2015 Season Preview: Orlando Predators
The historically dominant Orlando Predators found their way back on top last season, as they won their first division title since 2006 in a year where everything looked like it was going to go wrong. The Preds have a history which looks like they can once again compete, but a tougher Southern Division could give them problems in 2015.
2014 in review (11-7, Southern Division champions)
In many respects, the 2014 Predators were the biggest embarrassment in franchise history. They had their 10 worst-attended home games ever thanks to the fact that they moved to CFE Arena, and they had three different sets of owners over the course of the year.
However, the Preds became known as a band of misfits, one which this writer became famous for saying that they would win just four games. Orlando feared no one, and it was ready to give every opponent its best shot… literally. The Predators led the league in personal foul penalties in 2014, and they essentially became the WWE-style heels of the AFL by playing until the echo of the echo of the whistle and jabbing with anyone who got in their way.
As we know, they went on to win 11 times over the course of the year and reach the penultimate stage of the season, coming up short against the Cleveland Gladiators in the American Conference Championship Game.
The stats were never really pretty for the Predators; they only just barely outscored their opponents, their quarterback play was never truly solidified with Jason Boltus or Bernard Morris, and their defense once had a stretch of seven games without a sack.
Still, Orlando had the uncanny ability to figure out how to win games. It wasn't quite Cleveland-esque, but the Predators won seven games last season by one score, and that doesn't include the 59-50 win over the Jacksonville Sharks which they were trailing by eight with 30 seconds to play.
Part of the reason that the Preds were so good last season is because they raided Jacksonville's roster. The two teams pulled off a blockbuster of a deal before the start of the season in which Aaron Garcia was traded to Jacksonville for three men, including Morris. No one reported at the start of the season on either side though, and when Garcia decided to report to Jacksonville, the Predators got some extra compensation in the form of Tracy Belton. Morris later reported to Orlando and led the team to within a game of the ArenaBowl.
This year, Rob Keefe went back to the Sharks for more men, bringing in Aaron Robbins. Robbins was one of the best hybrid linemen/mack linebackers in the league, while Berry proved to be a force in the past for the Sharks in his tenure there in 2012.
Spokane was the other team which the Preds raided. Of course, Keefe has ties to Spokane from his days with the Shock, and he was able to pull off four very underrated signees from his old team in Brandon Thompkins, Jeremy Geathers, Paul Stevens and Ryan Cave.
The Predators also essentially flipped quarterbacks with the Tampa Bay Storm in the offseason, as Jason Boltus and Randy Hippeard exchanged jerseys. Justin Hilton, whom we will speak about more in just a minute, was also signed from Tampa Bay.
Aside from Boltus, there aren't a lot of changes here for the Preds. Khalil Paden, the team's second-leading receiver from last year is now playing in the CFL, while Tanner Varner headed off to the Las Vegas Outlaws in the dispersal draft. Eddie Moten hasn't resigned at this point, and we have to believe that he is going to ultimately not be on the roster with all of the defensive backs which Keefe has brought in this offseason.
The 2015 season will be a success if…
Someone can throw the football. The acquisition of Hippeard makes us believe that there is at least a shadow of doubt that Morris is going to be back this season, and that could be bad news for the Predators.
One way or the other, Orlando is going to have to hang onto the football. Morris did a good job with that, throwing just six picks against 47 touchdowns on the season, but if it is Hippeard who plays, he will have to cut down on his 23 picks from a campaign ago.
Orlando's 2015 MVP will be…
Hilton. And it's easy to see why just by looking at him. At 6-foot-2, Hilton is an athletic freak of nature, and when put next to Greg Carr, these two could combine forces to be one of the best receiving duos in the league.
Keefe showed time and time again that he was willing to float the ball up to Carr in the end zone from five yards away or 45 yards away. Hippeard doesn't have the arm to do the latter, but when Orlando is down in near the end zone, having not just one, but two monsters to throw the ball up to is borderline unfair in a league where most DBs run around 5-foot-10 or so.
In 2015, the Orlando Predators will win…
11 games. The fact of the matter is that the Preds are more talented than they were last season, especially if Morris is going to play the whole year. However, three of their wins from last season came against Jacksonville, a team which is a whole heck of a lot better than it was a campaign ago. The Predators aren't winning the ArenaBowl this year, but they certainly deserve a lot of credit for the moves which they made in the offseason. The only question which looms is whether the team is going to bond together after a tumultuous offseason which saw Keefe suspended for domestic violence charges which have since been dropped. If so, Orlando will be headed back to the playoffs once again, but with Jacksonville in the division still, just repeating last year's feat of reaching the American Conference Championship Game is probably the ceiling.
Keep an eye out for our ArenaFan team-by-team previews for the 2015 season. Tomorrow... Spokane Shock