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 – Colts. I’d love to see anywhere else because it’s a little obvious and boring at this point, but the Colts are the only team in the division to have a viable quarterback (at least until Jacksonville starts Bortles) and that alone should be more than enough to guarantee them the division. There are certainly holes on the roster, but Andrew Luck should still be improving (he certainly has room to), and he’s already head and shoulders better than any other division foe.
Ben – I’d better stick by my pick from the PFF Predictions piece posted earlier in the week. I admit this is a fairly crazy choice, but I felt the need for an off-the-wall prediction and the AFC South, where the Colts are favorites but not prohibitively so, struck me as the right place for a left-field pick. I like the defensive improvements the Jags have made up front and feel the defense will keep them in enough games that if the offense makes some strides they could very easily be one of this season’s overachievers.
Steve – Perhaps the weakest division in the league last year, there are signs of hope in the South, but I think quarterback play will win out. I expect Andrew Luck to take a step forward here in Year 3, even though he hasn’t been as good as many claim he’s been, and the Colts will win the division.
Gordon – Titans. When healthy, Jake Locker hasn’t looked terrible, and I think he has some really nice weapons to work with this year. Kendall Wright has shown flashes of the type of player who can cause defenses nightmares from the slot, while Justin Hunter looks capable of adding more than a few big plays. I’m intrigued to see how they use Dexter McCluster in the regular season as he could add another dimension to that offense if they can get him the ball in space.
Which position unit most intrigues you in the division?
Sam – The Colts O-line, or more specifically the interior. The tackles aren’t bad – they’re not great either, but they’re far from a problem. The interior, however, is a totally different prospect. It’s bad enough to cause major problems to all facets of the offense, putting Luck under far more pressure than he should be expecting and causing Trent Richardson to retreat into his shell like a running back version of Marc Bulger.
Ben – The whole Tennessee defense is an intriguing one to me where the personnel doesn’t seem to fit a 3-4 front. The defensive line especially has the look of square pegs in round holes but those square pegs are very talented. Jurrell Casey has proven his versatility with excellent seasons at different alignments in the last two seasons and will need to do it. The likes of Karl Klug and Mike Martin have been good in prior seasons as well but will this defense get the best from them?
Steve – The Texans’ defensive line will be a must-watch every week this season, if for nothing else, to see J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney playing together. I’m just hoping that new defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel plays to both of their strengths, allowing them to be athletic freaks and get into the backfield. It will be just as interesting to see if Watt is asked to 2-gap or Clowney is asked to drop into coverage, perhaps wasting two of the league’s best defensive talents.
Gordon – Jacksonville’s defensive line. I really believe that they are building a team that will be competing for a playoff spot soon, if not this year, in Jacksonville and there’s a lot to be interested in up front. Sen’Derrick Marks has flashed with some impressive play in the past, particularly as a pass rusher, and I like the additions of Chris Clemons and Red Bryant. More so, though, I’m intrigued to see how Ziggy Hood does. We criticised his play in Pittsburgh but he looked much more at home as a 4-3 defensive tackle in Jacksonville this preseason.
Who is your pick for breakout player?
Sam – Nuk Hopkins. The Texans have been searching for a viable weapon opposite Andre Johnson for years. They finally found one last year and the quarterback play went in the tank. That issue is still not exactly resolved, but Hopkins, I think, will be improved enough to have a big season regardless.
Ben – There were hints and glimpses of the powerful run blocker that we were supposed to see last season but the consistency was not there for Chance Warmack and in the end he was outshone by Larry Warford as a rookie. In Year 2 it’s a matter of consistency and particularly as a run blocker I believe Warmack has what it takes to take a big stride forward to be one of the league’s better guards this season.
Steve – After a rough start last season, Jaguars safety Jonathan Cyprien made good strides in the second half of the season and he should become a key cog in Head Coach Gus Bradley’s defense this season. He has the ability to become a playmaker around the line of scrimmage and covering tight ends, and his year of experience should be evident after looking overmatched at times last year.
Gordon – Justin Hunter. Like I said when I picked the Titans to win the division, I really like Hunter to excite us all with some highlight-reel plays in 2014. He did drop five of the 23 catchable passes thrown his way as a rookie but three of those came in the one game and he had four receptions of 30 yards or more from 18 receptions in 2013.
Which rookie has the biggest impact, for good or bad?
Sam – I don’t think Jadeveon Clowney is quite the superman everybody else does, but he is a human highlight reel. When he makes plays, they’re big, impact splash plays. He has freakish speed and get-off and makes his biggest plays unblocked. That might sound silly, but it’s because he gets to places most players can’t, and NFL offenses regularly leave players unblocked by design, safe in the knowledge they can’t influence the play. Clowney can, and J.J Watt draws the kind of attention that can get him a few more of those unblocked looks.
Ben – Regardless of my prediction above, the Jaguars need impact from their young wide receivers and I believe Marqise Lee has the ability and the opportunity to be instantly productive. He’s shown some promise in preseason with a pair of touchdowns but the real business is ahead and whoever is under center they’ll be looking for Lee to add some spark to the receiving corps.
Steve – It’s hard to pick against Jadeveon Clowney, especially given the opportunities he’ll have to get after the quarterback. It’s unlikely that he’ll be able to out-athlete NFL offensive tackles on a weekly basis, but he’s still most equipped to make an impact in Year 1.
Gordon – Blake Bortles. I’m going out on a bit of a limb here because as good as Bortles looked in preseason, I could see the Jaguars being content to have him sit all year ready to take the reigns in 2015. But he had some really nice throws this August and, selfishly, I just want to see him on the field as soon as possible. It’s too early to judge but I was impressed by what we saw from him in the preseason and I don’t think he’d be too phased by starting in Year 1.
Also see… Four Questions: