The 2015-2016 NFL season is less than a month away. And while we might not be ready to start making Super Bowl predictions just yet, we can still take a look at some of the league’s major teams during the offseason to gauge what kind of performance they might be giving us this year. Needless to say, the outlook for some teams is much better than the outlook for others.
We aren’t going to look at every team in the NFL, but we will look at close to a third of them. The following ten teams include five of those with the best prospects for the 2015-2016 NFL season, as well as five teams whose outlook is not so great. To keep things fresh, we’ll intersperse the five best with the five worst. If you want to know how to use this information, take a look at our complete beginners guide to sports betting. Or, if that sounds like too much work, you can always sign up for our handicapping consulting services and we’d be happy to do it for you.
For now, here are our 2015-2016 NFL season outlooks for ten popular teams. Bear in mind that we aren’t necessarily discussing which teams are actually the “best” and “worst” in the NFL, but rather which teams stand the best and worst chances of improving over last year’s performance.
10. Worst: New England Patriots
This seems like an easy pick. It’s pretty obvious that the Pats don’t stand much chance of improving during the 2015-2016 NFL season. The only way they could “improve” would be to win the Super Bowl by a greater margin than they did last season. As for whether or not they’ll have a good season overall, it depends on who you ask. Yes, Tom Brady might be suspended by four games. Or he might not, since the judge in his appeal seems to be coming down hard on Roger Goodell and the NFL for what many have long considered to be a lack of solid evidence in the Wells Report.
But we’re a little tired of talking about the Pats as if Tom Brady is the only player on the team. They have several other players, the problem is that there’s a lot of rookie talent we can’t really assess based solely on the preseason opener. Free agent Tony Creecy was one of four players able fill in for injured RB Tyler Gaffney, not to mention the bevy of other running backs who have fallen to injury. But if you look at the play-by-play of the game, you’ll see that Creecy’s only major play was a drive in the third quarter that resulted in no gain. Undrafted rookie David Andrews was the likely candidate to fill in as center for Bryan Stork, since he has more experience in the position than his technically more seasoned counterpart Josh Kline. Andrews performed pretty well, but he also contributed to the poor performance of sub-in QB Jimmy Garoppolo. The use of rookie talent does not necessarily mean that New England is going to have a bad season, but it will likely get off to a rocky start.
9. Best: Dallas Cowboys
The Cowboys did pretty well this past season. They aren’t quite the “America’s Team” that used to win rings, but they at least exceeded expectations a bit. Of course, that leaves the coming season open to a bit of interpretation. Their fans expect them to continue improving, but many are afraid that they’ll be let down again. A lot of fans are also afraid that DeMarco Murray cannot be adequately replaced by anyone else on the roster. Dez Bryant wants to win three rings, but motivation is only worth so much over the course of a season.
That said, the Cowboys have a lot going for them this year. They have a lot of new rookie talent, which doesn’t mean much on its own. Not until you consider that those rookies include RB Gus Johnson, who’s been killing it in practice and has impressed QB Tony Romo with his skills. Romo himself looks to be in for a great season as well. Last season was one of the best of his somewhat underwhelming career, but Jerry Jones says that Romo is now in his prime. With the team also working on its pass rushing, it looks like they’re ready to play some hardcore ball during the 2015-2016 NFL season.
8. Worst: Philadelphia Eagles
Speaking of DeMarco Murray, guess who just made the injured list in Philadelphia. We can’t stress enough that one player doesn’t make a team, but Murray isn’t the only player who’s been injured during practice this summer. That doesn’t mean that most of Philly’s injured players will be off the roster for the 2015-2016 NFL season, but it does mean that they’ll be missing some valuable practice time while they recover. That’s going to hurt the Eagles a bit at the top of the season.
While the Cowboys might be trying to improve their defense, it needs to be a bigger focus for the Eagles. More than a week into training camp, and their corners aren’t really showing a whole lot of depth. They at least had a solid role as slot specialist for nickel CB JaCorey Shepherd, but a torn ACL is going to put him out for what looks like the entirety of the 2015-2016 NFL season. As far as offensive linemen are concerned, Philly has a bit more to offer. So much, in fact, that last year’s first-round draft pick Marcus Smith II doesn’t really fit into their roster very well. The Eagles aren’t necessarily on a definite decline, but there are a lot of unanswered questions right now that don’t bode well for the coming year.
7. Best: Atlanta Falcons
In the same way that it would be hard for the Pats to improve, it would be hard for the Falcons to get any worse. According to defense efficiency ratings by Football Outsiders, Atlanta had the worst defense in the league last year. But then the 2015 NFL Draft rolled around, and they acquired Vic Beasley. The only real problem with a powerhouse pass-rusher like Beasley is that Atlanta has been sticking him on special teams, where one might argue that he can’t really make the most of his potential. Even so, he’s been impressing the team with his speed and strength, not to mention his ability to walk off potential injuries like a true pro.
The rest of Atlanta’s roster for the 2015-2016 NFL season is admittedly questionable. No one’s sure whether or not they should re-sign Prince Shembo, whose animal cruelty case was just recently resolved. Still, many fans are praising Atlanta’s roster for the offensive skills of players such as Roddy White and Julio Jones. The Dirty Birds have also been improving their offense through special drills, such as a practice category revolving around no-huddle calls. Their offense was already decent last year, so they should be fine as long as they continue improving their defense. A little bit of speed and efficiency will go a long way during the 2015-2016 NFL season.
6. Worst: St. Louis Rams
We almost put the Seattle Seahawks on this list, for pretty much the same reason as the Pats. In fact, the Rams purportedly have a better defense than the ‘Hawks going into the 2015-2016 NFL season. It’s also expected that the offseason addition of QB Nick Foles to the team will help to ring in the Year of the Ram with impressive power. But we’re talking about one side of their game, and one player on the other side. These factors alone will not change the fact that they still have some sizable obstacles to overcome.
First of all, major draft acquisition Todd Gurley won’t be adding anything to the team when the season begins. His ACL is mostly recovered, but the team isn’t trying to rush him onto the field. And he isn’t the only player who probably won’t get much time on the field before the start of the 2015-2016 NFL season. In fact, it is highly expected that the Rams are going to rely mostly on their second-stringers for their preseason opener. This isn’t surprising. No team wants to risk serious injury to their starters with so little time left before the start of the season. Unfortunately, this is coupled with the fact that their stadium is largely covered in dirt due to the ongoing baseball season. They aren’t the only team dealing with such a concern, but it’s still going to hurt their practicing a little bit. The Rams won’t be the worst team in the league, but don’t expect much improvement this season. Then again, we’re willing to say that of all the “worst” teams on this list, they’re the most likely to prove us wrong.
5. Best: New Orleans Saints
There was a time when we would have handed this spot to the Baltimore Ravens, based on the defensive prowess of DE Brent Urban alone. Now that Urban’s been injured, their defense is looking pretty inexperienced (although not quite bad enough to land them in one of our “worst” slots). In any case, the Saints have been focusing on defense after a pretty shoddy performance last year, and their preseason opener against Baltimore shows that it’s been working. Sure, the Saints lost. But they overcame Baltimore’s massive lead after the first half, and they managed to keep the Ravens’ scoring down while closing the gap little by little. The most major fault in their defense was in the first two quarters and the last two seconds; had they not dropped the ball at the pivotal moment, they would have achieved a narrow win over Baltimore. But if they’d performed better early in the game, they would’ve had few worries later on.
Now, preseason openers don’t mean all that much. And if you don’t get why, we’ll give you a metaphor. Do you have kids? Are any of them in theatre? Have you ever had to go to one of those “understudy shows,” where the main talent gets to sit back while their back-ups get a turn in the spotlight? As mentioned with the Rams, that’s what a lot of preseason openers are. That’s why Drew Brees did not even participate in the Saints-Ravens game. So we need to talk about the team itself, and there’s a lot to talk about there. The Saints certainly have some harsh critics, but it actually looks like they’re making some important changes to their front line that will impact their performance in the 2015-2016 NFL season. Believe it or not, aside from Cam Jordan, they are actually using a lot of rookie talent in their front line. Rookies such as Stephone Anthony will be playing alongside the likes of Dannell Ellerbe, Kevin Williams, and Bobby Richardson. Some (or possibly all) of this rookie talent will be here to stay for the regular season, thanks to the losses of Junior Galette and Brodrick Bunkley. And while the low experience level seems like a nightmare, there is speculation that the Saints can make it work in their favor. They can’t do much worse than last season either way.
4. Worst: Detroit Lions
Let’s face it, defense is important. A team can have the most explosive offense in the world, but they’ll still lose against a team with a comparable offense and a better defense. That’s why it’s hard for us to give the Lions too much credit for the fact that draft pick Ameer Abdullah seemed to develop unexpectedly efficient offensive capabilities during training camp. And that’s why it’s hard to care too much that RB George Winn is showing himself to be one heck of a combatant on the field. These things are all great for Detroit, but they don’t automatically equate to potential for rings.
If you watched Detroit’s preseason opener against the New York Jets, then you’re probably wondering how we could possibly criticize the Lions based on defense. Detroit won 23-3, while keeping New York from gaining more than 123 offensive yards and allowing no more than a single field goal in the first quarter. You must be smirking at everyone who said Detroit couldn’t win without the help of C.J. Mosley, Nick Fairley, and Ndamukong Suh, thinking about how wrong such critics were. But once you’re done gloating, you have to stop and remember one simple fact: they won against the Jets. Tyrunn Walker will doubtlessly add a lot to the team, but other new defensive players such as Haloti Ngata have yet to really prove their merit. The team might hold its own to an extent, but they won’t be the team they were last year. Not by a long shot.
3. Best: San Francisco 49ers
It would be hard for the 49ers not to improve at least a little bit over last season. They’re playing with a largely changed roster, and their 8-8 season was so devastating that ticket prices in San Francisco are actually expected to be lower during the 2015-2016 NFL season than they were last year. But fans are hoping for a better season, and they’re putting a lot of faith in two big names: Jim. And yes, that’s two names. First, there’s Jimmie Ward. His rookie season at nickel corner was a big letdown, but he acknowledges his shortcomings and is looking forward to a much better season. Then, there’s Jim Tomsula. Jim Harbaugh is gone as coach and is now coaching at the collegiate level, but the Niners are expecting big things from Tomsula. He doesn’t just see himself as a man coaching a bunch of players. He sees his team for what they are: people. This respect seems to be earning their trust. It isn’t something we talk about when throwing around sports predictions, but we think this trust might enable Tomsula to coax the most out of his team during the 2015-2016 NFL season.
The Niners are also working on some of their more technical issues, especially as far as offense is concerned. The team has struggled with verbosity when it comes to their play calls in the past, which has put them at odds against the clock. Their play calls will now revolve around single-syllable words that have been compared to modern abbreviations used in text messages. This should make for a speedier and more efficient offense. The team is also retooling their offensive line, which will be seen in their preseason opener this weekend. Joe Staley will continue at left tackle for the 2015-2016 NFL season, and Joe Looney will be in at center. Aside from that, expect the line to be changed a bit from recent years. The results of the team’s offensive experimentation have yet to be seen, but we’re expecting major improvements during their opener this Saturday.
2. Worst: Arizona Cardinals
The Cards are looking forward to their preseason opener this weekend, largely because QB Carson Palmer will be returning from injury. That’s great news, but perhaps they shouldn’t get too excited since Arizona is one of the primary teams expected to decline during the 2015-2016 NFL season. This is largely due to an ESPN Insider story (which commenters are viciously debating on numerous counts) that states Arizona’s chances of making the playoffs at being 18.4%, while also claiming that Palmer doesn’t add a whole lot to the team that they couldn’t get from Drew Stanton.
There is also the fact that last season’s 11-5 performance just didn’t make a lot of sense. Given that Ryan Lindley is not exactly the best at what he does, and coupling that with the fact that the Cardinals only outscored opponents by an average of 11 points, Arizona should not have performed as well. Logic would dictate a record of 8-8 rather than 11-5, as was the case with the 2004 Atlanta Falcons when they were playing under similar circumstances. So, will this decline finally occur during the 2015-2016 NFL season? Or will Carson Palmer be enough to save the day? Some appear to believe that 35-year-old Palmer is actually better now than he was before his second knee injury. But he can’t carry the team. If their numbers really do herald a decline, then they’re going to have to face that music sooner or later. This weekend’s preseason opener will hopefully give us a slightly better idea.
1. Best: New York Jets
Remember when we said not to get too excited about the Lions beating the Jets? Well, that’s because the Jets went 4-12 last year. In other words, 5-11 would be an improvement. Depending on who you ask, 8-8 would be phenomenal. Of course, those who saw their preseason opener might think that it would take a miracle for the Jets to improve at all during the 2015-2016 NFL season. Their performance wasn’t great, and QB Ryan Fitzpatrick didn’t really do much. According to ESPN, the team was treating him with extra caution to keep him from getting injured. This would make sense, given that it was an injury to Geno Smith that landed Fitzpatrick in this spot to begin with. But since Fitzpatrick only had one drive (which was respectable, if unsuccessful), we can’t blame him for New York’s terrible loss. That distinction goes to the defensive players, who are about to be practicing pretty hard to ensure less sloppy tackling during the 2015-2016 NFL season.
So, just how much will the Jets improve? Probably not much, to be honest. Geno Smith was actually doing pretty well in training camp, and was on his way to potentially leading an iteration of the Jets that we have never seen before. But this is a team that signed IK Enemkpali despite knowing that he had some personality flaws. Sure, they couldn’t have possibly known that he would punch Smith in the locker room and shatter his jaw. Even if they’d known he was strong enough to do so, that’s arguably just a sign of a quality linebacker. But either way, this is now a team that won’t be playing with a lot of trust. So our projection is that they’ll be the most likely to improve this season, simply because there’s nowhere to go but up. However, don’t expect them to be some sort of dark horse winner this year. For better or for worse, the Jets are going to continue being the Jets. Don’t expect them to do too much better than that.