By: Scott Brock-Wilson and Justin Lynch
Andrew Luck (+1600) to lead the NFL in passing yards
An injury-riddled 2015 campaign stifled Luck’s ascension among the league’s best, but this season should be different. Luck finished third in passing in 2014 and had he played all 16 games at the pace he set in his seven outings, he would have finished with nearly 4300 yards, sliding him ahead of notable slingers Matthew Stafford and Blake Bortles.
Now, that mark would only have been good enough for seventh in the league, but Luck played many of those games through the injuries that would eventually end his season. His schedule also didn’t do him any favors. He faced the Jets, Patriots, Panthers, and Broncos in his short-lived season, and only got to relish in one outing versus his lowly division rivals.
This offseason the Colts invested in Luck’s health, using their first-round pick on center Ryan Kelly from Alabama. Their style of play may also shift to keeping Luck safer. Without a true deep threat, the Colts have spent their resources on quick receivers capable of making plays after the catch. This group is led by T. Y. Hilton, but will likely see an influx of Phillip Dorsett, who was seldom used last season. Luck still won’t be afraid to throw downfield, but if he adjusts his game to suit his team’s personnel, we could see a whole new side of Luck.
Simple changes like this reduce the time Luck holds onto the ball, reducing his chances of getting hit, and therefore helping him stay on the field. The AFC South also looks like it is finally turning around, and that may mean more close games for the Colts, who will undoubtedly turn to Luck to bail them out. Luck, and the Colts, are primed for a return to the postseason, and at +1600 you won’t find better value.
Arizona Cardinals to win the NFC (+600) and Super Bowl (+1200)
The Cardinals ended last season losing 49-15 to Carolina in the NFC title game, but they were so impressive all year long it is tough to see that performance as anything other than a fluke. The Cardinals were 13-3 last year and boast maybe the most talented roster in the NFL.
A defense led by the athleticism and playmaking of Patrick Peterson, Tyrann Mathieu, and Deone Bucannon now has the front line to match. Calais Campbell returns, but he is joined Robert Nkemdiche, an interior terror, and Chandler Jones, who casually posted 12.5 sacks last season in New England.
If that wasn’t enough, the Cardinals have one of the most talented offenses. David Johnson broke out last season, averaging 4.6 yards per attempt, and will be joined by Chris Johnson and Andre Ellington to complete a three-headed attack in the backfield. But just to keep defenses honest, the Cardinals will throw out a receiving trio of Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd, and John Brown, who many believe to be the future of this passing attack. Up front, the Cardinals bring back an offensive line widely believed to be among the league’s best.
Bruce Arians is one of the best two or three coaches in the league, and is ready to let his guys loose. However, all this becomes relatively null if not for one thing: Carson Palmer’s health. The biggest question mark of this team isn’t in personal, coaching or schedule, it’s whether or not Palmer will hold up for the entire season.
I believe that, though injury is certainly a risk, you cannot pass up on this value for the Cardinals because Palmer may or may not get injured. Everyone may or may not get injured, Palmer just has a more noted history of it. So, I’ll ride with Arizona, and hope for health.
Kansas City Chiefs (+225) to win the AFC West
The Chiefs rattled off an 11-game winning streak before being falling to the Patriots in the divisional round of last year’s playoffs. This year, the Chiefs bring back the majority of last year’s crew, but lost key secondary members Tyvon Branch and Sean Smith. Still, this group has enough to jet past the Broncos and finally claim the division crown after finishing second place each of the last three years.
Andy Reid has always been one of the best offensive-minded coaches in football, but this year may be his first opportunity to see if Alex Smith can take a mini-step. Smith has never had talent around him like he does this year with Travis Kelce, Jeremy Maclin, and Jamaal Charles all healthy and experienced in Andy Reid’s system. Of course, Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware should play roles as change of pace backs as well.
Defensively, the team may take a step back, mainly due to the aforementioned losses in the secondary. Their linebacking core is aging (Derrick Johnson will turn 34 during the season and Tamba Hali will turn 33 during the season), and it remains to be seen if Marcus Peters, a boom-or-bust corner, can make as many booms this season.
But even if you are wary of the Chiefs, somebody has to win the AFC West. The Broncos may have sured up any offensive line troubles with the Russell Okung signing, but they also lost a lot of talent. Danny Trevathan and Malik Jackson, who combined started 31 out of 32 possible games last season, both walked, as did starting tight end Owen Daniels, and heir-apparent quarterback Brock Osweiler. Trevor Simien and Mark Sanchez are now fighting for the starting role, with Paxton Lynch lurking somewhere under the surface.
Sanchez has managed his way to playoff wins before, but against one of the 10-12 toughest schedules it’s just tough to see him resurrecting himself enough to win a lot of football games. Gary Kubiak quietly made Matt Schaub a real quarterback, but that was after several years in the system.
The Broncos defense will be top-tier again, but the skill positions seem to be lacking. Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders are really good players, but we saw what happened when their quarterback couldn’t make the throws. Also, the Super Bowl hangover is real, and it’s coming for Denver.
The Chiefs only other competition seems to be Oakland, who by all accounts seems to be next in line and ready for a major leap. They signed some big names to bolster their defense (Sean Smith, Reggie Nelson, Bruce Irvin), and bring back Amari Cooper, Michael Crabtree, and Latavius Murray on offense.
In all honesty, I have nothing to say to knock the Raiders other than that they are dangerously thin and may not be able to withstand a harsh case of the injury bug. Khalil Mack is one of the best defenders in football, and this team seems ready to make a leap. I’m just not sure it will be this season. Andy Reid is consistent, and he is going to around 10 games, like he seemingly does every year. The Chiefs also face the 25th toughest schedule after playing the seventh toughest schedule last season. The Raiders may make a push, but this season the Chiefs will finally win the AFC West.
Russell Wilson for MVP (+800)
Why not? Russell Wilson was the best QB in the league during the second half of last year. In his last 7 games, he threw 24 TDs to just 1 interception. In 6 of those 7 games he had over a 90 QBR. He developed a strong connection with Baldwin, turning him into a wide receiver that produced #1 WR numbers. This year along with Baldwin, the Seahawks return Tyler Lockett, who appears to be an up and coming star.
The Seahawks will be one of the best teams in a difficult NFC once again this year. Therefore, being the QB on the one of the best teams already puts him in the MVP conversation. If he can just put up similar stats to the end of last season, he has a real shot at winning the MVP.
I believe his biggest competition will be Aaron Rodgers because of the potential bounce back year. However, because Seattle will end up being the better team, Wilson could get the nod over Rodgers. Newton is less of a concern because his huge year last year may actually hurt him. I doubt he will put up as good as numbers along with such a good record. Roethlisberger seems to have trouble staying healthy, and Brady will have an uphill climb after missing the first 4 games.
Cowboys to win NFC East (+175)
The Cowboys are set up to steamroll the NFC East with the defense being the only real concern. Up front they are weak after losing Greg Hardy and without Rolando McClain for the first 10 games. They will need to count on Tyrone Crawford to provide the majority of the pass rush this season. The added Cedric Thornton from the Eagles, needing him to be the inside run-stuffer for this defense, setting the tone. However, everyone knows this defensive front seven really comes down to the health of Sean Lee, one of the best linebackers when healthy. In the secondary they have the potential talent in Scandrick, Jones, Claiborne, and Carr, but they need to take a huge step up after a below average year last season. I expect this unit to improve, but still only right around the league average marks.
The offense is set up for a HUGE season. Coming off of last year where Romo only played four games, they were awful, but that was a fluke season. Assuming Romo can stay healthy, which is easier said than done, this team can contend with anybody in a shoot out. With Romo back, Dez expects to return to his 2014 level where he had a league-leading 16 touchdowns. In terms of how good Elliott can be, just read below.
Ezekiel Elliott to lead the league in rushing yards (+1200)
As I said during the entirety of last year, Elliott was the best player on the OSU roster, and he proved it. Elliott had back to back 1800+ rushing seasons at OSU in his Sophomore and Junior season. He has the potential to possibly reach that number again except this time in the NFL. He is no doubt the best running back in his draft class.
He compares favorably to Todd Gurley, the best running back in last year’s draft class. Gurley’s career high in college for both rushes (222) and yards (1385) was in his freshman season due to injury in his final two seasons. He was coming off a torn ACL going into the draft and was still the first RB taken. He missed the first four games due to the ACL before running for 1100+ yards in just under 230 carries. Elliott, who was better in college, is coming into the NFL healthier and into a much, much better situation with the Cowboys than Gurley with the Rams.
Elliott has the same league-leading offensive line that DeMarco Murray did in 2014. Murray had his career year, leading the NFL in rushing two years ago with 1845 rushing yards. This offensive line has only improved with more experience since then. Murray had nearly 400 carries, and Elliott, being a 3-down workhorse at OSU had nearly 300 carries in 13 games, just behind the pace of Murray’s breakout year. Elliott will be handle the bigger workload as
The Cowboys want to be able to run the ball like they did in 2014 because it takes the pressure off of Romo and allows him to sling it. This team is set up for success offensively and Elliot will be a huge part in that.
Jordy Nelson to lead the league in receiving yards (+1800)
In 2014, the last full season Nelson played, he was 4th in receiving yards. The Packers offense was 1st in points per game that year, while they dropped to 15th without him last year. Having Nelson back opens up the whole offense for the Packers. Now Cobb will be much more comfortable at the #2 WR position and less pressure is on both Rodgers and Lacy. I expect Nelson to be in contention for comeback player of the year with the huge potential that this offense holds with him.
Even with the stiff competition in this category, I think he has an outside shot, and with this pay out, it just may be worth it. Julio Jones may have trouble staying healthy and same with Big Ben (affecting Brown). Green is less of a yards guy in my mind and will now have literally the entire defense focused on him, getting at least double coverage every time. I believe his biggest competition will be between Beckham Jr. and Hopkins.