Sports

NFL Preview: Chiefs, Jets, Packers, Panthers, face tough 2014 seasons

Every year, several impressive teams from last season take huge steps back. Based on offseason moves and some statistical indicators, here are some teams that might disappoint in 2014.

Kansas City Chiefs

After going 2–14 in 2012, the Kansas City Chiefs made a series of big offseason moves and became the second consecutive team to go from worst to playoffs.

However, there is a reason they only had an excellent start. Last season could be split into two parts: their undefeated record before the bye-week and consistent failure after it.

Before the bye, this Chiefs team beat up on a very weak schedule. Only one of the teams they played reached the playoffs, and only two could muster .500 records. The playoff team they did play was the Philadelphia Eagles in week three, before Nick Foles replaced Michael Vick and made that team good. The Chiefs were very lucky to pull out one-point squeakers against the Dallas Cowboys and Houston Texans, two mediocre squads.

Overall, the teams they played in the first half finished 52–92, a record that would amount to between five and six wins over the course of one NFL season. That would be among the worst in the NFL.

In the second half of the season, two major changes took place. First, the teams they played got better. Second, key injuries slowed the team. The record of teams that the Chiefs played over the final seven weeks of the season was 62–50, which would translate to between eight and nine wins, an average team.

The Chiefs went 2–5 in this leg of the season, which is a huge drop, even with the better competition. Injuries limited the effectiveness of outside linebackers Tamba Hali and Justin Houston, which greatly diminished the pass rush, the keystone to the Chiefs’ success in the first half.

With the pass rush lagging, unexpected first-half standouts like cornerback Marcus Cooper wilted and the team completely fell apart defensively. They consistently gave up point totals topping thirty.

This year, the Chiefs’ schedule gets harder, so some regression would be expected even if they did not get worse. However, this team is much worse than last season.

Cornerback Brandon Flowers, guard Jon Asamoah, and offensive tackle Branden Albert all left with nothing close to suitable replacements.

The offense was bad last year and it lost most of its pass protection without adding anyone to help. Wide receiver Dexter McCluster might be missed in special teams. They will likely be near the middle of the league, but it’s not hard to imagine the Chiefs returning to the top of the draft.

Carolina Panthers

The Carolina Panthers are another fairly obvious candidate for regression. This team had two major weaknesses last year. The receiving corps was awful and the secondary was even worse. Both of those units got worse in free agency. The Panthers’ front office had a history of massively overpaying players, which left this team right up against the cap, even after losing their best cornerback and their best three wide receivers.

Their replacements were unilaterally disappointing. Wide receivers Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant have been somewhat productive as third receivers, but neither is a particularly good NFL wide receiver. Safeties Thomas DeCoud and Roman Harper might have been the worst free safety and strong safety in the league last year.

These concerns could be overblown. Last year, the receivers weren’t very good either. Steve Smith had lost more than a step, and Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn were no better than Cotchery and Avant. Rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin could be successful coming into his rookie year, and tight end Greg Olson could take a step forward. The secondary was also terrible, and I’m not sure even Harper and DeCoud could really make it worse.

That probably will not matter.

This team had an okay offensive line last year at best, and left tackle Jordan Gross hung up the cleats after 11 outstanding years. Left guard Travelle Wharton also walked away. That okay line will be brutal this year. Quarterback Cam Newton will have to run to avoid the rush far more than he did last year, which was a lot. That could both lead to a decrease in efficiency and injury risks.

Despite all the bad news, the stars of this team are coming back. Newton has been excellent since his rookie season. His leap last year was not much of a leap at all — he had been performing at a high level since he broke the record for passing yards in a game by a rookie during week one of his rookie year. The tandem of middle linebacker Luke Kuechly and outside linebacker Thomas Davis was a force in pass coverage last year, erasing the middle of the field, a very important outlet for most passers when things don’t go perfectly deep. Defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short should improve after amazing rookie seasons where they dominated opposing offensive lines. The front seven should be dominant again, and that could be enough to push this team in the right direction.

After considering the roster moves, this team is worse than last year’s team, but last year’s team was worse than its record. The team's losses — they went 5–2 in close games — seemed to be a hallmark of head coach Ron Rivera’s term. The schedule was also fairly easy. The NFC South was weaker than expected last year and the AFC East was bad as well. Their out-of-division foes, the New York Giants and Minnesota Vikings, could be described as weak at best. This team played the NFC West, but they didn’t play well against the NFC West, going 2–2, so that probably does not affect their strength of schedule. Overall, this team got worse, the NFC South improved around it, and the schedule will get harder. That’s a great recipe for regression.

Green Bay Packers

The Green Bay Packers are not obvious candidates to disappoint this season. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers missed half of 2013.

The receivers are still very talented, and the loss of James Jones will probably not dent their production. Guards T.J. Lang and Josh Sitton should continue to be excellent assets to the team.

There are three reasons this team could still regress.

The first is that their defense is laughable. Outside linebacker Clay Matthews has spent more minutes in commercials than he has on the field, and consistently seems to be out with a nagging injury.

Anyway, he has been mediocre at best while on the field. Nose tackle B.J. Raji and middle linebacker A.J. Hawk have never lived up to expectations. Outside linebacker Julius Peppers is getting very old, and was not productive last year on a terrible Bears defense. Except for rookie free safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, there are no possible impact players on this defense, and that can make it hard for the team to succeed.

This team was 31st in defensive DVOA last year, according to Football Outsiders, and outperformed that ranking in statistics like yards and points surrendered, which indicates that the defense will somehow be even more abysmal than it was last season.
The offense might not be much better than it was last year, either. Seven extra games of Rodgers will be a massive boost, but this offense reportedly plans to run more, which will diminish Rodgers’s value.

Eddie Lacy was a revelation last year, but much of his success came due to game plans that focused on the Packers’ reputation as a passing offense.

Lacy only had two great games last year, one in the game Rodgers got injured and one against the Cowboys, the worst defense in recent memory.

His success was overrated due to his goal line carries which gave him fantasy football value. This coaching staff seems to be buying into his hype, which could cause them to self-destruct.

This team will regress slightly overall, but the massive improvement that is possible throughout the rest of the NFC North, where every other team made significant offseason gains, could put The Pack in a bad spot in 2014.

New York Jets

Finally, the New York Jets are possibly the highest variance team in football. It is easy to envision this team finishing anywhere from 2–14 to 11–5. There is easily a situation where the improvement shown by quarterback Geno Smith over the last four weeks was real; running back Chris Johnson actually was held back by a predictable offense in Tennessee; wide receiver Eric Decker was not just a benefactor of Peyton Manning’s excellence in Denver; second year cornerback Dee Milliner, rookie tight end Jace Amaro, and safety Calvin Pryor turn in huge seasons; and this team is incredible.
None of those things are likely to happen.

Smith has some arm strength but he is a questionable decision maker in the pocket. As the career of former quarterback Mark Sanchez has shown, this team is not very good at improving quarterbacks’ decision making. He is not as good as many seem to think running the football, and is more of a pocket passer. His success at the end of last season had a lot to do with an offense that had been very simplified for him and some bad competition. It was likely a flash in the pan, and he will continue to be an interception machine this year.

Chris Johnson is a running back and, in the NFL, running backs get old fast and they never really recover. I’m not sure why the Jets were so happy with this signing.

Decker’s success last year came largely in the red zone or on deep balls, where he was a big target for Manning. Manning is a much better quarterback than Smith, and both of those situations call for great precision from a quarterback more than receiving talent. Decker probably will not be great on this offense.

Milliner and Pryor have already dealt with injury issues and Amaro has been largely invisible in the preseason.

That said, all of those players are in spots of extreme weakness in 2013 and cannot possibly be worse in 2014. Chris Ivory and Bilal Powell are very good second and third running backs to have. If Smith is terrible, quarterback Michael Vick can add a huge boost to this offense. Decker and Amaro are both good receivers, if not spectacular, which is a huge improvement over the abysmal receiving corps last year. Antonio Cromartie was awful as the number one corner, and the safety position was a revolving door of terrible, with the team even signing a washed up Ed Reed halfway through the season.

This team still retains some of its strengths from last year. Tackle D’brickishaw Ferguson and center Nick Mangold continue to get older and further removed from their days as world beaters four years ago, but they’re still solid players and the rest of the line is average. Defensive tackles Sheldon Richardson and Muhammad Wilkerson should continue to dominate in the pass rush, and this team has been the best in stopping the run since Rex Ryan arrived as head coach.

However, last year’s 8–8 squad was a severe aberration. This team had the point differential of a five-to-six win team, and that’s a better indicator of next year’s record than the actual win-loss total. That might even be overstating it, since this team thrived in close games. Two wins were gifted by penalties from opposing teams on the last play in regulation. The team went 5–1 in games decided by a touchdown or less.

The expected improvement on this team just isn’t enough to make up for how much worse this team was than its record. Or maybe it won’t be. Don’t be surprised if this team is in yet another unexpected AFC championship game this season.

Don’t be surprised if they’re the worst team in the league, either.