Nick’s 2016 NFL Preview

I know it’s been a few years since I posted an NFL preview, but I really wanted to write something about sports and wrote about 3,000 words over the last two days to satisfy that urge. Below you can find the records I predict for each team in football, as well as who I think will make the postseason. 

The AFC East

New England (D) 12-4
New York Jets (w) 9-7
Miami 7-9
Buffalo 6-10

Even with the Brady suspension, I don’t think any of the teams in the division are strong enough to take advantage of the opportunity at hand. The Patriots always readjust, and if they can come out of the first four games with more than one win, it shouldn’t be a problem getting more than 10 wins.

The Jets are the team with the best chance of catching the Patriots. They had 10 wins last year and have most of the same level of talent returning to the field.  Plus, with another year with the current coaching staff, you could see a scenario where they all progress naturally as they become more familiar with the system.  They did let a handful of defensive staples walk this offseason– Antonio Cromartie, Demario Davis, Damon Harrison–but in doing so got faster and younger on defense by drafting Darron Lee in the first round and Jordan Jenkins in the third.

However, whether or not you believe in the Jets’ chances in 2016 hinges highly on whether or not you trust Ryan Fitzpatrick can perform at the same level as they did last season. If so, they should win nine games with an outside chance of the playoffs. If not, they’ll struggle to win six.

For the first time in a while, the Dolphins had what should be an extremely productive draft, fill their exact needs without really reaching for anything. However, the lead up to the draft wasn’t as perfect. They couldn’t afford re-signing Olivier Vernon, so paid a premium Mario Williams, a big name that hasn’t been nearly as productive as his reputation in recent years. They also acquired Kiko Alonso and Byron Maxwell in a trade with the Eagles, productive players in the past with inflated contracts that don’t match their recent play. The coaching staff is improved, but I need to see improvements before I believe in this team as a contender.

After underperforming defensively in 2016, the Bills are in a tough spot this year. They didn’t lose too much in free agency, but everything since has gone down hill, whether it was suspensions to their top players or injuries to their draft picks.  It’s not a bad team, but the defense will have to take a big step up naturally and the offense will have to stay as surprisingly productive as last year for them to have a chance at the playoffs.

The AFC North

Cincinnati (D) 11-5
Pittsburgh 9-7
Baltimore 8-8
Cleveland 6-10

Last year should have been the Bangles’ time to shine, but Andy Dalton’s injury at the end of the your spoiled their chances. Then, they lost two of their starting receivers and some of their defenders, making it difficult to envision them being as good as before. Still, they’re the team I feel the most confident in to take the AFC North.

Le’veon Bell is missing three games to start the year and is coming off a season-ending injury, while Martavis Bryant’s absence this season will limit Pittsburg’s offense all year. Big Ben is still a great quarterback, but misses time each season with injury, and I can see this team going south if he isn’t there to carry the team.

After being perennial playoff contenders, The Raven’s had a year from hell in 2015. Bringing Joe Flacco back should get them closer to .500, and they still have one of the best front offices and coaches in the NFL. I don’t think they make it all the way back to the postseason, but they could get close.

The Browns will not make the playoffs. The future is a bit brighter this year though.

The AFC South

Houston (D) 9-7
Jacksonville 8-8
Indianapolis 7-9
Tennessee 5-11

The AFC South is probably the most unpredictable division in the league.

With Andrew Luck coming back from injury, chances are the Colts probably have the best pedigree to make the playoffs. They also have the worst defense in football and the worst offensive line in the division, and Andrew Luck wasn’t particularly impressive even when he was healthy in 2015.

The Texans won the division last season with a rotating cast of quarterbacks and running backs.  Their QB situation will be more stable in 2016, but probably not too much better. Their defense was the fourth best in football (based on DVOA) last season, and is the best unit (offense or defense) in the division. Against young, interception prone QBs, they should be able to make an impact.

The Jaguars improved to a five win team last season, but the most important thing is that the Allen Robinson Blake Bortles connection seems real.  By adding Malik Jackson, Tashaun Gipson, Jalen Ramsey and Myles Jack to the defense, and Kelvin Beachum to the offensive line, the Jags can look like an actual NFL team for the first time since the David Garrard days.

The Titans are still a year or two away from being competitive, but Marcus Mariota will have more opportunities to grow behind an improved line, and a much more powerful run game.

The AFC West

Kansas City (D) 11-5
Oakland (w) 10-6
Denver 8-8
San Diego 6-10

Andy Reid and Alex Smith have won 11, nine and 11 games the last three seasons. The Chiefs have consistently had very solid defensive units, a great running game, and an extremely efficient and risk-free passing game. With Manning finally out of the picture, this is KC’s year to win the AFC West.

Oakland hasn’t won more than eight games since 2002, but the Raiders are the hip, up and coming team people are expecting to finally break through and make the playoffs. They looked much improved last year, have a young core on offense, a strong offensive line, and spent wisely in the offseason to fill their needs.  Sean Smith, Reggie Nelson and first round pick Karl Joseph will help improve their pass defense, while Bruce Irvin gives them stability at linebacker. Kelechi Osemele and Donald Penn make this one of the two or three best lines in football, and if DeAndre Washington can show his skills early in the season, he should take over the run game. Oakland still only had seven wins last season, but they did everything right in the offseason, and I, too, think this is the year they make it to the post season.

The defending champions had a historically dominating defense in 2016 that helped them overcome the offense’s shortcomings. They’ll still be a great defensive unit, but they will regress a little, and considering they’re starting the year with a seventh round QB running the show, they could get in trouble against high-scoring teams. Theoretically, the offense might not be that much worse with Siemian than they were with Manning and Osweiler last year, especially if Gary Kubiak can run his signature offense now that Manning is gone. However, even if that happens, this team will not be as good as last year. They won’t fall apart, but a .500 record is more likely than another nine or 10 win season.  In a tough division, that might not be good enough to make the playoffs this year.

The Chargers will not make the playoffs this season. This is first time during the Philip Rivers era I’m convinced in the preseason they don’t have a chance. That’s not to say this is a bad team, per say, but their upside is pretty limited, and that starts with the head coach. If they get to another slow start, Mike McCoy could be fired mid season. Casey Hayward was a great signing for the secondary, but might not be good enough to cancel out the loss of Eric Weddle. Travis Benjamin is a fast receiver that could thrive away from Cleveland, but more likely will primarily be a return man. The offense could be very good, and the defense won’t be one of the worst in football, but anything more than six wins would be a big accomplishment this year.

NFC East

Washington (D) 10-6
Dallas 7-9
New York Giants 6-10
Philadelphia 5-11

This one is a no brainer to me. Washington and Kurt Cousins took a big step forward last season, and only got betting in the offseason. Meanwhile, the Eagles and Cowboys got worse, and the Giants are still a few tweaks away from being legit contenders. I don’t know if I expect Washington to be a consistent team all year, but I do think they (somehow) have the most stable coaching staff in place, and the least amount of holes on both offense and defense. It only takes nine wins to take this division.

The Giants are probably the next best team, and that’s only because I trust the Eli Manning/Odell Beckham Jr. connection more than anything Tony Romo/Dak Prescott and Carson Wentz will be able to accomplish. Their offense is also, finally getting Victor Cruz back (which could mean absolutely nothing to be honest) and they added rookie Sterling Shepard to help draw the defense away from Beckham. They also threw a boatload of cash at above average defenders. They overpaid for every one of Damon Harrison, Olivier Vernon, and Janoris Jenkins, but they are clearly improvements from what’s been there the last few years. So, a team that made improvements, but nothing groundbreaking.

Romo is hurt again, and the Cowboys will be starting rookie QB Dak Prescott for at least five games this year. Even with Zeke Elliot in the backfield and an always-stellar offensive line, it’ll take a lot to get this offense into the top 10 this year. Plus, a look up and down the defensive depth chart will have you asking yourself, “who the hell is that?” multiple times. (Anthony Hitchens? Andrew Gachkar? Terrell McClain?). A bottom eight defense with a rookie QB usually isn’t a recipe for success. If Romo returns and is fully healthy, they could make a run in the second half, but eight wins thanks to a bad division is the absolute best-case scenario here, while three wins is just as likely.

If it told you the Eagles won seven games under Chip Kelly in 2015 you probably wouldn’t believe me. The 2015 team didn’t seem good at all, and the drama around everything Kelly tried to do forced management to clean house. They traded away players, acquired draft picks, traded draft picks for better draft picks, and cut players that cost too much. They’re starting a rookie QB that hasn’t played much in the preseason, and who played in a week league in college. With a thin roster, filled with personnel that might night be suited for the new scheme that was brought in, the Eagles would likely be picking close to the top of the draft again this year, if they hadn’t traded the pick already.

NFC North

Green Bay (D) 11-5
Minnesota (w) 8-8
Chicago 7-9
Detroit 5-11

Everyone underestimated the impact Jordy Nelson’s injury would have on the Packers last season, including the Packers, who couldn’t adjust their offense. Aaron Rodgers uncharacteristically struggled to find consistency game to game (and sometimes, quarter to quarter), Randall Cobb went from an assumed top-10 receiving talent in the game to a below average option, and young receivers were shown up by the aging James Jones. Nelson is healthy once again, so fans can take a sigh of relief, but I won’t be sure he’ll be efficient until I see him in action for a few games. It would take a lot for an  Aaron Rodgers-led team not to make the playoffs, especially in this division, but even with a good record they might not be one of the elite teams in the league this year.

Yes, I was a big believer in the Vikings last season. Yes, I expected them to continue to get better in 2016. And yes, I was devastated when Teddy Bridgewater went down with an injury (and even more devastated when I saw they gave up a first round pick for Sam Badford). However, as efficient as Teddy was at the helm, his still hasn’t been able to unlock this offense’s full potential. I don’t think Bradford will make the offense better, but if they lean on Adrian Peterson and their defense to keep games close, he won’t have to do much to win. Yes, the injury was a blow to the team’s upside, but considering how unimpressive the Packers were last year, how bad the bottom half od the division seems to be, how much depth the Vikings have at every position besides quarterback, and how great Coach Zimmer has been the last two seasons, I think they’ve got as good a chance as anyone to grab a wildcard.

I think the Bears were lucky to grab six wins last season considering they were dealt a number of injuries and had a new coaching staff in place. If they can get a full year out of Jeffery and White at receiver, Jay Cuttler could have another solid year, even while coping with the loss of offensive guru Adam Gase. Chicago also went from having one of the worst linebacking groups in the league to one of the deepest, and added some talent on their o-line as well. It’s an improving team for sure, but not yet a threat in the division, and they have been inconsistent in recent years, so they might take a step back instead of forward in 2016.

Without Calvin Johnson, the Lions have no real draw. They have one of the worst head coaches in football, a cookie cutter defense without any exciting playmakers, and an assortment of second-tier runningbacks that all bring the same skills to the table.  Luckily for them, Matt Stafford finished the second half of 2015 playing the best he ever had; if the Lions have any hope of making a run at all, it’ll require Stafford to finally live up to his draft day status and carry the team on his back. Not bloody likely.

NFC South

Carolina (D) 11-5
Tampa Bay 8-8
New Orleans 7-9
Atlanta 6-10

The Panthers will not be 15-1 again in the regular season this year, but if Cam Newton is anything close to as explosive as he was, they’ll win the division for a fourth year in a row. The opening day loss to Denver will look like a fluke when come to season’s end (each first week has a game or two that doesn’t make sense in context with the rest of the season), but did show that Kelvin Benjamin will be a big playmaker this season if he can stay on the field. The defense, despite losing Josh Normans, still has Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis, Kawann Short, Charles Johnson and Star Lotulelei. A team with that much talent and a franchise QB shouldn’t have trouble making the playoffs.

The rest of the division is extremely close in my mind. Drew Brees makes the Saints offense dangerous as they always are, but the team could have the worst defense in football. Matt Ryan has been floundering the last few seasons and the Falcons haven’t been able to do much to escape the six to seven win margin.

Tampa Bay is the only team with a chance to make that next step. Winston should improve more in year two and build a stronger connection with Mike Evans. Doug Martin re-emerged as a feature back, behind an improved offensive line. They also added a handful of solid free agents to the defense, nothing game changing but improvements nonetheless.  They’re the only of the three teams to have talented players on both sides of the ball. I may not totally buy them as a playoff team like some do, but I do thing Winston is a franchise quarterback and could improve enough to get them there soon.

NFC West

Seattle (D) 12-4
Arizona (w) 11-5
San Francisco 6-10
Los Angeles 4-12

The NFC West is made up of two great teams and two not so great ones.

Through the regular season, Arizona played like the best team in football. Talent wise, they didn’t lose anything that makes you think they’ll be any worse, but I do feel like 2015 was a best-case scenario for them. Carson Palmer had a career year at age 35 and was healthy all seasons. Larry Fitzgerald had his most productive season since 2011. David Johnson became the most electric back in football by the playoffs. Plus, they were pretty lucky on the injury front.  All of that can regress to the norms, which should still be a very good team, but not one that only loses three games.

Because of the slight risk involved in picking the Cardinals, I’m going with the Seahawks to take back the West. The did take some hits on the offensive line again this season, but Russell Wilson was so dominant rushing and passing in the second half of the season, I don’t see much stopping this offense. Doug Baldwin finally proved all the haters that he is in fact a force to be recon with, and Tyler Lockett can be more dynamic in year two. If the team can learn how to incorporate Jimmy Graham effectively, they’re offense could be more dangerous than their D (which, as always, should be tops in the league).

While the first two teams duke it out for playoff spots, San Francisco and L.A. will hope they can show their fans a product worth cheering for. I think Chip Kelly will actually be able to get the best out of his dreadful team. With the Eagles, he never lost more than seven games, and I think this team can get to seven if they’re luck. The Rams on the other hand are my pick for the worst record in the NFL. Tough division, a rookie QB that probably won’t play over a terrible QB, and still not offensive playmakers outside of runningback. The defense’s front seven will make the squad formidable, but even if you hold your opponents to 14 points, you have to score more than a field goal to win.


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