Analysis  

 

Falcons, Bears, Toby Gerhart rising; Cowboys, Panthers sliding

From one NFL season to the next, one thing is for sure: Nothing ever stays the same.

Unless it does.

As we get ready to devour the first full plate of preseason football, here are some predictions on teams, units and players destined to progress or regress, as well as one premonition on a strong team that's bound to duplicate last season's effort.

PROGRESS

Atlanta Falcons' passing attack: When you examine the many issues that contributed to the Falcons' epic underachievement in 2013, this is where you start. Atlanta wins with an elite passing attack. The Falcons never had it last year. This, of course, was due to the fact that the game's top receiving duo was attacked by the injury bug. Julio Jones suffered a season-ending foot injury in Week 5. Roddy White was never healthy.

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Talking to Matt Ryan earlier this week on my SiriusXM Radio show, "Schein on Sports," the Falcons quarterback was understandably thrilled about the status of his receivers heading into 2014.

"They've looked great and I'm 100 percent convinced that both of these guys are going to have great years," Ryan said. "Last year, (White) was fighting through injuries at different parts, but when he was healthy, he was productive for us. And that's going to be a big thing for Julio, too. He is as explosive a player as there is in the NFL, and he's worked so hard this offseason to get his body right and to give him a chance to stay healthy. And he's looked unbelievable during training camp. I'm fired up about what both of those guys are going to bring to the team."

Ryan is spot on. This combo is electrifying and, with a clean bill of health, puts Atlanta back in business. And watch out for rookie running back Devonta Freeman; he's going to catch a lot of passes out of the backfield.

While the receivers' injuries were the biggest problem for Atlanta's offense last fall, shoddy O-line play made matters even worse. Fortunately, the unit experienced an overhaul this offseason. After scooping up offensive guard Jon Asamoah in free agency, the Falcons spent their No. 6 overall pick on tackle Jake Matthews. Plus, Atlanta brought in a new line coach: feisty former head coach Mike Tice. Don't underestimate that last part.

"I think (Tice) has been great for our group," Ryan told me. "He's a knowledgeable guy and has a ton of experience. Brings in a nice attitude and a tough attitude. I certainly think we've done enough this offseason, and I'm excited for the group we have up front."

The Falcons' passing offense will bounce back in a big way, and Atlanta will win nine or 10 games this year.

Chicago Bears' defense: The Bears' offense is loaded, but don't overlook the improvements on defense -- moves that will return respectability to a downtrodden unit. I loved the free-agent pickups of Lamarr Houston and Jared Allen, which vastly improved the defensive line. Chicago posted an NFL-low 31 sacks last season and couldn't stop the run to save its life (ranking dead last in rushing defense -- by a healthy margin). In the draft, the Bears struck a fine balance between value and need with first-round cornerback Kyle Fuller, while potentially grabbing a steal in fourth-round safety Brock Vereen, who could start in Year 1. Speaking of safety, offseason additions M.D. Jennings and Ryan Mundy aren't elite, but they still upgrade the position, considering how poorly Major Wright and Chris Conte performed last season.

With a defense that no longer resembles a sieve, Chicago has the makeup of a playoff team.

Minnesota Vikings' offense: Adrian Peterson, who battled some injury woes down the stretch last season, is healthy and primed to once again resemble Adrian Peterson. And the Vikes star told me in the spring that he'll be more involved in the passing game, catching balls out of the backfield in new coordinator Norv Turner's offense.

Say what you will about Turner as a head coach -- and believe me, I have said it -- but Norv is an exceptional play-caller. Matt Cassel can succeed in this offense. He can stretch the field with Cordarrelle Patterson, who will dazzle in 2014. And Cassel can rely on veteran Greg Jennings, who will make a much bigger impact in Year 2 with the Vikings. The biggest hindrance to Cassel's success? Teddy Bridgewater. Already a Norv favorite, the rookie quarterback could push for playing time sooner rather than later. That's a nice problem to have, especially considering the Vikings' well-documented issues at the position last season.

Toby Gerhart, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars: The former Viking signed in Jacksonville to replace longtime bell-cow back Maurice Jones-Drew, and Gus Bradley is going to ride him. (Hence, Gerhart sitting out the preseason opener -- gotta keep those legs fresh for the grind to come.)

A fine blend of power and speed, Gerhart is about to make a name for himself, now that he's escaped the long shadow of Adrian Peterson.

Washington Redskins: I like the feel of Jay Gruden's training camp. There's no nonsense. There's no drama. And knowing Gruden, I'm not surprised by this.

Robert Griffin III is healthy. DeSean Jackson is a major upgrade. I think Washington can win eight games this season.

REGRESS

Dallas Cowboys: Sean Lee is done for the year. He was the best -- and most consistent -- player on the Cowboys' defense. Not only is the unit depleted, but it's inexperienced, too. That's a bad combo.

Meanwhile, Jason Garrett just doesn't look like the big-time head coach Dallas hoped he'd be. With 3.5 years' experience in the captain's chair, Garrett still struggles mightily with in-game management.

I have always argued that Tony Romo is a top-10 quarterback, but he's coming off his second back surgery in less than a year. And if he goes down? Hello, Brandon Weeden! Just let it soak in: Weeden is an injury away from taking the reins of the Cowboys' offense.

I think Dallas -- right now, on paper -- is the 16th-best team in the NFC. (Yes, it's a 16-team conference)

Hakeem Nicks, WR, Indianapolis Colts: Reports from Colts training camp have been poor. Offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton certainly isn't pleased, recently telling reporters, "I think he is still working to get himself in game shape."

This is rather alarming. Yet it's not surprising. Nicks has dealt with a myriad of injuries over the past couple years, flopping miserably in a contract year last fall. He didn't score a single touchdown in 2013. That's amazing. Remember how unstoppable he was in the Giants' title run of 2011? Yeah, that's a distant memory now.

Andrew Luck has the ability to maximize a target, for sure, but is he capable of reversing such a stark downward trend?

Who knew you could regress from zero?

Carolina Panthers' aerial attack: Cam Newton is fresh off offseason ankle surgery, which is concerning, but that's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Carolina's passing game. Steve Smith is in Baltimore. That's a loss. I'm a big fan of rookie Kelvin Benjamin's potential, but he needs time to develop. So, who else is there? Jerricho Cotchery? Jason Avant? Brenton Bersin? I'm not sure if this is a receiving corps or a witness protection program. I feel bad for Cam, given the lack of punch at receiver around him.

In a highly competitive NFC South, the defending champs could suffer a precipitous drop in the standings.

BOUND TO STAY THE SAME

New England Patriots: I'm high on the Patriots this season. The defense is vastly improved. The Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner signings upgrade the cornerback position, while the healthy returns of Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo re-establish the heart of the unit. Rob Gronkowski's return on the offensive side of the ball gives Tom Brady the spectacular weapon he lacked for most of last season. Gronk is dominant. Defenses can't cover him. And Brady's clearly a different player with the tight end on the field.

But the reason the Patriots will stay the same is simple: the Denver Broncos. I think New England will breeze to another division title in the AFC East. And I think the Pats will get back to Championship Sunday. But the end result will be identical to last season, as New England will once again be the second-best team in the AFC.

Follow Adam Schein on Twitter @AdamSchein.

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