The buildup to every NFL season sees prognostications galore. Some players are certain to have a breakout campaign; some teams are poised to breakout the champagne. Pundits often reach a sort of consensus on who’s going to take that next step, but often the belles of the ball-to-be wind up looking nothing like their profile picture.
Last season, the Bills were supposed to make strides with Rex Ryan taking charge of an already-fearsome defense. Instead, they went 8-8, and the defense took a massive step back. Andrew Luck was supposed to win NFL MVP. Instead, he spent the first half of the year racking up garbage time stats and the latter half on the sideline, injured.
By no means were the Bills and Luck the only ones who failed to live up to lofty expectations last year. But the beauty of the NFL – and sports in general – is that there’s always a next year! Which underperforming players and teams are the most likely to bounce back in 2016? Which are going to see their brutal 2015 turn into two years tumult?
Those are the questions of the day.
Player most likely to bounce back:
Randall Cobb, WR, Green Bay Packers
When Jordy Nelson was lost for the year in the preseason, the calming words from around the league were, “Don’t worry, the Packers still have Aaron Rodgers and Randall Cobb.” The duo was supposed to keep the Green Bay passing game strong. After all, Nelson and Cobb were basically 1 and 1-A. Except it turns out they weren’t. Cobb struggled mightily without Nelson occupying top CBs on the other side of the field.
After posting career highs in catches (91), receiving yards (1,287), and touchdowns (12) in 2014, the Kentucky product regressed to 79 catches for just 829 yards and six majors last year.
Has he gotten markedly worse or was it a product of circumstance? Since Cobb is just 25 years old, I’m banking on the latter. His speed should still be there, and he’s still working with arguably the best in the game in Rodgers. With Nelson back in the fold and Jeff Janis emerging as a legitimate receiving threat, Cobb won’t be blanketed the same way he was last year. Will he equal his 2014 numbers? Maybe not, but expect a step up from 2015.
Player least likely to bounce back:
Mike Wallace, WR, Baltimore Ravens
Mike Wallace was supposed to solve some serious receiver problems for the Vikings last year. No one really thought he’d be the 1,000-yard player he was in 2011 and 2012 with the Steelers, but with teams stacking the box against Adrian Peterson, he was expected to be a viable deep threat for Teddy Bridgewater. Instead, sixth-round pick Stefon Diggs emerged as Minnesota’s top receiver, and Wallace caught just 39 balls for 473 yards (his lowest total as a pro by nearly 300 yards).
Wallace now finds himself with the Ravens. And it’s going to be de ja vu all over again. The Ravens are very thin at receiver on paper. No one knows how the aging Steve Smith Sr. will fare after last year’s Achilles injury, and, before last year, Kamar Aiken had just 24 catches to his name. Making matters worse, 2015 first-round pick Breshad Perriman (who missed all of last year due to injury) is dealing with a partially torn ACL.
In sum, the door to Joe Flacco’s antechamber is wide open. Will Wallace walk through it? I don’t see it happening. In reality, he’s been trending down over the last few seasons, going from 73 catches/930 yards in 2013 to 67 catches/862 yards in 2014 to 39 catches/473 yards last year. That’s not overly surprising since his game relies on speed and he’s soon to be 30.
Team most likely to bounce back:
Baltimore limped to a 5-11 record last season, the first losing campaign for John Harbaugh in his eight years with the team. The roster had holes, no one can dispute that, especially at wideout and in the secondary. But were they that much worse than the team that went 10-6 the year before and nearly bounced the Pats from the playoffs?
No. I used the word “limped” very purposefully. The Ravens were hit by injuries the way that I was hit with Tom Cruise-fever the first time I watched Top Gun. (Oh Maverick, how you’ve crazied over the years.) Steve Smith, Justin Forsett, Terrell Suggs, Matt Elam, Breshad Perriman, Dennis Pitta: almost every Raven worth a damn spent time on the IR last year. The team basically didn’t field an NFL-worthy roster after Week 1. That’s hyperbole, but not gratuitous hyperbole.
I haven’t even mentioned the season-ending injury to QB Joe Flacco, since that came after the season was already lost.
The law of averages says that the Ravens will have better injury luck this season. If he gets to work with his chosen starters, Harbaugh will have this team back in contention in the tough AFC North.
Team least likely to bounce back:
The Colts were supposed to run away with the AFC South again last year. Tennessee was starting a rookie QB and had a roster full of holes. Jacksonville still had no defense to speak of. And Houston was deciding between Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett under center. The division was Indy’s for the taking.
But Luck struggled out of the gate and the roster didn’t have the depth to make up for his pedestrian play. Eventually the o-line let their franchise QB get hit one (ten?) too many times and his entire torso basically said enough is enough. A combination of Matt Hasselbeck, Charlie Whitehurst, and Josh Freeman then led Indy to an 8-8 record and a runner-up finish in the division.
With Luck healthy, the Colts are once again the favorites to emerge from the South. But the entire division should be improved this year. Houston’s QB situation is more settled. The Jags have an influx of defensive talent. And Tennessee … well, they won’t be worse in Marcus Mariota’s second year.
Then you look at the Indy roster, which showcased myriad holes last season, and realize not a lot has changed. The defense is going to be a liability, the pass-protection is going to struggle, and the run-game is going to be non-existent. Luck is the best QB in the division and I expect him to play better than last year, but the team as a whole isn’t built to win.