Here we go with another great NFL season. So far here are the teams to watch as we see it.
The Arizona Cardinals are going to go as far as Carson Palmer’s arm, Tyrann Mathieu’s knee, and the team’s offensive line can take them. Palmer played as well as anyone for the first 13 or 14 weeks of the year — he was neck-and-neck with Brady for NFL MVP at the midway point of the season — and then looked rather pedestrian (perhaps putting it kindly) over the last four-to-six weeks of the season (including the postseason, which included his 235 yard, one touchdown, and four interception stink bomb against Carolina in the NFC Divisional Playoff game). Still, in 16 regular season games last year, he threw for 4,671 yards (a career high for Palmer and fourth among all quarterbacks in the NFL last year), 35 touchdown passes (another career high, and tied for second among all quarterbacks), and only 11 interceptions (his lowest career total in any season where he played in more than 10 games).
But as much as Palmer’s performance began to decline towards the end of the season, his teammates all agree that losing cornerback Tyrann Mathieu — was firmly in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year, alongside JJ Watt and Aaron Donald — might’ve been what really derailed their season. As one of the emotional leaders of the defense (and arguably the group’s best player), losing Mathieu to another torn ACL injury in Week 15 of last years was a devastating and heartbreaking blow to the team. They simply couldn’t replace the energy he brought to the team, and the Cardinals really that knee to heal up, to help Mathieu get back to form.
New England Patriots
For the past seven consecutive seasons, the Patriots have been “the man” to beat in the AFC East, and even with Tom Brady’s four-game suspension to start the season, they’re still the heavy favorites to win the division in 2016.
In the Patriots first four games, backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and the Patriots offense will face the stacked Cardinals secondary, Ndamukong Suh, JJ Watt, and a Rex Ryan defense. Still, it’s not unrealistic to think they could pull out ugly wins over the Dolphins (who’ll still be adjusting to life under Adam Gase) and Buffalo (especially since this game will be in Foxborough). After that? Six of their last eight games are against teams that didn’t make the playoffs last year, and the other two are against Seattle (who they’ll also play at Foxborough) and Denver (who will be dramatically different than the Broncos team they played last year).
In typical Patriots fashion, the offense looks largely the same; after all, if you have #12 under center, there isn’t really a need for too much else. The only real changes made around Tom Brady are the acquisition of offensive lineman Jonathan Cooper (who New England received as part of the trade that sent defensive end Chandler Jones to Arizona) and the signing of tight end Martellus Bennett (who gives the Patriots their best #2 tight end since Aaron Hernandez). Point being, outside of Brady’s suspension for the first quarter of the season, the team isn’t much different than the squad that went 12-4 last season and lost in the AFC Championship game.
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The Pittsburgh Steelers enter 2016 as the odds-on favorite to win the division (potentially extending the streak of a different team winning the AFC North to five straight seasons). Even after losing quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and star running back Le’Veon Bell for a combined 14 games last season, they still finished with a 10-6 record, and pulled off an upset victory over Cincinnati in the Wild Card playoff game. As per their traditional modus operandi, the team eschewed making any significant additions in free agency, and focused on adding young talent through the draft whom they can develop into future starters (thanks to their benchmark organizational stability). Cornerback Artie Burns from the University of Miami (their first round pick) and defensive back Sean Davis out of the University of Maryland (taken with their second round pick) are ultra-athletic guys who will initially provide depth to the much-maligned Steelers secondary, but will groomed into eventual starters.
But as long as this team has Roethlisberger, Bell (whose appeal for his four-game suspension will take place in the second week of August), and sublime receiver Antonio Brown, the offense has the ability to outscore nearly anyone they play. Even with wide receiver Martavis Bryant lost for all of 2016 (he was suspended by the NFL missing his mandated drug tests), the team is optimistic about some of the young, offensive talent they’ve drafted and developed: namely, wide receivers Markus Wheaton and Sammie Coates. Both players have had great training camps, and will be heavily relied upon to fill Bryant’s shoes.
Green Bay Packers
Having lost the NFC North throne last year to Minnesota, the Packers spent the offseason trying to get everyone back into the best possible shape, in order to reclaim their division crown.
Aaron Rodgers spent the offseason training harder than ever and cleaning up his diet (going heavily vegan, eating only a little meat but entirely nixing any dairy consumption). He reportedly lost about 13lbs in the offseason, and is at his lowest weight since his rookie year. Rodgers will also get wide receiver Jordy Nelson — his favorite target — back from injury (although he’s starting training camp on the physically unable to perform list as a precautionary measure), while the other young receivers on the roster (Davante Adams and Jeff Janis) are also healthy and have gained more NFL experience. Rodgers should also get more support from his running game, given that Eddie Lacy spending the offseason training with P90X creator Tony Horton, and lost close to 20lbs as well.
On defense, the Packers had a few changes up the middle of their defense, as they try to fix their perennially leaky run defense (ranked 21st last season). Letroy Guion takes over at nose tackle for the retired B.J. Raji, while Sam Barrington and Nate Palmer are penciled in at inside linebacker (allowing Clay Matthews to move back to outside linebacker). The biggest change in the secondary is moving defensive back Damarious Randall into the starting lineup. The coaching staff is absolutely enamored with Randall’s abilities, and has spent the 2016 OTA’s and training camp to date moving him around between nickel cornerback and free safety, trying to turn Randall into their own version of Tyrann Mathieu.
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