off a bit last year and most likely won’t be used in traditional running back sets, so expect him to line up at receiver or whatever odd placement along the line of scrimmage Kelly figures out.  Sproles is still a burner with great cutting ability.  The Eagles figure to go young at the wide receiver position with sophomore receiver Jordan Matthews – who last year had over 800 yards and eight touchdown receptions – and first-round rookie Nelson Agholor. Agholor is a quick wide out who you never see just “standing around.”  He reads and works against zone coverage well but can get muscled around at times.  With all the moves being made by Chip Kelly, nobody understands why Riley Cooper is still on this squad, other than he is a good blocking wide out.  Tight end Zach Ertz might just be coming into his own right now as a top five player at his position.

The offensive line is a veteran unit with maybe two more good seasons in them, collectively.  Jason Peters has been one of the better left tackles in the league since his arrival.  The Eagles were not able to keep left guard Evan Mathis, which will hurt them.  Lane Johnson is a former first-round pick for the Eagles in 2013 and was excelling in camp and in pre-season this year.  He has a sprained MCL which shouldn’t keep him from starting week one.

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On the other side of the trenches stands a solid front for a 3-4 defense with Cedric Thornton, Bennie Logan and Fletcher Cox.  This Eagles defense gave up less than four yards a carry last season but still gave up twenty-five points a contest which put them in the bottom quarter of the league.

At the present time, Kiko Alonso has yet to make it onto the field as an Eagle and the organization is being quiet about why.  Nobody knows if there is still recovery going on from last year’s ACL or if it’s something different.  Linebacker DeMeco Ryans had a second Achilles injury and there are still questions about him being ready for the season opener as well.  Connor Barwin is still in the mix and had his best season last year with 14.5 sacks.  The play of Brandon Graham last year made it easier for the team to depart with fan-favorite Trent Cole.

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After last season, the Eagles did not want to see their secondary get shredded again, so they went out and spent big bucks on former Seahawk corner back Byron Maxwell.  Maxwell was the lesser known face from the “Legion of Boom” but keep in mind just because Sherman played opposite of him, that does not mean Maxwell was subjected to always covering the oppositions number two receiver.  The Seahawks defense played in a set zone and offenses would usually flip their number one against Maxwell just to find out, it’s not so easy going up against him.  The Eagles have a knack for picking up players with injury history and they did so by acquiring Walter Thurmond.  The Eagles spent a second-round pick on Eric Rowe out of Utah, who is a physical corner who is expected to start at corner this season.

Chip Kelly is really betting on himself and if things don’t go right he’ll find himself coaching in the NCAA again (with all due respect).  The Eagles defense should be much improved but the health of their linebackers will be key as this has the potential to be the best 3-4 attack in the league.

Predicted Record: 10-6

Predicted Pro Bowlers: DeMeco Ryans, Jason Peters, DeMarco Murray, Byron Maxwell, Connor Barwin

G.W. Gras

twitter @GeeSteelio

Washington Redskins 2015 Preview

The Washington Redskins are a disaster.  Where does one even start?  The team’s name?  RG3?  Jay Gruden?  Daniel Snyder?  Ugh. . . these are tough times for Redskins fans.  Redskins fans are among the most loyal of NFL fans, they truly do deserve better than this.  For right now though, this is a team looking to improve on a 4-12 record – so let’s start with that.

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Jay Gruden was hired as the head coach of the Redskins last year, to mend a coach-quarterback relationship that was destroyed during the Shanahan reign in Washington.   So far it hasn’t gotten much better.  It has led many to wonder if RG3 is the real problem here when it comes to coach relations, but even before psycho-analyzing that situation – the most obvious issue with RG3 is his play on the football field.  Robert Griffin III gave us one of the most exciting seasons ever in 2012.  We saw a quarterback do things, we didn’t think were imaginable.  The truth is, he just hasn’t been the same since his ACL injury and he hasn’t cleaned up any of his flawed mechanics.  Back up quarterback Kirk Cousins was being hailed as the biggest deal since sliced-bread, until the wheels fell off and Cousins just became a turn-over machine, who’s confidence got rocked easily.  The best quarterback out of the group was Colt McCoy, who had a big Monday Night Football win against the Dallas Cowboys on national television which ended with him and coach Gruden hugging each other – but let’s be real.  That moment is over and McCoy is not the answer for Washington.  RG3 and Gruden need to figure something out before this gets uglier or before RG3 suffers another injury.

With all three quarterbacks being ‘suspect’ the running game will have to be the focus of this offense and that starts with Alfred Morris.   Morris was quiet most of last season and usually looked to be out worked by back up Roy Helu (now with Oakland).   In 2012, Morris flourished with RG3 in the read-option running attack but last year Morris struggled being more of a “traditional back.”  Behind Morris is University of Florida rookie Matt Jones and sophomore back Silas Redd who played at Penn State and USC.  Redd is a good receiving back while Jones is just a load to take down.

If things continue to be bad in Washington, the Redskins can expect to lose left tackle Trent Williams by the end of the season.  Williams is one of the best left tackles in the league and at 27 years of age, he is planning to get a nice long term deal.   The unit as a whole struggled with pass protection and didn’t do much to open holes for the running game last season which is why the Redskins used their fourth-round pick in this year’s draft to select Alabama guard Arie Kouandijio.  Bad news for the Redskins is that, someone did not do their homework on Kouandijio, who is a massive human being (6’5″, 310) but cannot do much if asked to pull or do anything that requires minimal athleticism, to say the least.

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With all that went wrong last year in Washington, wide receiver DeSean Jackson was still able to have an impressive season.  The wide out finished with six touchdowns and 1,169 yards.  Unfortunately, the quarterback issues in Washington took a negative toll on Pierre Garcon, who in 2013 had 113 receptions and  1,346 receiving yards – saw those numbers plummet in 2014 to 68 and 152, respectively.   Andre Roberts never really “popped off” in his four years in Arizona and chose the wrong place to try to reinvent himself. . .

Another player in a contract year for the Redskins is their best pass rusher, Ryan Kerrigan.  Kerrigan hasn’t missed a game in all four years he’s been in the league and has shown improvement every season.  Sophomore linebacker Trent Murphy will most likely play in the spot of now departed linebacker Brian Orakpo’s place.  Murphy needs to recapture his college-magic when he was the nation’s leader in sacks.  The defensive line is going under reconstruction and that includes the signing of former Bears Stephen Paea who is the type of player who looks better on paper than he actually is.  Prototypical nose tackle without a nose for the football is how to describe Paea.

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The Redskins may have struck gold in the fourth-round last year by taking corner back Bashaund Breeland last year.  Breeland was an under-the-radar pick out of Clemson who started last year and handled himself well.  He’s already a better corner than veteran DeAngelo Hall, who is more talk, than action and is coming back from injury.   Dashon Goldson is a versatile safety who for all things considered, is the leader of this defense.  The nine year veteran is dealing with a lot of youth on this defensive unit.

It is pretty obvious and unfortunate, we as football fans will never see RG3 the way we want to see him again.  It’s even more of a shame for Redskins fans for that to be true, because that’s the only way this team would have a chance to compete for anything this year.

Predicted Record: 5-11

Predicted Pro Bowlers: Bashaund Breeland, Ryan Kerrigan, DeSean Jackson

G.W. Gras

twitter @GeeSteelio

 

New York Giants 2015 Preview

The New York Giants finished 6-10 last season, but Giants fans will tell you it’s because of their slow start.  Quarterback Eli Manning seemed lost in a the new west-coast offense system implemented by offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo and the offense’s timing seemed off on nearly every snap.  Also, the Giants were without their first round pick for the first four games of the season, O’Dell Beckham Jr (we’ll get to him in a few minutes).  This Giants team needs to be just as explosive on offense as their division rivals, the Eagles and the Cowboys – and also must find a way to stop those opposing offenses.

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Defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul wanted a contract extension this season.  The Giants were cautious of doing so because J.P.P’s production has gone below expectations.  Good thing the Giants didn’t rush into things, because Pierre-Paul lost a finger while playing with fireworks on July 4th.  Pierre-Paul has been the butt of many jokes in the aftermath of that event, but in all seriousness nobody knows if he’ll be ready by week one, and even if he is, nobody knows how effective he will be.  The Giants still are willing to sign him to a franchise tag, but J.P.P – even in all of his nine fingered glory – isn’t thrilled about the franchise tag.   J.P.P’s former college teammate George Selvie, has been the lesser pro-player of the two, since they both came out of USF, while the Giants will depend on the likes of Kendrick Ellis to help out the middle of the defensive line.  The Giants used a third-round pick on UCLA defensive end, Owa Odighizuwa.  Odighizuwa has had some injuries including a hip surgery which has somewhat limited his side-to-side quickness.  He makes up for a lack of lateral movement with brute strength.  The Giants need somebody to be a pass rusher and it may fall on the rookie.

Veteran Jon Beason is the only linebacker worth talking about on the Giants, but has been struggling to stay healthy and there is no telling what kind of player he’ll be from snap-to-snap.  There is no speed at the line backer position from the Giants which will make it hard for them to cover the more athletic tight ends or add much to this pass-rush.

Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo was brought back onto head coach Tom Coughlin’s staff trying to recreate the defenses that the Giants had in the late 2000’s.   He has his work cut out for him this year, with not much up front and at the moment, working with as little help from the safety position as possible.  The pre-season has not been kind to the Giant’s safeties as they keep dropping like flies, including second-round pick Landon Collins out of Alabama.   The Houston Texans have just released safety Stevie Brown, so it makes sense that Brown, the former Giant, finds himself back in New York in no-time.  Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and the often injured Prince Amukamara are a pretty solid corner combo that has nothing behind them in the depth chart.  Without a solid pass rush, these two will most likely find themselves in bad spots often.

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The Giants knew they needed to work on their offensive line this season and they did their best this off-season.  They signed former CFL star, Brett Jones, who played center (and at times played guard) for the Calgary Stampede.  Jones was the CFL’s best offensive lineman and his versatility on the line will help the Giants out.  It’s a step up in the level of competition for Jones, but it’s a step in the right direction for the Giants offensive line.   The Giants also used a first-round pick on Miami Hurricane  Ereck Flowers.  The tackle came into the draft with noted character issues, but unless he has a nervous breakdown before the start of the season – the Giants have no reason to keep him off the starting roster.

Running behind this offensive line is running back Rashad Jennings.  The former seventh-round pick has been a back up for most of his career and last year as a starter he seemed to flourish at times.  Jennings has an injury history which caught up with him last year and gave time to running back Andre Williams.  Williams was coming off of a monster year where he ran for over 2,000 yards at Boston College, but he could not get his legs going last season.   The Giants are hoping that it was just ‘runner’s fatigue’ and this season the sophomore back can show more promise.  The Giants are expecting former Patriots running back Shane Vereen to be the receiving back needed in this west-coast attack, but the success rate of running backs after leaving New England’s offense is very low.  .  .  Like most Patriot’s players, Vereen is more a product of that system than anything else.

Eli Manning still holds the reigns at the quarterback position and that won’t change anytime soon.  He cut his interceptions down last year (from twenty-seven in 2013, to fourteen in 2014) but still has an issue with fumbling (having seven last season).   He’s a perennial “over-thrower” but his confidence never leaves him.   He was having a miserable start to last season until Odell Beckham Jr. returned from injury, but for this offense to work, Eli is going to have to utilize everything around him.  The problem is, there really isn’t much.

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In the twelve games he played last season, wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. recorded ninety-one receptions, twelve touchdowns, over 1,300 yards and at least one sports-show highlight a week.  Beckham’s small stature doesn’t help out much when he’s asked to block on the outside for running backs, but at least his intensity doesn’t let him quit at it.   Odell’s “over-the-top” enthusiasm keeps fans entertained, but has also made him a “marked man” of sorts throughout the league. . . The return of Victor Cruz is just about as exciting as the thought of “Pepsi Blue.”    Cruz seems to refuse to run routes over the middle and has a lost a step in the deep-attack.  His dancing days are behind him.  It would be nice if Rueben Randle would grow into his potential already.  Randle had his best season last year with 938 receiving yards and at this point, should be the number two receiver on the Giants roster.  If Cruz would be willing to accept his true role, which is a slot receiver, the Giants would have a formidable trio out there – but nobody has ever heard of a slot receiver who won’t run routes over the middle, so there goes that idea. . .

Projected Record: 7-9

Projected Pro Bowlers: Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie

G.W. Gras

twitter @GeeSteelio

Houston Texans 2015 Preview

Head coach Bill O’Brien is one of the most likable – yet, rugged coaches in the NFL.  He comes from the Belichick tree of coaching, and what he did in the two years after the tumultuous Penn State scandal was remarkable and commendable.  Now in his second year with the Houston Texans, O’Brien still has a talented roster but no answer at quarterback.  A key injury has impacted the offense before the season has started and Bill O’Brien will once again have to find ways to win, when people are counting him out.

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The Houston Texans have announced that Brian Hoyer will be the starting quarterback this season.  This comes as a surprise to many because Ryan Mallett was the one the masses figured would get the start.  In team practices and in the pre-season though, Mallett has been unable to to show growth, or even enough adequacy at the position for the coaching staff to go with him.   Hoyer didn’t have much an impressive season last year with the Browns (over 3300 passing yards, twelve touchdowns, thirteen interceptions) but none-the-less, he is handed the reigns of this offense.  Hoyer will most likely be benched in favor of Mallett before mid-season.  Third-string sophomore quarterback Tom Savage, has nothing more to offer than a really cool last name. . .

It doesn’t get easier for the offense.   Star running back Arian Foster suffered a groin injury that will sideline him for just about six weeks of the season.   Foster is a do-it-all back, who is the centerpiece of this offensive game plan.  Now that pressure goes onto backup running back Alfred Blue.  Blue has the potential and saw a lot of playing time last year behind Foster, so another year in this system should make things a little easier for the second-year back out of LSU.   When Foster went down, the Texans looked into twenty free agent backs (none of them went by the name Ray Rice) – but Chris Polk might be their backup-backup plan if Blue goes down.

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With or without Arian Foster starting week one, this Texans offense was going to have a weird look to it at the beginning of the season, regardless.  That is because longtime Texan, Andre Johnson is now in Indianapolis.   Andre Johnson takes with him his 13,597 receiving yards and and 64 touchdowns, which have made him a Texans legend in the last 13 years.  Now it’s time for DeAndre Hopkins to fill the role of number-one receiver and in some discussions, he took over that role last year – with Johnson on the team.  Hopkins finished last year with 1210 receiving yards and will be looked upon to handle even more as he will be the focal point of the aerial attack.  The number two receiver position seems like an interesting battle between Cecil Shorts, Nate Washington and rookie Jalen Strong out of Arizona State.

The offensive line isn’t too bad though.  They have studs at the tackle spots with Derek Newton on the right side and Duane Brown at the left.  Brandon Brooks and Ben Jones were the guards last season but it appears Jones will now play center.  It will be interesting to see the affect this will have on a team that likes to run the ball as much as the Texans do.

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An easy way out of writing about the Texans’ defense could’ve just been to write the name: J.J. Watt.   Watt literally does all any coach can ask of him and more.   Impossible to block one on one and when he can’t get to through the line he has the uncanny ability to swat passes down (or tip them to himself).  Watt makes any defensive unit in the league a threat because of all the attention he gains on every possession.   The Texans thought it was worth the gamble to see if veteran nose-tackle Vince Wilfork has anything left in the tank.  Although the Texans would’ve liked to not spend the money they spent on Wilfork if last year’s third-round pick, Louis Nix would’ve showed them something.  It’s still early enough to have some hope for Nix, but he needs to show them something special in order to get on the field.

The Houston Chronicle reported that Jadeveon Clowney looked “mobile” and “confident” in Texans’ practices, which is a good thing because if Clowney pulls in his second year what he did as a rookie – he’ll be in “bust” territory.   Clowney came in with such fanfare and hype that he would’ve never lived up to the expectations, but his limited time on the field and questionable work ethic have people in Houston worried.  If Clowney can play at full strength, and play with heart – there is no way on Earth, that he can’t be a force in this league as a pass rusher.  Brian Cushing hasn’t stayed healthy since his rookie year in  2009.   He was amazing in that season but that season is more of an urban legend than anything else.  This will be a make or break season for Cushing.  Whitney Mercilus is a decent player, but until Clowney or Cushing step up, he is the team’s best linebacker.

Corner back tandem of Kareem Jackson and Johnathan Jospeh looked good last year but that’s what happens when you have J.J. Watt wrecking havoc on quarterbacks and as a defense you get to play Jacksonville and Tennessee twice a year.  The duo gets more help in that secondary with the addition of Stevie Brown.  Brown is an active and underrated safety who can play the ball and put on the tackle.  Great addition to this defense.

This defense looks better on paper than it is in real life, but if some of these newest editions along with players returning from injury can make a change – it will only be a positive.  The Texans finished 9-7 last season and missed the playoffs.  Nobody would be surprised with another decent season with nothing to show for it.

Predicted Record: 9-7

Predicted Pro Bowlers: J.J. Watt, Stevie Brown, Vince Wilfork, DeAndre Hopkins

G.W. Gras

twitter @GeeSteelio

Tennessee Titans 2015 Preview

The Tennessee Titans along with the Jacksonville Jaguars made it hard to argue that the worst division in the NFL was AFC South.  There are a lot of changes going on at the defensive side of the ball and there is a lot of youth on the offensive side of the ball to get fans excited – at least before the season starts.

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Last year the Titans used a sixth-round pick on LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger.  Mettenberger looked decent in losses to Pittsburgh and Houston, has the size, arm strength and confidence some like but not the Titans.  The Titans were not blown away by the adequate potential displayed by Mettenberger so they drafted Oregon’s Marcus Mariota with the second-pick of this year’s draft.  Mariota had one of the best college careers ever for a quarterback but we’ve all kind of seen this story before. Timmy Chang (Hawaii) Graham Harrell (Texas Tech), Colt Brennan (Hawaii) and Landry Jones (Oklahoma) – to name a few – are in that same class as Mariota.  Mariota came out of a high powered offense in which a lot of his passing yards came after the catch.  There will be a lot of growing pains with Mariota, and a lot of people are in his corner because of his character – but if there is no patience within the Titans organization, this could all blow up in their face.

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Patience is something the Titans may be growing weary with when it comes to their receivers Justin Hunter and Kendall Wright.  In 2013 Wright had 94 receptions with over 1000 yards receiving and saw those numbers drop down to 57 and 715 respectively.   Wright played two less games last season, but even then the struggles would’ve continued because of a lack of a number two threat.  Justin Hunter has been disappointing in his first two years out of Tennessee and hasn’t been able to take pressure off of Wright, who he himself seems to fade away in big spots.  Both receivers will be challenged by rookie Dorial Green-Beckham.  Beckham was drafted in the second-round of this year’s draft by the Titans, while many other teams did not even have him on their draft boards.  Green-Beckham is a fantastic talent, with ridiculous size (6’6″, 237) but his multiple marijuana related arrests and an incident which involved him apparently shoving a woman down a flight of stairs – scared many people off.  In today’s league, where receivers like Justin Blackmon and Josh Gordon, have faced year long suspensions due to ill-decisions off of the field – the Titans are taking a huge gamble on the rookie wide out.  On talent alone, he’s the best wide receiver on this team, and he could have a bright future but only time will tell.   Harry Douglas was a low-key off-season acquisition who provides good depth.  Douglas has always been a great route runner, and when he was called on to be the number one receiver in Atlanta (due to injuries on the roster) he filled in admirably.   Hakeem Nicks was added to the receiver depth chart, but mainly just to fill a roster spot.  Nobody knows what’s happened to Nicks, but he is a shell of himself.

The Titans see a lot of potential in their receiving group and in their running back group.  Although Bishop Sankey struggled in his rookie season averaging only 3.7 yards a carry, the Titans are sticking with their former first-round pick – or at least expect him to be part of a “dynamic duo backfield.”  David Cobb was drafted in the fifth-round out of Minnesota who is a bruiser back that will make things easier for the Titans to depart with Shonn Greene.  The Titans took Alabama fullback a round before Cobb, so there will be an obvious focus on a running attack.

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In front of those backs is an offensive line that the Titans have slowly been putting together nicely.  The last two years they’ve spent first round picks on guard Chance Warmack (2013) and tackle Taylor Lewan (2014).   Andy Levitre plays the guard position opposite of Warmack and should make for running up the gut a normal thing to see, with the previously mentioned rookie fullback and bruiser back taken in this year’s draft.

The Titans biggest acquisition in the off-season was defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau.   LeBeau’s 3-4 attack won’t have much pressure from the group up front so expect to see a lot of blitzing linebackers.   The “usually injured” Brian Orakpo was signed in free-agency and when he’s on the field he can be a difference maker.  Avery Williamson is the Titans’ 23 year old linebacker who looked really good in spots last year and is only expected to improve.  Moving forward, he may be the main cog in this defensive unit.

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The secondary has potential and in a LeBeau scheme, expect the safeties to be very active.   Michael Griffin and Da’Norris Searcy man the safety positions.  Griffin may be asked to man the pseudo-linebacker role with Searcy handling more of the secondary pass help.  Perrish Cox is another name added to the “former 49ers list” – he brings with him ball-hawking skills and the experience of the playing in another blue-collar-like defense.  Jason McCourty is an under-rated number-one corner in the league, who at least has help with him in the secondary this year.

With a lack of a defensive front in this 3-4 defense, the going will certainly get tough for the secondary following around receivers all day.  There is a faith in Dick LeBeau though to cause some kind of chaos with this unit as he does get guys to play hard for him.  Offensively there is a lot of potential but a lot of it rides on Mariota and Green-Beckham.  The two vary in personality but they both travel the same road in proving people wrong.   At least the Titans are in seemingly better shape than the Jaguars. . . seemingly.

Predicted Record: 6-10

Predicted Pro Bowlers: Jason McCourty

G.W. Gras

twitter @GeeSteelio

Jacksonville Jaguars 2015 Preview

It seems that there was more optimism surrounding the Jaguars last year than there is this year.   That’s not a good thing for head coach, Gus Bradley who is entering his third year in what was supposed to be a culture change for the franchise.  There is a lot of youth on this team and there is frustration spread throughout management and the fan base.

The Jaguars went “all in” when they took Blake Bortles with the number-three over-all pick last year in the draft.  At 6’5″ 230, the Jaguars want him to become their version of the Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger.  His 17 interceptions can be looked over as part of his “growing pains” in a rookie season, but his completion percentage, which was below 60% last year and his yards per pass, which was barely over six – both need to improve.

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The going will be tough for Bortles because as of right now (mid-August) two of his receivers are dealing with hamstring injuries.  Allen Robinson and Marqise Lee were drafted in the same year with Bortles, in the hopes that they could all grow together.  Robinson looked good last season, and Lee flashed some signs but in order for the trio of Bortles, Lee and Robinson to become something special – they need to be on the field together.  Allen Hurns led the team with 677 receiving yards, which is not a mark that will keep someone as a number one or number two receiver.

Bortles will need time to get the ball to these receivers, which he had little of last year.  That’s why the Jaguars signed free agent Stefen Wisinewkski who adds depth (and competition) for the guard and center positions. They also signed tackle Jermey Parnell who was on that stellar Dallas Cowboys line last season.  The Jaguars got lucky finding a starter for their line last year in Brandon Linder and are expecting Luke Joeckel to take a step up this season in being one of the better tackles in the league.

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Running behind that line will most likely be the rookie running back out of Alabama, T.J. Yeldon.   In his three seasons playing for the Crimson Tide, Yeldon never averaged less than five yards a carry and is a tough back to bring down.  Former Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson filled in admirably last year at the running back position, but he is not a long term solution.  Robinson is a nice “gadget” player, who the offensive coordinator Greg Olson should learn to get creative with.  Toby Gerhart seemed lost as a starter and will ultimately end up as a “bust” free agent signing.

The defensive line has been decimated even before the season started.  Their first-round pick Dante Fowler tore his ACL in camp and will be out for the year while defensive tackle Sen’Derrick Marks is still recovering from a torn ACL he suffered at the end of last season.   The Jags did sign former Dolphin Jared Odrick to the team, which went under the radar in the off-season, but could prove to be a great signing.  The success of the front line will ultimately be on the shoulders of veteran Chris Clemons.

There isn’t much to talk about at the linebacker spot except for Paul Posluszny.  He missed nine games last season due to injury.  Posluszny is entering his ninth season and the Jags are just hoping he isn’t slipping.  Posluszny has been one of the best middle linebackers in the league throughout his career, his only fault is playing in Buffalo and Jacksonville, two places that aren’t high on the media’s radar.

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Johnathan Cyprien has played his college and pro career in the state of Florida.  He played safety at Florida International and for the last two years have played the same position in Jacksonville.  Cyprien is a “safe play” at the position, who is more of a hitter than a cover guy.  A sure tackler in the secondary though, where unfortunately for Jacksonville – a lot of ball carriers get to. . . The Jaguars signed Davon House to man one of the corner slots.  House will get a chance to reboot his career after being a nice rotation guy for Green Bay for some time, but last year couldn’t find his way onto the field.

It’s easy to root for a guy like coach Gus Bradley, and the players all seem to want to play for him.  If Gus plans on keeping this job though, they are going to need more than three wins and that seems like an arduous task all in itself.

Predicted Record: 4-12

Predicted Pro Bowlers:  T.J. Yeldon, Paul Posluszny

G.W. Gras

twitter @GeeSteelio

Cleveland Browns 2015 Preview

Some teams are cursed.  Some teams just do it to themselves.  It doesn’t matter if Cleveland’s woes are a product of black magic or self infliction – they are just a mess, from top to bottom.  Head coach Mike Pettine, opens up his second season as head coach with his best player suspended for the season and his back up quarterback as the talk of the town.

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The Browns have a quarterback battle between a journeyman veteran who looked awful last season and a sophomore quarterback who had a two month long stint in alcohol rehab in the off-season.  Fun times.  Josh McCown, pulled the okey-doke on Tampa, when he looked great in his few starts with Chicago in 2013, leading the Bucs to believe they did the right thing by giving him a contract last season.  McCown really has nothing left to give, and if he beats out Johnny Manziel for the starting job. . . eh.   Manziel, is really the team’s best option.  If not for nothing else, the Browns should start him just because they spent a first round pick on him and this isn’t a team with playoff aspirations anyhow.  The world still wants to see Manziel – fail or succeed – give the fans of the NFL what they want and just start him.

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Somebody needs to tell Manziel to not be so jumpy in the pocket.  The Browns, if they have anything, it’s an offensive line.  Left tackle Joe Thomas is probably the best at his position in the last decade.  The Browns will have some things to deal when this season is done though.  Their center Alex Mack can opt out after this season and tackle Mitchell Schwartz is in the final year of his deal.   Will anybody blame them for abandoning this ship when this season ends?

The backfield isn’t too shabby either.  There is a lot of youth there with a lot of upside.  Unfortunately, as of now two of those three have some nagging injuries that may leak into weak one of the regular season.  Rookie Duke Johnson, might be the best out of the three, but he has been wrestling with a hamstring issue in early practices.  Terrance West should be fine physically when the season starts, but the Browns are losing patience with him (on and off the field apparently).   He’s not a bad kid, just “plays around too much.”  Isiah Crowell is the bruiser back, who might be the lead rusher on this team by default.  Crowell is good, but better suited for goal line and short yardage situations.   The health of this backfield is everything to this offense.  Everyone knows they’re going to run the ball a lot this year so. . .

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Say what you will about Josh Gordon, the truth is: he’s the best receiver we’ve barely seen play.  Without Gordon, this receiver group is just awkward and lame.  Brian Hartline is a career possession guy with limited speed.  Andrew Hawkins isn’t threatening any secondary  in this lifetime; and the Browns signed Dwayne Bowe who was the number one receiver on a team in which not one receiver caught a touchdown.  That right there says it all.

This defensive unit was disappointing last year, but when you have a bad offense continuously putting you in bad spots, there is only so much you can do after a while.  The Browns are hoping for the best by putting their rookie defensive linemen right into the line of fire.  Danny Shelton of Washington and Xavier Cooper of Washington State are two defensive tackles that have the potential to explode offensive lines right up the gut.  Cooper is the more active of the two, while Shelton tries to gobble up space inside.  This is a big defensive line, that needs to get to ball carriers early – but once those ball carriers get to the outside, it’s all on the line backers and secondary to finish the job.

The linebacker group is interesting to say the least.  Barkevious Mingo was drafted in the first-round in 2013 and the Browns have seen little return on that investment.  The potential to be a complete bust looms in the clouds circling Mingo this season.  Nate Orchard out of Utah, might do what Mingo hasn’t and that’s be the pass rusher they want from the linebacker spot.  Paul Kruger is someone people can never figure out.  Sure, he had eleven sacks last season – but what does he do really?  He’s just one of those players you just assume is above average, but he doesn’t really “wow” you, when you watch him.  Karlos Dansby is the veteran of the group who last year only had forty seven tackles in twelve games. . .

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The Browns have studs in the secondary.   Donte Whitner and Tashaun Gipson make up one of the best safety combinations in the league (it’s going to be hard to dethrone that duo in Seattle. . .) and corner back Joe Haden is consistently in the discussion of “top five corners” in the league.  With Buster Skrine signing with the New York Jets, it’s time for last year’s first round pick Justin Gilbert to wake up and take control of his future.  He showed a lot of promise in college, but seemed like a fish out of water in the pros.  The Browns will surely give him his chance, but they signed veteran Tramon WIlliams just in-case Gilbert is better served as the nickel corner.

The Browns have so many interesting stories on their team, but none of it will amount to much.  There is no doubt they will stay in some games, but it’s going to a one dimensional offense and a lot of inexperience on the defense line that will ultimately hold them back.  Best case scenario is that the youth on this team gain experience in what will be a trying season, while the veterans. . . collect pay checks?

Predicted Record: 4-12

Predicted Pro Bowlers: Joe Haden, Joe Thomas, Donte Whitner

G.W. Gras

@GeeSteelio

Pittsburgh Steelers 2015 Preview

The Steelers of Pittsburgh have a lot of fantasy football nerds hyped over their offense’s potential.  They do everything right on the offensive side of the ball but for the Steelers, to enter a season and have their offense talked about more than their defense – it’s a rare occurrence – actually one might be hard pressed to see if that was ever the case for Pittsburgh.

This defense is young and is depending on their young core of linebackers to carry the weight of this unit.  Jarvis Jones was a first-round pick in 2013 who seemed to be coming into his own last year until he got hurt.  Ryan Shazier was their first-round pick out of Ohio State last season, but like Jones, had his share of injuries that slowed him down.  This season, the Steelers kept putting faith into the linebacker surplus coming out of college and they drafted Kentucky linebacker, Bud Dupree in the first-round.  Dupree is a nice athlete, but is raw when it comes to what they need: pass rushing.  His instincts in the “search and destroy” department still need help, but he’s excellent when needed to drop back into zone coverage.  With the right coaching he could develop into a nice linebacker.   Lawrence Timmons and Arthur Moats are the veterans on this squad which is coming into the season under the radar.  This has the potential to be the best linebacker rotation in the league if things pan out right.  The health of Jones and Shazier will play a huge role.

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The defensive line will look different without the intensity and the amazing beard of defensive end Brett Keisel.  Nobody on this roster can fill the void the beard left (literally, the beard) but someone needs to be the aggressor up front.  The Steelers are hoping to see more improvement from their sophomore end Stephon Tuitt.  What he lacks in intensity, he has in intellect.  He just needs to see the plays quicker as he at times is a step too late at the line.  Steve McLendon may be the starter at nose-tackle, but the world wants to see more of the 6’7″ 350-plus pounder Daniel McCullers.   McCullers is just a fun guy to watch, but it’s impossible to keep this monster on the field for too long, especially against fast paced offenses.

The secondary wasn’t too good when Ike Taylor and Troy Polamalu were a part of it last year, and now with both men retired, the situation hasn’t gotten better.   Their best player in the secondary may be a seventh-round pick from Louisville, safety Gerod Holliman.  Holliman is more of a finesse player at the position, which is far from what fans in Pittsburgh are used to.  Especially after seeing Polamalu for all those years.

Ben Roethlisberger is under center for what may be one of the more explosive offenses he’s had at his disposal.  Ben was a marvel last year throwing thirty-two touchdowns and only nine interception for over 4900 yards.  He still plays with a chip on his shoulder and is still elusive in the pocket regardless of his huge frame.   If he had any issues with offensive coordinator Todd Haley before, he’s obviously passed it all now.

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In front of Big Ben is all-pro center Maurkice Pouncey leads a steady and dependable offensive line that helped this offense finish second in time of possession, yards per game and passing yards per game.  The impressive thing about this line is how a guard like David DeCastro or Ramon Foster are able to tail out and block on the outside in the screen game.

The Steelers offense was jump-started by running back Le’Veon Bell, who is suspended the first two games of the season for a DUI arrest.  Bell had over 2200 yards last season and will continue to be the focal point of this attack.  The Steelers got some insurance this season by signing long-time Panther DeAngelo Williams to the mix.  Williams will be used mostly to spell Bell, but in those first two weeks, he will carry the load.  Williams too often has been hit or miss week to week.

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Remember when the Steelers had to decide between Antonio Brown and Mike Wallace a few years back?  Safe to say, Pittsburgh made the right choice.  For too long Brown, was going under the radar – this year, don’t expect to get him in the fourth round of your fantasy draft, especially after having a monster season with nearly 1700 receiving yards.  Brown is accompanied by speed and athleticism all along the depth chart at the receiver position.  People are expecting big things from former Clemson Tiger Martavius Bryant, who is a tall receiver with great speed; Markus Wheaton would be the number two wide-out on this team if not for the talent of Bryant – but Wheaton playing in the slot role, fits him better anyway.

The Steelers are primed for a deep playoff run, even with the lack of a secondary.   They are multifaceted on the offensive side of the ball and an MVP caliber season from Big Ben should be expected.

Predicted Record: 11-5

Predicted Pro Bowlers: Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Ryan Shazier, Martavius Bryant, Le’Veon Bell

G.W. Gras

twitter @GeeSteelio