Top 5 contenders for Super Bowl LI
Less than 24 hours removed from Super Bowl 50, the PFF team is already gearing up for the 2016 season. Which teams are best-suited to contend for a title next February in Houston?
Here our my five picks for potential Super Bowl LI contenders.
1. New England Patriots
Not a single impact player from the 2015 version of the Patriots is going to be a free agent this offseason. On top of that, they’ll get LT Nate Solder and RB Dion Lewis back to complete what should be the most dynamic offense in the NFL. When those two were healthy the first three weeks of the season, the Patriots’ offense was easily the most dominant in the league, averaging almost 40 points per game.
One reason to temper expectations, though, is the lack of a first-round pick. The inability to add a first-round playmaker to the mix—and under $2 million in cap space—currently means the Patriots may not be able to plug holes along the porous offensive line. Tom Brady was sacked or hit a combined 112 times last season; at 39 years old, the Patriots can’t afford to hang him out to dry like that again.
2. Carolina Panthers
The Panthers are built for a nice run of success here in the near future. They have the cornerstones of their offense (Cam Newton) and defense (Luke Kuechley) locked up for the long term, they finally have cap room ($19 million), and only two key starters (Josh Norman and Mike Remmers) are set to hit free agency. Norman will, in all likelihood, be franchise tagged, and they could also get some cap relief by maneuvering the contracts of Jared Allen and Charles Johnson.
One thing is clear after the Super Bowl, though—the Panthers need some receivers. Former first-round pick Kelvin Benjamin should return, but the story in Carolina will once again be Cam Newton. Much of their breakout success this year can be traced to Newton’s development as a quarterback. If he can build that success with Benjamin returning, Devin Funchess improving in year two, and possibly another receiver added in the draft, then the Panthers have to be considered the favorite in the NFC.
3. Green Bay Packers
If the Packers can figure out a way to recapture their offensive dominance, they’ll be right there in the mix with the Panthers. Their number one receiver, Jordy Nelson, returns from an ACL injury, and Eddie Lacy will no doubt be in the best shape of his life after getting publicly called out by head coach Mike McCarthy for his weight. Those two changes should make a significant impact on an offense that likely brings back every starter from the 2014 team that was first in the league in scoring.
The real reason the Packers are this high, though, is their budding defense. The young secondary took a huge step forward in 2015, with the additions of Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins in the first and second rounds of last year’s draft, respectively. The seven members of the secondary that received over 33 snaps combined for an overall cumulative grade of +33.4. If they can retain Casey Hayward, who is the only impact player on the Packers’ defense to hit free agency, this should be a balanced Super Bowl contender in 2016.
4. Seattle Seahawks
As long as the Seahawks have the top three members of the Legion of Boom intact, they’ll be a legit Super Bowl defense. The question is, can they make enough improvements to their offensive line to maintain a Super Bowl offense? Right guard J.R. Sweezy and left tackle Russel Okung are set to hit free agency, and they were the Seahawks’ two highest-graded starters from a year ago. So, it is entirely possible that things get worse before they get better up front.
With Russell Wilson, though, they’ve proven that the offensive line is an afterthought. He was our fifth-highest graded quarterback, despite the Seahawks having the third-worst pass-blocking in the league. Tyler Lockett should be an even deadlier weapon in year two after he was PFF’s second-highest graded rookie receiver, and the Seahawks have an entire offseason to incorporate Jimmy Graham into their offense more seamlessly.
5. Denver Broncos
This offseason will be the most difficult one in the brief tenure of GM John Elway. The lingering questions at the quarterback position and impending free agents keep the Broncos low on this list, but nabbing a QB in free agency (or having Peyton Manning return) would change that. It’s disappointing that even after four years of being groomed as a starter in waiting, Brock Osweiller is still a wild card as the Broncos’ starting quarterback. He’s going to be a free agent this offseason, and after 521 unflattering snaps in 2015 (71.3 overall grade), his future is uncertain.
It’s been reported that Denver will use the franchise tag to ensure Von Miller stays put, but that still leaves Evan Mathis, Malik Jackson, Brandon Marshall (restricted), Danny Trevathan, C.J. Anderson (restricted), and David Bruton unsigned for next year. That is a ton of talent to try and replace. That being said, the secondary and edge rushing will still be lights out. If Manning does call it quits, it will also leave them with a good deal of cap room to maintain that vaunted defense.