After a long off-season of signings, draft fallout and what seemed like the longest pre-season ever, the NFL season is finally upon us.
Now, with one hell of an NFL Kickoff matchup just hours away, the NFL panel at sportsnet.ca is dying to make their predictions for all the major awards of 2014 and venture which team will end up hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
MOST VALUABLE PLAYER
BATTLE: Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers — His stats put him on pace for 4,500 yards and 30 TDs but he missed seven games with an injured collarbone — which has fully healed. He hasn’t put up a quarterback rating lower than 101.2 in the last five seasons, and will start the season with the first established run game of his career.
DUNK: Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans Saints — It’s amazing to think Brees has never won an NFL MVP award. He has thrown for over 5,000 yards and 39 or more touchdowns for three straight seasons – flat-out ridiculous numbers. And in 2014 he has the best array of weapons he’s ever had around him.
HEATH-RAWLINGS: Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans — It seems strange, but Brees has never won this award. Not even that year he broke the single-season passing record. This year, that changes. The addition of lightning-quick rookie Brandin Cooks on screen passes and a more power-oriented running game keeps defenders tethered to the line of scrimmage and opens up all sorts of intriguing possibilities for coach Sean Payton.
LOWE: Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans Saints — The Saints are loaded with explosive talent in the passing game, from the league’s most dynamic tight end in Jimmy Graham to rookie speedster Brandin Cooks. But, still with a cannon at age 35, Brees is the man that brings it all together. Look for a fourth straight 5,000-plus yard season from No. 9.
SIMMONS: Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers — With a solid offensive line and a running game at his disposal, Rodgers is due for a monster year. Expect close to 5,000 yards; he’s going to sling the rock all over the field.
OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
BATTLE: Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers — See above. His collarbone has healed, and he's ready to go.
DUNK: LeSean McCoy, RB, Philadelphia Eagles — If Peyton Manning didn’t blow up seemingly every single season passing record McCoy would’ve taken home this award last year. Philly’s dynamic 26-year-old running back might be the most dangerous player with the football in his hands in the NFL. And he’s the main playmaker on an Eagles’ offence that will get him plenty of touches and chances to score.
HEATH-RAWLINGS: Calvin Johnson, WR, Detroit Lions — Recall, if you will, the receivers who have started opposite Calvin Johnson that demand serious defensive attention. Can't really think of any? Me neither. The acquisition of Golden Tate means Megatron likely sees a decent amount single coverage this season, and attempting to cover Calvin Johnson with one defender is basically just doing your best to hand him this award.
LOWE: LeSean McCoy, RB, Philadelphia Eagles — McCoy put up astronomical numbers in his first season under coach Chip Kelly with 2,146 yards and 11 total touchdowns. Now more familiar with Kelly’s complex offence and big-time playmaker DeSean Jackson off to Washington, McCoy will be the key to the Eagles’ success.
SIMMONS: Dez Bryant, WR, Dallas Cowboys — Simply put, the Cowboys are going to be atrocious on defence this season. Combine that with the addition of pass-heavy offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, and the Cowboys are going to be throwing A LOT. Bryant's targets/numbers should spike dramatically as a result. Did I mention he’s also trying to get a new contract?
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
BATTLE: J.J. Watt, DE, Houston Texans — Jadeveon Clowney's going to draw his fair share of attention, which means fewer double teams for Watt. Which means more Watt sacks.
DUNK: J.J. Watt, DE, Houston Texans — Houston’s monster defensive lineman is virtually unblockable. His strength, length and size make him truly special and he’s got the type of attitude to play even harder after signing a massive (six-year, $100 million with over $51 million guaranteed) contract to prove he’s worth every last penny.
HEATH-RAWLINGS: J.J. Watt, DE, Houston Texans — Watt is the best defensive player in football and it's not even close. This season—with Jadeveon Clowney making it extremely difficult for teams to double-team Watt—he leads the league in sacks and forced fumbles and we all remember just how much better he is than the next guy.
(Runner-up: Darrelle Revis, who will finally be back to his utterly dominant self under Bill Belichick.)
LOWE: Luke Kuechly, LB, Carolina Panthers — Nobody has won Defensive Player of the Year two years in a row since Lawrence Taylor did it in 1981-82. If anyone can do it, it's Kuechly. At just 23 years old, Kuechly is the emotional and physical leader on of one of the league’s top defences. Expect this already well-seasoned linebacker to take another step toward greatness in 2014.
SIMMONS: Gerald McCoy, DT, Tampa Bay Buccaneers — It’s rare for a defensive tackle to win this award, but not unprecedented. Warren Sapp won in 1999, Dana Stubblefield in 1997 and Cortez Kennedy took home the prize in 1992 (on a 2-14 team!). Playing in Lovie Smith’s “Tampa 2” for the first time, McCoy is going to blow up this year—and in a good way. If it wasn’t for the disaster that was Greg Schiano last season, the dominant interior rusher would’ve got the recognition he deserved.
COACH OF THE YEAR
BATTLE: Lovie Smith, Tampa Bay Buccaneers — If we're judging this based purely on merit, Belichick probably gets it every year—but this award more than any other is about the story. Which coach pushes his team from the fringe to division domination? Who turns around a moribund franchise? My money's on Smith capitalizing on existing talent and looking good in the wake of Greg Schiano's mess.
DUNK: Chip Kelly, Philadelphia Eagles — Kelly is the NFL’s leading innovator at the moment. Teams around the league are copying his offensive model and going up-tempo. On offence With Kelly leading the squad, Philadelphia is an under the radar team to make a deep playoff run.
HEATH-RAWLINGS: Jim Caldwell, Detroit Lions — Caldwell won't be the best coach in the NFL this season, but he'll look like it after Jim Schwartz's legacy in Detroit. The Lions go 10-6, make the playoffs and Caldwell gets the credit.
LOWE: Lovie Smith, Tampa Bay Buccaneers — Despite a solid roster, the Bucs were a big ol’ mess last season, getting off to a horrendous start under Greg Schiano and never recovering. Smith improved Tampa in the off-season and brings the coaching experience that could get this team in check. Smith will do with the Bucs what Andy Reid did with the Chiefs in 2013.
SIMMONS: Bill O’Brien, Houston Texans — This rarely goes to the best coach, but to the coach who leads the biggest turnaround. So in that case the pick will be O’Brien. Although he has a highly questionable quarterback situation, O’Brien will help the Texans bounce back from their disastrous 2-14 season. He has the pass rushers and the offensive weapons to compete right away in the underwhelming AFC South.
OFFENSIVE ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
BATTLE: Brandin Cooks, WR, New Orleans Saints — He's quick, fast and has great hands, and there's a major role for him to fill now that Darren Sproles is in Philadelphia. Cooks might just lead the Saints in receptions.
DUNK: Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Carolina Panthers — After quickly developing a rapport with Cam Newton in training camp, Benjamin is going to be the Panthers No. 1 receiving option. Carolina’s first round pick stands at six-foot-five. He will be a dangerous red zone weapon after scoring 15 touchdowns in his final season at Florida State.
HEATH-RAWLINGS: Brandin Cooks, WR, New Orleans Saints — See MVP: Drew Brees -- Cooks is going to score a lot of long touchdowns on those screen passes, and those plays make highlights and highlights make awards like this.
LOWE: Bishop Sankey, RB, Tennessee Titans — Brandin Cooks is a popular pick here – and with good reason – but there are a handful of quality pass catchers in New Orleans and that could affect Cooks’ production. Sankey, on the other hand, has already risen to No. 2 on the depth chart behind only Shonn Greene. Translation: He’ll be starting by October.
SIMMONS: Blake Bortles, QB, Jacksonville Jaguars — This won’t be a popular pick; he’s not even the starting quarterback yet. But do you really expect Chad Henne to hold him off for long? Once the team hands the offence over to Bortles, he’ll quickly emerge as the best quarterback in this draft class. He made eye-opening throws all throughout the pre-season.
DEFENSIVE ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
BATTLE: Jadeveon Clowney, DE, Houston Texans — He'll get the same benefit from Watt as Watt gets from him. Namely, fewer blockers' primary focus. The Texans' pass rush will be scary, and he could feast on QBs flushed from the pocket.
DUNK: C.J. Mosley, LB, Baltimore Ravens — A starter in a prime spot to rack up tackles, some scouts feel Mosley was the most complete three-down defensive player coming out of college. A background in Alabama’s pro style defensive scheme should help Mosley produce at a high level right away.
HEATH-RAWLINGS: Ryan Shazier, LB, Pittsburgh Steelers — I will share with you the secret for picking the DROY: Make a list of rookie linebackers who will be starting from Week 1 and look at who they're replacing in the lineup. If they’re replacing basically nobody of note and they’re on a team that doesn't throw the ball too much (making for high scores and lots of passes and fewer tackle attempts for linebackers), you've got yourself a good candidate.
(Note: We gave you Kiko Alonso in this space last year based on this same methodology. You're welcome.)
LOWE: Jadeveon Clowney, DE, Houston Texans — The hype around Clowney heading into his final college season was almost insufferable, but the Texans made the right call taking him with the top pick. Clowney displayed his explosive ability a couple of times in the pre-season and if he stays healthy he should cause nightmares for offensive linemen. Oh, and playing opposite the best pass rusher in the game won’t hurt either.
SIMMONS: C.J. Mosley, LB, Baltimore Ravens — Mosley may not have the flashy athletic ability of Jadeveon Clowney or Ryan Shazier, but the Baltimore linebacker is a complete player in a prime position to succeed. He’s picked up the defensive scheme quickly and will play on all three downs as a rookie, meaning his tackle numbers will be huge.
BATTLE: New England Patriots — Gronk is back, Tom Brady's got actual receivers to throw to, and the defensive secondary has Darrelle Revis, their most accomplished corner in years. And Brady's legs and arm will benefit from the rest provided by playing six gimmes against AFC East competition.
DUNK: New England Patriots — Bill Belichick’s team is looking healthy and loaded on defence. Vince Wilfork, Chandler Jones, Jerod Mayo, Donta Hightower, Darrelle Revis, Devin McCourty and Brandon Browner, after his four-game suspension, gives New England plenty of chess pieces for Belichick to move around against Peyton Manning. Tom Brady appears to have his top target Rob Gronkowski back at 100 percent and that’s a game changer for the Pats offence.
HEATH-RAWLINGS: Denver Broncos — Same fantastic offence, now with an even better defence! The Patriots are the only threat, and the Broncos have too many weapons for them to counter, even with Revis.
LOWE: New England Patriots — The Patriots were able to reach the AFC Championship game last season with one of the most inexperienced rosters of the Brady-Belichick era. A healthy, more experienced receiving corps for Tom Brady plus a revamped defence will help the Pats push aside Peyton and the Broncos in the title game and onto their fifth Super Bowl trip since 2001.
SIMMONS: Denver Broncos — I know, this seems obvious. But there just isn’t much to work with here. It’s either Denver or New England, and the Broncos should be a more complete team with their free agent additions on defence plus the return of Ryan Clady and Von Miller. Those two were badly missed in the Super Bowl.
BATTLE: Seattle Seahawks — They're still big, young, strong and hungry, and they'll be battle-tested yet again in the NFL's version of the SEC.
DUNK: New Orleans Saints — Brees paired with Sean Payton, who might be the best offensive play caller in the league, and an underrated Rob Ryan-led defence is a recipe for a Super Bowl berth.
HEATH-RAWLINGS: New Orleans Saints — Because repeating is so rare in the NFL, it would be no fun to pick the Seahawks here. Also, the 49ers are ready to fall -- they'll win nine games, tops, and will be lucky to even make the playoffs. That's a free prediction for you.
LOWE: New Orleans Saints — The Saints offence is going to be unstoppable – this we know. But with an impressive front seven and the makings of a nasty secondary, it’s going to be the defence that makes the real difference in The Big Easy this season. The improvement will be enough to stop the defending champion Seahawks in the NFC title game and book a trip to Glendale.
SIMMONS: Green Bay Packers — Seattle has the most talented roster in the league, but it’s just so hard to repeat. Plus, the NFC West will be a grind to get through. So Green Bay is the pick here. They have the physical running game needed to win in January, plus the best quarterback in the conference. As they say, it’s a passing league.
SUPER BOWL CHAMPION
BATTLE: New England Patriots — Leave it to Brady and Bill Belichick to do something like this just when most have written them off in favour of the Broncos as the favourite in the AFC. It's been almost a year since a Boston sports team won something, and there's no way the sports gods let us ("us" being people outside Boston) enjoy this much longer.
DUNK: New England Patriots — Brady makes his record sixth Super Bowl start and gets fitted for his fourth NFL championship ring, tying his childhood hero Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw for the most all-time. New England’s window with No. 12 playing at an elite level is closing and Belichick knows his Pats need to win now before Brady rides off into the sunset with Gisele Bundchen forever.
HEATH-RAWLINGS: Denver Broncos — In a shootout we'll remember for years. And a second ring for Peyton Manning.
LOWE: New Orleans Saints — It might be the enhancements on defence that get these teams to Super Bowl XLIX, but it will be the offences that shine at University of Phoenix Stadium. Brees and Brady will go back and forth in a high-scoring affair, but ultimately the Saints prevail.
SIMMONS: Green Bay Packers — In a rematch of Super Bowl XXXII, Aaron Rodgers is able to outlast Peyton Manning in an epic duel of elite quarterbacks. Sorry Peyton, you’re still tied with Trent Dilfer and Brad Johnson in Super Bowl victories.