NFL season preview: Bills, Bucs, Lions, Texans are optimistic
With the NFL season quickly approaching, a busy offseason and a deep and talented draft class have altered the landscape of the league. Football’s restrictive salary cap and high rate of player turnover means there are often huge surprises in the standings from year to year. These teams were under .500 last season but, due to a combination of statistical indicators, offseason moves, and a couple of hunches, could flip expectations on their heads and improve this year.
It won’t be easy, but it isn’t hard to imagine the Houston Texans being the third consecutive team to launch all the way from the first overall pick to the playoffs in the following season. This may sound like a reach, but the Texans were much better than 2–14 last year. Houston lost nine of their eleven one-score games, which is often an indicator that bad luck drove their record down far more than a lack of talent. The team's late leads over the Seattle Seahawks, Indianapolis Colts, and New England Patriots, as well as lost nail biters against the Kansas City Chiefs and St. Louis Cardinals, magnifies their bad luck even more. The Cardinals were the only team in that group to not make the playoffs, and they won 10 games last season in the loaded NFC West. That alone shows that this Texans team was probably closer to an average 6–10 team than a 2–14 team last year.
Further, quarterback Matt Schaub played so badly in the beginning of the season that he was benched for undrafted free agent quarterback, Case Keenum. The duo combined for a monstrous number of interceptions returned for scores and overall terrible play from the quarterback position. While this problem will likely not be solved next year with journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick taking the reins on offense, the offense will still likely take a huge step forward.
Defensive scores are not a consistent stat from year to year, and are largely determined by randomness. This team will not throw pick sixes in five consecutive games. Further, running back Arian Foster is healthy after never really being at full strength last year, which will add another dimension to this offense and open up more room for the passing game to grow. Even with a subpar quarterback situation, the wide receiving corps of this team more than makes up for it. Andre Johnson will continue to be a star, and opposite him, DeAndre Hopkins showed flashes of brilliance last year and should continue to improve. Tight end Owen Daniels may have moved on but his replacement, Garrett Graham, showed competence both blocking and receiving. Tackle Tyson Clabo could bolster the Texans protection and give Fitzpatrick more time to get passes away to the talented receivers. This offense has the potential to be significantly better than it was a year ago.
The Texans defense also has the chance to improve in several ways. The first and most visible is the addition of first overall draft pick, jack linebacker Jadeveon Clowney. Paired with defensive end JJ Watt, this tandem could wreak havoc upon opposing offensive lines, disrupting passes and producing sacks. If Clowney lives up to his potential, the Texans pass rush could be devastating. Brian Cushing could be returning, but he is no longer a safe bet to play close to 16 games in a season.
However, the Texans defense wasn’t that bad last year. Watt is still the best defensive end in the league; the secondary, while not great, is not awful; and the Texans have been making due with mediocre inside linebackers for years, and last year was the first time in three seasons they missed the playoffs. There is a little bit of the plexiglass principle involved as well. This team was dominant two years ago and only returned to average last year. If they improve to somewhere between those two extremes, they will likely improve massively on last year’s nightmare season.
Another cellar dweller primed to make a leap is the Buffalo Bills. Behind the second-best defensive line in the league and rookie middle linebacker Kiko Alonso, this team quietly had a dominant defense last year. While Alonso is out for the season with an injury and safety Jairus Byrd has left for the New Orleans Saints, Brandon Spikes and Da’Norris Searcy are competent replacements, respectively. Although the defense was good last year, the Bills were still awful. The big upgrades will come on the offensive side of the ball.
The Bills’ offense last year was a disaster. Quarterback EJ Manuel was okay when he wasn’t hurt, but his replacements were bad. Running back CJ Spiller had a letdown season and produced nothing for most of the season. Very little on this offense worked last season, but that will likely change next year.
First, the line should improve this season. Left tackle Cordy Glenn should continue to improve in his third season. Eric Wood will still be a helpful player at center for the Bills. Rookie right tackle, Cyrus Kouandjio, could be a major addition for the Bills. He projects as a great run blocker for a run-first team.
This improvement in the line could help open up more space for Spiller. Spiller’s season last year was a disappointment, but it’s probably not permanent. Spiller is not old enough, even for a running back, to already be on the downslope of his career, and he still has the speed and agility that made him great in 2012. The extra gaps created by the line could boost Spiller’s performance next season.
The team’s passing game might improve as well. Manuel missed time last year and was turnover-prone, but both of these things could diminish as he gets more comfortable with the Bills’ system. Furthermore, rookie wide receiver Sammy Watkins might be the best player in this year’s draft class. Whole highlight reels have already been dedicated to Watkins’ one-handed catches and moves with the ball. He could open up space for the running game and launch the Bills into the upper half of the AFC East. It might not be enough to warrant a playoff appearance, but in a weak division, it might be enough.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
In the NFC, the Buccaneers could deliver on some of their 2013 promise. Head coach Greg Schiano and quarterback Josh Freeman had a lockerroom dispute that went public, and Freeman was abysmal on the field. Murphy’s Law held, and the season was lost after a 0–7 start. The team only slightly improved down the stretch, going 4–5 in their last nine games.
The roster is talented enough to think they might improve. Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and outside linebacker Lavonte David are two of the best defensive players in the league. Former Titans cornerback Alterraun Verner was a solid addition to shore up the secondary and cannot possibly be as bad as former cornerback Darrelle Revis was last year. Free safety Dashon Goldson is also likely to be a productive player this season. With some stars and few true weaknesses on the defense, this unit should play well. They were already the eighth best defense by DVOA last season, according to Football Outsiders, and that number should stay the same or improve this year.
Offensively, this team should improve as well. As stated before, Freeman was awful and was traded to the Vikings midseason. Backup quarterback, and rookie Mike Glennon was raw and, despite improving over the course of the season, not very good. Quarterback Josh McCown was a smart offseason addition. Coming off a fantastic year with the Chicago Bears, he should be a solid stopgap before Glennon is ready to take the reins. Running back Doug Martin will probably miss fewer games this year. Rookie wide receiver Mike Evans is a great complement to wide receiver Vincent Jackson in the passing game. This offense may not be dominant, but if it clicks, this team has the potential to be very good. Either way, this team is much better than 4–12.
None of these improvements even touch upon the most important change made to this year’s Bucs. Last year, the team clearly hated head coach Schiano. Schiano was more of a disciplinarian than a coach, and the team consistently came out in predictable sets and looked uninterested.
Lovie Smith was an excellent hire, with a proven track record of winning and likability among players. This will be a good team that will be on the same page with a competent head coach. The AFC South is historically erratic — no team has won the division in consecutive years. The Bucs will probably not win it, with the New Orleans Saints set to have a great team, but this team could end up in the playoff discussion by season’s end.
Lastly, this should be the year the Detroit Lions finally deliver on the team’s ability and promise and make the playoffs for the second time in 15 years. This team finished only two games off pace last year after the Green Bay Packers lost Aaron Rodgers for an extended stretch. The Lions appeared to have the division won with several games to go, but went on an ice cold streak, losing six of their last seven. The team went 0–4 in games decided by three points or less over that time frame, and they lost to several bad teams. The criticism heaped that quarterback Matt Stafford can’t win the big game and that this team suffered from a rash of intangible failures that prevented them from winning down the stretch.
It’s far more likely that this losing streak could be attributed to a number of factors that point toward a better record this season.
First, as the games became more important, this team became more predictable, sticking to head coach Jim Schwartz’s game plan under any circumstance, which prevented a very talented offense from being effective late in the season, as late game drives continually resulted in interceptions. Of course, some of this was Stafford’s fault, but there were a number of other things at play.
According to an article run by Grantland, Stafford’s stats as a passer deteriorated the longer he waited in the pocket. This makes no sense, because it means he had more time to throw the ball, but it was a significant enough decrease to imply that another factor was at play. From watching clips of those last seven games, it appeared that Stafford continually had no one open to throw to on those types of plays, leading to a large number of interceptions, which falls on the offensive scheme and Schwartz’s lackluster coaching. Jim Caldwell will not necessarily be a major improvement, but any improvement could cause a significant increase in this team’s offensive output.
In addition to the coaching change, wide receiver Golden Tate is the talented, possession wide receiver this team has been looking for since they added Calvin Johnson. Kris Durham was terrible last year, dropping almost every pass thrown at him, and was clearly unable to cope with how hard Stafford throws the ball. Tate has always been extremely sure-handed and was an excellent addition to this roster. Further, draft pick Eric Ebron should be very effective at providing a huge red zone target and a third option after Johnson and Tate. With running backs Reggie Bush and Joique Bell coming off productive seasons, this could be a very good offense.
This team’s defense, on the other hand, is not great, but it has good enough pieces. The defensive line could be unstoppable. Defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley are two of the best defensive linemen in the league, and defensive end Ziggy Ansah was solid last year and should continue to improve. This team has no need to rush with more than four, meaning it could make up for the team’s lackluster secondary. The linebackers on this team are solid, and rookie addition Kyle Van Noy could continue to move this team in the right direction. This team was middle of the pack last year, and while it could improve marginally, that is all this team needs considering their offensive firepower.
This season could prove to be an exciting one, and these four teams should turn in better campaigns than last season. While certainly not locks, all of these teams should be playoff contenders after being something closer to doormats a year ago. With a small 16-game sample to judge an entire season, no one can be sure, but these teams appear to be headed in the right direction.