Time to finish off the bottom half of the league. Most of these teams see themselves on the rise, but may indeed just be spinning their wheels. Remember Training Camp is the time of year where NFL optimism reigns supreme. Sorry if I rain on your favorite team’s dreams.
24) EAGLES The post-Chip Kelly era gets underway with the team having purged a large number of the players that KELLY hand-picked prior to the 2015 season. Names like ALONSO, MAXWELL, MURRAY, SANCHEZ, et al. HOWIE ROSEMAN has been handed back control of the organization and he shook things up by trading a lot of Draft Picks to move up and select CARSON WENTZ as the team’s future franchise QB. How soon is the future for a small school player who spent most of his senior season out injured? What do they do with SAN BRADFORD, who was given a big contract extension to stick around back in January. History says the situation will sort itself else, when the brittle BRADFORD goes on IR around mid-season (hopefully) and the team can insert WENTZ into the starting job. The big insurance policy here is VFA CHASE DANIEL, who played under new HC DOUG PEDERSON with the Chiefs. The best news for this team and its fans is that it plays in the NFC Least which may be amongst the easiest in the League to jump from worst to first. But this team is likely to need another year to move up. Phily Fans need to hope they can recoup some of their traded Draft PIcks by trading BRADFORD at the end of this campaign.
23) TEXANS This time surprised a lot of people, including me, last season by capturing the AFC South with a 9-7 record. The biggest step forward for the team this off-season was the signing of BROCK OSWEILER/QB as a VFA from Denver. Now we shall see what HC/QB Whisperer BILL O’BRIEN can do with the big, young guy who most expected to be the MR. PEYTON successor, for JOHN ELWAY in Denver. Now the bad news comes with back surgery for JJ WATT, just before Camp opened. The genius of DC ROMEO CRENNEL will clearly be tested this season as long as WATT is missing from the starting line-up. The team had a solid Draft and upgraded itself at RB from a worn down ARIAN FOSTER with the much younger LAMAR MILLER from the Dolphins. They may slip back a bit this season, but if OSWEILER emerges as the starter they expect and WATT returns to the field 100%, they could actually position themselves for a solid move back up in 2017.
22) DOLPHINS ADAM GASE comes on board as the new head Coach and job one for him is getting QB/RYAN TANNEHILL to the next level as an NFL QB. We all knew the former WR would require extra developmental time as a pro QB, but this is year 5 and patience is running out in South Florida. A big help would be an OL that could stay healthy and reduce the 149 sacks the young QB had endured over the past 3 seasons. He has some solid receiving weapons, and the team is hoping ARIAN FOSTER/RB can stay healthy enough to lead their running game. The Defense is in rebuild mode, again, after losing two of their top pass-rushers (SHELBY/VERNON)in Free AGency. They also said goodbye to both their starting CB, by choice and will return only SS RESHAD JONES as a starter in the secondary. Despite the GM title on the door to CHRIS GRIER’s office it is quite clear that MIKE TANNENBAUM, hand picked by Owner STEPHEN ROSS, is calling the shots. ROSS expects a Play-Off spot from his team, but a simple .500 record would be good progress for this season.
21) BUCCANEERS The banners around Training Camp every year proclaim, ‘It’s a BUCS life.’I still haven’t quite figured out exactly what that means yet, but I do know that very few football people doubt that this team finally has it’s leader and star QB in JAMEIS WINSTON. He learned the hard way in 2015, but the signs are clear that he is the real deal mentally and physically. The LOVIE SMITH experiment is over, and last year’s OC DIRK KOETTER’s reward for helping WINSTON develop is to be the new Head Coach. The team was able to keep almost all over the players it wanted to from the 2015 roster (except for LOGAN MANKINS/OG retiree) and added some nice roster depth, including a good draft effort. Two of their top young receivers, in MIKE EVANS/WR & SEFERIAN-JENKINS/TE, dropped too many balls last season, but their future looks bright. Former FALCONS HC MIKE SMITH is also back as the DC and his creativity, combined with Rookies VERNON HARGREAVES/CB & NOAH SPENCE/ER to work with could have he D positioned to move forward a bit as well. This roster looks better than the one that came to Camp last year and this team looks to actually be on the rise. An 8-8 record would be the next logical step, and not out of the realm of possibility this season.
20) RAVENS A new era is underway for GM OZZIE NEWSOME and the RAVENS. They must finally rebuild this roster, and do so with younger, star quality players. Good back-ups are no longer the issue here. Names like RAY LEWIS, JONATHAN OGDEN, TODD HEAP, HALOTI NGATA and others are gone this decade and their replacements have not stepped up to adequately replace them. Injuries were a big deal last season with a league leading 20 players on the IR list by the end of the 2015 campaign. The two biggest names needed by HC JOHN HARBAUGH to be healthy again are QB/JOE FLACCO & DE/LB/TERRELL SUGGS. They are 31 & 33 respectively, and must come back strong to lead their units. WR/STEVE SMITH, at age 37 is also attempting a comeback, but how much can really be expected from him despite his elite competitive spirit? Rookies like OT/RONNIE STANLEY must step up right away and excel. A healthy roster in 2016 can improve on the team’s 5-11 record last season, but probably not to a Play-Off level. Expect VFA ERIC WEDDLE/S to help stabilize a horrible secondary situation. I also see Rookie TAVON YOUNG/CB stepping up to improve coverage on slot receivers right away. Mark them down for a mediocre season, when in fact a bad record might help them more long term, with a Top 10 Draft Pick. Having those high picks was how NEWSOME built his roster in the late 1990’s.
19) JAGUARS The time is now for HC GUS BRADLEY to motivate his JAGS past their 5-11 record of 2015. BLAKE BORTLES appears to be ready to emerge as a top notch, young franchise QB. He has excellent young receivers in ROBINSON & HURNS, and what should be a solid running game as supplied by T.J. YELDON & VFA/CHRIS IVORY. Their OL is a nice mix of young players and some solid VFA pick-ups. It is actually the Defense that needs to make the most progress for this team to move up in the victory column. The team was 24th in overall Defense in 2015, and BRADLEY as a former DC in Seattle has got to elevate the play by his D. The JAGS ranked 24th overall in team defense in 2015. They ranked 26th in INT with only 9 last season. They also ranked 20th with only 36 Sacks. These names need to step up right away and improve the impact play volume: DANTE FOWLER/DE, MALIK JACKSON/DL, /JALEN RAMSEY/DB, TASHAUN GIPSON/FS, R/MYLES JACK/LB. It clearly looks to my eyes like the talent is on board to have a winning team in place in JAX. BRADLEY has coached in the Senior Bowl for 3 straight years, and is an impressive, high energy presence. But if this team loses double digit games again and is invited back to Mobile, I doubt BRADLEY will be around to accept that invitation.
18) JETS TODD BOWLES, quietly led the JETS to a Play-Off spot to the surprise of many last season. But to stay up there as a legit contender again the team will need some big names to step it up a notch. Finally signing RYAN FITZPATRICK as Camp opened was a big deal. It caused me to jump this team up from 21 to 18. FITZ is not an elite QB, but he can do what OC CHAN GAILEY wants done, and has great chemistry with his wideouts MARSHALL & DECKER. The team was 10th in the league in rushing last season, due primarily to the exceptional work of CHRIS IVORY, who is no longer with the team. MATT FORTE was brought in as a VFA and is an exceptional all-around RB with lots of wear on the tire tread. Look for GAILEY to use a lot of dump-off throws to FROTE & BILAL POWELL in place of actual running plays. The JETS ranked 4th in the NFL in total defense. And they did that with a strong DL and very good secondary. They will have to sort out their LB group in 2016 to stay near the top on D. Expect BOWLES & DC KACY RODGERS to really push the learning curve with Rookie LB DARRON LEE & JORDAN JENKINS who possess NFL caliber athleticism.
17) REDSKINS KIRK COUSINS/QB emerged to be the leading force in a worst-to-first run for the ‘SKINS in their division. COUSINS is a smart young player, who clearly won over his teammates with his leadership last season. ‘You like that!” became the team mantra last season. He has excellent receivers to throw to and a solid running game to rely on. They may sorely miss the loss of VFA RB/ALFRED MORRIS, unless their final Draft Pick, KEITH MARSHALL, is fully healthy and can be the guy who was ranked above a teammate named GURLEY as a college freshman. It’s improvement from the Defense that is needed to prove they are a serious play-off threat again. The D ranked 28th overall and that has to improve. JOSH NORMAN/CB should be a big addition to their secondary, which should also be bolstered by Rookies SU’A CRAVENS/SS/LB & CB/KENDALL FULLER. With the question marks surrounding every team in the NFC East a repeat run for this team is not out of the question.
Most of he teams in this group could go in either direction this coming season.