I’m finally back to school and that means it’s time to begin the long-awaited NFL preview! I’m also adding fantasy advice in these previews so they’ll be longer than usual. Let’s get to it!
GET: S Kendrick Lewis, CB Kyle Arrington, QB Matt Schaub
LOSE: CB Aaron Ross, CB Antoine Cason, WR Torrey Smith, WR Jacoby Jones, DE Pernell McPhee, DT Haloti Ngata, S Darian Stewart, TE Owen Daniels, DT Terrence Cody, QB Tyrod Taylor, RB Bernard Pierce, C Gino Gradkowski
RE-SIGNS: CB Lardarius Webb, DE Chris Canty, RB Justin Forsett
DRAFT: 1st round: WR Breshad Perriman, UCF 2nd round: TE Maxx Williams, Minnesota 3rd round: DT Carl Davis, Iowa 4th round: DE Za’Darius Smith, Kentucky RB Buck Allen, USC CB Tray Walker, Texas Southern 5th round: TE Nick Boyle, Delaware G Robert Myers, Tennessee State 6th round: WR Darren Waller, Georgia Tech
Baltimore had a solid 10-6 season and no results from last season jump out to me as unusual. Despite it being such a quiet season for their star quarterback, Flacco actually had his best statistical year since 2010, surpassing his last three seasons in all categories, including completion percentage (62.1), passing yards (3,986), touchdown-interception ratio (27:12), QBR (67.0) and passer rating (91.0). Was it a great season for Joe in actuality? I would say probably not. Most of his stats are bloated due to the team’s early struggles at the running back position and the big plays we’re used to seeing from Flacco weren’t as apparent. With that said, I wouldn’t be concerned with Flacco. I got stuck with him in one of my fantasy leagues and I’m not too worried about the guy. No, he’s never thrown more than 27 touchdowns in a season and no, he’s not known for consistency, but I would argue last year was consistent and you should expect a similar season this year despite the reductions at receiver. The loss of Torrey Smith won’t hurt as much as people think, nor am I worried about Flacco’s outlets. Steve Smith Sr. would be a good receiver to take a flyer on in fantasy although I would avoid rookie Breshad Perriman. Especially in the AFC North, I would avoid rookie receivers altogether. You can find better options elsewhere.
The component that will determine the offense’s success, however, is Justin Forsett. The relative unknown managed an insane 5.4 yards a carry. Only Lamar Miller (yes, LAMAR MILLER), Jeremy Hill and Jamaal Charles averaged five or more yards a carry. That’s an exclusive club and one Forsett relished in. His 1,266 yards was fifth-most in the league and second-best in the AFC behind the Steelers’ Le’Veon Bell and led the league in rushes of over 20 yards with 17. Behind one of the best offensive lines in football, Forsett’s breakout season last year shouldn’t have been blown up as much as it was and while many are concerned he’s a one-hit wonder, I do not share that concern. I saw potential from Forsett when he was in Houston and he relished in the spotlight. Forsett should be a solid back this year in fantasy, even with the departure of offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak.
The Ravens’ defense, with both subtractions and additions, should be fine and remain hazardous for opponents as usual and with John Harbaugh at the helm, I have to think Baltimore is the favorite to win the division.
There are some things that could derail the train, however. Baltimore got swept by Cincinnati last season, a Bengals team that was actually weaker than it has been in the past so that cannot happen this year, especially considering the AFC North’s dangerous schedule. The Ravens were 23rd against the pass last year, something that must improve, especially when their front seven was an elite fourth against the rush. The onus, like with the Steelers, is on the secondary, but I have more faith in the Ravens defense right now then I do the Steelers. Finally, it’s crucial injuries don’t plague this team on offense. The Ravens’ depth at running back and receiver is desert thin and I don’t know if they’ll be able to hold the reins to the division if the bug plagues them. The Ravens front seven on defense, it’s disgusting how good they are, but can they carry a hobbled offense on their back if they have to?
SCHEDULE PROJECTED RECORD: 10-6
Week 1: @DEN Week 2: @OAK Week 3: vs. CIN Week 4: @PIT Week 5: vs. CLE Week 6: @SF Week 7: @ARI Week 8: vs. SD Week 9: BYE Week 10: vs. JAC Week 11: vs. STL Week 12: @CLE Week 13: @MIA Week 14: vs. SEA Week 15: vs. KC Week 16: vs. PIT Week 17: @CIN
GET: RB DeAngelo Williams, CB Brandon Boykin
LOSE: OLB Jason Worilds, S Troy Polamalu, CB Ike Taylor, DE Brett Keisel, CB Brice McCain, WR Lance Moore, WR Justin Brown, TE Michael Palmer, RB Ben Tate
RE-SIGNS: QB Ben Roethlisberger, LB James Harrison, LB Arthur Moats, S Will Allen, TE Matt Spaeth, DE Clifton Geathers, WR Darrius Heyward-Bey, LS Greg Warren
DRAFT: 1st round: OLB Bud Dupree, Kentucky 2nd round: CB Senquez Golson, Ole Miss 3rd round: WR Sammie Coates, Auburn 4th round: CB Doran Grant, Ohio State 5th round: TE Jesse James, Penn State 6th round: DT L.T. Walton, Central Michigan DE Anthony Chickillo, Miami 7th round: S Gerod Holliman, Louisville
SUMMARY: Last year’s big three (Ben, Bell, Brown) destroyed defenses like Fox destroyed the Fantastic Four in this year’s superhero dud. Roethlisberger had the best statistical year of his career, throwing for a league-leading 4,952 yards. His average of 8.15 yards per attempt, 67.1 completion percentage and 103.3 passer rating were good for third in the league. Aside from setting plenty of personal and franchise records, Roethlisberger has solidified his position as a top-five quarterback and was paid as such this offseason with an enormous five-year, $99 million extension. Is Ben worth the money? Definitely. Do I like the contract? No. Ben is a top-five quarterback right now, that’s non-debatable. However, the Steelers have a troubled history with salary cap issues and Ben’s $17.2 million cap hit this season and obnoxious $23.95 million cap hit next season is a cause for concern, especially when it comes time to re-sign Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell.
Speaking of Antonio Brown, he had a legendary year in 2015, racking up 129 catches, the second-most receptions in a season ever behind Marvin Harrison’s 143 in 2002. He led the league with those 129 catches and 1,698 yards, shattering his own franchise record of 1,499 yards set in 2013. Brown was also second in targets with 182 and caught 13 touchdowns so if you want a great fantasy receiver in the first round, take Brown. The wheels on the Brown go round and round.
Finally, but certainly not least, Le’Veon Bell was a monster last year. Bell ended the year with 1,361 yards rushing, an impressive 4.7 clip and also became an elite receiver, catching 83 passes for 854 yards. Le’Veon Bell is the best all-around back in the league with those stats and if you don’t pick up Brown or Ben, pick up Bell for fantasy. You can’t go wrong with any of these players.
Those stats led to an incredible 11-5 season for the Steelers that few expected, including three consecutive huge wins against Houston, Indianapolis and Baltimore. However, as there always are, there were some head scratchers. Before that win streak, the Steelers lost to Tampa Bay, beat Jacksonville by eight and got destroyed by Cleveland 31-10. Let’s not mention the Steelers’ humiliating loss to the Jets 20-13.
The defense, however, was not LeBeau’s finest escapade and it’s sad that it was his last in Pittsburgh. The Steelers’ pass defense was 27th last year and allowed 30 touchdowns, one of the worst secondary units in football. Ike Taylor and Troy Polamalu missed much of the season and could not be counted on when they got on the field. Mike Mitchell had a terrible inaugural season. William Gay and Antwon Blake were the lone highlights. Luckily, the front seven was top-ten, finishing sixth against the rush, led by Lawrence Timmons and Cam Heyward.
Looking to this season, the Steelers have a lot to prove. The epidemic known as Cortez Allen’s hand-eye coordination will be starting at cornerback and with Senquez Golson out for the year, the trade for Brandon Boykin was paramount. Young Shamarko Thomas and the awful Mike Mitchell will be starting at safety. The front seven has to carry this team. While I still disagree with the Steelers taking Bud Dupree instead of Alabama safety Landon Collins, the linebacking core for the Steelers is now incredibly deep.
With all that said, the Steelers’ schedule this season is far too difficult for a team as weak in the secondary as the Steelers are to succeed in the long haul. Last year was quite a sight to see, but I doubt it’ll happen again.
SCHEDULE PROJECTED RECORD: 8-8
Week 1: @NE Week 2: vs. SF Week 3: @STL Week 4: vs. BAL Week 5: @SD Week 6: vs. ARI Week 7: @KC Week 8: vs. CIN Week 9: vs. OAK Week 10: vs. CLE Week 11: BYE Week 12: @SEA Week 13: vs. IND Week 14: @CIN Week 15: vs. DEN Week 16: @BAL Week 17: @CLE
GET: WR Brian Hartline, DT Randy Starks, WR Dwayne Bowe, CB Tramon Williams, QB Josh McCown, QB Thad Lewis
LOSE: CB Buster Skrine, TE Jordan Cameron, DT Ahtyba Rubin, QB Brian Hoyer, OLB Jabaal Sheard, WR Miles Austin, G Paul McQuistan, K Garrett Hartley
RE-SIGNS: DE John Hughes, WR Marlon Moore
DRAFT: 1st round: DT Danny Shelton, Washington C Cameron Erving, Florida State 2nd round: OLB Nate Orchard, Utah 3rd round: RB Duke Johnson, Miami DT Xavier Cooper, Washington State 4th round: S Ibraheim Campbell, Northwestern WR Vince Mayle, Washington State 6th round: CB Charles Gaines, Louisville TE Malcolm Johnson, Mississippi State TE Randall Telfer, USC 7th round: ILB Hayes Pullard, USC CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Oregon
SUMMARY: Guys, I have huge news! The Cleveland, (yes, you read that right) Cleveland Browns are starting to look like a football team. It’s only taken two decades, but I think they could compete in the SEC now. Hell, the Browns could have made the playoffs last year. They started 7-4. I’d be surprised if half the city of Cleveland didn’t fall over dead from a heart attack or something. They’d probably never seen the AFC North standings read Cleveland at the top. However, it’s okay, Cleveland. You still suck, because your football team managed to choke every single one of the last five games, miss the playoffs and finish in the bottom of the division, AGAIN. It’s honestly humorous and at the same time, pathetically pitiful. Just wow.
With all that said, Cleveland really did look leagues better than they did in the past. They creamed Pittsburgh 31-10 in the middle of the season and you know what? I wasn’t even mad. They deserved to win that game. Dare I say it, they looked like a professional football team. I can’t believe those words came out of my mouth while discussing the Cleveland Browns.
Cleveland accumulated 12 draft picks this offseason, so a genuine round of applause for that front office. Now, let’s give an equally genuine round of applause for what they did with them. The Browns’ secondary was great last year, eighth-best in the league but their defense against the rush was dead last. Give the Browns credit for addressing that, drafting Shelton and Cooper in the first and third round, respectively and another young linebacker in Nate Orchard. They also signed DT Randy Starks from Miami to provide some guidance to the rookies. They grabbed a running back to add a section to the spin-the-wheel-and-see-who-you-get backfield and hopefully one of them emerges as a real starter behind yet another one of the best offensive lines in football. The AFC North is full of them. Any Cleveland fan that was upset with the Browns draft is a moron, so heed them no quarter.
The receiving corps as well as the quarterback situation needs a lot of help. A large part of that is that Josh Gordon is probably one of the dumbest players and people in football. You had one job, Gordon. Stay away from weed. Why the Browns didn’t trade him after his first suspension is beyond me. They could have gotten another first rounder out of him. Without him, two new additions are expected to start at receiver, Brian Hartline of Miami and Dwayne Bowe of Kansas City. Neither blows minds and neither is worth a fantasy pickup. In fact, let me just end my fantasy advice real quick right here: if it’s not the Cleveland defense, stay away from anyone on Cleveland. Even if the running back situation is sorted out, I think it’s unlikely they have a breakout season and it’s doubtful McCown or Manziel do either. Once again, it will be up to the secondary to hold the fort and if the front seven can be average up front, the Browns could very well pass the Bengals, who are trending down harder than Nicolas Cage’s acting career. I’m taking the gamble they do.
SCHEDULE PROJECTED RECORD: 6-10
Week 1: @NYJ Week 2: vs. TEN Week 3: vs. OAK Week 4: @SD Week 5: @BAL Week 6: vs. DEN Week 7: @STL Week 8: vs. ARI Week 9: @CIN Week 10: @PIT Week 11: BYE Week 12: vs. BAL Week 13: vs. CIN Week 14: vs. SF Week 15: @SEA Week 16: @KC Week 17: vs. PIT
GET: DE Michael Johnson, ILB A.J. Hawk, WR Denarius Moore, QB Josh Johnson, TE Rob Housler, DT Pat Sims
LOSE: OT Marshall Newhouse, CB Terence Newman, TE Jermaine Gresham, G Mike Pollak, DE Robert Geathers, WR Greg Little, WR Dane Sanzenbacher, S Taylor Mays
RE-SIGNS: LB Rey Maualuga, RB Cedric Peerman, OL Eric Winston, WR Brandon Tate
DRAFT: 1st round: OT Cedric Ogbuehi, Texas A&M 2nd round: OT Jake Fisher, Oregon 3rd round: TE Tyler Kroft, Rutgers OLB Paul Dawson, TCU 4th round: S Josh Shaw, USC DT Marcus Hardison, Arizona State 5th round: TE C.J. Uzomah, Auburn 6th round: S Derron Smith, Fresno State 7th round: WR Mario Alford, West Virginia
SUMMARY: Last year, I picked the Bengals to win the division and in my playoff preview, I said the following: “What really pisses me off is that the Bengals are one step away from being the best. If only they would draft a receiver in the first round.”
That still holds true now because this team still needs that receiver and last year’s season is a testament to that. Not only did Dalton lose his cool without Green in the lineup, recessing in every statistical category except completion percentage, but without the Bengals’ star receiver, the team at times looked like a discombobulated mess leaning on a rookie running back named Jeremy Hill. The LSU star thrilled, but could not carry the team nor should he have been expected to. This team has plenty of talent and year after year it goes poorly coached and Marvin Lewis, who has been with the team since 2003, has still been unable to get Cincinnati a playoff win. The longest playoff drought in the NFL belongs to the Bengals, not the Browns. If that’s not unsettling, I don’t know what is. Who knows why the Bengals continue to ignore their most vital need, a wideout, draft after draft. Let’s ignore that the Bengals, in the last two seasons, have taken two receivers in the draft, one in the sixth and one in the seventh. Let’s ignore that the Bengals learned diddly-squat about their receiver depth this past season because, again, they decided they only needed one receiver and decided to take that receiver in the seventh round. Let’s ignore the fact that the Bengals spent their first and second-rounder on tackles when their offensive line remains one of the strongest in the league so the need isn’t really there, nor was the need dire that they draft a tight end with one of their third round picks. Let’s ignore Marvin Lewis’ inability to coach in the playoffs time after time after time after time after time after time (he’s 0-6 now). Whatever.
At this point, the Cincinnati Bengals should just start ignoring everything. Ignore your needs, continue to build insane depth at positions that fall third or fourth on the check list and leave your main priorities unaccounted for year after year. If I was A.J. Green, I’d be livid. He’s made some insane plays and has carried this team without complaining for years now. Help a brotha, out. This is coming from someone who isn’t a Bengals fan, either. I’m a Steelers fan through and through, yet any real fan can look at an organization as misguided and negligent as the Bengals and become engulfed in a need for moral justice because no fans, not even Cleveland fans, deserve such incompetence from their franchises and the fact that such a thing is still a problem is as sad as it’s ever been. It’s 2015, we have technology, statistical analysis, endless Benjamins and then some and the Bengals still can’t figure out how to win a playoff game.
The loss of Mike Zimmer as defensive coordinator proved to be a bigger blow to the team than I thought it would be. Cincinnati fell to 20th against the pass and the rush last year after a concrete fifth in both categories in Zimmer’s last year. When you look at the depth the Bengals have on defense, perhaps the lone project they’ve managed to not fall behind on, it’s criminal this team fell below 15th in any defensive category let alone 20th. Carlos Dunlap, Geno Atkins, Vontaze Burfict, Vincent Rey, Rey Maualuga, Leon Hall, Darqueze Dennard and Dre Kirkpatrick does not equate to a 20th-ranked defense on any planet and it’s a sad sign the team went so poorly coached last year.
But cheer up, Bengals fans, because Marvin Lewis is still here to practice mediocrity and defensive coordinator Paul Guenther is returning to take a top-ten defensive lineup and let them run loose and wild like sheep on a prairie.
With no additions that truly matter on offense, franchise quarterback Andy Dalton trending down and the coaching staff being allowed to stay despite their obvious ineptitude, Cincinnati should look forward to keeping that egregious playoff streak going because this team ain’t going anywhere fast. Unless you’re drafting Hill or Green, run from Cincy like the plague.
SCHEDULE PROJECTED RECORD: 6-10
Week 1: @OAK Week 2: vs. SD Week 3: @BAL Week 4: vs. KC Week 5: vs. SEA Week 6: @BUF Week 7: BYE Week 8: @PIT Week 9: vs. CLE Week 10: vs. HOU Week 11: @ARI Week 12: vs. STL Week 13: @CLE Week 14: vs. PIT Week 15: @SF Week 16: @DEN Week 17: vs. BAL