Let the (real) NFL games begin.
The 2014 preseason is over. In less than a week, we’ll actually recognize most of the players we’re watching.
What does the upcoming season have in store? Who will be this year’s surprise playoff teams? Which rookies will become instant stars? Which records will be broken? The only thing that we can safely predict is that we’ll be shocked on more than one occasion.
So why bother playing it safe with our predictions? Let’s go out on a limb with 20 bold predictions for the 2014 NFL season.
The 2014 Wide Receiver Draft Class Will Be As Successful As the Crop of Quarterbacks Drafted in 1983
The 1983 NFL Draft is remembered for Dan Marino, John Elway and Jim Kelly.
This year’s class will be remembered in a similar fashion because of Brandin Cooks, Jordan Matthews and Kelvin Benjamin–three go-to offensive weapons that their respective teams can build around.
Matthews led all receivers with 15 receptions through the first three preseason games. He caught all nine passes thrown his way in the Eagles’ Week 2 matchup. Don’t be surprised if the second-round pick surpasses Jeremy Maclin and Riley Cooper to become Nick Foles’ top target this season.
Cooks is another dynamic rookie who could quickly move up the depth chart. Marques Colston, 31, and Robert Meachem, who will be 30 in December, are currently the Saints’ top two receivers.
Benjamin, the “star of Panthers camp,” according to ESPN.com, led the team with eight catches for 117 yards through three preseason games. With the departure of Steve Smith, the Panthers need Benjamin to learn quickly.
Other receivers to watch include the Bills’ Sammy Watkins, the Broncos’ Cody Latimer (especially if Wes Welker misses a lot of time) and the Cardinals’ John Brown.
Kirk Cousins Will Start Several Games – For Another Team
Sure, Robert Griffin III is struggling. He completed 13 of 20 passes in the preseason for 141 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions. But the Redskins gave up three first-round draft picks and a second-round pick to take Griffin in the 2012 draft. He’s their man.
Instead of sitting Griffin in favor of Cousins, who they drafted in the fourth round in 2012, we predict the Redskins will trade him during the season and recoup at least some of the draft-pick value they they gave up to get Griffin.
The Redskins would want at least a second-round pick for Cousins, according to the Washington Post. They can get that and more from a desperate team with an injured starter.
The Colts and Chiefs have suspect offensive lines. That puts in harm’s way Andrew Luck (backed up by Matt Hasselbeck, who turns 39 next month) and Alex Smith (backed up by Chase Daniel).
Blaine Gabbert backs up Colin Kaepernick in San Francisco (more on the 49ers later); Dan Orlovsky is the next man up if anything happens to Matthew Stafford in Detroit; Charlie Whitehurst is the understudy for Jake Locker, who has yet to play a 16-game season in Tennessee; and Kellen Clemens is the man if Philip Rivers goes down in San Diego.
Cousins isn’t exactly Joe Montana. He’s appeared in eight games in his career and has eight touchdown passes and 10 interceptions. But a team with an in-season quarterback injury would look at him with beer goggles.
Richie Incognito Lands With the Colts
We won’t have to wait long to see if this one comes true.
Colts left guard Donald Thomas is out for the season with a quadriceps injury. Center Khaled Holmes has missed time in the preseason with an ankle injury.
So far in the Andrew Luck Era, the Colts have reached both the wild card and divisional rounds of the playoffs. They’d like to take that at least a step further this season, but the offensive line could be a problem. Not only does Luck need time to throw in what is expected to be an up-tempo offense, but enigmatic running back Trent Richardson needs holes to run through.
If the Colts can stomach one bad apple, it’s worth the risk. Their top draft pick is guard Jack Mewhort. Richie Incognito would have a chance to try some new mentoring habits.
Mark Sanchez Will Start At Least One Game for the Eagles
Maybe this isn’t the boldest prediction, considering there are three ways it can happen.
Nick Foles could experience a letdown following his 27-touchdown, two-interception season. There have been signs this preseason that it could happen. The third-year signal caller threw for two touchdowns and three interceptions through three games, and despite his dismantling of the Steelers’ defense in Week 3 of the preseason, he was off the mark on several passes.
Mark Sanchez, meanwhile, connected on seven of nine passes against the Steelers’ starters in the Eagles 31-21 preseason victory. This is a quarterback who led the New York Jets to two straight AFC championship games. Chip Kelly won’t be afraid to call on Sanchez if Foles goes into a slump.
Another possibility is that Foles could get hurt. Eagles quarterbacks were sacked 46 times last season. Foles was the victim 28 times in 10 starts.
Finally, Sanchez could get into the starting lineup through the back door. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the Eagles win the NFC East so comfortably that they can rest starters late in the season.
The Cowboys Will Finish 8-8…Again
The Cowboys will set an NFL record with their fourth straight 8-8 season, and they’ll follow a pattern similar to their previous 8-8 campaigns. They’ll have a winning record at some point December and go out with a loss.
At least Dallas’ demise won’t be prime-time material this season. The Cowboys won’t be in contention for the NFC East title by Week 17 and the division won’t send two teams to the playoffs, so their loss at Washington in the season finale won’t be flexed to a night game.
The Cowboys were 8-6 and finished with two losses in 2011 and 2012. Last season, they were 8-7 and lost at home to Philadelphia in the game that decided the division title.
Those letdowns will seem tame compared to the Cowboys’ epic collapse this season. They’ll be 8-4 after beating the Eagles on Thanksgiving, then go 0-for-December. The Cowboys’ defense, which allowed a league-high 415 yards per game last season and will be without Sean Lee in 2014, will be shredded by Jay Cutler at Chicago in Week 14, Nick Foles at Philadelphia in Week 15 and Andrew Luck in Dallas in Week 16.
With nothing to play for, the Cowboys will lose at Washington in Week 17.
Once again, they’ll pair snowmen next to their name in the standings.
The Jets Will Make the Playoffs
No, you’re not on Candid Camera. This isn’t a practical joke.
If the Jets could get to 8-8 last season after ranking 29th in scoring with a 66.5 passer rating from Geno Smith, they can make the playoffs this season with an improved offense in a relatively weak AFC.
The Jets added running back Chris Johnson and wide receiver Eric Decker. Johnson, who will turn 29 in September, might no longer be CJ2K, but the Jets can count on him to be CJ1K. He’s never fallen short of 1,000 rushing yards in his career.
Decker won’t put up the eye-popping numbers that he did when he had Peyton Manning throwing to him, but he gives the Jets a legitimate No. 1 receiver.
Sure, the secondary will give Rex Ryan some sleepless nights. Dee Milliner is injured and might not be ready to go in Week 1, and Dimitri Patterson is suspended after not showing up for the Jets’ preseason game against the Giants.
However, the Jets’ front seven will cover the holes in the secondary. Defensive linemen Muhammad Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson and Damon Harrison all received positive grades from Pro Football Focus (subscription required) for their performance against the Giants in Week 3 of the preseason.
For that matter, rookie safety Calvin Pryor, fill-in cornerback Darrin Walls and linebackers Quinton Coples and Demario Davis also graded positively.
The Jets’ run to the playoffs will be aided by a 4-2 record in the AFC East. They’ll go 3-1 against the Dolphins and Bills, two teams that will struggle to put points on the board this season, and split with the Patriots.
Then maybe they’ll get another shot at the Patriots in the playoffs.
Tom Brady Will Show His Age
The signs were there last year that Tom Brady isn’t getting any younger. He registered his lowest passer rating (87.3) and completion percentage (60.5) since 2003 (not counting 2008, when he suffered a knee injury and was ruled out for the season in Week 1).
Brady wasn’t bad in the AFC championship game overall, completing 24 of 38 passes in the Patriots’ 26-16 loss to the Denver Broncos, but he was badly off the mark on at least one pass to a wide-open receiver in the end zone.
It would help the 37-year-old Brady if two-time Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski could stay healthy. But Gronkowski hasn’t played a full season since 2011, and he didn’t play in the Patriots’ Week 3 preseason game. Even if Gronkowski’s knee allows him to play 16 games, Brady is three years older than he was in 2011. In 2014, Brady won’t be the same quarterback he was three years ago.
Ryan Tannehill’s Sacks Will Outnumber Mike Wallace’s Receptions
Mike Wallace caught a career-high 73 passes last season while Ryan Tannehill was sacked a league-high 58 times.
Maybe Tannehill won’t be sacked that many times this season, but whatever the number, it will be more than the number of times Wallace catches a pass.
Deep, vertical routes are Wallace’s bread and butter. It takes time to get open for those, however, and Tannehill won’t have that kind of time behind the Dolphins’ mess of an offensive line.
Tannehill will go into the season with five new starters trying to protect him. According to the Boston Globe, the Dolphins are the first team since 2004 to go into a season with five new starters on the offensive line.
Center Mike Pouncey could have helped stabilize the situation, but he had hip surgery and won’t be ready for the start of the season.
Branden Albert, a free-agent signing from Kansas City, will be Tannehill’s blind-side protector at left tackle. At the other end of the line, however, is rookie Ju’Wuan James. The Dolphins are likely to embark on the season with Daryn Colledge at left guard, Samson Satele at center and Shelley Smith at right guard. Providing depth with be Dallas Thomas, who according to Pro Football Focus was the worst-rated guard through the first three preseason games.
Colledge was released by the Cardinals and Satele was released by the Colts after the 2013 season.
A ramshackle offensive line isn’t the only challenge the Dolphins’ offense faces this season. They also have to adjust to a new offensive coordinator, Bill Lazor. That’s not easy for any offense.
Joe Philbin, Doug Marrone and Jason Garrett Will Be Fired After the Season
The aforementioned offensive line woes will contribute to a disappointing season in Miami. Joe Philbin is already on the hot seat after the Dolphins blew a playoff berth by losing their final two games last season.
The Bills’ season was cursed when linebacker Kiko Alonso tore his ACL before training camp even began. It will become increasingly apparent that drafting EJ Manuel was a mistake as the Bills finish with the worst record in NFL. But it won’t be the Bills who are on the clock when the season ends and the countdown to the 2015 draft begins. The Bills traded their first-round pick to the Cleveland Browns to move up for Sammy Watkins this year, so they can forget about drafting Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota or Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston. The Bills likely will be under new ownership by the end of the season. Doug Marrone will be looking for work after a thorough housecleaning.
Jerry Jones will finally have had enough after the Cowboys’ fourth straight 8-8 season, and Jason Garrett will be gone.
The Broncos’ Defense Won’t Be as Good As Everyone Thinks
After their Super Bowl beating, the Denver Broncos were no one’s runner-up when it came to defensive upgrades in free agency.
The Broncos signed perennial Pro Bowl defensive end DeMarcus Ware, cornerback Aqib Talib and safety T.J. Ward. They also have Von Miller back after the star linebacker missed the playoffs last year with a torn ACL.
So long as Peyton Manning keeps the offense humming along, the Broncos might as well just book those January hotel rooms in Arizona, right? Not necessarily.
The 32-year-old Ware posted a career-low six sacks in 2013. He also played in a career-low 13 games as he dealt with quadricep and elbow injuries.
Talib is 28, but has been hurt in each of the last two AFC championship games with the Patriots.
Linebacker Danny Trevathan, who led the Broncos in tackles a season ago, will be out for six to eight weeks with a left knee injury, according to NFL.com.
The Broncos’ big-ticket free-agent signings don’t guarantee a Lombardi Trophy. Ask Dan Snyder or Eagles’ general manager Howie Roseman how free-agent signing sprees work out.