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Free agency and the NFL draft are in the books and full training camps are still almost two months away, but the NFL is far from quiet. Chris Burke and Doug Farrar debate the latest NFL headlines, including the seemingly inevitable expansion of the playoffs and the rookie they can't wait to watch.
True or false: Playoff expansion will be good for the NFL
Chris Burke: True. Might there be an occasional season in which the seventh playoff team from one of the conferences is rather undeserving? Probably. In most cases, though, there will be more than enough talent on the additional postseason entrant to make it competitive -- Arizona and Pittsburgh, the two teams just outside the bracket this past season, being perfect examples.
The NFL will sell this plan to the owners because it offers two extra first-round playoff games per season, meaning two extra teams get to haul in that revenue. And the league will sell it to the fans much the way baseball has sold tacking on wild-card teams: it will keep more franchises in the hunt deeper into the season, thereby making the games more meaningful across the board.
Both ideas are accurate. There are dollars-and-cents reasons to push forward with playoff expansion, but giving more teams and more fan bases a shot at the Super Bowl is the real selling point.
Doug Farrar: False, because the NFL won't do it the right way.
First of all, the league appears to be speed-balling the expanded playoff idea without seriously considering the compensation issues involved. This is fairly common when it comes to proposals put forth by Roger Goodell, who I consider to be a "ready, fire, aim" commissioner, but the probability that the NFLPA will sign off on expanded playoffs without a solid compensation structure is unlikely at best.
Second, unless the additional wild-card teams added in each conference are somehow rewarded for having better records than the division winners they'd ostensibly visit, expansion simply adds a higher percentage of a major problem in the current playoff system -- that better teams must travel in the postseason when they've occasionally had better seasons than their opponents. Ask the 2010 Saints, who had to take their 11-5 record to the home of the 7-9 Seahawks in the wild-card round, about that.
If the league really wants to make the playoffs better and more equitable -- as opposed to one more cavalier money-grab -- it would take a good, hard look at the compensation and player health issues before even thinking about adding more teams and more games.
Which rookie are you more excited to watch: Jadeveon Clowney or Johnny Manziel?
Burke: Manziel. Seeing if Clowney can silence his critics will be a storyline to track, but Manziel has the potential to change an entire franchise's fortunes if he can live up to the billing. Manziel was appointment viewing at Texas A&M and he will be again -- at least so long as he's having some level of success -- with the Browns.
I'm also voting for Manziel because of the matchups he will face should he claim the QB job. Just within the AFC North alone, he will have to deal with Dick Lebeau's pressure 3-4 in Pittsburgh, the Ravens' talented and quick group, and the Bengals' very consistent attack. He'll have to answer the bell every single week.
Farrar: Clowney, without a doubt.
I loved watching both players in college, but Clowney's situation is set up so much better for early success. Yes, he'll be moving from defensive end to outside linebacker, but there are precedents for players of his basic skill set and body type to make that transition fairly seamlessly. In addition, Clowney will have J.J. Watt on his line, and perhaps right next to him in nickel and dime fronts, and few players see more double teams than Watt.
It's difficult to know what to make of the quarterback situation in Cleveland. New head coach Mike Pettine almost seems defiant at times that he will not let any external pressures influence his decision between Manziel and Brian Hoyer as the starting quarterback. Of course, that makes perfect sense, but I wonder if the Browns aren't setting themselves up for failure in the ways they handle this talented rookie who still needs finishing work, and -- with primary receiver Josh Gordon in the league's line of fire after yet another failed drug test -- not too many enticing targets. First-year quarterbacks need optimal environments; the game is hard enough without the feeling that your own coaching staff is trying to prove a point.
The Las Vegas Hilton has released its over/unders, with Jacksonville opening at the bottom for the second straight year (4.5 wins). Do you think the Jaguars will be the worst team in the league?
Burke: No. I'm not sure they can climb any higher than third place in the AFC South this season, but this is a team trending in the right direction. Gus Bradley's defensive personnel now fits much more squarely into the type of attack he likes to run, which should free him up to turn his guys loose more often in 2014. The offense should be better, as well, even with Chad Henne back as the starter, Justin Blackmon possibly out for the year and Maurice Jones-Drew running elsewhere. By 2015, I expect Jacksonville to be contending for a playoff berth; over this coming season, six or seven wins is not out of the question.
Farrar: No. While I don't think the Jags are ready for the playoffs quite yet (even if they're expanded), I do not think they'll be the worst team in the league. When I recently spoke with senior vice president, football technology & analytics Tony Khan about the ways in which Jacksonville has combined scouting and sabermetrics, I was very impressed. Of course, this has been a point of focus for Khan since his father, Shad, bought the team in 2011. But with a general manager in Dave Caldwell and a head coach in Gus Bradley who are all on the same page, I think the Jags have a legitimate shot at a trip out of the basement, at the very least. They're putting something together good for the long haul.
Who will be the worst team in the NFL?
Burke: Ugh, I have no clue. Picking through this question for our post-draft power rankings left me with a headache -- very few teams misfired in the draft, meaning that the NFL should be thrilled with the parity it has this season. For now, I'll say Houston for the same reason that it was the worst team last year: It has no quarterback. The position probably held the Texans back from a few wins in 2013, so expecting marked improvement with Ryan Fitzpatrick, Tom Savage or Case Keenum under center this time around is a gamble at best.
Farrar: The Oakland Raiders.
The great John Wooden used to say that one should never mistake activity for achievement, but that is just what Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie seems to have done in the offseason. Despite the highest salary cap reserves in the NFL by far, the Raiders lost their two best players (left tackle Jared Veldheer and defensive lineman Lamarr Houston) to free agency, and replaced them with veterans on the wrong side of the development curve. The quarterback situation is still unresolved, as it's been since the days of Rich Gannon, and the addition of free agent Matt Schaub and second-round pick Derek Carr probably won't change that in the short term, at least. And ... the Raiders have an absolutely brutal schedule. Not only do they have to face three AFC West opponents who each appear perfectly capable of winning at least 10 games in 2014, but also they have to deal with the NFC West (by far the NFL's best division) and two trips to the East Coast (Jets in Week 1, Patriots in Week 3). Unless McKenzie has something up his sleeve that we're missing, it all adds up to a pretty brutal season for Oakland.