No. 12: As the world (of defensive ends) turns
Dallas had to release career sacks leader DeMarcus Ware due to major salary-cap issues so he headed to Denver, which was buying free agents as if they were “Today’s Special Value” on QVC.
In tearing up its defensive line, Chicago released Julius Peppers, who promptly signed with archrival Green Bay. In rebuilding its defensive line, Chicago replaced one old player with another by signing Jared Allen as well as in-his-prime Lamarr Houston.
The Raiders, figuring two old guys are just as good as one young player, replaced Houston by signing Justin Tuck away from the Giants and Antonio Smith away from the Texans.
Teams tend to get into trouble by spending too much money on free agents who are long in the tooth. Peppers is entering his 13th season, Allen, Tuck and Smith their 11th seasons, and Ware his 10th season.
But questions remain. Is Ware the final piece to the puzzle with the Broncos? Is Peppers just what the doctor ordered as a hybrid end-linebacker with the Packers? Can Allen help get the Bears past the Packers? Do the Raiders have any idea what they’re doing or were they just throwing money around to conform with the CBA?
No. 11: Still the leaders of the Pack?
Green Bay won the Super Bowl in 2010 and the NFC North in each of the following three seasons. Meanwhile, the Lions and Vikings have new coaches with Jim Caldwell replacing Jim Schwartz in Detroit and Mike Zimmer replacing Leslie Frazier in Minnesota.
The Lions led the division with Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers and Chicago’s Jay Cutler out with injuries but fell apart down the stretch. Their top talent is undeniable with Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson, Reggie Bush and Ndamukong Suh, but it’s also undeniably expensive.
The Vikings went from the playoffs in 2012 to last place in 2013. For the second time in four years, they spent their first-round pick on a passer with Teddy Bridgewater replacing Christian Ponder as the latest dart throw in finding a legit quarterback to hand the ball to Adrian Peterson.
The Bears made big changes too, especially since Chicago hasn’t fielded such a toothless defense in franchise history. Not only were the 478 points allowed their worst ever, but the Bears had allowed more than 379 points just once. In response, they rebuilt their defensive line by signing Allen, Houston and Willie Young, then used their first-round pick on cornerback Kyle Fuller, second- and third-round choices on defensive tackles Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton, and fourth-round pick on safety Brock Vereen.
Green Bay, meanwhile, just wants to stay healthy. The team’s top three players — Aaron Rodgers, Clay Matthews and Casey Hayward — missed big chunks of last season.
Who wins? Who knows. But it’s safe to say the champion will emerge with a better record than Green Bay’s division-winning 8-7-1 from last year.
No. 10: Are the Eagles for real?
Eli Manning owns two Super Bowl rings for family bragging rights. Washington’s Robert Griffin III and his bionic knee were the greatest things since sliced bread. Dallas’ Tony Romo seemingly could throw a touchdown and interception on the same play, all while sinking a 10-foot birdie putt and double-dating a pair of models.
But it was the Eagles’ Nick Foles, who was supposed to be the square peg trying to fit in the round hole of new coach Chip Kelly’s offense, leading the team to the NFC East championship behind one of the most remarkable passing seasons in NFL history.
Can the Eagles duplicate that success? That’s the biggest question in this division. Nobody knew what to expect with Kelly, who was one of the great innovators in the college game during his time at Oregon. He didn’t do anything too exotic with Philadelphia other than running plays at a frantic pace, putting the ball in the hands of LeSean McCoy (league-high 1,607 rushing yards) and entrusting the offense to Foles, a third-round pick in 2012. Foles responded with a league-best 119.2 rating and a stunning 27 touchdowns vs. two interceptions.
Manning, RGIII and Romo are three of the faces of the NFL. Foles might not be recognized at Thanksgiving dinner, but he might be the best quarterback in the division and that makes the Eagles the best team in the division.
No. 9: Can the Bengals finally win a playoff game?
From 1991 to 2010, the Bengals had exactly two winning seasons.
With that history, quarterback Andy Dalton could probably win Cincinnati’s next mayoral race. In his three years as the starting QB, the Bengals went 9-7 in 2011, 10-6 in 2012 and 11-5 in 2013. They reached the playoffs each season, equaling their total number of postseason performances from the past 21 years combined.
But Dalton’s career in Cincinnati is in jeopardy as he enters the last season of his rookie deal after the Bengals were one-and-done in each of those postseason appearances. Dalton has thrown one touchdown pass vs. six interceptions in those games, and the Bengals have been outscored 77-33.
Is this the year they win their first playoff game since the 1990 season? Doing it will be a challenge after losing standout defensive end Michael Johnson and starting offensive tackle Anthony Collins in free agency. The division should be better as well with Baltimore always a threat, Pittsburgh getting hot to end last season and Cleveland on the rise. It will be up to Dalton to play well in January if Cincinnati wants to taste some postseason success.
No. 8: Who’s next in the NFC South?
In the NFC South’s 13 years of existence, there has never been a repeat champion.
That’s not good news for Carolina, which went from 7-9 in 2012 to 12-4 and atop the division in 2013. And it gets worse for the Panthers with the departure of receiver Steve Smith and retirement of left tackle Jordan Gross.
The release of Smith might have made sense considering he’s 35, but it left Cam Newton with first-round pick Kelvin Benjamin and the not-so-Big Three of Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant and Tiquan Underwood. It’s enough to make a quarterback sit with a towel draped over his head.
So who will knock the Panthers off their perch? The Falcons went from the NFC Championship Game in 2012 to a woeful 4-12 in 2013. The return of receiver Julio Jones will help, but the ageless Tony Gonzalez retired, the offensive line isn’t good, and the defense is worse. Tampa Bay, which also went 4-12, has a new coach (Lovie Smith) and a bunch of pricey free agents (offensive linemen Collins and Evan Dietrich-Smith, defensive linemen Johnson and Clinton McDonald, and cornerback Alterraun Verner).
New Orleans, however, is the favorite. The Saints posted a 11-5 record and earned a wild card berth with the return of coach Sean Payton, the addition of defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, and a typically brilliant season by quarterback Drew Brees. The addition of free-agent safety Jairus Byrd, first-round receiver Brandin Cooks and second-round cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste should push the Saints past the Panthers and keep the NFC South revolving door in motion.
No. 7: Who’s in, who’s out?
The NFL is built on parity with the salary cap bringing the great teams back to earth. As one general manager put it, “No offense to Roger (Goodell), but the cap is the real commissioner.”
From 1996 through 2011 — a span of 16 consecutive seasons — at least five teams made the playoffs one season after failing to get into the dance the previous year. That streak was broken in 2012, when “only” four teams qualified for the playoffs after falling short the previous season. It was back to normal last season, with five new teams earning an invite to the postseason festivities.
Last year, Denver, New England, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Kansas City and San Diego qualified in the AFC, and Seattle, Carolina, Philadelphia, Green Bay, San Francisco and New Orleans qualified in the NFC.
Who could be in trouble this year? The Bengals suffered some big losses in free agency and the AFC North is improving. Kansas City was hit hard in free agency as well. Will teams have found answers to Philadelphia’s Kelly and Foles? Does Carolina have enough firepower? Can Green Bay’s defense keep the Packers on top in the improving NFC North?
On the other hand, who could rise? The top candidate resides in the NFC West. St. Louis might have the NFL’s best defensive line. If Sam Bradford can stay healthy, the Rams could be incredibly dangerous. Who else? It’s simplistic, but it depends on teams that have the quarterbacks to make a move, including Pittsburgh and Baltimore in the AFC, and the Giants, Dallas, Chicago, Detroit and Atlanta in the NFC.
No 6: Can Brady make another run?
It seems like a lifetime ago since Tom Brady led the Patriots to three Super Bowl championships in a span of four years. In fact, the league has crowned nine champions since Brady basked in the confetti after leading New England to a 24-21 win over Philadelphia in 2005.
What’s gone wrong? Plenty. Brady’s cap number -- $14.8 million this season -- limits the team’s financial flexibility.
In the five drafts from 2009 through 2013, the Patriots drafted two Pro Bowlers (Rob Gronkowski and Devin McCourty) and one All-Pro (Gronkowski), but Brady might have better luck throwing the ball to himself this season. His projected starting receivers are Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman, with Kenbrell Thompkins, Aaron Dobson, Brandon LaFell and Josh Boyce rounding out the top six on the depth chart. It certainly doesn’t help that Aaron Hernandez is in prison or Gronkowski knows the janitors at the hospital on a first-name basis.
The lack of firepower shows in the stats. His passer rating of 87.3 and 60.5 percent accuracy were his lowest figures since 2003, his third season as a starter. His 6.92 yards per attempt was his worst since 2006 and down almost two-thirds of a yard from 2012.
Nonetheless, Brady got the Patriots to at least the AFC Championship Game in each of the past three seasons. He might be 36 and his successor was drafted in the second round of this year’s draft, but you’d be a fool to bet against him.
No. 5: The safety (and cornerback) dance
Seattle won the Super Bowl behind a stellar defense led by the safety tandem of Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor. So naturally, plenty of teams tried to copy that winning formula.
In a breathtaking display of spending, nine of Scout.com’s top 10 safeties were off the market after the first day of free agency. Byrd went from Buffalo to New Orleans, T.J. Ward went from Cleveland to Denver, Donte Whitner went from San Francisco to Cleveland, and Antoine Bethea went from Indianapolis to San Francisco for deals worth at least $7 million per season.
The Saints’ signing of Byrd is particularly noteworthy as he joins last year’s first-round pick, Kenny Vaccaro, to provide an excellent tandem.
At cornerback, the big money flew fast and furious as well. Denver lost Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie but upgraded with Aqib Talib. The Patriots lost Talib but bounced back quite nicely by signing Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner. Verner went from Tennessee to Tampa Bay.
The message was loud and clear: To win in today’s pass-happy NFL, you need guys who can cover. New England, with Revis and Browner, and Denver, with Ward, Talib and first-round cornerback Bradley Roby, made big splashes in their ongoing battle for AFC supremacy.
No. 4: Manziel mania
Before the draft, the NFL’s head scout, Dave-Te’ Thomas, compared Johnny Manziel to petulant pop star Justin Bieber.
Turns out that was a fitting comparison because Johnny Football made all sorts of headlines for his off-field antics, including partying with Bieber himself.
Imagine the egos in that room.
“I’m not going to change who I am for anybody,” Manziel said. “I’m growing up and continuing to learn from my mistakes and trying not to make the same ones over and over again. But am I going to live in a shell or am I just going to hide from everybody and not do anything? I don’t think that’s the way I should live my life and I’m not going to do it.”
If he can’t revive the perpetually rudderless Browns in a year or two, will his antics and attitude wear thin in the locker room? The quarterback has to be a leader of the team. Earning that leadership mantle may be the biggest challenge Manziel faces if the veterans are skeptical on whether he’s “all in.”
Ultimately, the stars Manziel parties with off the field won’t make any difference as long as he becomes a star on the field. If he wins games, players will gravitate toward him. Manziel was an electrifying performer at Texas A&M. Will that full-throttle, never-say-die style of play translate to the NFL where the guys chasing him are bigger, faster and stronger than anyone he faced in the SEC? If it does, then Manziel won’t have to change for anybody.
No. 3: Can the Niners get over the hump?
In 2012, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh rolled the dice on second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick and reached the Super Bowl. A year later, they were one Richard Sherman deflection away from getting back to the Super Bowl. Now what?
There’s little doubt San Francisco remains one of the elite teams in the NFL. Love him or hate him, Harbaugh is one of the game’s top coaches. Love him or hate him, Kaepernick is one of the game’s top quarterbacks. The defense is intimidating and dominating.
This might be their last, best chance to win a Super Bowl as currently configured. With Kaepernick entering the final season of his rookie deal, the 49ers got their salary cap reality check by signing him to a contract extension. Kaepernick had a cap number of $1.4 million in 2013. This season, it’s just $3.8 million. It soars to $15.3 million in 2015 and keeps on rising. That’s $11.5 million less money -- the equivalent to two or three good players.
Moreover, too many of the offseason headlines were negative. There were trade rumors involving Harbaugh, of all people, because of a grating personality that apparently had worn thin among some of his players. Star outside linebacker Aldon Smith was among three players who were arrested and he faces a possible suspension after pleading no contest to DUI and weapons charges. Starting cornerbacks Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown and starting safety Whitner left in free agency, though Whitner was replaced by signing Bethea.
Can the 49ers contend again? Don’t count them out with Kaepernick, the trade for receiver Stevie Johnson and a still-stout defense -- at least not this year.
No. 2: Can you buy a championship?
The NFL isn’t Major League Baseball. Otherwise, deep-pockets owners like Washington’s Daniel Snyder and Dallas’ Jerry Jones would be football’s version of George Steinbrenner, who built the Yankees’ baseball dynasty on a mixture of home-grown stars and mega-bucks free agents.
Winning free agency in March has nothing to do with winning the Super Bowl in February. The Patriots didn’t spend their way to their three championships, nor did the Colts, Giants, Steelers, Saints, Packers, Ravens and Seahawks. Those teams were built to last -- and have lasted.
Can the Broncos change that and become the first team to spend their way to a championship since the Cowboys and 49ers two decades ago?
Last offseason, Denver landed Peyton Manning. That got the Broncos to the Super Bowl. This offseason, they signed Talib, Ward, Ware and receiver Emmanuel Sanders in hopes of winning the Super Bowl. In the diluted AFC, there’s little doubt they are the favorites. Can Denver’s two-year spending spree result in the ultimate payoff? Almost 20 years of history says the answer is a resounding “no.” Then again, no team ever bought a Hall of Fame quarterback either.
No. 1: Dynasty in the making?
When the Packers won the Super Bowl after the 2010 season, they had the look of a budding dynasty. They had the star young quarterback in Aaron Rodgers. They had a dominant defense, led by Matthews and Charles Woodson. They had a brilliant leadership team with general manager Ted Thompson and coach Mike McCarthy.
After three consecutive seasons in which they haven’t gotten out of the divisional round of the playoffs, the Packers are just another team choking on the fumes of the Seahawks.
It’s now Seattle that has all the ingredients to put together a dynasty. They have the star young quarterback in Russell Wilson — a quarterback still playing for relative peanuts in his rookie contract, which provides the team plenty of financial flexibility. They have a defense that’s not just dominant but dominant in a historical perspective. They have a brilliant leadership team in general manager John Schneider and coach Pete Carroll.
Seattle suffered some losses in free agency, but the majority of the key pieces are in place. It has a shove-it-down-your-throat running game. It has Wilson, who can beat a defense in almost every way imaginable. It has a fast-and-furious front seven that puts the Legion of Boom secondary in position to make plays. It has an unmatched home-field advantage.
At some point, the Seahawks are going to be like the Packers, Patriots, Giants and now the 49ers, with the high-priced quarterback taking up 10 percent of the salary cap rather than less than 1 percent. For now, in a league that is ruled by a salary cap meant to level the playing field, the Seahawks are playing with the deck stacked in their favor.