Now that training camps are open and we start games tonight, I’m really beginning to get a buzz about the new season. One of my targets for this season is to watch a regular season game of every NFL team, and as I was thinking about this I started to put together a list of players and things I am interested in. To this end, I present my sixty-six things to watch in the NFL this season.
The Cardinals has the best record of a team not to make the playoffs last season, and I remember the talk of their good defence and whether you could trust Carson Palmer at QB. However, the two players I’m interested in seeing this season is Larry Fitzgerald and Patrick Peterson. I am aware of the quality of Fitzgerald, but have never really watched him in depth so I want to see what separates him from other receivers. Peterson is many peoples’ second best corner behind Richard Sherman, a three time Pro Bowler in his first three seasons, I want to see how he plays as I don’t even know if he is a man or zone corner.
The Falcons crashed from their first playoff win to a 4-12 record last season. The draft buzz was that they were going to move up to take a pass rusher, but they stayed put and picked up a much needed tackle. I think this was a good decision, as part of the reason that the Falcons had such problems last year is the thinness of their roster that was caused by them trading picks to move up and target specific players. It will be interesting to see how their first round tackle Jake Mathews plays and if he helps their line as they try to bounce back from last year. I’m also interested to see how effectively they can rush the passer and what happens on the defensive side of the ball.
So now I’m writing about the enemy. The Ravens took a step back after their Super Bowl win of the previous year. This is perhaps not surprising given the player turn over during the off season, but they will be hoping for better things this year. I shall be interested to see if they can finally develop a stable offensive line that cab help improve their offense, and what makes Torrey Smith such a favourite target of Flacco. With their Pro Bowler Terell Suggs calling for Flacco to be more vocal in his leadership, I shall be taking a close look at his own play.
The Bills had another disappointing season in 2013 and went for broke in the draft by trading up for Sammy Watkins. I shall be interested to see how quickly he can have an impact given that it often takes time for a receiver to develop in the NFL. On the defensive side of the ball, I shall be taking a look at Mario Williams and just how effective his is as a pass rusher.
Having won their division last year, you would think that the outlook for this season would be positive. However, having lost their left tackle to retirement on an already suspect line, and with an underpowered receiving core before the loss of Steve Smith, it looks like Cam Newton might be in for a touch season so that will be my first thing to watch. On the other side of the ball, Luke Kuechly in two seasons has already established himself as an All-Pro tackling machine that should definitely be watched.
Last year, under a new coach, there was a different style of Bears team. Usually a limited offense ably supported by brilliant defense, we had a role reversal last year. However, with the backup QB moving on after an excellent season, all eyes will be on whether Jay Cutler can thrive for an entire season and continue the turn around on offense. On defense, the Bears have let Julius Peppers go and I will be fascinated to see how they rebuild the defensive line and get pressure on the quarterback.
I could write an entire post on the Bengals season, but I shall limit myself to three players on the playoff win or bust Bengals. I shall start with AJ Green, a top ten talent according to the players of the NFL, who is pushing himself to do better in the playoffs. On defence, one of my favourite sights in the NFL just happens to play for the Bengals, Geno Atkin gets so much pressure as a tackle and everyone should take a look. Also, wherever the ball goes, you’ll find Vontaze Burfict there or not far behind, always fun to watch.
The Browns were one of the better 4-12 teams that you could see last year, and took a game off the Bengals. Sadly, as is often the case with the Browns, I’m not sure that this year looks to build on last year’s foundations. There have been changes in coaches, management, and their star receiver is done for the year with a suspension (appeal pending). Add to that, they have drafted the infamous Johnny Manziel, whose off season is already problematic, and he is sat behind Brian Hoyer, there seems to be a lot to worry about. The defense was solid, but where their season will go depends on what happens with their two QBs. One thing that will help them is their seven time Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas, who is definitely worth a look.
The self-styled America’s team, full of flash and bombast in the way they’re run, look to be in for an interesting season. They have already lost their best defensive player to injury having lost their leading pass rusher in free agency. I see plenty of scoring for them next year on both sides of the ball. On offense I shall be looking at Dez Bryant to see what make him so good. On defense, Barry Church led the team in tackles, splitting some time at Linebacker in the nickel defense, so it will be interesting to see how he is used this year and if those numbers were inflated by team needs last system.
Sometimes it is important not to over think things and so the first thing I shall be looking at with last year’s Super Bowl loser is Peyton Manning for the simple fact that when he has his team running, it is a joy to watch. I’m also interested to see how Von Miller will play this season and to take a proper look at his skills.
The Lions missed out on the playoffs again last season and seemed to lack discipline as they failed to make the most of a down year from the Packers. On offense they have one of the great receivers in Calvin Johnson, so I want to look how he deals with coverage always shading to him. On defense, the Lions are built around their line so I want to take a look at them with Ndamukong Suh playing for a contract, Nick Fairley and Ezekiel Ansah, their line will probably define their season in how it plays.
Green Bay Packers
The Packers demonstrated just how good Aaron Rodgers is with their struggles whilst he was recovering from a broken collar bone, but sill managed to win their division. He is another of those QBs that is worth watching whenever you get the chance, and with the talk of them wanting to run seventy-five plays a game, sounds like a win to me. On defence, Clay Mathews and AJ Hawk are the two linebackers that make their 3-4 defense work and I shall be trying to work out what makes them tick.
I took no pleasure in the Texans 2-14 season last year, despite them being the architects of the two previous Bengals playoff losses. They had all sorts of problems at the quarterback spot, which doesn’t seem to have a long term answer, but at least Andre Johnson has come back to camp and is always worth watching. On defense, JJ Watt is one of the most electrifying players in the game, and in what I think was the right draft pick, is joined by Jadeveon Clowney, who I will be fascinated to see after all the hype about his college career.
I haven’t seen that much of the Colts in the last couple of seasons, so what I know of them is mostly by reputation. My remedial work on this is that with all the noise, I have to take a look at their star QB Andrew Luck, and his leading receiver TY Hilton. Of course, I’ll be interested to see what else jumps out at me, which is part of the fun of trying to watch each team and I’m sure I’ll spot something on defence.
Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs bounced back under a rejuvenated Andy Reid to an 11-5 record and were one of two wild cards from the AFC West. Alex Smith came into his own later in the year when he had to, but the Chiefs are one of the few teams that still rely on a work horse back. Jamaal Charles excelled in the running game and had over six hundred yards in recieving. On defence, they had two double digit pass rushers (Tamba Hali and Justin Houston, although it was the huge nose tackle Dontari Poe who impressed me) so I’ll be interested to look at their front seven again and how they get pressure on the quarterback.
We’re now getting in a run of two teams that are part of my pre-season focus. I’ve already written about the troubles that have befallen the Dolphins line and it will be interesting to see if they can hold up enough for the Dolphins to get a read on whether Ryan Tannehill is their QB for the long term. The Dolphins leading pass rusher was Olivier Vernon, and I shall be interested to take a look at him and how their line plays.
I really want Mike Zimmer to do well, and I’m pretty confident as he is a good coach and already there is talk of Adrian Peterson being excited by the scheme of new OC Norv Turner. Peterson was already an amazing player in a conservative offense so I’m excited to see how he will be utilised this season. On defense, through departure and retirement the famously strong line including the two Williams and Jared Allen has gone, so I will be fascinated to see how they rebuild this group, particularly given the strength and depth of defensive line that Zimmer help build in Cincinnati.
New England Patriots
When a team has the most successful coach and quarterback combination every, you watch the quarterback. Even with talk of his skills fading and a receiving core that was incredibly young as the roster fell apart round him, Brady managed to lead the team to a 12-4 record and another division title, watch him whilst you can. One of the most interesting off season signings to me was the Patriots losing Aqib Talib and immediately going out and signing Darrelle Revis. There is no way that Bill Belichick is going to make the mistake that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers did in playing Revis in a zone system, I for one am looking forward to the return of Revis Island to the NFL.
New Orleans Saints
The Saints went 11-5 last season, proving that coaching matters when they got Sean Payton back from his suspension. I was impressed with the turn around on defensive under Rob Ryan, who I have never been truly convinced by before. However, for me this is a team that you watch for Drew Brees running Payton’s offense and so that’s where my focus will be. In particular, I shall be watching Marques Colston after Brady Quinn in the middle of a great interview on the Ros Tucker podcast (episode here), said that he ran routes like a quarterback would.
New York Giants
The Giants had a bad season last year and were still 7-9, but Eli Manning had a horrible year. He’s had his ankles scoped and is running a new offense this year, and I shall be fascinated to see if he can turn it around last season as the knives are already being sharpened for him, despite the two Super Bowl rings. The defense was not great last year, but one player who stands out to me is Antrel Rolle who led the team in tackles from the safety spot, had two sacks and six interceptions. I don’t know if this is from circumstance, but as three time Pro Bowler, including last season, I shall be interested to how he plays this season.
New York Jets
Some teams always seem to be in the news, and with Rex Ryan as their coach the Jets are never far away from the headlines. I’m not sure if all the extra attention is beneficial or not, and the Jets haven’t had a good offense in years, but say what you want about Ryan, he know defense. I am half convinced that given eleven people off the street, Ryan could turn them into a unit that could keep you in the game so sit back and enjoy him at work. On offense, the big question is whether there young quarterback Geno Smith can establish himself as a quality starter in the NFL, and I wonder how long a leash he will have with Michael Vick sitting behind him.
It is hard to see a once proud franchise languish in mediocrity for so long, and last season was another one to forget. But after years of mismanagement, part of last year’s 4-12 was getting a lot of bad contracts of the books and so things might begin to turn round if the rebuild project starts bearing fruit. They hope that part of this is their first round draft pick Khalil Mack, talked about as possibly the best player in the draft, let’s hope that he can be a piece they can build around on defense. Among many issues last season was that of quarterback, and whilst the signing of Matt Schaub, coming of a disasterous season, will not send hopes soaring, he might provide veteran leadership and stability at the position with Dereck Carr waiting in the wings to see if he can move past the fall out of his brother’s troubled career.
The big question last season for the Eagles was whether Chip Kelly’s college offence was going to work in the NFL, and with a division title and excellent play the answer was a resounding yes. I was impressed last season, and even more so after hearing him interviewed recently so I am all in on Chip Kelly (listen here for the interview). There have been some interesting moves on offence this off season, but I’m looking forward to seeing how it runs. The question for the Eagles on defense last year was how it would hold up as they switched to a 3-4 defense from a 4-3, and if they had the players to make it work. Their play definitely improved over the year and I shall be interested to see how this progresses and how their two inside linebackers play.
One of the down sides of living in the UK as an NFL fan is that you don’t have the office chats about your sport. The upside of this is that I don’t have to deal with Steeler fans and their six championships. Thanks to not having to live the local rivalry, I can respect coach Tomlin and what he has done with the team. I’m not sure they have dealt with the salary cap well over the last few years, which has led to an ageing team that only went 8-8 last year. On a team that has often had a patchy offensive line, Maurkice Pouncey went to three Pro Bowls in his first three years. Sadly, last year he tore his ACL and MCL in week one, but I should get plenty of chances to see how he does this year. The problem on defense last year seemed to be age catching up with key players, but Dick LeBeau is an NFL institution and one for my favourite coaches. I shall be interested to see how he integrates the speedy new inside linebacker Ryan Shazier, and if he will be the next in the production line of great Steelers linebackers.
You have no idea how painful it was to write that…
Saint Louis Rams
The Rams play in one of the toughest divisions in the NFL, and still went 7-9 last season. But if they want to do something against the Seahawks, 49ers, and Cardinals (I told you it was a tough division) then they need stellar quarterback play out of Sam Bradford. This could be a crucial year for him in deciding his future, he has benefitted like few others from the huge contracts form the old CBA, and it will be interesting to see if he can finally establish himself or if the Rams will need to look elsewhere for the future. On defense the Rams already had an impressive front seven, even before they drafted Aaron Donald. I shall look forward to getting a proper look at them and in particular Robert Quinn, who had nineteen sacks last season.
San Diego Chargers
The other team to get a wildcard from the AFC West, the Chargers were renewed under new coach Mike McCoy. On offense Phillip Rivers had a comeback season and with a long ball like his, it’s always fun to watch him play when things are going well. This is not a team that I know particularly well, but that is the point of this list, and having seen that Eric Weddle led the team in tackles and went to the Pro Bowl last season, I look forward to seeing what he can do.
San Francisco 49ers
They are part of one of the best rivalries in the NFL with the Seahawks and have gone to the divisional championship game or the Super Bowl in the last three seasons. They have built their offense round the offensive line and are generally thought to have one of the best in the game, so I am looking forward to taking a closer look at them, particularly with access to coaching tape to see them from the end zone view. They also have one of my favourite players on defense in Justin Smith, always worth a watch.
Last years Super Bowl champs will be strong contenders again, built as they are on the depth of their roster and a brilliant defense. They have given new contracts to Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas, consolidating the infamous Legion of Boom. They pretty much play a three deep zone all the time, but are so good that it doesn’t matter that the offense know what is coming as they can’t exploit. Sherman is a great corner, but it is the range of Thomas that allows them to do this and the all twenty-two tape should be fascinating. On offense, Russel Wilson has paved the way for the shorter quarterback, and he’s a lot more than the game manager that some people paint him as so take a look for yourself.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
I have a feeling that Tampa Bay will be a lot better this year than their 4-12 record last year. Lovie Smith will be a big upgrade as coach and in Josh McCown, they will have some stability at quarterback whilst they search for a long term solution. He played excellently last season, despite a career as a backup, and I think he will do well this season. The Bucs had one Pro Bowler last year in linebacker Lavonte David, so I’ll be interested to see how he plays, and hopefully things will turn round for the franchise.
The Titans went 7-9 last year, but had instability at quarterback and an offense that never quite took off, whilst a solid defence kept them in games. The honest thing is that I really don’t have a handle on this team and they have a new coach this season. The first thing I want to look for, is what they look like as a team and what jumps out at me. I’m not afraid to say I don’t know about things! On defense I am interested in Jurell Casey as he is a young player who led his team in sacks last season, and I want to see if it was him or the team that got these sacks.
Washington have a new head coach in Jay Gruden, who will be looking to turn round the franchise after their 3-13 season. I felt that he often put too much emphasis on Dalton to win with his arm for the Bengals, but with RG3 he has a quarterback that I think has the arm to run his offense. I’ll be interested to see how this partnership works this season. Brian Orakpo is playing out this season on a franchise tag, and it will be interesting to see what he does with a big contract on the horizon.
And that’s it, by no means and exhaustive list, but I feel like a good one to start with so roll on the new season.