NFL Season Predictions, Part 1: The Cellar Dwellers

The rosters have been pared down to 53 men, and with thousands of words of preamble out of the way, it’s time to finish up the 2014 NFL Preview. As always, during this last week of boring before the NFL season finally begins, we break up the league’s 32 teams into four groups, writing about one of those groups per day. The series begins today with a look at the teams I’m expecting to be among the eight competing for the first overall pick in next year’s draft. Tomorrow, I’ll look at eight teams that are likely to decline in 2014, before getting to eight improving teams on Thursday and the top eight contenders to win Super Bowl XLIX on Friday. If you want more detailed looks at each NFL team and its chances in 2014, you can refer to the Grantland NFL Podcast previews from the past month with myself and Robert Mays.

Each team capsule lists a number of key statistics that contextualize how the team performed in 2013. Many of them are described and explained in this statistical primer from 2012. I calculated strength of schedule for 2013 by — blink a couple of times right now or your eyes are going to glaze over — using the average Pythagorean expectation for each opponent a team played, not including the points scored or allowed in games between those two teams. OK, so your eyes probably glazed over anyway. Mine did too. Simpler explanation: To figure out the Falcons’ 2013 strength of schedule, I started with Week 1, in which they played the Saints. To determine how “difficult” the Saints were, I gathered the Saints’ points scored and points allowed in games that didn’t involve the Falcons and converted that to a winning percentage. Do that 15 more times and you find that Atlanta’s average opponent had a non-Falcons Pythagorean expectation of .532, the fifth-toughest slate in football.

The only problem? Nobody has played any meaningful games in 2014, so it’s impossible to project the schedule the same way. Football Perspective used the Vegas lines to infer each team’s strength of schedule in 2014 through Week 16, so we’ll use that as an estimate. Now, let’s go make fans of eight teams angry!

Buffalo Bills

2013 Record: 6-10
Pythagorean Wins: 6.7 (underperformed by 0.7 wins; eighth-unluckiest team in NFL)
Record in Games Decided by Seven Points or Fewer: 4-4 (0.500)
2013 Strength of Schedule: 0.491 (18th-toughest)
Estimated 2014 Strength of Schedule: 23rd-toughest
Turnover Margin: plus-3 (12th-best)
2014 Out-of-Division Schedule: NFC North, AFC West, vs. Browns, at Texans

It’s hard for a late-August backup signing to bode worse than the move Buffalo made this past weekend to sign Kyle Orton to a two-year deal. It seemed earlier this offseason that Orton wanted to retire, only for the Cowboys to cut him (saving him from having to pay back $3 million of his signing bonus in the process), at which point Orton apparently no longer wanted to retire. In any case, with Orton one of the better backups in football, it was originally a surprise no team added him to its roster until the very end of camp. Then the terms of his deal came out: Buffalo will pay Orton $5 million in 2014, and he will have a player option for 2015 in what is expected to be a two-year relationship. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the 31-year-old Orton get paid $10 million or more over two years.

That’s a lot of money for a backup quarterback, and the Bills further committed to the move by subsequently waiving Jeff Tuel1 and Thaddeus Lewis, who combined to start six games last season. The timing of the signing suggests the Bills have serious doubts about second-year starter EJ Manuel. Why would the Bills invest so heavily in a backup this late in the preseason unless they thought they were going to need him? Manuel struggled through knee issues for most of last season in an unimpressive campaign, and while I’m very skeptical of preseason performance, the Bills watched Manuel struggle to a 73.1 passer rating on 82 attempts this preseason. He hasn’t been Gabbertian, so it’s weird to think the Bills would already be ready to move on from their 2013 first-round pick, especially given that he’s yet to play a single competitive down with the team’s 2014 first-round pick, wideout Sammy Watkins.

The Watkins deal already looms as a bizarre, ill-advised misstep for the Doug Whaley regime. Watkins may end up as a superstar, but the Bills gave up their 2015 first-round pick to move up from no. 9 to no. 4 this year. If Manuel is a bust, the Bills may very well have dealt away a top-five pick they would have used to take his replacement. Bad teams usually have the salve of a top draft pick to comfort them after a disappointing season; the Bills, instead, have Orton. And that’s just the offense. Buffalo quietly had the league’s fourth-best defense and second-best pass defense last year, but that defense has already lost three key contributors. Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine slogged through a lengthy interview process before eventually becoming Cleveland’s new head coach, while star safety Jairus Byrd left for New Orleans in free agency before Defensive Rookie of the Year runner-up Kiko Alonso tore his ACL. The Bills signed former Lions head coach Jim Schwartz to continue Pettine’s work, but bizarrely decided to replace Byrd and Alonso with in-house options. Even Watkins is replacing Stevie Johnson, who was unceremoniously dumped to the 49ers for a conditional fourth-round pick.

Johnson’s $10 million cap hit forms almost half of the whopping $24.2 million the Bills have in dead money on their cap this season, a figure topped only by the Cowboys. It makes sense that a hyperaggressive, narrowly-avoiding-contention team like the Cowboys would be burning the cap on both ends to try to retain as many stars as possible, but the Bills have been irrelevant for a decade. For all the excitement they created in trading up for Watkins, the season already seems lost, with 2014 devoted to finding the moments when the team gives up on Manuel and when the franchise is sold by the estate of deceased owner Ralph Wilson. It can feel that way when you’re two years away from even drafting your next quarterback of the future. The Bills are somehow simultaneously rebuilding and hopeless, a franchise both in transition and going nowhere.

Best-Case Scenario: Orton takes over for Manuel after learning the playbook and plays like a perfectly average starting quarterback, while Watkins and C.J. Spiller form a pair of devastating big-play specialists. Schwartz gets enough out of the pass rush for Buffalo to go 9-7 and produce its first winning season since 2004.

Worst-Case Scenario: The defense collapses after losing two stars, and the Bills spend the entire season going back and forth between a disappointing Manuel and an uninterested Orton while Watkins struggles through a series of nagging injuries. Buffalo eventually hands Cleveland the first overall pick in the 2015 draft.

Carolina Panthers

2013 Record: 12-4
Pythagorean Wins: 11.7 (overperformed by 0.3 wins)
Record in Games Decided by Seven Points or Fewer: 5-2 (0.714, fourth-luckiest team in NFL)
2013 Strength of Schedule: 0.510 (10th-toughest)
Estimated 2014 Strength of Schedule: third-toughest
Turnover Margin: plus-11 (sixth-best)
2014 Out-of-Division Schedule: AFC North, NFC North, vs. Seahawks, at Eagles

I’ve already written at length why the Panthers will likely find it impossible to repeat their impressive 2013 campaign. The news that Cam Newton will enter the season with a hairline fracture in his ribs only makes things worse for Carolina. Newton’s size has made him a serious threat in short yardage, and the fractured rib will make it uncomfortable for him to maintain consistent throwing mechanics. It’s also obviously an injury that can be easily exacerbated by further hits to the affected area, so while the best thing for the injury is rest, Newton will try to play through the pain and hope for the best. The good news is that the Panthers start the season with two of the league’s worst pass rushes from a year ago in Detroit and Tampa Bay.

Best-Case Scenario: Carolina’s strengths (the front seven and a bruising running game) overcome its weaknesses (the secondary and a passing game lacking for options). First-round pick Kelvin Benjamin forms an immediate connection with his new quarterback, and the Panthers overcome a tough schedule to go 10-6.

Worst-Case Scenario: Newton never gets healthy and plays at a diminished level before finally taking the rest he needs. The secondary gives up too many big plays, and key players like Thomas Davis and Ryan Kalil struggle to stay healthy during a lost year.

Cleveland Browns

2013 Record: 4-12
Pythagorean Wins: 5.5 (underperformed by 1.5 wins; fourth-unluckiest team in NFL)
Record in Games Decided by Seven Points or Fewer: 2-4 (0.333, ninth-unluckiest)
2013 Strength of Schedule: 0.479 (eighth-easiest)
Estimated 2014 Strength of Schedule: fifth-easiest
Turnover Margin: minus-8 (seventh-worst)
2014 Out-of-Division Schedule: AFC South, NFC South, vs. Raiders, at Bills

It’s certainly not impossible to construct a scenario in which Cleveland contends in the AFC. The Browns were better than their record last year, as they underplayed their point differential and lost to the Patriots only after failing to recover an expected onside kick. While it’s not clear whether Pettine is an upgrade on the departed Rob Chudzinski, the Browns should be better at quarterback, where Brian Hoyer and first-round pick Johnny Manziel (have you heard of this guy?) will form an entity superior to that of Jason Campbell and Brandon Weeden, especially if the partnership involves more Manziel and less Hoyer. Cleveland has a legitimate star cornerback in Joe Haden and a trio of pass-rushers with upside in Barkevious Mingo, Paul Kruger, and Jabaal Sheard, so if first-round pick Justin Gilbert is an overnight success across from Haden, the pass defense could get very good very fast.

For all of that, though, Josh Gordon, arguably the best wide receiver in football last season, is gone. The drop-off from Gordon to Andrew Hawkins is bigger than the improvements they might have made at quarterback.2 And as good as Gordon was last year, the Browns were still light-years away from contention with him on the roster. Cleveland’s landing point is still 2015, when it will hopefully have Gordon back to play with Manziel and the extra first-round pick they acquired in the Watkins trade. Never count out Manziel, but don’t count on the Browns contending until next year.

Best-Case Scenario: Johnnymania takes over in Cleveland (and simultaneously Grantland) as Manziel leads the Browns to a series of close victories in an RG3-esque run to the AFC North title. Hey, Kyle Shanahan’s even here!

Worst-Case Scenario: Oh no, Kyle Shanahan’s here! The Browns shuffle through another middling season while waiting for Gordon to return. Even worse, the Bills make the playoffs, pushing that bonus first-round pick into the 20s.

Jacksonville Jaguars

2013 Record: 4-12
Pythagorean Wins: 3.1 (overperformed by 0.9 wins; seventh-luckiest team in NFL)
Record in Games Decided by Seven Points or Fewer: 4-2 (0.667, fifth-luckiest)
2013 Strength of Schedule: 0.492
Estimated 2014 Strength of Schedule: seventh-easiest
Turnover Margin: minus-6 (10th-worst)
2014 Out-of-Division Schedule: AFC North, NFC East, vs. Dolphins, at Chargers

After an impressive preseason from third overall pick Blake Bortles, the Jaguars have fast become a fashionable sleeper pick in the AFC South, which is hardly a hotbed of talent. With an easy schedule, a flotilla of midrange free agents, a promising head coach, and the possibility they’ve hit on a franchise quarterback, there are certainly more unlikely sleepers than Jacksonville.

The problem? There’s just not enough talent here. The Jaguars were the worst team last year by a comfortable margin; they were last in DVOA and had a Pythagorean Expectation one full win worse than anybody else in the league. They were somehow lucky in 2013, which seems impossible. Gene Smith’s four-year run as general manager (2009-12) has left the Jags with just two players who will start for them in Week 1: wideout Cecil Shorts and punter Bryan Anger, infamously taken before Russell Wilson in the third round of the 2012 draft. General manager Dave Caldwell has spent the last two seasons restocking the cupboard, but his moves have left the starting lineup full of low-upside veterans; the likes of Toby Gerhart, Sen’Derrick Marks, Geno Hayes, and Alan Ball might be better than the draft misses from the Smith days, but they’re backups on the vast majority of NFL teams. The Jaguars will be better than they have been in years past, but their ceiling — especially in 2014 — is lower than it might seem.

Best-Case Scenario: Bortles is every bit as good as he’s looked in the preseason, and with imports like Red Bryant and Chris Clemons already familiar with Gus Bradley’s playbook from Seattle, the defense takes a leap forward overnight. With the Texans held back by their quarterback and the Colts held back by everything but their quarterback, the 9-7 Jaguars complete a shocking overnight rise to the AFC South title.

Worst-Case Scenario: The preseason success pressures the Jaguars into starting Bortles earlier than his still-evolving skills warrant, while offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch “takes the pressure off Bortles” by letting Gerhart run into the line 300 times for 900 yards. The thin defense struggles with injuries, and the Jaguars fail to win even six games for the fourth consecutive year.

New York Jets

2013 Record: 8-8
Pythagorean Wins: 5.4 (overperformed by 2.6 wins; luckiest team in NFL)
Record in Games Decided by Seven Points or Fewer: 5-1 (0.833, luckiest)
2013 Strength of Schedule: 0.484 (11th-easiest)
Estimated 2014 Strength of Schedule: 18th-toughest
Turnover Margin: minus-14 (Third-worst)
2014 Out-of-Division Schedule: AFC West, NFC North, vs. Steelers, at Titans

Dueling statistical indicators! Graphic of numbers colliding! OK, maybe I’m the only person who’s excited to see how this plays out, but the Jets were both wildly lucky and wildly unlucky in different ways in 2013, and it remains to be seen how those statistical suggestions will unwind themselves in 2014.

In one corner: Geno Smith, clutch quarterback. The Jets massively outplayed their point differential last season, going 8-8 while being outscored by the 4-12 Falcons. Naturally, the Jets also went 5-1 in games decided by one touchdown or less. Before you start comparing Smith and the Jets to Andrew Luck and his outlying Colts, remember how those games ended. The Jets won a squeaker in Week 1 when a questionable late hit call on Lavonte David extended a drive that would have otherwise ended in a Hail Mary from midfield. In Week 7, a bizarre unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Chris Jones gave the Jets a second chance at a game-winning field goal in overtime. Unless the Jets have some magic ability to invoke personal fouls when they need them most, that won’t be sticking around in 2014. A 33-for-36 season from kicker Nick Folk (who had hit 77.9 percent of his field goal attempts before 2013) also helped in an unsustainable way.

In the opposite corner: fumble luck! The Jets recovered just 30.3 percent of the opposition’s fumbles in 2013, the lowest recovery rate in football. That’s totally random from year to year. As long-suffering Jets fan Chase Stuart noted, after recovering 12 of the 16 fumbles they forced on defense in 2012, the Jets forced 18 fumbles in 2013 and recovered just two. Two! The Jets quietly had an above-average defense, ranking 12th in DVOA despite struggles in the secondary. With a league-average fumble recovery rate, they almost certainly would have pushed into the top 10.

They might not make it back there this season because of massive questions in the secondary. General manager John Idzik came into free agency with plenty of cap space, and while he was smart to avoid signing free agents solely for the sake of winning the April editions of the New York Post, he might not have done enough to solidify the pass defense. Relative stalwart Antonio Cromartie left, and the team replaced him with journeyman Dimitri Patterson. That wasn’t great on its face, but it looked even worse when Patterson went AWOL before a preseason game, leading to his release on Saturday. 2013 first-rounder Dee Milliner was expected to play better in his second season, but after suffering a high ankle sprain during camp, Milliner will likely miss the first month of the season,3 leaving the Jets with the much-maligned Kyle Wilson as the team’s top cornerback. The team will hope for the likes of Jason Babin and 2012 first-rounder Quinton Coples to kick-start the pass rush, and while Rex Ryan is known for making the most out of the talent he has, he really doesn’t have a lot to work with in pass defense. That might be a problem in a division with Rob Gronkowski, Watkins, and Mike Wallace.

The truth is that the Jets don’t have a lot left in the cupboard from the Mike Tannenbaum era. After Tannenbaum hit on offensive linemen D’Brickashaw Ferguson and Nick Mangold with his first two picks as general manager in 2006 and followed it with Darrelle Revis and David Harris in 2007, the well went dry. The Jets had no mid-round picks in 2007, and Revis obviously has come and gone. Vernon Gholston and Mark Sanchez headed the 2008 and 2009 classes, neither of which have any players left on this roster. Wilson, a bust, is the only player left from 2010. The Jets had only 13 total picks from 2008 to 2010, repeatedly trading up in drafts to get players like Sanchez and Shonn Greene or using selections to acquire veterans like Brett Favre, Braylon Edwards, and Kris Jenkins. When you make those trades and end up with guys like Revis, you look like a genius. When you make that same move for Sanchez, well, it’s not so hot. The drafts got better once Tannenbaum started to hold on to his picks in 2011, but this team has very few players in the prime of their careers; it’s either old-as-sin veterans or young players on rookie contracts. This is a very thin team with a great head coach who probably would have lost his job had the Jets not been lucky and healthy last season. If that’s not the case this year, they may just be a thin team with a new head coach in 2015.

Best-Case Scenario: The Jets bench Smith early in the season and get a rare 10-week stretch during which Michael Vick is both healthy and effective, while Ryan rides the league’s best run defense to a year of third-and-longs. With Eric Decker doing just enough to extend drives, the Jets squeeze the clock all the way to a 9-7 record and a wild-card berth.

Worst-Case Scenario: Everything falls apart by Halloween thanks to a six-game stretch that sees the Jets play the Packers, Bears, Lions, Chargers, Broncos, and Patriots. Post-peak additions like Vick, Babin, and Chris Johnson contribute little, and Ryan is run out of town before the season even finishes.

Oakland Raiders

2013 Record: 4-12
Pythagorean Wins: 4.9 (underperformed by 0.9 wins; seventh-unluckiest team in NFL)
Record in Games Decided by Seven Points or Fewer: 2-4 (0.333, ninth-unluckiest)
2013 Strength of Schedule: 0.492
Estimated 2014 Strength of Schedule: eighth-toughest
Turnover Margin: minus-9 (sixth-worst)
2014 Out-of-Division Schedule: AFC East, NFC West, vs. Texans, at Browns

Let’s all pick on the Raiders! I just mentioned how the Jets have this three-year hole of drafts thanks to various trades and bad decisions on draft day. Oakland is, well, almost entirely the hole. The only players left on this roster who were drafted by the Raiders and aren’t still on their rookie deals are Sebastian Janikowski, Darren McFadden, and Tyvon Branch. Their 2006, 2007, 2009, and 2010 draft classes have all left town without leaving a single man behind. Some of that is general manager Reggie McKenzie cleaning house, but the house was also inspiring calls from around the neighborhood about an awful smell, so it needed to be cleaned.

McKenzie was basically given the worst possible job in football when he took over in 2012, and everything he’s done since has been to try to erase the mistakes of the past, turning the Raiders essentially into an expansion team in the process. You can’t fault him for pursuing such a path, but there have been serious side effects. He couldn’t convince the team’s two best players to re-sign with Oakland this offseason, losing tackle Jared Veldheer and defensive end Lamarr Houston in free agency. Under pressure to spend his more than $70 million in cap space, McKenzie had to overpay for the likes of Austin Howard, Tarell Brown, and Justin Tuck to bring the hope of competence to Oakland.

McKenzie’s rebuilding plan works only if he drafts useful players, and while the Raiders traded every pick that wasn’t nailed down or hidden before he arrived, McKenzie hasn’t drafted well since arriving in town. He didn’t have a first- or second-round pick in 2012, but his six subsequent picks that year failed to produce even a single starter despite the fact that they only had to beat out Raiders. McKenzie rightly traded down from the third slot in a low-talent 2013 draft, picking up a missing second-rounder in the process, but his draft produced mixed returns. First-rounder D.J. Hayden was an injury risk coming into the league who missed eight games as a rookie and will miss at least the first six games of 2014 by virtue of being placed on the PUP list. Second-rounder Menelik Watson was benched on Monday for ancient tackle Khalif Barnes. Third-rounder Sio Moore had a promising rookie season, but the Raiders cut former Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson after taking him in the fourth round before his rookie season even began.

The slightest glimmer of hope at quarterback could be the thing that saves McKenzie’s job. Having used that pick on Wilson for naught, the Raiders have already cycled through Carson Palmer, Terrelle Pryor, Matt Flynn, and Matt McGloin as starting quarterback options before adding two more choices this offseason. Matt Schaub makes sense as a buy-low candidate one year removed from a Pro Bowl appearance, but he’s looked shell-shocked and injured during a disastrous preseason, which appeared to have opened the door for second-round pick Derek Carr to be named the Week 1 starter. The second round seems to produce about one superstar quarterback and nine busts each decade, and the odds are against Carr breaking out as Oakland’s quarterback of the future. Oakland’s cap has mostly been cleared and its draft assets are untouched, but unless Carr shows signs of being a star, McKenzie may have cleaned the house for somebody else.

Best-Case Scenario: This is really tough. The Coliseum crumbles during an off day, nobody’s injured, and the 49ers share their pants with their crosstown rivals? The Raiders successfully re-create the “Hot in Herre” prank and the resulting influx of fans allows the Raiders to take the tarp off the upper deck?4 I guess let’s just say that Carr plays really well and the 2009 Pro Bowl team that’s been assembled to play defense finds the Fountai … Lake of Youth. The Chiefs and Chargers get worse, and the Raiders finish 9-7 for their first winning season since 2002.

Worst-Case Scenario: Bay Area residents looking for cheap rent actually take over the Coliseum, leaving the Raiders to try to run plays around various domiciles in a “Tim Tebow CFL Chronicles”–style situation. Lost at football, the Raiders subtly transition to a new tech career of patent trolling, which leads to their removal from the league.

St. Louis Rams

2013 Record: 7-9
Pythagorean Wins: 7.6 (underperformed by 0.6 wins; 10th-unluckiest team in NFL)
Record in Games Decided by Seven Points or Fewer: 1-3 (0.250, third-unluckiest)
2013 Strength of Schedule: 0.546 (third-toughest)
Estimated 2014 Strength of Schedule: seventh-toughest
Turnover Margin: plus-8 (ninth-best)
2014 Out-of-Division Schedule: AFC West, NFC East, vs. Vikings, at Buccaneers

St. Louis’s presence in this bottom eight has very little to do with Sam Bradford’s injury; as I wrote when Bradford tore his ACL two weeks ago, there’s not likely to be much of a difference between Bradford and his replacement, veteran Shaun Hill, who might even be the better quarterback. The problem, instead, is wondering what would happen in the case of a second injury; if Hill’s out for any stretch of time, the Rams would have to turn to undrafted free agent Austin Davis or Texans castoff Case Keenum, which is a great way to end up at the top of the 2015 draft.

Regardless of the quarterback’s identity, there were always going to be issues standing between the Rams and the playoffs in 2014. Their schedule remains among the most difficult, and if the Vikings and Buccaneers are better than expected, it could very well be the toughest. While they should feature the NFL’s best front four after adding defensive tackle Aaron Donald with one of their first-round picks, the secondary remains a huge question mark, one that has only gotten bigger after expected starter Trumaine Johnson suffered a sprained MCL during the preseason that should keep him out until October. New defensive coordinator Gregg Williams has had success elsewhere, but that came with designing exotic blitzes and making the most out of subpar pass rushes; he has the opposite problem here, with a front four that can get to the quarterback one-on-one and a back seven that needs all the help it can get. Second overall pick Greg Robinson, presumably the team’s left tackle of the future, will line up at left guard next to the still-recuperating Jake Long, leaving the right tackle spot to backup Joe Barksdale. And while the Rams have invested more at receiver than any team over the past four years, there’s still no no. 1 pass-catcher on the roster, a problem that stretches back to the glory days of Torry Holt.

Stick the Rams in the AFC South and give them Alex Smith at quarterback and they would win 10 games. If only it were that simple.

Best-Case Scenario: It somehow becomes that simple.

Worst-Case Scenario: Hill gets hurt early, and despite picking at the top of the 2015 draft, the Rams decide to give Bradford one more year.

Tennessee Titans

2013 Record: 7-9
Pythagorean Wins: 7.5 (underperformed by 0.5 wins; 11th-unluckiest team in NFL)
Record in Games Decided by Seven Points or Fewer: 6-5 (0.545, 14th-luckiest)
2013 Strength of Schedule: 0.483 (10th-easiest)
Estimated 2014 Strength of Schedule: second-easiest
Turnover Margin: Even
2013 Out-of-Division Schedule: AFC North, NFC East, vs. Jets, at Chiefs

The Titans are in the AFC South, as it turns out, where their lack of success should be more damning. Tennessee went 22-26 during the Mike Munchak era before firing the Hall of Famer this past offseason, but that figure oversells their actual level of play. The Titans were 13th in DVOA in 2011, but they fell to 30th in 2012 and were 21st last year. DVOA adjusts for quality of opposition, and the Titans have benefited from some soft schedules over the past three seasons. During Munchak’s three-year run, the Titans faced the second-easiest slate of opponents in football, as their rivals had an average Pythagorean expectation of .470. Only the Bengals faced a friendlier schedule.5

Tennessee’s problems date back to that 2011 offseason, when the team hired Munchak, drafted Jake Locker, and gave Chris Johnson a massive contract extension. All three failed to live up to expectations. The good news, of course, is that two of them have left town; Munchak was sacked after refusing to fire several of his assistant coaches, which is noble of him, but also probably the best thing for Tennessee in the long run. Johnson was released and signed with the Jets, leaving $4 million in dead money on the Titans’ cap.

Locker is the one who remains, and his future is still unclear. He has repeatedly struggled to stay healthy during his first three seasons, and when Locker’s been able to suit up, he’s struggled with his accuracy and consistency, just as his college numbers suggested. New head coach Ken Whisenhunt did wonders with Philip Rivers in San Diego last season, but during Whisenhunt’s time in Arizona, he repeatedly fell in love with big-armed quarterbacks with major accuracy issues. Sound familiar? Whisenhunt deserves a second chance, of course, but it seems like a bad match of coach and player. And if Locker can’t stay healthy again in 2014, the Titans invested $4.25 million over two years to ensure that the man they’ll turn to is … Charlie Whitehurst.

While serious offensive change might not come to the Titans until a new quarterback arrives in 2015, they’re already shifting things around on defense, where Tennessee will transition away from the 4-3 for the first time since the franchise moved out of Houston. Under new defensive coordinator Ray Horton, the Titans will work primarily out of a 3-4 (although they will, of course, be “multiple” and show “hybrid” looks). There’s nothing wrong with switching defensive schemes, but the Titans have spent their entire existence trying to find personnel that fits a 4-3. It’s still unclear whether talented players like Jurrell Casey and Derrick Morgan will get the most out of their skill sets in the new scheme. Meanwhile, the team lost its second-best defensive player this offseason — when cornerback Alterraun Verner left in free agency for Tampa Bay — without really replacing him. 2012 fourth-rounder Coty Sensabaugh will get the first crack, but combining Verner with the supremely underrated Jason McCourty would have given Tennessee a pair of above-average cornerbacks to rely upon as it rebuilds the front seven. Now, there’s no obvious point of strength in the Tennessee D, and if Morgan struggles as an outside linebacker, the pass rush looms as an obvious weakness.

The best news, perhaps, is that the schedule isn’t getting any tougher. The Titans have what is estimated to be the second-easiest slate this year, and if the Colts collapse, Tennessee has as much of a shot at winning the AFC South as anybody. As usual, the schedule should help keep Tennessee’s win-loss record acceptable while masking a fundamentally subpar football team.

Best-Case Scenario: Whisenhunt rebuilds Locker into a viable starter and the Titans win a bunch of close games before beating the Colts at home in Week 17 to claim the AFC South.

Worst-Case Scenario: Whisenhunt’s work with Locker is more John Skelton than Rivers, we get to see more Whitehurst than should be seen before the watershed hour, the defense fails to adapt to the 3-4, and Tennessee ends up as the worst team in football.

Filed Under: NFL, 2014 NFL Preview, Tennessee Titans, St. Louis Rams, Oakland Raiders, New York Jets, Jacksonville Jaguars, Cleveland Browns, Carolina Panthers, Buffalo Bills

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Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell