With training camps underway and the first preseason game this weekend, here are 15 bold predictions for the 2015 NFL season:
1. Ryan Fitzpatrick will steal Geno Smith's job. Jets quarterback Geno Smith is the definition of inconsistent. In Week 8 game against the Bills in 2014, Smith threw three interceptions to go along with his five (not a typo) passing yards. However, in Week 17, he threw for 358 yards and three TDs in a win over the Dolphins. No matter how high your highs are as a quarterback, teams depend on consistency and leadership at that position. Smith threw for a measly 12 TDs against 21 interceptions and had eight fumbles (four lost) last season.
New coach Todd Bowles would much rather have a 24-year old with a potentially bright future lead his team than a 32-year old journeyman. But if any 32-year old journeyman is going to take this job, it's Ryan Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick spent three years in Buffalo with now-Jets OC Chan Gailey and knows the offense pretty well. Fitzpatrick also had a solid year last year, taking the Texans to a 6-6 record with 12 starts before getting hurt. In one game against the Titans, he threw for six TDs and 358 yards. Unless something bizarre happens, Smith will start Week 1 for the Jets against the Browns, but if history repeats itself, three-pick, five-yard Smith will come out to play at some point and Fitzpatrick will come in to try and save the day.
2. Jimmy Graham's absence will set the Saints back into rebuilding mode. Jimmy Graham is a hell of a player. That's why so many people were stunned to see that the Saints would send him to Seattle for center Max Unger and a first-round pick that turned into former Clemson LB Stephone Anthony. Unger and Anthony should be big contributors for the Saints this season at their respective positions, but it will be difficult for them to fill the void left by Graham at tight end. He opened up the field for every other target in Drew Brees' arsenal.
Josh Hill is set to take his place, and although I have him as a fantasy sleeper of mine, he won't open up the offense like Graham did. The Saints only won seven games last year, and Brees struggled. I can't see them winning more than seven or eight games this season with Graham out of the lineup. I think the Saints, who also lost Kenny Stills at receiver and Junior Galette at linebacker, will fall to the bottom of the division (even below the Bucs). Sorry, Who Dat Nation.
3. Ndamukong Suh's absence will set the Lions back as well. The Detroit Lions are about to find out how much their former No. 2 overall pick meant to them. With Suh clogging up the center for the Lions last season, their defense ranked second in yards allowed. He had 8.5 sacks for the Lions last season; Marcell Dareus and Aaron Donald were the only DTs who had more.
Suh was also a leader on and off the field for a defense that kept on improving during his five-year stint in Detroit. He is one of those players that make other players around him better. Now, the Motor City defense needs to find a new motor. Haloti Ngata and DeAndre Levy are candidates for that job, but they won't be able to completely fill the void left by Suh. The Lions may have been a playoff team last year, but this loss will have the Lions straggling between third and fourth place with the Bears in that division.
4. All four NFC West Defenses will be in Top 10 in points allowed. The Seahawks, Cardinals, 49ers, and Rams will be four of the top ten teams that allow the fewest points. That sounds like a crazy stat, but it almost came true last year. The Seahawks, Cardinals, and 49ers were all in the top 10. The Rams finished 16th, but I feel that they are overlooked and underrated. They have Aaron Donald, last year's AP Defensive Rookie of the Year, Robert Quinn, the 2013 leader in sacks, and former first-round picks Chris Long, Alec Ogletree, Nick Fairley, and Mark Barron. Add in an underrated CB tandem of Janoris Jenkins (a Pro Bowl alternate) and E.J. Gaines, and the Rams have a scrappy defense. NFC West divisional games won't be very high scoring and these defenses will give everyone fits this coming season.
5. Mike Evans will make his first Pro Bowl. There were four wide receiver pairs that each had 1,000 yards each last season - Demariyus Thomas & Emmanuel Sanders of the Broncos, Jordy Nelson & Randall Cobb of the Packers, and Calvin Johnson & Golden Tate of the Lions were three, and the fourth was rookie Mike Evans and 32-year old Vincent Jackson. They were the first pair of Buccaneers to accomplish this feat.
Evans was a stud last year, racking up 12 TDs with the likes of Josh McCown and Mike Glennon as his QBs. Now, he has Jameis Winston as his quarterback, a definite upgrade. Barring injury, Evans will match, if not exceed his yard total of 1,051. It's a shock he wasn't a Pro Bowler in 2014. It's possible that his success may have been overshadowed by Odell Beckham, Jr., but that just means he'll fly under the radar on his way to take the NFL by storm.
6. CJ Anderson will win the rushing title. It's amazing how this time last year, Anderson was an unknown. He was buried in the Broncos' running back depth chart behind Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman. Injuries to Ball and Hillman allowed Anderson to shine and to take the top spot on the depth chart this season. Anderson has everything going for him. His coach is Gary Kubiak, who loves to run the football. In Houston, Steve Slaton and Arian Foster were able to run for more than 1,000 yards in Kubiak's offense.
When Kubiak was the offensive coordinator in Baltimore last year, he had Justin Forsett running for more than 1,000 yards. Kubiak has a track record of taking unexpected running backs to heights beyond anyone's dreams, and Anderson is next in line. And yes, Peyton Manning is his quarterback, and the guy loves to throw the football, but he is 39 and Kubiak wants to preserve his energy for the playoffs, meaning more carries for Anderson.
7. Sam Bradford will be the Comeback Player of the Year. Eagles fans shook their heads this offseason with a plethora of questionable moves made by management. The one that evoked the most head scratching was the quarterback swap with St. Louis, acquiring injury-prone quarterback Sam Bradford for Nick Foles. Bradford has torn his ACL in each of the last two seasons, tough luck for a guy that had so much promise coming out of college.
During Chip Kelly's short NFL coaching career, he molded Nick Foles to a starter in 2013, when he had 27 TDs and two interceptions in 10 starts. And when he went down for an injury in 2014, Mark Sanchez played well for them down the stretch. The Eagles have provided a lot of talent around Bradford with DeMarco Murray, Darren Sproles, Jordan Matthews, Zach Ertz, and 2015 first-round pick Nelson Agholor. Bradford has a lot of weapons, and his team around him will make him look better, and it will allow him to have the best season of his career.
8. The Browns will pick in the Top 5 in the 2016 Draft. Cleveland was one of the biggest surprises in the NFL last season. They were 7-4 after 11 games, and were contending for the playoffs. However, they went on to lose their last five games. The Browns have an extremely difficult schedule this season, even for a fourth-place team. They have 12 games against teams with .500 or better records from 2014. They also have a lot of uncertainty on offense. Neither Josh McCown nor Johnny Manziel at quarterback will get them to a better place than last seaso
Their No. 1 WR is former Kansas City Chief Dwayne Bowe, who had zero touchdowns last season. Their No. 1 TE Jordan Cameron is gone, as is QB Brian Hoyer. They also have a new offensive coordinator in John DeFilippo, who is just getting his feet wet. The defense looks solid with Joe Haden, Paul Kruger, and first round pick Danny Shelton, but this team will not win many games without a solid offense. I don't expect the Browns to win more than four games, which will give them a nice pick in next year's draft to maybe FINALLY get them the franchise quarterback they've needed. Sorry Browns fans.
9. Joe Philbin will coach his final season for the Dolphins. Philbin's seat has been hot ever since he walked into South Beach, and now his seat is on fire. The Dolphins have a very interesting schedule. The first half is an easy schedule; they face teams who had Top 6 picks in last April's draft in four of their first five games.
However, the schedule only gets more difficult, as they face the Colts and Patriots to end their season. In the NFL, you are only as good as your last game, and the Dolphins will face a similar fate this season they know all too well: Promising offseason, great start, contending for playoffs, stumble at the end. It's a shame because I really like what the Dolphins have done with their team. They have rising stars on offense in Ryan Tannehill and Lamar Miller. They also have proven leaders on defense in Ndamukong Suh and Brent Grimes. They are making strides every season, but they just can't get to that next level. Maybe a coaching change is what they need.
10. And Marvin Lewis will be shown the door as well. Coach Lewis is the longest tenured coach in the NFL other than Bill Belichick. He has held his position as Bengals head coach since 2003. However, the Bengals have not won a playoff game since 1990, eight years before I was born. But, the Bengals are one of the most consistent teams in the NFL. Ever since they drafted AJ Green and Andy Dalton in 2011, they have been to the playoffs every year, only to lose in the wild card round. After each season, the loss is blamed on the quarterback Dalton, and now his seat is as hot as it has ever been.
This season, they will contend for the playoffs. However, I see them getting just a little short because the AFC is getting stronger. Several teams will be on the Bengals' tail. Last year, 10 wins got you in for sure. This year, 10 wins is not a guarantee in my eyes. I see the AFC Wild Card competition as jumbled and competitive as it has ever been, with six or seven teams fighting for just two spots. If you do the same thing over and over, you get the same result over and over. And I think the Bengals will bid an emotional farewell to their coach after the season to do something different to try and get a different result.
11. Texans will win 11 games, make playoffs. After a two-year absence, the Texans will return to the playoffs, this time as a wild card. This team is dangerous and underrated. Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett are both overlooked at quarterback. People forget Hoyer led the Browns to seven wins last season. He also led them to three of their four wins the year before. As the Browns starter, Hoyer went 10-6. But, I don't think Hoyer will be the starter. Instead, watch out for Mallett. He is younger, he has been with the personnel and players for a year longer, and they were willing to trade for him at the end of last year's training camp.
In one of Mallett's two starts last year, he defeated his now-teammate Hoyer. Despite Arian Foster's groin injury that will likely need surgery, the team has second-year backup Alfred Blue to step in; Blue ran for 528 yards last seasonm including 156 in one game. Along with an underrated QB and RB, there is a JJ Watt-led defense with Jadeveon Clowney (the 2014 first overall pick), Vince Wilfork, former DROY Brian Cushing and former Broncos safety Rahim Moore. I could go on for hours as to how sneaky good this team is, but I'll just let their play do the talking.
12. Chiefs claim the other wild card spot in the AFC. The Chiefs have had a crazy roller coaster over the past few seasons. They won two games in 2012, won their first nine games in 2013 en route to a wild card loss over the Colts, and in 2014, they were in the thick of things in the playoff race once again. They've also had their fair share of heartbreaking moments with the suicide of LB Jovan Belcher, and the cancer diagnosis of safety Eric Berry (who is now cancer-free) .
The Chiefs have heart, and they're fun to watch. They were able to win nine games last season despite have zero TDs scored by any wide receiver. Now, they've brought in Jeremy former Eagle Jeremy Maclin, who scored 10 TDs last season, as Alex Smith's #1 option. This team also has the self-proclaimed "LeBron James of Football," also known as Jamaal Charles. He may not be James, but he is very good. He leads the offense and sets the tempo. Couple that with a strong defensive seven consisting of 2014 sack leader Justin Houston, Tamba Hali, Dontari Poe, and Derrick Johnson, and this team is scary good come 2015.
13. And the Vikings grab a wild card spot in the NFC. Adrian Peterson is back and Teddy Bridgewater has the highest ceiling from the 2014 QB draft class. The team acquired wide receiver Mike Wallace in a trade with the Dolphins, who could benefit from a change of scenery.
The young defense is starting to come into fruition with Harrison Smith, Anthony Barr, Everson Griffen, while rookie CB Trae Waynes will contribute a bunch. Oh, and AP is back! After a season of limbo/suspension, Peterson is extremely well-rested, only having played in one game last season. If Peterson was able to run for over 2,000 yards nine months after an ACL tear and lead the Vikings to the playoffs with Christian Ponder as his quarterback, then Bridgewater and Peterson can definitely lead the Vikings to the playoffs as well. They won't win the division with the Packers as their division rivals, but winning 10 or 11 games is definitely possible for Minnesota.
14. All eight division champions will repeat. Since the NFL went to an eight-division format in 2002, there has never been a time where all eight division champions have repeated. But 2015 will be the year for that. Here's why: The Patriots have the best coach in the league. The Cowboys have the best offensive line in the league. The Packers have the best home-field advantage in the league. The Steelers have the best offense in the league. The Seahawks have the best defense in the league. The Broncos have the best receivers in the league. The Colts have the best quarterback in the league. And the Panthers have the best schedule in the league (amongst the first-place teams.) If any team were to be knocked off their pedestal this season, I'd say it's the Steelers, because they live in the NFL's most competitive division with the Ravens and Bengals, but I think they will pull it off.
15. The Colts will win Super Bowl 50. Every year in the Andrew Luck era for the Colts, they have improved. In 2012, they made the wild card round. In 2013, they made the divisional round. In 2014, they made the AFC Championship. In 2015, they will make the Super Bowl and defeat the Seattle Seahawks. The Seahawks are going to play the entire season with a chip on their shoulder from last year's gut-wrenching defeat, but the team they will stumble against is the Colts, who will have a scary offense.
Headlined by Luck, newcomers Frank Gore and Andre Johnson, as well as leading receiver T.Y. Hilton, the Colts are heading into 2015 with very few holes in their offense. Their defense, although not as dominating as their offense, is also strong. Ranked 11th in the league last year, they are retaining nine defensive starters. Many people think their defense is average, but by the numbers, their defense is solid. And when January comes, nobody will be able to defeat this team, who will hoist the Lombardi trophy in Santa Clara this February.
Jeremy Brener lives in Houston. He can be reached via email (email@example.com) or Twitter (@BrenerJeremy).