Football is back! With the Patriots beating the Steelers in Foxborough last night to start the 2015 campaign, it’s time to wrap up the exhaustive, expansive Grantland NFL Preview. Having gone through every team in both written and aural form, there’s only one thing left to preview that we haven’t gotten to yet: Week 1. Let’s change that.
The only actual information we have on the 2015 season is that Pittsburgh’s plan to slow down Rob Gronkowski included plays in which they decided to leave him wide open for an easy score and man coverage on the goal line from special-teamer Terence Garvin, who played 11 defensive snaps last year.
The Patriots used the same motion to get two ideal Gronk-Garvin matchups for easy scores. Both times, they lined up tight in a four-TE jumbo package and then motioned Gronkowski out wide with second tight end Scott Chandler in the slot. And both times, the Steelers reacted by sending a pair of linebackers out to follow them, including the overmatched Garvin on Gronk. The first time, Gronk ran a slant that picked Lawrence Timmons, creating an easy throwing lane to Chandler for a score.
And then, on the second score, they made the same motion and got the same coverage from the Steelers. This time, Gronk took one hard step inside like he was going to run the slant, got Garvin to commit, and transitioned to the fade for an easy touchdown. The Steelers were going to be physical with Gronkowski and redirect his routes, and on two of his three touchdowns, he got a free release from the line of scrimmage and basically played pitch-and-catch with Tom Brady.
Let’s assume that the best-laid plans of the league’s other teams have a little more success. With such little information to work with heading into the season, Week 1 is less about confirming beliefs or marking real change and more about finding things to monitor as the season goes along. So, with that in mind, this week’s preview is going to be about what to look for in each game and with each of these teams, both for this weekend and over the first half of the season.
Oh, and I’ll also be making picks. Picks are a necessary evil in any preview column. This one is no exception. My picks aren’t going to be any better than anybody else’s — we may have guest appearances from people, animals, and inanimate objects who know little about football to prove that point as the season goes along — but I still have to do them. Those are the rules. Last night, I had Patriots -7, which pushed on the final play from scrimmage, inspiring Al Michaels into 30 seconds of making his producers uncomfortable. Great start! The lines for this column are the consensus odds posted at VegasInsider.com. (Home teams in all-caps.)
Packers (-7) over BEARS
Watch Now: A world of fantasy owners who maybe didn’t nail their wide receiver spot on draft night will watch with bated breath to see who the Packers line up as their third wideout when they go into their base three-receiver sets. Maybe you drafted Dwayne Bowe because he was a wide receiver you had heard of and then you realized he was in Cleveland and had Josh McCown as his quarterback and then you saw that the Browns played him deep into the final preseason game and listed him as a third-string receiver and maybe it was time to start paying more attention to fantasy football. Or maybe you drafted Jordy Nelson and you’ve been crying for three weeks straight.
In any case, the identity of that third Green Bay wideout is going to be fascinating. Jeff Janis had the size and speed to play outside, but the Packers don’t seem particularly interested in featuring him. Third-rounder Ty Montgomery belongs in the slot, but he was exciting enough in the preseason that the Packers might just want to put him on the field and see what he can do. The compromise candidate is veteran James Jones, who was released by the Giants at the end of the preseason. Given that he has experience with the scheme and the size to play outside, it would make sense for the Packers to start with Jones out wide before eventually giving Montgomery (or Janis) more reps.
Watch Later: The Bears defense is a weird episode of Chopped with three or four interesting ingredients and no obvious way to put them all together. They have three veteran 4-3 ends (Lamarr Houston, Jared Allen, and Willie Young) with little coverage experience who are likely ending up as outside linebackers in Vic Fangio’s 3-4. Allen is 33 and hasn’t played outside linebacker as a pro, while Houston (torn ACL) and Young (torn Achilles) are coming off serious injuries. They intend to start 2013 first-rounder Shea McClellin, a failed pass-rushing prospect, at inside linebacker in what will be his third position in three years. The one guy who can probably play anywhere around the linebacking corps is free-agent acquisition Pernell McPhee, who might suit up outside on running downs and push inside to pressure interior linemen on third downs.
I’m confident Fangio can figure this out, given how he got the most out of so many players in San Francisco, but it’s probably going to take a while to determine who plays where and how often. Given that this is 2015 and teams line up in more hybrid fronts than ever before, it’s also true that Fangio may end up using defenses that don’t fit our traditional view of the 3-4.
Chiefs (+1) over TEXANS
Watch Now: Can the Texans run the ball without Arian Foster? I wrote about Foster’s groin injury in August and how it was forcing Houston to go with Alfred Blue, who as a rookie was one of the worst backup running backs of the last 25 years. The good news is that Foster’s recovery time has been slashed dramatically, with reports suggesting he could be back by the end of September. The bad news is that the Texans didn’t make any additions during camp and appear to be going with Blue as their primary back.
It’s possible that Blue could be better. Then again, he was a member of that LSU offense that delivered Jeremy Hill, Odell Beckham Jr., and Jarvis Landry to the pros last year, and as we try to figure out how that offense didn’t score like they were the 2007 Patriots two years ago, it’s basically getting narrowed down to Blue, Zach Mettenberger, or Cam Cameron. (It was Cam Cameron.) This is going to be Blue’s best shot at succeeding, too; the Chiefs were the league’s seventh-worst defense against the run per DVOA in 2014, and that was with a full serving of Dontari Poe. Poe’s made his own miraculous recovery from back surgery, but even if he’s on the field Sunday, he won’t be playing 89 percent of Kansas City’s snaps like he did last year.
Watch Later: That Chiefs defense might be pretty bad if their veterans can’t recover from the injuries they suffered before the season. Poe is a freak athlete, but it seems like he’s making it back from a herniated disk awfully quick. Kansas City’s also relying on 31-year-old defensive end Mike DeVito and 32-year-old inside linebacker Derrick Johnson as they return from torn Achilles suffered during the season-opening loss to the Titans a year ago. And then, obviously in a totally different light, there is safety Eric Berry, who underwent chemotherapy for Hodgkin’s lymphoma after being diagnosed in December. Berry has fortunately been declared cancer-free and has been able to practice, but the Chiefs aren’t counting on him to start early in the season.
Andy Reid’s defense has depth, but frustratingly, it’s in the places where the Chiefs are relatively healthy. They’re set at cornerback, where first-rounder Marcus Peters will fill in for Sean Smith during the latter’s three-game suspension. They have one of the league’s best pass-rush rotations, with 2014 first-rounder Dee Ford filling in behind Justin Houston and Tamba Hali. They’re just exceedingly thin along the defensive line and at inside linebacker, where most of their depth is made up of late-round rookies and undrafted free agents. Those backups may be called into action quickly.
JETS (-3) over Browns
Watch Now: Cleveland’s running back conundrum appears to have been cleared up, at least for the short term. Isaiah Crowell has won the job almost by default; 2014 third-rounder Terrance West was shipped off to Tennessee for a conditional seventh-rounder,1 and rookie Duke Johnson has struggled through both a concussion and hamstring issues throughout camp, which should limit his role this week.
This isn’t even the worst piece of draft business the Browns did this past month! They cut rookie fourth-round wide receiver Vince Mayle before he ever suited up for the team, which almost never happens in this modern era of football unless a player has some sort of serious career-affecting injury that wasn’t previously revealed or if he has significant off-field problems. Neither appears to be the case with Mayle. The Browns didn’t even place Mayle on their practice squad, which is like the football equivalent of breaking up with somebody and blocking them on all forms of social media. Mayle’s crime may have been relying on Bowe to be his mentor.
Now, let’s see if the Browns can bless Crowell with the league’s best offensive line. It’s not out of the question, given that they’ll be getting back Alex Mack after he missed most of 2014 with a fractured fibula. They should also find some sort of role for first-round pick Cameron Erving, who is expected to take over if Mack chooses to opt out of his contract this offseason. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see them go with some six-lineman sets to try to overpower a dominant Jets run defense while keeping Todd Bowles out of the five- and six-defensive-back packages he loved to employ in Arizona. And hey, god knows that a team with McCown, Brian Hartline, and Gary Barnidge as primary offensive weapons shouldn’t need an excuse to run the ball.
Watch Later: I’m excited to see the camera pan to Geno Smith on the sideline every week as the announcers take a hushed, almost somber tone. I also can’t wait for IK Enemkpali’s next football camp, which will be attended by either every single NFL player or by absolutely nobody.
Colts (-2.5) over BILLS
Watch Now: Tyrod Taylor! I don’t think Buffalo’s starting quarterback is going to be very good, but I’m really excited to see what on earth he looks like during any sort of serious playing time in this bizarrely assembled Bills offense. Maybe this is the weirdly incompatible shopping list from Chopped. I’m not sure what you do with LeSean McCoy, Percy Harvin, Sammy Watkins, Charles Clay, and a questionable-at-best offensive line. I also feel like Greg Roman might not be sure either, which is worrisome if you’re a Bills fan. If there were ever a team calling for crazy amounts of packaged plays with plenty of read-option and bubble screen choices, this is the one. And hey, Roman did some of that with Colin Kaepernick in San Francisco, so it’s not out of the question. Whatever it is, it’ll be more fun than watching Matt Cassel back there.
Watch Later: Quietly, the Colts were the most pass-happy team in the league last season per Chase Stuart’s pass identity metric, which adjusts pass/run frequencies for game situations. That was when Indianapolis was down to Trent Richardson and Boom Herron at running back for most of the season. This year, although Frank Gore might be on a pitch count,2 the Colts have invested a meaningful amount of money in the position.
Why can’t we just call this a carry count?
You can make the case that the Colts also invested in their receiving corps, given that they replaced Reggie Wayne with Andre Johnson and spent their first-round pick on Phillip Dorsett. And it’s clear by now that they shouldn’t need any encouragement to put the ball in Luck’s hands and stay out of the way. But this is the same coaching staff that spent years repeatedly droning on about how it needed to establish the run and wanted to be a power-running team. Now that the Colts have a running back they can trust, will they go back to those misguided ways? [Colts fans injure their necks frantically shaking their heads “No.”]
WASHINGTON (+3.5) over Dolphins
Watch Now: NFL teams tend to be copycats, so when they see something work elsewhere, they’re more likely to do the same thing themselves. It’s hard to imagine that Washington drafted Iowa offensive tackle Brandon Scherff3 fifth overall with the intention of immediately moving him to guard, but after the Cowboys took Notre Dame left tackle Zack Martin 16th and got a Pro Bowl season out of him as a rookie guard, the path suddenly seemed a lot clearer for other teams to do the same. If Scherff turns out to be a similarly talented guard, the Washington offensive line could look really good really quickly.
Scherff’s scouting report on NFL.com says he “Loves the outdoors and has several videos of his weight-room exploits,” which is a weird combination of things to put in a sentence. Does he lift weights in exotic places? Is he carrying a weight rack up the side of a mountain so he can gut out some squats with a beautiful vista in the distance? And why is somebody filming him? Wait, is Brandon Scherff football Fitzcarraldo?
Not everyone will adapt to guard as quickly as Martin did for the Cowboys. Scherff hasn’t played guard since his redshirt freshman year at Iowa in 2011, and he looked pretty bad during the preseason, especially against Detroit when Washington didn’t have Trent Williams and when Robert Griffin was ripped apart by what appeared to be actual lions. Oh, and he gets to start his professional career by lining up at right guard against Ndamukong Suh. No big deal.
Watch Later: I’m all in on a breakout season for Lamar Miller. I’m not sure if that’s because I have Miller in a couple of fantasy leagues or if I have Miller in a couple of fantasy leagues because he’s going to break out, but it’s too late to figure that out now. The Dolphins were the league’s second-most efficient team running the football last year, and things should be easier for Miller this year.
His path to carries should be clearer with Knowshon Moreno no longer on the roster and rookie Jay Ajayi on short-term IR. The offensive line should be improved with Branden Albert returning from his torn ACL. The only running back who had at least 200 carries and averaged more yards per attempt than Miller last year was Justin Forsett. Even if Miller isn’t as efficient, if the Dolphins move him closer toward 275 carries, he could be one of the more valuable backs in football, fantasy or otherwise.
Panthers (-3) over JAGUARS
Watch Now: The Panthers are going to start Ted Ginn and Philly Brown at wide receiver on Sunday. That’s a legendarily disappointing first-round bust who never developed beyond being a return man alongside an undrafted free agent who dropped so many passes during August that there was talk he wouldn’t make the 53-man roster. Second-round pick Devin Funchess will have to feature in some sort of situational role out of sheer necessity, and Cam Newton will obviously heavily target tight end Greg Olsen. But this has to be one of the worst Week 1 receiving duos in recent memory.
Watch Later: Blake Bortles is one of the more fascinating players of this 2015 season, given how bad he and his 25.2 QBR were as a rookie and how little those struggles appear to have affected projections about his future. Bortles will improve this year, especially once the offensive line jells and Julius Thomas returns to the lineup, but it will be intriguing to see just how much he develops and if he can get rid of the bad habits that plagued him last season.
It’s worth remembering that the Jaguars publicly suggested they didn’t want to play Bortles at all last season, instead hoping to spend the year fixing his mechanics. Out of panic or the general malaise that comes with watching Chad Henne take meaningful reps as a starting quarterback, they turned to Bortles three games in and let him take a beating behind a terrible offensive line all season. Bortles instead made those mechanical adjustments this offseason, and the organization says he looks like a different passer. The million-dollar question — the many-million-dollar question, actually — is whether those changes stick over the course of a season against live pass rushes.
Seahawks (-4) over RAMS
Watch Now: It’s gotta be Dion Bailey. The second-year undrafted free agent beat out DeShawn Shead for the backup strong-safety job, and with Kam Chancellor sitting out, Bailey will be the newest member of the Legion of Boom. And even that raises a question: Can we call the Seattle backfield the Legion of Boom if Chancellor is not there? That didn’t seem like a problem when the Seahawks replaced Brandon Browner with Walter Thurmond or Byron Maxwell, but Chancellor is the human manifestation of the Boom, right? Do they need all three pieces? Can we get by with just Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas? Or will this eventually end up with a 35-year-old Thomas making plays alongside three cyborgs while Sherman is somewhere in the Midwest shutting down one side of the field as “Richard Sherman’s Legion of Boom”? We need a ruling.
Watch Later: A prediction, nothing more, nothing less: The best GIF of the 2015 season will involve Aaron Donald.
CARDINALS (-2.5) over Saints
Watch Now: How did the Saints end up with a worse pass defense than the one they were rolling out this time last year? Rob Ryan is going to have his work cut out with both Keenan Lewis and Jairus Byrd out for several weeks and third-rounder P.J. Williams on injured reserve. The Saints are likely going to start with Brandon Browner and CFL refugee Delvin Breaux, and it’ll be fun to see Breaux make his debut. The born-and-raised New Orleans native earned a scholarship to LSU, but broke his neck in high school and was never cleared to play. He battled his way through multiple lower-league teams in Louisiana to earn a spot on the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, where he emerged as an All-Star. Now, he’s making his debut for his hometown team and he might get to line up against a future Hall of Famer in Larry Fitzgerald. That seems pretty cool.
Watch Later: Is Michael Floyd going to find his way? The 2012 first-rounder showed promise during his sophomore season, and it was natural to expect another step forward in 2014, but he never seemed to find his role in the Arizona offense and appeared to get usurped by exciting rookie John Brown. Floyd’s catch rate dropped from 58 percent to 48 percent, and while you might chalk that up to Carson Palmer’s injury, that wasn’t the case with Fitzgerald, given that Fitz’s catch rate stayed virtually identical (61 percent, give or take a few decimal points, in both 2013 and 2014). Floyd was out for most of August after suffering a serious dislocation of multiple fingers on his left hand, and while he might suit up Sunday, the injury doesn’t seem to bode well for his chances of holding off Brown as the season goes on.
CHARGERS (-3) over Lions
Watch Now: Rookie running backs! Sure, I might think they’re almost entirely fungible, and it may be true that teams that commit serious assets to their halfbacks tend to often regret it.4 That doesn’t mean it’s not exciting to watch promising rookie backs make their way into the pros. And while Melvin Gordon was the higher-drafted back of the two, I think more people are anxious to see what Nebraska product Ameer Abdullah is going to do for the Lions.
Weird that Dion Lewis had a big game for the Patriots last night, huh?
It’s weird to make this comparison in hindsight of what’s happened off the field, but in terms of on-field ability, Abdullah reminds me a little bit of what Ray Rice looked like coming out of Rutgers. I was skeptical of Rice then because I didn’t think he had the top-end speed to break runs when they became available, but he didn’t end up needing that speed given his versatility and patience as a runner. He was also faster than I expected. Abdullah has a similar sort of skill set and the same squat, muscular frame, although he had fumbling issues in college that Rice exhibited seemingly only in the playoffs. Abdullah could give San Diego’s linebackers fits in the passing game Sunday.
Watch Later: Veteran inside linebackers! Oh, not as exciting? Fine. Each of these teams has a defensive leader who needs to bounce back from an ugly 2014. For Detroit, it’s Stephen Tulloch, who tore his ACL celebrating a sack of Aaron Rodgers. In San Diego, it’s Donald Butler, who faded so badly against the run that the Chargers used a second-round pick on University of Miami run-thumper and dodgeball enthusiast Denzel Perryman.
BUCCANEERS (-3) over Titans
Watch Now: Rookie quarterbacks! OK, you already know about these guys.
Watch Later: Rookie quarterbacks again! There will be important keys to watch for with each of these guys in the months to come. With Jameis Winston, it’ll be his propensity for trying to fit balls into impossible windows like he’s Eli Manning’s lost twin. He threw picks on 3.3 percent of his passes at Florida State, including a Cutler-esque 3.9 percent last season. And with Marcus Mariota, we’ll have to look for how he moves around within a pocket and deals with pressure. It’s not impossible to outrun the rush, as Russell Wilson has been able to do for the past three seasons, but Wilson seems to have a preternatural ability to keep his head up, track his receivers, and make quick throws once he gets onto the edge. Mariota has the athleticism to be just as effective at making rushers miss as Wilson does (if not more), but he has to keep his head up and avoid the Kevin Kolb–esque tendency to shuffle around in the pocket for nothing.
Bengals (-3) over RAIDERS
Watch Now: I’m excited to see Tyler Eifert return to the lineup after he missed virtually the entire 2014 season with a gruesome dislocated elbow. Eifert was pegged as a breakout candidate last year, was targeted three times on Cincinnati’s first three possessions of Week 1, and then suffered the elbow injury that ended his season. Now he’s healthy and doesn’t have the departed Jermaine Gresham stealing targets away. The Bengals ran a bunch of packaged plays using Eifert before going away from them as the 2014 season went along; with a healthy Eifert able to stretch defenses up the seam, I wonder if Hue Jackson will go back to them.
Watch Later: Is Latavius Murray actually a no. 1 running back? He’s inherited the position by default with Darren McFadden leaving, and he averaged 5.2 yards per carry last season, but that was on just 82 carries and driven by a 90-yard touchdown run against the Chiefs. In his four games as a starter, Murray carried the ball 68 times for just 258 yards, an average of 3.8 yards per carry. He also has a nasty track record of injuries, including a fractured ankle that cost him his entire rookie season, a sprained foot that cost him practice time last season, and a concussion suffered in that win over the Chiefs. Maybe it’s because there’s still a part of me that thinks Roy Helu could be the next Justin Forsett if he were given the right role, but I’d tap the brakes a bit on Murray.
Ravens (+4.5) over BRONCOS
Watch Now: I’m excited for the Steve Smith Sr. farewell tour, which begins this week in Denver. I hope it’s like the Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter tours, during which each team gave the retiring Yankees stars a gift as they traveled to each city for the final time. The only difference is that I hope Smith is in such a pregame lather that he destroys whatever item he’s given in spectacular fashion on a weekly basis. Smith needs to snap a painting of the Rockies in two on Sunday.
Watch Later: Like everyone, I’m wondering how the philosophical differences between Peyton Manning’s hand-me-down Tom Moore Colts offense and Gary Kubiak’s under-center attack will be bridged as the season goes on. I still think Manning will just scrap it after a slow start and go back to what he knows best.
Giants (+6) over COWBOYS
Watch Now: I want to see that first time that Eli Manning launches a deep ball to Odell Beckham Jr. down the sideline. Actually, no. I want to watch Cowboys fans’ faces when that first pass happens, because you know what’s going to be going through their heads. “Oh, it’s OK. Eli overthrew that pass by about five ya— NO NOT FAIR.” I’m not sure whether the Cowboys will stick Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne, or rookie first-round pick Byron Jones on Beckham, but if a Greg Hardy–less Cowboys team can’t get a rush on Manning, there’s going to be trouble.
Watch Later: I think everyone wants to see how the Dallas running back situation is going to shake out. It still seems incredible that the Cowboys are really going to go with Darren McFadden and Joseph Randle as a one-two punch. I can’t fault them, given how conservative I tend to be in valuing running backs and how much faith I have in great offensive lines, but it just seems off. If they get off to a slow start or McFadden gets injured, doesn’t it feel like they would be the sort of team that would make something close to the Trent Richardson trade in Week 3? Like Stephen Jones is going to show up to work Tuesday morning and Jerry Jones is going to already be in the office with three cups of coffee and a phone on either ear sending a second-round pick to the Rams for Tre Mason? Let’s hope not.
FALCONS (+3) over Eagles
Watch Now: I’m so excited for the Sam Bradford era. How do the Eagles get more and more compelling each year? I really wanted to see Michael Vick in a Chip Kelly offense, and then I absolutely wanted to see Mark Sanchez in a Chip Kelly offense, and now I am super intrigued by what Bradford is going to do. Is he going to throw a 75-yard touchdown pass to Nelson Agholor on the first play and then celebrate by flipping off a picture of Brian Schottenheimer that the Eagles were using to signify their play calls? I’m actually kinda surprised they haven’t gone to images of the other team’s coaches to try to antagonize the opposition by now.
Watch Later: This is the year Desmond Trufant gets recognized as one of the best cornerbacks in football. You can jump on that bandwagon now or you can wait until November, when it’s patently obvious. I’m not sure about the Falcons defense in Year 1 under Dan Quinn, especially if he doesn’t have the sort of secondary mind-melding that Pete Carroll seems to possess. The Atlanta secondary alongside Trufant might not be very good. Trufant, though, is the real deal, and with a legitimate NFL pass rush in front of him for the first time, those skills will be plain to see.
49ERS (+2.5) over Vikings
Watch Now: How long will it take 49ers fans to start booing the Jim Tomsula era? When will be the first time the game has to stop so the divots on the field can be replaced? Will they wait for Jed York and Trent Baalke to be shown on the screen? After one of the worst offseasons in league history, you can surely understand if Niners fans want to express their frustrations. If the Vikings take a big lead, it could make for an ugly second half. It’ll be fun to see Adrian Peterson and NaVorro Bowman back on the field, though.
Watch Later: Of course, it has to be Teddy Football. The case for a Vikings leap begins with another step forward from their young quarterback, who wasn’t availed of Peterson’s services last year. It’ll be interesting to see how Norv Turner structures the offense in 2015 after running a very conservative scheme around Bridgewater last season; with the addition of Mike Wallace and the return of Peterson, it stands to reason that we would see more play-action and more shots downfield.
The concern for the Vikings is quickly becoming their offensive line health; after losing right tackle Phil Loadholt to a season-ending torn Achilles during the preseason, Minnesota placed center John Sullivan on short-term injured reserve this week after he underwent back surgery. At his best in 2012, Peterson was able to run over tacklers and didn’t seem to need blockers; now, the health and effectiveness of left tackle Matt Kalil seems to loom as an even more important concern, given that the Vikings are down two starters for at least half of the campaign.
THIS YEAR: 0-0-1
LAST YEAR: 27-25-2