The Hot Corner
NFL 2014: Seattle poised for repeat
Every week, Knight Times sports analyst JT Grugen ranks all 32 NFL teams based on several criteria in order to keep all football fans in the loop. All rankings are based on the past, present, and future rather than solely a week-to-week basis. Leave your comments below to keep the conversation going.
32. Oakland Raiders
Geography has been a thorn in the side of Oakland, which has turned a lackluster roster into a disaster waiting to unfold. Three teams from the AFC West made the playoffs this year and the Raiders will be matched up against the AFC East in intraconference play. Derek Carr’s three touchdowns against the Seahawks backups is a positive sign, but with an aging team filled with bust draft picks, it’s going to be difficult for Oakland to follow the words of Al Davis and “just win”.
31. Buffalo Bills
With only a preseason to make any judgements, thus far Buffalo’s decision to sell the future in order to draft Sammy Watkins has been a mistake. Watkins left or did not play in the final three preseason games with a rib injury. Considering ribs a long period of rest is usually required to heal this delicate injury, EJ Manuel could be without his new top target on opening day, poising a huge problem for Buffalo’s mediocre receiving corp.
30. Cleveland Browns
Not only did Johnny Manziel take his talents to Cleveland, but all the drama that surrounds “Johnny Football” has followed. Brian Hoyer, on paper and on the field this preseason, has been the better quarterback. Regardless of where the fault lies, if the Browns fail to win right away, the cries for Manziel will be pouring in from the Cleveland faithful. The defense is in great shape, but after losing Josh Gordon to a year-long suspension, there are way too many question marks on offense.
29. Houston Texans
First impressions for the first pick in 2014 NFL Draft were stellar: Jadeveon Clowney is already becoming a big factor in Houston’s defense. Still, the locker room has kept a negative demeanor with Andre Johnson looking for a way off the Texans roster. A deal at the trade deadline to bring in a new quarterback to work with Johnson could be what it takes, for now though, Houston needs to win with what they have to bring back a more optimistic outlook.
28. St. Louis Rams
“Ouch” is the only appropriate word for what the Rams must be feeling after Sam Bradford went down to an ACL tear for the second year in a row. Not many players return to full strength after suffering this injury once, much less twice. A prime example can be found in Robert Griffin III after his second ACL tear in 2012. Shaun Hill has been capable of starting in the NFL for years, but can he learn his new offense in time to make a positive impact?
27. Washington Redskins
Joe Theismann recently called for Kirk Cousins to get the nod over Robert Griffin III in week one, but after giving up three first round picks and more to draft RG3 back in 2012, Washington can’t be looking to take the reigns from Griffin III just yet. Griffin III and Alfred Morris are on track to recover from the sophomore slump, but an aging DeAngelo Hall is the only strong piece of the defensive puzzle in the nation’s capital that ranked last in yards against through the air in 2013.
26. Jacksonville Jaguars
Many people are that “preseason means nothing”, but there’s no denying the Jags have to be satisfied with their third overall pick in Blake Bortles, who has played at the level of a second tier NFL quarterback in his first four games as a professional. A completely new offensive unit will allow Bortles to learn the system at the same pace as him teammates, establishing excellent chemistry already. Jacksonville could be on their way back to their first winning season since 2007.
25. Tennessee Titans
Seeing Chris Johnson leave Nashville for the Big Apple must be bittersweet for Titans fans. A man that rushed for over 2,000 yards and carried the team to a 13-3 season in 2008 will no longer be suiting up in sky blue. Fans have to understand, however, this isn’t the “CJ2K” that brought the team glory. Johnson’s last two seasons have signaled a changing of the guard. Bishop Sankey has high expectations entering the NFL, his success could be the deciding factor on how the Titans fare in 2014.
24. Minnesota Vikings
Besides Brett Favre, name the last Hall of Fame level quarterback that played Minnesota. Not an easy task, right? Teddy Bridgewater is the brightest prospect to come through the twin cities in years, showing more potential than Christian Ponder, who could be on his way out and on a one way trip to bust status. If Bridgewater lives up to the hype and Adrian Peterson continues to be Adrian Peterson, this team could make a run at a wildcard berth.
23. New York Jets
All Geno Smith has to do is stay healthy and the Jets can return to their AFC Championship days. The defense may be without Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie, but the personalities that draw unwanted media attention to Rex Ryan’s team are mostly off the Jets the roster. Drafting three receivers plus Jace Amaro at tight end gives Smith a whole new arsenal to use in 2014.
22. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Jerseys aren’t the only new look for the Bucs in 2014, adding Mike Evans to compliment Vincent Jackson will give Mike Glennon every chance to contend in one of football’s best divisions. With guards Carl Nicks and Davin Joseph finally playing together for the first time in their Tampa Bay career’s, the Bucs offense looks to be it’s most promising since Josh Freeman was drafted. All of these positives need to be translated from paper to the field before anyone can consider this team a playoff threat.
21. Dallas Cowboys
This team could make the most drastic move in the power rankings at any point this season as Dallas is being held together with scotch tape. Sean Lee, now arguably Dallas’ best defensive player, is out for 2014. The rest of the defense in the Big D is starting to show it’s holes in the depth chart. Meanwhile, Tony Romo’s back has to be a lingering concern. One wrong hit could rest the Cowboys’ season on Brandon Weeden. After seeing how that experiment ended in Cleveland, Dallas fans better hope Romo stays healthy.
20. Miami Dolphins
Without the drama between Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin, this Dolphins team likely makes the playoffs in 2013. That ship has sailed though, and Miami has restocked it’s line in free agency, including the addition of Pro Bowl tackle Branden Albert. This will be the make or break year for 2012 first round selection Ryan Tannehill. His protection is back up to par and Dustin Keller is back in the offensive fold. If Tom Brady and the Patriots are truly on the decline, this is a golden opportunity for Miami to make a statement in the AFC East. Week one will be a great opportunity with the Patriots coming into town.
19. Carolina Panthers
How does a team that finished the previous season 12-4 with a first round bye in the playoffs fall all the way to 19? Well, Carolina is without their top three receivers from 2013 and Cam Newton’s bruised ribs are a huge concern. The Panthers have been dealt a bad opening hand but it’ll be up for this team to figure out how to cope with a less talented roster. Newton needs to stay healthy though in order for this team to find any success, or else it could be a very long year for Panther Nation.
18. Arizona Cardinals
Another team in which geography has been unkind to. A few years ago the NFC West could be won with a 7-9 record. Today that might be good enough for third place at best. Arizona’s offense still revolves around the aging Carson Palmer and Larry Fitzgerald, but Patrick Peterson’s contributions in all three aspects of the game are enough to spark a little more energy into this team. It’ll be tough to dethrone San Francisco or Seattle, but if Palmer turns into the player the Bengals originally projected him to be during his tenure in Cincinnati, the Cardinals would be a playoff darkhorse.
17. Detroit Lions
If Matthew Stafford’s mechanics have been fixed, the Lions offense may finally become elite. Eric Ebron and Golden Tate were added this offseason to relieve Calvin Johnson of double, sometimes even triple, defensive coverage. After ignoring the secondary needs again though, Detroit will need to put up nearly 30 points every game to make up for their horrendous pass defense. This team better look to add cornerback depth within the next few weeks or the chances of hanging with Aaron Rodgers or Jay Cutler will be slim to none.
16. Kansas City Chiefs
Another 9-0 start for the Chiefs this season will be highly unlikely considering their strength of schedule is one of the toughest entering the regular season, including a round of games against the NFC West teams, three of which finished 10-6 last season. The only noteworthy addition this team made was in the Draft with the selection of De’Anthony Thomas. While the speedster out of Oregon is a dynamic player that can be defined as an “offensive weapon”, his college style of play may not work well in the NFL. Kansas City needs a fresh look or they could return to their non-competitive state from 2012.
15. New York Giants
The Class of 2015 may remember Eli Manning leading the Giants to another Super Bowl victory in their freshman year over the Patriots, very similar to the Giants victory from five Super Bowl’s earlier. Eli Manning has since lost his good reputation among fans for sloppy play. That could be poised to turn around with Victor Cruz healthy and Odell Beckham Jr. in the fold. More importantly, the injury ridden Hakeem Nicks and Justin Tuck have departed the Big Apple, giving the Giants more flexibility to plug in players that are more reliable and consistent. As seen over the past few seasons, the NFC East is always up for grabs.
14. Pittsburgh Steelers
Over the past few seasons, Ben Roethlisberger has become well acquainted with the turf. Pittsburgh’s offensive line has been depleted thanks mostly to injuries, but Big Ben’s protection will be at it’s best since the Steelers won the Super Bowl in 2008. For years when the Steelers have appeared to finally started to rust away from the playoff picture, Mike Tomlin finds a way to get this team back on track. They’ll have a chance to show their age is still not a negative factor when Pittsburgh takes on the rival Browns in week one on their turf.
13. Atlanta Falcons
The ability to stay healthy is highly undervalued in the NFL today, especially with an alarming influx in torn ACLs. Atlanta learned this first hand in 2013 when after being one play away from the Super Bowl a year earlier, the dirty birds sank to the bottom of the NFC South. Julio Jones appears to be 100% again, but Matt Ryan may have a trouble finding his stud receiver without Sam Baker protecting his blind side.
12. Philadelphia Eagles
Nick Foles has emerged as the franchise quarterback in Philly and his job has been secured. While he doesn’t possess the strongest arm in the game, Foles fits his offense perfectly using short, quick passes and a hurry up tactic, introduced by third year coach Chip Kelly. While this offense has now found success in college and the NFL, a rare occurrence, Kelly’s emphasis on scoring points has taken away from the defensive focus, an issue the Oregon Ducks also experienced during Kelly’s time in the Pacific northwest. Defense wins championships and the Super Bowl is out of reach until the Eagles become less one-dimensional.
11. San Diego Chargers
“Career resurgence” was a term redefined after Philip Rivers took San Diego back to the playoffs in their first year under Mike McCoy. Even though the Chargers’ rout of the Bengals in the wildcard round topped off a successful and surprising season, defense ended up costing this team a deeper run into the playoff. Barring Keenan Allen puts out a similar return to his rookie season, San Diego is poised move from off the playoff bubble to an annual contender. The bolts play a very similar team on Monday Night in week one: Arizona. This should be a great test to see if 2013 was just a fluke for either team.
10. Cincinnati Bengals
Offensive coordinators have recently been hired to match their new team’s quarterback and fine tune the errors within that quarterback’s mechanics and decision-making ability. The Lions brought in Joe Lombardi for Matt Stafford, the Ravens brought in Gary Kubiak for Joe Flacco, and the Bengals now have Hue Jackson to aid in Andy Dalton’s development. After Dalton’s huge contract extension over the offseason, number 14 can’t afford to still be in the development stages. Without a playoff win in 2014, this season would be a huge disappointment for the orange and black. Jackson’s time in Oakland saw some of the then Raiders quarterback Carson Palmer at his worst, making the new coordinator’s impact suspect for the moment. It’ll be up to Dalton himself to turn the corner into an elite passer.
9. Indianapolis Colts
Not enough time has passed to call Andrew Luck the second coming of Peyton Manning for the Indianapolis Colts and there is still one huge difference that separates these two. Luck’s seven interceptions during two playoff games in 2013 against Kansas City and New England is a huge red flag. The defense supporting Luck is still below average and can’t afford to play with a negative turnover differential. If Luck can polish his game and decision making skills, there is no limit for what the Colts can do outside of their horrid secondary.
8. Baltimore Ravens
Even though Baltimore missed out on the wildcard mayhem at the end of last season, this organization has to be pleased with five consecutive playoff appearances in the first five years of the Joe Flacco era, including a Lombardi Trophy. However, what if this team was better than in 2012 when they won the Super Bowl? That possibility is realistic with Steve Smith added to the offense and Dennis Pitta returning from injury. The secondary is a little shaky, still recovering from losing Ed Reed in 2012, but the rest of the defense is the perfect storm of youth and veterans. Flacco will benefit greatly from Gary Kubiak who turned Matt Schaub into a star down in Houston. The Ravens are a sleeper to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl this year.
7. Green Bay Packers
Without Aaron Rodgers on the field, the Packers are nowhere near a playoff caliber team. Despite his shoulder injury last season though, this team managed to salvage a division title from the banged up Bears with an assist from the second half collapse in Detroit. Losing a top target for Rodgers has now become an annual tradition as the team has lost Donald Driver, Greg Jennings, and James Jones over the past three years. Green Bay’s depth at receiver is starting to thin out and eventually, Rodgers will need a new cast of characters to keep up with Cutler and Stafford within his division. Green Bay still enters 2014 as the favorites to win the NFC North, but that could change any week.
6. San Francisco 49ers
Thought the NFC East was packed with drama? Imagine being the shoes of the San Francisco 49ers, a team that has either punched their ticket or fallen short of the Super Bowl on the final play of the NFC Championship Game for the past three years. Is this a trend that the Niners can’t win in big games or simply bad luck? A combination of both is likely, but as long as Colin Kaepernick plays at the level of his new salary, this team will be back in the hunt for the Lombardi Trophy again. Despite Aldon Smith’s suspension, this defense remains in elite company.
5. Chicago Bears
For the Bears, 2014 will be in all-in bet to finally bring a Super Bowl victory to the city of Chicago for the first time since 1985. After picking up 10 defensive players via free agency and the Draft that could potentially start, including former All Pro Jared Allen, the holes from 2013 have been plugged up with extra support as back up. Unless Jay Cutler or Matt Forte suffer another untimely injury, it’s hard to imagine the Bears not giving Aaron Rodgers and company a run for the division crown. Chicago will have a great opportunity to impress fans against Buffalo at home in week one.
4. New England Patriots
For all of the uncertainty that has been discussed regarding the Patriots’ future, it appears many fans have lost faith in Tom Brady. Since when has Brady shown any sign of regression? Even without their future Hall of Fame quarterback, New England has a promising prospect in Jimmy Garoppolo off the bench. Then there’s the defense, now featuring Brandon Browner and “Revis Island”. Add in the fact that Vince Wilfork returns from an ACL tear and this team is looking as dangerous as the 2007 Patriots that went 16-0 during the regular season. Yes, there is a youth movement taking place in the AFC East, but the Patriots haven’t left the spotlight yet.
3. New Orleans Saints
There’s not much left to be said about Drew Brees: he’s shattered records and won the Super Bowl, the tip of the iceberg in what has been an outstanding career. While the Saints are set for the foreseeable future on offense, the defense still needs some fine tuning. The secondary and linebacking corp hasn’t fully rebounded from the Bounty scandal, however, major improvements were made in the offseason when the Saints picked up safety Jairus Byrd and cornerback Champ Bailey. Sure, these two players have a better reputation based on name alone, but these veterans still have value to provide to a team that is a shutdown defense away from being unstoppable. Even if Drew Brees had a down season by his standards, the Saints have the potential to become regular season champs of the NFC.
2. Denver Broncos
After a devastating and embarrassing 43-8 Super Bowl blowout, followed by losing nine starters from a Super Bowl roster due to free agency, how could the Broncos still be thought of so highly? Well, Peyton Manning is still a special player. While Eric Decker has departed for New York, Emmanuel Sanders looks to optimize his potential by working with Manning, a quarterback that turns receivers into stars. At the same time, Denver was aggressive during free agency, signing one of the best defensive ends (DeMarcus Ware), safeties (T.J. Ward), and cornerbacks (Aqib Talib) on the market. It’s scary to think this team could be even better than the 2013 installment of the Broncos, but this reality could come true with a relatively weak schedule.
1. Seattle Seahawks
Until the defending Super Bowl Champions lose a game, there’s no way Seattle will be dethroned of the top spot. Despite losing Golden Tate, Russell Wilson’s top receiver, to free agency, the offseason was a success for the Seahawks, who locked up Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, and Kam Chancellor with substantial contract extensions. The Legion of Boom has been united for the next several years. If this team can topple Aaron Rodgers and the visiting Packers on opening night, there won’t be many challenges that will prove difficult for Pete Carroll’s team.