Seven ridiculously premature predictions based on the opening wave of the NFL’s free agency period:
1. Go ahead and book it now, because Houston at Denver absolutely has to be the NFL’s choice for the 2016 regular-season kickoff game on Thursday night of Week 1. Not only are they two playoff teams from 2015, but this Texans-Broncos rivalry is getting serious in light of Houston overpaying to get Brock Osweiler out of blue and orange and into red, white and blue.
You already had ex-Texans coach Gary Kubiak and ex-Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips leaving H-town and helping Denver to its third Super Bowl title in their first year with the Broncos, but now there’s been some payback applied thanks to Houston’s latest quarterback move. Oh, and the guy who pilfered Osweiler for Houston? Texans general manager Rick Smith, the former longtime member of the Broncos organization.
I’m telling the suits in the NFL office to just ignore the Super Bowl rematch with the Panthers, as well as the annual New England-Denver game that lost some luster when Peyton Manning retired. It’s Houston at Denver on Sept. 8, in the Brock Bowl—got it? Getcha popcorn ready.
2. Until we give further notice, the Dolphins are permanently assigned to last place in the AFC East, no questions asked. And don’t even think about aspiring to third place any time soon, Miami. Not after this week, when the Fish continued their habit of confounding free agency moves. Letting the young, talented, versatile and homegrown Olivier Vernon reach the market, then replacing him with the declining and one-dimensional Mario Williams? Agreeing to take the oft injured Kiko Alonso and the overpaid Byron Maxwell off the Eagles hands, and losing five slots in the first round of the draft (from No. 8 to No. 13) for the privilege?
Letting lead running back Lamar Miller scoot off to Houston, receiver Rishard Mathews relocate to Tennessee and releasing cornerback Brent Grimes, who at least gave the Dolphins some pretty decent years? Does anybody have a good grip on the plan Mike Tannenbaum and new coach Adam Gase are pursuing with Miami’s latest head-scratchers? And have we mentioned the Dolphins’ 2016 schedule yet, which includes playing the NFC West and AFC North, with 10 opponents that finished at .500 or better last season? The Patriots, Jets and Bills all will enter the new season with realistic playoff hopes. The Dolphins will again be a puzzling last-place work in progress.
3. It says right here that first-year Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz will return to the head coaching ranks in 2017, because of his strong turnaround work this season in Philadelphia. We all know the Eagles secondary has been a mess for years now, but that trend will finally be ending this season, with the addition of ex-Rams safety Rodney McLeod, and former Bills cornerbacks Leodis McKelvin and Ron Brooks in free agency. In addition, ex-Buffalo linebacker Nigel Bradham helps fortify the Eagles at another position of need.
And thanks to the trade with Miami that sent Eagles Kiko Alonso and Bryon Maxwell to the Dolphins, Philadelphia now owns the No. 8 pick in the first round, a spot that might allow them to take one of the draft’s elite defensive prospects, such as Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves or possibly even UCLA linebacker Myles Jack. There’s defensive talent in Philadelphia, and Schwartz’s 4–3 scheme is poised to exploit it and make the Eagles a more disruptive and play-making unit. In his one and only year as Buffalo’s defensive coordinator in 2014, Schwartz’s guys lead the lead with 54 sacks and finished sixth with 19 interceptions. The Eagles taking a quantum step to a top 10 defensive showing is about to get Schwartz noticed again.
4. Coby Fleener is destined for that breakout season that never quite unfolded in Indianapolis. The Saints free-agent tight end signing may not have made sense to some in terms of New Orleans’s most pressing needs, but it was a good break for the former Stanford star. The Colts chose to re-sign tight end Dwayne Allen and let Fleener walk, but just watch—Fleener will out-produce his former teammate in 2016.
For starters, Drew Brees loves to feed his tight end, even making a play-making weapon out of veteran Benjamin Watson last season, after the Jimmy Graham trade. Watson caught a career-best 74 passes for 825 yards, with six touchdowns, for the Saints, before signing with Baltimore this week. Fleener is about to blow away his career highs of 54 catches (2015) for 774 yards (’14), and his personal high of eight touchdowns in ’14 is also in jeopardy with the Saints high-powered passing attack.
5. Okay, here goes: The Raiders will make the playoffs in 2016, ending their 13-year postseason drought. Yep, I’m ready to go there. The Raiders made progress at 7–9 last season under first-year coach Jack Del Rio, and left a couple wins on the table. This year they play the less-than-daunting AFC South and NFC South, and if you take their one game against the 15–1 Panthers out of the mix, the rest of their opponents are 14 games under .500.
To that the Raiders have added three significant upgrades in free agency, paying handsomely for guard-tackle Kalechi Osemele, cornerback Sean Smith and edge rusher Bruce Irvin—solid pieces of the puzzle for a young team that features cornerstones like quarterback Derek Carr, pass-rusher Khalil Mack and receiver Amari Cooper. Oakland is finally ready to contend for the playoffs, and if Denver and/or Kansas City take the slightest step back after reaching the postseason from the AFC West last year, the Raiders’ chances to continue their ascent should only improve.
6. The Eagles are about to rely on newly acquired backup quarterback Chase Daniel a lot more than they might be expecting to, and he’ll will wind up starting almost as many games this season as Sam Bradford. Due to his injury history, Bradford has made 16 starts just twice in his six NFL seasons, and one of those came as a rookie in 2010. That means in four of the past five years (80%), Bradford hasn’t been able to answer the bell every game.
Daniel is largely a lightly tested unknown to most of us, but new Eagles coach Doug Pederson just worked closely with him for three years as Kansas City’s offensive coordinator, and I don’t think he’ll hesitate to turn to Daniel if Bradford struggles with injuries or ineffectiveness in Philly’s new offense. Rest assured Bradford can’t afford a sluggish start like he endured last season in Chip Kelly’s fast-paced attack, when the Eagles opened 1–3 and failed to crack 25 points in the first month.
Daniel’s presence won’t induce a lot of patience on Bradford’s behalf, especially if the Eagles’ improved defense is keeping the team in games. This is a big year in Philadelphia, which has missed the playoffs two years in a row, and Daniel’s role will be larger than first anticipated.
7. Ladarius Green is a lock to thrive in black and gold. Heath Miller’s retirement gave the Steelers a need at tight end, but that need was smartly filled with the signing of Green, the talented former San Diego Charger backup who is going to fit in perfectly with the rest of Pittsburgh’s many offensive play-makers. Go ahead, defenses. Pick your poison. If you stop Le’Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams and Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton, Ben Roethlisberger could still make you pay downfield with Green.
At 6' 6" and 250 pounds with great athleticism and speed, Green creates a challenging matchup problem for opposing defenses, and his skill set should allow him to exploit the middle of the field in an AFC North division that has been known for quality tight ends in recent years. Green has been playing behind Antonio Gates in San Diego for the past four seasons, but he’ll top his 2015 career-high numbers of 37 receptions for 429 yards and four touchdowns with ease in Pittsburgh. In one of the best fits so far in free agency, Green just returned tight end to a position of strength for the Steelers.