NFL Preview 2016

By Michael Gorman

Photo by Josh Millin.
Photo by Josh Millin.

With the 2016 NFL season starting Thursday night, The Black & White teamed up to make predictions for the season. Each writer highlights a sleeper (a team most don’t expect to be good), a player to watch and a Super Bowl prediction.

Michael Gorman

Sleeper Team: Oakland Raiders

The Raiders have been on the rise, and this season will be the culmination of the rebuilding efforts that have been taking place over the past few years. They have a potent offense, with a great, young QB-RB-WR trio of Derek Carr, Latavius Murray and Amari Cooper. All three are poised to lead the offense into the playoffs for the first time in 13 years. On the defense, linebacker Khalil Mack is back and ready to dominate offensive lines for another season. This is a team worth watching throughout the fall, so don’t be surprised to see the Silver and Black make a run in the playoffs.

Player to Watch: WR Josh Gordon

It’s been almost two seasons since he stepped on the field for a regular season game. But after seeing him in preseason, it’s clear Gordon is back to his 2013 form, when he racked up 1,600 yards and nine touchdowns. Against the Buccaneers in week three of preseason, Gordon went off with two catches for 87 yards and a touchdown. Don’t be fooled by the low catch count; he was only targeted twice, and left play in the first half. With a revived Robert Griffin III—yes, that’s right—Gordon finally has a serious quarterback to provide him with the opportunity he needs. In his breakout season, his quarterbacks were Jason Campbell, Brandon Weeden, and Brian Hoyer. RG3 is surely an improvement over any of them. Expect big things from smokin’ Josh this season.

Super Bowl Pick: Packers over Patriots

After going 10-6 in the regular season and losing in the divisional round of the playoffs last season, the Packers are going to be hungry. The return of WR Jordy Nelson from an ACL injury will be a huge boost to a team that was clearly missing a deep threat last season. Having Nelson back will be such an improvement that Rodgers may put up one of the best statistical season of his career. The boosted offense will complement a sixth-ranked passing defense, and create a two-headed monster that will be impossible to take down.

The modern-day Patriots are one of football’s biggest dynasties ever. It’s simple as that. The organization they’ve created doesn’t need an introduction, and the players are only getting better. Rob Gronkowski finally stayed healthy for the whole season last year, and even without Edelman, the Pats were incredibly dangerous. Expect to see Tom Brady in the Super Bowl once again. He was dominated by the Broncos in the AFC championship game last year, but the Broncos have lost several key players, so we won’t be seeing them late into the postseason this year. The next-best option, the Steelers, who lost playmaker Martavis Bryant to suspension for the whole season and reliable tight end Heath Miller to retirement, won’t be able to make a deep run either. The Patriots are battle-tested, and will be able to handle any upstart AFC team.

Sure, the saying is defense wins championships, but Aaron Rodgers’ tested offense will take down aging Tom Brady and the Patriots.

Ezra Pine

Sleeper Team: New York Jets

No team has been as anxious to kick off the new season as the New York Jets. Last season ended in a disappointment for them: despite claiming the number two run defense and quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick throwing for career high numbers, they came up just short of a playoff berth, losing to Buffalo in their last game. Fitzpatrick also had a major contract dispute throughout the offseason. Now that he got his contract situation all cleared up, I believe he will come back trying to prove that he’s worth the big bucks. I also love the weapons they’ve placed around him. Receivers Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker are always red zone threats, and they’ve brought in veteran running back Matt Forte to replace 1000 yard rusher Chris Ivory. And I don’t think anyone wants to face that vicious front seven. On the defensive line, they have Muhammad Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson and Leonard Williams stuffing everything that comes their way. And when you’ve got Revis Island in your secondary, it’s always going to be difficult to air the ball out. The Jets have a much better shot at winning the division this year with Tom Brady suspended the first four games.

Player to Watch: QB Jameis Winston

When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers selected Florida State’s Jameis Winston with the first overall pick of the 2015 NFL draft, critics worldwide questioned his off-the-field issues and his ability to lead a team. In college, he received negative publicity from stories like his rape allegations (eventually dropped due to lack of consistent evidence) to stealing crab legs at a local market. Winston’s work this offseason should silence any critics who don’t think he can lead a football team. He worked out with Michael Jordan’s former trainer, Tim Grover, and lost nearly 18 pounds. That’s about the same weight as 15 crab legs(!). Winston has looked almost unstoppable on the gridiron this preseason, holding a 59 percent completion percentage and throwing four touchdown passes. He also has three 6’5’’ targets to throw to: Mike Evans, Vincent Jackson and Austin Seferian-Jenkins. The NFC South is about to add another elite quarterback into the conversation.

Super Bowl Pick: Panthers over Steelers

The key for me in picking the NFC candidate is who’s going to get home field advantage. If the Seahawks or Cardinals win home field advantage, I could very well see them making a run at the Lombardi trophy. However, I see them beating each other up in the tough NFC West, thus the Panthers claiming home field advantage.

Even though the Panthers lost star cornerback Josh Norman, I expect veteran safety Kurt Coleman to help ease Carolina’s young cornerbacks into their new respective roles. All-Pro linebacker duo Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis will also be returning to lead a defense that held opponents under 20 points per game last year. I have even higher expectations for the offense this year, with standout wideout Kelvin Benjamin returning from a 2015 ACL injury. I expect that quarterback Cam Newton will come back angry and extremely motivated after getting embarrassed by the Broncos last year. The sky’s truly the limit for this young offense.

Shifting to the AFC side, I think the Steelers get hot at the end of the season and upset other AFC powerhouses. The Steelers’ offense is practically unstoppable with 2014 All-Pro running back Le’Veon Bell healthy, as he adds another dimension to Pittsburgh’s passing game. Big Ben Roethlisberger seemingly only gets better with age; as long as he’s on the field, the Steelers will have no trouble pushing the ball down the field. I love third year linebacker Ryan Shazier and veteran linebacker Lawrence Timmons paired up together.

In the Super Bowl, the Panthers figure out how to handle the blitz that hit them last year against the Broncos. This time, Cam Newton will be making post-game headlines for all the right reasons.

Josh Millin

Sleeper Team: Jacksonville Jaguars

The Jaguars haven’t reached the postseason since 2007, but after bolstering their offense and reconstructing their defense, the Jags are poised to advance to the Wild Card game and beyond. On offense, the Jaguars boast a top-ten quarterback in Blake Bortles, two receivers— Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns—who eclipsed 1,000 yards last season and an elite running back, Chris Ivory, who they signed in the offseason. Even more impressive is the team’s improved defensive lineup. The Jaguars drafted phenom Jalen Ramsey at cornerback and Myles Jack at linebacker, and signed tackle Malik Jackson among other veterans to improve their defensive line; the team will also welcome 2015 first-rounder Dante Fowler Jr. back from an injury that sidelined him last season. Now, as one of the most balanced teams in the NFL, the Jaguars have all they need to end their playoff drought.

Player to Watch: WR Sterling Shepard

New York Giants receiver Sterling Shepard is in prime position to post historic numbers in his rookie campaign. Starting alongside the oft-double-covered Odell Beckham Jr., Shepard will see plenty of targets, and can utilize his elite route-running skills and speed to convert those targets to yards and touchdowns. He should also benefit from playing with a pass-happy quarterback, Eli Manning, and under new head coach Ben McAdoo, who helped Randall Cobb emerge as a top-tier receiver in Green Bay. Shepard recorded 86 catches, 1,288 yards and 11 touchdowns as a senior at Oklahoma, and he has the opportunity to replicate those statistics this season.

Super Bowl Pick: New England Patriots over Carolina Panthers

After falling in the AFC Championship game last season, the New England Patriots have all the pieces to put together another Super Bowl run. Though the Pats will be without Tom Brady for the first four games, Jimmy Garoppolo is a serviceable backup who can capitalize on throwing to one of the league’s best receiving corps. Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett compose the best tight end tandem in the NFL, and receivers Julian Edelman and Chris Hogan—both stellar route-runners—can make plays in a game’s pivotal moments. Additionally, the Pats’ defense, top-ten in most statistical categories, will carry the team if the offense struggles at the start of the season. The Patriots’ combination of an electric offense and a solid defensive core will overwhelm the opposition on their quest to win a fifth NFL championship.

The Panthers, who lost to the Broncos in last year’s Super Bowl, retained almost all of their key players and can easily return to the title game this year. Star receiver Kelvin Benjamin will return to the field after missing last season, and he’ll join up-and-coming receiver Devin Funchess and veteran tight end Greg Olsen in the Panthers’ balanced passing attack. Reigning MVP Cam Newton should continue to dominate and lead the Panthers throughout the season. Despite losing cornerback Josh Norman, the Panthers defense, led by linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis and safety Kurt Coleman, will still create problems for opposing offenses, particularly with its aggressive pass-rush and staunch coverage in the secondary.

Ultimately, the Patriots’ experienced, high-octane offense, paired with their underrated, top-ten defense, will overpower the younger and less experienced Panthers, and New England will take home its fifth Lombardi trophy.

Photo by Josh Millin.
Photo by Josh Millin.