Training camp is nearly upon us, with reporting dates for certain teams beginning on Wednesday. Thus, the 2014 campaign is rapidly approaching. And you know what this means ...
It's Prediction Season!
Yes, forecasting abounds as players return to the gridiron. Some teams carry great expectations for the coming season, some carry minimal expectations and some ... well, we don't really know what to expect.
This begs the question: Heading into training camp, which is the hardest team to read in the NFL?
Eli Manning makes Big Blue a big mysteryIf anybody tells you they know what to expect from the New York Giants this season, they're lying liars with deep character flaws. Big Blue is the NFC's true wild card. An 11-5 finish wouldn't shock me; then again, neither would a 5-11 campaign.
Much of this goes back to Eli Manning, who is easily the most unpredictable quarterback of his generation. Manning has some nice weapons -- including first-round pick Odell Beckham at receiver -- and the defense will be better, especially that retooled secondary. But Eli is the key. How he adapts to the scheme implemented by new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo will be the major subplot to watch.
Kansas City is at a crucial crossroads after 2013's reboundThe Kansas City Chiefs had that huge bounce last season to get into the playoffs, but now what? I think Alex Smith, who is in the last year of his contract, is more than just a capable game manager at quarterback, but does the team view him as the long-term guy? Outside of running back Jamaal Charles and receiver Dwayne Bowe, the Chiefs don't seem to have the types of playmakers that are usually needed for a team to make a deep playoff run -- or do they? Defensively, there are some studs; outside linebacker Dee Ford is going to shock a lot of folks with the impact he can have as a rookie. However, this unit fell apart last season after getting hit with a few injuries. Kansas City also parted ways with cornerback Brandon Flowers, who is going to be a huge help for AFC West foe San Diego.
Speaking of the division, Denver isn't going anywhere, while the Raiders -- like the Chargers -- look to be better in 2014. Kansas City lost to both Denver and San Diego twice last season, in addition to being double-scooped by the Colts, the latter time in that classic wild-card shootout. This team is on a fine line this year: Will it be very good, or will it fall off big time?
Between Romo and the D, Cowboys tough to pin downHow do you figure out the Dallas Cowboys?
They have very good players on offense, guys like Dez Bryant and DeMarco Murray, and it's little wonder that they scored the fifth-most points (439) in the NFL last season. Their offensive line is much improved, and they're excellent on special teams. Of course, the man who makes it all go -- quarterback Tony Romo -- is coming off surgery on a herniated disc. Will he be OK?
Dallas also needs to improve its average time of possession from 29 minutes per game in 2013 to about 32 minutes, to keep a defense that allowed 50 touchdowns and ranked as the worst in the league last year off the field. This is especially important given that the Cowboys will be without their sacks leader from 2013 (Jason Hatcher, who departed via free agency) and a defensive cornerstone in linebacker Sean Lee, who tore his ACL during OTAs. Still, they did add Henry Melton and will be getting Tyrone Crawford, who missed the 2013 campaign, back on the field. And they did notch a turnover differential of plus-8 last season. I could see them winning nine games or losing that many -- though I think they're closer to winning nine, considering the offensive pieces they have.
Huge question marks loom over GiantsOf the many teams that could be put in this category, I'd vote for the New York Giants, who seemingly have made more changes than any other squad in the NFL. With proven Super Bowl winners Tom Coughlin at head coach and Eli Manning at quarterback, they have the two most important components of a championship team in place. But there are also many serious questions that must be answered.
The offensive staff has been almost completely turned over. How will Manning adjust to the new scheme? Will the offensive line -- especially Will Beatty -- be better? What kind of impact can rookie Odell Beckham have as a receiver/kick returner? Do the Giants have a tight end? What about their running game? As for the defense, can end Jason Pierre-Paul resume his Pro Bowl ways? How will the line perform without Justin Tuck and Linval Joseph? What will be the impact of veteran leader Jon Beason's offseason injury?
The Giants could rebound from their 7-9 season and win the NFC East -- or, if the offensive and defensive lines struggle, they could miss the playoffs again.
Forget about picking one team -- an entire division is completely in fluxThe "re-energized" Giants and rebuilt Redskins (have they realized yet they hired JAY Gruden and not JON?) are intriguing, but those teams make up just half of the NFC East. The entire AFC North, meanwhile, is up in the air.
The Bengals look great on paper -- except at the sport's most important position. Andy Dalton has the confidence of new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, but he also has the potential to implode. High-end prediction: 12 wins. Low end: seven.
The Ravens' defense added some shiny pieces and ought to be better. Meanwhile, they'll have a new offensive identity with Steve Smith and Owen Daniels coming aboard. But can Joe Flacco come through as their 20 Million Dollar Man? High end: 12 wins. Low end: seven.
As for the Steelers, the idea that their defense is old and slow might be rendered obsolete by the presence of young speedsters Ryan Shazier, Jarvis Jones and Mike Mitchell, who should help Pittsburgh pick it up in the turnover category. High end: 12 wins. Low end: seven.
And then there's the Browns. Their defense has promise, but beyond tight end Jordan Cameron, their offense features a bunch of question marks in the pass-catching department (presuming Josh Gordon misses significant time) and some quarterback drafted in the first round. (Details on what he's all about -- on and off the field -- are still sketchy, so it'd premature to speculate how he'll perform.) High end: 10 wins. Low end: four.