Now that the NFL Draft and NFL Free Agency has concluded (along with all the hype around it), we can start projections for next season, since teams already have a blueprint of what their depth chart will look like. Here, I will give my (extremely early) predictions for playoff teams, MVP, DPOY, ROY, and Super Bowl.
AFC North: Baltimore Ravens
The AFC North is always changing, and this year may the first it has suffered a drop off. The Browns’ biggest addition this offseason is debatably Josh McCown, which sums up their anti-climactic offseason. Money Manziel could shock the world and play this year, but him playing well is different.
The Steelers didn’t make any big strides in either direction, and the Bengals are still the lose-in-the-first-round-of-the-playoffs Bengals.
The Ravens, despite losing Torrey Smith and cutting Jacoby Jones, took the fewest steps backwards this offseason. They drafted Breshad Perriman to join Steve Smith on the wings, and signed safety Kendrick Lewis to shore up the backfield.
Overall, the Ravens have been solid for a long time, and proved that with a Super Bowl just a few years ago. They are a safe pick in a division that could go 4 different ways.
AFC East: New England Patriots
Despite losing Tom Brady for possibly up to four games in the upcoming season, the Patriots still remain the top team in a much improved AFC East. The Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins both saw improvements, and the Jets may not be that horrible this season.
This will be a fun division, with possibly all four teams competing for playoff spots, but it is hard to bet against the defending champ Pats, even if Jimmy Garoppolo is at the helm for the first quarter of the season.
AFC West: Kansas City Chiefs
This may be my most radical pick, but there are good reasons why the Broncos WON’T win the division this season.
The Chiefs have picked up some good talent in the offseason. They bolstered their secondary with first rounder Marcus Peters and safety Tyvon Branch, and also brought in a game changing playmaker with Jeremy Maclin.
The lone signing of Owen Daniels for the Broncos won’t be enough to counteract another year of aging for Peyton Manning. Also, the fact that John Fox is no longer the head coach means their may be some gelling issues within the organization, at least early in the season.
The Chargers and Raiders both went through some positive change this offseason, but neither went through enough to get to the top of the conference this season.
This should be a shootout between the Chiefs and Broncos all season, and the second place finisher in the division will almost surely be the fifth seeded, first wild card team for the AFC.
AFC South: Indianapolis Colts
The Texans will give the Colts a run for their money this season, but their lack of quarterback will hold them back from making a serious bid for the AFC South crown.
The Jaguars and Titans are still in rebuilding modes and need a few more seasons before they can contend for the playoffs. The Texans pose an interesting threat to the Colts because their defense is, well, much, much, better. However, the Texans have few offensive threats to win enough games to get into the playoffs.
The Colts, on the other hand, are stacked on offense and defense. They acquired Andre Johnson and Frank Gore for the offense, and grabbed Trent Cole and Nate Irving for their defense. The subtraction of Reggie Wayne may sting a little, but this team is a contender, perhaps the best there is, in the AFC.
NFC North: Detroit Lions
The Lions come into the season in a make it or break it year. They have resided in mediocrity the last few seasons behind the success and failure of Matthew Stafford, and a playoff clinch and perhaps a playoff win is not too much to ask of the Lions this season.
They brought back Rashean Mathis, and they picked up skill-position players Ameer Abdullah (through the draft) and Lance Moore. Those moves among others should help the team, and the subtraction of Reggie Bush may free up a more fluid offense.
The Lions have a tough division with Minnesota and Green Bay, but I am confident that Detroit will finally make some noise this year.
NFC East: Philadelphia Eagles
Record: 10-6 (tie breaker with Dallas)
Don’t get me wrong, I am not a huge fan of Chip Kelly’s offseason from hell. However, the Eagles are stacked at several positions on both sides of the ball, and I don’t see the Giants or Cowboys matching the Eagles win column this season.
Sam Bradford showed glimpses of greatness in St. Louis, but in a new system he may maintain that greatness – if he can stay healthy.
Even if not, they have capable backups (#TebowandSanchez)).
The offense lacks a star wide receiver, but they have serviceable wideouts in Jordan Matthews and Riley Cooper as well as the top running back in the NFL last season, DeMarco Murray.
NFC West: Seattle Seahawks
The ‘Hawks remain a scary team in the NFC and come into the season as the perennial favorite.
They made a huge addition to what was starting to become a repetitive offense by adding in Jimmy Graham, the Pro Bowl tight end who was once Drew Brees’ favorite and best target. They also made some key signings for their secondary, bringing in cornerbacks Cary Williams from Philadelphia and Will Blackmon fron Jacksonville.
Seattle also brought back Marshawn Lynch, which was an underrated move considering the controversy surrounding Lynch’s contract situation.
The defense remains a, no, THE legion of boom, and the offense is a force to be reckoned with. You can’t bet against them. Not yet.
NFC South: Carolina Panthers
The Panthers pose an interesting threat to the NFC. They showed a lot of heart in their playoff trip and even playoff victory over the second seeded Cardinals last season, and they have actually, for the first time since they drafted Cam Newton, gotten better this offseason.
The defense has gelled further and the team is shaping up to be a complete squad. Cam Newton is ready for that next level year, and I have confidence in the Auburn product to produce the best year of his career.
The Panthers will finish second in the conference, and they may have some playoff success (see below.)
Wild Card Teams
Its not like Peyton Manning is so old that the Broncos won’t make the playoffs. He is still a premier quarterback in this league. And the retaining of DeMaryius Thomas doesn’t hurt.
But the loss of Julius Thomas will be felt in the offense unless, of course, he was just a product of Manning’s genius. We can ask Blake Bortles about next season.
The team really hasn’t made any notable strides of improvement this offseason, and I don’t see them competing with the likes of Indianapolis, New England, or even Kansas City this postseason. But they are nearly guaranteed to reach it.
The Bills saw a lot of improvement this offseason, bringing in LeSean McCoy, Rex Ryan, Percy Harvin, Richie Incognito, Matt Cassell, Tyrod Taylor, and Charles Clay.
Wow, thats a lot of newcomers at key positions. The quarterback position remains a mystery, and there are rumblings that Tyrod Taylor, a few years removed from his glory days at Virginia Tech, could win the starting job. Now that would be fun to watch.
The additions of Clay, Harvin, and McCoy will all need some time to tie into the offense, but if the Bills figure it all out, they could make some noise in a conference that is wide open.
The Cowboys made a few additions this offseason, acquiring Greg Hardy (who will miss the first 12 games of the 16 game season) and Darren McFadden, and drafting defensive studs Byron Jones and Randy Gregory. They also brought back Cole Beasley and Dez Bryant.
Overall, they didn’t really improve from last season. One key loss may haunt them, however, as they will face former friend, DeMarco Murray, twice a year as plays for the Philadelphia Eagles.
His replacement is no doll. Darren McFadden, an epic failure in Oakland for the beginning of his career, has quite the shoes to fill. (Spoiler: he won’t.)
The Cowboys losing their star running back won’t make that big of a difference in the long run, and they will likely soak up one of the Wild Card positions. But a Wild Card exit will make the experience very Dallas-ish.
St. Louis Rams
My surprise pick here. The Rams have a monster of a defense with Chris Long, Nick Fairley, Aaron Donald, Michael Brockers, and Robert Quinn making up the league’s scariest defensive line.
Nick Foles came over in the trade that sent Sam Bradford to Philly. He gives St. Louis a consistent option at the quarterback position, and I see success in his time with the Rams.
The team is relatively deep, especially at skill positions. Stedman Bailey, Kenny Britt, Tavon Austin, Brian Quick, Jared Cook, and Lance Kendricks make up a solid receiving core, while Benny Cunningham, Tre Mason, and first round pick Todd Gurley make up a talented running back group.
I see this team going through its fair share of bad injuries this year, but their depth will keep them in the race for the playoffs, and they can snag the 6th playoff spot with a 10-6 record.
MVP: Cam Newton
Cam Newton, fresh off of an extension that will see him earn $103+ million until 2020, has a lot on his shoulders this season.
Getting paid that kind of money demands production, something that the Panthers organization obviously felt he was capable of supplying. He is, as we have seen in small bits and pieces in his career so far.
Newton is a game changer, a defense wrecker, and a touchdown machine – when he wants to be. Careless mistakes and frequent lack of options have held him back in his years as an NFL gunslinger, but those excuses end with this mega deal.
The team now has weapons on offense for him to hit, like Kelvin Benjamin, Ted Ginn, Jarrett Boykin, Devin Funchess, Philly Brown, Jerricho Cotchery, and Greg Olsen. Now none of these guys are Pro Bowl pass catchers, but they all bring certain sets of skills that could be what Cam needs this season. Not stars for wideouts, but depth.
Cam also has some new friends on the frontline, as Michael Oher will hopefully keep him from getting blind-sided in the pocket (sorry, I had to), and Jonathan Martin and Daryl Williams come in to reinforce the trenches.
These pieces in play, along with a rock solid defense, should allow the Panthers some success this season, and Cam is lined up to receive much of the credit where it will be due. Look out for Cam and his Panthers.
DPOY: JJ Watt
You can’t hold him back.
JJ Watt is the most destructive, terrifying player in all of the scores of defensive players in the league. The man is a one-man wrecking ball, and he is the biggest reason the Texans win whatever games they end up winning.
Still, in a league built for offense, he will never win the MVP award. The DPOY award is that for defensive players, and this one isn’t much of a contest. There is noone close to making the impact on games that Watt does on the defensive side of the ball, and for that he is awarded this honor as a gift.
ROY: Jameis Winston
This is mostly because Winston will have the most opportunity to shine as a rookie. Marcus Mariota of the Titans could very well be a backup this year or next, and his production will be limited to the amount of game time he gets.
But Winston comes into a pretty talented Tampa Bay Bucs squad where he could make instant strides of improvement. Depending on if he fits in with the current team in place, Winston could be the best rookie in the game in the 2015-2016 season.
His skills are meant for the NFL, and he has an opportunity to be a Cam Newton-type game changer. Whether he actualizes that potential or not is to be seen, but he is as safe a bet as any when it comes to the ROY award.
Super Bowl: Indianapolis Colts vs. Carolina Panthers
Colts win, 31-24
The Colts and Panthers are two teams that have been on the rise since they drafted their franchise quarterbacks (Luck and Newton, respectively). They both have playmakers and playoff experience, and they also have surprisingly tenacious defenses.
The teams look set for success this season and beyond. This could be the peak of them if everything goes to plan for the organizations, and it would be a great story to see these two squads take the torch from the current dynasties of their conferences (Seattle Seahawks for the NFC and Denver Broncos for AFC) and ascend through the playoffs.
The Luck vs. Newton debate was a loud one in the year predating Newton’s draft date, where Luck decided to remain at Stanford and secure being picked number one overall in the next year. However, had Luck entered when Newton did, the Panthers may have a different man under center today.
But with Newton winning the MVP this year (Possibly) the debate would for sure heat up to LeBron-James-on-Sportscenter-hype levels. Which is what everyone wants, right?
The showdown between these two teams would be well worth a Super Bowl. The Colts, however, have too much offensive firepower and would outgun the young Panthers.
To see the 2014-2015 version of this article, click here.
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