25 Predictions for the 2014 NFL Season

Alessandro Miglio@@AlexMiglioFeatured ColumnistSeptember 2, 2014

25 Predictions for the 2014 NFL Season

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    The 2014 NFL season is upon us. The roller coaster is nearing the apex before the first big drop as we approach Thursday Night Football with the reigning champs and a perennial power.

    The Seattle Seahawks take on the Green Bay Packers in the first of many heavyweight bouts this season, and we are so close to the beginning of it all.

    But there is time yet for last-minute predictions. Here are 25 predictions for the year—teams and individuals, big and small.

Geno Smith Will Prove His Doubters Wrong

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    There wasn't much to like about Geno Smith's rookie season.

    The Jets quarterback had his moments—including six rushing touchdowns—but he was largely disappointing. Of course, it didn't help much that his offensive weapons were Huey, Dewey and Louie. He wound up with just 12 passing touchdowns to 21 interceptions, a generally disappointing campaign.

    Smith's supporting cast has improved this year, and he has a full year of professional seasoning under his belt to boot. His improvement was plainly evident in the preseason when he had a passer rating of 91.5 and generally looked more comfortable running the starting offense.

    The Jets may not light the NFL aflame on offense, but Smith has what it takes to lead his team to a playoff berth.

Michael Sam Landed on His Feet, and He'll Stay There

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    The situation looked grim for Michael Sam after the preseason, but he found a home rather quickly.

    A seventh-round pick in the NFL draft, the defensive end out of Missouri didn't make the cut in St. Louis. He had a pretty good preseason, amassing 11 tackles and three sacks, but the Rams were simply too deep along the defensive line to keep him.

    Why he wasn't originally signed to the practice squad—or any other across the league—is a different question. 

    One general manager said teams were afraid to sign Sam because of the media circus, as tweeted by Bleacher Report's Mike Freeman. While he does bring an inordinate amount of attention along with him, this is an excuse rather than a good reason not to bring him on board.

    The Dallas Cowboys took the plunge, though, signing Sam to their practice squad just a few days after he cleared waivers per Ken Belson of The New York Times. It was a good move for the Cowboys, who are thin along the defensive line as it is.

    Now that he has landed on his feet, Sam should stay there. Sam will not only stick with the Cowboys practice squad, but he will be called up sometime this season. That is if some other team doesn't muster up the courage to sign him off the practice squad first.

The Portents Will Come to Pass in San Francisco

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    The preseason has not been kind to the San Francisco 49ers.

    Injuries swept through the team like a cold through a preschool classroom, starting with NaVorro Bowman's torn ACL way back in January and continuing through rookie center Marcus Martin's knee injury in the preseason.

    To add insults to injuries, stud pass-rusher Aldon Smith was suspended for nine games for the myriad legal troubles he has seen over the past two years, and defensive lineman Ray McDonald was recently arrested on a domestic violence charge, per Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee.

    McDonald's off-field troubles may not cost the 49ers immediately, but it's certainly not a good look.

    Now, if any team was built to withstand so many losses, it's the 49ers. They have a ton of youth on that roster thanks to the plethora of draft picks they held over the past couple of years. Youngsters like Quinton Dial, Tank Carradine and Aaron Lynch will all be called upon to fill the holes left behind by injury and suspension.

    Long story short, the 49ers have plenty to overcome on the normally stout defensive side of the ball.

    Offensively, San Francisco looked lost during the preseason, scoring three points through the first two games—something head coach Jim Harbaugh said was a concern. Harbaugh thought the offense looked better as the preseason wore on, per Barrows, but that defense may not be able to cover for a sputtering offense like it at times did last season.

    Some are predicting the 49ers take a step back, and that certainly seems like a plausible scenario given all the factors at play.

Kansas City Was a One-Hit Wonder

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    Last season's biggest surprise came out of Kansas City, where the Chiefs roared to a 9-0 season start and a 38-10 lead in their AFC Wild Card matchup before fizzling at the end of both.

    Like many unexpected successes in the NFL, however, Kansas City has a taller task repeating as a postseason participant.

    Kansas City lost plenty of talent during the offseason, particularly along the offensive line. Branden Albert, Geoff Schwartz and Jon Asamoah are all gone, and Donald Stephenson was suspended for the first four games of the season, per John Breech of CBS Sports.

    The Chiefs didn't do much to get better on the defensive side either. That is the same defense that buoyed the hot start but ultimately was the root cause of Kansas City's downfall last season.

    Surprise is no longer part of the equation here—the Chiefs are on everybody's radar. They will prove a one-hit wonder in 2014.

So Was San Diego

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    The San Diego Chargers were nearly as surprising as their division rivals.

    A year after Norv Turner finally drove the final nail through his own casket, San Diego headed into the 2013 season with a rookie head coach and a roster that looked eerily similar to the one that finished 7-9 the year before.

    As it turns out, Mike McCoy is a pretty good head coach. The Chargers won only two more games in 2014, but it was good enough to squeak into the playoffs as the third representative from the AFC West.

    The question is whether the Chargers can do it again.

    The Chargers have a brutal schedule, including games outside the AFC West against the San Francisco 49ers and Arizona Cardinals on the road and New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks at home.

    Already having to play the Denver Broncos twice—though the Chargers did play them well last season—to go along with the rest of the division, San Diego must show improvement from a year ago to get back to the postseason.

Houston, We Have No Problem

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    The Houston Texans went from the penthouse to the cellar in a hurry. Does that make them one of the worst teams in the NFL going into 2014?

    While there are certainly question marks surrounding this team, that horrendous season will be an aberration when we look back in a few years.

    Houston's defense—a strength in 2012—faltered in a big way last season. Much of that had to do with injury, but poor play was a symptom of a larger issue, one that was presumably exiled when the team finally fired head coach Gary Kubiak.

    That defensive unit got healthy in the offseason, and it even added some serious talent. That comes in the form of No. 1 overall draft pick Jadeveon Clowney, who, when teamed up with the studly J.J. Watt, should help create one of the NFL's most dangerous defensive fronts.

    Offensively, the Texans leave a little to be desired, particularly in the quarterback department. There isn't much other direction to go but up in that department after the debacle we saw in 2013, when Matt Schaub turned into the Pick-Six King and the Texans went with now-released Case Keenum for a spell.

    Ryan Fitzpatrick and newcomer Ryan Mallett aren't going to combine to form Super Saiyan Fitzmallett or anything, but they are both serviceable starters capable of keeping the offense from completely tanking.

    All in all, the Texans play in a relatively weak division. A return trip to the playoffs is on the horizon.

Down Goes the NFC West

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    The NFC West is a juggernaut. Or is it?

    The Seattle Seahawks have no such troubles. There is little reason to believe they won't repeat as NFC West champions and make another serious Super Bowl bid.

    The rest of the division, however, could be in for a rude awakening.

    We have already detailed the troubles emanating from the San Francisco Bay Area. The 49ers may have trouble keeping pace with expectations given all the injuries and suspensions, not to mention an offense that looked anemic at the start of the preseason.

    St. Louis is pegged as a sleeper playoff team, and the Rams defense could well keep them in contention. The offense, however, is another story.

    The unit was already on shaky ground under offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer. Then starting quarterback Sam Bradford went down for the count with a preseason injury.

    Meanwhile, out in the desert, the Arizona Cardinals may not be the defensive force many expected them to be before the preseason hit. Not only did the team lose its two starting inside linebackers this offseason, but criminally underrated defensive lineman Darnell Dockett was lost for the year with an injury as well.

    That softens the underbelly of a once stout defense, the strength of a team that has question marks all over the field at this point.

    Many expect two or three teams to come out of the NFC West, but it could very well be a one-horse race.

The South Will Rise Again

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    The NFC is treacherous. 

    Last season was a nightmare for the Atlanta Falcons, a team that was supposed to contend for the Super Bowl. Their 4-12 finish put them in the bottom of the NFC South instead.

    There is reason for optimism in Atlanta, though. The Falcons were a strong playoff contender not too long ago, after all. Like the Houston Texans, Atlanta could be in for a big bounce-back season.

    Matt Ryan leads what should be a good offense if everyone can stay healthy. That is not a given, of course, but it isn't for any team. More importantly, the defense should be improved after an aggressive offseason, particularly on the defensive line.

    Perennial powerhouse New Orleans should be at the top of the division. The Saints have done some tweaking on offense but should be as powerful as ever with Drew Brees at the helm. Rob Ryan's defense should be just fine as well.

    The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had the best offseason, at least in terms of free agency and the NFL draft. Having the best free-agent class guarantees nothing, but there was a large influx of talent to help new head coach Lovie Smith get off to a good start in Florida.

    The one team that might struggle unexpectedly was last year's surprise playoff team, the Carolina Panthers. Hamstrung by salary-cap woes, Carolina hemorrhaged talent during the offseason. Worse, quarterback Cam Newton only recently returned from ankle surgery before cracking a rib.

    Even then, the Panthers under reigning Coach of the Year Ron Rivera are a dangerous bunch. This could be the most competitive division in the NFL.

Tom Brady Will Bounce Back

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    By many metrics, Tom Brady had a down 2013 season.

    He was below career averages in completion percentage, yards per attempt and passer rating. Age seemed to be getting to him as he uncharacteristically missed on passes he would normally hit. But Brady was plagued by something more sinister—turnover and injuries at skill positions.

    The offense was simply disjointed because of injuries to Rob Gronkowski, Shane Vereen and newcomer Danny Amendola, not to mention Wes Welker's departure and the Aaron Hernandez saga. Dealing with rookies Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins and Josh Boyce added to the lack of offensive coherence.

    Things have stabilized for Brady this season as he heads into it with a strengthening Gronkowski, a healthy Vereen and a full complement of receivers he worked with last season. He even got a boost with the free-agent addition of Brandon LaFell.

    More so than anything, Brady may be setting out to prove a point in 2014. His competitive fire burns as brightly as any, and his doubters may have thrown jet fuel on the conflagration.

Blake Bortles Will Start at Some Point

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    The writing is on the wall for Chad Henne.

    The Jaguars starting quarterback retained his job because of Jacksonville's master plan to bring rookie Blake Bortles along slowly. But Henne may not be hanging on to that job for very long, especially if he plays the way he has throughout his career.

    Bortles, meanwhile, certainly played in the preseason like he belonged in the NFL. While it was against second-stringers, the rookie gave Jaguars brass and fans pause as to his readiness to start as a rookie.

    It will not be surprising in the least when Bortles steps onto the field as a starter for the Jaguars at some point this season.

So Will Teddy Bridgewater

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    Matt Cassel has a bit firmer grip on the starting job in Minnesota, and he is liable to hang on to the gig for longer than Chad Henne in Jacksonville.

    But we have all seen Cassel and his low ceiling. While he looked far better than Christian Ponder last season, Cassel is no Tom Brady—even if he led the Patriots to an 11-5 record back in 2008.

    Teddy Bridgewater was the most polished quarterback heading into the draft, and he proved that through the preseason. The rookie out of Louisville made the Vikings look smart, amassing five touchdowns and a sparkling passer rating of 111.2.

    The calls for Bridgewater will start when the Vikings begin to falter, and Minnesota should give him an opportunity sooner than later.

An Unlikely Rookie of the Year

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    Back when Carolina drafted him, Kelvin Benjamin was unpopular in the draft community. That included yours truly, who thought he was overrated coming out of college and that the Panthers nabbed the wrong guy.

    A few months later, it seems that may have been the wrong assessment.

    Benjamin has been outstanding in camp. That didn't quite translate to preseason games, but he hardly had time to create chemistry with his starting quarterback, Cam Newton, who was recovering from ankle surgery until the second week of the preseason.

    The big receiver out of Florida State may not be the most complete wideout of the 2014 class, but he will have the best opportunity to rack up statistics. He will be starting opposite Jerricho Cotchery for the Panthers, after all.

    While the rapport could still use some work—Newton cracked a rib in the third preseason game, and his Week 1 status is still somewhat in doubt—Benjamin will be a big-time target for the Panthers, particularly in the red zone.

    Benjamin will heat up as the season progresses and snag the Offensive Rookie of the Year award when his first campaign wraps up.

History Is on Shazier's Side

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    Last season belonged to defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson, who was a dominant force as a rookie for the New York Jets. His strong play earned him Defensive Rookie of the Year Honors.

    This year the award will return to a linebacker, though it may not be the one you think.

    Jadeveon Clowney may well have a great season, but one rookie is going to become a force on a traditional defensive powerhouse.

    That would be Ryan Shazier, the first rookie defender to start in Pittsburgh since Kendrell Bell did it 13 years ago. The former second-round pick Bell went on to win Defensive Rookie of the Year honors himself.

    The last rookie to start before Bell? That would be legendary linebacker Jack Lambert.

    Shazier clearly has some big historical shoes to fill, but he has the talent and athleticism to do it. There is a reason why he was the first inside linebacker off the board in the draft despite the fact he played on the outside in college.

The Clock Finally Strikes Midnight on Jason Garrett

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    Long-suffering Dallas Cowboys fans will have to suffer a bit longer this season.

    Jason Garrett is somehow still the head coach, despite finishing 8-8 in each of the past three seasons and failing to meet expectations.

    Those expectations may have been irrationally high, but Garrett has done little to shake the mediocrity that plagues the franchise. Unless Garrett has some sort of incriminating evidence with which to blackmail him, owner Jerry Jones will finally let the axe fall when the Cowboys fall short of expectations again in 2014.

    He has to, right? This sounds familiar.

Oakland Will Surprise

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    Few are picking the Oakland Raiders to make any noise this season, but they may finally be ready to compete.

    All right, so a team that just got around to naming its second-round draft pick the starting quarterback may not be Super Bowl-bound, but there is plenty to like about the Raiders roster, at least when comparing it with last year's disappointing lot.

    The Raiders had a ton of money to spend during the offseason, and they spent it to overhaul the roster in a big way, adding Justin Tuck, Antonio Smith, Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown on the defensive side of the ball and James Jones, Maurice Jones-Drew, Donald Penn and Austin Howard on offense.

    The sum of those parts should be an improvement.

    Heck, even Derek Carr—the aforementioned rookie being thrown to the lions—is an improvement over the noxious quarterback situation from a year ago.

    They may not make the playoffs, but the Raiders should be far better than worst in the league.

Dez Bryant Will Lead the League in Receiving

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    This isn't exactly a bold prediction, but there are so many quality options out there that it merited consideration.

    Dez Bryant will lead the league in receiving.

    That's right. The once mercurial wonder will throw down with the league's best—Calvin Johnson, A.J. Green, Demaryius Thomas and Julio Jones, among others—and come out on top.

    For starters, Bryant is the best weapon the Cowboys have. More importantly, they may not have much choice but to lean on him even more than in years past.

    That is because the Cowboys defense looks to be one of the worst in the league heading into the regular season, meaning Bryant and Co. might be playing catch-up in many contests.

    Add to that the fact Dallas' Scott Linehan has been the pass-happiest coordinator in the league in recent years, and we have a recipe for one big batch of Bryant excellence.

J.J. Watt Will Reclaim His Crown

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    Because of Houston's general ineptitude last season, defensive end J.J. Watt didn't get his proper due.

    He may not have the raw statistics, but Watt has been the most dominant defensive force in the league if you look at his advanced metrics. Don't take my word for it—go read Sam Monson's excellent review of Watt's 2014 season over at Pro Football Focus.

    Despite continued dominance, he ceded the Defensive Player of the Year Award to linebacker Luke Kuechly, but he should be out to get it back in 2014.

    Armed with a shiny new $100 million contract, per the Houston Chronicle's John McClain, Watt will be back terrorizing opposing offensive lines, perhaps even inserting himself into MVP consideration despite playing on the defensive side of the ball.

Representing the NFC...

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    This might seem boring and cliche at this point, but the Seattle Seahawks should be the favorites to make it back to the Super Bowl barring injury to major contributors.

    The NFC is a gauntlet, but no team is better prepared to traverse the trials and tribulations of the treacherous conference better than the vaunted Seahawks.

    Their defense, led by All-Pro safety Earl Thomas and cornerback Richard Sherman, should easily be one of the best in the league. An elite defense is capable of buoying many teams to at least a playoff berth, but that's only one half of the equation in Seattle.

    Russell Wilson remains an underrated quarterback despite his Super Bowl victory and efficient evisceration from a year ago. He may not have the volume statistics of Peyton Manning or Drew Brees, but Wilson is primed to explode in his third season as the dynamic leader of a potent offense.

    Of course, he will have help from a healthy Percy Harvin, eager to contribute in a meaningful way this year. Throw in a strong running game led by Marshawn Lynch and the Seahawks have the most balanced team in the NFL.

And on the AFC Side We Have...

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    The AFC might be a bit lighter fare, but that doesn't mean getting to the Super Bowl will be easy.

    For Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, it might be now or never to taste glory one last time. The 37-year-old quarterback still looks sharp, by all appearances, but that end-of-career cliff could come up fast around any bend.

    Of course, Jimmy Garoppolo could well take the mantle from Brady and run with it when the time comes, but that is another story entirely.

    The point is New England's title window appears to be shrinking, and head coach Bill Belichick has readied his roster for another big run at the sport's biggest prize.

    The defense should finally be up to Belichickian standards with the addition of Darrelle Revis, and Brady should have that aforementioned rebound on offense.

    They will have to wrest the AFC crown from reigning MVP Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos, but the Patriots are in great shape to do just that.

And the MVP Award Goes To...

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    Finally, the super Saint gets his proper due.

    Drew Brees has been fantastic since New Orleans took a chance on him in 2006. He topped the league in passing yards in his first season, and soon after he led the Saints to a Super Bowl victory en route to becoming one of the best quarterbacks in the league.

    Brees has had a couple of particularly magnificent seasons normally worthy of an MVP nod. Unfortunately for him, there was one player who outclassed him in each of those seasons.

    Aaron Rodgers and Peyton Manning won MVP awards in 2011 and 2013 respectively, both sterling seasons for Brees, who wound up behind them in those years.

    It's high time Brees won one of his own, and 2014 is the year it happens.

    The Saints seemingly have a more balanced attack heading into the season, but that will not preclude Brees from having another all-world season. He remains one of the best quarterbacks in the league, and the stars will align for his long-overdue MVP award.

Percy Harvin and His Holocaust Cloak

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    Have the stars aligned for Percy Harvin?

    The dynamic Seattle Seahawks receiver finally has his health after battling injury for much of the past two seasons. He missed most of the 2013 season with a bad hip, really able to contribute only in the Super Bowl.

    Harvin said in a press conference Monday (via The Seattle Times), "This is probably the healthiest I've been in a while. I don't know if any athlete can say they're 100 percent all the time, but I'm feeling very good right now and I'm ready to start the season."

    Harvin has been so hot this preseason that he requires a holocaust cloak. Granted, much of that has been hype, but Harvin looks like the weapon Seattle traded a first-round pick for before last season. He has been dynamic on the field and fantastic in practice, by all accounts.

    All he needs is that pesky injury bug to stay away, and Harvin will smoke the competition in 2014.

The Cost of Doing Business at Quarterback Will Be Exposed

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    The quarterback position is getting expensive.

    How else can Alex Smith's four-year, $68 million contract be explained? Sure, Smith has been an efficient passer who has helped his team to victory in recent years, but his chief characteristic is avoiding mistakes. As passers go, there are plenty ahead of him in terms of talent.

    Similarly, Andy Dalton signed a big extension this offseason, one that pays him $115 million over six years, if he can get all that money. That's a big chunk of change for a quarterback widely considered a pedestrian passer who just happens to have made the playoffs in the first three years of his career.

    Granted, could you blame these teams? Before Smith came around, the Chiefs started Tyler Palko at one point.

    Quarterbacks are expensive, and they will continue to get more expensive as the league makes more money. But the cost of doing business at the position might be too high for certain players.

Peyton Manning Will Fall Back to Earth

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    Peyton Manning had a historic season in 2013, one unlikely to be replicated anytime soon despite the increasingly pass-happy nature of the NFL. That includes him—Manning will fall back to Earth this season.

    Now where he lands is a different story. 

    The Broncos quarterback soared above history last season, but his return to Earth may still land him atop a mountain. Manning figures to be in the mix for top honors at quarterback if the Broncos can stay healthy, even at 38 years of age.

Josh McCown Will Outperform Jay Cutler

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    Remember when Josh McCown turned into a veritable superstar after Jay Cutler went down with injury in 2013?

    Well, that is a bit of hyperbole, but McCown found a groove he had yet to discover in his 11-year career. The journeyman quarterback threw for 1,829 yards and 13 touchdowns against just one interception in five-plus games, keeping the dim hopes of a playoff berth alive for Chicago Bears.

    He parlayed his strong performance into a starting gig with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with his old coach, Lovie Smith.

    McCown joins a Tampa Bay team rife with talent, particularly on the offensive side. He will have a full complement of big receivers in Vincent Jackson, Mike Evans and Austin Seferian-Jenkins, at least if the big tight end can get on the field.

    The veteran looked good in the preseason, and he doesn't have the stigma of injury or inconsistency weighing him down. It wouldn't be a huge surprise to see him outperform the man he once backed up in Chicago in 2014.

None of Us Really Knows What's Going to Happen

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    We state the obvious. We make educated guesses. We proclaim boldly what we think will happen, sometimes on gut feeling alone.

    But we don't really know, do we?

    The NFL is an elaborate tapestry, its weavers just beginning threading the needles for the 2014 season. Anything could happen, whether it's the unexpected rise of a rookie, an unfortunate injury to a key player on a contender or a locker-room kerfuffle that sinks a team.

    Granted, much of the prophecy here could come to pass, but there are plenty of surprises in store for us this coming season. Enjoy the story. Enjoy the ride.

    Happy football season.