Questions abound with the 2014 NFL season right around the corner. Can the St. Louis Rams' ferocious defense offset a punchless offense? Are the Panthers due for a hangover after a surprise 12-4 season? Who will be the first coach given his walking papers?
SI.com NFL experts Don Banks, Greg Bishop, Chris Burke, Ben Eagle, Doug Farrar, Austin Murphy and Joan Niesen examine those questions and more.
Best Team That Won't Make the PlayoffsDilip Vishwanat/Getty Images
DON BANKS: Cincinnati Bengals. The Bengals have won nine, 10, and 11 games and reached the postseason the past three years, but their upward mobility ends here. Rather than playing the NFC North and AFC East as it did in 2013 -- divisions that had just one winning team apiece -- Cincinnati faces a tougher schedule this year, including the NFC South and improved AFC South. In a big season for both Marvin Lewis and Andy Dalton, the Bengals slip back to 8-8 or 9-7, and fall just short.
GREG BISHOP: Carolina Panthers. Carolina won 11 of its final 12 games last season but five of those victories came by four points or fewer. This year, it’s a numbers game -- New Orleans and Atlanta are also in the NFC South, while the NFC West (Seattle, San Francisco, Arizona, St. Louis) is in the same conference. That and a lack of targets for quarterback Cam Newton combine to doom the Panthers to their couches.
CHRIS BURKE: San Diego Chargers. Assuming Philip Rivers' Comeback Player of the Year showing was not a mirage, the Chargers are going to score -- Keenan Allen has more help in Malcom Floyd, and Donald Brown provides a contingency if Ryan Mathews gets hurt. But the defense is still a concern. Remember, San Diego needed a 4-0 close to squeak into the postseason last year.
BEN EAGLE: San Francisco 49ers. The defensive injuries and suspensions won’t sink San Francisco. Patrick Willis can still be a force in the middle, and a reloaded offense will make life easier overall for the 49ers defense. But a brutal first-half schedule will put them in a big hole … and they play the Seahawks twice in the second half. In any other division this is likely a playoff team; not in the NFC West.
DOUG FARRAR: St. Louis Rams. The Rams appear to be stacked everywhere except the most important position -- quarterback. Sam Bradford’s season-ending ACL injury exacerbates this problem, but the Rams offense was strange even when Bradford was healthy in 2013. Still, this is a team that will beat up every team it faces -- not well enough to escape the brutal NFC West, but well enough to make people wonder what they could do with a new quarterback (and a new offensive coordinator) in 2015.
AUSTIN MURPHY: Chicago Bears. The Bears will have one of the NFL’s most scintillating offenses, but issues at linebacker and safety mean Green Bay wins the division, with wild cards going to NFC West.
JOAN NIESEN: St. Louis Rams. I think their defense is going to be unbelievable, but their offense won’t do enough to push them into the postseason in such a tough division. I think they will play spoiler for the Seahawks and 49ers, though, in terms of their eventual playoff seeding.
Team With the Worst RecordEzra Shaw/Getty Images
BANKS: Oakland Raiders. Dallas and maybe Detroit will be in the running for this dubious distinction, but the Raiders, who haven’t seen the north side of .500 since 2002, own the patent on underachievement. Technically speaking they might have clinched this category the day they traded for Matt Schaub. On the bright side, Oakland, there’s another deep draft coming in 2015.
BISHOP: Jacksonville Jaguars. Quarterback: Chad Henne or the rookie Blake Bortles. Running back: Toby Gerhart. We could go on. We don’t need to.
BURKE: Cleveland Browns. As with several teams that I believe will fall well outside the playoff race (Jacksonville, Oakland, Buffalo), the Browns have their compass pointed in the right direction. But in 2014, they're breaking in a new head coach and a new offense, with an uncertain situation at QB and no depth at WR. Even if the defense excels, wins will be tough to find.
EAGLE: Dallas Cowboys. In Dallas, a league-worst defense got worse, putting the pressure squarely on a 34-year-old quarterback coming off back surgery. There’s talent aplenty on this offense, but this team is one big hit away from starting Brandon Weeden. The only thing that could keep this team out of the NFL cellar? A division that could be equally crummy.
FARRAR: Oakland Raiders. At this point, the Raiders appear to be relying on a bunch of older players on defense, no real threats on offense, and they lost their two best players (offensive tackle Jared Veldheer and defensive lineman Lamarr Houston) in free agency. If Matt Schaub’s elbow tendinitis isn’t solved soon, they’ll be starting rookie quarterback Derek Carr behind a fairly dismal offensive line, and they play in an AFC West with three teams capable of seasons of 10 wins or more. It won’t be pretty for Reggie McKenzie and Dennis Allen.
MURPHY: Oakland Raiders. Matt Schaub’s underwhelming preseason and elbow woes will probably result in rookie Derek Carr being thrown to the wolves early, which could lead to Oakland’s 3rd straight 12-loss season.
NIESEN: Oakland Raiders. Despite drafting Khalil Mack, who I think is going to be really good, I don’t see Oakland being any better than it was last year. Plus it seems like Dennis Allen could get fired midseason (see below), which could create even more instability.
Star Who Has Subpar SeasonKevin C. Cox/Getty Images
BANKS: Eric Decker, WR, Jets. As if you couldn’t see this one coming. Predictable, sure, but going from Peyton Manning to Geno Smith at quarterback is going to severely hurt a guy’s statistics, and Decker’s 87-catch, 1,288-yard, 11-touchdown season of a year ago will be a distant memory come December. But his bank account doesn’t mind.
BISHOP: Marshawn Lynch, RB, Seahawks. By the numbers:
901 -- Lynch’s carry count the past three seasons
28 -- his age
2 -- capable backups and rotation mates in Robert Turbin and Christine Michael
1 -- week of training camp missed due to a contract holdout
BURKE: Cam Newton, QB, Panthers. The negatives are piling up in Carolina and the season has not even begun: huge questions marks on the O-line, uninspiring receiving corps and now a fractured rib for Newton, who already needed offseason ankle surgery. Replicating 2013 will be next to impossible for Newton.
EAGLE: Larry Fitzgerald, WR, Cardinals. Fitzgerald remains the face of the Cardinals offense, but at 31, his best years appear to be behind him. And with third-year wideout Michael Floyd seemingly on the verge of a breakout season, Fitzgerald may not even finish the year as the best wide receiver in Arizona. Countless teams would still kill to have Fitzgerald in the fold, but at this point in his career, he’s more of a top-notch WR2 than legit No. 1 weapon.
FARRAR: Eric Decker, WR, Jets. This is a pretty obvious one, but let's spell it out: Going from Peyton Manning to whatever the Jets will be doing with Geno Smith and Michael Vick this year is a tumble down an elevator shaft from an opportunity perspective. Decker, who caught 172 passes for 2,352 yards and 24 touchdowns in the last two seasons alone, will find it hard to come anywhere near those totals over the life of his five-year, $36.25 million deal with the Jets. It's great for him that he got paid, but now, things get tough.
MURPHY: Greg Hardy, DE, Panthers. Hardy had 15 sacks in 2013 and 11 the year before. Nagging preseason injuries, however, coupled with a November jury trial -- Hardy is appealing a domestic violence conviction -- suggest he’ll be slowed and distracted.
NIESEN: Jamaal Charles, RB, Chiefs. I don’t think the Chiefs are going to be nearly as good this year, and Charles is going to take a beating -- not that he didn’t last year, but it adds up.
Non-Star Who Has Breakout Season
BANKS: Jordan Reed, TE, Redskins. I’m expecting a career year/contract drive from Saints running back Mark Ingram, but the guy did win a Heisman not too long ago. Reed’s a 2013 third-round pick who has a chance to double the 45 catches for 499 yards and three touchdowns that he turned in as a rookie. RGIII will target him early and often in games.
BISHOP: Montee Ball, Broncos. Knowshon Moreno is gone to Miami. Peyton Manning is still in Denver. Both of those things work in Ball’s favor. The Broncos offense figures to be just as high-powered as a year ago, and Ball, who scored 83 touchdowns at Wisconsin, will benefit in the starting role, as long as he earns it. Like Moreno did, when he gained more than 1,500 total yards last season.
BURKE: Robert Woods, WR, Bills. Whether or not EJ Manuel can lead an offense competently remains up for debate. Woods should benefit regardless from the additions of Sammy Watkins and Mike Williams. With those two, mainly Watkins, drawing attention, Woods will have space in three-receiver sets.
EAGLE: Ben Tate, RB, Browns. After years of running behind Arian Foster in Houston, Tate is now the main man in Cleveland. Injuries have plagued Tate throughout his career (he’s never played in all 16 games), but if he can stay healthy, he’ll be the focal point of an offense that needs to run if it’s going to be successful.
FARRAR: Tim Wright, TE, Patriots. Wright was a little newsblip in the story that Logan Mankins had been traded to Tampa Bay, but the former Bucs’ tight end caught 54 passes for 571 yards and five touchdowns as a rookie in an offense that could charitably be described as a dumpster fire. You put him with Tom Brady and feature him in an offense that is set up like few others for tight ends to succeed? You've got a guy who should be climbing the boards in a lot of fantasy drafts, that's for sure.
MURPHY: Vontaze Burfict, LB, Bengals. With an NFL-leading 171 tackles last season, Vontaze Burfict has, arguably, already broken out. Look for this to be the year that the acclaim catches up to the stats of the guy who’s been Cincy’s best defender for the past two seasons.
NIESEN: Emmanuel Sanders, WR, Broncos. He’ll have Peyton Manning as his quarterback. That’s all the justification I need.
First Coach To Get Fired
BANKS: Dennis Allen, Raiders. You can’t discount Miami’s Joe Philbin if the Fish get off to a slow start, but Raiders owner Mark Davis has already signaled he’s out of patience on several fronts. The Raiders’ first month: at the Jets, home against Houston, at New England, and to London for a “home’’ game against the Dolphins. Stay tuned to see if the losing coach of that game will be out of work by their Week 5 bye.
BISHOP: Jason Garrett, Cowboys. We’re not exactly out on a limb here. Dallas finished 8-8 in each of the last two seasons, and both times the Cowboys lost in Week 17 games with playoff implications. Now, the offensive coordinator, Bill Callahan, will be calling the plays. Already, that shows a lack of confidence from owner Jerry Jones.
BURKE: Jason Garrett, Cowboys. Is this ever going to happen? Garrett must have used up at least eight of his nine lives by now. He has three straight 8-8 seasons, all falling short of the playoffs. A poor start this year -- very possible given Dallas' porous defense -- might finally be the nail in the coffin.
EAGLE: Jason Garrett, Cowboys. I noted above how bad I think the Cowboys are going to be. Garrett is in the final year of his contract, and while he won’t be solely responsible for the disaster in Dallas, he’ll be the one to take the fall.
FARRAR: Dennis Allen, Raiders. It won't be all Allen's fault -- the Raiders' front office has done an unimpressive job in rebuilding since the end of the Al Davis era -- but Allen has matching 4-12 seasons in his first two years as a head coach, and things could be even worse this year. It's a near-impossible success story, and it would be interesting to see how many replacement candidates decline the Raiders’ offer.
MURPHY: Rex Ryan, Jets. Between the Jets’ unsteady quarterbacking situation, the volatility/unpredictability of Rex Ryan and the toxicity of the Gotham media, Ryan could well be the first guy out on his ear.
NIESEN: Dennis Allen, Raiders. The Raiders are going to be bad again, and I think he’ll be the scapegoat for their struggles.
Game I'm Looking Forward To Most
BANKS: Seattle at Philadelphia, Week 14. The Eagles’ state-of-the-art offense against the Seahawks’ suffocating defense has all kinds of delicious angles. And then there’s the matchup of 2012 third-round quarterbacks who have done alright for themselves: Russell Wilson and Nick Foles. As a potential bonus, maybe it’ll snow like crazy again in Philly in Week 14, like last year’s memorable tableau for Lions-Eagles.
BISHOP: Green Bay at Seattle, Week 1. Why? Because it features two teams tabbed as Super Bowl contenders, and it’s in Seattle, where it surely will be loud. Or, more simply, because it will mark the start of another football season.
BURKE: Green Bay at New Orleans, Week 8. The Packers visit to Seattle in the season-opener will draw much-deserved hype. This one could be just as entertaining ... and potentially just as important. If the Packers finish 0-2 versus Seattle and New Orleans, their chances at securing home-field advantage in the playoffs might vanish. Seattle and New Orleans possess arguably the toughest venues to visit in the entire league.
EAGLE: Green Bay at Seattle, Week 1. First game of the season and a possible preview of the NFC Championship Game? What better way to get the action started?
FARRAR: Green Bay at Seattle, Week 1. It's the opening of the 2014 regular season, the Fail Mary game reunion, and a possible NFC championship game preview. The Packers have done a lot to upgrade their defense, and Aaron Rodgers is always dangerous. Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson is coming off an insanely good preseason, and the Legion of Boom is mostly intact.
MURPHY: Seattle at San Francisco, Week 13. I’m grateful, in advance, for what could be the best Thanksgiving matchup ever, Seahawks at Niners on 11/27. As usual, the league’s best rivalry will be pregnant with playoff implications. Honorable mention: Carroll versus Harbaugh: The Sequel. They clash again 2 1/2 weeks later.
NIESEN: Green Bay at New Orleans, Week 8. I think both these teams are going to be a lot better than they were last year, plus Drew Brees vs. Aaron Rodgers sounds like a lot of fun. Plus it could very well be an NFC Championship preview.
Rookie WR That Has Best SeasonDilip Vishwanat/Getty Images
BANKS: Brandin Cooks, Saints. Didn’t even have to flip a coin to choose between the playmaking Cooks and Buffalo’s freakishly gifted Sammy Watkins. It’s an easy call. Cooks has Drew Brees at quarterback. Watkins has EJ Manuel. Questions?
BISHOP: Sammy Watkins, Buffalo. Sure, bruised ribs have held him out some during training camp. But when available, Watkins seems to make one-handed grabs every other week. He’s tall and fast and athletic, prototypical, in other words. Plus, the Bills have running back C.J. Spiller to open up the field for him.
BURKE: Marqise Lee, Jaguars. Initially leaned Watkins here, then swung back to Lee mainly because he does not have to be the go-to option in Jacksonville's passing attack, as Watkins does in Buffalo. His target numbers figure to soar, though, with a QB situation -- be it Chad Henne or Blake Bortles -- that offers more promise than Buffalo’s does at the current moment.
EAGLE: Kelvin Benjamin, Panthers. It’s hard to argue against Brandin Cooks here, but Benjamin seems to have quickly forged a bond with Cam Newton, and there’s really no one else to throw to. Cooks may finish with more overall yards, but Benjamin’s size and nose for the end zone should give him the edge in touchdowns.
FARRAR: Brandin Cooks, Saints. Cooks will have all the opportunities needed to excel in New Orleans' high-volume passing offense, and Drew Brees has already targeted him as Darren Sproles' replacement. Whether he's running a sweep, blowing through defenses on receiver screens, or catching deep passes from the slot or outside, Cooks is a perfect fit for what the Saints do.
MURPHY: Brandin Cooks, Saints. Though he was the fourth WR off the board, Brandin Cooks electrified in preseason, earning the nickname “Lightning” and working his way into the good graces of Drew Brees, which means he’ll be putting up some seriously gras (fat) stats.
NIESEN: Brandin Cooks, Saints. I have him winning Offensive Rookie of the Year, because A.) I think he’s super talented; and B.) he’ll be playing with Drew Brees on a team that doesn’t have a go-to receiver. (That is, if you consider Jimmy Graham to be a tight end, which the league has mandated we all do.)