White Wolf Sports has broken down all 32 NFL teams, division by division, including X-factors (players who will be key to their team’s success or failure), Breakout Players (players that will have a breakout season), and Rookies to Watch (rookies we will be keeping an eye on throughout the season). The teams are organized by projected division standings. We also have an article for NFL Playoff and Award Predictions.
1. Washington Redskins
The Redskins are coming off their first division win since RGIII’s rookie year in 2012. Coach Jay Gruden’s decisive move of naming Kirk Cousins the starting quarterback last preseason paid off after Cousins had a great second half and finished the season with a 101.6 quarterback rating while completing 69.8% of his passes. Coach Gruden and Offensive Coordinator Sean McVay will likely do another great job in putting Cousins and the offense in a position to have success this year.
X-factor: CB Josh Norman
Shortly after his surprising release from the Carolina Panthers, Norman signed a 5-year, $75 million deal with the Redskins. If he can live up to this contract, it will help the Redskins take the next step in the NFC.
Breakout Player: RB Matt Jones
At about 6’2”, 230 pounds with good speed, Jones can’t be fun for defenders to tackle. With little competition in the backfield for touches, Jones will likely be fed the rock and looks to improve on his 3.4 yards per carry from last year.
Rookie to Watch: LB/S Su’a Cravens
Cravens was a second round pick from USC that did it all in college for the Trojans. He proved to be both durable and versatile in college, and look for him to be all over the field for the Redskins this season.
2. Dallas Cowboys
The Cowboys had some tough luck, as quarterback Tony Romo got hurt again in the team’s third preseason game against the Seahawks. They will turn to Mississippi State rookie quarterback, Dak Prescott. The Cowboys likely have the best offensive line in the NFL, and the team will look to establish the running game with fourth overall pick Ezekiel Elliott. If the running game can be dominant, and the line gives Prescott time to sit back there and throw, the team could easily overcome the loss of Romo.
X-factor: QB Dak Prescott
Everyone knows about Prescott’s scorching preseason, where he had all day to throw and was very accurate and made good decisions. If he can carry that over on a weekly basis in the regular season, the Cowboys could easily be the best team in the NFC East.
Breakout Player: S Byron Jones
Jones is already one of the most versatile players in the NFL. After showing versatility at UConn, Jones came in as a first round pick last year and contributed right away. This guy lit up the NFL Combine, but has the football ability to back it up.
Rookie to Watch: RB Ezekiel Elliott
“Zeke” showed he was a beast in college and will look to continue that in the NFL. Elliott is already a consensus top 10 fantasy running back, because of the mix of his talent, the Cowboys offensive line, and the offensive philosophy of wanting to run the ball. If he stays healthy, there should be no reason he does not have a huge season.
3. New York Giants
The Giants decided to just get rid of Tom Coughlin and keep offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo on as the new head coach, while also keeping defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. The Giants decided to spend a ton of money on free agents, including defensive end Olivier Vernon, cornerback Janoris Jenkins, and defensive tackle Damon Harrison. This might improve the defense, but the moves are reminiscent of the Eagles free agency spending spree in 2011 — which did not end well. Vernon, Jenkins, and Harrison were allowed to walk for a reason; we’ll see if they can contribute the way the Giants anticipated when they were signed.
X-factor: QB Eli Manning
Eli has two Super Bowls and is coming off of the best statistical season of his career. However, Eli has shown throughout his career how inconsistent he can be at times. Manning will have to play lights out for the team to compete in the division.
Breakout Player: S Landon Collins
This guy comes from one of the best programs in the country and knows how to be a pro. Heading into his second season, if Collins can improve his playmaking ability, he might become one of the best safeties in the league. Collins isn’t someone the Giants are going to want in man coverage that often, but he can.
Rookie to Watch: WR Sterling Shepard
Shepard is a guy that’s easy to root for. He’s not the biggest player in the world, but plays bigger than his size and is a playmaker. With Odell Beckham Jr. as the top receiver, Shepard should be able to make an immediate impact.
4. Philadelphia Eagles
We definitely question whether the Eagles gave up on Chip Kelly too soon. He got less than 365 days to build the team, then was fired. Then the Eagles shockingly traded Sam Bradford to the Vikings, likely ending any chance they can compete in the division this year. The defense was a top unit in the league at times for the past three years, and we will see if new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz will help them return to dominance. It’s hard to see many wins with this team after trading their starting quarterback through the whole offseason and preseason.
X-factor: LB Jordan Hicks
Hicks played like one of the best linebackers in the league last year before he got hurt in Week 9. When he got hurt, the defense went downhill last year. If Hicks stays healthy, he should help this front seven be a force in the division.
Breakout Player: WR Nelson Agholor
This second-year wide receiver from USC gets a ton of criticism from the fans and media in Philadelphia. They are quick to judge, based off a rookie season where he had a nagging high ankle sprain, and a few preseason games. Agholor has the right attitude — along with great athleticism — and we bet he’s improved and will show it this season.
Rookie to Watch: QB Carson Wentz
Howie Roseman took quite the risk by trading Byron Maxwell, Kiko Alonso, two firsts, a second, a third, and a fourth to move up from 13 to 2 and get Wentz, but it also likely bought him a few years of keeping his job while Wentz progresses. Wentz is going to be thrown right into the fire, but fans are very excited to see him play.
. . .
1. Minnesota Vikings
Teddy Bridgewater was looking to take a step forward to get this offense on the level of their defense, but unfortunately a bad knee injury in practice ended his season before it started. After trading for quarterback Sam Bradford, however, the Vikings are still definite Super Bowl contenders. If things can click quickly for the ultra-accurate Bradford and the rest of the offense, this team could be back to back Kings in the North.
X-factor: QB Sam Bradford
Last Saturday, the Vikings shocked everyone by acquiring Sam Bradford from the Eagles. Bradford has had some tough luck in his career, including injuries and many coaching changes, but he may have finally caught a break here. If he stays healthy, there is no reason he can’t be a huge difference maker with the help of Adrian Peterson and the Vikings defense.
Breakout Player: CB Trae Waynes
Bridgewater would have no doubt been our breakout player if he did not get hurt, so that will have to wait until next year. Waynes has the measurables you look for in a corner. He was the first corner taken in the 2015 Draft and definitely has the potential to help the Vikings defense get even better.
Rookie to Watch: S Jayron Kearse
Kearse was a seventh-round pick after being a productive player for Clemson. He’s not a normal sized safety (he’s 6’4”) but he made the Vikings 53-man roster and will try to contribute this year. Kearse may turn out to be a major steal for the Vikings in the seventh round.
2. Green Bay Packers
Look for the Packers to come back with a vengeance this year, after a down year for the offense last year. Aaron Rodgers probably had the worst statistical season of his career last year (a great season for most quarterbacks). They get superstar wide receiver Jordy Nelson back over a year removed from his torn ACL. As long as Rodgers is under center, this team will be a Super Bowl contender.
X-factor: RB Eddie Lacy
Lacy was famously out of shape last season and was disappointing for Packers fans and some fantasy football players. After an offseason of committing himself to getting back in shape, Lacy appears to be much healthier than last year. With James Starks also in the mix, Lacy won’t need 300 carries to make an impact — it’s about what Lacy does with his touches.
Breakout Player: S Ha Ha Clinton-Dix
What a name. Some would say he already broke out last year, but look for him to take another step forward in his third NFL season. Ha Ha is a very well-rounded safety that can make tackles and also play center field. He might end up with a breakout in the interception category this season.
Rookie to Watch: T Jason Spriggs
Spriggs is not set to start this season, but the Packers obviously like him after trading up in the second round to get him. If there is an injury to either starting tackle David Bakhitiari or Bryan Bulaga, Spriggs will need to step up and help protect Aaron Rodgers.
3. Chicago Bears
The Bears are a tough team to project. John Fox is obviously a good coach, but the roster does not seem to be quite there. The front seven could be one of the best in the league — especially after signing Danny Trevathan from the Broncos — but the rest of the roster leaves something to be desired. Quarterback Jay Cutler is judged unfairly by many people, but it might be tougher on him this season after losing Matt Forte and offensive coordinator Adam Gase.
X-factor: WR Kevin White
Kevin White missed all of his rookie season with a calf injury. After a monster season at West Virginia, White went number seven overall in the 2015 Draft. If White can live up to the expectations after being a top pick in the draft, it will make things a lot easier on Jay Cutler.
Breakout Player: RB Jeremy Langford
Langford was a fourth round pick in the same draft as White. Langford averaged only 3.6 yards per carry during his rookie year, but showed he can catch the ball out of the backfield, and it looks like he will get the opportunity to be a three-down back this season.
Rookie to Watch: OLB Leonard Floyd
The Bears leaped up two spots to snatch Floyd in the draft right before the Giants could. Floyd has unique athleticism and can rush the passer and drop back into coverage very smoothly. The main concern with Floyd is his frame. He’s thin, but if he can overcome that, he could be a versatile defensive weapon.
4. Detroit Lions
This will be the Lions’ first season since 2007 that Calvin Johnson a.k.a. “Megatron” will not be their number one receiver. People seem to think the loss won’t affect them that much, with some even suggesting the loss of Megatron will help Matthew Stafford. Not exactly sure how losing an All-Pro wide receiver helps anyone, but we think it will be a big loss for the Lions, and they’ll likely take a step back from last season.
X-factor: OC Jim Bob Cooter
When Jim Bob Cooter took over as the offensive coordinator Week 8 last year, the Lions finished the season 6–3. Most people assume the success will carry over to this season, but we will see how the team does without Calvin Johnson. Marvin Jones and the other wide receivers will need to stay healthy to allow Jim Bob Cooter and Matthew Stafford to work with all the weapons available to them.
Breakout player: RB Ameer Abdullah
Abdullah had some rookie struggles last year, including some fumbling issues, but will look to put that behind him in his second year. He averaged 4.2 yards per carry in his rookie year, and the offensive line should be improved enough that this dynamic back could make some noise. Abdullah also wants to be the goal-line back, which may not happen, but he should make the most of his touches.
Rookie to Watch: T Taylor Decker
The Ohio State rookie, Decker, was immediately inserted as the starting left tackle for the Lions. A lot is on his shoulders, as he has to protect Matthew Stafford and give him time to get the ball to his receivers.
. . .
1. Carolina Panthers
The reason I anticipate only a 9–7 record is their tough schedule. They have to play against the NFC and AFC West, while also playing the first place schedule in the NFC. Obviously Cam Newton is tough to stop, and will keep the Panthers in every game — there has even been some talk that he’s gotten even better this offseason. If Cam plays like Superman again, and the defense can remain elite, the Panthers will keep pounding this season.
X-factor: WR Kelvin Benjamin
Benjamin is coming back from a torn ACL from training camp last year. Like Jordy Nelson, being a year removed from the injury should have Benjamin close to 100% for this year after big rookie season.
Breakout Player: WR Devin Funchess
Funchess was a second-round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, and was seen as a hybrid WR/TE as some people. The Panthers drafted him as a wide receiver, and he appears to be fitting in well as such. Funchess showed marked improvement from the beginning of last year to the end, and should continue that improvement to become another reliable, big target for Cam Newton.
Rookie to Watch: CB James Bradberry
After letting Josh Norman go, the Panthers are looking for a replacement. Some people argued drafting Bradberry in the second round was a reach, but so far he has transitioned well into the NFL and is a starting corner for the Panthers. If Bradberry can hold his own at corner, this defense easily should remain one of the best.
2. New Orleans Saints
After it looked like head coach Sean Payton and the Saints would part ways, Payton signed a 5-year extension with the Saints. A great move, as there are not many coaches out there as good as Sean Payton. Of course Drew Brees returns, and he might have more weapons than ever with the additions of Ohio State receiver Michael Thomas and former Colts’ tight end Coby Fleener. The biggest concern with the Saints is if their defense can come close to matching their offense.
X-factor: TE Coby Fleener
Fleener got a pretty big contract to sign with the Saints (5 years, $36 million). There has been talk of inconsistency throughout the preseason, but if Fleener plays like a top tight end, Drew Brees and the offense will be really tough to stop with a balanced running game led by Mark Ingram and receiving threats all over the field.
Breakout Player: WR Brandin Cooks
Cooks doubled his receiving totals from his rookie year, but in his third year could take yet another step forward. The former first round pick from Oregon State is a dynamo on the field, and can win with short, intermediate, and deep routes. With Brees’ pinpoint accuracy, Cooks should have a monster season.
Rookie to Watch: DT Sheldon Rankins
The Saints’ first round pick suffered a broken fibula during training camp, but could be back by mid-season. Rankins is an explosive player that could make an immediate impact when he returns to the Saints defense — a defense that could use all the help they can get.
3. Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons are a team I see on the brink of playoff contention. Quarterback Matt Ryan has twice led his team to a 13–3 record, but struggled last year in his first year with offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. If he can improve, and the defense can improve under Dan Quinn, the Falcons are a team that can make some noise in the South.
X-factor: QB Matt Ryan
Again, Ryan struggled a little bit last year in his first year with a new offensive system. If Ryan can regain his previous form, the Falcons offense can be a dynamic group. The addition of center Alex Mack should improve the blocking in both the run and pass game, set up play-action, and allow Ryan to find his weapons like Julio Jones and Devonta Freeman.
Breakout Player: RB Tevin Coleman
Devonta Freeman is the incumbent starter and is no doubt one of the top receiving threats out of the backfield. There should be enough touches to go around for Coleman to also make an impact this year. Coleman averaged 4.5 yards per carry last year, and was the starter until he broke his ribs in Week 2. He should be able to use his home run ability to improve the Falcons’ run game.
Rookie to Watch: TE Austin Hooper
Hooper was a third round pick out of Stanford. The Falcons have the reliable Jacob Tamme as a starter right now, but he isn’t someone that’s going to make a huge receiving impact. Hooper — if given the chance his rookie year — might make things easier for Matt Ryan, particularly in the red zone.
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Like the Giants, the Bucs fired their head coach and hired their offensive coordinator (Dirk Koetter) to take over. So Jameis Winston will be in the same system as last year. The Bucs re-signed Doug Martin to carry the load, and second-year RB Charles Sims will complement him. Former Falcons head coach Mike Smith was hired by Koetter to run the defense. Smith is a good coach, but so is Love Smith, so we’ll see if the defense takes a step forward.
X-factor: MLB Kwon Alexander
As a fourth-round pick last year, Alexander had 93 tackles, 2 forced fumbles, and 2 interceptions. Alongside fellow linebacker Lavonte David, they will try to form one of the best linebacking duos in the NFL.
Breakout Player: QB Jameis Winston
Sometimes Winston shows inconsistency with decision making and accuracy as a quarterback, but when he’s on, he’s on. Being in his second year in the offensive system, with a strong running game, and big receivers Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson, Winston might put up some big numbers and have the Bucs in the NFC playoff picture.
Rookie to Watch: CB Vernon Hargreaves
Hargreaves isn’t one of these 6’1” corners with super long arms, but he can cover. He was the Bucs’ first-round pick after a great career in the SEC at Florida. Amari Cooper got the best of him in college, but Amari Cooper is pretty good. If Hargreaves smoothly transitions, he could become a lockdown corner in the NFL.
. . .
1. Arizona Cardinals
The Cardinals returned all of their key players from last year, while bolstering their roster through free agency, the draft, and trades. They acquired DE (now 3–4 OLB) Chandler Jones from the Patriots, which should definitely help their pass rush. The offense should also be locked in with coach Bruce Arians and quarterback Carson Palmer leading the way. This is one of the most complete teams in the NFL.
X-factor: QB Carson Palmer
Palmer played like an MVP candidate last season. However, in the playoffs he struggled. Maybe some blame can be put on his dislocated finger from Week 15. After the injury, he struggled with turnovers a little bit (eight in his last four games) — something that Bruce Arians will not tolerate.
Breakout Player: WR Michael Floyd
Normally a breakout player doesn’t already have a 1,000-yard season under their belt. Floyd has had over 840 yards each of the past three years, while averaging at least 16.0 yards a catch every season. Last year, Floyd had a bad finger injury that slowed his start to the season, but he finished very strong. Arians said if Floyd was healthy he would’ve had 1,500 yards last year. Maybe he can reach that this year.
Rookie to Watch: CB Brandon Williams
Williams was a third round pick by the Cardinals, but is already starting at corner opposite All-Pro Patrick Peterson. Because Peterson is so tough on receivers, Williams might be targeted early and often by opposing quarterbacks.
2. Seattle Seahawks
The Seahawks are definite Super Bowl contenders once again. After a bit of a slow start last season, the Seahawks were scorching down the stretch — particularly their offense led by Russell Wilson. The defense might not be quite as imposing as it once was, but they still led the league in fewest points allowed last year (17.3 points per game).
X-factor: RB Thomas Rawls
Coming off a bad ankle injury at the end of last season, Rawls will likely be worked back slowly. But if he can pick up where he left off last season — when he averaged 5.6 yards per carry on 147 attempts as an undrafted rookie from Central Michigan — paired with Wilson, this offense will be tough to stop.
Breakout Player: WR Tyler Lockett
Lockett is tough to cover. He scored eight touchdowns (six receiving, two return) last year as a rookie out of Kansas State. He’s someone that defensive backs need to cover in all areas of the field. And when Russell Wilson is freelancing, he and Lockett know how to connect.
Rookie to Watch: DT Jarran Reed
As a second-round pick out of Alabama, some people thought Reed should have gone higher than he did in the draft. He may not be someone that’ll get 12 sacks in a season, but he should bring production to the Seahawks.
3. San Francisco 49ers
After making the mistake of letting Jim Harbaugh go, the Niners will look to redeem themselves with the hiring of Chip Kelly. There is not a ton of talent to work with on the offensive side of the ball, but Kelly should be able to work some magic with Blaine Gabbert. The defense does have some talent to work with, so this team might be better than expected despite their tough schedule.
X-factor: RB Carlos Hyde
This is an easy one. Carlos Hyde is the 49ers most talented skill position player, but has struggled to stay healthy early in his career. The 49ers are pretty deep at RB, but Hyde is the clear leader of the bunch. If Hyde stays healthy, he should push for 300 carries in Chip Kelly’s up-tempo offense.
Breakout Player: DE Arik Armstead
Kelly’s defenses have traditionally been a two-gap 3–4. Armstead, at 6’8”, can use his long arms to control the line of scrimmage. He is a part of a front seven that includes All-Pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman, and should take a big step forward from his rookie year.
Rookie to Watch: DE DeForest Buckner
Buckner was teammates with Armstead at Oregon, so they were reunited when Buckner was selected number seven overall by the 49ers. Buckner is 6’7”, so along with Armstead, this defense could quickly become formidable.
4. St. Louis Rams
After two decades, the Rams are back in Los Angeles. They immediately made a splash by trading up to number one overall to select Cal quarterback, Jared Goff. The Rams did lose some defensive pieces in free agency, but are still a good group led by All-Pro Aaron Donald. Continuity in the operation is a good thing, but fans may need to have patience to let their young team develop.
X-factor: DE Robert Quinn
In 2013, Quinn had 19.0 sacks. Last year, he only played in eight games, but still had 5.0 sacks. If Quinn can reach his 2013 level, paired with the beast Aaron Donald, the Rams pass rush will be a problem for offenses.
Breakout Player: WR Tavon Austin
Tavon has no doubt been a productive player in his first three seasons with the Rams. He was rewarded with a big contract a few weeks ago. The contract pays him as a top, number one receiver in the league. While Austin contributes receiving, rushing, and returning to his team, the Rams are anticipating he takes another step forward as a receiver.
Rookie to Watch: QB Jared Goff
So after four preseason games, people are already declaring Goff a bust. After four preseason games. People have no patience today. Goff is not in the greatest situation ever to play right now, but if the offensive line can protect him, and his receivers can make some plays, Goff could have early success if he gets playing time.
. . .
1. New England Patriots
The Patriots open the season with a tough Sunday Night Football matchup with the Cardinals, but if Jimmy Garappolo can get the team to 3–1 or 2–2, they should get a #1 seed. A guy named Tom Brady will come back in week 5 with a vengeance, and I don’t see New England losing after his return. Not only are they coming off a playoff loss to the eventual champion Denver Broncos, but Brady will be determined to wreck the league because of his unwarranted suspension.
X-factor: TE Martellus Bennett
The Patriots are supposed to be using two-tights as their base offense. That could mean more running — because both Gronk and Bennett are great blockers — but it probably means a lot of catches for both players. Tom Brady has had two star tight-ends in the same season before, and there was enough to go around then. There will be now, too.
Breakout Player: RB James White
No one really knows when Dion Lewis will be back, so White will be catching most of the passes out of the New England backfield to start the year. If the offensive line struggles to open up wholes for LeGarrette Blount, White will be the “running-game” by catching short passes.
Rookie to Watch: WR Malcolm Mitchell
Mitchell could be in-line for the starting X-receiver role at some point this year. The fourth-round pick out of Georgia has reportedly proven effective in learning the Patriots complex offense.
2. New York Jets
The Jets had a chance to make the playoffs last year, but couldn’t come through in week 17 against the Bills. They re-signed Ryan Fitzpatrick late in the offseason, so have to think he will bounce back from his poor performance in the final game last year. However, if they get off to a rough start, trouble could be coming for a team that was angry about the way the quarterback situation was handled this summer.
X-factor: CB Darrelle Revis
Revis has a bit of a down year in 2015, but he was not healthy. He is a year older, but if Revis can lockdown the opponent’s #1 WR every week, the Jets will probably be playing in January. If he either takes another step back, so will the team.
Breakout Player: DE Leonard Williams
Williams somehow fell to the Jets in the draft two years ago, and he showed he should have went higher in his rookie year. Teaming up with Muhammed Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson on the defensive line, Williams should hold his own on the Jets front.
Rookie to Watch: LB Darron Lee
The Jets drafted Lee with the 20th overall pick in the draft, and are looking for him to fly around the field and wreak havoc like some other young, athletic linebackers have in recent years. It would be a disappointment if he doesn’t see much playing time as a rookie.
3. Miami Dolphins
New head coach Adam Gase is the best thing that could have happened to the Dolphins. If he can unlock his quarterback’s potential, and Arian Foster regains some of his old form, Miami’s offense could be dangerous. New acquisitions Kiko Alonso and Byron Maxwell should help improve the Dolphins defense — which could also be dangerous if a cornerback opposite Maxwell can emerge.
X-factor: CB Byron Maxwell
Maxwell received a bad reputation in his one season with the Eagles, but he played a lot better than people realize. If he can do what he did in the second half of last season — and tackle better — Miami will have another star on defense.
Breakout Player: WR DeVante Parker
Parker was injured to begin his career, but the talented Louisville product is playing the Demaryius Thomas role in Gase’s system. Parker should be in for a breakout sophomore season. If he can stay healthy, that is, as he’s already expected to missSunday’s game in Seattle and perhaps more because of an injured hamstring.
Rookie to Watch: CB Xavien Howard
Almost everyone knows Miami’s first round pick Laremy Tunsil from his unfortunate draft night situation. He’ll be playing left guard for the Dolphins, but I’ll be watching their second round pick Xavien Howard. If he can come in and impress at a starting corner spot, Miami’s defense will be great. If not, defensive coordinators will target the rookie opposite Maxwell.
4. Buffalo Bills
After being crowned by many as “offseason champions,” the Bills had a rough month of August. They lost their first round pick for the beginning of the season, and their second round pick for the whole year. Then they released promising second-year runner Karlos Williams because he was so out of shape. If the team struggles early, Rex Ryan will be squarely on the hot seat.
X-factor: QB Tyrod Taylor
Taylor got a big contract this offseason, but it’s essentially a one-year deal. Taylor needs to carry the Bills by connecting with some more deep balls to Sammy Watkins. He showed he has the ability to connect on the deep pass on numerous occasions last year, so let’s see if he can do it again.
Breakout Player: WR Sammy Watkins
I already consider Watkins one of the best wideouts in the league, but a lot of people are down on him because he’s been injured. Watkins will leave no doubt, and prove he is elite despite Buffalo’s struggles. 1,400 yards and 12 touchdowns seems attainable.
Rookie to Watch: OLB Shaq Lawson
Lawson will miss the beginning of his rookie season, but will hopefully bring a jolt to Buffalo’s pass rush when/if he returns. He was a stud at Clemson despite battling injuries there, too.
. . .
1. Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers lost Martavis Bryant for the year because of suspension, but they still have #84. If Big Ben stays healthy, other teams are going to have to outscore the Steelers, which is a tall task. Once Le’Veon Bell returns from his 3-game suspension, the “Triple B’s” will get rolling once again. We wouldn’t be surprised if Pittsburgh ran away with the division title.
X-factor: OLB Jarvis Jones
Both Jones and fellow first-rounder Bud Dupree have tons of talent, but haven’t lived up to their draft status so far. James Harrison was brought back to help the Steelers pass rush, but Pittsburgh has to be hoping they can limit his snaps if Jones — or Dupree — can step up.
Breakout Player: TE Jesse James
Probably one of the best names in the league, Jesse James should be starting for the Steelers with the mysterious situation involving free-agent signing Ladarius Green. Big Ben has said they want to utilize the middle of the field so Antonio Brown can get more room to operate, and James stepping into the Heath Miller role will do that.
Rookie to Watch: LB Tyler Matakevich
Matakevich was a 7th round pick out of Temple, but made the team. He is expected to play a key role on special teams, and don’t be surprised if he eventually earns his way to a defensive role. Matakevich was always around the football in college.
2. Cincinnati Bengals
Last year ended almost as bad as it possibly could for the Bengals. They blew their playoff game against the Steelers, and Vontaze Burfict was suspended to begin this year in the process. Head coach Marvin Lewis is facing a lot of pressure. Failing to win a playoff game again likely means his departure, and failing to make the playoffs at all almost certainly means it.
X-factor: LT Andrew Whitworth
Whitworth has been awesome at left tackle for Cincinnati, but is also getting up there at age 34. Though he showed no signs of slowing down last year, he will need to prove again he can protect Dalton’s blindside. With a lot of weapons out of town or injured, Whitworth will also need to open up holes for Jeremy Hill, as the Bengals are expected to rely more on their powerful back.
Breakout Player: DE Carlos Dunlap
Dunlap says he is aiming for Michael Strahan’s single-season sack record, and the Bengals need it. Dunlap has been a pro-bowler before, but if he can live up to his own expectations, he needs to get 9.5 more sacks than his career high — which certainly would be considered a breakout.
Rookie to Watch: WR Tyler Boyd
The Bengals need Boyd to help fill the void left by Marvin Jones and Mohammed Sanu leaving in the offseason. He might operate from the slot, which will be key — especially with Tyler Eifert injured to begin the season.
3. Baltimore Ravens
With one of the best coaches in the league leading them, the Ravens have a chance to make a playoff run every year. If the collection of offensive weapons — including Steve Smith in his final year — can come though, it should take pressure of the running game.
X-factor: S Eric Weddle
After a bad ending to his time in San Diego, Weddle decided to head to Baltimore. The Ravens hope Weddle will bring the defense back to elite status. Weddle is going to roam the back of the defense with newly converted safety Ladarius Webb.
Breakout Player: WR Mike Wallace
Wallace was a star in Pittsburgh, but struggled in Miami and Minnesota. He apparently had great chemistry with his quarterback in practice, and is an underrated red-zone threat. A bounce-back year could be coming for Baltimore’s deep threat.
Rookie to Watch: LT Ronnie Stanley
Stanley was the first tackle selected in the draft, and will step right in and protect Joe Flacco at left-tackle. If he can hold his own over there, Flacco will have time to connect with his speedy wideouts, and the running back will find holes — no matter who it is.
4. Cleveland Browns
The Browns have gone with a “moneyball” approach, hiring Sashi Brown and Paul DePodesta — the dude Jonah Hill played in the movie Moneyball. Hue Jackson led the Raiders to an 8–8 record in his only season as their head coach. Don’t be surprised if he makes the Browns respectable immediately despite the gutting of their roster. Finally having a plan, the future looks bright in Cleveland.
X-factor: QB Robert Griffin III
RGIII looked great in the preseason, and quietly has a trio of talented wideouts to work with (once Josh Gordon returns from suspension), and tight-end Gary Barnidge. If he can look like he did when he won Rookie of the Year, the Browns got a steal this offseason. If he struggles badly, Josh McCown — or even underrated rookie Cody Kessler — could get a chance.
Breakout Player: WR Terrelle Pryor Sr.
Many have failed making the transition from college quarterback to wide-receiver or something else in the NFL, but Pryor doesn’t look like one of them. At 6’4” with great speed and athleticism, Pryor showed he can thrive at the position this preseason. He should get favorable coverage, especially when Gordon returns.
Rookie to Watch: WR Corey Coleman
Coleman was disappointing in preseason games, but was coming of a hamstring injury and was receiving rave reviews in practice. The former Baylor standout is a top contender for Rookie of the Year, especially if RGIII’s deep ball is back. I would try to get this guy on your fantasy team.
. . .
1. Jacksonville Jaguars
This offseason was big for Jacksonville. They got two of the best players in the draft in FSU’s Jalen Ramsey and UCLA’s Myles Jack, and improved the defense in free agency, too, signing DE Malik Jackson, CB Prince Amukamara, and S Tashaun Gipson. If the team gets good chemistry early, the Jaguars could make the playoffs — and make a run if they get there.
X-factor: RB T.J. Yeldon
The Jags signed Chris Ivory this offseason, who led the AFC in rushing a year ago, but this reminds me of a situation a couple years ago with Le’Veon Bell. The Steelers brought in LeGarrette Blount after Bell’s rookie year, but Bell exploded in his second year anyway. Yeldon has the ability to do the same, which would make the offense even more dangerous.
Breakout Player: WR Marquise Lee
Lee has a pretty cool nickname — the Albino Tiger — but it actually isn’t a compliment. The Jaguars call him that because he’s never on the field. Finally healthy and with a role to start the year, Lee figures to get some good match-ups while defenses pay attention to Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns.
Rookie to Watch: LB Myles Jack
Jack was thought to be the best player in the draft by some, but concerns about his knee caused him to fall. The Jaguars thought about drafting him 5th overall, but instead opted for CB Jalen Ramsey, and Jack was there for them to steal in the second round. Whether he’s playing inside or outside, Jack is my pick for DROY.
2. Houston Texans
The Texans already had an elite defense, and after signing QB Brock Osweiler and RB Lamar Miller this offseason, the offense will try to prove it can be elite, too. The Texans have a good chance of repeating as AFC South champions if their quarterback is competent.
X-factor: QB Brock Osweiler
Osweiler signed a big contract to play for Bill O’Brien this offseason, leaving the Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos. The coach and quarterback never even met before the signing, but Oswieler said he knew enough about O’Brien and the Texans from watching Hard Knocks. If he get give Houston what they paid for, they could be a serious contender.
Breakout Player: OLB Jadeveon Clowney
Texans fans are still waiting for Clowney to play like the guy they saw in college, but he needs to stay on the field. With J.J. Watt coming off surgery this offseason, the Texans defense needs Clowney to step-up while Watt — unless he really isn’t human — plays off the rust.
Rookie to Watch: WR Braxton Miller
Houston drafted Will Fuller in the 1st round to line-up opposite DeAndre Hopkins, but Miller was selected in the 3rd round to man the slot. The former Ohio State quarterback has showed playmaking ability since moving to WR in his senior season at OSU, and I like his play to translate to the NFL.
3. Indianapolis Colts
The Colts will look to bounce back from their disappointing 2015, where many had them as Super Bowl favorites. Andre Johnson didn’t work out, but Frank Gore is still around. If the line can block at least a little bit better, the Colts could contend. Hopefully for Chuck Pagano’s sake, they figure it out up front. And what to do about the banged up defense.
X-factor: QB Andrew Luck
Luck is coming off an injury-plagued and turnover-filled year, but he’s shown he can carry a team before. Though he has some nice weapons at his disposal, the offensive line remains a huge issue. If Luck can stay healthy (and protect himself from himself), it might not matter.
Breakout Player: WR Phillip Dorsett
One of the weapons Luck has is the sophomore wideout out of Miami. Dorsett has the speed to get behind the defense, and will take some of the pressure off T.Y. Hilton and Donte Moncrief. He could also see a lot of single coverage with the other two wideouts demanding attention.
Rookie to Watch: C Ryan Kelly
If Dorsett and Hilton are going to get behind the defense, Luck is going to need time. Ryan Kelly was drafted to help solidify the Colts line that has been in shambles for much of Luck’s career. The quarterback staying upright is the key to the Colts season.
4. Tennessee Titans
The Titans kept Mike Mularkey are their head coach, when they could have paired their quarterback with his former college coach Chip Kelly. Instead, they opted for “exotic smash-mouth” on offense, with Marcus Mariota, DeMarco Murray, and Derrick Henry trying to pound defenses into submission. We don’t see it translating to wins, but let’s see how it works out.
X-factor: QB Marcus Mariota
The third QB as an X-factor for the division, but the Titans will only go as far as Mariota will take them. The Titans have two solid tackles to protect him, and his own running ability should help the running backs. Mariota, like Luck (and most quarterbacks), needs to stay healthy for the Titans to win games this year.
Breakout Player: G Chance Warmack
If the Titans are going to be effective with their exotic smash-mouth, Warmack needs to beat people up. He hasn’t lived up to being the best player in the draft like some labeled him coming out of Alabama, but this new offense could be exactly what he needs to be great.
Rookie to Watch: RB Derrick Henry
There were concerns Henry wouldn’t be dominant in the NFL, but if the preseason is any indication, he will be fine. Henry should be getting touches sooner rather than later. Did you see the picture of him standing with Mark Ingram for the coin toss last year? Or the one with Eddie Lacy? Wow. Google them. Ingram looks like his little brother, and Eddie Lacy looked small.
. . .
1. Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs have everything in place for a deep playoff run. Alex Smith has done it before. They have good weapons on offense and a solid defense that can get to the quarterback. And Andy Reid has done it before, too. We think Kansas City will be in a fight with NE for the #1 seed. If they can get it, a trip to Super Bowl 51 could be coming.
X-factor: RB Jamaal Charles
Charles is coming off his second ACL tear, and might not see his usual workload. There is speculation he will not even be the starter, but if he can make the most of his touches, Kansas City will take it. Charles has shown in the past that only needs one touch to glide into the end-zone.
Breakout Player: RB Spencer Ware
If Charles isn’t ready for a full workload to start the year, Ware will be the primary beneficiary. He showed well last year when Charles was injured, and might be getting the goal-line carries even if Charles is back to full strength at some point. Ware should get off to a hot start, as he is expected to get the start against the weak Chargers defense in Week 1.
Rookie to Watch: WR/KR Tyreek Hill
Hill is expected to be the primary return man for KC. He is an explosive athlete and Kansas City seems to always get return touchdowns since Reid was hired. Hill will definitely make an impact one way or another.
2. Oakland Raiders
Oakland has some of the best young players in the league. Khalil Mack is already a superstar, and other guys on both sides of the ball should quickly become stars in their own right. I think the Chiefs win the division, but the Raiders will be right behind them in the playoff hunt.
X-factor: CB Sean Smith
Smith was signed from the rival Chiefs this offseason, and will be tasked with shutting down Jeremy Maclin, Keenan Allen, and the guys in Denver. He shouldn’t have to cover for too long with Khalil Mack and company getting after the quarterback, but Smith will also be key in run support.
Breakout Player: RB Latavius Murray
The Raiders signed OL Kelechi Osemele this offseason, and he will slot in at left guard, which will provide a huge boost to the Raiders rushing attack. I think Murray has the potential to lead the league in rushing with the offensive line in front of him. Athletically, #28 kind of looks like Adrian Peterson at times, but needs to put it all together.
Rookie to Watch: S Karl Joseph
Drafted 14th overall out of West Virginia, Joseph is going to bring the hammer to the Raiders secondary. Wide receivers will think twice going over the middle with Joseph roaming around, but they caught a break early in the year; Nate Allen is expected to start. Still, Joseph is expected to see the field beginning this week.
3. Denver Broncos
The defending Super Bowl champions lost their top two quarterbacks this year, and will be starting a seventh rounder in Trevor Siemian. He does have two good wideouts, a good option in the backfield, an elite defense, and a smart coach, but no matter who the quarterback is, it’s going to be tough for the Broncos to contend. Unless they bring Tebow back, but that’s just my opinion.
X-factor: TE Virgil Green
If the Broncos offense is going to be effective, Green is going to have to be a big reason why. Coach Kubiak will utilize him on short passes for his young quarterback, and he’ll need to be a good blocker for the running backs.
Breakout Player: RB C.J. Anderson
Anderson was great down the stretch for two years in a row, and now the offense is on his back. Anderson will be featured on offense this year, so needs to perform well from the start. I can see him getting 1,500 yards for Denver, and he’s going to need to for the Broncos to remain in the playoff picture all year.
Rookie to Watch: QB Paxton Lynch
If Siemian struggles at all, Lynch should get the starting job. He showed flashes in the preseason, and some teams believed he was the best quarterback in the draft. Even if he never sees the field, I don’t see any other rookies making a huge impact for the Broncos. Who knows though? Maybe Lynch will become the first rookie quarterback to win the Super Bowl.
4. San Diego Chargers
The Chargers had a disappointing season in 2015, but Rivers proved to still be one of the best quarterbacks in the league despite the injuries all around him. San Diego will be much improved if they can stay healthy — and the defense can actually stop the run.
X-factor: WR Travis Benjamin
Benjamin was brought in from Cleveland to provide a deep threat for the Chargers offense. If he can be reliable out there, it will open up the offense for Keenan Allen running underneath routes, and the Chargers second-year runner will see a lighter box.
Breakout Player: RB Melvin Gordon
Gordon did not even score as a rookie, but he should see the end-zone quite a bit this year. Gordon is more comfortable this year, and it probably has something to do with a healthier offensive line. The former Wisconsin star will easily get 1,000 yards in 2016, including some sprints to the end zone.
Rookie to Watch: TE Hunter Henry
The Chargers selected DE Joey Bosa with the third overall pick, but he had a long holdout and might not have a big role to start the year. Hunter Henry will be backing up Antonio Gates, but Gates is in the final year of his Hall of Fame career, and Henry will see the field enough to make an impact.