A season ago, current Detroit Lions head coach Jim Caldwell was the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach for the Baltimore Ravens. Caldwell was only in Baltimore for one season before getting promoted to head coach this offseason, by relocating to Detroit. If you think Matthew Stafford is going to rebound this season with a middle-of-the-pack strength of schedule, you should think again. Throwing for chunks of yards has never been a problem for Stafford, and it’s nice to have the best target in the game in Calvin Johnson. They call him “Megatron” for a reason. In a year where Stafford threw the most picks since his rookie campaign, he also checked down the most he ever has. Running Backs Reggie Bush and Joique Bell tallied over 1,000 yards through the air, aside from carrying their way to 1,600 yards.
Joe Flacco may have a Super Bowl ring, but he is far from the proclaimed elite status he spoke of last summer. Although Flacco has yet to throw for 4,000 yards in his six seasons, there is a reason why the Ravens won games with him at the helm. Last offseason the Ravens brought in Caldwell to help Flacco take the next step as a quarterback, something the Lions have in mind by pairing him with Stafford this season. The thing is, Flacco toss the most interceptions he’s ever thrown in a season, with the fewest amount of touchdowns since his rookie year.
Insert Gary Kubiak as the new offensive coordinator. He may have lost his way with the Houston Texans in a dismal season, but the guy is more assertive and got a lot out of Matt Schaub, more on him later. By no means do I endorse Flacco up to this point, in fact I think he’s overrated by the mainstream. But, I do see him throwing less than the 22 picks he gave away a year ago, especially with the additions of receiver Steve Smith and tight end Owen Daniels. Before 2013, Flacco only threw a dozen INTs at most in a season. Also before 2013, was the first time since his first year that he didn’t complete 20 scores.
Kubiak squeezed three seasons of at least 4,000 yards out of Schaub. Now with the Oakland Raiders, Schaub can get back to his strength of play-action. With Maurice Jones-Drew joining him from the AFC South, the pair of former Pro Bowlers believe they can take the silver and black back to the postseason.
Don’t overlook the addition of assistant head coach and offensive line coach, Tony Sparano. Known for orchestrating the ground-game tandem of Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown with the Miami Dolphins, what he did last year for the New York Jets was under-the-radar yet impressive. Maybe not so much for the quarterback, but in spite of rookie Geno Smith. In virtually a one-dimensional offense with an 8-8 record, the Jets missed the postseason by one game because of the running game. Chris Ivory and Bilal Powell rushed for a combined 1,530 yards and caught 282 receiving yards (Powell had 272 of those). Even if Chris Johnson has a lot left in the tank, defenses are likely to take a bite out of the Big Apple.
Adding backfield veterans with playoff experience, Schaub and Jones-Drew, along with a successful O-line/running game coach, that should put Darren McFadden in a position to play more games. The receiving core is fairly unknown, aside from James Jones who joined the team this offseason. This is Oakland GM Reggie McKenzie’s guy from the Green Bay days, now Jones is expected to be the leader of a young group. Unfortunately, the Raiders have the toughest schedule in all of football based off of last season’s records.
Lions: The only NFC team talked about here. The potential continues to be off the charts with Stafford, Johnson, Bush, and Bell. They now have a trio of tight ends that they hope to maximize in their roles, along with new #2 receiver Golden Tate. Stafford is really running low on excuses, this is a big year for him and the Lions. The defense didn’t make too many improvements, as they are depending on their high draft picks along the line to anchor the unit. Defense hasn’t been respectable in the NFC North recently, and they need Stafford to mature if they plan to compete in the superior NFC. I still like Green Bay and Chicago better than them. They’ll be in that wildcard picture, but finishing under .500 again should result in more changes.
Ravens: Transitioning from Caldwell to Kubiak at offensive coordinator should pay immediate dividends. The defense wasn’t too shabby a year ago, but ranking 12th could not overcome having the 4th worst offense on the other side. I do expect a top-10 finish for the D, with winning the big game in 2012 they had to let some key players go for financial purposes. RB Bernard Pierce is having an excellent camp with Ray Rice returning week 3. Flacco should get back to his solid (far from elite) numbers and the Smith wide outs should open things up on the ground. The division is probably Cincinnati’s to lose, but a wildcard berth is very possible in a weaker AFC.
Jets: At first glance I started to like what the Jets were putting together. They picked up receiver Eric Decker, who should garner a ton of targets this season, and Johnson looked like a perfect fit for a Rex Ryan team. Granted the division is mediocre until proven otherwise, if the defense is as good as they think they are, they should be in the wildcard hunt. I just don’t buy that the defense is that strong behind DL Muhammed Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson, I think they miss out on the bracket. To me, it does’nt make a difference if it’s Smith or Michael Vick under center.
Raiders: The defense also looks to be improved with names like Justin Tuck, LeMarr Woodley, and Carlos Rogers. The common theme with the trio has been injuries, and Rogers is rumored to look out of shape. Hopefully health can be on their side this season because they’re going to need it with that schedule. I liked the move they made including draft pick Khalil Mack, and the receiver talent could surprise people too. This is going to be a tough team, I don’t foresee the blowouts they’ve received in recent years. The big picture however, they have to scrap and claw their way just to be in the wildcard picture, as all of their division rivals are coming off playoff campaigns.