As we do at this time each season, we’ve cornered a group of our analysts and handed them a set of questions designed to pick their brains about what they expect for the upcoming year.
Giving you a glimpse into what they’re thinking as we head into the 2014 season, Ben Stockwell, Sam Monson, Steve Palazzolo and Gordon McGuinness have been good enough to share their answers.
Four analysts, four questions, division by division, next up…
Who wins the division and why?
Sam - Broncos. I’m sorry, I’ve done it again, but honestly, can you see past a Peyton Manning-led Denver team for this division? They’re the best roster in it and even if they were’t, Manning would need to get injured to stop them from walking the division. He’s too good, and even at his age none of what makes him great is affected by it — his physical tools are already long past their best. Denver adding Ware could be a huge move too.
Ben - The Denver Broncos are still the class of this division and unless injury befalls Manning I simply cannot say any other team overtaking them. The offense has lost Eric Decker and Knowshon Moreno but Manning has turned worse wide receivers than Emmanuel Sanders into extremely productive ones so I don’t foresee a significant drop off here. On defense, a healthy Von Miller adds a rare, destructive talent and even in his advancing years DeMarcus Ware brings extra sting to the Broncos’ pass rush. This team looks primed to go deep in the playoffs once again.
Steve - With Manning running the show and some talented offseason additions, it’s hard to see anyone beating the Broncos this season. They’re one of the most interesting cases in recent years as the NFL usually isn’t kind to teams that build with veterans as opposed to youth, but having Manning as quarterback should be the trump card to make it a viable strategy for the Broncos.
Gordon - Broncos. I’ve picked them to get back to the Super Bowl and walk away with the Lombardi Trophy this time, and just don’t see anyone competing with them in the division. What Peyton Manning continues to do year in, year out amazes me to the point that I’ve given up expecting a drop-off from him. Add in a returning Von Miller and the addition of DeMarcus Ware defensively and I’ll be surprised to see them finish with less than 12 wins in the regular season.
Which position unit most intrigues you in the division?
Sam - The San Diego defensive line. I have never seen a group of linemen get so routinely driven so far off the football. This is a pass-rushing league and we’ve long since seen the death of behemoth nose tackles like former Charger great Jamal Williams, but we haven’t reached the stage where the play the current unit displays against the run is ok. They need to step up in a big way if they hope to contain the best teams come crunch time.
Ben - I can’t wait to see this Denver pass rush get after the quarterback. Just like the Colts’ teams of old, the defense is constructed to operate when Peyton Manning has given them a lead. Playing from behind, opposing offenses are going to be faced with Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware flying off opposite edges with the likes of Malik Jackson and Terrance Knighton offering plenty of threat through the middle. Any focus on one individual pass rusher like Miller will only make things easier for the likes of Ware and Jackson further along the line.
Steve - The Chiefs’ offensive line will be under the microscope after they moved on from three productive players this offseason. Last year’s first-round pick Eric Fisher has to take a big step forward as he moves to the left side and there are plenty of questions surrounding guards Jeff Allen and Zach Fulton. This group has to come together quickly if Kansas City is going to duplicate last year’s playoff season.
Gordon - Denver’s secondary. As Ben pointed out, the Denver pass rush is built for a team playing with a lead, and that also means we’ll see the secondary get tested plenty. Can Aqib Talib have a big year in his first season in Denver? How close to 100% is Chris Harris Jr.? Both of those questions are key, and I also really like the addition of T.J. Ward who adds to the Denver run defense after a solid career in Cleveland.
Who is your pick for breakout player?
Sam - Travis Kelce was supposed to be a breakout, impact player a year ago, but micro fracture surgery destroyed his rookie year before it got anywhere. The word ‘micro fracture’ usually terrifies me when it comes to a player’s future prospects, but Kelce has been on a tear in the preseason and displayed the kind of wheels you don’t expect a TE to have. His biggest asset, though, is his ability after the catch, which is just as well because Alex Smith isn’t doing the hard work for anybody with his average air-yards figure at the bottom of the league in 2013.
Ben - Mychal Rivera had a solid rookie season last year but with the receiving corps still not looking terribly strong, even after the addition of James Jones, there should be ample opportunity for Rivera to make an even bigger mark in Year 2. His blocking was solid a year ago but it is his athleticism and ability in the passing game that could see him breakout as one of the new breed of tight ends that opposing defenses simply cannot match up against.
Steve - We saw flashes of what Chargers tight end Ladarius Green is capable of a year ago and he’ll continue to emerge here in his third season. As Antonio Gates ages, Green should slowly take over more of the workload and provide a vertical seam threat for QB Philip Rivers.
Gordon - Sio Moore. He suffered what looked to be a serious injury late in preseason, but by all account is ready to go for the Raiders heading into the regular season, and that’s good news for everyone in Oakland. He looked good against the run last year, finishing tied for seventh among all 4-3 OLBs in that regard, and there’s no real reason to think that will change in 2014. Throw in an improvement as a pass rusher and Moore would become one of the best players on the Raiders’ defense.
Which rookie has the biggest impact, for good or bad?
Sam - The Raiders O-line isn’t exactly the best unit in football, but new rookie guard Gabe Jackson looks like a player. They have been getting him extensive time in the preseason and he looks ready to rock when the games turn real. I’m excited to see what kind of impact he can have against the league’s best when the scores count.
Ben - For better or for worse the Oakland Raiders success in 2014 is tied to Derek Carr. Handed the reins for Week 1, he can either lead the team forward, adding quality to the quarterback position to go with a solid if veteran-laden defense. Or he fails early and the Raiders are forced to go back to Matt Schaub which, on the evidence of last season and this preseason, only leads Oakland to another high draft pick. No other rookie in this division is in a position to have such a massive impact on their team as Carr.
Steve - Khalil Mack should have every opportunity to step into a Von Miller-like role for the Raiders as he’ll see his fair share of snaps dropping into coverage and rushing the passer. Pass rushing is going to be where Mack has to excel in order to live up to his draft status, so he has to show that he can win on the edge while still bringing the early-down versatility to play the run and dabble in coverage.
Gordon - Cody Latimer. The news of the Wes Welker suspension means that there are more targets to go around in Denver early in the season. Considering what we’ve seen Manning do with young receivers in the past there’s little concern that Latimer could put up some impressive numbers if he sees enough of the field. He’s in the best position of any rookie receiver in the league considering who is throwing him the ball so don’t be surprised to see it in his hands often in 2014.
Also see… Four Questions: