College Football 2016 Predictions

Conference Races

ACC — This conference comes down to Clemson and Florida State. North Carolina might be a cute story again like ncaa-football-cfp-national-championship-media-day-1-590x900they were in 2015, but the ACC is a battle between the two goliaths. However, Clemson has the difference-maker in quarterback DeShaun Watson.

BIG 10 — There are 4 teams worth talking about when it comes to winning the Big 10: Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State. First off, it’s going to be tough for Iowa to replicate it’s magical 2015 season. Secondly, Michigan State is in a bit of a reboot/reload season. The Spartans will still be very good; they just might not be as good as we’ve seen them in recent years. That leaves rivals OSU and U-M. The easy, fun, most intriguing route is that the two are both undefeated when they meet in Columbus to end the regular season, before the winner moves on to Indy for the conference title game. So let’s go with that. Michigan’s going to be very good, but Urban’s boys are still a bit better and they have the better QB — JT Barrett.

BIG 12 — Oklahoma looks to be the dominant team in the conference. Baylor’s offseason will likely derail any hopes they may have had, and Oklahoma State has potential to be a sleeper team if they get out of the gates strong. TCU will serve as the Sooners’ biggest threat. But the Big 12 should be Oklahoma’s to lose.

PAC 12 — The conference is totally wide open. Stanford, with Christian McCaffrey as a Heisman candidate and Keller Chryst throwing the ball, has probably the best team overall. Their schedule is daunting, but 2 losses might okay. UCLA will have a nasty defense and Josh Rosen at QB, but they have ran out of gas — or started without gas — over the past few years when expectations were high. With few people picking the Ducks this year, Oregon may be primed for a great year. But in the end, Stanford has the most pieces in place to win the conference.

SEC — Every year it feels like we search and search for someone to dethrone Alabama. LSU always has a shot because Les Miles recruits so well; Texas A&M has the offense to go toe-to-toe with the Crimson Tide; and Ole Miss has proven they can beat ‘Bama. But let’s face it, Alabama should roll along — probably losing one game during the season that will cause Nick Saban to tear into his team and re-focus them — and find themselves in the top 4 and playing for the conference championship in December.

 

College Football Playoff

Clemson — Unlike 2015-16, the Tigers aren’t going to surprise anyone or be that team that looks good and strong but no one really expects them to win it all. Clemson will be and should be the definitive favorite going into the playoff.

Ohio State — I can see Ohio State dropping one of those “sleepwalking” games, as I call them — like an Illinois game or Northwestern. The ones where you are a big favorite but aren’t totally focused for whatever reason; and maybe there’s other factors at play — like bad weather.  Ohio State also has a tough stretch where they go on the road to play Penn State and Wisconsin in back to back games. I think they get to the U-M game at the end with a blemish on their record. But a win against Michigan, who should be ranked in the top 2 in the nation, will propel the Bucks into the playoff.

Alabama — The Tide are always good for a loss along the way, but it never seems to derail their title hopes. In fact, Nick Saban uses the loss better than any coach in America uses losses to motivate his team. Alabama will be there in the end, but this is a Tide team that may struggle running the ball more than any ‘Bama team has in the recent past. However, it’s not a playoff if Alabama’s not in it.

Michigan — This final spot could easily be Oklahoma’s. But I have a difficult time picking Bob Stoops’ teams to contend on the national level — especially 2 years in a row. Plus, the Wolverines have a very nice schedule until mid-October when they travel up to East Lansing to play the Spartans. They also have to go to Iowa. But I expect Jim Harbaugh’s guys to come away with Ws in both those affairs, setting them up as a top 2 team in the country when the Big Game calls in Columbus. A loss against the Buckeyes will sting, but a 1-loss Michigan team won’t fall out of the top 4.

 

National Champion

DeShaun Watson is the best player in college football — the most exciting and the most fun to watch. He was good enough to win the National Championship against Alabama last January, but fell just short. Scratch that — he wasn’t just good enough, he was great. He will be great again this year en route to the Heisman Trophy and a National Title. Clemson beats Alabama in a rematch for the ages.

 

Feedback is always welcome through the website in the comments box or on my Twitter feed — @brian22goodwin.

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2016 NFL Preview: The NFC West

In a division where defense usually dictates who comes out on top, the 2016 NFC West may have a different feel to it. Seattle’s Legion of Boom defense has lost pieces over the years and those players who remain have gotten older; Arizona plays a tough style of defense but they go as far as that offense will take them; the Rams and Jeff Fisher are tough divisional opponents for anyone in the West, but that defense is not top tier in the NFC; and San Francisco has Chip Kelly running things — how defensive-minded can they be out there?

Look for the team with the most explosive offense to run this division. I expect all the defenses in this division to take a step backwards.

 

Arizona Cardinals

David Johnson will have a difficult time reaching the 1,000 yard rushing plateau; but he will amass 1,700 total yards from scrimmage.

Everyone expects the second year RB to have an incredible year. Johnson had explosive games — mostly receiving and returning — in 2015 that grabbed everyone’s attention. But it wasn’t until the end of the season that Johnson NFL: NFC Championship-Arizona Cardinals at Carolina Panthersgot the bulk of the carries, due to injuries to Andre Ellington and Chris Johnson. In only two games, Johnson carried the ball over 20 times and in only three did he surpass the 90 yard marker in rushing.

Head coach Bruce Arians and the coaching staff have said they will rotate their backs and plan to divide up time between the three. But Johnson’s game is much more versatile than either Ellington’s or C. Johnson’s — he can catch the ball and collect yards after the catch. However, he’s not a running back that’s going to make his money by running in between the tackles; Johnson will cut outside and get to the edge as much as possible.

Quarterback Carson Palmer will utilize Johnson’s pass catching ability along with the slew of other receiving weapons he has — Larry Fitzgerald, John Brown, Michael Floyd, and J.J. Nelson. Whatever Johnson’s able to do on the ground might be gravy. This offense may be good enough without a 1,000-yard rusher to win the NFC West. And possibly much more.

 

Seattle Seahawks

The defense’s streak of 4 straight seasons of leading the league in points against will come to a crashing halt.

Pete Carroll’s defensive coaching staff has taken a few hits over the years since their Super Bowl victory in the Meadowlands over the Denver Broncos. Defensive coordinator Gus Bradley left to be the head man in Jacksonville; 12974237and Dan Quinn departed a year later to rebuild the Atlanta Falcons. All the while, the Seattle defense has remained as dominant as ever. But it’s hard to stay at the top — and the Legion of Boom have been at the top for a while.

The biggest reason for a decline in the Seahawks defense in 2016 will be their offense. Not following? Well, if the Seattle offense struggles — and it looks like that could happen — then the pressure on the defense increases. Reasons for the offensive struggles: (1) the offensive line is horrendous — ranked 27th in efficiency in 2015; (2) Russell Wilson doesn’t exactly have the greatest receiving weapons — Doug Baldwin overachieved in ’15 and Jimmy Graham remains MIA; and (3) Marshawn Lynch has retired and Seattle’s backfield features 5 players who’ve got less than a full season of experience, combined — three haven’t played a single snap yet in the league.

If Seattle’s defense is able to maintain it’s reign on their perch, then this team will be very very good. But I’m not convinced the 2016 version is anything like the previous years’.

 

Los Angeles Rams

The Rams return to LA is full of ups and downs, but in the end Jeff Fisher will have them at .500.

If you’ve watched any of this season’s episodes of the HBO series Hard Knocks, then you know that this Rams team has the potential to be quite entertaining. The problem is their entertainment value comes mostly from their personalities, not so much their play on the field.

Rookie quarterback Jared Goff will undoubtedly take over at some point and the team will get to see what their todd-gurley-011115-getty-ftrjpg_k3yhhb2ijxpq17cqttullpn2ifuture looks like. They know what they have in running back Todd Gurley and can be assured he is going to be their workhorse for years to come. Head coach Jeff Fisher is at home in Southern California and will likely be given a couple years to make this transition from St. Louis become successful.

But the West is tough and the Rams just aren’t good enough to really compete. However, they will play good enough defense when they need to — especially in the division against Seattle and SF — and should start to become more consistent on offense as the season wears on, as Goff becomes more and more comfortable. But the ups and downs probably all even out in the end. There’s definitely opportunity for growth and success in 2017.

 

San Francisco 49ers

Colin Kaepernick will start the majority of games for the Niners and will finish among the top 10 QBs in most major statistical categories.

I know, I know — Blaine Gabbert this and Blaine Gabbert that. The former Missouri Tiger filled in admirably in 119373652015, as the 49ers were undergoing many changes offensively and defensively. Gabbert started 8 games and threw for 250 yards per game while averaging just over one touchdown in each.

In 2016, more changes have arrived in the Bay Area — and they come in the form of new head coach Chip Kelly. Since Kelly’s arrival from Philly this past winter, the talk has been all about how much the innovative, offensive-minded Kelly likes Blaine Gabbert — even though most of us with half a brain see what seems like a perfect marriage in Kelly and the other quarterback in SF, Colin Kaepernick. After 3 straight NFC Championship games (2012-14) and one Super Bowl appearance (and one Michael Crabtree catch away from winning that Super Bowl), the 49ers shouldn’t have to think back too far to remember how good Kaepernick can be. He’s got an arm that makes me think of Ken Griffey Jr’s swing with a baseball bat — fluid, loose; he’s got imagination and creativity — something Chip Kelly appreciates; and he’s got the ability to run, run, run — just ask the Green Bay Packers.

Kaepernick’s “dead arm” has put the QB competition on hold for most of training camp and the preseason, but it appears Kaep is ready to get back on the field as the preseason wraps up. If he performs how we all know he can, there won’t be much of a competition. And if he and Kelly can have the type of player-coach relationship that Kaepernick had with former coach Jim Harbaugh, expect the QB to win Comeback Player of the Year.

 

Feedback is always welcome through the website in the comments box or on my Twitter feed — @brian22goodwin.

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Somehow Hope Remains Despite the Up and Down Season for the Detroit Tigers

All season it’s been the same old story with the Detroit Tigers. The team that really isn’t that far removed from being a World Series contender year in and year out has continued to hold fans hostage all season. I have warned fans to “Stay Away!!!” “Beware!” “Don’t Take This Team Seriously!!”. But here we are, preparing for the SeptemberCabreraJD stretch run, and Detroit Tigers have hemmed and hawed their way into the playoff picture. They are currently 7 back of division-leading Cleveland and 2.5 behind the Orioles, who occupy the second wild card spot.

As the regular season hits it’s final month, here are some things to keep in mind as your Tigers do in fact try to make the postseason (I think they’re trying — hard to tell most nights).

 

The Tigers will get healthy.

Injuries have reared their ugly head to key pieces of this lineup at the most inopportune times in 2016. But they have already gotten JD Martinez back and Miguel Cabrera, fortunately, didn’t miss any games to his biceps strain last week. Jose Iglesias, Cameron Maybin, and Nick Castellanos all appear to be on track to return to the club by early September at the latest. When this lineup is back fully intact, the potential is there — as it’s been all season — for them to score runs and alleviate some of the pressure from their pitching staff.

 

The starting pitching has righted itself.

Justin Verlander is back to being about as good as anyone could have realistically expected. He’s not going to be an MVP candidate and he’s not going to dominate in quite the same manner he did circa 2011. But no one’s asking him to. He just needs to be what he’s been this whole season — a very good to great pitcher. Rookie Michael Fulmer has been outstanding since being called up earlier this year and should garner a lot of Rookie of the Year consideration in the AL. Add to the fact that Matt Boyd has looked very good over his last 8 starts and Anibal Sanchez seems to have exorcised his demons that plagued him most of the season, it appears the Tigers have a pretty solid starting rotation.

 

Someone is going to have to be a clutch performer in a lot of games in the final month of the season, whether it’s a player who has performed in that role before — Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, JD Martinez — or whether it’s a player who needs to, like Justin Upton. Or a manager.

Maybe Justin Upton read my mind before Sunday afternoon’s tilt with the Red Sox. The $132 million dollar man blasted two 3-run homers in the 10-5 win in the series finale, to split with Boston. If Upton can keep this up to a degree and others can chime in too with some timely hitting and clutch play, the Tigers might be able to put it all together and squeak into the playoffs. This includes the guys in this lineup who we expect big things from and have gotten big things from over the years. But it also includes guys, like Upton, who could really do themselves a favor by coming through big for this club down the stretch. Upton’s at the top of that list, but manager Brad Ausmus has to be number two. His in-game decision-making has been questionable at best all season long, and few expect him to survive the winter if the team misses the postseason for a second consecutive year. But a month of great managing (whatever that looks like), could be what gives this club the boost it needs.

 

Feedback is always welcome through the website in the comments box or on my Twitter feed — @brian22goodwin.

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2016 NFL Preview: NFC North

The black and blue division in football. Storied franchises like the Bears and Packers. Cold, wintery, meaningful games being played in November and December at historic venues like Lambeau Field and Soldier Field. The NFC North has that certain midwestern, blue-collar, lunch pail type of mentality, doesn’t it?

The division has for the most part been owned by the Green Bay Packers over the past decade plus. But now Minnesota has taken on the personality of their defensive-minded head coach, Mike Zimmer, and appear to be a credible and longterm threat to the Packers’ divisional supremacy — don’t forget the Vikings won the North last year.

While the best defense in the division belongs to Minnesota (and only appears to be getting better), the Packers should be operating with a higher level of offensive efficiency with a healthy Jordy Nelson. So it should be a contentious fight for the North crown in 2016. And, oh yeah, the Bears and Lions are in the division.

 

Minnesota Vikings

The Vikings defense will supplant Seattle’s as the NFL’s stingiest defense.

The Legion of Boom defense has presided over the NFL over the past 4 seasons, as the league’s most frugal defense. vikings-defense2.jpg.af4e403847f4b89ebb6c91f376689274Although, a dip in the Seahawks offensive efficiency and the loss of Marshawn Lynch should make for a more difficult year in 2016 for the defense.

This leaves the door open for a change at the top of the defensive ranks. And the Vikings are right there ready to lead that charge. Head coach Mike Zimmer has had time to put the players in place that he wants; and a solid running game behind All-Pro Adrian Peterson helps keep the offense on the field.

While the questions about Minnesota’s offense are legitimate, there aren’t many when it comes to their defense. If AP stays healthy now that he’s in his 30s and quarterback Teddy Bridgewater progresses (and impresses) in his third year, Minnesota should improve upon what was an already very successful 2015 campaign.

 

Green Bay Packers

Randall Cobb will have receiving numbers that mirror his numbers from 2014 — 90 catches for over 1,200 yards.

Expectations shifted last August to Randall Cobb when the Packers lost Pro Bowl WR Jordy Nelson to a season-ending knee injury. Cobb was used to settling in as a very productive second fiddle to Nelson’s first chair in the Packer passing attack. With Nelson gone, many believed Cobb would seamlessly slide into carrying the pass nfl_a_cobb_b1_576catching load as Aaron Rodgers’s number one go-to guy. However, things don’t always work out as expected.

Albeit, Cobb’s disappointing 2015 year could be chalked up to a number of factors, aside from the simple fact that he was the guy having to face every team’s top cornerback — something he had never experienced in Green Bay. The Packers run game was terrible — Eddie Lacy looked like Shawn Kemp ate Charles Barkley. The Packer defense was not as stout as they had been over the years. And Aaron Rodgers seemed to be constantly trying to get comfortable with his receivers.

As Nelson returns this season, expect Cobb to gladly resume his secondary role. He will face less daunting matchups from week to week. In addition, Lacy looks slimmed down and Green Bay will be committed to running the ball, which will only serve to help the passing game.

 

Detroit Lions

For a second consecutive season, the Lions will rank dead last in the NFL in rushing.

Ameer Abdullah was a questionable drat choice for a franchise that had missed on so many running backs in past few years — Jahvid Best, Kevin Smith come to mind immediately. Abdullah was great at Nebraska, but he had a i-3fumbling problem in college and he put tons on miles on his legs there. Those usually tend to be red flags for NFL teams. Not the Lions. Abdullah has the potential, but his first year was incredibly underwhelming. And a porous offensive line won’t help the 2nd-year back hit his stride.

The Lions went out and signed former Patriot and Jet Stevan Ridley; but Ridley, too, had trouble hanging onto the football — which caused his release from New England. To add, Ridley is not known as a pass-catching RB and admits that’s not his forte. At best, he will serve as a 3rd down, change of pace back. But if the Lions are counting on much more from Ridley, they’re likely expecting too much.

Offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter will try and play to quarterback Matt Stafford’s strengths — as he did in the final 8 games in 2015 when the team went 6-2. But with the loss of Calvin Johnson to retirement, how this offense will look is a big question mark. If the offense turns pass-heavy or finds itself behind in games, this projection is all but a guarantee.

 

Chicago Bears

Jay Cutler will need an MVP-type of season to get the Bears in contention for the playoffs; finishes 5-11.

Is there any one, single player in the NFL who people seem to have such universal distaste for like they do for Jay Cutler? It’s not a hatred for him, just a distaste. I can’t imagine another year of underachieving for the quarterback or for head coach John Fox with either of them surviving for another year in Chicago. Unfortunately for them, chicago-bears-quarterback-jay-cutlerthere’s not a lot of reason for optimism. While WR Alshon Jeffery has established himself nicely as a top pass catcher in the league, the Bears lack much else on the offensive side of the ball. Cutler isn’t exactly surrounded by a ton of weapons; but that excuse is unacceptable at this stage in his career, and the Bears front office and, especially, Bears fans don’t want to hear it.

The defense should be improved and may even find a way to steal a game or two along the way. But in order for the bears to be playoff contenders, Cutler will have to put the team on his back and do what elite QBs do — make others around him better. But that’s just not something Cutler’s ever proven to be able to do.

 

Feedback is always welcome through the website in the comments box or on my Twitter feed — @brian22goodwin.

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2016 NFL Preview: The NFC South

Remember not too long ago when the NFC South was known for it’s last place team one year, finishing at the top the next? Lately Carolina has put a stop to all that. But the parity that the NFL so deeply desires and the parity that not so long ago existed in this division appears to be close to returning. Carolina returns as division and conference champs, but after a dismal Super Bowl 50 performance, how will Ron Rivera’s club approach the new season? Atlanta struggled in their last 11 games last year, but they have the running game, they have one of the league’s top WRs, and head coach Dan Quinn is building a mean, fast defense. The Saints may not resemble the team that was perennially contending for the NFC title, but Drew Brees and Sean Payton can still whip up an exciting, high-powered offense. And lastly, Tampa Bay is led by one of the NFL’s young, playmaking quarterbacks, who happens to have some big pass-catching targets at his disposal.

My point is the NFC South should not be viewed as a runaway for the defending champions this season. Here’s a look at what each team can do in ’16.

 

Carolina Panthers

Cam Newton will not finish in the top 10 in the MVP voting in 2016.

Reigning MVP doesn’t finish in top-10 this year? I do not think that is far-fetched in the least. In fact, while I will not argue one bit with Newton’s talent and God-given athleticism, I contend that his out-of-this-world 2015 season Cam-Newton-hitcannot and will not duplicated again — for the rest of his career. He threw for 35 touchdowns and only 10 picks — awesome ratio, awesome season. He threw for just under 4,000 yards — in his previous 4 seasons, he averaged right around 3,600. What I’m getting at is that Cam’s yardage was right about where we’ve seen him be, he limited the mistakes with a career-best 10 interceptions, and he capitalized like never before in terms of passing TDs — 11 more than his previous best of 24. History supports that Newton will continue throwing for somewhere close to 4,000 yards, but his touchdowns, I think, were more of an anomaly and he won’t be able to keep that up.

Carolina has weapons on the offensive side of the ball — no doubt. Devin Funchess got some great, impactful experience last season; Kelvin Benjamin returns after missing all of the ’15 campaign to a knee injury; Greg Olsen is a pass-catching machine over the middle for Cam; and James Stewart is finally able to show off his full skill set as Carolina’s top back now that DeAngelo Williams is a couple years gone to Pittsburgh. All signs point to another magnificent season for the Super Bowl runners-up and their QB leader. But it’s tough to repeat that type of year — and no one will pick or expect the Panthers to navigate their schedule to a 15-1 record this year. More mistakes will happen, luck won’t always be on their side, and Cam Newton will at times look like the Cam of 2014 or 2012. Don’t forget that in his 5 seasons as Carolina’s starting QB, Newton’s only had 2 winning seasons — and if you take out the 15-1 year, he’s merely a .500 quarterback (30-31-1). Cam’s 2015 was magical, but his career as a whole has not mirrored that snapshot.

 

Atlanta Falcons

The Falcons will more closely resemble the team that started 5-0 last season rather than the one that lost 8 of its last 11.

The offense in Atlanta is better than it’s ever been in Matt Ryan’s time as the Falcons starting quarterback. Of course, Julio Jones is still there and dominating on the outside; and he has some nice complimentary pieces at theimages-4 position too — Mohamed Sanu has come over from Cincinnati and Justin Hardy should garner attention in his own right from opposing defenses. But the most important addition for Atlanta is their ability to now, consistently, run the football. Devonta Freeman proved himself as a workhorse back last season and second year player Tevin Coleman — while losing his starting job in 2015 to injury — is back competing for lots of carries and still has all the qualities of a starter in the NFL.

The offense has the potential to be very explosive, but also very punishing, if offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan chooses to mix it up. On the other side of the ball, expect a faster Falcons defense and a meaner one. Head coach Dan Quinn comes from Seattle, where he helped build the Legion of Boom. In his second year now in Atlanta, Quinn has had some time to get his pieces into the puzzle. To win in the South, you have to be able to score points, but you also need to stop high-octane offenses, like Carolina and New Orleans — and Tampa Bay, who’s no slouch either.

 

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Jameis Winston will begin his NFL career by throwing for back-to-back 4,000 yard seasons.

When you have a wide receiver like Mike Evans at your fingertips and a tight end like Austin Seferian-Jenkins, it winston-lovie-vikingsgamebecomes pretty clear as to how you may have some success throwing the football. Jameis Winston has these two and also can rely on Doug Martin out of the backfield. New head coach Dirk Koetter will be comfortable with Winston throwing the ball a lot — and he’s probably going to have to be comfortable with it. Koetter was Winston’s OC last season so the two have familiarity with each other. And Koetter knows what he has on offense.

While the cupboards certainly aren’t bare, I’m not sure we can expect the Bucs to go tit-for-tat, score-for-score with division foes New Orleans, Atlanta, or Carolina. Winston and the Buccaneers are likely a year or two away from being a playoff contender — the defense needs to improve by a lot. But while they wait, Winston will certainly have his chances to pad his stat totals. Expect Tampa to be behind in many games this year so the aerial attack will be in full swing.

 

 New Orleans Saints

Brandin Cooks and Coby Fleener will combine to be the most productive WR-TE combo in the NFC.

Here’s what I can’t get past with the Saints: Rob Ryan’s defenses were utterly atrocious in his time with New Orleans, aside from 2013. But even before Ryan, it’s not like the Saints were ever known for having a top defense — or even a good defense. When they won the Super Bowl in 2009, the Saints ranked 25th in yards allowed and 20thbrandin-cooks-71415-getty-ftrjpg_c3l9wk1huhep1lck7i5ghqcvk in points allowed. Defense and the Saints go together like oil and water.

So what, right? You can make two things of this: (1) the Saints don’t need defense to win; (2) over the last few seasons since 2009, it’s evident that the Saints cannot win with just having a high-powered passing attack. I tend to take the latter.

Not to mention, Drew Brees is not a young man any longer and he doesn’t have all the weapons he used to have. But he does have Brandin Cooks, and they signed tight end Coby Fleener from Indianapolis during the offseason. Fleener should be the closest thing to Jimmy Graham that Brees has had since the team jettisoned Graham off the nonexistence in Seattle a couple years ago. Head coach Sean Payton knows how to use TEs in his system and loves to involve them — look no further then what he got out of Benjamin Watson last season.

As for Cooks, the speedy third year wideout should improve upon his very nice 2015 numbers, which saw him haul in 84 catches for over 1,100 yards with 9 TDs. He will be the unquestioned top option for Brees in this pass-happy offense. I expect Brees to sit at the top of the NFC in passing yards with Cooks and Fleener being the biggest beneficiaries.

 

Feedback is always welcome through the website in the comments box or on my Twitter feed — @brian22goodwin.

 

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2016 NFL Season: Previewing the AFC North

The AFC North has acquired a reputation of being a nasty, mean, hard-hitting division, where the team with the best defense has the biggest advantage. Don’t expect to win this division with finesse or fancy offensive schemes. You win the North with defense.

That belief has morphed slightly in the last year or so. While defense is still what makes this division what it is, the offenses have caught up a little bit. Two of the most dynamic WRs in all the NFL reside in Pittsburgh (Antonio Brown) and Cincinnati (AJ Green); Le’Veon Bell is one of the top RBs in the league; and 3 of the 4 teams (sorry Cleveland) have enjoyed enormous success on the offensive side of the ball in the past few years.

Yes, there will definitely be some nasty, defensive divisional games played this season in the AFC North. But these offenses have the ability to score a lot of points.

 

Cincinnati Bengals

The Bengals offense will take a step backwards with the loss of OC Hue Jackson.

Jay Gruden — gone. Mike Zimmer — gone. Now, Hue Jackson — gone. Marvin Lewis has seen his coordinator tree get picked clean over the past few seasons. One has to wonder at what point the Bengals will take a step in the NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Buffalo Billswrong direction after losing so many top assistants.

The defense has improved over the past 3 seasons — and even improved last year without Zimmer leading the charge. The defensive side of the ball is likely to face it’s fair share of tests in 2016 — Pittsburgh’s offense is just as potent as it was in’15, the Ravens added depth and speed at WR, and their former offensive coordinator is in Cleveland trying to reboot the Browns’ offensive attack.

The loss of Hue Jackson threatens to undo some of the positive strides that the offense — quarterback Andy Dalton in particular — have made over the last few years. Returning pieces like AJ Green on the edge, Tyler Eifert at tight end, and Giovanni Bernard and Jeremy Hill in the backfield will provide Bengal fans with a sense of comfort. But losses of WRs Marvin Lewis and Mohamed Sanu will definitely have an impact on Cincinnati’s passing attack. And more importantly with Jackson gone, how will Dalton respond with seemingly all the pressure now squarely placed on his right arm? In addition, back-up and former Alabama QB AJ McCarren performed well in the final few games in 2015 and was minutes (and a couple boneheaded plays by his defense) away from beating Pittsburgh in the Wild Card round. If Dalton shows signs of struggling, Lewis may feel the pressure to come in with the hook and give the reigns to McCarren. Something else to watch for in Cincinnati this year.

 

Pittsburgh Steelers

Big Ben will lead the league in passing touchdowns and will win his first NFL MVP.

The Steelers couldn’t shake their string of bad luck that extended throughout the 2015 season. Injuries plagued the offense from the start of the season — Le’Veon Bell constantly missed time, Ben Roethlisberger was carted off the maxresdefaultfield three separate times (one of which caused him to miss a month), Antonio Brown suffered a concussion that ended his season, and back-up RB DeAngelo Williams was injured in week 17. Wide receiver Martavius Bryant missed games due to suspension, as well.

It only stands to reason that Pittsburgh’s 2016 campaign will end up a little better. With a healthy QB who has one of the best (if not the best) WRs in the game, the team already has playoff contender written all over it. Add Bell — when he returns from what looks like a 4 game suspension — and factor in the signing of tight end Ladarius Green, this high-powered offense has the look of one that could put 35 points up every time they take the field.

But staying healthy will be the key. Big Ben is just that — big — which makes him an easy target for linebackers and defensive ends who are coming for him every time he drops back in the pocket. Keep him healthy and the Steelers have the kind of offense that can keep them in any game, against any team — in September or in February. While the defense still needs to improve — they let Ryan Mallett beat them twice last season, Roethlisberger and the offense should give them a little wiggle room.

 

Baltimore Ravens

No Baltimore RB will rush for more than 800 yards.

Justin Forsett’s 2014 season, which included a trip to the Pro Bowl and a career-best 1,266 rushing yards, seems decades ago. Last year, the running back started only 10 games — still the second most in a season for his career — and was held to less than 700 yards on the ground. His injury plus the fact that Baltimore lost nearly every hi-res-ff31d793182fa66a755a12f6b2b86d27_crop_northsignificant offensive player in 2015 led to his drop in production.

The Ravens expect Terrance West to provide relief to Forsett in the backfield, as they alternate the two throughout the season in an effort to keep both sets of legs fresh. Quarterback Joe Flacco has recovered well from a week 11 knee injury that ended his 2015 year and Steve Smith is back at WR — although he’s a year older at 36. Other weapons Breshad Perriman and Ben Watson have the potential to make the Baltimore offense more lively and threatening than it was a year ago.

John Harbaugh had not experienced a losing record in his time in Baltimore until the 2015 season so it’d be easy to think he will have his Ravens team back in playoff contention this year. But this franchise doesn’t have the same feel as Ravens’ teams from the past. The defense isn’t as dominating and the running game isn’t striking fear into opponents. Joe Flacco has a high ceiling this year with his big and speedy weapons at WR and TE, but the running game and defense need to be much improved if this team is going to push the Steelers or Bengals.

 

Cleveland Browns

Robert Griffin III will get his career back on track in Hue Jackson’s offense.

Remember when RG3 led the Redskins to the playoffs and won Offensive Rookie of Year? No? Oh. Yeah, I guess it’s been a while. The 2012-13 season gave hope, promise, and wildly high expectations to Washington and those who rooted for Robert Griffin. After three seasons of what can only be described as sheer disappointment and -1a65761af413c19dfrustration in the nation’s capital, RG3 now embarks on a different chapter in his football career.

Usually Cleveland is not the place quarterbacks go to revive their careers, but this is the first season in which head coach Hue Jackson is there. Jackson comes to Cleveland after helping place the Cincinnati offense up near the top of the AFC. His history with quarterbacks and with innovative offensive play design gives Cleveland diehards reason to think a turnaround is forthcoming. And if turnarounds are in the cards, by all means RG3 — hop on board!

The Browns offense is really not one to be laughed at — although many experts are very dismissive of Cleveland this year. Running backs Duke Johnson and Isaiah Crowell should be a solid duo, driving the Cleveland ground game; and WR Josh Gordon has been reinstated — how many games he will play is still unclear. But my point is the cupboards in Cleveland are not bare. And that bodes well for Griffin. If he’s ever to get himself back on track, this looks like as good a spot as any.

 

Feedback is always welcome through the website in the comments box or on my Twitter feed — @brian22goodwin.

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The Fantasy 3: 2016 “Busts”

The number one thing most fantasy players do when projecting their version of the “Mel Kiper Big Board” prior to their draft is look at stats from the previous year. Yes, it seems sensible; yes, it’s helpful; yes, it has value in it; but no, it’s not giving you the whole picture. For instance, it’s really easy to get fooled by one season’s worth of greatness – or, on the opposite end, a season’s worth of underachieving. My point – collect more data, look at trends, and don’t get stuck on what your memory most easily and recently recalls.

Now let me explain – when I say “bust” I mean that they will likely be drafted too highly and will not be able to live up to the expectations that come with being taken so highly. Rather, I’d love to have any or all of these guys if it means I can grab them on the cheap – 1, 2, 3, maybe even 4 rounds lower than what their current ADP is. Here’s three players that I’d put in the “bust” category.

 

David Johnson

I find it a little funny that I’ve included Johnson on this list. I think he’s going to have a great season and will be a david-johnsonthreat as a runner and a pass-catcher; he’s young; and he’s in Bruce Arians’s high-octane offense. What’s not to like, right? But again, like I said, it’s about value. Johnson is going as high as 4 or 5 in PPR leagues. To spend a top 5 pick on the Cardinal running back, could be unwise.

While everyone will remember Johnson’s explosiveness and in particular his week 15 performance in the the fantasy playoffs where he torched the Eagles’ defense, we can’t be dismissive of some red flags that potentially exist: (1) Johnson is the worst projected 1st round RB when running in between the tackles — averaged 5.88 ypc outside the edge, but only 3.0 when rushing inside; (2) his rushing isn’t necessarily his strong suit — it’s his pass catching ability — so how will he respond when defenses begin curbing his production; and (3) the Arizona coaching staff relied on running back by committee for most of last season and have hinted at doing the same this year.

I expect Johnson to be very good this year — and will be a great RB1. I’d just prefer to get him with a second round pick and not a first. But with elite, top tier RBs in low supply this year, I don’t think he’ll get out of the first round.

 

Jordan Reed

Another player I love winds up on the “Bust List”. Like Johnson, I think Reed is an exceptional player and one of jordan-reed-050516-getty-ftrjpg_m2cqy1m9mgr01o07d29kw47knthe best at his position. One key difference between the two, though, is the injury history with Reed. The Washington tight end is going in the 4th round in drafts — and in many ways that’s understandable. He’s coming off a season in which he caught 87 passes for almost 1,000 yards and scored 11 touchdowns. Probably behind Gronkowski and Eifert, Reed is the next TE people want (add Olsen in that conversation too). But beware of three areas of concern with Reed.

First, this isn’t a guy who skates along injury free most years. In 5 years, Reed has suffered 5 concussions and 3 hamstring injuries. Second, Kirk Cousins will have a young, big, speedy WR on the outside in Josh Doctson that will likely take some looks away from the tight end. Lastly, in the two seasons prior to 2015, Reed never caught more than 50 balls for 500 yards nor did he score more than 3 touchdowns. You can easily argue 2015 was an anomaly — and with the injury history, it’s hard to take Reed at that ADP without feeling a sense of buyer’s remorse.

 

Thomas Rawls

The Seattle RB is currently going off the board in fantasy drafts in the 4th round. You heard me right. Let’s remember what Rawls is and what he’s proven (or not proven) in the NFL up to this point — he came to Seattle as Thomas-Rawlsan undrafted free agent and in his rookie season, started a whopping 7 games. Talk about a small sample size.

Take a couple other pieces of information into consideration before thinking I’m nuts and Rawls is the next Marshawn Lynch in Seattle. One, the Seahawks became the first and only team since 2000 to draft not 1, not 2, but 3 running backs in one draft. Not to mention Christine Michael is still there in the Seahawks backfield. So to think Rawls is going to win the starting job handily or to take for granted that he will get the bulk of the carries in a backfield that consists of 4 other RBs seems a little hasty.

Secondly, Seattle’s offensive line is widely recognized as less than average. They’re pretty fortunate that Russell Wilson is so mobile and elusive.

And three — just for good measure — Rawls injured his ankle at the end of last season and is still not fully recovered. Seattle has not disclosed how much preseason play the second year back will see, but it’s not likely to be very much.

 

Feedback is always welcome through the website in the comments box or on my Twitter feed — @brian22goodwin.

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Previewing the 2016 NFL Season: AFC South

All four of the teams in the AFC South could make the case as the team to beat in the division. Yes — who would have thought that Jacksonville or Tennessee would be a part of this conversation? The door to the division crown has been left open. The AFC South has turned into one of the more fascinating divisions in football.

 

Houston Texans

Don’t expect new quarterback Brock Osweiler to make Houston noticeably better than Brian Hoyer’s 2015 Texans.

Osweiler put together a very nice 2015 season in place of the injured, and struggling, Peyton Manning. But let’s 920x920hold off proclaiming him the next hall-of-fame quarterback. The sample size is very small — started 8 games last year while throwing for 10 touchdowns, 6 interceptions, and averaging 245 yards in those games.

The former Sun Devil steps into a Houston Texan team that for years has been carried by it’s stingy defense, led by All-Pro DE J.J. Watt. Osweiler will have Lamar Miller in the backfield with him and one of the league’s premier wide receivers out on the edge in DeAndre Hopkins. All signs point to immediate success for Osweiler. However before we get carried away, let’s remember that we know just as much about Osweiler as we knew about Brian Hoyer when he signed on to quarterback the Texan offense a couple years ago.

Houston has to play fellow 2015 division champions — Broncos, Patriots, and Bengals. Not to mention I already mentioned how the AFC South has righted itself — the Titans and Jags are no longer walkovers. And with Andrew Luck healthy, the Colts will be expected to compete for the top spot in the division — maybe the conference.

Bill O’Brien’s club should be a stronger team at the end of the season than the 2015 version. But it won’t be quick and it won’t be obvious for most of the season. Osweiler has a lot to prove; if he can, this team has a very high ceiling. But their potential may not be reached for another year or two down the road.

 

Indianapolis Colts

With Andrew Luck healthy, the Colts will win the AFC South and compete for the conference title in January.

The NFL is like that — one player can change an entire franchise’s fortunes. In 2015, Andrew Luck’s injury changed 76098972-image-optimized_54b0635a2aba5the Colts fortunes in a negative way — this year his return has many thinking the Colts will resume their spot among the conference’s best teams.

With Matthew Hasselback leading the offense for most of 2015, the Colts still managed 7 wins and were in the hunt for the division right down to the wire. Luck’s return has the potential of making a 7-9 team, an 11-win team.

Expect Luck to throw for over 4,500 yards and somewhere in the neighborhood of 35 to 40 TDs. If the Indy defense can get off the field when they need to and give their stud QB extra opportunities with the ball in his hands, the Colts should be a very formidable team in 2016.

 

Jacksonville Jaguars

Blake Bortles will not need to throw for 35 TDs, as Jacksonville’s defense will lead this team into wildcard contention.

Blake Bortles had one of the best 2015 seasons that no one really remembers. His 35 touchdowns was only one behind NFL leader Tom Brady’s 36; he threw for over 4,400 yards; and ranked in the top-10 in almost every major usa-today-9340120.0passing category. HIs 18 interceptions were the worst in the league, but I expect that number to come down considerably this season. The main reason? Head Coach Gus Bradley has assembled a mean, fast, ball-hawking defense that should take a lot of pressure off of Bortles and the offense.

Don’t forget that Bradley came from Seattle when he took the job as head coach of the Jaguars. He helped put together the Legion of Doom and had a major hand in Seattle’s vicious pass rush. Jacksonville is not anywhere near that Seattle team — let’s not misunderstand each other. However, the Jags are chalk full of high defensive draft picks — linebacker Myles Jack and DB Jalen Ramsey, fast edge rushers, and talented young defenders who are buying into Bradley’s system. Offseason additions like Prince Amukamara at cornerback and Tashaun Gipson at free safety have this secondary looking much more capable of defending against the pass in 2016.

 

Tennessee Titans

DeMarco Murray will lead the AFC in rushing.

If Marcus Mariota had a couple more weapons at wide receiver — like a reliable slot guy and another big deep Titans Footballthreat, I’d feel like predicting a playoff berth for this team wouldn’t be all that crazy. As it stands though, I think the Titans are going to be much improved in 2016, but they will not threaten for the playoffs. But Mariota should have another very good year — made even better by the addition of running back DeMarco Murray.

Tennessee improved their offensive line in the offseason which will provide Mariota more time in the pocket and will give Murray a solid blocking front that I expect will spring him to the top of the conference in rushing. Head Coach Mike Mularkey knows the importance of being able to run the football — look for him to feature Mariota, himself, many times a game running the ball in addition to Murray. Establishing a solid, respected rush attack will make Mariota better and will make the offense more efficient. Murray is just the guy to tote the rock in Mularkey’s offense.

Dallas nearly ran Murray’s legs off in 2014. But thankfully for Tennessee, Chip Kelly really never figured out how to properly use Murray last season in Philadelphia. So the workhorse back should be coming into 2016 feeling pretty rested.

 

Feedback is always welcome through the website in the comments box or on my Twitter feed — @brian22goodwin.

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The Fantasy 3: Fantasy “Sleepers” of 2016 Draft

Drafts are drawing near and everyone knows for the most part who they want in the first couple rounds — the “Must Haves” of the fantasy season. Beyond that, though, many of us are in the same boat – see who’s there and go with your gut. I’m not casting doubt on your decision-making – or your gut – but keep in mind the following three players as the draft wears on. Don’t necessarily reach for these guys, but don’t be afraid to take them when others may not even be thinking about them. (Always check out ADP prior to your draft so you have an idea of where certain players are going to ensure you don’t take a player in the 4th round that you could easily have picked in the 8th.)

Here’s my three sleepers based on value of the 2016 fantasy football season:

 

Marcus Mariota

 

I wasn’t sold on Mariota coming out of Oregon at first – Chip Kelly/Oregon QBs don’t exactly have the greatest marcus-mariota_btcoz9d544gf1pr4mxbv17aj9track record of success in the NFL. But last season, I found myself using Mariota at the position for a couple weeks as I streamed my quarterbacks throughout the year. The young man did not disappoint.

In addition, Mariota has the ability to run with the football – and in fantasy, that’s huge for a quarterback. Head Coach Mike Mularkey saw this ability and went with it – Mariota rushed 24 times in 7 games with Mularkey as interim coach last season, compared to just 10 times in 5 games with Ken Wisenhunt at the helm.

Mariota’s passing numbers have the potential to explode as well. With DeMarco Murray in the backfield, an improved offensive line, and receivers Dorial Green-Beckham and Rishard Matthews in the mix, Mariota will have options all over the field. Not to mention, tight end Delanie Walker has established himself as one of Mariota’s favorite go-to targets and a top tier player at his position.

And the beauty with Mariota is that you can wait. Let Cam and Rodgers and Brees and all those guys fly off the board (probably earlier than any QBs should). When the dust settles and you’ve stockpiled at the positions that matter most – RB and WR – the Tennessee signal caller should be there for you. He’s currently going in the 15th round on average.

 

Tevin Coleman

 

After Coleman went down injuring his ribs in Week 2, Devonta Freeman never let him back into the mix and forced hi-res-a697b903f7dac2f99d2553b098c85c07_crop_northhim into a secondary role for the Falcons. But we cannot forget that what the Falcons front office and coaches saw in Coleman last season to name him the Week 1 starter still exists. While Freeman will begin the year as the starter, Coleman will be given every opportunity to earn more carries as the weeks go on. Freeman did suffer a concussion near the end of last season and had ball security problems.

Coleman, the former Hoosier, has all the attributes of a starting running back in the NFL – speed, can break tackles, has the ability to run in between the tackles while also breaking to the edge. Third round picks don’t typically get discarded that easily in the NFL – especially if they’re running backs. Expect Atlanta to give Coleman many chances to re-take some carries – splitting time between the 2 RBs can only serve to help the Atlanta offense. Coleman could be a great RB to have on the bench – and possibly move into a starting role as time goes on. His ADP puts him in the 11th round.

 

Jay Ajayi

 

Recent reports of Ajayi missing some Dolphin practices due to a knee issue may actually help his status as a sleeper. No report is very clear with respect to the severity of this ailment, but the running back says it’s nothing to worry about and the team hasn’t behaved in any way that would sound alarms.Jay+Ajayi+oCB1lIuBROfm

Head Coach Adam Gase has earned a reputation as a “Quarterback Whisperer” of sorts over the past few years in Denver and Chicago. One reason for this is how the offensive-minded Gase uses his running backs. CJ Anderson and Ronnie Hillman combined for over 1700 yards from scrimmage with Gase running the O, and last season, Matt Forte and Jeremy Langford both earned praised in the Bears’ offense – accounting for over 2,000 yards from scrimmage and 14 touchdowns.

The Dolphins are looking for Ajayi to replace Lamar Miller’s 1300 total yards and 10 touchdowns he accrued as the Fins’ top RB last season. With Miller now in Houston, Ajayi has been given the reigns – the signing of Adrian Foster should only help to give the former Boise State back a breather and keep him fresh throughout the year, especially if this knee issue ends up being something more. Fantasy owners could realistically expect Ajayi’s 2016 output to mirror Miller’s from 2015 – perhaps even better it due to Gase and the fact quarterback Ryan Tannehill is another year experienced. In addition, Miami does have pass-catching weapons in Jarvis Landry, DeVonte Parker, and Jordan Cameron. Gase will be sure to optimize all he can out of them – which in turn should help to create running room for Ajayi out of the backfield.

Ajayi’s ADP has him going off the board in the 8th round.

 

 

Feedback is always welcome through the website in the comments box or on my Twitter feed — @brian22goodwin.

 

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NFL 2016 Preview: The AFC East

New England Patriots

Dion Lewis makes the Pro Bowl.

After a 2015 campaign cut short due to a devastating knee injury, Dion Lewis will be given every opportunity to

New England Patriots running back Dion Lewis (33) runs past Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier (50) in the second half of an NFL football game, Thursday, Sept. 10, 2015, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)

resume his role as the featured back in the running and passing game. With Tom Brady missing the first month of the season, Jimmy Garoppolo will indeed be searching for his security blanket — with all the weapons Bill Belichick has stockpiled, Garopollo should have his pick of the litter. Dump off passes to his quick, stealthy running back will likely to be easy and help build confidence in the young signal-caller.

Expect Lewis to play a very big role in the offense this year. With all that the Patriots spread out with at the line of scrimmage, defenses cannot hunker down on everyone. With Lewis’s speed and elusiveness — coming out of the backfield or lined up in the slot, he could be the guy who finds the openings in New England’s short passing attack.

 

Buffalo Bills

Seven wins, max.

Expectations haven’t been this high in upstate New York for a long time. Head coach Rex Ryan proclaimed his team

Nov 23, 2015; Foxborough, MA, USA; Buffalo Bills head coach Rex Ryan walks the sidelines against the New England Patriots during the first half at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

“the winners of the offseason”; and the Bills did do a lot to restructure their defense — drafting potential standouts DE Shaq Lawson and LB Reggie Ragland, hiring Rex’s brother Rob to head up the defense, bringing on former Ryan player Ed Reed as an assistant, and letting go of disgruntled DE Mario Williams. So in short, yes, the defense will be much improved and should end up as a top 5 defense this season.

The offense, however, is a different story. Star wide receiver Sammy Watkins is coming off a spring and summer that required foot surgery. All reports point to the wideout healing in plenty of time and not being hampered by any lingering effects; but foot surgeries for receivers are like knee surgeries to running backs. Watkins is a stud and has all-world talent, but if he is in any way impacted by the result of the surgery and cannot perform to his standard, the Bills offense will suffer.

Buffalo’s backfield will need to have a great season in order for the Bills to meet the expectations and make a playoff run. Karlos Williams filled in and looked very strong as LeSean McCoy’s replacement last season. He is young and will need to prove he can do it again, and for a full year; McCoy will need to prove some things himself — the first being that he can stay healthy. Although productive when healthy, McCoy has missed significant time in 4 of his 7 seasons in the league.

 

New York Jets

Tough schedule early on will have Jets trying to play catch-up in the win column all year.

You try not to make game-by-game predictions because it’s all based on last season and what’s most recent in your gettyimages-502027040memory. But there’s no mistaking it — the Jets have a difficult opening 6 games, where they are on the road 4 times against the Bills, Chiefs, Steelers, and Cardinals. Their two home games in the stretch aren’t much easier: Cincinnati and Seattle. The schedule eases a bit after that, but a 2-4 or 1-5 start may be too big of a hole to dig out from.

With Brady missing the first 4 games in New England, it’s critical for any team in the division — including the Jets — who expects to contend to get out to a fast start and attempt to put some early distance between themselves and the perennial division champs. And watching Buffalo improve on the defensive side of the ball and Miami doing the same, the Jets aren’t going to find any easy divisional games this year.

 

Miami Dolphins

Jay Ajayi will resemble a young Matt Forte in Adam Gase’s offense.

The Dolphin defense is designed to get after opposing quarterbacks. Don’t expect that to change — Cameron Wake ajayiis back healthy, Ndamakong Suh is still able to play at a high level, and the addition of Mario Williams could inject even more “umf” into the line. But head coach Adam Gase was brought on the help make the offensive pieces realize their potential, beginning with quarterback Ryan Tannehill.

Gase’s offense should allow Tannehill to see growth and improvement this season — Gase has a very good track record. What it should also do is showcase the talents of running back Jay Ajayi. Look for Ajayi to be a significant weapon out of the backfield, as a runner and as a pass catcher. His play alone could be the deciding factor when it comes down to if this Dolphins team is playoff-bound in January.

 

 

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