Many players, coaches, units and teams are expected to rise and falls with the NFL tide in 2014. Who should fans keep a close eye on?
Riser: Barkevious Mingo
It wasn’t a terrible debut for an NFL rookie, but expectations were a little bit higher for Barkevious Mingo in 2013. Despite being a 1st round pick he only started three games and posted five sacks. It has led some to wonder if he has a future under new head coach Mike Pettine, but there is reason for optimism. He has more experience, which is important. However the biggest help to him will be the new cornerback tandem of Joe Haden and Justin Gilbert. If they play up to their billing, quarterbacks will be forced to hold the ball, allowing Mingo more opportunities to swell that sack total.
Faller: Arizona Cardinals defense
Antonio Cromartie and Deone Bucannon were nice additions to the Arizona Cardinals secondary. It was their weak point last season and dealt with accordingly. Unfortunately it has covered up two critical losses to their powerful front seven. First was the depature of Karlos Dansby in free agency (122 tackles, 6.5 sacks and 4 INTs). Then came the secondary blow of Daryl Washington (75 tackles, 3 sacks and 2 INTs) earning a suspension for the 2014 season. In one fell swoop the entire interior of the Cardinals linebacking corps has been gutted. Replacing that kind of production is next to impossible in the short-term, which means the 6th overall defense is due for a sizeable dip.
Riser: New York Jets offense
Obviously the success of any NFL offense is predicated on the quarterback play. The New York Jets still need to find theirs between Geno Smith and Michael Vick. Still, from a pure talent perspective Gang Green looks better than ever. From the running backs to the offensive line and receivers the unit is better than it was in 2013 when it ranked 25th overall in the league. Even if there is only modest improvement at quarterback, there is enough talent on the roster now for a sizeable jump to be expected on the stat sheet, which will perfectly compliment that defense.
Faller: Cam Newton
Few quarterbacks, or players for that matter, were more brilliant on an individual level last season than Cam Newton. For long stretches he was the Carolina Panthers offense, totaling 30 touchdowns and just 14 turnovers, and earning his second Pro Bowl honor. At the same time the offense around him has not gotten significantly better. He lost his left tackle in Jordan Gross and his top receiver in Steve Smith. Kelvin Benjamin was added to help the cause but he comes with questions of his own. As great as Newton is, he can’t hope to top what he did a season ago with this latest supporting cast.
Riser: Jay Cutler
By that same token things couldn’t be looking much better for Jay Cutler. He has a fat new contract, an intact offensive line, an arsenal of weaponry and is entering the second season in the same offensive scheme for the first time in three years. At age 31 he is in him prime and out of excuses to excel. In fact the only thing standing in his way is himself, namely his body. Cutler has missed 13 games dating back to his arrival with the Chicago Bears in 2009 including five last year. His ability to stay on the field will dictate just how high he can fly this NFL season.
Faller: Marvin Lewis
Speaking of no more excuses, that can also be attributed to Cincinnati Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis. He has survived numerous close calls for years dating back to 2003 but may not be able to avoid the axe if his team suffers a letdown. The Bengals, on paper, have one of the strongest rosters in the league. They seem poised to take that all important next step to championship contention. However, it’s important to note that during his tenure Lewis has not won a single playoff game in five chances. That sort of record inevitably catches up to a man, and may do so for Lewis if he can’t deliver this year.