NFL

Predicting Each NFL Team's Biggest Training Camp Revelation

Russell S. BaxterContributor IJuly 22, 2014

Predicting Each NFL Team's Biggest Training Camp Revelation

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    Will Brandon Marshall lead the Chicago Bears in receptions in 2014? Well...
    Will Brandon Marshall lead the Chicago Bears in receptions in 2014? Well...Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    And so it begins.

    Welcome to NFL training camp 2014.

    Here are some thoughts about what to expect this summer when it comes to each club.

    With our revelations come a prediction...32 of them, in fact.

    From moves made by each NFL team via free agency and trades, as well as the draft, to what kind of seasons some performers will have this fall and winter, we believe we have it covered.

    As usual, the expected will blend with the unexpected. And that’s what makes this game and league so incredibly fascinating and fun to watch.

    And that’s far from a revelation.

Arizona Cardinals

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Revelation: Cardinals’ receiving corps may be their best since 2008.

    Result: Does that really say 2008, the year the Arizona Cardinals reached their first and only Super Bowl?

    Why not?

    This past season, veteran wideout Larry Fitzgerald finished his 10th NFL campaign with 10 touchdown receptions, more than twice as many as the four scores he managed the previous year. Meanwhile, it was former first-rounder Michael Floyd who led the team with 1,041 receiving yards in 2013.

    Although wide receiver Andre Roberts left for the Washington Redskins via free agency, the Cards signed Ted Ginn Jr. and drafted equally speedy wideout John Brown in the third round.

    Add veteran tight end John Carlson and don’t be surprised if quarterback Carson Palmer throws at least 30 touchdown passes this season. That’s something the veteran signal-caller has done only once before in his career, and that was back in 2005 with the Cincinnati Bengals.

Atlanta Falcons

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    Revelation: Rookie running back Devonta Freeman will push for a starting job.

    Result: So are the Atlanta Falcons kicking veteran running back Steven Jackson to the curb after one injury-plagued, disappointing season?

    Not so fast (and no pun intended). For the record, it didn’t matter who was in the backfield for the team in 2013. No team in the league totaled fewer running plays (321) than Mike Smith’s club this past season.

    Even if rookie running back Devonta Freeman, Atlanta’s first of two fourth-round picks in May, doesn’t upend the 10-year veteran for starting duties, you can look for the entire Falcons ground attack to be much busier in 2014.

    A year ago, Smith’s club faced a whopping 455 running plays. That would be a good number for the Atlanta offense to shoot for this season.

Baltimore Ravens

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    Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

    Revelation: Tight end Dennis Pitta will be team’s most versatile weapon.

    Result: We are not necessarily breaking any news here.

    According to Aaron Wilson of The Baltimore Sun, we will be seeing a lot from tight end Dennis Pitta in a variety of roles.

    More importantly, Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco will have one of his favorite targets in recent seasons back, as he missed the first 12 games of 2013 due to a hip injury.

    General manager Ozzie Newsome added to the team’s receiving arsenal this offseason. Joining wideouts Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones are veterans such as wide receiver Steve Smith and tight end Owen Daniels, released by the Carolina Panthers and Houston Texans, respectively.

    But it will be Pitta who leads the team in receptions this upcoming season.

Buffalo Bills

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Revelation: Team doesn’t appear to be worried about defensive losses.

    Result: There is certainly some excitement surrounding a team that hasn’t been to the playoffs since 1999.

    Thanks to a number of offensive additions such as wide receivers Sammy Watkins and Mike Williams as well as running back Bryce Brown, much will be expected from the Buffalo Bills this season.

    Yes, the team is out three-time Pro Bowl free safety Jairus Byrd, who left for the New Orleans Saints. Recently, 2013 leading tackler Kiko Alonso was lost with a knee injury, likely for the entire season.

    But the key will be a pair of defensive additions in the form of middle linebacker Brandon Spikes, the former New England Patriots performer, and coordinator Jim Schwartz, the former Detroit Lions head coach.

    At linebacker, the names to keep an eye on are Nigel Bradham and rookie Preston Brown. In the secondary, safeties Aaron Williams and Da’Norris Searcy bear watching—so will Buffalo’s defense in 2014.

Carolina Panthers

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    Dave Martin/Associated Press

    Revelation: Overhauled offense has its work cut out for itself.

    Result: If the Carolina Panthers are to become the first team to win back-to-back NFC South titles in the brief history of the division, it will be with a very different cast.

    That really rings true when it comes to the offensive side of the ball. Just take a look at last year’s 11 starters for that unit in January’s NFC divisional-round loss to the San Francisco 49ers.

    The starting wide receivers were Steve Smith and Brandon LaFell, now with the Baltimore Ravens and New England Patriots, respectively. Left tackle Jordan Gross has retired, and left guard Travelle Wharton isn’t around. Right guard Nate Chandler figures as the new left tackle.

    To be fair, quarterback Cam Newton returns with tight end Greg Olsen (who led the team in catches in 2013), running back DeAngelo Williams and fullback Mike Tolbert. Two-year veteran Amini Silatolu, the team’s regular left guard who missed 13 games a year ago, returns as well.

    Still, that’s a lot of changes on the offensive front as well in the receiving corps as the team welcomes newcomers such as Jason Avant, Jerricho Cotchery, Tiquan Underwood and rookie Kelvin Benjamin.

    It will be interesting to see the timing of this attack (or lack thereof) in the season’s opening weeks.

Chicago Bears

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    Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    Revelation: QB Jay Cutler will have a career year in 2014.

    Result: All the pieces are in place for a big season from the eight-year veteran.

    Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler has long been known for his talent. But something always seems amiss for the one-time first-round pick of the Denver Broncos.

    Last season, he threw 19 touchdown passes and 12 interceptions in 11 starts. He hasn’t started all 16 games since his first year in the Windy City in 2009. Even more surprising is the fact that he has yet to throw at least 30 touchdown passes in a season.

    With star Brandon Marshall still in town, fellow Pro Bowler Alshon Jeffery coming into his own in 2013 and other targets such as tight end Martellus Bennett and versatile running back Matt Forte at his disposal, expect some huge things from the much-maligned Cutler this season.

    Meanwhile, don’t be shocked when Jeffery leads the Bears in catches this season.

Cincinnati Bengals

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Revelation: Bengals are young and now deeper at running back.

    Result: Is that possible?

    A year ago, the Cincinnati Bengals made a franchise-record-setting third straight playoff appearance, and one of the catalysts was the two-headed rushing monster of reliable veteran BenJarvus Green-Ellis and then-rookie Giovani Bernard. The tandem combined for 390 carries, 1,451 yards and a dozen touchdowns on the ground.

    Now add second-round pick Jeremy Hill to the mix. The former LSU product opened plenty of eyes this offseason and appears to have pushed Green-Ellis (the team leader with 756 yards in 2013) back a bit on the depth chart.

    Keep in mind that the Bengals also have a new offensive coordinator in Hue Jackson, who likes to stress the running game. That could be one factor in helping quarterback Andy Dalton, who threw 33 touchdown passes last season but committed 23 turnovers.

    It won’t be a major surprise if and/or when the Bengals lead the NFL in rushing yards in 2014.

Cleveland Browns

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    Mark Duncan/Associated Press

    Revelation: There will be a battle for the Browns’ starting QB job.

    Result: Some would say that it would be a revelation if there wasn’t a mention of Johnny Manziel in a Cleveland Browns piece.

    Reality bites, doesn’t it?

    The truth is that the team feels pretty good about relatively inexperienced starter Brian Hoyer, who was 3-0 with the team in 2013. But the fact is that for the third time in eight years, the Browns selected a quarterback in the first round (with the 22nd overall pick) of the draft. This time it’s Manziel, a Heisman Trophy winner in 2012 and the club’s signal-caller of the distant or not-too-distant future.

    How distant? Head coach Mike Pettine has an idea in terms of when we will know.

    “Yeah, it’s definitely still up in the air,” said the Browns’ newest head coach to Nate Ulrich of the Akron Beacon Journal recently. “It could be sooner, and that’s something we’re going to discuss in that meeting. It’ll be before the third preseason game. I just don’t have a date. I don’t know if I’ll set a date and kind of paint ourselves into a date, but it will be sooner than the third preseason game.”

    Within a month, we will finally know if it’s time for Johnny Football—or Manziel, at least for now, will be a Johnny-Come-Lately.

Dallas Cowboys

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    Brian Bahr/Getty Images

    Revelation: Cowboys offensive line could wind up being team’s best defense.

    Result: You would have never known that Dallas Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray gained 1,121 yards on the ground this past season.

    That’s probably because head coach Jason Garrett’s offensive unit scored 45 touchdowns last season, 33 of those through the air.

    All offseason, the focus of this team has been trying to improve the league’s worst defense in 2013.

    The answer lies on the other side of the ball. New offensive play-caller Scott Linehan would be wise to lean on Murray, Lance Dunbar and the rest of the Cowboys running backs behind a rapidly improving offensive front.

    Already led by Pro Bowl left tackle Tyron Smith and center Travis Frederick, a 16-game starter as a rookie last season, Dallas drafted versatile guard Zack Martin in the first round in May.

    A unit that has made significant strides in recent years continues to get better.

Denver Broncos

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Revelation: 2013 formula won’t be repeated?

    Result: We have seen it too many times. And it happened again this past season.

    Some NFL team racks up a record amount of points, the defense isn’t up to snuff and the result is no Super Bowl title.

    In the history of the league, there have been eight occasions in which a team has scored at least 540 points in one season, and none walked away with a Lombardi Trophy.

    Last year the Denver Broncos totaled an NFL-record 606 points during the regular season. It eventually added up to a 35-point loss in Super Bowl XLVIII.

    Quarterback Peyton Manning threw a record 55 touchdown passes last season. However, it’s a ground attack that ranked 15th in the league in 2013 that figures to get more emphasis in 2014. Second-year pro Montee Ball is primed to be a workhorse for John Fox’s team this season.

    More balance on offense signifies additions such as defensive end DeMarcus Ware, cornerback Aqib Talib and strong safety T.J. Ward mean something, since they don’t plan on being on the field far too often.

Detroit Lions

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    Revelation: Rookie and second-year defensive players will make difference.

    Result: The Detroit Lions have been to the playoffs just once in the last 14 seasons.

    The team found a way to squander an opportunity to make it two postseason appearances in three years in 2013.

    Off to a 6-3 start, the club dropped six of its final seven games to finish 7-9 and hand head coach Jim Schwartz his walking papers.

    While 21 turnovers in seven games will do that, the Lions hope that they won’t have to rely on quarterback Matthew Stafford and company as much in 2014.

    The defensive unit boasts defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley, as well as linebackers DeAndre Levy and Stephen Tulloch.

    But it will be up to second-year pros such as defensive ends Ziggy Ansah (team-high eight sacks in 2013) and Devin Taylor, cornerback Darius Slay and 2014 second-round pick Kyle Van Noy to elevate the team this season, the first under new head coach Jim Caldwell and defensive coordinator Teryl Austin.

    Van Noy, a versatile defender who figures to be a starter sooner than later at outside linebacker, could be a strong Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate if he performs as advertised.

Green Bay Packers

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    Associated Press

    Revelation: Veteran Julius Peppers will adjust quickly to his new role.

    Result: We will steal from one of the classic quotes in motion picture history.

    “I am not an animal. I am a human being.”

    Those were the words uttered in The Elephant Man, a story of perseverance and courage—and little to do with the subject of football.

    But we will borrow that phrase because Julius Peppers is no longer a Chicago Bear. He’s a member of the Green Bay Packers and will line up this season, as will others, in defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ “elephant” role on defense.

    Weston Hodkiewicz of Press-Gazette Media explains how Peppers and others will be adjusting to this new “position” on a defense that needed a chiropractor in 2013. Green Bay finished 25th against the run and 24th versus the pass in the NFL last year.

    As for those who have their doubts about Peppers, let’s not forget what kind of athlete the 12-year veteran is. In four years with the Bears, he started all 16 games each season. And during his NFL career, he has not only totaled 119 sacks and 40 forced fumbles but has nine interceptions, two returned for scores.

    Yes, you can say Peppers has a “nose” for the football.

Houston Texans

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    Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

    Revelation: Defense in need of more work than perceived.

    Result: It’s amazing when you consider that a 2-14 team owned the league’s seventh-ranked defense in terms of fewest yards allowed.

    A closer look reveals that the Houston Texans ranked a disappointing 23rd in the NFL when it came to stopping the run. A pass rush that had produced 44 sacks each of the previous two seasons finished with only 32 sacks in 2013.

    And while the team was hurt dearly by the play of its quarterbacks last season, the defense simply failed to offset those miscues.

    The Texans finished last in the league with a minus-20 turnover differential thanks to not only 31 turnovers but the fact that Houston had a problem coming up with big plays. The club managed a mere 11 takeaways in 16 games, including a league-low seven interceptions. That latter figure was one fewer interception than Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman (eight) amassed this past season.

    Houston’s new defensive coordinator is Romeo Crennel. With the likes of defensive end J.J. Watt, rookie linebacker Jadeveon Clowney and cornerback Johnathan Joseph in place, that takeaway total from a season ago may wind up tripling by the end of 2014.

Indianapolis Colts

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    Michael Hickey/Getty Images

    Revelation: Return to 2012 form by running back Trent Richardson.

    Result: As a rookie with the Cleveland Browns two years ago, Trent Richardson ran for 950 yards and 11 touchdowns.

    He also finished second on the team with 51 receptions for 367 yards and a score that season.

    We saw none of that kind of form or production in his stint with the Indianapolis Colts in 2013. The team looked like it had gotten the short end of the stick in a trade with the Browns that left Chuck Pagano’s club with no first-round pick two months ago.

    As we have referenced in other pieces recently, Craig Kelley of Colts.com documents how Richardson has become a lot more accustomed to the play book of offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton this offseason.

    While it would be a major shock to see Richardson finish second on the Colts in catches in 2014, more than 1,000 yards rushing should be well within range for the talented runner.

Jacksonville Jaguars

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    Revelation: Running back Toby Gerhart can handle very heavy workload.

    Result: Over the last two seasons, the Jacksonville Jaguars have won a total of six games.

    In 2012, the team finished 29th in total offense and 30th in rushing yards. This past season, only the Tampa Bay Buccaneers gained fewer total yards, only the Atlanta Falcons gained fewer yards on the ground, and no team in the league scored fewer points.

    Enter free-agent running back Toby Gerhart, picked up from the Minnesota Vikings. Jaguars offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch has high aspirations for the former Stanford product.

    “Toby will be our workhorse,” said Fisch last week, per Ryan O'Halloran of The Florida Times-Union. “Toby has the ability to do it all. He can catch it well. He can pass protect well, and he’s going to be in the game a lot—third down, base downs, short-yardage, passing downs.”

    The Jaguars are certainly hoping so. Maurice Jones-Drew is now a member of the Oakland Raiders, and the team has a lot of youth at wide receiver.

    It’s going to be a very busy and hopefully productive fifth year in the NFL for the former Viking.

Kansas City Chiefs

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    Colin E Braley/Associated Press

    Revelation: Offensive line may not adapt to numerous changes.

    Result: For all of their defensive issues late in the season and in the playoffs a year ago, the Kansas City Chiefs now have other concerns with the 2014 season on the horizon.

    Led by running back Jamaal Charles, the Kansas City ground attack ranked 10th in the NFL this past season. The offensive line was led by Pro Bowl left tackle Branden Albert and veteran guards Jon Asamoah and Geoff Schwartz. The latter replaced Asamoah in the starting lineup during the season.

    Now all three performers are gone. Albert is with the Miami Dolphins, Asamoah is a member of the Atlanta Falcons and Schwartz signed with the New York Giants.

    Eric Fisher, the first overall pick of the 2013 draft, moves to left tackle, while free-agent pickup Jeff Linkenbach takes over at right guard.

    It’s just a tweak here or there for Andy Reid’s team. But it’s one area of the team that bears a little watching in what could be a critical season for the club.

Miami Dolphins

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Revelation: A new, better learning experience for wide receiver Mike Wallace.

    Result: Last season proved to be a disappointing one for the Miami Dolphins and wide receiver Mike Wallace, who didn’t have the debut in South Florida he was looking for.

    “I didn’t feel like I knew what was going on,” said Wallace two months ago to Hal Habib of The Palm Beach Post.

    How about this year, under new offensive coordinator Bill Lazor? “It’s still new, just because it’s a new offense,” added Wallace. “But at the same time I feel a lot more comfortable.”

    Wallace didn’t make the splash many were expecting in 2013. He finished second on the team in receptions (73), receiving yards (930) and touchdown grabs (five). No doubt he was expected to be the club leader in all three categories in his Miami debut.

    Expectations will become reality in 2014.

Minnesota Vikings

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Revelation: Overhauled defensive line is deep.

    Result: This past season, no team in the NFL gave up more points than the Minnesota Vikings.

    This season, the Vikings will no longer have the services of former Pro Bowl defensive linemen Jared Allen and Kevin Williams.

    New head coach Mike Zimmer will go in a new direction when it comes to his defensive front. The middle will be anchored by free-agent pickup Linval Joseph and 2013 first-rounder Sharrif Floyd. Veteran Brian Robison returns at left defensive end, but four-year pro Everson Griffen is now the starter at the other end spot.

    Veterans such as Fred Evans and free-agent pickup Corey Wootton provide depth. And keep an eye on 2014 third-round pick Scott Crichton, who shows a lot of promise.

    Also, look for a return of a 50-sack season for the Purple People Eaters.

New England Patriots

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Revelation: Third year the charm for defensive end Chandler Jones.

    Result: You can be assured that the New England Patriots will be in the middle of any Super Bowl talk this fall.

    It’s talk of winning the Super Bowl that has left the team speechless as of late.

    It will have been 10 years in February since the Pats’ last NFL championship season. For the most part, the culprit more times than not has been a defense that has been a shell compared to the units that earned three titles in four years from 2001 to 2004.

    Last season, injuries to defensive tackles Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly as well as middle linebacker Jerod Mayo derailed the team’s super plans. They are all back this year, along with first-round pick Dominique Easley, who could see action all along the defensive front.

    Right defensive end Chandler Jones begins his third season. After totaling a half dozen sacks as a rookie, the former first-rounder led New England with 11.5 sacks in the 2013. Look for those numbers to rise again as Jones makes a strong bid for Defensive Player of the Year honors.

New Orleans Saints

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    Revelation: Same old Drew Brees but new-look passing attack.

    Result: While throwing for 4,000 yards in a season has become more common in the NFL, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees apparently has his own standards.

    The prolific signal-caller has thrown for 5,000-plus yards each of the last three seasons. In 2013, he totaled 5,162 yards through the air and 39 scores.

    But what some may not realize is that while the yards and scores have piled up, it’s been courtesy of the team’s tight ends and running back and not necessarily the wideouts. Last season, only 14 of Brees’ 39 touchdown passes came courtesy of wide receivers.

    That number will change this year. Gone are running back Darren Sproles and veteran wideout Lance Moore. Returning are wide receivers Marques Colston and Kenny Stills, who each caught five touchdown passes in 2013. The team is very excited about what first-round pick Brandin Cooks will do as a rookie this season.

    Never fear. Tight end Jimmy Graham will get his catches and trips to the end zone. But regardless of Brees’ touchdown total, look for the wide receivers to be the focus in 2014.

New York Giants

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Revelation: Tom Coughlin’s veteran defenders will step to forefront.

    Result: Looks like Jason Pierre-Paul’s back.

    We couldn’t resist.

    The key to the New York Giants’ recent Super Bowl titles (2007 and 2011) was in part due to a fierce pass rush led by a very deep defensive line.

    Age and defections have turned that group into somewhat of a shallow pool. In 2013, New York defenders totaled a very mediocre 34 sacks.

    Defenders such as Mathias Kiwanuka (six) and Jason Pierre-Paul (two) combined for only eight of those sacks. Team leader Justin Tuck took his 11 sacks to the West Coast, signing with the Oakland Raiders.

    If both Kiwanuka and Pierre-Paul can step up their games in 2014, the latter having dealt with injuries the last two seasons, there is no reason to believe that the Giants and their new faces in the secondary can't improve on the team’s 17 interceptions and 29 total takeaways from last season.

New York Jets

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    Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

    Revelation: On-the-job training pays off for QB Geno Smith.

    Result: For all of the ruckus usually associated with the New York Jets, you can’t deny the fact that when the ugliness cleared last season, this was an 8-8 football team.

    Quarterback Geno Smith had his trials and tribulations as a rookie, committing 25 of the team’s 29 turnovers last season. Still, he started all 16 games, threw for a dozen touchdowns and ran for 366 yards and six scores. All this despite a supporting cast that was less than impressive.

    Help has arrived in the form of running back Chris Johnson, who in six seasons has never failed to rush for at least 1,000 yards. The former Tennessee Titan will pair with Bilal Powell and Chris Ivory in the backfield.

    Veteran wideout Eric Decker and rookie pass-catchers such as tight end Jace Amaro and wideouts Jalen Saunders and Shaquelle Evans join incumbents Jeremy Kerley, David Nelson and Stephen Hill, as well as tight end Jeff Cumberland.

    Suddenly, Smith has more options, and the offense looks to be on the rise—which means the second-year quarterback should cut that turnover total of his in half…or better.

Oakland Raiders

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    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    Revelation: Revived pass rush will improve via learning experience.

    Result: Over the last two offseasons, Oakland Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie has proven that he likes veterans on the defensive side of the ball.

    Just as was the case in 2013, the team went shopping in free agency for proven commodities when it comes to stopping the opposition.

    In this case, McKenzie was obviously looking for something specific and apparently got it. The Raiders signed defensive linemen Antonio Smith, Justin Tuck and LaMarr Woodley, as well as cornerbacks Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown. All five veterans have started in at least one Super Bowl over the past seven seasons.

    Still, it will be youth that will be served by this team in 2014. Fifth overall pick in 2014 and linebacker Khalil Mack has been the talk of Oakland’s offseason. Another young defender who bears watching is fellow outside linebacker Sio Moore, a third-round selection in 2013.

    Look for Mack to learn from the likes of Tuck, Smith and especially Woodley, an outside linebacker with the Pittsburgh Steelers the last seven seasons who will line up at defensive end this year.

    And while Tuck comes off an 11-sack season with the New York Giants, expect Mack to be the team leader in 2014 when it comes to tackling the other clubs' quarterback.

Philadelphia Eagles

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    Michael Perez/Associated Press

    Revelation: Running back LeSean McCoy’s best football may be ahead of him.

    Result: Head coach Chip Kelly’s debut with the Philadelphia Eagles resulted in the team’s first NFC East title since 2010.

    It also came with the fact that no team in the league ran for more yards than these Birds in 2013. And only the Denver Broncos gained more total yards than Kelly’s club this past season.

    No player in the NFL ran for more yards than LeSean McCoy a year ago. His 1,607 yards on the ground was the main reason Philadelphia ran for an average of 160.4 yards per contest.

    Now McCoy has his sights set on a number we have seen reached just seven times in the 94-year history of the NFL.

    “I’m wondering if I get 2,000 yards,” said McCoy less than three weeks ago to Max Cohen of The Philadelphia Inquirer.

    So are we. McCoy averaged 5.1 yards per carry this past season, and if you used that as a gauge, you would think he would need 400 carries to reach that magical number. Or he could average six yards per attempt, like Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson did in 2012 when he ran for 2,097 yards on 348 carries.

    Call it cheese steaks for thought this season.

Pittsburgh Steelers

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Revelation: Younger and faster defense will mean return to traditional form.

    Result: Remember when the Pittsburgh Steelers were known for a defense that harassed opposing quarterbacks and made its share of game-changing plays?

    The Steelers haven’t done much of that in recent seasons. Over the past three years, the Black and Gold have totaled 106 sacks and a mere 55 takeaways in 48 regular-season games.

    From 2008 to 2010, two of those seasons resulting in Super Bowl appearances, the Steelers amassed 146 sacks and forced 86 turnovers.

    This obviously won’t be the first place you hear the name Ryan Shazier, Pittsburgh’s top pick in the 2014 draft. But teamed with fellow rookie Stephon Tuitt, second-year outside linebacker Jarvis Jones and emerging safety Mike Mitchell (a free-agent pickup from the Carolina Panthers), you can bet Pro Bowler Troy Polamalu won’t be the only Steelers defender flying around the field in 2014.

St. Louis Rams

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    Revelation: Second-year wide receiver Tavon Austin starting fast this season.

    Result: A little over a year ago, the St. Louis Rams moved up in the NFL draft to grab exciting wide receiver Tavon Austin.

    Unfortunately, it took a little while for the excitement to begin.

    When it was all said and done, the speedy performer touched the ball exactly 100 times via receptions (40), punt returns (33), kickoff returns (18) and rushing attempts (nine), and he amassed 1,247 all-purpose yards while scoring a total of six touchdowns three different ways.

    Just when he appeared to be hitting his stride, he missed the final three games of the season.

    When it was all said and done, much more was expected from Austin. And you can look for those numbers to jump significantly this upcoming season. The Rams have added a lot of talent on both sides of the ball via the draft in recent years, but they're still obviously young.

    A healthy Sam Bradford would also go a long way toward the continued development of Austin, who averaged just 10.5 yards per catch as a rookie.

    Don’t be shocked if the talented weapon amasses 2,000-plus total yards in his second season.

San Diego Chargers

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    Revelation: Late-season success formula from 2013 has backup plan.

    Result: Mike McCoy’s team put on a late-season surge and wound up not only claiming a postseason berth but winning a road playoff game at Cincinnati.

    Now the San Diego Chargers are looking for some bigger and better things in 2014. And don’t be surprised if a couple of current reserves help propel the team to a few more wins.

    In 2013, running back Ryan Mathews totaled a career-high 1,255 yards rushing, and veteran tight end Antonio Gates led the team with 77 receptions. The latter is entering his 12th season while Mathews has had his issues staying healthy at times.

    This offseason, the Chargers added running back Donald Brown via free agency. Last year, he led the Colts with a career-high 537 yards rushing and ran hard. Meanwhile, San Diego backup tight end Ladarius Green averaged 22.1 yards per catch on 17 receptions and scored three times in 2013.

    Are we ready to hand Brown and Green starting jobs before the season? No. But don’t be surprised if their numbers in 2014 dwarf last season’s performances.

San Francisco 49ers

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Revelation: A lot of fresh legs in 49ers backfield will pay dividends.

    Result: Isn’t it funny that a league now known more for its quarterbacks and less for its running backs has a bunch of the latter on one of its best teams?

    Of course, the San Francisco 49ers have one of the emerging signal-callers in the NFL in Colin Kaepernick, who is also heralded for his rushing prowess.

    Still, the Niners’ running back depth chart is imposing with Frank Gore, the franchise’s all-time rushing leader. He’s joined by Kendall Hunter, LaMichael James, Marcus Lattimore (whom we hope to see one of these days when healthy) and now rookie Carlos Hyde, a second-round pick in May.

    Gore, who has run for 1,100-plus yards each of the last three seasons, may find that streak come to an end. Hyde, a former Ohio State Buckeye, should see his share of carries for a team looking to make it back to the playoffs for a fourth straight year.

    After all, the 49ers can run. And can’t Hyde make them even better?

Seattle Seahawks

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    Revelation: Change on offensive front makes defending champions better.

    Result: Hail to the champs.

    The Seattle Seahawks found their groove late in 2012 and carried it all the way into this past season, when they finished 13-3 and smothered the New Orleans Saints, San Francisco 49ers and Denver Broncos on their way to winning Super Bowl XLVIII. Pete Carroll’s club gave up the fewest points in the league in 2013 and allowed a combined 40 points in three postseason wins.

    This year, the champs sport a new-look offensive line, one that saw starting right tackle Breno Giacomini depart for the New York Jets via free agency. Second-year performer Michael Bowie is the heir apparent, but look for rookie Justin Britt, a second-round pick in May, to push him and more.

    Eventually, Britt will team with left tackle Russell Okung to give the champs a solid pair of bookends. The veteran blocker and former Pro Bowler missed eight games last season. Continuity was the Seahawks’ biggest obstacle when it came to the offensive front in 2013.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Revelation: Don’t lock in QB Josh McCown as team’s season-long starter.

    Result: Lovie Smith, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ third head coach in six years, has already made it clear who his starting quarterback will be.

    One of the team’s many offseason moves was the free-agent addition of veteran quarterback Josh McCown, whom Smith knows briefly from the duo’s stint with the Chicago Bears. In eight games in 2013, the well-traveled performer made five starts and threw 13 touchdown passes compared to only one interception.

    Consider that in his other various stops around the league dating back to 2002, including three games with the Bears in 2011, McCown threw for a combined 37 scores and was picked off 44 times. He never enjoyed a season where he threw for more scores than interceptions.

    Will he struggle with his newest team this season? He’s surrounded by a lot of talent, but there’s also a promising prospect in Mike Glennon, who took his lumps as a rookie in 2013 but managed to throw for 19 scores while committing only 13 turnovers.

    As time wears on, it may be tough keeping that kind of promise and youth out of the lineup. It will be a much more interesting preseason at quarterback for the Buccaneers than some may be anticipating.

Tennessee Titans

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Revelation: Ray Horton’s 3-4 defense looks like ideal fit for team.

    Result: The Tennessee Titans haven’t been to the playoffs since 2008. That same year, Ken Whisenhunt was leading the Arizona Cardinals to Super Bowl XLIII.

    Now the franchise and the head coach both hope to get back to prominence. Whisenhunt spent 2013 as the San Diego Chargers offensive coordinator and helped reverse the fortunes of slumping quarterback Philip Rivers.

    But it’s one of the other coaching additions that will prove to be the difference here. Well-respected Ray Horton is one of the better defensive minds in the league and brings his version of the 3-4 to Nashville.

    To aid in the transition, the Titans added free agents such as linebackers Shaun Phillips and Wesley Woodyard, both members of the Denver Broncos in 2013, as well as defensive end Al Woods, a product of Dick LeBeau’s defense with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

    With pieces such as talented defensive lineman Jurrell Casey (who makes the switch to nose tackle), pass-rusher Kamerion Wimbley, outside linebacker Akeem Ayers and hard-hitting safeties Bernard Pollard and Michael Griffin in place, look for major improvement by this unit.

    Last season, the Titans allowed 381 points and finished a mediocre 14th in the NFL in total yards allowed. Look for the latter ranking to be in the single digits in 2014.

Washington Redskins

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    Revelation: Down time proves uplifting to QB Robert Griffin III.

    Result: He was the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2012.

    Last season, the Washington Redskins’ overall performance proved to be offensive.

    All puns aside, there are a lot of fans anxious to see what quarterback Robert Griffin III will do in his third NFL season. A year after leading the team to its first division title since 1999, he wasn’t around the last three weeks when the club was in the midst of a season-ending eight-game losing streak.

    Griffin does return with a new head coach in Jay Gruden and some new weapons in wide receivers DeSean Jackson and Andre Roberts. They join workhorse runner Alfred Morris, wideout Pierre Garcon (the NFL’s leading receiver in 2013) and promising tight end Jordan Reed, to name a few.

    More importantly, Griffin returns healthy, something that didn’t seem to be the case at the start of 2013, just eight months removed from a knee injury suffered in the playoff loss to the Seattle Seahawks. This past season, the talented signal-caller committed 16 turnovers in 13 games, this after coughing up the ball just seven times in 15 outings in his rookie campaign.

    Don’t be shocked if Griffin adds NFL Comeback Player of the Year honors to his brief resume.

     

    Some statistical support for this piece was provided by Pro-Football-Reference, NFL.com and ESPN.com.

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