Five MVP candidates
QB Peyton Manning, Broncos: Any conversation about MVPs begins with Manning, who was selected the NFL’s Most Valuable Player for an unprecedented fifth time in 2013. While Manning suffered through a miserable Super Bowl performance against Seattle, he set NFL single-season records in passing yards (5,477) and touchdowns (55) last year. He spreads the ball to a bevy of targets, and four of his receivers had at least 10 TD catches in 2013. Though he lost one of his favorite targets, Eric Decker, to free agency, Manning will benefit from the signing of speedy Emmanuel Sanders and will have even more time to throw if left tackle Ryan Clady is fully recovered from missing all of last year because of knee surgery.
QB Tom Brady, Patriots: It’s hard to believe Brady, a two-time MVP, is 37 and the last player left from the New England teams that won three Super Bowls during 2001-04. Ten years is a long time between rings for Brady, who last year became the first starting quarterback in NFL history to win 11 division championships. No matter what supporting cast coach Bill Belichick finds for Brady, his career winning percentage of .775 (148-43) is the best of any NFL quarterback with at least 100 starts.
QB Drew Brees, Saints: Brees has yet to win an MVP award in his 14-year career, but few players have meant more to their franchise and city. There have been eight individual 5,000-yard passing seasons in NFL history, and Brees owns four of them, including the last three seasons. And of the top five individual passing-yard seasons in NFL history, Brees owns three of those. This year, Brees can extend his NFL record streak of consecutive seasons with at least 30 touchdown passes to seven and can become the first player to lead the league in touchdown passes five times in a career.
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QB Russell Wilson, Seahawks: The Seahawks were built on a rugged defense and running attack, but Wilson was the calming influence on a team that played on the edge and whipped Denver 43-8 in Super Bowl XLVII. Simply put, Wilson is a winner. In his first two NFL seasons, he won 24 games, the most by a quarterback in the Super Bowl era. Including the postseason, Wilson has won 28 games, the most by a quarterback in his first two NFL seasons. And with 52 touchdown passes, he joined Hall of Famers Dan Marino (68) and Peyton Manning (52) as the only quarterbacks to throw at least 50 TD passes in their first two seasons.
RB Jamaal Charles: Charles is a fantasy football owner’s dream, and few teams are so dependent on one player to do so much. Charles accounted for 35.6 percent of the Chiefs’ offense as a rusher and receiver. He scored an NFL-most 19 touchdowns in 2013, including a career-best 12 rushing scores. He led the AFC in rushing with 1,287 yards and added a team-best 70 receptions for a club-leading 693 yards, and that’s without playing in the regular-season finale at San Diego. The Chiefs scored 44 points in their playoff loss at Indianapolis without Charles, who suffered a first-quarter concussion, but his absence was sorely felt when they were unable to pick up first downs and run time off the clock in the second half.
Five free agents who are big gambles
RB Maurice Jones-Drew, Raiders: Jones-Drew is two seasons removed from a career-best 1,606 yards and 11 touchdowns at Jacksonville, and managed just 3.4 yards per carry with 234 attempts for 803 yards last year for the woeful Jaguars. Now, Jones-Drew is in Oakland, where so many washed-up veterans finish their careers. But it’s a homecoming for Jones, who played high school football in the Bay Area, and could also be a rebirth.
RB Chris Johnson, Jets: Johnson’s drop in production the last couple of seasons has raised questions about whether he has passed the point of being a top-flight runner in the NFL. Johnson, who rushed for 2,006 yards in 2009, believes there’s plenty left in his tank and said “it’s not hard to be the top guy” in a league where most of the top backs are running for 1,100 or 1,200 yards. Johnson, who turns 29 in September, ran for 1,077 yards last year, but his longest run was just 30 yards, an indication he’s lost some of that world-class speed.
KR Devin Hester, Falcons: Hester one day will be the first player inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a kick returner, but his debut for Atlanta and was marked by fumbling his first punt return in a preseason game. On his second, he lost 2 yards. Hester, 31, holds the NFL record for punt-return touchdowns with 13, and for combined career return touchdowns with 19 during eight seasons with the Chicago Bears. But the days of his dazzling returns might be over.
CB Champ Bailey, Saints: Bailey, 36, finally fulfilled his dream of playing in a Super Bowl last season with Denver, but coming off a knee injury and visibly slowing down, only an injury to Chris Harris enabled Bailey to get back on the field. Another sure-fire future Hall of Famer, Bailey will be a positive locker-room influence for the Saints, but his days as an elite cover corner are behind him.
QB Michael Vick, Jets: The Jets are hedging their bets on second-year quarterback Geno Smith’s development by having Vick in the bullpen. No matter what the Jets say about competition at quarterback, the starting job will be Smith’s as long as he doesn’t lose it. Coincidentally or not, the Jets ran a series of Wildcat plays during a recent practice as a way to get Vick more involved in the offense.
Five wide receivers on the move
DeSean Jackson, Washington: Apparently, a career-best 82 receptions for 1,332 yards and nine touchdowns at Philadelphia wasn’t enough for coach Chip Kelly, who released Jackson at the end of the 2013 season. It didn’t take long for Jackson to find another job in the NFC East. He signed a three-year contract with Washington worth up to $24 million.
Hakeem Nicks, Colts: Hicks was a money receiver during his five years with the Giants, including a huge 2011 postseason capped by a game-most 10 catches for 109 yards in their Super Bowl XLVI win over New England. But in 2013, Nicks caught 56 passes for 896 yards but no touchdowns, and the Giants let him walk in free agency. Nicks will be one of Andrew Luck’s go-to receivers after signing a one-year, $5.5 million contract with Indianapolis.
Eric Decker, Jets: Denver couldn’t fit all that talent under the salary cap, especially after adding DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward to the defense, so Decker signed a five-year, $36.25 million deal with the Jets. Decker averaged 86 receptions, 1,176 yards and 12 TDs playing with Peyton Manning. It may be a different story with Geno Smith.
WR Steve Smith, Ravens: Smith, the Carolina Panthers’ career leading receiver and perhaps the best player in franchise history, was let go last spring when he declined to take a pay cut. Smith, 35, may have lost a step and caught just 64 passes last season, but he brings a kind of toughness to the Baltimore offense that the club has long had on defense.
WR Golden Tate, Lions: Tate, 26, gives the Lions something they desperately needed, a second receiving threat to take the heat off Calvin Johnson. Tate is coming off the most productive season of his career, grabbing 64 passes for 898 yards and five touchdowns for the Super Bowl champion Seahawks, who don’t throw the ball very much. His 7.8 yards after the catch led the NFL and helped earn him a five-year contract worth up to $31 million.
Five rookies to watch
QB Blake Bortles, Jaguars: Thanks to ESPN’s incessant coverage, the football world’s attention is on Cleveland’s Johnny Manziel. But the first rookie quarterback to start a game could be Bortles, the third overall pick in the draft. Veteran Chad Henne is still considered the starter, but for a franchise desperate for an effective quarterback, Bortles, from Central Florida, has looked the part, at least against second-teamers. Second-year coach Gus Bradley’s tenure will be tied to Bortles’ performance.
ILB C.J. Mosley, Ravens: The Ravens hope they have found the heir to Ray Lewis in Mosley, their first-round pick from Alabama. Mosley displayed speed, aggressiveness and good instincts in leading the Ravens with five tackles and a sack in their 23-3 preseason victory over San Francisco. The Butkus Award winner sacked 49ers backup quarterback Blaine Gabbert on a blitz when he busted through running back Jewel Hampton’s blocking attempt.
RB De’Anthony Thomas, Chiefs: Thomas may be the most exciting player to wear a Chiefs uniform since Dante Hall (don’t even mention Dexter McCluster in the same breath). Thomas’ breakaway speed has been electric whether he’s taking a handoff in the backfield, catching a pass in the flat or returning a kick. Though he’s the smallest position player on the field, it looks like he can take a hit as well.
WR Brandin Cooks, Saints: Cooks, who missed almost all of the Saints’ offseason workouts because he was finishing the semester at Oregon State, turned a lot of heads in training camp. QB Drew Brees can’t wait to take advantage of Cooks’ speed and ability to make yards after the catch. “Man, watching his explosive ability kind of navigating those blocks, then hitting a seam … if he hits a seam, he’s gone,” Brees said.
RB Devonta Freeman, Falcons: Few suspected Freeman, a fourth-round pick from national champion Florida State, was in line to be a centerpiece of the offense this season. But featured back Steven Jackson, 31, missed much of camp because of a hamstring injury, the fourth straight year he’s had a soft-tissue injury early in the season. Freeman, 5 feet 8 and 206 pounds, rushed 173 times for 1,016 yards last season and became Florida State’s first 1,000-yard rusher since former Falcon Warrick Dunn accomplished that feat in 1996.
Five coaches to watch
Mike Tomlin, Steelers: The Steelers are known for stability. It’s why they’ve had just three head coaches since 1969. But after going 60-28 in Tomlin’s first five seasons, including two Super Bowl appearances, Pittsburgh is coming off successive 8-8 records. The Steelers haven’t had three consecutive non-winning seasons since 1969-71 — Chuck Noll’s first three years. Think the pressure isn’t on? Tomlin, 42, signed a three-year extension through 2016, paying him about $6 million per year. Tomlin laughed when asked about having three ex-head coaches — Dick LeBeau, Mike Munchak and Todd Haley — on his staff. “Hopefully (when the season ends), I’m not one of them,” he said.
Tom Coughlin, Giants: Coughlin, at 67, is the oldest coach in the NFL and has a contract that runs through the 2015 season. Some believe the two-time Super Bowl winner has earned the right to decide when his run as the team’s coach comes to an end. But the Giants have missed the playoffs the last two years, and they were barely competitive at times during a mistake-filled 7-9 season last year. The grace period from those Super Bowls has to come to an end sometime.
Chip Kelly, Eagles: Kelly is doing things differently in Philadelphia after making the jump from the college game at Oregon. Not only with his much-discussed fast-paced offense, but also with everything from practice schedules to his strong emphasis on sleep and nutrition, to cutting one of his most talented players in receiver DeSean Jackson. The Eagles went 10-6 and won the NFC East, but that collegial control goes only so far in the pros.
Bill O’Brien, Texans: O’Brien, a Bill Belichick disciple at New England, took on the mammoth task of putting back the pieces of Penn State’s program following the Joe Paterno/Jerry Sandusky scandal. Now he’s moved on to rebuild a Houston team that went from trendy Super Bowl pick to a league-worst 2-14 last season. The Texans lost nine games by seven or fewer points last year, and much of that was attributed to foolish penalties and turnovers that O’Brien hopes to clean up. The Belichick tree has not borne much fruit as head coaches — Josh McDaniel, Charlie Weis, Romeo Crennel, to name a few — and Crennel has resurfaced in the role he fills best, as O’Brien’s defensive coordinator.
Jim Harbaugh, 49ers: Harbaugh has led San Francisco to three consecutive NFC championship games and one Super Bowl, but there’s been some friction between him and general manager Trent Baalke — remember all the reports about Harbaugh’s being traded to Cleveland last spring — and he’s in the fourth year of a five-year contract at $5 million a year. Harbaugh, 50, could be a hot property after this season, no matter how the 49ers fare.
AFC West champion: Denver
AFC East: New England
AFC North: Cincinnati
AFC South: Indianapolis
AFC wild cards: San Diego, Pittsburgh
AFC champion: Denver
NFC West champion: San Francisco
NFC East: Philadelphia
NFC North: Chicago
NFC South: New Orleans
NFC wild cards: Seattle, Green Bay
NFC champion: San Francisco
Super Bowl champion: Denver