By JOHN FELTMAN
The long wait is over. It’s opening day of the NFL season, as tonight the Denver Broncos start their title defense of their Super Bowl victory over the Carolina Panthers, whom they defeated 24-10 back in February.
Every NFL team enters training camp with a lot of confidence and stubbornness, thinking that their team is this year’s “team to beat.” But, injuries occur throughout the season and certain players don’t perform at as high of a level as they’re expected, so these preseason dreams are sometimes shattered once the regular season begins.
There are a lot of teams I expect to finally make a breakout this season, along with teams I expect to remain at an elite level. And of course, there are the teams that would be lucky to win more than six games.
The Elite: Arizona Cardinals, Carolina Panthers, New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers
These teams I expect to be the best of their respective conferences. The Cardinals return this season after a tough loss at Carolina in the NFC championship, and will look to avenge their loss this season. They have a healthy, fully loaded offense, including breakout rookie running back David Johnson, who enters this season as the team’s every down back.
I don’t expect the Panthers to match their remarkable 2015 season, but I still expect them to be one of the NFC’s best teams. With former FSU Seminole Kelvin Benjamin returning from injury, the team gets drastically better in the wide receiver department. The Panthers lost Josh Norman (signed with Washington), Jared Allen, Charles Tillman and a few other pieces on defense, but with pro-bowler Luke Keuchly patrolling the Panthers’ linebacker core, it’s tough to say the defense won’t be just as dominant as last season.
New England and Pittsburgh will battle it out for the top seed of the AFC. Tom Brady is suspended the first four games of the year for the Patriots, but backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo will serve the team just fine while Brady is absent. The Pats’ defense slightly downgraded with the departure of Chandler Jones, but with the addition of Martellus Bennett this improves their aerial attack. Edelman, Gronkowski and James White provide a lot of weapons for whoever takes snaps under center, so the Patriots will be just fine until Brady returns.
Pittsburgh has arguably one of the best offenses in football, and will have to rely on Deangelo Williams while Le’veon Bell misses the team’s first three games due to suspension. We all saw how that worked out last year. Antonio Brown is arguably the league’s best receiver, and he lead the NFL in targets last season as well. Don’t be surprised to see Pittsburgh meet up with New England in January for the AFC championship.
On The Rise: Oakland Raiders, Jacksonville Jaguars, Dallas Cowboys and Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Oakland Raiders and Jacksonville Jaguars are in a pretty similar situation. Their respective divisions, AFC West and AFC South, are up for grabs this year. Both of these teams are comprised of a ton of young talent, and could finally be on the rise after some brutal seasons in the past decade. Quarterbacks Blake Bortles (Jaguars) and Derek Carr (Raiders) look to use last season as a building block in which both of these guys threw for over 30 touchdown passes a piece. Having Pro-bowler receivers Amari Cooper (Raiders) and Allen Robinson (Jaguars) to throw to doesn’t hurt either. Their defenses are also filled with young, explosive, and talented players included Khalil Mack for the Raiders and Jalen Ramsey for the Jags. Both of these teams I expect to see in the playoffs come January.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have something to be excited about this season, and it all starts with their talented defense. Lead by Gerald McCoy, Levonte David, Brent Grimes and company, this defense is going to give a lot of NFL offensive coordinators a headache throughout the course of the season. With that said, it’s all going to be up to second year quarterback Jameis Winston on how well the Bucs do this season. Winston had a nice rookie season, throwing for over 4,000 passing yards and totaling 28 touchdowns through the air or on the ground. A lot of questions were answered, as he will look to only improve as his career continues. Mike Evans led the NFL in drops last season, but still accumulated 1,200 receiving yards. If Winston improves and stays healthy, I expect a monster season from Evans. Don’t be surprised to see the Bucs make the playoffs and break the 10-win barrier.
Now, my Dallas Cowboys had an awful 2015 season finishing last in the NFC East. The injury bug was spread all over the Cowboys’ team. Quarterback Tony Romo only started 3 games for the team all season, as he fractured his clavicle on two separate occasions. They will also start the 2016 season without Romo under center, as he is scheduled to miss at least 8-10 weeks with a fractured bone in his back. He might actually be made out of glass at this point in his career. Rookie quarterback Dak Prescott will look to carry his very impressive preseason performance into the regular season. Dez Bryant also missed seven games due to injury. Orlando Scandrick missed the entire 2015 season after tearing his ACL in training camp; Sean Lee missed some time due to concussions and knee injuries. The Cowboys also improved their ground game by using a fourth overall pick in the 2016 NFL draft on running back Ezekiel Elliot, from Ohio State University. He looks to make an immediate impact behind that dominant offensive line. If this team remains healthy, they might have one of the most dynamic offenses in the NFL. If Prescott can shine until Romo returns, Dallas should win the NFC East crown. But, they’ll probably just break my heart again as usual.
The Bottom Feeders: Chicago Bears, Atlanta Falcons, Baltimore Ravens and Philadelphia Eagles
Yeah, this might be the saddest part of the column. The truth hurts sometimes, but like I always say it’s better than beating around the bush. All of these teams have questionable players on offense and defense. I’m not sure if they can consistently be a force to be reckoned with. Unfortunately, every NFL team goes through transition periods in which they try to click on both sides of the ball. Chicago and Atlanta might as well use construction cones as their defensive line. The Ravens barely have a receiving core, and the Eagles don’t even know if Carson Wentz will be ready to start on opening day. The good news is, at least these teams will be battling for the No. 1 draft pick in the 2017 NFL draft.
John Feltman can be reached at email@example.com