Training camp action is in full swing, and fans are just now getting their first glimpses into what to expect during the 2014 NFL season. For some teams, it’s an opportunity to overcome last year’s failures. For others, it’s an opportunity to improve upon the great things they accomplished in 2013.
At the present time, everyone has high expectations. But the reality is that some teams will inevitably regress while others will make great strides as they compete for the coveted Lombardi Trophy.
The following five teams would love to be among the latter. However, they’re more likely to take a step back from where they finished last year.
The Cowboys are perennially touted as preseason NFC East champions because of a talented roster and plenty of resources to get the job done. And each year, when all is said and done, the standings indicate they were nothing more than mediocre.
In fact, they’ve finished 8-8 in each of the last three seasons.
And the loss of star linebacker Sean Lee has crippled an already underwhelming defense that yearns for the days in which DeMarcus Ware struck fear in opposing quarterbacks. The team’s three best defenders—Lee, Ware (signed with the Broncos) and Jason Hatcher (signed with the Redskins)—all are gone.
Instead, you have guys like George Selvie and (now injured) Demarcus Lawrence hoping to fill the void along the defensive line while Bruce Carter, Justin Durant and Kyle Wilber will attempt to form what could be an average linebacking corps at best.
Jerry Jones did just lock up franchise left tackle Tyron Smith to an eight-year deal, and big years are expected from wideout Dez Bryant and running back DeMarco Murray. But QB Tony Romo is coming off two offseason back surgeries. It’s never easy to predict what kind of impact that will have on a player once he’s put back into game situations. So far, it hasn’t hindered him in practice.
Tony Romo just scrambled to his left away from pressure and ran a couple of yards. Looked like normal Romo. Mobility seemed fine.
— Jordan Ross (@JordanRoss08) August 1, 2014
In the end, Romo may receive the brunt of the blame for the Cowboys’ shortcomings this season—and in the future. But when a team regresses at just about every position, they’re likely going to do just that on Sundays.
It’s scary to think the Dolphins could be worse than they were last season, despite an 8-8 finish, but there are reasons fans in Miami should be concerned. Heading into the 2014 season, the Dolphins will start five new offensive linemen in front of third-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill. They are also introducing a new offense with the addition of new offensive coordinator Bill Lazor.
There is plenty of excitement about Lazor in Miami and with good reason. He comes to the Dolphins after a year working under Eagles head coach Chip Kelly and the assumption is that, while he is bringing his own spread offense attack with him, a lot of those fun wrinkles Kelly introduced last season that made the Eagles so potent will be prevalent.
In time, Lazor’s offense could be a success. However, every scheme requires some talent and right now, the Dolphins are really lacking in that department on offense, especially at receiver.
The defense should be a quality unit again this season, but will they be as strong as they were in 2013? An aging Cameron Wake, underwhelming (and suspended) Dion Jordan and an overrated Olivier Vernon could spell doubt about Miami’s pass rush in 2014.
Even with his limited snaps, Dion Jordan (No. 28) graded higher by PFF than Olivier Vernon (No. 33) for DE in a 4-3 scheme.
— Andrew Abramson (@AbramsonPBP) January 18, 2014
And in the secondary, Brent Grimes is a legit shutdown cornerback, but who plays opposite him is the question. Jamar Taylor and Will Davis both saw limited action last season, and it was clear the team was hesitant to put them out there in their rookie campaigns.
Pro Football Talk’s preseason ranking (31st of 32 teams) of the Dolphins may have been harsh, but sometimes the truth hurts.
The Titans were colossal overachievers last season, finishing at 7-9 despite being one of the league’s more disappointing teams. They’re hopeful that the hiring of head coach Ken Whisenhunt can give them the shot in the arm they need to break out of the period of mediocrity they endured for Mike Munchak’s three seasons at the helm in Tennessee.
Sadly, the issues that handicapped the Titans during Munchak’s tenure still exist. The offense lacks talent and is actually a bit worse than it had been over the last few years, as they allowed their main offensive weapon, RB Chris Johnson, to depart for the Jets.
Quarterback play has been the Achilles’ heel for the Titans. They’ll be banking on third-year QB Jake Locker to make some major improvements in 2014, as this year could be a make-or-break season for the oft-injured former first-round pick.
Whisenhunt will attempt to curb the punishment Locker has taken over the last three seasons at quarterback (sacked 46 times in 18 starts), creating opportunities for him to get the football out quickly and move the offense down the field. However, the Titans lack dynamic receivers (Kendall Wright is good, but I’m not sold on him as a game-changer yet) and with no running game to speak of, all that effort could be for naught.
A lackluster secondary in a pass-happy NFL leaves much to be desired on the defensive side of the ball as well. The Titans will depend heavily on a strong push up front from a bevy of pass rushers that includes Derrick Morgan and Kamerion Wimbley.
On paper, Detroit is a team that should do some damage on both sides of the football. However, their key components are either too inconsistent (Matthew Stafford) or unreliable players with character issues (Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley).
Yes, they have one of the top offensive weapons in the league in WR Calvin Johnson, and that should guarantee Stafford a cool 4,500-plus passing yards for the year. But over and over again, it feels like the former No. 1 pick can’t do enough to carry his team over the hump.
And he finished last season with a few lackluster performances, featuring interceptions galore.
|Matthew Stafford’s Performance Over Final 4 Games|
|Week 14 at Eagles||LOSS 34-20||10/25, 151 yards|
|Week 15 vs. Ravens||LOSS 18-16||18/34, 235 yds, 1 TD, 3 INT|
|Week 16 vs. Giants||LOSS 23-20||25/42, 222, 2 INT|
|Week 17 at Vikings||LOSS 14-13||22-33, 217 yds, 1 TD|
|TOTAL||0-4||75/134, 825 yds, 2 TD, 5 INT|
Granted, he didn’t get much help from his receivers when he needed them most last season.
According to @PFF, Matthew Stafford suffered a league high 58 dropped passes. I’d love to see the Lions draft a WR for opposite Megatron
— Mike Braude (@BraudeM) December 30, 2013
This season will be as good a season as any to push the Lions into the playoffs for Stafford. Surrounded by Megatron, Golden Tate, Reggie Bush out of the backfield and rookie tight end Eric Ebron, he certainly has weapons to work with. However, it’s worth noting that Ebron had an 11.4 percent drop rate as a junior at North Carolina and has already struggled mightily with this issue in training camp.
It shouldn’t make life any easier that their cornerbacks are still one of the most lackluster groups in all of football. Not one of their top cornerbacks graded positively in pass coverage by PFF.
That spells danger for the Lions, who square off with Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler twice per season—as well as Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Cam Newton and Eli Manning.
San Diego Chargers
The Chargers were surprise overachievers in 2013, putting together one of the better offensive campaigns despite possessing a clear No. 1 wideout heading into the season. Luckily for quarterback Philip Rivers and new head coach Mike McCoy, third-round rookie Keenan Allen emerged as a top-flight target and the Bolts were able to sneak into the playoffs thanks to a four-game winning streak to end the season.
But expect the Chargers to take a step back in 2014 as McCoy continues to rebuild his team into a perennial AFC contender. They were beneficiaries of a very weak schedule last season, and without it, they likely would’ve missed the playoffs.
The efficient Rivers will keep San Diego competitive in a feisty AFC West division. But it’s going to be difficult to try and keep up with the high-powered offense of Denver, and the ground-and-pound attack of Kansas City this season.
The Chargers were the epitome of a Jekyll-and-Hyde club last season, going 5-2 against playoff teams but just 4-5 against others, including a loss to the league-worst Houston Texans. Which team they really were last season is hard to pinpoint.
Their defense remains the biggest question mark about which team they will be this season. They struggled immensely to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks. And had they come up with a few more key stops late in games, they may have been in a much better position heading into the playoffs.
But they weren’t, in part because of their sluggish start. And they can’t afford to do the same in 2014. It will be difficult to replicate their second-half success with Baltimore, New England, Denver, San Francisco and Kansas City lined up to close out the year.
The Chargers have a much tougher schedule this season, and the team will likely be looking at a sub-.500 season as a result.