Author Archive

Who will raise the Lombardi Trophy in 2015?

Who will raise the Lombardi Trophy in 2015?

 

By KELTON BROOKS

(@BrooksWeekly)

This is the final piece of the preseason predictions series. AFC divisional winners, as well as the NFC winners were first in the books, followed by MVP, Defensive Player of the Year and Offensive Rookie of the Year and more last week. Before the opening kickoff on Thursday between the defending Super Bowl Champions Seattle Seahawks and the gun-slinging Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers, let’s take a look at four Super Bowl scenarios that I see as plausible.


 

Scenario No. 1: Denver Broncos vs. New Orleans Saints

The Broncos and the Saints had the top two regular season records in my divisional predictions series at 14-2 and 13-3, respectively. A battle of arguably the top-2 most prolific quarterbacks in the NFL today in Peyton Manning and Drew Brees is a titanic rematch after dueling in Super Bowl XLIV.

New Orleans revamped defense headlined by a  healthy Kenny Vaccaro and free agent Jairus Byrd from the Buffalo Bills, is reminiscent to Seattle’s superstar safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor, who gave Manning fits in last year’s Super Bowl. The Saints have to endure a gauntlet in the NFC trying to withstand Seattle, San Francisco and Green Bay. Unlike the Broncos’ defense from a season ago, New Orleans has the physicality on the defensive side of the ball to matchup with either teams.

Aside from the New England, there is no legitimate threat to Denver in the AFC. After an embarrassing Super Bowl performance, the Broncos added shut down cornerback Aqib Talib, safety T.J. Ward and outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware. The trio has to set the tone for the defense from the opening snap.


 

Scenario No. 2: New England Patriots vs. Green Bay Packers

Aaron Rodgers played in only nine regular season games last season due to a broken collar bone. He managed to return the last game of the season to defeat the Chicago Bears, but lost to the 49ers in the postseason. Now back healthy and primed to play a full 16 game season, Rodgers will again remind the NFL why he’s a former Super Bowl Champion and league MVP.

Rodgers has been susceptible to sacks the past three seasons after he was taken down 45 times in 2011, 39 in 2012 and 17 in nine games in 2013. The refurbished offensive line is improved and a power running attack by last year’s OROY Eddie Lacy, will protect and open up more opportunities for Rodgers.

The signing of veteran defensive end Julius Peppers to wreak havoc alongside Clay Matthews, and drafting former Alabama ballhawk Hasean Clinton-Dix will at safety will also sew up a resurgent defense.

Year end and year out, the Patriots are seemingly a lock for the playoffs, and the AFC Championship for that matter. The Patriots are one of the most balanced teams in the NFL on both sides of the ball. They only got better this year adding All-Pro corner Darrelle Revis and getting back a healthy Vince Wilfork. The Patriots Achilles Heel is their lack of a down-field threat. If Aaron Dobson can become a lethal weapon on the outside, the Patriots offense won’t have any limitations.


 

Scenario No. 3: Indianapolis Colts vs. Seattle Seahawks

If Andrew Luck plays to the level everyone has catapulted him to, then the rising superstar has the ability to lead his team to a Super Bowl in his third year in the NFL.

The Colts appeared to be ready for primetime last season defeating Seattle in week 5, 34-28. But losing Reggie Wayne two weeks later was a big blow to the offense. Not to mention the poor productivity from Trent Richardson who averaged 3 yards per carry. The interior of the offensive line is also a cause for concern with center Khaled Holmes, guard Hugh Thornton and guard Jack Mewhort, playing only a few snaps together because of injuries.

If the group can gel throughout the season and keep Luck standing upright, then the Colts could become a heavyweight in the AFC.

Punishing defenders early and often is the recipe in Seattle. The Seahawks have the best secondary in the NFL and a top-3 overall defense. But Seattle lost key pieces in the offseason that have gone overlooked in  receiver Golden Tate, defensive linemen Red Bryant and Chris Clemons, and defensive backs Brandon Browner, and Walter Thurmond.

Russell Wilson is heading into his third year as a starter and has only gotten better every season. Wilson has thrown the second most touchdowns of any quarterback in NFL history in his first two seasons with 52 (Dan Marion is No. 1 with 68).  If Percy Harvin can remain healthy (which is a big if), then we can see the offense reach the level of the defense.


 

San Francisco 49ers vs. Cincinnati Bengals

A battle between two quarterbacks who were selected in the 2011 draft a pick after of each other (Andy Dalton 35th  overall and Colin Kaepernick 36th overall) and both fresh off signing contracts worth over $100 million, is a top Super Bowl story line. The two quarterbacks are forever linked and are in similar positions. Both are surrounded by premier talent on both sides of the ball and have relished in the regular season, but that’s where it stops.

Kapernick has led his team to the Super Bowl, losing in a light-outs thriller against the Baltimore Ravens. He was only a play away from reaching the Super Bowl for a second time if it wasn’t for a timely swat by cornerback Richard Sherman. San Francisco has been knocking at the door for several seasons. This year, they may kick it down.

Dalton, however, is 0-3 in the playoffs and has completed 56.9 percent of his passes with one touchdown and six interceptions. A miraculous Super Bowl run would more than lift his inexplicable playoff blunders.

NEW ORLEANS, LA - DECEMBER 26:  Quarterback Drew Brees #9 of the New Orleans Saints reacts after throwing a nine-yard touchdown pass to running back Darren Sproles #43 and breaks the single-season passing record in the fourth quarter against the Atlanta Falcons at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on December 26, 2011 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

NEW ORLEANS, LA – DECEMBER 26: Quarterback Drew Brees #9 of the New Orleans Saints reacts after throwing a nine-yard touchdown pass to running back Darren Sproles #43 and breaks the single-season passing record in the fourth quarter against the Atlanta Falcons at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on December 26, 2011 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

By KELTON BROOKS

(@BrooksWeekly)

This is part three of the series of preseason predictions. The past two weeks featured division winners in the AFC and NFC. Individual awards are next in line to highlight the league’s best including the MVP award, Offensive Player of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year and more.


 

 MVP: Drew Brees, Quarterback, Saints

2013 MVP: Peyton Manning, Quarterback, Broncos

There are only a handful of players who are a lock to be in the running for MVP year in and year out. Brees is one of them. The 14-year veteran won Offensive Player of the Year in 2011 and has thrown for 5,100+ yards the past three seasons with 40+ touchdowns in two of the three. If it wasn’t for Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, Brees would’ve won MVP in 2011 completing 71.2 percent of his passes throwing for 5,476 yards and 46 touchdown passes.

Armed with a happy Jimmy Graham fresh off signing the largest contract in NFL history by a tight end at $40 million over four years, the steady Marques Colston and first round pick wide receiver Brandin Cooks, Brees and the Saints’ 2014 offense might rival the Broncos record-breaking offense from a season ago.


 

Offensive Player of the Year: Matthew Stafford, Quarterback, Lions

2013 Offensive Player of the Year: Peyton Manning

It helps if you’re playing with a wide receiver whose nickname is Megatron. The odds might not be in Matthew Stafford’s favor as the player who has won MVP has gone on to win the OPOY award the past two seasons (Manning in 2013 and Adrian Peterson in 2012).

Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford (9) Kim Klement-US PRESSWIRE

Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford (9) Kim Klement-US PRESSWIRE

However, that still won’t stop Stafford from throwing astronomical numbers. If Stafford can maintain consistency and not have a poor second half of the season throwing 10 touchdowns to 12 interceptions compared to 19 to 7 in the first half in 2013, then we’re talking about a player who’s in contention for MVP as well. Stafford’s most prolific year in the NFL came in 2011 when he threw for 5,083 yards and 41 touchdowns.

Stafford has the best receiver in all of football in Calvin Johnson. The Lions finally found a viable number two option in Golden Tate, who came over from the Seattle Seahawks. Reggie Bush is still one of the most electrifying players in the NFL out the backfield and Detroit drafted a tight end 10th overall in Eric Ebron who has drawn comparison to Jimmy Graham and Vernon Davis.

Stafford has the tools to light up the NFL in 2014.


 

 

Defensive Player of the Year: Vontaze Burfict, Linebacker, Bengals

2013 Defensive Player of the Year: Luke Kuechly, Linebacker, Panthers

Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict (55) (AP Photo/Evan Pinkus)

Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict (55) (AP Photo/Evan Pinkus)

Burfict was regarded as one of the top linebackers coming into the draft in 2012, but after a dreadful performance at the NFL Scouting Combine, Burfict went undrafted in 2012 out of Arizona State. The linebacker still oozed premier talent, and it showed as he surprisingly won the starting job in camp that season. Since then, he has led the Bengals in tackles the past two seasons and led the NFL in tackles last season with 171.

Cincinnati recognized the young stud, awarding him with a four-year, $20.05 million contract for the Pro Bowl outside linebacker. Burfict is a budding star coming into his own in the NFL displaying sure-tackling in the open field. It also helps when you have one of the best defensive tackles in the league in Geno Atkins keeping 300 pound guards off you.

Honorable mention: Robert Quinn, Defensive End, Rams

Quinn was virtually unblockable last season wrangling down opposing quarterbacks 19 times, causing a league high of seven forced fumbles and 12 tackles for loss. If he can duplicate those numbers, he’ll receive more notoriety after leaping onto the scene in 2013.


 

 Comeback Player of the Year: Jeremy Maclin, Wide Receiver, Eagles

2013 Comeback Player of the Year: Phillip Rivers, Quarterback, Chargers

Maclin has never gotten the credit he deserves playing second fiddle to the departed DeSean Jackson in Philadelphia, but

Eagles receiver Jeremy Maclin (18)

Eagles receiver Jeremy Maclin (18)

before his injury that caused him to miss the 2013 season (torn ACL), Maclin was the most reliable receiver for the Eagles. Jackson was best suited for the highlight reel plays.

But Maclin too posses the coveted speed and explosiveness required in Chip Kelly’s high octane offense. It’s no coincidence Riley Cooper and Jackson both had career years in Kelly’s system. Maclin’s best year as a pro came in 2010, recording 70 receptions, 964 yards and 10 touchdowns.

Kelly knows how to put his best athletes in space and tailor to their strengths. He’ll do the same for Maclin. Expect a 1,000+ yard season if he can remain healthy.

Honorable Mention: Eli Manning, Quarterback, Giants

The two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback has to bounce back from horrific and league-worst 27 interceptions in 2013. A lack of running game and a poor preseason showing doesn’t make this possible prediction plausible, but Manning has weapons in Victor Cruz, Ruben Randle and rookie Odell Beckham Jr. on the outside to heighten last year’s performance.


 Offensive Rookie of the Year: Brandin Cooks, Wide Receiver, Saints.

2013 Offensive Rookie of the Year: Eddie Lacy, Running Back, Packers

Saints receiver Brandin Cooks (10)

Saints receiver Brandin Cooks (10)

Chargers wide receiver Keenan Allen could’ve very well won this award last season hauling in 71 catches, 1,046 yards and eight touchdowns as a rookie. With the lightening Cooks on the road to success with Brees as his quarterback, expect him to have a similar year as Allen.

The 5-foot-9, 189 pound Cooks who ran a 4.33 at the scouting combine, will line up all across the formation in the Saints offense. He’ll play in the slot, on the outside and slip out from the backfield to catch passes. He caught 128 passes for 1,730 yards and 16 touchdowns in his final season at Orgeon State. He won’t duplicate those numbers as a rookie, but the dynamo will put up gaudy numbers in the Big Easy.


 

Defensive Rookie of the Year: Chris Kirksey, Linebacker, Browns

2013 Defensive Rookie of the Year: Sheldon Richardson, Defensive Tackle, Jets

A Browns rookie not name Johnny Manziel will become a household name by the end of the season. Kirksey has been a one-

Browns linebacker Chris Kirksey (58)

Browns linebacker Chris Kirksey (58)

man recking crew in the preseason totaling 18 tackles, one tackle for loss and an interception in three preseason games. The third-round rookie out of Iowa is battling for the inside linebacker position with veteran Craig Robertson, but he is making a case for himself after making play after play in the preseason.

According to his scouting report, Kirksey is agile and athletic. Flows to the ball when he has a clear path. And has experience in space and over the slot.

Honorable Mention: Jadeveon Clowney, Defensive End, Texans

The No. 1 overall pick will benefit from playing alongside former Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt. Clowney has tallied only one sack in the preseason, but ask Atlanta Falcons’ running back Antone Smith about the force behind the freakish end’s tackle. If Clowney has a 10+ sack season, the trophy has his name already inscribed on it.


 

Coach of the Year: Lovie Smith, Buccaneers

2013 Coach of the Year: Ron Rivera, Panthers

Buccaneers coach Lovie Smith

Buccaneers coach Lovie Smith

Smith has defensive pieces to work with in cornerback Alterraun Verner, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, linebacker Lavonte David and safeties Mark Barron and Dashon Goldson. But an offense that ranked dead last in passing (32nd) and 22nd in rushing in 2013, quarterback Josh McCown, rookie receiver Mike Evans and a healthy Doug Martin at running back can’t come to the offense’s rescue fast enough. The 6-foot-5 rookie tight end Austin Sefarian-Jenkins will also strengthen a now promising passing attack.

On paper, the Bucs are one of the most talented teams in the NFL. The Panthers are dealing with injury issues with quarterback Cam Newton and lack offensive firepower, and the Falcons have also regressed and lost key players to injury. If the longtime coach can corral and provide a stroke confidence to a this talented team, then the Bucs could become the surprise team in the NFC.

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo looks for an opening to pass during the second half of an NFL football game against the Washington Redskins in Landover, Md., Sunday, Dec. 22, 2013. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Will Tony Romo finally lead America’s team back to the playoffs? (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

 

 

By KELTON BROOKS

(@BrooksWeekly)

This is part two of the series of preseason predictions. Last week was the AFC divisional predictions, this week is the NFC, who has won the Super Bowl four of the last five seasons.

 


NFC North

1. Detroit Lions (11-5)

Last season was a tale of two different teams for the Detroit Lions. The Lions started off hot with a 6-3 record, only to lose six of the last seven games. In those first nine games, quarterback Matthew Stafford threw 19 touchdowns to seven interceptions. His first brilliant nine game stretch was quickly forgotten after throwing 10 touchdowns to 12 interceptions the remainder of the season.

Inconsistency as a team and inconsistency from a player whose job is to lead the team.

Now comes new Lions’ coach Jim Caldwell whose job is to do just that,  add consistency. Caldwell knows how to work with quarterbacks. When he was the quarterback coach in Baltimore, the Ravens demoted offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and named Caldwell to the same position. The Ravens never looked back and Caldwell helped lead the Ravens offense and quarterback Joe Flacco to a historic postseason run ending in a 34–31 victory over the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII.

Caldwell works well with talent under center. He led Peyton Manning and the Colts to a 14-2 record and one of the top offensive in the NFL in 2009. On a team with Stafford, the best wide receiver in the NFL in Calvin Johnson, recently acquired receiver Golden Tate and the rookie, athletic tight end Eric Ebron, the Lions may have the best passing attack in the league. Not to mention Reggie Bush slipping out the backfield. If the Lions’ secondary improves from last year, then this team will be dangerous throughout the season.

2. Green Bay Packers (10-6)

The Packers finally developed a running game in snagging running back Eddie Lacy who turned out to become the Offensive Rookie of the Year. Aaron Rodgers has been sacked 71 time the past two seasons and he only appeared in nine games last season due to a collarbone injury. The presence of Lacy was a sigh of relief to take the load off Rodgers, but the Packers still have a leaky offensive line.

Green Bay is seen as a finesse team who lack physicality. Nothing has been done to wipe away this notion as San Francisco ended their playoff run in back-to-back seasons rushing for a combine 490 yards.

The Packers are in a talented yet vastly underrated division. They have elite offensive weapons and are poised to make the playoffs lead by Rodgers, but if their defense doesn’t catch up, they will endure another one-and-done in the postseason.

3. Chicago Bears (8-8)

This team is an enigma. Putting your trust in Jay Cutler is like putting your trust in a blind man telling you to stick your hand in a bucket of hissing water hoses. On arm talent alone, Cutler is arguably the best quarterback in the NFL. But it’s something about him that’s always missing.

Last year, I pondered over whether the Bears could represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. In all fairness, Cutler only played 11 games. Josh McCown, who is now the Buccaneers starting quarterback, played admirably is Cutler’s absence, but even he couldn’t succeed in an offense with two 6-foot-4 towers on the outside in receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffrey.

The offensive line is much improved lead by second-year guard Kyle Long and left tackle Jermon Bushrod. Chicago has one of the most versatile running backs in the NFL in Matt Forte. They have a talented front seven on defense led by Jared Allen, formerly with the division rival Vikings, and breakout linebacker to watch Jon Bostic. Tim Jennings and Charles Tillman will continue smother receivers on the outside.

The downfall of this team is at safety. Rookie Brock Vereen is currently listed at the starting free safety and the acquisition of Ryan Mundy who came over from the Giants, at strong safety. An unproven player and a player who has plateaued.

You never know what you’re going to get out of the Bears.

4. Minnesota Vikings (4-12)

It’s hard watching future Hall of Fame running back Adrian Peterson’s talent washed away on a mediocre team. The Vikings have bright spots in some areas in highlight reel receiver Cordarralle Patterson and Pro Bowl tight end Kyle Rudolph. But who will throw them the ball?

Matt Cassell has proved he’s only a quick-fix at the position and Christian Ponder is the forgotten man. Minnesota traded back up in the first round to select Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. The former Heisman hopeful and consensus preseason lock for the No. 1 overall pick watched his stock nose-dive after a poor pro day workout.

On the defensive side of the ball, Minnesota drafted the pass rushing linebacker Anthony Barr out of UCLA ninth overall, but even he alone can’t fix the Vikings 31st ranked defense from a year ago. The Vikings defense gave up 30 points per game last season, giving up 397.6 yards a game. In a division with the Bears, Packers and Lions high-powered offenses, the Vikings don’t have the manpower to stop them. Or keep pace in scoring for that matter.


 

NFC South

1. New Orleans Saints (13-3)

The only team stopping the Saints from winning the South is the Saints. The pass-happy Saints will continue to follow the lead of quarterback Drew Brees, tight end Jimmy Graham, wide receiver Marques Colton and lighting rookie in a bottle Brandin Cooks. It’s pass first, second and third in New Orleans—ranked second overall in 2013 in passing but 25th in rushing at 92.1 YPG—but when you have a record breaking quarterback in Brees and an offense tailored around his skill-set, the Saints will march down the field on any team.

Rob Ryan catapulted a poor defense to fourth overall in 2013, giving up 305.7 yards per game and a stifling 194.1 through the air (2nd). The defense has only gotten better adding All-Pro safety Jarius Byrd to pair him next to last year’s standout rookie Kenny Vaccaro. New Orleans also added veteran, future Hall of Fame cornerback Champ Bailey into the mix. Bailey is a shell of himself at this point in his career, but he’s still an upgrade nonetheless.

The road to the NFC South crown is through New Orleans.

2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-7)

I’m not sold on the newly acquired Josh McCown, but I am sold on the talent around him. Drafting Johnny Manziel’s favorite target at Texas A&M in Mike Evans to pair with Vincent Jackson on the outside—the Bucs’ have re-created a Brandon Marshall-Alshon Jeffrey duo that McCown grew so accustomed to, lobbing the ball up in jump ball situations. The Bucs’ will welcome back a healthy Doug Martin at running back, who hasn’t been the same since his 1,000 yard rookie season.

On defense, Tampa Bay essentially rented shutdown cornerback Darrelle Revis for a season as he abandoned ship to take his talents to Foxboro. The Bucs’ replaced Revis with physical corner Alterraun Verner, adding another piece to a defense already loaded with defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, linebacker Lavonte David and safeties Mark Barron and Dashon Goldson.

If McCown takes form, the Bucs could become a surprise team in the NFC.

3. Carolina Panthers (7-9)

From first to third. Unless Carolina plans to win every game by a score of 14 to 10, the Panthers won’t duplicate last year’s success. Aside from Ben Roethlisberger, Cam Newton is one of the few big bodied quarterbacks who can sustain the constant physical abuse in the NFL, but the Panthers’ star  is hampered by an ankle injury that may linger over into the regular season.

The defense will remain intact behind a dominant front seven, featuring reigning Defensive Player of the Year Luke Kuechly. D’Angelo Williams will lead the rushing attack that ranked 11th in 2013, but beyond Williams, the offense might come to a standstill.

Greg Olsen is the only respectable and known commodity of the Panthers’ receiving group, and he’s a tight end. Jason Avant and Jerricho Cotchery? Mediocre, mid-level players at best. Tiquan Underwoon and Marvin McNutt? Players who have yet to make a name for themselves in the NFL, aside from Underwoods’ hair catching headlines. 

The only answer Carolina has at wide receiver is first round draft pick Kelvin Benjamin. The rookie has hauled in tough catches in the preseason, but unless the 6-foot-5 receiver has a Randy Moss-like rookie season, the Panthers won’t have any help on the outside.

4. Atlanta Falcons (6-10)

The Falcons have fallen from grace, and fast. Before an abysmal 2013 season dropping to 4-12, Atlanta previously went 36-12 between 2010-12. Those days are long gone, even after a one year fall. Several perennial playoff teams have gotten better, with up-and-coming teams like St. Louis, Arizona and Washington jockeying for divisional supremacy.

From a team perspective, Atlanta has no running game (32nd ranked in ’13) as All-Pro running back Steven Jackson, who has been a bust acquisition, is still battling soft tissue injuries. To make matters worse, the Falcons have lost starting left tackle Sam Baker for the season with a torn patellar tendon, and as a result, rookie right tackle Jake Matthews will make the switch to left tackle. Atlanta couldn’t stop the run either, giving up 135.8 yards per game on the ground (31st).

Future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzales has retired and Julio Jones saw his first live game action since week 5 of the 2013 season as he recovered from foot surgery. Best case scenario for the Falcons is becoming the team “nobody wants to play” at the end of the season because of their attempts to keep other teams out the playoffs like themselves.


 

NFC East

1. Philadelphia Eagles (10-6)

Chip Kelly’s offense was a success last season. He’s either a quarterback guru or Nick Foles channeled his inner Randall Cunningham.  A 27:2 touchdown to interception ratio is a rarity from any quarterback, let alone a quarterback coming off his first full season as a starter. Foles will have to play to last year’s level to convince spectators around the league if he’s the answer in Philadelphia. LeSean McCoy, Jeremy Maclin, Riley Cooper, rookie receivers Jordan Matthews and Josh Huff, the speed and talent on offense is undeniable.

The Eagles are primed to repeat as division champs, especially in a weak NFC East. But with so much speed and finesse and lacking in physicality, there have been whispers of labeling the Eagles as a soft team. The only knock on the Eagles is their lackluster pass defense. Philadelphia ranked dead last in 2013 (32nd) opening airways for opposing quarterbacks, nearly allowing 300 yards a game through the air.

2. Washington Redskins (9-7)

A rebound season for Robert Griffin III is in order after coming back prematurely from a torn ACL. The hiring of former Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden was a brilliant move as he will look to better protect his star quarterback with quick three to five step drops and deviating away from the zone-read.

Washington is only a year removed from a 10-6 season after losing to the Seahawks in the divisional round in 2012. This team isn’t getting the notoriety it deserve from a talent perspective. Jordan Reed is a bright, young star at tight end, bringing over DeSean Jackson from the Eagles is an enormous addition and Alfred Morris has had back-to-back 1,200+ yard seasons. Pierre Garcon’s productivity will only grow with Jackson opposite of him.

If Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan continue to rack up sacks and the secondary continues to improve, then the Redskins could very well win this division. It all depends on the health and maturation of RGIII.

3. New York Giants (7-9)

In one week, the Giants look like a surefire Super Bowl contender. In the next week, they look like they’re prepping themselves for the No. 1 overall pick.

When the Giants won their two Super Bowls against the New England Patriots, they prided themselves on getting to the quarterback early and often. New York had 53 sacks in their 2007 championship year and 48 in 2011. They only had 33 in 2012 and 34 in 2013 (tied for 25th). Jason Pierre-Paul and former Broncos defensive end Robert Ayers will have to lift this group back to prominence. Second-year end Damontre Moore and veteran Mathias Kiwanuka will also have to provide an impact.

But it’s a quarterback driven league. It’s doesn’t matter if you’re a two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback, if you throw 27 interceptions in a season, you won’t win many games, if any. The Giants hired Ben McAdoo, who is well respected for his work with Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay the last two seasons as the team’s quarterbacks coach. Switching to a west coast offense to get the ball out of Eli Manning’s hands quickly is the plan to curb the interceptions, but his preseason performance hasn’t looked promising.

Manning has talent at wider receiver with Victor Cruz, Ruben Randle and first round pick Odell Beckham Jr., but from early indications, this team will miss out on the playoffs.

4. Dallas Cowboys (5-11)

Statistically, the Dallas Cowboys had one of the worst defenses in NFL history in 2013. The Cowboys gave up 425 points last season (30th). They allowed 71 passing plays of 20+ yards (32nd). Dallas gave up 2,368 yards after the catch (30th). And teams scored in the redzone 64.5 percent of the time.

They couldn’t stop a nose bleed last season.

With injuries to linebacker Sean Lee, cornerback Orlando Scandrick missing the first four games due to violating the league’s substance abuse policy and first round bust Morris Claiborne still dwelling on the roster, the Cowboys may be even worse this season.

All hopes lies on Tony Romo. Those who have watched Romo play over the past eight seasons knows placing all your hope in the fluky quarterback is comparable to landing on tails on a two-headed coin with heads on both sides. The connection of Romo to Dez Bryant will occur early and often, but it won’t mean a thing if they can’t stop the other team from scoring.


 

NFC West

1. San Francisco 49ers (12-4)

San Francisco is one of the deepest teams in the NFL. To revamp the 30th ranked passing offense, they’ve surrounded Colin Kaepernick, fresh off a signing a six-year, $126 million contract extension in June, with wide receiver Brandon Lloyd, Stevie Johnson and rookie Bruce Ellington. The 49ers also get a healthy Michael Crabtree for a full season and Anquan Boldin returns after a 1,179 yard season.

Part of the 49ers passing woes is attributed to their run-first offense. But a backfield consisting of Frank Gore and second round rookie Carlos Hyde, is a luxury San Francisco can afford. Even if it means less production through the air.

Their biggest concern is at corner with Tramaine Brock and Chris Culliver, who have benefited from a dominant front seven. Also, starting right guard Alex Boone has been involved in a lengthy contract holdout. Teams have been acquiring about the Pro Bowl guard and there have been no indications that he will commit to a long term deal unless the price is right. This is a major issue for a team surrounded by top defensive lines throughout the division.

2. St. Louis Rams (10-6)

Speaking of defensive lines, the best D-Line in the NFL belongs to the St. Louis Rams. A line featuring pass rushing specialist Robert Quinn, who terrorized quarterbacks with 19 sacks last season, the locomotive Chris Long, an underrated Michael Brockers and first round rookie Aaron Donald has caused for some to resurrect the nickname of the “Fearsome Foursome” to describe this line.

The Rams have finally grabbed receiver help in the signing of Kenny Britt. Third year wideout Brian Quick has been stepping up throughout practice and the preseason and the electrifying Tavon Austin returns for his second season. Stedman Bailey has reportedly been the most productive receiver in camp, but he will miss the first four games for violating the leagues substance abuse policy. His return will only bolster the group.

It all comes down to quarterback Sam Bradford who is returning from ACL surgery. The fifth year quarterback has played a full 16 game season only twice in his career. He got off to a hot start last year throwing 14 touchdowns to 4 interceptions before going down to injury in week 7, albeit, nine of those touchdowns coming against teams that ended up with losing records.

If Bradford has a successful and healthy season, the Rams will claim the Wild Card in the NFC.

3. Seattle Seahawks (10-6)

The hunter will now become the hunted. This brass team will welcome any dog fight from opponents, but Seattle was ravaged by free agency this offseason. Seattle lost receiver Golden Tate, defensive linemen Red Bryant and Chris Clemons, and defensive backs Brandon Browner, and Walter Thurmond, They also have an unhappy Marshawn Lynch at running back after holding out briefly for a contract.

The Seahawks Achilles Heel is their offensive line who experienced a number of injuries last season. This group, who recently added president of the NFLPA, Eric Winston at right tackle, gave up seven sacks to the Rams in week 8 in 2013 and sacked 44 times overall. Aside from Percy Harvin, the Seahawks don’t have a reliable target at receiver. A 10-6 record would mean a waltz into the playoffs in any other division in the NFC, but I expect Seattle’s 4-2 division record to drop in 2013, causing them to miss the playoffs.

4. Arizona Cardinals (7-9)

A talented team trapped in the toughest division in the NFL. They have a top-5 secondary with shut down corner Patrick Peterson on the outside, adding Antonio Cromartie opposite of him. The Cardinals drafted safety Deone Bucannon to pair with Tyrann Mathieu, who is is expected to be activated from the PUP list after tearing ACL and LCL last December.

Arizona recently lost Darnell Dockett for the season with a torn ACL and MCL. Linebacker Daryl Washington was suspended for the entire 2014 season for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy. He was suspended four games last season for violating the same policy. Injuries and suspensions are beginning to decimate the roster.

On offense, a Carson Palmer to Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd trio will put points on the board. Second-year running back Andre Ellington will enter the season as the full-time starter after a promising rookie campaign. Palmer is creeping up in age at 34-year-old and hasn’t proved to be a big time difference maker in his career. If the Cardinals get off to a bad start, don’t be surprised if rookie quarterback Logan Thomas comes unto the field.

Photograph by Melina Vastola/USA TODAY Sports

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) calls an audible at the line of scrimmage. Photograph by Melina Vastola/USA TODAY Sports

 

By KELTON BROOKS

(@BrooksWeekly)

NFL football is well underway as week 1 of preseason action is now in the books. Cleveland Browns rookie quarterback Johnny Manziel starred in his NFL debut electrifying the crowd with a 16 yard scamper against the Detroit Lions. Not to mention a pair of speedy Oregon rookies in De’Anthony Thomas of the Kansas City Chiefs, who returned an 80-yard punt for a score, and Josh Huff of the Philadelphia Eagles, who made a long distance call of 102 yards on a kickoff return.

This is the essence of preseason football: focusing on individual performance, not the final score.

But that will all change Sept. 4 when the Green Bay Packers take on the defending Super Bowl Champion Seattle Seahawks. Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos represented the AFC in the Super Bowl last season, only to get trampled by Seattle 43-8. The AFC as a whole has to redeem themselves after the Broncos’ whipping. Several perennial, contending AFC teams have bolstered their rosters, while some have been decimated by injuries and free agency.

While it may not always be the case, normally the first step to reaching the Super Bowl is winning the division. Let’s take a look at which AFC team will claim the top spot in their respective division in the 2014 NFL season.


AFC North

1. Cincinnati Bengals (11-5) 

The Bengals recently awarded franchise quarterback Andy Dalton with a contract worth $96 million over six years. Dalton has led his Bengals to the playoffs every season since he was drafted in 2011. But that’s where the success stops, in the playoffs. The four year quarterback has been Jekyll and Hyde in the regular season and postseason. Dalton is 0-3 in the playoffs and has completed 56.9 percent of his passes with one touchdown and six interceptions.

During the regular season, he ranks only behind Dan Marino and Peyton Manning in NFL history with 80 touchdown passes during his first three seasons. Cincinnati is a Super Bowl caliber team and talented on both sides of the ball with superstar wide receiver A.J. Green and All-Pro defensive tackle Geno Atkins. But this team will only go as far as Dalton leads them.

2. Baltimore Ravens (9-7)

Baltimore failed to reach the playoffs after winning the Super Bowl in 2012, the same year the Ravens gift wrapped an unprecedented contract worth $126.6 million to quarterback Joe Flacco. The Ravens have gotten better on offense signing still explosive receiver Steve Smith, even at age 35. And also welcoming back of healthy Dennis Pitta at tight end.

Last season was the first time future first ballot Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis wasn’t draped in black and purple after he announced his retirement during the Ravens’ Super Bowl run. He was the heart and soul of the team. The loss of Lewis was evident in the locker room and on the field. Flacco has to shed his calm demeanor and become more of a vocal leader to lead his team to a successful 2014-15 season.

The Ravens captured headlines when star running back Ray Rice was convicted of battery chargers after he struck his then fiancé, now wife, and was issued a two-game suspension by the NFL. A heinous act, yes, but expect Baltimore to rally around Rice throughout the season.

3. Pittsburgh Steelers (8-8)

Take a look at the Steelers linebacker unit. There familiar stalwarts are no longer on board. No more Larry Foote, James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley or James Farrior, all the grizzled veterans are long gone. The group is now littered with callow youth behind second year linebacker Jarvis Jones and highly touted rookie Ryan Shazier. Lawrence Timmons and Jason Worilds and considered the veterans of the group at age 28 and 26, respectively.

Another position filled with inexperience and question marks is the Steelers receiver corps. Second year wideout Marcus Wheaton is penciled in as the starter after only hauling in six catches last season. Antonio Brown is a mainstay reeling in 110 catches, 1,499 yards and eight touchdowns in 2013, but 6-feet-5 inch rookie Martavis Bryant has to make an immediate impact and create a connection with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.  The NFL has written off this storied franchise in recent years, but Pittsburgh could become a surprise in the AFC.

4. Cleveland Browns (6-10)

FistEnergy Stadium will soon become the The House that Johnny Built, but until then, Johnny Manziel and the Browns will remain at the bottom of the division. A two win improvement would become somewhat of a success for a team who went 4-12 the previous season. Cleveland has been adamant about entrenching incumbent Brian Hoyer as the starter, but throughout training camp, neither quarterback has separated themselves from each other.

Brown wide receiver Josh Gordon, who led the NFL in receiving yards last season (1,646), is still waiting on a decision from the NFL on his appeal of a one-year suspension enforced by the NFL for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. It was evident in the Browns preseason opener against the Lions that they are in need of pass catches after numerous drops throughout the game.

Cleveland has a bright future with Manziel and a physical defense featuring Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden, but there time is two or three years from now.


 

AFC South

1. Indianapolis Colts (12-4)

Luck has been on the Colts’ side for the past two seasons reaching the playoffs. The former No. 1 overall pick, Andrew Luck, is a consensus top-10 quarterback entering his third year in the NFL and ranked as a top-5 quarterback by a few big wigs around the league. The Colts are set for 10-15 years as long as Luck remains healthy and surrounded by talent. The return of Reggie Wayne, who fell victim to a torn ACL mid-season, is an added bonus to receiver T.Y. Hilton who is fresh off his first 1,000 yard season.

The Colts offense only has only gotten better by signing former Giants wide receiver Hakeem Nicks and drafting the physical Donte Moncrief out of the University of Mississippi. Trent Richardson also made headlines after pledging to rush for over 1,000 yards in the upcoming season. Production from Richardson is warranted after an abysmal season averaging 2.9 yards a carry after he was traded from the Browns.

Again, Indianapolis will reign over the AFC South for years to come as long as Luck is under center.

2. Tennessee Titans (8-8)

This is possibly a make-or-break season for fourth year quarterback Jake Locker who has missed 26 games due to injury in three seasons in Tennessee. But with an offensive line featuring three first rounders and Pro Bowl guard Andy Levitre, the Titans have made strides to protect their young quarterback.

Tennessee lost big times players on both sides of the ball in running back Chris Johnson to the New York Jets and cornerback Alterraun Verner to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Although, Verner is a bigger loss compared to Johnson, leading the Titans to the 11th-best pass defense. Johnson’s production has declined drastically since his 2,000 yard season in 2009 and signing a monstrous four-year, $53.5 million contract extension in 2011 in Tennessee. Albeit, he has rushed for over 1,000 yards in every season since he entered the NFL.

Ken Whisenhunt is entering his first season as the Titans head coach. Known as an offensive guru who focuses on taking shots down the fill, maybe he has the ability to cure Locker who possesses a big arm. The Titans committed grand larceny in stealing former LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger in the sixth round in May’s draft. If Locker doesn’t remain healthy, Tennessee might insert their quarterback of the future.

3. Houston Texans (7-9)

Ryan Fitzpatrick is not the answer at quarterback. He is simply a bandaid for next year’s draft or maybe the Texans believe they found their quarterback of the future in Tom Savage, who was drafted in the fourth round out of the University of Pittsburgh. It seemed that the Texans turned the corner from a perennial doormat to a contender in recent years, but with questions at the quarterback position, their season is numbered.

It’s not bizarre to think Fitzpatrick is the sole reason why Andre Johnson considered retirement or a trade.

Houston nabbed the freakish defensive end Jadeveon Clowney with the No. 1 overall pick in the draft to pair along side former Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt. Unless the nightmarish duo can pull of 20 sacks apiece—which they won’t—the Texans don’t stand a chance in the AFC South, let alone the conference. Fitzpatrick is serviceable, but not a quarterback who will take you to the playoffs.

Losing running back Ben Tate in free agency may become a bigger blow than the Texans anticipate after the reoccurring injuries to Arian Foster. Houston will lean on him early and often, but he still won’t be enough.

4. Jacksonville Jaguars (5-11)

A new stadium. A new head coach. A new quarterback. The Jaguars have added pieces to rejuvenate a franchise that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2007. Jacksonville is still light years away from becoming a contender, but drafting the likes of quarterback Blake Bortles and going toy shopping in round two selecting a pair of wide receivers in Marquise Lee (USC) and Allen Robinson (Penn State), this team is starting to turn the corner from a personnel perspective.

The organization plans to start Chad Henne on the opening week of the season, but if Bortles continues to have outings similar to his preseason debut, the Jaguars may be forced to change their hands and start the rookie.


 

 

AFC East

1. New England Patriots (13-3)

Everyone team in this division is looking up at the Patriots. New England has won the AFC East 11 of the last 12 seasons.

The Patriots’ dominance in the division doesn’t look to come to a stop anytime soon. The additions of cornerbacks Darrelle Revis, Bradon Browner, and welcoming back Vince Wilfork from injury, the defense may have finally caught up with the offense. Staking a claim for Revis Island and signing Browner—who will miss the first four games for violating the league’s substance abuse policy—was a direct result of Peyton Manning torching the secondary for 400 yards in the AFC Championship.

After signing 6-feet-3, 210 pound Bradon Lafell, quarterback Tom Brady jokingly said:

“I have some of the little pygmies out there like Julian (5-10, 200) and Danny (5-11, 195), and it’s nice to have a little bigger guy out there from time to time who has a big catch radius,” Brady cracked. “Hopefully Danny (Amendola) and Julian (Edelman) don’t get mad at me for saying that. They won’t. They know I’m joking.”

All jokes aside, Lafell could never put it all together in Carolina, but maybe a change of scenery and catching passes from arguably the best quarterback in the NFL will elevate his play on the field.

2. New York Jets (9-7)

If the Jets establish any consistency at quarterback, scratch that 9-7 record, they will secure 10+ wins and make the playoffs (or if Michael Vick is named the starter). I’ve harped on this many times, but up until week 11, the Jets flip-flopped wins and losses. The Jets finished the 2013 season with an 8-8 record. Gang Green couldn’t escape the highs and lows of Geno Smith.

To have a sophomore slump, one would need to have a successful rookie season. Smith did not have that success, throwing 21 interceptions. However, he did pick up his play towards the last quarter of the season throwing four touchdowns to two interceptions with a 3-1 record.

The Jets signed Chris Johnson in free agency and wide receiver Eric Decker to aid Smith’s progress. Decker was one of Peyton Manning’s favorite target in Denver hauling in 172 receptions, 2,352 yards and 24 touchdowns in two season with Manning. He won’t see those numbers with Smith as his quarterback, but he’s an upgrade nonetheless.

Rex Ryan is on the hot seat in New York. It seems like it has been that way the past three seasons, but if the Jets go 8-8 again, New York will have a vacancy at head coach.

3. Miami Dolphins (7-9)

Miami didn’t do much this offseason to build on a surprising 8-8 season in 2013. The Dolphins brought in running back Knowshon Moreno, but he has been nicked-up with a lot of mileage on his body, and signing Cortland Finnegan wasn’t an upgrade in the secondary after he was regularly torched in St. Louis last season.

And the Dolphins’ organization should still examine themselves after giving Mike Wallace a contract worth $60 million over five years. Wallace is a one-trick pony who won’t come close to out performing his contract. The jury is still out on third year quarterback Ryan Tannehill who is in the shadow of fellow draft class quarterbacks Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson.

Tannehill tossed 24 touchdown passes last season, very respectable. But he needs to drop his 17 interceptions into the eight to 12 range.

4. Buffalo Bills (5-11)

It’s hard to gage the Bills 2013 performance because of quarterback E.J. Manuel missing six games due to injury. Manuel is somewhat still in his rookie stage of on-field play in the upcoming season with only 10 regular season games under his belt. The Bills are loaded with speed on offense with C.J. Spiller and drafting the dynamic wideout in Sammy Watkins, but Buffalo is far too young to make an impact in the AFC East.

Buffalo had an opportunistic defense in 2013 ranking second in the NFL with 23 interceptions. They have talent at every position, but won’t pose a legitimate threat anytime soon.


 

AFC West

1. Denver Broncos (14-2)

Peyton Manning could have a MVP season every year. After throwing for an NFL record of 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns, the Broncos have added even more weapons on offense for Manning by signing wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders and drafting the big body receiver in Cody Lattimore.

It’s frightening to think what the Broncos may accomplish on offense this season.

But the bigger story is on defense. John Elway, general manager and executive vice president of football operations for the Broncos, knows this Denver team has maybe a two year window to win a Super Bowl under Manning. They were downright embarrassed and bullied by the Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl. Denver needed to add toughness to match up against physical teams. They did so by adding hard-hitting, box safety T.J. Ward, a shut down corner in Aqib Talib, and sack master DeMarcus Ware.

Not to mention outside linebacker Von Miller who was cleared by doctors July 24 to participate in offseason activities.

If Denver doesn’t win the Super Bowl this season with Manning, they won’t win one at all

2. San Diego Chargers (10-6)

Every year we wait on the Chargers to play to their on-paper potential. And every year the Chargers let everyone down. But this year, the Chargers will become one of the surprises in the AFC.

San Diego flexed its ability to win in the AFC West going 4-2 last season and 6-6 against the AFC as a whole. Phillip Rivers enjoyed a prolific season throwing the second most touchdowns in his career with 32, to only 11 interceptions. Running back Ryan Matthews finally stayed healthy for a full season for the first time in his career rushing for a career high of 1,255 yards. And rookie wide receiver Keenan Allen burst unto the scene catching 71 balls for 1,046 yards and eight touchdowns. Those are unheard of numbers for a rookie receiver.

The Chargers’ Achilles Heel was their 29th ranked passing defense, giving up 258.7 yards per game. They went out to find the solution in signing Brandon Flowers from a division nemesis and drafted one of top corners in Jason Verrett out of TCU.

San Diego is a Super Bowl sleeper in the AFC.

3. Kansas City Chiefs (8-8)

The Chiefs overachieved last season. After starting the season 9-0, they went on to lose five of their last seven games.

Alex Smith continues to display his game-manager label in Kansas City, mirroring his San Francisco days. Smith does just enough to get you to a certain point, but not enough to get you over the hump. The Chiefs are reportedly not committed to signing Smith to a long term deal.

The Chiefs’ defense were once considered stingy in the first half of the season, but they faltered hard later in the season ranking 24th overall. They still have a number of big names on defense with safety Eric Berry, pass rushing specialist Tamba Hali and the mammoth defensive tackle in Dontari Poe, but the Chiefs won’t experience the unexpected success they achieved in 2013.

Kansas City also lost key players in offensive tackle Brandon Albert, cornerback Brandon Flowers and RB/WR Dexter McCluster. Unlike the Flowers and Albert, McCluster’s presence won’t be missed as much after drafting lightening in a bottle De’Anthony Thomas.

4. Oakland Raiders (6-10)

Matt Schaub’s time may have run its course in the NFL. Throwing a pick-6 in four straight games in 2013 for the Texans and a not-so-good- showing in his preseason debut with the Raiders is not a good sign for the 33-year-old quarterback.

Despite Schaub’s inabilities, Oakland went out and grabbed talent this offseason. The Raiders signed James Jones, who once led the NFL in receiving touchdowns with 14 in 2012, offensive tackle Donald Penn, and a resurgent Maurice Jones-Drew to pair with Darren McFadden. On defense, they added three veterans in linebacker LaMar Woodley, defensive end Justin Tuck, cornerback Carlos Rogers through free agency, and No. 5 overall pick Khalil Mack (OLB) who will receiver tutelage from Woodley.

The most intriguing player on the team is rookie quarterback Derek Carr, the younger brother of former No. 1 overall pick David Carr. If Schaub continues his lackluster 2013 performance, the organization will thrust in the young gun-slinger in Carr.

Jun 17, 2014; Florham Park, USA; New York Jets quarterbacks  Matt Simms (5), Geno Smith (7) ,  Michael Vick and Tajh Boyd (3) with quarterback coach David Lee during New York Jets minicamp at Atlantic Health Training Center. Mandatory Credit: Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Jun 17, 2014; Florham Park, USA; New York Jets quarterbacks Matt Simms (5), Geno Smith (7) , Michael Vick and Tajh Boyd (3) with quarterback coach David Lee during New York Jets minicamp at Atlantic Health Training Center. Mandatory Credit: Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

By KELTON BROOKS

(@BrooksWeekly)

Are you ready for some football?

As of Sunday, the NFL is six weeks away from opening kickoff. That’s 42 days and 1008 hours. But before Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers travel to the vaunted CenturyLink Field of the 12th Man to take on the defending champion Seattle Seahawks, positional players will need to win their training camp battle as they hold heavy implications on their team’s outcome at the end of the season.

Now that every team has reported to their respective training camp sites, here are the top-10 2014 NFL training camp battles in descending order.


10. Chicago Bears, Safety

The parties involved: Adrian Wilson, Ryan Mundy, Chris Conte, M.D. Jennings, Brock Vereen, Danny McCray

The Skinny: Overall, the Bears passing defense ranked 15th in the league in 2013, largely due to Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings deflecting passes and hauling in interceptions from the cornerback position. But the Bears were decimated on the back end of the defense and haven’t done much to stop the bleeding.

Incumbent Chris Conte, who is a three-year starter for the Bears, will start the season on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list, as he’s still recovering from off-season shoulder surgery. Chicago lost former starting safety Major Wright—who gave up five touchdowns; fifth most in the NFL for safeties—to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in free agency. Mundy ventured over from Meadowlands where he compiled 77 tackles and an interception for the New York Giants. McCray was mediocre at best in his stint with the Cowboys, and Vereen is a rangy and athletic 4th-round rookie from the University of Minnesota.

The most intriguing yet perplexed member of the group is the 34-year-old, five-time Pro Bowl addition, Adrian Wilson. The 14-year veteran missed the entire 2013 season with an injury. Wilson suffered a torn Achilles, but he posted on Twitter recently that he was dealing with Haglund’s deformity, which is a bony enlargement on the back of the hell that rubs against and irritates the Achilles.

 

In 181 career games, Wilson has racked up 978 tackles, 25.5 sacks, 27 interceptions, 106 pass breakups, and 13 forced fumbles in addition to recovering nine fumbles, according to ESPN Stats&Info.

Wilson turns 35 in October.

Week 1 starters: Mundy and Conte. Even with those predicted two, the verdict is still hazy. Wilson and Conte are interchangeable, and Vereen is the wild cald depending on how soon he adjusts to the NFL.


 9. Carolina Panthers, Wide Receivers

The parties involved: Kelvin Benjamin, Jerricho Cotchery, Tiquan Underwood, Jason Avant, Tavarres King, Marvin McNutt.

The Skinny: Even with the departed Steve Smith, the Panthers still had one of the league’s poorest passing offenses. The Panthers averaged 190.2 yards through the air in 2013—29th in the NFL. Topple that with quarterback Cam Newton still hampered by his off-season ankle surgery, this group may have dark days ahead of them.

It’s not about who will lineup as week 1 starters, but who will show up and produce. Who are these guys?

Steve Smith is now with the Baltimore Ravens. Cotchery has been a serviceable possession wideout in stints with the Jets—where he had his only 1,000 yard season in 2007— and Pittsburgh, but nothing spectacular. He did have 10 touchdowns in 2013, which is more than he had in the past four seasons combined (7). McNutt, King, Underwood—all college standouts, but haven’t elevated their play in the NFL. And Avant has never amassed 700 yards in his career.

All eyes fall on the 1st-round receiver Benjamin, who formerly caught passes from Heisman trophy winner Jameis Winston and the National Champions Florida State Seminoles. Benjamin and his 6-feet-5, 240 pounds of muscle, will have to transition into the rigors of the NFL immediately. Typically, rookie receivers don’t come into the league blazing, but Benjamin will have to break the trend if the Panthers will have any production from their receivers.

Week 1 starters: Benjamin, Cotchery and Avant in the slot. The Panthers are a run-first team. It’s their bread and butter, but the receivers Achilles Heel as well.


 

8. Oakland Raiders, quarterback

The parties involved: Matt Schaub, Derek Carr, Matt McGloin, Trent Edwards

The Skinny: Schaub punched his ticket out of Houston faster than the pick-sixes he threw in four straight games, ultimately losing his job. The Houston faithful displayed a classless act as they cheered Schaub after he fell pray to an ankle injury week 6 of the 2013 season against the St. Louis Rams that caused him to miss the rest of the season.

Perhaps a change of scenery was needed for a veteran quarterback who is good in the regular season, but falls flat in the playoffs. Raiders coach Dennis Allen reportedly said he doesn’t have any problem with Schaub’s confidence going forward. That’s a big check to cash knowing Schaub had his worst season as a pro throwing 14 interceptions in 10 games.

The Raiders invested in Carr in round two of the 2014 NFL Draft. Carr, who is the younger brother of former No. 1 overall pick David Carr, will get the nod if Schaub struggles early on in the season as coaches have spoken highly as about the former Fresno State Bulldog.

This team has talent, especially with the signing of James Jones and oft-injured running back Darren McFadden, but in this day and age in the NFL, you will go as far as the quarterback takes you.

Week 1 starter: Schuab. The veteran will start on opening day unless Carr shines throughout camp and the preseason.


 

7. New York Giants, defensive ends

The parties involved: Jason Pierre-Paul, Robert Ayers, Mathias Kiwanuka, Damontre Moore

The Skinny: When the Giants won their two Super Bowls against the New England Patriots, they prided themselves on getting to the quarterback early and often. New York had 53 sacks in their 2007 championship year and 48 in 2011. They only had 33 in 2012 and 34 in 2013 (tied for 25th). If the Giants have any resolutions to get back to their disruptive ways on defense, then the four mentioned above will have to produce.

Pierre is the most prolific and athletic of the group, sacking opposing quarterbacks 16.5 times in 2011. Although, he has only garnered 8.5 sacks since then and missed five games due to injury in 2013. Ayers is an underachieving former 1st-round pick from the Broncos, who has never had more than six sacks in a season. Kiwanuki briefly spent time at linebacker when he first got to the NFL, so his sack numbers are a bit skewed. However, the nine year pro reached the quarterback eight times in 2008.

Kiwanuki is the player that will have to increase his production on the Giants defensive line and become a mainstay alongside Pierre-Paul. Moore was once regarded as a possible first round selection, but his stock plummeted during the 2013 draft for a number of reasons. He essentially was redshirted in 2013 for the Giants, learning the playbook and figuring out what it takes to play amongst the best in the league.

The defense must capture its old form if they wish to compete in an improving NFC East.

Week 1 starters: Pierre Paul and Kiwanuki. The Giants will rotate all four ends, but those two will headline the bunch.


 

6. Cincinnati Bengals, quarterbacks

The parties involved: Leon Hall, Terrance Newman, Adam Jones, Dre Kirkpatrick, Darqueze Dennard

The Skinny: The Bengals have been trying to replace Jonathan Joseph for three seasons now. Joseph has continued to excel in Houston while Cincinnati has been a revolving door opposite of Leon Hall to find some sort of consistency. While Hall is the Bengals most talented cover corner, he is coming off a torn Achilles Tendon.  Newman has still shown flashes, but has been a shell of himself in Cincinnati with only four interceptions combined the past two seasons. He also turns 36-years-old come September.

Jones resurrected his career after he was derailed from numerous off-the-field issues, but never fully reached his lofty No. 6 overall selection in the 2005 draft with only eight career interceptions. Jones also turns 30 in September. The 2014 season for Cincinnati is the bridge to pass the torch to the recent high draft picks in Kirkpatrick and Dennard.

Kirkpatrick’s career got off to a rocky start in Cincinnati. He didn’t appear in his first game until November during his rookie season and only played in five games with little impact. The third-year cornerback out of Alabama had three interceptions in 2013, with two coming in the last game of the regular season. The Bengals are hoping his late performance will springboard his confidence into the 2014 season.

The defending AFC North Champions also has high hopes in Dennard, who they nabbed in the first round this past draft. Dennard is a physical, press corner at 5-feet-11 and 202 pounds with long arms to strip the ball away from receivers as they try to corral the catch.

Week 1 starter: Hall, Newman and Dennard in the nickel. Newman is still serviceable even at his old age, Hall is still a question mark, but if healthy, he’s one the Bengals best players on defense, and Dennard is an upgrade over Jones at this point in their careers.


 5. St. Louis Rams, wide receivers

The parties involved: Chris Givens, Tavon Austin, Austin Pettis, Kenny Britt, Stedman Bailey, Brian Quick

The Skinny: The consensus around the league is that the Rams are a team on the verge. Arguably the best defensive line in the NFL, a strong running attack and a great coaching staff. But their question mark is the quarterback and wide receiver positions. Since there is no competition at quarterback, lets focus on the receivers.

Word from from Rams camp is that Stedman Bailey has been the most impressive of the group, but he’s scheduled to miss the first four games of the season due to violating the league’s substance abuse policy. This group comes down to three players who need to make the biggest impact. Austin, Britt and Quick.

The Rams traded up to draft the speedster in the 2013 NFL draft, but Austin was primarily used as a gadget instead of a focal point, what you would expect from the No. 8 overall pick. Aside from his explosive performance against the Colts with three highlight reel plays, he wasn’t a consistent factor and missed the last three games of the season because of an ankle injury. Murmurs of “bust” is circulating around the former 33rd overall pick in the 2012 draft, Quick, who has only 29 catches in his first two seasons. Britt, the talented receiver who has undergone scrutiny because of injury and off-the-field issues, was formerly in Tennessee with coach Jeff Fisher.

If Britt has anything to offer from the promising early start of his career, he is easily the Rams best receiver. Although, Fisher and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer plans to ground-and-pound is ever so evident with the drafting of the mammoth Auburn tackle in Greg Robinson and teammate running back Tre Mason. Not to mention 2nd-year back Zac Stacy who was 27 yards shy of a 1,000 in 2013.

Week 1 starters: Givens, Britt and Austin in the slot. Givens was two yards shy of 700 in his rookie season and flashed big play ability, but he slumped in his sophomore season due to Bradford missing the season and a case of the “dropsies.” Pettis routinely manages to creep in as the starter, but if Britt performs well throughout camp, he will beat out Pettis.


4. New York Jets, quarterback

The parties involved: Geno Smith, Michael Vick, Tajh Boyd, Matt Sims

The Skinny: This battle comes down between two players, Michael Vick and Geno Smith. It’s that simple. Up until week 11, the Jets flip-flopped wins and losses. Credit that to the play of Smith. In wins, Smith completed 59 percent of his passes—nothing to applaud—with 10 touchdown and five interceptions. In losses, he completed 52 percent of his passes throwing two touchdown to 16 interceptions. That’s 21 interceptions on the seasons.

If the Jets had any sort of consistent play from the quarterback position, then they would have been a playoff team in 2013. The problem is the Jets head-scratching confidence in Smith. It’s understandable not to give up on a quarterback after one season, but Jets coach Rex Ryan is playing for his job and New York is trying to compete with New England and a young and hungry Bills’ team.

If they vow to demote Smith and pencil in Vick as the starter, then the organization cannot go back to Smith. Vick played admirably before getting knocked out to injury—what has plagued him throughout his career—in week six. He threw for 1,215 yards, five touchdowns and three interceptions up until that point.

Week 1 starter: Smith. If the Jets want to win, they will start Vick, but if they want to stand their ground in hopes Smith will become the quarterback they believe he can become, then we’ll see him under center against the Raiders on kickoff Sunday.


 

3. Dallas Cowboys, inside linebacker

The parties involved: Justin Durant, Rolando McClain, Anthony Hitchens, Orie Lemon

The Skinny: Truthfully, the Cowboys entire defense could feature on this list. But the linebacker corps lost its leader in Sean Lee. Regardless of how talented you are, your ability depends on your availability on the playing field of any sport. Lee has never played a 16 game season since entering the league in 2010 and is now slated to miss the entire 2014 season after tearing his ACL the first day of the Cowboys off-season practice.

He teased the NFL in his sophomore campaign totaling 105 tackles, seven pass deflections and four interceptions. Lee was on pace to shatter those number this past season with 99 tackles and four interceptions in 11 games, but missed the rest of the season due to injury.

Durant is the favorite to replace Lee, but wasn’t much of a factor with only 24 tackles in 2013. A 4th-round rookie, Hitchens, is still wet behind the ears as he is still getting acclimated to the NFL. McClain, once a highly-touted first rounder out of Alabama, has retired twice since entering the league and is only 25-year-old. It’s a toss up whether the Cowboys will receive any production from McClain.

Week 1 starter: Durant. When you’re a member of the Dallas Cowboys, everything is heighten. From the secondary to defensive end, the Cowboys have to find away to bounce back on defense. Losing Lee was a phenomenal blow for a team who also lost star defensive end DeMarcus Ware in the off-season.


 

2. Minnesota Vikings, quarterback

The parties involved: Matt Cassel, Christian Ponder, Teddy Bridgewater

The Skinny: The Vikings are one year removed from the playoffs, largely because of Adrian Peterson’s MVP season rushing for 2,097 yards in 2012. But if this talented Vikings roster had a competent quarterback, then they would become a perennial playoff team. Ponder has played himself out of the starting role and hasn’t backed the Vikings after they reached to draft him early in the 2011 NFL draft.

In his defense, Ponder hasn’t been downright awful throwing for 34 touchdowns to 30 interceptions in his three year career, but not worthy of his 12th overall  selection.

The Vikings have already pegged Cassel as their week 1 starter, but after trading back in the first round to draft former Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater 32nd overall, Minnesota may be forced to draw back their hands and take a closer look at their young quarterback. Cassel made a name for himself after filling in for Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady after a season-ending knee injury, but he didn’t fit the billing, failing in Kansas City after he was signed to a deal worth $63 million over six years.

Cassel played only four seasons for the Chiefs and was riddled with injuries during his final two seasons. Bridgewater was the consensus No. 1 overall pick after dismantling the Florida Gators in the 2013 Sugar Bowl. A pocket passer first, but mobile Bridgwater, watched his stock drop after a poor pro day performance.

Week 1 starter: Cassel, until later in the season. Cassel will begin the season as the week 1 starter, but his mediocrity will rear its ugly head. Expect Bridgewater to start soon if the Vikings get off to a bad start.


 1. Cleveland Browns, quarterback

The parties involved: Brian Hoyer, Johnny Manziel, Tyler Thigpen

The Skinny: Come on, it’s Johnny Football. The scrambling, lightening rod out of Texas A&M is the main attraction of NFL training camps whether he wins the starting gig or not. Manziel will bring life back to the Browns organization who haven’t won a championship since 1964 or reached the playoffs since 2002.

Browns owner Jimmy Haslam and coach Mike Pettine both have shared comments about Manziel needing make more noise on the field than off. But they knew what they were getting themselves into drafting the former Heisman winner. Neither Hoyer or Manziel have extended themselves from each other in camp, but the odds on favor still side with Hoyer, who played well last season before he suffered a torn ACL. Both the coach and GM have backed Hoyer.

Hoyer threw for 615 yards, five touchdowns and three inceptions before his season was ended early in the first quarter against the the Bills Oct. 3, 2013.

Week 1 starter: Hoyer. It’s only a matter of time before the fans start clamoring for Money Manziel to get on the field.

And then there were two. With LeBron James bolting back to Cleveland, how has he reshaped tdhe landscape in the east? (Chris Bosh left) Dwayne Wade right)  photo by: Mark Runyon| BasketballSchedule.net

With LeBron James bolting back to Cleveland, how has he reshaped the landscape in the east? (Chris Bosh left) Dwayne Wade right)
photo by: Mark Runyon| BasketballSchedule.net

By KELTON BROOKS

(@BrooksWeekly)

The major pieces on the board have made their move in free agency with Carmelo Anthony re-signing with the New York Knicks, both Chris Bosh and Dwayne Wade opting to keep their talents in South Beach, and LeBron James coming home to Cleveland.

Lesser pawns have also made splashes on the open market and another possible big jump is looming with Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kevin Love reportedly in a tug-of-war between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors—albeit, the Cavs are currently winning.

I’m sure I’ll do this again in October during the start of the NBA season, but the landscape has drastically changed in the Association will all the wheeling and dealing. Here is my way too early Eastern Conference seeding:

8. New York Knicks

You can book a ticket for the Knicks to make the playoffs in the 2014-15 NBA season. The sole reason: Phil Jackson. If player-to-coach Derek Fisher can teach the Zin Master’s triangle offense correctly, then it will create open shots on the wing and the midrange.

Mar. 27, 2013; New York, NY, USA; New York Knicks small forward Carmelo Anthony (7), shooting guard J.R. Smith (8) and small forward Iman Shumpert (21) smile on the court against the Memphis Grizzlies during the second half at Madison Square Garden. Knicks won 108-101. Mandatory Credit: Debby Wong-USA TODAY Sports

Mar. 27, 2013; New York, NY, USA; New York Knicks small forward Carmelo Anthony (7), shooting guard J.R. Smith (8) and small forward Iman Shumpert (21)  Credit: Debby Wong-USA TODAY Sports

To do this, the Knicks needed to upgrade the point guard position to create ball movement. They did so in trade that sent  Tyson Chandler and struggling point guard Raymond Felton—averaged a career-low 9.7 points and hit just 39 percent of his shots— to Dallas for guards Jose Calderon, Shane Larkin and Wayne Ellington, center Samuel Dalembert and two second-round draft picks.

Calderon is one of the league’s top shooting point guards averaging 45 percent from beyond the arc and is a smart and a decisive passer. The triangle offense will eliminate solely relying on Anthony to create shots on his own in isolation plays. Anthony led the league averaging 6.6 isolation points per game, according to Synergy Sports.

7. Charlotte Hornets

Kemba-Walker

(Kemba Walker #15) Getty Images

On the court, Michael Jordan was arguably the greatest player to have ever played, but as a general manager, Jordan is as bad as his Kwame Brown and Adam Morrison picks.

But after the making the playoffs for the first time as the Bobcats last season, Charlotte has pieced together a dynamic backcourt with Kemba Walker and signing of the tumultuous Lance Stephenson to a 3-year, $27 million contract. The combination of Walker and Stephenson is nearly the perfect match. Walker is more of the scoring-type point guard, who showed up big time against the Heat in Game 4 scoring 29 points and hit 4-for-7 on 3-pointers. Stephenson is a playmaking two guard who lead the NBA with five triple-doubles in the regular season.

If the Hornets can squeeze production out of the former No. 2 overall pick, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who has underachieved yet is still frustratingly talented, and pair him with the like of the Al Jefferson and promising rookie Noah Vonleh, the Hornets can become the team nobody wants to play in the playoffs.

6. Miami Heat

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

And then there were two. Chris Bosh and Dwayne Wade lost some player in free agency who decided there was no place like home. That player is LeBron James, the best basketball player in the world who carried Miami to four straight Finals appearances while winning two in back-to-back fashion.Not to mention two regular season MVPs along the way.

The Heat signed Bosh to a max deal of 5-years, $118 million. Which means two things: 1) He is the player that the Heat will build around; 2) Wade is no longer, well, Wade. Wade’s production on the court has sadly, visibly declined before our eyes, but with or without James, the Heat still have a champion pedigree.

Miami has gotten much deeper in their rotation this offseason with the signing of Josh McRoberts, Luol Deng, Danny Granger and drafting Shabazz Napier. Maybe this year audiences will appreciate the expertise of coach Erik Spoelstra as he orchestrates an underrated team back into the playoffs.

5. Toronto Raptors

No one saw the Raptors locking in the 3 seed in the Eastern Conference last season. It was arguably the biggest playoff surprise in either conference. Expect them to take a step down next year. Not because Toronto is lacking in a particular aspect, but because the competition around them has gotten better.

Jan 25, 2014; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry (7) talks to guard DeMar DeRozan (10) against the Los Angeles Clippers at Air Canada Centre. The Clippers beat the Raptors 126-118. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Jan 25, 2014; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry (7) talks to guard DeMar DeRozan (10) against the Los Angeles Clippers at Air Canada Centre. The Clippers beat the Raptors 126-118. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Re-signing Kyle Lowry to a 4-year, $48 million deal was a great investment for a team who made it to the playoffs for the first time since 2008. Lowry had a career year averaging 17.9 points, 7.4 assists and 4.7 rebounds per game while making 38 percent of his three-pointers in the regular season. While Lowry and the budding DeMar DeRozan—averaged a career-high 22.7 points per game—played admirably against the Brooklyn Nets, starting guard Terrance Ross was a no show averaging a measly 5 points per game the Brooklyn series.

 

4. Washington Wizards

Speed kills. And the Wizards have a whole of it with John Wall and Bradley Beal. Like the Raptors, the Wizards were the surprise team in the playoffs last season as the 5 seed led by their two young stars in Wall and Beal.

Rob Carr/Getty Images

Bradley Beal (3) and John Wall (2) Rob Carr/Getty Images

They made an underrated signing in forward DeJuan Blair who will provide toughness and rebounding. The Wizards lost athleticism and youth in Trevor Ariza, but replaced him with the 37-year-old Paul Pierce. The addition of Pierce will do wonders for this hungry and young team. His locker room presence alone and fourth quarter calmness is what the doctor ordered for Washington. But at 37, Washington may be his last stop.

And don’t be surprised to finally see production out former No. 13 overall pick Otto Porter Jr. and second-round pick Glenn Rice Jr. who las led the NBA summer league in scoring averaging 25.2 points on 50.7 percent shooting.

3. Indiana Pacers

Losing Stephenson was a big blow.

There is still an amber alert on Roy Hibbert. The Pacers were better off playing four-on-five instead of placing Hibbert in the starting lineup. Averaging 10.8 points per game and only 6.6 rebounds per game in the regular season for a 7-feet-2 center is not all-star caliber center and not worthy of the status as a top-5 center in the NBA. Hibbert also went scoreless in four games in the playoffs, including a game when he tallied zero points and zero rebounds in the opening series against Atlanta.

Getty Images

Paul George (24) Getty Images

The Pacers still have Paul George, but he has shown inconsistencies of is he-a-star-or-not type of player. George has to continue to step his game up to the next level. Shades of his monster Game 5 clinic, scoring 21 of his 37 points in the fourth quarter has to become a regular occurrence. Aside from adding Lavoy Allen and Chris Copeland, Indiana hasn’t improved the offseason.

 

2. Cleveland Cavaliers

If the Kevin Love trade happens, then the Cavaliers will be the No. 1 seed in the East, but for now, lets say that Love is not a Cavalier.

David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

When you sign LeBron James, a team that missed the playoffs going 33-49, can become a top team in the East the following year. For now, a backcourt of Kyrie Irving and No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins is an explosive highlight reel duo who can carry the Cavaliers long after James retires. Two 6-feet-8 players in James and Wiggins will make it tough for imposing players on the perimeter who look to drive to the basket. And third-year forward Tristan Thompson quietly averaged 11.7 points per game and 9.2 rebounds. Even without Love, Cleveland is a legitimate favorite in the East.

James has successfully recruited shooters in Mike Miller and James Jones to Miami, and the two are actively pursuing Ray Allen to join the ex-Heat players. For the sake of interest, if Cleveland was to complete the trade for the double-double machine in Love, then yes, they are the favorites to represent the East in the Finals. But a front court of Love and Anderson Varejao doesn’t strike fear into opponents as rim protectors. Cleveland lacks interior bulk and defense inside. They have to address this during the season.

1. Chicago Bulls

Chicago Bulls' Joakim Noah (13) and Derrick Rose (1) celebrate a late basket by Rose against the Milwaukee Bucks during the second half of an NBA basketball.

Chicago Bulls’ Joakim Noah (13) and Derrick Rose (1) celebrate a late basket by Rose against the Milwaukee Bucks during the second half of an NBA basketball.

The Bulls ranked dead last (30th) in points per game last season averaging 93.7. What did they do? After drafting Michigan State guard Gary Harris, Chicago traded Harris for instant offense in Doug McDermott. McDermott is my sleeper pick for Offensive Rookie of the Year on a team that’s starving for buckets.

The Bulls also signed pick-and-pop big man Pau Gasol, who can firmly play his finesse-style next to the rumbling and active Joakim Noah. Chicago is still led by the defensive minded coach Tom Thibodeau who has managed to make Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson into a defensive stalwarts. Both also averaged 13 points per game this past season. Still, this team needs its star back.

This team needs Derrick Rose. The one-time MVP has played in just 50 NBA games over the last three seasons. He has to come back healthy and strong, and remain that way. Rose is still young at 25-years-old, but with multiple knee injuries, he may not revert back to the acrobatic player we are accustomed to seeing out on the court. If he can get to at least 80 percent of that level, then the Bulls are the favorite to win the East.

"In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have. I’m ready to accept the challenge. I’m coming home." -LeBron James said in his letter to SI.com Bill Kostroun, Associated Press file photo

“In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have. I’m ready to accept the challenge. I’m coming home.” -LeBron James said in his letter to SI.com
Bill Kostroun, Associated Press file photo

By KELTON BROOKS

Twitter: (@BrooksWeekly)

Ten years from now, no, 20 years from now, one will ask a question of an action that scratched a ripple into the space-time continuum: “Where were you when LeBron James announced his return to the Cleveland Cavaliers?” I was at work tweeting my butt off.

Flabbergasted but impressed. Confused yet in awe. Intrigued, although, I completely understood it all. I’ll be the first to admit that I believed LeBron was returning to Miami, but after reading his letter on why he returned to Cleveland, I’ve never been more happy to be wrong. His statement was beyond sincere, completely honest and poured out straight from his heart.

Cleveland deserves its hometown hero.

In his letter to SI.com announcing his return to Cleveland, his opening paragraph gave me goosebumps. It made me draw my eyes beyond champion rings, MVP trophies and clutch game winning shots.

It simply made me look beyond the game of basketball.

Before anyone ever cared where I would play basketball, I was a kid from Northeast Ohio. It’s where I walked. It’s where I ran. It’s where I cried. It’s where I bled. It holds a special place in my heart. People there have seen me grow up. I sometimes feel like I’m their son. Their passion can be overwhelming. But it drives me. I want to give them hope when I can. I want to inspire them when I can. My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball. I didn’t realize that four years ago. I do now.

Four years ago, the King embarked on a journey of riches. He led the Miami Heat to a championship appearance in each of his seasons in South Beach, coming away with two elusive championship rings that he so badly coveted, two Finals MVP trophies, two regular season MVP awards, and averaged 26.9 points per game, 7.6 rebounds and 6.7 assist per game.

But before he set off, LeBron ignited a fire storm in his hometown of Akron, Ohio and the city of Cleveland. Jerseys were burned, tears flowed, groans bellowed, and billboards of his legendary status were stripped down and disposed. Even the Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert expressed his hurt and disgust in his own letter after LeBron set sail for a voyage to more promising lands.

It was rocky sail at sea, but LeBron hit the nail on the head in his letter on his time in Miami:

Miami, for me, has been almost like college for other kids. These past four years helped raise me into who I am. I became a better player and a better man. I learned from a franchise that had been where I wanted to go. I will always think of Miami as my second home. Without the experiences I had there, I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing today.

Miami taught LeBron how to win when it counted.

In seven seasons with the Cavaliers, he left as the all-time leading scorer with 15, 251 points, minutes played with 22, 108, and all-star appearances with six. The Cavaliers won more playoff games in seven seasons with LeBron James (42) than in 37 seasons without him (28), according to ESPN Stats & Info. But the Cavaliers only made one Finals appearance with LeBron and he was swept by the same team that beat his then Miami Heat in five games, the San Antonio Spurs.

Those numbers are gaudy and teasing, but unfinished. LeBron knows the city of Cleveland is starving to hoist a champion trophy of any sport into the air. A major Cleveland pro sports team has not won a championship since the Browns in 1964 (141 seasons), the longest active drought of any city. LeBron made it clear what his mission is in his return to Cleveland:

When I left Cleveland, I was on a mission. I was seeking championships, and we won two. But Miami already knew that feeling. Our city hasn’t had that feeling in a long, long, long time. My goal is still to win as many titles as possible, no question. But what’s most important for me is bringing one trophy back to Northeast Ohio.

Westgate Las Vegas has Cleveland and San Antonio as co-favorites at 4-1 odds to win the championship. For the Spurs, they are the defending champions, I get it. But for the Cavaliers, I should be shocked, but I’m not. LeBron stated in his letter that “we’re not ready yet,” meaning the Cavaliers current roster with all-star point guard Kyrie Irving, No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins, Dion Waiters and the growing Tristian Thompson. A say current because Cleveland could easily trade some of these assets to the Minnesota Timberwolves for Kevin Love.

Although, this is the Eastern Conference we’re talking about. The Atlanta Hawks made to playoffs with a 38-44 record and the No. 3 seed in the West, the Los Angeles Clippers, would have been the top seed in the East with a 57-25 record.  The only team that would give the now Cavaliers team any cause for concern would be the Chicago Bulls if they signed Carmelo Anthony.

When the LeBron took the Cavaliers to the Finals in the 2007-08 season, the starting lineup was: PG: Larry Hughes; SG: Sasha Pavlović; SF: LeBron James; PF: Drew Gooden; C: Žydrūnas Ilgauskas. The only player that is of any relevance of that team remaining in the NBA is Anderson Varejão. Even at their youth (if a Love trade doesn’t happen), a roster of LeBron, Wiggins, Irving, Waiters and Thompson is head and shoulders above the skill set and talent compared to the 2007-08 Cavaliers roster. Not to mention a LeBron that is motivated playing for his home team and light years ahead of his younger days with the Cavaliers.

That’s what the Heat didn’t have anymore. Youth. Miami was becoming old and slow, steadily signing veteran band-aid pieces that will stick around for a few years. The Heat have plateaued. They wouldn’t have gotten better than they already were at the time with LeBron, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh. Cleveland offers the chance to win now and in the future with Irving and Wiggins primed to take the throne left by Lebron.

I’m still astonished at the reception and how the world was at bay waiting for LeBron’s decision. Lebron’s return might be the most significant moment in Cleveland sports’ history.

And by the end of his career, LeBron might go down as the most influential athlete in the history of professional sports.