Past Is Prologue: Key NFL Story Lines for 2015

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The NFL is where it seems like nothing new ever happens. There are the occasional exceptions, of course, but the vast majority of the stories are repeats from years past. That doesn’t make them any less compelling — nobody was complaining that the Super Bowl came down to a goal-line stand back in 2000, too — but it does reveal the cyclical nature of the game. The names and faces change, but the underlying conflicts and challenges are often the same.

This argument comes up a lot at Grantland. Quantitatively, it forms much of the basis behind oft-discussed ideas like regression toward the mean. If we know that a team is exhibiting performance that typically fails to hold up historically, it’s only natural to project that same likely outcome forward. As impressive as it is that the Cardinals have been able to outperform their point differential under Bruce Arians, we also know from dozens of data points that it’s an almost impossible trick to keep up. Our knowledge of the past fills in the story.

Likewise, though, there’s value in looking back at the qualitative concepts and stories told over the course of a season and using them in an attempt to project what might happen during the 2015 campaign. It’s an exercise we first attempted last year, using some of the more notable turnarounds and breakouts of the 2013 season to guess what would happen in 2014. It was also useful in a look back after the season: Many of the stories did repeat themselves, albeit not always with the player we pointed out as the likeliest candidate.

So let’s run it back! There’s probably not another Odell Beckham Jr. lurking in the middle of the first round, but is there a Justin Forsett, a veteran back who finds himself in the right spot at the right moment and promptly emerges as one of the league’s best runners? I’ve gone through and identified eight plausibly repeatable story lines from 2014 and the most likely candidate to fill that space in 2015. These are less predictions and more attempts to identify trends that are likely to recur within the chaos of the NFL for a second consecutive season. (Unless they work out, of course, in which case I’m obviously going to claim them as successful predictions.)

The Left-for-Dead Defense That Outplays Expectations

2014: Cowboys
2015: Bears

Listen to last year’s NFC East preview podcast and you’ll hear Robert Mays and me genuinely wondering whether the Cowboys could have one of the worst defenses in league history. After losing DeMarcus Ware to free agency and Sean Lee to the injured reserve, there just didn’t seem to be enough talent to yield a competitive defense, let alone a good one.

Instead, the Cowboys greatly exceeded predictions and actually approached league average in 2014. They were 22nd in defensive DVOA and 16th in points allowed per possession. While some of their improvement has to be chalked up to a league-high takeaway rate — the Cowboys forced turnovers on 17.5 percent of opposing drives —the key driver of Dallas’s improvement was defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli. The former Lions head coach pieced together a squad on a microscopic budget, getting above-average seasons from the likes of Jeremy Mincey and Rolando McClain.

The Bears aren’t likely to have the sort of dominant offense that helped propel the Cowboys to a 12-win campaign, but they share Dallas’s affinity for excellent defensive coaching. Chicago has a pair of wizards in head coach John Fox and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. Fox has managed to turn around every defense he’s coached during his professional tenure, often very quickly, while Fangio was at the helm of a young squad in San Francisco that suddenly emerged as a top-three unit. Even during a disappointing 2014, the 49ers actually rose to fifth in defensive DVOA under Fangio.

It’s not as if the Bears are devoid of talent, either. Players like Lamarr Houston and Pernell McPhee were stars elsewhere, and while Chicago will need to stay healthy to make sure those guys are on the field, the combination of Fox and Fangio should be enough to get Chicago’s defense heading in the right direction immediately.

Cleveland Browns v Jacksonville JaguarsRob Foldy/Getty Images

The Second-Year Breakout WR

2014: DeAndre Hopkins, Texans
2015: Allen Robinson, Jaguars

Sticking with the AFC South, Robinson looms as a very interesting second-year weapon. His role as Blake Bortles’s primary weapon has almost been carved out by default. Justin Blackmon remains suspended and has likely played his last down for the Jaguars, if not in the NFL. Marqise Lee, whom the Jags took 22 picks before Robinson, has struggled with a hamstring injury and fallen out of favor with the coaching staff. And big-ticket tight end Julius Thomas is set to miss the first month of the season after undergoing surgery on his injured finger.

That leaves space for Robinson, who looms as a favorite sleeper in fantasy football circles this season. Just by virtue of those injuries and absences, Robinson should be the team’s most notable weapon from Day 1. And if he undergoes any of the sort of natural improvement that seems to come for second- and third-year wideouts, he could very easily see a dramatic leap in both volume and production in Jacksonville this season. But staying in Jacksonville …

The Young Coach Who Loses His Job Midseason

2014: Dennis Allen, Raiders
2015: Gus Bradley, Jaguars

Just about everyone around the league agrees that Gus Bradley is a promising coach who has managed to stay positive in the face of an arduous, lengthy rebuilding project. And it would be impossible not to argue that Bradley’s had the deck stacked against him, both in terms of the precious little talent that was remaining in Jacksonville’s cupboard and the cruel injury suffered by third overall pick Dante Fowler, who was going to be a key component of Bradley’s defense before suffering a torn ACL on the first day of camp.

But, realistically, Bradley hasn’t yet done very much to push Jacksonville forward. The defense improved during his second season at the helm, but only from 28th in DVOA to 20th. The offense was so bad that the Jags fired coordinator Jedd Fisch after the season, reportedly because he couldn’t get on the same wavelength as Bradley. And while there’s still plenty of hope for second-year quarterback Blake Bortles, the clock is already ticking on his evaluation process. After an enormous spending spree in free agency this offseason, the Jaguars need to start showing some signs of improvement here in 2015, and fast.

If that doesn’t happen, I wonder whether the Jaguars will consider moving on from Bradley. Consider that he has started his first two seasons as a head coach at a combined record of 7-25. Allen, who took over a similarly moribund Raiders franchise in 2012, started 8-24 in his first two seasons and then went 0-4 to start his third season before being fired.

The Jags aren’t as impulsive as members of the Davis family, of course — but in former Bills czar Doug Marrone, now the Jags’ offensive line coach, they have a coach with recent head-coaching experience on staff. If the Jaguars start 0-5, the defense seems to be struggling, and Bortles looks like he’s lost, it wouldn’t be crazy for Bradley and the team to part ways. It probably wouldn’t be fair — but if it gets to that point, it may also be what’s best for the Jaguars.

Pass-Rusher Paid to Blossom in a Bigger Role Who Delivers

2014: Everson Griffen, Vikings
2015: Brandon Graham, Eagles

With the league heading more and more toward pass-happy attacks, and defensive coordinators asking their rushers to win one-on-one from different spots, young talents who can serve as cornerstones are wildly valuable properties. It’s how a player like Griffen can get $19.8 million guaranteed after making just one start during his first four seasons in the league. The Vikings were willing to gamble that Griffen’s production would increase with more snaps, and that’s exactly what happened; he recorded a career-high 12 sacks in his first season as a starter.

The Eagles let Graham hit free agency, but after moving on from Trent Cole, they weren’t willing to let Graham actually leave. He ended up agreeing to a four-year, $26 million deal with $13 million in guarantees, impressive figures for a player with just 17 sacks across his first five seasons. Graham should finally get his chance to start this season after doing it just once in 2014 — and the longtime Grantland NFL Podcast favorite should be able to push toward a double-digit total as one of Philadelphia’s primary pass-rushers in 2015.

The Injury-Riddled Player Who Finally Stays Healthy and Breaks Out

2014: DeMarco Murray, Cowboys
2015: Sam Bradford, Eagles

Let’s stay with the Eagles. After missing 11 of his first 48 pro games with various maladies, it was easy for folks to write DeMarco Murray off as a perennial injury risk. Murray will always have more injury concerns than the typical back, but he was able to stay on the field for 16 starts last year and delivered his best season as a pro by a comfortable margin, running for 1,845 yards and 13 scores. It would be dangerous to expect that again given Murray’s track record, but one healthy1 season in four is a lot better than zero in three.

Now, there will be plenty of people wondering the same thing about Murray’s new teammate. Bradford has missed the better part of two seasons with a pair of torn ACLs, but he’s been traded to Philadelphia and has spent months working with quarterback wizard and sports-science enthusiast Chip Kelly. While preseason performance holds virtually no value in projecting how a player will perform in the future, Bradford hasn’t broken down and reinjured the knee, which is, you know, a good sign. Athletically, he looks just fine.

There will still be concerns about Bradford when the season starts. His still-developing offensive line will need to coalesce and keep the former Oklahoma star upright. His young receiving corps, also being overhauled for the second consecutive offseason, will need to take a step forward. And Bradford will need to trust himself; for all his physical ability, he seemed to exhibit a serious mental block about throwing deep in years past. But if you’re looking for the Murray profile of a talented player who could make a lot of money by staying healthy at the right time, Bradford is the most plausible comparison. He’s football’s biggest lottery ticket in 2015.

The First-Rounder Who Made a Good Thing Great

2014: Zack Martin, Cowboys
2015: Shaq Thompson, Panthers

Millions of tweets from angry Cowboys fans furious that Dallas drafted a guard over Johnny Manziel have long since been deleted; in addition to Manziel’s issues, Martin was a dominant interior lineman on a squad that was already pretty good heading into the season. And while there were fair arguments that the Cowboys should have taken some much-needed defensive help with their pick, every team in the league would trade Manziel for Martin in a heartbeat today.

The flip side is true for Carolina. With a talented, rangy group of linebackers on defense and little help available to Cam Newton on offense, it seemed like the last thing the Panthers would go for is a cover linebacker. And yet, with the 25th pick in the first round, they drafted Thomas Davis clone Shaq Thompson to serve as another piece in their defensive puzzle. It’s a curious choice, but Thompson’s a freakish talent who gives Sean McDermott all kinds of options in how he plays coverage. He can give Davis and Luke Kuechly, who play close to every snap in Carolina’s sub-packages, serious rest. Or he could slot all three of them in by moving Thompson into a support role at safety, where he saw occasional snaps during his time at Washington. Yes, the Panthers needed offensive line help and a wideout for Newton (a problem they would fix by adding Devin Funchess in the next round). They may still look back and sigh happily that they came away with one of the league’s most compelling defensive weapons, regardless of his position.

Chicago Bears v Indianapolis ColtsJoe Robbins/Getty Images

The Receiver Reborn in a New City

2014: Emmanuel Sanders, Broncos; Golden Tate, Lions
2015: Andre Johnson, Colts

Both Sanders and Tate dramatically improved their performance by switching metropolitan areas, moving to organizations that threw the ball more frequently and into schemes that capitalized on their unique strengths. Johnson put up some of the worst numbers of his career in Houston at 33, finishing 81st out of 87 qualifying receivers in individual DVOA, but that was playing in a hyper-conservative scheme with a variety of bad quarterbacks throwing him the football. Here’s the list of Houston QBs who threw Johnson a pass during his time with the Texans and what their numbers looked like:

Barnwell Table

That’s just an inhumane thing to do to a Hall of Fame–caliber receiver. It’s not that Andrew Luck is very clearly the best quarterback Johnson’s ever had; it’s that Johnson might have been better off if he had just spent his entire career with Luck, even though Luck was in junior high when Johnson entered the league. Even if Johnson is slipping a bit as he hits 34, the upgrade at quarterback and the improvement in receiving talent around him should make his job much easier. The presence of T.Y. Hilton prevents Johnson from getting the targeting volume that would have come if this had happened during his peak, but Johnson should be a far more efficient — and effective — wideout in 2015.

The Midround RB Who Emerges As the Best of Bad Options

2014: Tre Mason, Rams
2015: David Johnson, Cardinals

Let’s finish up by sticking with the NFC West, where the Rams replaced one midround running back who had emerged as a competent starter (Zac Stacy) with an improved version (Tre Mason) the following year. Of course, they’re moving on from that plan after drafting Todd Gurley in the first round of this year’s draft, but Mason proved himself to be a worthwhile contributor and should at least be part of St. Louis’s rotation on the ground this season, especially as Gurley rounds his way into game shape.

The most logical combination of talent and opportunity for the draft’s many midround backs this year comes in Arizona, which may be another team rotating out one late pick for another. The incumbent is 2013 sixth-rounder Andre Ellington, who showed flashes of big-play ability as a rookie before scuffling through an injury-riddled sophomore campaign. Ellington began the year with a foot injury that seemed to sap his speed and ended it with a hernia in early December. He averaged 3.3 yards per carry, woeful numbers for a back who isn’t exactly shaped like Jerome Bettis.

It now seems like Arizona wants to build a rotation at halfback, somewhat akin to what the Bengals did with Gio Bernard and Jeremy Hill last season. Ellington would play the Bernard role, and, to find their Hill, the Cardinals drafted David Johnson in the third round. The 224-pound Northern Iowa product has an ideal mix of size and speed, as his 4.50 40-yard dash at the combine produced a 109.5 Speed Score, the second-highest figure in the class behind Karlos Williams. He’s also a sound receiver, so if he can develop as a pass-blocker, the Cardinals would be able to use him in all situations without having to worry about him getting Carson Palmer killed. (Their offensive line can do that well enough on its own.) Johnson isn’t going to be Gurley, but if he can be something close to Hill, the Cardinals should have a much better running game in 2015.

Filed Under: 2015 NFL Preview, NFL, Football

Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell