The End of An Era

7 01 2014

The BCS gave us 16 years of a system that had plenty of kinks and bumps along the way. Monday night’s game gave us plenty of missed tackles and dropped passes along the way.

In the end for both, though, was a perfect finish.

Redshirt freshman and Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston had himself a very special 20th birthday party Monday night.

Winston threw a 2-yard post pass to a place only Kelvin Benjamin—the second coming of Larry Fitzgerald—could get it with 13 seconds left, and the top-seeded Florida State Seminoles took down the Auburn Tigers 34-31 to take home the final BCS national title.

This was the best national championship game since Vince Young led the Texas Longhorns to a nail-biting 41-38 victory over the USC Trojans on this exact field and in a similar game-winning drive fashion.

After a third quarter that only had one Florida State field goal, the final 12 minutes consisted of five scores and three dramatic lead changes as destiny seemed to change along with it. (Even though there won’t be much talk of defense, the fact that Florida State held Auburn to 19 rushing yards in the third quarter should be considered as a huge reason Auburn was blanked in for those 15 minutes and momentum shifted.)

The final quarter gave football fans everything they could ask for—costly interception, kickoff return for a touchdown, game-winning touchdown. Auburn’s only turnover of the game was Nick Marshall’s interception early in the fourth quarter that allowed the Seminoles to pull within one point. Auburn didn’t make many mistakes on the night, but the ones they did make were costly. (Oh Chris Davis…)

After a Tigers field goal, Levonte Whitfield then decided to Auburn Auburn…or have Auburn be Alabama’d. However you look at it, Whitfield—a man who ran a 10.1 in the 100 meters, the third-fastest in high school history—gave the Seminoles their first lead since the first quarter and the national title game its first special teams touchdown since 2007.

But as Auburn has shown all season long, resiliency is in their blood, especially in Tre Mason’s. Finishing with 195 rushing yards, the most by a running back in a BCS Championship, the 5-10 running back bulldozed his way to a 37-yard touchdown to take back the lead, leaving 1:19 on the clock. Mason striked the Heisman pose for the entire nation to see after his score, but as if the football gods were playing the role of foreshadower at that exact moment, the true Heisman was about to leave his mark.

Jameis Winston.

The kid had not experienced much adversity, for the most part, on the football field this season. He hadn’t faced a deficit since being behind 17-10 against Boston College on September 28, a game his team ended up easily winning 48-34.

The Seminoles were behind for 44 minutes and 42 seconds against the Tigers.

Monday night gave Winston plenty of adversity for any type of athlete in any sport to handle. Through the first 10 drives, he was 11-for-25 for 120 yards, giving him a 17.7 QBR. Winston looked young, inexperienced and in over his head. It looked as if the pressure Auburn’s defensive front was applying gave the youngest Heisman Trophy winner too much to handle.

But he fought back and showed maturity, proficiency and composure. In his last two drives, Winston went 9-for-10 for 117 yards—a 99.5 QBR. His final drive, in which he went 6-for-7 for 77 yards, included the beautifully thrown pass to Benjamin, who also played well down the stretch. He had all of his 54 receiving yards in the second half.

As impressive as Winston has been this season, there might not be a better indicator of his magnificence than what he showed the nation Monday night. Winston struggled for the majority of the game and had one of his worst overall performances of the season…and his team still took down the second best team in the nation. The 20-year-old proved he doesn’t need to be at his absolute best to win—and win on the biggest stage at that. He gave his team the biggest comeback win (18 points) in the BCS national championship game history by stepping up and making plays when it mattered most. That is true Heisman material.

None of this would have been possible for Winston and Florida State, though, if it wasn’t for the gutsiness of Jimbo Fisher. As Sean Payton showed us a few years back, sometimes a coach needs to reach down into his bag of tricks if he wants to reach the top. Fisher did just that, when he called for a fake punt on his own part of the field while facing a 21-3 deficit. If this hadn’t have worked out, Auburn could have put this game out of reach for good—and Fisher knew this. But he did what needed to be done by giving his team the jolt of energy necessary to come back and win this game.

Fisher also had been preparing Winston for his shining moment all season long. After the game, defensive end Mario Williams Jr. said the Seminoles coaches would put 1:15 on the clock at practice and tell the defense to stop Winston from scoring. So when Winston found himself in a place he’d never been before in an actual game, he had actually already been there throughout the season on the practice field.

The Tigers owned the stat sheet—having more first downs, rushing yards, total yards, total plays, third-down conversions, sacks, and time of possession. But they didn’t have the advantage in the one statistic that mattered—points. To put it simply, the Seminoles offense, defense, special teams and coaching staff all made the right moves when it mattered most. The Tigers might have taken out plenty of the Seminoles’ pawns and maybe even their queen, but Florida State ended with a commanding checkmate. And because of that, they dethroned the SEC from their supremacy.

As this BCS era comes to a close, we must not forget how a certain conference found a way to dominate the system to the point of its collapse. When the BCS had its first championship game in 1998, an SEC school (Tennessee) took home the crystal ball. After Auburn’s defeat, the conference appeared in a total of 10 games, claiming 9 championships. And in all actuality, the SEC appeared 11 times since the 2011 Championship showcased LSU and Alabama.  I don’t know if there is a better way to describe dominance than that right there.

Due to the power of this conference, the NCAA was forced to abandon a system that wouldn’t allow the third or fourth best team—often times an SEC team—in college football to compete for a national title. Under the new championship of the College Football Playoff, there will be a four-team playoff with no limit to the number of teams from a conference. This season, if there had been a four-team playoff decided upon by a selection committee, Florida State, Auburn, Alabama and Michigan State would have most likely faced off.

Thankfully, though, the last BCS national championship displayed a matchup between the two best teams in the nation that played a down-to-the-wire game many may never delete from their DVR.

So now we move on, and we thank you for all the good and bad you have given us, Bowl Championship Series. It has been a rollercoaster of a ride, and for me, I’m glad to have been on board. You won’t be forgotten.

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NFL Preview 2013

8 09 2013

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 Unknown-7

Guest writer: Josh McSwain

NFC East

cowboys

1. Dallas Cowboys: 9-7

Offense: B

Romo is among the best QBs in the league, even if he got vastly overpaid. Dez Bryant came into his own last season, and if he can keep up his play over the last half of last season over a full season, his numbers could be eye popping. Witten is the best all around TE in the league, considering blocking as well as receiving. Terrance Williams and Dwayne Harris are good role players at receiver, and Cole Beasley showed some flashes as an underneath slot guy. On the down side, they were completely unable to run the ball last season. DeMarco Murray is about as durable as a glass vase. They need to find a dependable second back, whether it be Tanner, Dunbar or rookie Joseph Randle. Their offensive line continues to be an issue though. Their offensive line was an issue last season– the money Jerry threw at last offseason didn’t work. Taking Frederick in the first round was risky, because he will be under instant pressure to start and be good.

Defense: B

They have among the best pass rushing duos in Ware and Spencer, and the switch to a 4-3 could help them because they are both back in their natural positions. Sean Lee is coming back from injury, which should help the run defense immensely. Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne could be among the best duo of cornerbacks this coming season. Bruce Carter played fairly well in the time he got last season. In his third year he could flourish. While Ware and Spencer are great, they’re the only real pass rush they have. Their DTs are a question mark, because Ratliff can’t stay healthy, Crawford is out for the year with an injury, so Lissenmore will get a lot of playing time, for better or worse. They still haven’t fixed their safety issues yet. Church is just a guy, and Will Allen is a journeyman. Good luck with those two.

Special Teams: B

Dan Bailey is among the best kickers in the league, and Dwayne Harris is a solid returner. As good as Dez Bryant is at returning punts, they should leave that to either Harris or Lance Dunbar. The last thing they need is for Dez to get hurt on special teams. Chris Jones is a young punter who had his year cut short by injury, but has shown a strong leg and the ability to put it inside the 20. He just needs to prove it over a full season.

Coaching: C

Jason Garrett is on his way out if he doesn’t win this season. This team has not done well under pressure in the past. Monte Kiffin coming in will help the defense, but it may take them some time to adjust to a new scheme. Bill Callahan will be calling plays this season as the OC, which considering his time in Oakland and at the University of Nebraska, doesn’t figure to go well.

Bottom line:

This team is not as good as the sum of its talent, but they are the most talented team in this division. They always tend to find ways to disappoint, but they looked good at the end of last season before their injuries. The other teams aren’t anything special. Romo is a more than capable QB, but he needs to live up to that massive contract they signed him to. If the defense takes to Kiffin’s scheme quickly, they could be very good, at least at stopping the run, which losing Sean Lee hurt big time last season. If they don’t make the playoffs, it will lead to some big changes in Big D for 2014.

 

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2. New York Giants: 8-8

Offense: B

They still have Eli Manning, and that is a pretty good start. Victor Cruz has emerged as one of the best playmakers in the league, and Nicks is a real X-factor when healthy. They have one of the best pass protecting lines in the league, giving up among the fewest sacks in the league the last few seasons. I really think adding Brandon Myers will be good. He was a productive TE in Oakland with Carson Palmer. The question is can David Wilson be relied on as the workhorse back? With the exception of 2011, the Giants have had a lot of success with their run game with Bradshaw, Jacobs and others. Now it’s on Wilson to live up to the first round pick he was and Andre Brown can be a pretty good change of pace back, if he can stay healthy after coming back from another leg injury.

Defense: C/B

Well, they have nowhere to go but up, and had lots of health issues last year. This unit was just all around bad last season, even at the thing that has become their calling card over the last few years, pressuring the quarterback. Prince Amukamara came into his own a little bit last season, and they are hoping he gets better and becomes the player he was drafted to be. They got a steal with DaMontre Moore in the third round. He’ll contribute immediately. Picking up Cullen Jenkins and Johnathan Hankins should help the run defense out immensely. They have some pressing issues though. Jason Pierre-Paul is coming off a bad season and offseason back surgery. He needs to be healthy and productive this season for the Giants to have any chance to succeed this season. They don’t have a ton of pass rushing depth, particularly with Osi gone. Terrell Thomas hasn’t played in the last two years, and they will be relying on him to help shore up their secondary, which was lousy last season. Linebackers still are an issue. Can Mark Herzlich shore up the middle of the defense? Can Jacquian Williams or Spencer Paysinger be productive in his first year starting full time? If those questions get answered and the pass rush gets back to its old form, they could have a fairly good defense again.

Special Teams: B

Wilson showed some flashes of brilliance as a return man last season. But they will likely cut down on his attempts, if not cut all of them, now that he is the feature back. Jernigan and Randle will get their fair share of chances. Josh Brown at least for the moment is the guy to replace Tynes–but I wouldn’t be surprised if someone else takes over at some point this season because Brown has been incredibly inconsistent his whole career, even in a dome in St Louis. Weatherford has been a good punter the last couple of years after bouncing around his first few years in the league.

Coaching: B

Coughlin is as good as any coach in the league. Fewell has had his ups and downs as defensive coordinator. Gilbride has been a good teacher, but he needs to give up play calling. He’s been nicknamed “Kevin Killdrive” for a reason.

Bottom line:

This division is unique because almost any team could feasibly win this division, and any of them could finish last. The only reason I could the Giants finishing last is if Eli missed extended time. But when one considers he hasn’t missed a game since 2005, I don’t think he’ll miss any games, or if he does, it won’t be many, unless a freak play like what happened to Brady in 2008 happens. But regardless, Nicks will be back, and he is a difference maker. It comes down to the secondary. If they can be okay, then these guys have a good shot to take the division.

 

eagles

3. Philadelphia Eagles: 7-9

Offense: B

They have quite a bit of speed, starting at the quarterback position. Vick still has a lot of speed and a lot of arm strength–but his turnover propensity has held them back the last two years. I think Kelly’s offense fits him, but how long can he last. Kelly needs to realize that QBs can’t run all the time at this level. Foles is the better player in my opinion, but they went with Vick because he fit the system better. Having LeSean McCoy for a full season that will help immensely–he’s been among the most consistent backs when healthy over the last few years. With all the other problems last season him being out was lost. DeSean Jackson needs to be healthy to stretch the field, because Maclin’s absence means he’s the only one who can. Celek is a pretty good TE and Ertz will help out too. Unfortunately they still have a questionable line, even though they will get Jason Peters back. Avant and Cooper are guys who can be effective in the short and intermediate routes, but I wonder how much they will be used in Kelly’s offense. Lane Johnson was picked too high in my opinion, he became a product of the rush for offensive tackles at the top of the draft.

Defense: D

Connor Barwin should be a good addition. He played in the 3-4 in Houston, and should be good immediately in this 3-4 defense. Trent Cole is one of the most underrated pass rushers in the league, but he might have some trouble adjusting to their new 3-4 scheme. DeMeco Ryans and Mychal Kendricks are a pretty good duo in the middle. However, the secondary does not look good. Patrick Chung is a Pats castoff, and Pats players never seem to the same elsewhere. Beside him they are currently rolling with the uninspiring Nate Allen. Cary Williams got paid fairly well, but he’s a third corner at best. Bradley Fletcher is their best corner, but can he match up against the other team’s best WR every week- particularly in the NFC east? We’ll see. Fletcher Cox is a good player, but how well will he do at 3-4 end? That’s not his natural position. Adding Sopoaga at NT was a good addition, Cedric Thornton has the size for a 3-4 end, but will have to hold of 2012 second rounder Vinny Curry, for the starting job this season.

Special Teams: B

Alex Henery is one of the best kickers in football. Got a fairly good leg and is 85%+ over his first two years. Brandon Boykin is an below average kick returner, but they found a diamond in the rough with Damaris Johnson at punt returner. Journeyman Donnie Jones is just a guy, but he the punting job.

Coaching: TBD

It’s a totally new era in Philadelphia. I really can’t say how good or bad of a coach Kelly is at the pro level until I see him coach over a full season. But for his coordinators, Pat Schumur was the head man in Cleveland the past two seasons, and really wasn’t given much of a chance for success there. As the OC in St Louis, he brought Bradford along fairly well for only working with him one season–they were respectable offensively with him there. Billy Davis has bounced from team to team for years, mostly being a positional coach. But he knows the 3-4, so he’ll have to do for now.

Bottom line:

I think it will take them a little bit of time to adjust to Kelly’s system, but they have a lot of speed with McCoy, Jackson, etc. If everything goes right (they adjust to the changes quickly and everyone stays healthy) they might be able to make things interesting, but they are a longshot for the playoffs.

 

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4. Washington Redskins: 7-9

Offense: B

They run the ball as well as anyone. They have an excellent run blocking line and RG3 chips in with the running game as well. However, I don’t think Alfred Morris is anything special. Shanahan has done well with all sorts of different RBs. They get Fred Davis back after he missed most of last season with an injury, which will help the passing game. RG3 had a good rookie season throwing as well. He led the league in completion % for a good chunk of the season, and was in the top five in passer rating last season. However, he threw 8 of his 20 TD passes in back to back games against Philadelphia and Dallas. He still has room to grow as a passer. He has excellent arm strength, but he needs to become more well rounded as a passer–do more than throw deep balls well. Health is a major issue for this offense. Pierre Garcon missed 6 games last season, and they were 1-5 in those games. Moss is simply not enough to carry the load receiving anymore. Of course RG3 is the biggest health concern on the team. Cousins showed he could hold down the fort for a time, but I doubt he could lead them to the playoffs if he had to play for an extended period of time.

Defense: C

They get Brian Orakpo, one of the better pass rushers in the league, back from injury. He and Kerrigan are among the best 3-4 pass rushing duos in the game. They have a fairly stout front seven overall with Cofield at the nose, and Bowen and Carriker at ends. Fletcher is a tackling machine that produces year in and year out, and Perry Riley is a good complementary ILB. That said, their secondary was dismal last season, and it looks like that may very well continue. DeAngelo Hall is still one of their starting corners and Brandon Merriweather resumes his post as starting safety. Teams must be licking their chops knowing they can go deep at will against them. Josh Wilson has had his moments back there, but he’s nothing special. Bacarri Rambo is an intriguing player, played really well at Georgia, but rookies typically get abused. They figure to give up a lot of big plays again, just like they did last year.

Special Teams: C

Rocca is an okay punter- not the biggest leg but he doesn’t cause many touchbacks. Forbath had a great first year in the NFL. I doubt he will have the same caliber year. Niles Paul and Santana Moss have been strapped with the return duties, they leave much to be desired back there.

Coaching: B

Mike Shanahan deserves a lot of credit for adapting to his players and getting them into the playoffs last season. Injuries are something he cannot control, but he certainly got the most out of his players. Haslett did a very good job with the players he had last season.

Bottom line:

It could be argued they have the most talent in this division. But so much could come undone with one injury (to RG3, Garcon, the frequently injured Orakpo, etc.). They won’t be able to sneak up on people this season, which I think was huge for them last season. I also question if they will be able to win with a conventional offense because they failed at it during the first nine games of last season. Expectations are incredibly high, but I just don’t think lightning strikes twice for them.

 

 

NFC West

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1. Seattle Seahawks: 12-4 (2)

Offense: B

Russell Wilson is well on his way to becoming an excellent NFL QB, but the risk of a sophomore slump is there. But if anyone could combat it, it’s Wilson. He is among the most mature young QBs I’ve ever seen. He was great at NC state, then was an instant leader at Wisconsin his only year there. Then, he beat out Matt Flynn and then tied Peyton Manning’s rookie record for TD passes. He might drop off a bit, but it won’t be drastic as others have been. Marshawn Lynch is a great running back, and they have a very good line. Where they have concern is on the outside, with average talent in Sidney Rice, Golden Tate and Doug Baldwin, among others. Percy Harvin’s injury hurts them badly. Harvin would have given them so much more flexibility. Zach Miller was among the best tight ends in the league in Oakland, but he has become almost a nobody in Seattle. They need to find ways to use him in the passing game more. Harvin or not, this offense should still be productive.

Defense: A

They might have the best all around defense in the NFL. They had some problems with pass rush last season, particularly when Clemons went down. So they added Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett in free agency, assuming Bruce Irvin will continue to get better, they now have a lot of depth in something that was one of their weaknesses last season. They already have the best secondary in the NFL with the “Legion of Boom”. Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor are the best duo of safeties in the NFL, and Richard Sherman, the league’s most outspoken and arguably best corner, teams up with Brandon Browner to form a secondary that the 2002 Buccaneers with Ronde Barber, John Lynch, Dexter Jackson and Brian Kelly would envy. Linebackers are their only real concern. Bobby Wagner had a great rookie year, but how will he perform in year two? K.J. Wright and Malcolm Smith are solid but not spectacular. Fortunately they won’t need great linebackers with how good the rest of the unit is. The other potential hole on this side of the ball is the loss of Alan Branch. He took up a lot of room in the middle. They will try to make due with Tony McDaniel in the starting lineup. We’ll see how that works, particularly considering they were 23rd in ypc defense last season.

Special Teams: B

Jon Ryan is pretty good punter, and Steven Hauskha is a journeyman kicker who played really well last season, making 24/27 field goals. However, they will need to find new return men for the time Harvin is out.

Coaching: B

Pete Carroll has only had one winning season, but he has managed to win playoff games in two different seasons. Losing Gus Bradley will hurt some, but I think there is enough talent on that defense that the loss will not be too severe. Bevell really did an excellent job adapting the offense to Wilson’s abilities. But will the read option be a gimmick or a lasting thing?

Bottom Line:

Expectations are going to be immense this season. I think the biggest factor is the fact that they are now the hunted and not the hunter. While the talent is there, it might take some more time for a very young team to smoothen everything out. I think ultimately their talent and the Super Bowl hangover of the 49ers will be enough to win this very hard division.

 

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2. *San Francisco 49ers: 11-5 (5)

Offense: B

Acquiring Anquan Boldin might have been one of the most underrated moves of the offseason, particularly considering they lost Crabtree shortly after. He torched the niners in the Super Bowl, so they of all teams would know what he was capable of. They have the best line in the league in my opinion, and that is critical for this team because they are predicated on being a hard nosed running team. Gore continues to be a productive back, even after nearly a decade. LaMichael James is a great gadget player, and I think they will find more creative uses for him this season. I wonder how will Kaepernick do in his first full season, particularly without Michael Crabtree? I have no doubt about Kaepernick being a bust, but no QB does as well without his favorite target. The issue is how much will he fall off, if he does at all. Boldin is a guy who can move the chains, and make plays when you need it most. Vernon Davis is a great player out in space, and Jon Baldwin has a lot of natural ability that he didn’t show off in KC. However, I think losing Delaine Walker will be a bigger loss than people think. Though there have been some names coming and going, I think they’ll still have a good offense.

Defense: A

They upgraded their somewhat leaky secondary with Nnamdi Asomugha at nickelback and Eric Reid at safety, but losing Chris Culliver to a torn ACL will hurt. With him they could have had a very deep secondary to help against teams like the Packers and Falcons. But, they have arguably the best front seven in the league. Justin Smith is the catalyst to everything they do, and they struggled when he wasn’t full strength. Patrick Willis and Navarro Bowman are two of the best ILBs in the league in and of themselves, but so much of the other players weren’t the same. Ahmad Brooks has developed into a darn good football player, as has Ray McDonald. One thing that concerns me was the way Aldon Smith struggled last year without Justin Smith. Aldon needs to be able to stay productive no matter who is around him. I understand he was banged up and the end of the year, but great players produce no matter what. He still needs to make that next step in my mind. At the nose, Ian Williams takes over for Isaac Sopoaga, who left for Philadelphia. How will he adjust to being a full time starter? Other than the secondary that’s my only other concern for this unit.

Special Teams: A

Andy Lee is great, perhaps the best punter in the NFL. Phil Dawson takes over for the inconsistent David Akers, and should provide quite a bit more stability. LaMichael James was good in the return game last season, and should do a good job again this season. Despite his gaffe in the 2011 NFC title game, they seem to be sticking with Kyle Williams as their punt returner. Guess we’ll see how that pans out.

Coaching: A

Jim Harbaugh has done a great job in resurrecting a downtrodden franchise in a flash. He has brought in the right coordinators, and showed a level of confidence in his team that ensures they will be a force for many years.

Bottom line:

They should get into the playoffs again, despite the Super Bowl hangover. With Percy Harvin’s injury, they should be able to challenge Seattle to win the west. How well Kaepernick does this season will determine how far they can go, perhaps back to the Super Bowl. Considering Harbaugh’s rapport with QB’s, I do not think that is outside of the realm of possibilities.

 

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3. St Louis Rams: 8-8

Offense: C

Can I trust Sam Bradford? He’s had injury issues dating back to college, and missed six games in 2011. He also has struggled at times when he has been on the field. He’s accounted for 50 turnovers and only 47 touchdowns in his three years in the NFL. Can he become that franchise QB he was drafted to be? I guess we’ll see. They have given him a franchise LT in Jake Long and spent a top 10 pick on Tavon Austin. Losing Steven Jackson will be a blow though. I don’t think new starter Daryl Richardson and the group of he, Isaiah Pead, Vanderbilt rookie Zac Stacy and Terrence Ganaway will make up for him. Jackson was a player that opposing defenses always had to worry about–both running the ball and catching out of the backfield. I don’t think any of those guys will bring that same type of dual-threat. This could be a make or break year for Bradford. The line cannot be blamed anymore. They now have an anchor LT, savvy veterans Scott Wells, Harvey Dahl, and young guys in Saffold and Smith. With Brian Quick and Chris Givens on the outside with Austin and new TE Jared Cook, the weapons are there too. It’s time for Bradford to finally live up to that massive rookie contract he signed, and make sure that he proves he is the guy of the future, because there will be quite a few signal callers to chose in the upcoming draft.

Defense: B

Their front seven is one of the better ones in the game. Chris Long is a great player- accumulating 24.5 sacks in the last two seasons, and getting 21 QB pressures on third and fourth down last season. Robert Quinn had a breakout year last season, more than doubling his rookie year in sacks with 10.5, as compared to his rookie year total of five. Brockers is a raw player with great potential. Langford is a solid player at the other tackle position. They got a steal with Ogletree with the 30th pick. Laurinaitis is a rock on the inside, and Dunbar is serviceable- though he is out for the first four games with a suspension for PEDs. Finnegan and Jenkins are good corners. Finnegan has long been a guy that irritates the opponent’s best receiver, and is very good at the line of scrimmage. Jenkins was a steal in the second round last year. He was a first round talent that slipped due to character issues. But safeties could be a concern. Darian Stewart is serviceable, while Rodney McLeod is new and could be a liability.

Special Teams: C

Hekker had a pretty good first year, Greg the Leg has insane leg strength, but his accuracy leaves something to be desired. Givens and Pettis have shown some flashes in the return game, but they could be better.

Coaching: C

I don’t trust Jeff Fisher. He has been mediocre throughout his NFL coaching career. He made the playoffs only six times from 1994 to 2010, and his career record is only a shade over .500. He’s not gonna lose you much, but he won’t win you much either.

Bottom Line:

Some have thought that this team is a dark horse for the playoffs. I’m not sure. Bradford is still a question mark for me, as is the running game, Jake Long’s health and their unproven offensive weapons. Not to mention expectations are relatively high, and I think the pressure could get to them. I think they could be better than their record indicates, but this division is just tough.

 

cardinals

4. Arizona Cardinals: 6-10

Offense: C/D

They had absolutely nothing at QB last season. Bringing in Carson Palmer should make a world of difference for them. I still think he has something left. Playing with Fitz and Michael Floyd should help him out quite a bit, considering he had crappy receivers in Oakland, and still threw for over 4,000 yards. The line is an issue, which is why they picked Jon Cooper at #7. Unfortunately, he’s on the shelf for the season. Levi Brown is okay at left tackle, he better bring his A game this season because they are going to be throwing the ball around a lot. Rashard Mendenhall should also help at running back, assuming he can stay healthy. Arians did wonders with Andrew Luck last season, and I think he can do some work with the players they have on this offense. It helps that he had Mendenhall when he was OC in Pittsburgh. He’ll know how best to utilize his abilities. The condition here is if they can find a way to run the ball and keep Palmer healthy. I just can’t see both happening.

Defense: B

They arguably have the best pair of 3-4 DEs in the league. Calais Campbell and Darnell Dockett are both excellent players. Dan Williams, the young NT from Tennessee, takes over as the full time starter. Lorenzo Alexander, Karlos Dansby and Jasper Brinkley were brought in to upgrade their 3-4 LB corps. Sam Acho takes over on the outside, and Daryl Washington is a great LB on the inside. But I love the addition of John Abraham. He’ll be able to be an effective situational rusher in this defense. The secondary was the strength of the unit last season, Peterson leads the unit and Antoine Cason, though he struggled some last season in San Diego, and Tyrann Matheiu, who has been flying around like a mad man in the preseason, were brought in to fortify the corners after they lost Greg Toler to free agency, and both Adrian Wilson and Kerry Rhodes are gone. Yeremiah Bell and Reshad Johnson have the spotlight on them to take over for two pretty safeties. I still think overall this unit should be pretty good.

Special Teams: C

Zastudil is pretty good- gets good hang time on the ball. Jay Feely has bounced around a bit but seems to have found a home in Arizona, even though he dipped a little below his norm in 2011. Peterson is a great punt returner, and Javier Arenas takes over returning kicks. If they’re smart, they’ll give the Honey Badger his opportunities back there. That guy is simply too explosive a playmaker not to get his fair share of chances. Who cares he’s small? You only get to play in the NFL for a short time anyway.

Coaching: C

Arians has done some great things for QBs over his coaching career. But being a full time head coach is different. We shall see how he handles the job. Losing Ray Horton should hurt. Todd Bowles has his work cut out for him, particularly considering he has had issues with his recent stops.

Bottom Line:

They have a good defense, but not on the level of the 49ers or Seahawks. They have a slight hope for the playoffs, but absolutely everything must break right for that to happen, particularly on the offensive side. I just don’t think it’ll all come together in one year, particularly considering the level of competition they are going to see week in and week out.

 

 

NFC North

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1. Green Bay Packers: 11-5 (3)

Offense: A

Aaron Rodgers…he is the man. He has carried them since 2009 despite not having great protection. He is the best distributor in the league, has pinpoint accuracy and great arm strength, and underrated mobility. Receivers have come and gone around him, but he remains one of the best players in the whole league. My only concern with him is his playoff performance. The last two seasons he has disappeared in their playoff losses. People easily forget he had a top 5 defense when they won the Super Bowl. Now don’t get it twisted, Rodgers played like a boss in that playoff run, but my doubt remains if he can win with a serviceable unit on the other side, not a great one. I suppose time may tell.

Now for the rest of the offense. Jennings is gone, but Cobb is coming in and is more versatile. Nelson had a great 2011 season, needs to stay on the field coming off an injury shortened 2012. Finley is just a guy pretty much. He has the athletic ability to be great just hasn’t applied it. Eddie Lacy and Jon Franklin will help out bigtime at RB, and provide more options in the passing game. The line still isn’t great, though Sitton is their best lineman. Sorting out the tackles will be their biggest issue. Newhouse is fine on the right side, but will Sherrod live up to the first round pick he was? With Bulaga out his recovery from injury becomes a bigger deal. But for now, they’re gonna roll with fourth round pick David Bakhtiari at LT.

Defense: B/C

They picked up Datone Jones in the first round, and he is projected to start at one end spot. Raji and Pickett are both big guys who are very good but injury prone. The thing that they have been missing has been a complementary rusher to Clay Matthews. With Nick Perry returning from injury, they have it. But if either gets hurt, they’re gonna need a replacement quickly. Hawk and Jones are steady enough inside. They have a pretty good pair of corners with Shields and Williams. They have young safeties with M.D. Jennings (better known for his non-interception) and Morgan Burnett, who is solid. I think they will miss Charles Woodson’s leadership in the secondary, but they should be good enough to make up for it. Worthy, Jolly and Neal better be ready to help the run defense if Raji or Pickett miss time.

Special teams: C

Masthay is an okay punter, but Crosby is one of the most erratic kickers in the league. They have suitable returners, Cobb will get the bulk of the work there, but Jeremy Ross and Franklin and/or Micah Hyde can also fill in.

Coaching: A

Mike McCarthy is one of the best offensive minds in the game. He’s proven time and time again he is great no matter who is on the field. Dom Capers has been a good defensive coordinator, and he has some work to do this season. But he is certainly capable of getting the defense back to the 2010 level.

Bottom line:

They had a very quiet offseason, which I think makes them dangerous. Everyone is talking about the Seahawks and the 49ers, but this team is as dangerous as anyone- as long as they have #12 on the field.

Everything else revolves around him. The running game will be better, but it cannot carry them. The defense also should be improved, but it’s far from a shutdown unit. But all the pieces falling into place around Rodgers could make something special in Green Bay this season.

 

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2. Detroit Lions: 8-8

Offense: A

Matthew Stafford has the physical ability of a top of the line quarterback. He has been somewhat inconsistent over the course of his career, having one great year and a lot of average to good ones. Of course, it helps when the best receiver, and in my opinion best player, in the league is catching your passes. Where they have been lacking in previous years is at running back, and while Reggie Bush is not a great back, he is a great fit in this offense. He is a great receiver out of the backfield, will likely get 15 carries a game to the edge, and Joique Bell will pound between the tackles. Reilly Reiff takes over full time protecting the blindside, and while some thought the former Hawkeye would be better as a guard, I always thought he was capable of playing tackle. We’ll see if he succumbs to the fate of Robert Gallery, another former Iowa lineman that was considered a great tackle to be that never lived up to it. The rest of the line is acceptable, veterans in Sims, Raiola and journeyman Dylan Gandy and Jason Fox taking over on the right side. Getting Burleson back and having two good tight ends should keep this offense among the best in the league.

Defense: C

They used the 5th overall pick on the raw Ezekiel Ansah. He is projected to start immediately alongside top 15 picks in Nick Fairley and Ndamukong Suh. Jason Jones is average at best, never had more than 5 sacks in a season. Picking up Israel Idonje was a good move. He’ll help with pass rush depth. In order for them to rebound on this side of the ball, the front four must become a persistent force. They will be the ones that make or break this team. Now with depth to go along with all that skill, there are no more excuses. Moreover, they will need to be good because the rest of the unit isn’t special. Their linebackers are serviceable with Tulloch, Ashlee Palmer and DeAndre Levy. Their secondary wasn’t terrible by any means last season, and should be better with Delams hopefully back from injury, but they aren’t fantastic. Adding Glover Quin coming from Houston was a good move, will really help against some of the great passing games in the NFC. I figure as long as Bill Bentley and Chris Houston are okay, they could have a sufficient secondary to compete, but they still need that front line to be dominant to have success.

Special Teams: C

Sam Martin is new at punter, and David Akers comes off a really bad season in San Francisco. I think the dome might help him recover some, but I think his best days are behind him. Micheal Spurlock has bounced around, but he’s a threat to break one any time as a returner.

Coaching: D

I don’t like Schwartz that much. I think he is a good defensive mind, but he really isn’t very disciplined, and his teams have reflected that. I think he could be on a very short leash this season.

Bottom line:

This is a crucial year for Detroit. They must show at least some sign of being able to be consistent. Matthew Stafford must step up and prove he was more than just a one year wonder- he has all the talent of a the top pick he was, but he needs to show it every Sunday, not just some. I don’t think they necessarily have to make the playoffs this season, which will be a tall order in the NFC. But they must show some sign of being competitive, which basically means they’re gonna have to outscore teams all year.

 

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3. Chicago Bears: 7-9

Offense: C

Even though they were 16th in points scored last season, they were spotted a lot of points by their defense (10 TDs to be exact). Because of that, being 28th in yards makes sense, but as far as just offensive touchdowns they were 21st. Not horrible, but certainly nothing impressive. I have said before I don’t think Cutler is that good. He has a lot of physical talent that is wasted with a lack of leadership. Forte is a great multi-purpose back when he is healthy, but that isn’t an often occurrence. They brought Bushrod in from the Saints and Slauson from the Jets as well as drafting Kyle Long to help shore up their line, but what good does it do if you don’t have a competent QB? Here’s the other surprise- Bushrod was 47th out of 65 tackles graded for pass blocking efficiency by pro football focus. J’Marcus Webb was 53rd. Still better than Gabe Carimi, who was third worst. Still, I’m giving Cutler this chance to prove me wrong- because while the line has been blamed, Big Ben and Aaron Rodgers have had success with below average lines. If you have it in you Jay, prove it now or you won’t be back in Chicago next season. You have Martellus Bennett and Brandon Marshall to throw to. You have no more excuses. Have a great year or forever be known as a guy who couldn’t get it done.

Defense: C

Peppers, Melton and Wootton are a good trio of pass rushers. But losing Idonje could be a big loss, particularly if Shea McLellin, with his whopping 2.5 sacks, doesn’t come into his own. Seeing Sedrick Ellis retire hurts their depth on the inside–it’s time for former second rounder Stephen Paea to step up from being a rotational player to full time starter-what he was drafted to be. The face of the franchise, the man in the middle, is gone. He needs no introduction. While he might have lost a step or two, his leadership will be dearly missed. I think Briggs will suffer at least some without his main man in the middle. D.J. Williams or rookie Jon Bostic will not simply fill that void. I do think picking up James Anderson was a good move, and he should replace Roach well. They have arguably the best duo of corners in the league, they were certainly the best last season. Will Jennings have another season as good as last? I don’t think so. Nickelback Kelvin Hayden is out of the season, which could be a big blow with all the groups of good receivers in this division. Conte and Wright are fine at safety, but they are far from Earl Thomas/Kam Chancellor.

Special Teams: B

Gould has been a consistely solid kicker his whole career. Hester is the best return man in the history of the league. Podlesh is an good punter- hangtime causes a lot of fair catches, but he put 42% of his punts inside the 20. That’s not too shabby.

Coaching: C

Marc Trestman doesn’t inspire a ton of confidence for me. It’s a huge jump from the CFL to the NFL. Mel Tucker takes over as DC, and he’s a 3-4 guy trying to coach Cover 2 guys. It could end up being okay, or it could work out pretty poorly.

Bottom line:

It’s now or never for Cutler. Fortunately they will have a wide choice of rookie QBs in next year’s draft from Aaron Murray to Teddy Bridgewater to Tajh Boyd to David Fales. Trestman can fix what happens outside of Cutler’s head, but not inside it. Cutler has not shown any leadership ability, and he will have to in order to be in Chicago next year. He’s pretty much all this season comes down to for the Bears.

 

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4. Minnesota Vikings: 6-10

Offense: C

If not for Peterson it’d be a D. I just don’t think Ponder is that good. He has some games where he looks like he could be a fairly good starter, and others where he just checks out and throws it all on AP’s back. Speaking of AP, I highly doubt he runs for anywhere close to 2000 yards. I still expect him to pass 1500 easily if he stays healthy for 16 games, but after all his carries last season I don’t think that’s assured. Even though they picked up Greg Jennings, I don’t think he’ll be the player he was in Green Bay. I think he was a product of Aaron Rodgers. Cordarrelle Patterson is intriguing though. He is raw for sure, but he has an incredible amount of athletic ability. Kyle Rudolph broke out last season, and the line really solidified with the addition of Matt Kalil. Ponder needs to prove he is the man this season. I don’t think he will.

Defense: C/D

They have been good at rushing the passer for years now. That should continue with Jared Allen leading the way, along with Brian Robison, Everson Griffin and free agent pickup Lawrence Jackson. Kevin Williams has been a rock for a decade, and they found his replacement in the draft with Shariff Floyd. With Ballard, Guion and Fred Evans they have depth up front. Their linebackers are pretty good too. Chad Greenway is one of the best 4-3 OLBs in the league- he would be as big as DeMarcus Ware if he played in Dallas. Erin Henderson has been solid, and Marvin Mitchell should be solid. Their secondary is where things start to go sour. Xavier Rhodes is an unknown, could be great or bad, and Chris Carr is better suited to be a nickelback. Even with Harrison Smith and Mistral Raymond they were 24th against the pass last season. Losing Winfield will hurt. The pass rush was good, accumulating 44 sacks. The burden is on those back four guys. With those questions in the secondary looming, I think this unit could be okay or downright bad–and in this division secondary is the most crucial part of any team’s defense.

Special Teams: B/C

Blair Walsh had a great rookie season, and should be just as good in the dome this season. Marcus Sherels could be the next big thing in return men. He was great last season. Jeff Locke is rookie punter, and is the weakest point of this unit. But if he performs well like Walsh did, this team could have the better special teams in the league.

Coaching: C

Frazier was on the hot seat last season and he delivered with an unexpected playoff berth, so he remains somewhat of a mystery. I think having Mike Singletary as LB coach and assistant HC is a double edged sword due to his style of player management. Bill Musgrave has worked well with quarterbacks, he helped Matt Ryan get to where is he is. But he’s always left something to be desired as a playcaller. He will have to find ways to innovate with an array of weapons this season.

Bottom line:

They surprised people last season. They can’t this season. Peterson can’t carry the team all the way to a title. Their secondary will have to get it together quickly, particularly against the QBs and receivers in this division, and Ponder will have to carry much more of the weight. He’s going to have to perform well every week, not just in selective games. But considering their holes on both sides of the ball, and their lack of surprise this season, I think they are primed to take a step back.

 

NFC South

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1. Atlanta Falcons: 12-4 (1)

Offense: A

This offense is among the most dangerous in the NFL. Roddy White alone could be enough to make defenses shake in their boots. So could Tony Gonzalez. But they have both, AND Julio Jones. They could have the most brutal passing attack to play against in the entire league. Jones can beat you over the top, Gonzalez can run the intermediate routes with ease and is great in the red zone, and White is among the best at breaking tackles and making plays in space. The thing that was missing was the consistent running game. They picked up Steven Jackson for that. Finally Matt Ryan has a number one back again. Turner really fell off last season. Even with the addition of Jackson, they still have Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling to steal some of the carries and keep Jackson fresh for when it matters. I haven’t really gotten to Matt Ryan yet. From the day he arrived in Atlanta he has been a difference maker, leading a team most left for dead to the playoffs his rookie year. Can he get it done in the playoffs is my only lingering doubt on him. The only loss that concerns me with this team is center Todd McClure. He was a rock for them for years. Now it’s completely on Peter Konz. But center is his natural position. Mike Johnson was the incumbent to replace Tyson Clabo, but now it falls on second year man Lamar Holmes. Some have put Matt Ryan in the top group of quarterbacks in this league, and in order for him to get there he needs to have good protection.

Defense: B

They were better than some think last season, though they gave up some yards under Mike Nolan they didn’t give up a lot of points (in fact, they were 5th in points allowed). Losing Abraham could hurt, but Osi should make up for him. But they seem to be back where they started with that. That seems to be their biggest concern with this unit, though run defense is also a concern. They were 29th in rushing yards per attempt against last season. Babineaux, Jerry and Peters give them three okay DTs, but nothing special. Weatherspoon is an excellent linebacker, Nicholas and Dent are serviceable starters. Their secondary is their best unit on defense. DeCoud has come into his own as a safety, as William Moore. Asante Samuel has been a good corner for many years, and Desmond Trufant was a highly regarded CB. He should play well with the other guys taking the best receiver away from him.

Special Teams: B

Matt Bryant is among the best kickers in the league, even if he is helped by the dome. Jacquizz Rodgers was among the better kick returners last season, which is kind of expected because he’s like MJD with his frame and speed back there. On the downside, Bosher is not a great punter and Dominique Franks was among the worst kick returners in the league last season.

Coaching: B

Mike Smith has been a difference maker ever since he walked in the door. He has brought a uniform expectation and toughness and continuity to this franchise, which was needed after the Vick fiasco.

Bottom line:

It all really comes down to Matt Ryan’s performance in the playoffs. He began to show a bit of the “Matty Ice” at the end of the Seattle game, but he couldn’t do it against the 49ers the next week. Maybe like the Ravens and Ray Lewis, they’ll win a title for Tony Gonzalez in his swan song.

 

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2. *New Orleans Saints: 10-6 (6)

Offense: A

It begins and ends with Drew Brees. Even in a “down” year he led the league in passing TDs and yards. He is the best in the game right now in my opinion, but that has more to do with his track record in the postseason. I will admit his interception count is a little high, but I’ll take a few more regular season interceptions for a completion % that could be close to 70 on a regular basis and stellar playoff play. But Brees is not alone on a very skilled unit. Colston has been productive every year in the league, Sproles is great out of the backfield, and Jimmy Graham is a star. They do need to solidify the starter in the backfield though. Ingram needs to take the spot they set up for him. I don’t think Bushrod will be a huge loss. Brown should do just fine. The line in general is excellent.

Defense: C

They allowed the most yards in the history of the league last season. So they have nowhere to go but up. But it will be a long trek up. It starts with a switch to the 3-4. Kenyon Coleman was a good pickup because he has quite a bit of experience in the 3-4, but he’s now out for the season. They’ll have to find a replacement and fortify depth. Cameron Jordan was a first round pick recently, and he has sufficient size to be a 3-4 end. Second year man Akiem Hicks takes over at nose, with rookie John Jenkins and veteran Broderick Bunkley competing for time. Will Smith being lost for the season will hurt, but now we will get to see how good Junior Galette can be. In very limited time he had five sacks last season. Victor Butler comes over from Dallas, and he is familiar with the 3-4 and Payton. He should be a fairly useful player. Vilma, Hawthorne and Lofton should hold down the middle well. Their secondary should at least be better with the additions of Keenan Lewis at corner and Kenny Vaccaro at safety. Lewis played well in Pittsburgh last season, and Payton has raved about Vaccaro from what he has seen out of him so far. They need an impact player on defense, and I think Vaccaro could be that guy.

Special Teams: B

Morestead is among the best punters in the league, but Hartley is below average. Over the last three years he has hovered at 80% accuracy. Sproles and Travaris Cadet are among the better return men in the league. Cadet averaged over 26 yards per kick return last season. Sproles fair caught over half the punts he fielded. I think teams are scared of him so they hang the ball as much as possible.

Coaching: A

Sean Payton is among the most innovative and courageous coaches in the NFL. Not many would have the stones to do an onside kick to open the second half a Super Bowl. Rob Ryan has had a shaky track record, but he should bring a toughness to a unit that needs it.

Bottom line:

There is no reason this team should not return to the postseason, considering they might have been able to make it if they had had Joe Vitt all of last season. Now they have a Sean Payton, who is even better. Brees should continue to be stellar, and their defense just needs to be one iota better than last season and they should be good.

 

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3. Carolina Panthers: 9-7

Offense: B

Cam Newton has been good over his first two seasons, but there is another step he needs to take. He showed great leadership at the college level, but he just hasn’t had the same edge so far in the pros. But I think it lies within him, and I think he can become a more accurate passer. He has the weapons with Steve Smith and Greg Olsen. However, I think they need to get more out of Brandon LaFell, who has caught only 118 passes in his three seasons. But he can stretch the field- he’s averaged 17 and 15.4 yards per catch the last two years. Back to Cam, he can get away with running as much as he does because he is more durable due to his size. However, they do need to get more out of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, both of whom were high picks. They needs to be the leading rushers, not Cam. But their line is physical, and they certainly can impose their will on other teams.

Defense: B

Like their offense, they have a physical defense with a nasty streak. Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson spearhead this improving unit. Their biggest weakness the last couple of years had been at DT, and they fortified it well with Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short in the draft to rotate with veteran Dwan Edwards. If those guys really get it together, they could be a top 10 run defense, because hey should take a lot of pressure of Luke Kuechly, the NFL leader in tackles a season ago. Beason has always been good when healthy, but he rarely is at this point. They are saying he is fully healthy now, and for their sake they better hope he is. Same with Thomas Davis. Journeyman Jordan Senn and rookie A.J. Klein should get quite a bit of playing time, particularly considering how likely it is that one of the other starting OLB’s gets hurt.. Their secondary played well overall last season, but losing Gamble will hurt. But honestly they should be fine with the pass rush they have. Pass rush can cover weaknesses in the secondary.

Special Teams: D

Nortman is a bad punter, and Gano has never been a good kicker. He played passably in limited duty last season, but having him as your kicker full time is a mistake. Ted Ginn does improve their return game though. He still is a good punt returner and an adequate kick returner.

Coaching: C

Ron Rivera has been a very good defensive coordinator throughout his career, but has a tendency to sit on leads, which resulted in losses. Now Chudzinski is gone, and Mike Shula is Cam’s coach, and playcaller. I am not sure if that will help Cam (and this team) get over the hump or set them back as they learn another system.

Bottom line:

They lost seven games by six points or less last season. Eventually some of those games start having to go their way, right? I think so. I think that starts to happen some this season. Their physical play gave the Falcons and Saints fits last season, as they were one yard from going 4-0 against them. They certainly are capable of making the playoffs, and I fully expect them to be in the thick of it- but even so, they could do that and finish last in this division–top to bottom this division is tough.

 

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4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 7-9

Offense: C

Doug Martin had a good rookie season, but as he went, the team went. He had some great games, some very average ones as well. They need to avoid those peaks and valleys, and that falls on Josh Freeman. He has shown the ability to make every throw, but has been erratic. Vincent Jackson helped a lot last season, but his whole career he has been a feast or famine type of player–great one week and disappears the next. Mike Williams is an excellent number two guy, he could be a number one receiver on most teams. Luke Stocker takes over for Dallas Clark at tight end, which should help because Clark was starting to slow down. Stocker is a young guy that has been around a couple of years, time to see what he can do. Their line is solid. Donald Penn is underrated, Nicks, Joseph and Zuttah are solid on the inside, but Carimi is a question mark on the outside. Considering the sorry state of affairs along the offensive line in Chicago, maybe the change of scenery will do him good. But ultimately it comes down to Freeman–he needs to show that he can be the same guy from week to week.

Defense: B

While they had a “great” run defense last season, that was due more to their pass defense being so awful more than their run defense being so great. Teams will run more on them this season with Revis and Goldson back there. But even with those two, they still don’t have much of a pass rush, which will hurt them badly in this division. Clayborn had an alright rookie season, missed time last season, but Bowers has just been a bust. Maybe William Gholston will help. McCoy has been very good, but a lot falls on rookie Akeem Spence, a fourth rounder from Illinois. Foster and Lavonte David are solid, and Dekoda Watson is a serviceable starter. Their secondary is a lot better with Revis and Goldson, Mark Barron should be better, and Leonard Johnson takes over the other corner spot and second rounder Johnathan Banks takes over at nickel. Losing Barber’s leadership could be big though. We’ll have to see.

Special Teams: C

They overpaid an average punter in Koenen, and the inconsistent Rian Lindell takes over for the injured Connor Barth. Tiquan Underwood is most known for not being able to play for the Patriots in Super Bowl 46, but he could be their kick returner with the departure of Arrelious Benn. He showed he can be adequate in limited attempts so far in his career. Rookie Mike James from Miami will compete for that spot with starter Michael Smith out for the season. Eric Page takes over returning punts, which he did a fair job at during his time at Toldeo.

Coaching: C

Greg Schiano did a fairly good job with a team in disarray last season. Bill Sheridan didn’t last long as D-coordinator in New York, he needs to make use of the talent he has on this team, because it’s certainly there. Mike Sullivan did a good job as an offensive coach with the Giants, and helped Freeman last season, but in 2010 Eli Manning threw 25 interceptions, and last season Freeman threw 17, on the high side of the league. They need to get it together for this team to make a run in a tough division.

Bottom line:

They made a big splash in the offseason. But will the presence of Mike Glennon make Josh Freeman play better worse? Will Glennon be ready to play if Freeman does falter? Even though the talent is on this team to make a playoff run, I feel like there is simply too much that needs to be settled, which could take another year to do. This is an intriguing team that could be really good, but I just doubt it, particularly considering the other teams are more solid.

 

 

 

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AFC East

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1. New England Patriots: 10-6 (4)

Offense: B

Tom Brady returns with a whole different crew. Gone are Welker, Lloyd, Hernandez and Woodhead. Gronk will also miss time. The fragile Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman and rookies Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce will become his new receivers, with Zach Sudfeld (who?) at tight end while Gronk is out. Certainly not the most fearsome unit in the league. They did stock up on running backs this season, with Ridley being the main guy, Vereen and Blount will be there to carry the load as well. I would watch to see what they do with Leon Washington. I know he’ll be used a lot in the return game, but they need to find ways to get him the ball on offense too.

Defense: B

Their front seven continues to be alright. Ninkovich and Chandler Jones are a good pass rushing duo, not great but with 14 sacks last season they get it done. Longtime Raider Tommy Kelly takes over for the departed Kyle Love alongside Wilfork. At least he has a reasonable contract here. Their LBs are pretty good. Mayo and Spikes are solid, and even though Hightower isn’t cut out best for the 4-3 OLB, he was alright his rookie season and should be better this season. The secondary continues to be the major issue for them. Talib was a decent pickup last season, but not a shutdown corner. In fact, he was second worst in the league in yards per coverage snap, according to pro football focus. Dennard was a steal in the seventh round last season, and he should be better this season. Safeties are in question. Devin McCourty makes some big plays, and he gives up about as many. Chung is gone, and Steve Gregory will start in his place, which could be bad because he’s more a special teams guy than anything else.

Special Teams: B

Zoltan Mesko is gone and Ryan Allen, a UFA from LA tech is in. Gostowski is not what he was his first few seasons in the league. He’s been in the low 80s in accuracy the last couple of years. But in the return game, Leon Washington gives them a major asset and Edelman is solid as a punt returner.

Coaching: B

Belichick has shown he isn’t quite the genius we thought he was. He has not had very good drafts over the last few years. That said, he still is a good coach and finds creative ways to get the most out of his players. McDaniels didn’t pan out as a head coach, but he was a good offensive coordinator. I expect him to find ways to get the most out of the diverse offensive talent.

Bottom line:

This division is still theirs to lose. Buffalo and the Jets shouldn’t be any good and Miami has a lot to prove. They certainly have had a rough offseason. The Hernandez case, Welker leaving, etc. The offense put up points, and should again, but their secondary killed them last season, and it could do so again.

 

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2. Miami Dolphins: 8-8

Offense: C

Tannehill showed flashes of potential his rookie season, particularly at the end. He still is a little raw, but he has lots of physical skill and could be really with the right teaching, which is what they brought Philbin and Sherman in for. They needed a deep thereat too, which is what they brought Mike Wallace in for. Hartline finally broke out with Tannehill at QB, and having Wallace to take away coverage should help too. Stealing Dustin Keller from the Jets would have given them another weapon, but he’s on the shelf for the season. Losing Jake Long may not be as big of an issue as people think. Jonathan Martin was a high pick last year, and he should improve over last season and do fine on the left side, as Tyson Clabo takes over on the right side. Other than Tannehill, the biggest concern is in the backfield. Can Lamar Miller be the guy? If not, can Daniel Thomas carry the load? How will Mike Gillislee be used? They need to find ways to use the new talent they have, but simply by adding a guy who can stretch the field they are much better than last season.

Defense: C/B

This unit was okay overall last season, though they were awful in the secondary, much like New England. They did bring in Danell Ellerbee and Philip Wheeler to upgrade their LB corps, which was somewhat of an issue last year. Adding Dion Jordan was a risky move. Costly to be sure, but it could work out really well for them if he can provide a pass rusher opposite Wake, even just in third down situations. They need at least 10 sacks out of him. They should be able to stop the run fairly well. I am not as confident in their addition of Brent Grimes, who is coming off an injury that held him out all of 2012. I think they should have kept Vontae Davis. But he’s long gone, so worrying about it won’t help. Their safeties are not the problem- Jones and Clemons started last year and they were among the best safeties in the league not in not allowing first downs or touchdowns, according to pro football focus. They need to find two corners if they want to compete with the big boys. If they can do that, they could have a fairly good defense. But rolling with Dmitri Patterson or Nolan Carroll won’t accomplish that.

Special Teams: C

Fields is among the best punters in the league, but rookie Caleb Sturgis now has the full kicking responsibilities. I guess they thought he was good enough to merit getting rid of Carpenter, but to me that isn’t saying a whole lot because he was one of the most inconsistent kickers in the league. Marcus Thigpen handles all the return duties, and he scored twice last season. He should have another good year returning barring any injury.

Coaching: B

Philbin did fairly well without a lot of talent last season. Mike Sherman was a great hire because he knew what Tannehill was capable of, and with another offseason that relationship should only produce a better product on the field. Kevin Coyle has some work to do on defense, but the new pieces brought in should help him.

Bottom line:

I am not sure Tannehill will be quite ready this season. As I’ve said, he has all the physical tools to be a good quarterback, he just needs more experience. It really in on the other guys on offense to make their vision of a playoff spot a reality. Having Keller would have made that a whole lot more probable though. If the defense can really step up their game, maybe Tannehill and the offense will have enough. They’re getting there, but they have a hard slate this year.

 

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3. Buffalo Bills: 5-11

Offense: C

Hard to give a higher grade to a unit that doesn’t have a quarterback. Jeff Tuel (who?) is slated to hold down the fort until E.J. Manuel is ready–which could be any amount of time. I didn’t like Manuel coming out of college considering he played for a constantly underachieving team at Florida State and only won one ACC title, by the skin of their teeth (granted, I wasn’t high on Kaepernick either, look how that turned out). FSU always lost games they shouldn’t have, and Florida State QBs also have never really panned out in the NFL. But moving on, the rest of the offense actually is not that bad. Spiller had a breakout year last year, and Fred Jackson is a great #2 back. Steve Johnson is very good receiver, and they brought in Robert Woods, Da’Rick Rodgers and Marquise Goodwin to go alongside Johnson and T.J. Graham. Scott Chandler is a pretty good tight end, and their line has gotten better in recent years, but losing Andy Levitre will hurt. All in all this offense could be good if they can find a quarterback (they’ve been saying that for at least a decade).

Defense: D

For as many big names as they have on this defense, they should be better than they are. Their problem last season was their inability to stop the run. Switching to a 3-4 will not help that. Marcel Dareus needs to live up to the third overall pick he was. He has disappointed so far, and Alan Branch will push him for playing time. Kyle Williams is a very good 4-3 DT, but should be fine as a 3-4 end, which he has played before. They are breaking in four new starters at linebacker with Kiko Alonzo and Nigel Bradham on the inside, and pass rushers Manny Lawson and Mario Williams on the outside. Lawson has never really stuck anywhere but Williams was good as a 3-4 OLB in Houston before getting hurt. Their secondary remains the strength of the unit with Leodis McKelvin and 10th overall pick Stephon Gilmore at corner (though he’s out for a while), and all pro Jarius Byrd and high draft pick Aaron Williams at safety.

Special Teams: C

Rian Lindell was released, and rookie Dustin Hopkins takes over. It’s gonna be a lot different kicking in the swirling Buffalo winds than it was in Tallahassee. Powell is not very good punter. All they have going for them are their return men, McKelvin and T.J. Graham (use Marquise Goodwin…he’s nothing but speed, which is good because he can’t catch).

Coaching: TBD

Marrone was an NFL assistant for the Jets from 02-05 and the Saints OC from 06-08. So his experience in the NFL should help, but I will reserve judgement until he coaches a full season as a head coach. I do however like them stealing Mike Pettine away from the Jets. He was the architect of some of those great Jets defenses from a few years ago. But he won’t have the talent here that he did there, most notably not a shutdown corner. I feel like Nathaniel Hackett is OC in name only, and Marrone will actually do a lot of the work there.

Bottom line:

I bought the hype on this team last season, as did some experts. But they don’t look like they will be any better than they were last season. They still have big holes on defense and now they have an unsettled QB situation. Fitzpatrick wasn’t great, but he’s better than what they have now. It was the fault of the ownership for giving him a massive contract beyond his abilities. Now it’s back to square one.

 

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4. New York Jets: 3-13

Offense: D

All we hear about is the quarterback position. Make no mistake, they are in a bad way there. Sanchez looks like he has lost all sense of confidence. Geno Smith slipped all the way to the second round, and even though he put up monster numbers in a pass happy system at WVU, his game looks shaky for the next level. It just kind of makes you facepalm looking at how this situation has been handled. No real commitment to either guy, and Rex didn’t even seem like he wanted Geno Smith, but to go into the season with Sanchez as your guy is just dumb. Wouldn’t be surprised if they traded for a guy like Kirk Cousins, Kyle Orton or even Matt Flynn if he becomes available. But who the QB throws to is also a pretty big issue. Stephen Hill caught 21 passes in 11 games last season, Holmes looks past his heyday, I like Kerley but he’s a third receiver at best. Chris Ivory could be a decent pickup at RB though, replacing Shonn Greene. With Ferguson and Mangold on the line one might think it can’t be too bad, but with Willie Colon and Vladimir Ducasse coming in at the two guard spots and Austin Howard at RT, you realize their line isn’t that good. All around this unit blows.

Defense: C

This group is a far cry from what it used to be. Wilkerson is pretty good at DE, and Sheldon Richardson takes over at the other end spot. He’s talented but also undisciplined. Kendrick Ellis, the massive NT from Hampton, finally gets his chance to start. They moved Quentin Coples to OLB. A 290 pound guy on the outside? That’s too big. He will get burned in coverage on a routine basis. Antwan Barnes will be the better bet for getting any type of pressure on the quarterback. DeMario Davis takes over for the departed Bart Scott alongside David Harris inside. Darelle Revis is gone, but Dee Milliner comes in. They should be about the same in the secondary, which is arguably the best unit on the team. Dawan Landry, a Jags castoff, and Antonio Allen will be their safeties. Good luck defense, your offense won’t be giving you much room for error.

Special teams: D

Malone is nothing special at punter, and Nick Folk just sucks. The only saving grace for them is the return game. Clyde Gates was a great playmaker in college, and Kerley averaged over 10 yards per punt return last season, and scored once.

Coaching: C

Rex Ryan may know defense, but he can’t handle the media or quarterback controversy. He simply is too fond of Mark Sanchez to let anyone else play (not his only bad decision in regards to Mark Sanchez). Marty Mornhinweg comes over from Philadelphia to be the OC. He has had some success as a coordinator despite his awful two years as the head coach in Detroit. Dennis Thurman has been a good DB coach for the Jets since 2008, and should be fine as the DC.

Bottom line:

This team should be terrible. The heat is on Rex Ryan and Sanchez, and neither of them have really shown enough for me to believe they can handle the pressure. It doesn’t help that the talent has slowly drained out of New York. They need to get the run game and run defense going again to have any success this season.

 

 

AFC West

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1. Denver Broncos: 12-4 (2)

Offense: A

This offense has become almost a pick your poison with all the weapons they have. Last year they were missing the underneath/slot guy, now they have one of the best in the game with Welker. McGahee led the team with 731 yards last season. Enter Montee Ball, who they got with the 58th pick. His last two years at Wisconsin he ran for over 3500 yards. Behind the line they have, with two excellent tackles in Clady and Franklin, as well as free agent guard Louis Vasquez, there’s no reason for him not to be productive. Ronnie Hillman has had a really good camp so far as well from reports, which should only elevate Ball’s play, and if both are good and merit playing time, it will keep them both fresher throughout the season. DeMaryius Thomas had a breakout year last season, and considering all the physical talent he has, he should only get better. Eric Decker now is the third receiver, and boy, what a great third receiver he is. He caught 85 passes and 13 TDs last season. He’d start on most teams. Of course, the sheriff is back, he’ll light it up in the regular season as he always does, but come playoff time everyone will hold their breath to see what happens.

Defense: B

They tied for tops in sacks, were third in both passing yards and rushing yards against last season, and fourth in points allowed last season. One thing that baffles me though is why they continue to start Robert Ayers, who has been a complete disappointment his whole career. In four seasons he has 6.5 sacks. Not exactly 18th overall pick material. Shaun Phillips had 9.5 last season. So explain to me why he’s listed behind Von Miller, and why’s he’s a linebacker. At 255 he should be starting at DE. Picking up Terrence Knighton was a good move, he’ll help the run defense. Nate Irving, a third round pick in 2011, takes over in the middle for Joe Mays, and Wesley Woodyard led the team in tackles last season. Not a bad group to complement Von Miller. Their secondary was exposed by Joe Flacco and the speed of the Ravens receivers in the playoffs, so they brought in Dominque Rodgers-Cromartie to handle speedy guys. Champ Bailey and Chris Harris were 4th and 9th in yards per coverage snap (according to pro football focus) last season, but safeties are a work in progress. Mike Adams got beat like a drum time after time last season, but he and Rahim Moore will open the season as starters back there. Even though Moore is known for blowing the coverage on Jacoby Jones that allowed the Ravens to extend the game, Moore was 9th in the league in TD/First down percentage allowed, only allowing 10 in 609 snaps last season.

Special teams: B

Britton Colquitt is a good punter, but Matt Prater is only an okay kicker. He’s got a big leg (the thin air helps) but he lacks accuracy. During his time in Denver he is just over 80% accuracy. They have the return game covered though. Trindon Holliday is one of the most explosive return men in the league, a threat to take a punt or kick back at any time.

Coaching: B

John Fox is a good coach, even though he has yet to take home the ultimate prize. Jack Del Rio is a good defensive coordinator, but I wonder sometimes if the conservative natures of those two might become too Schottenheimer-esque. I’m sure nobody has ever heard of Adam Gase. He’s their OC. They don’t really need one though, they have Peyton Manning.

Bottom line:

The division is clearly theirs to lose, and they are a bona fide Super Bowl contender. It still begs the question of “will Peyton’s postseason struggles continue?”, and also questions of his health. Will his neck hold up–if so, how long? That’s the only reason for them to fall.

 

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2. *Kansas City Chiefs: 9-7 (6)

Offense: B

Eric Fisher might be the most bland top pick in recent memory. But he will fill a need at right tackle this season, with the move to the left side only a matter of time. Brandon Albert is more than capable of holding down the left side for now. According to pro football focus, he was 9th in the league in terms of pass blocking efficiency. But considering his contract status and lack of QBs in the draft, they did the smart thing in acquiring Alex Smith and getting a franchise tackle. Other than QB, their offense is honestly really good. Jamaal Charles is a great back, one of the most explosive backs in the league, averaging over five yards per carry last season. But considering his body, they will need another guy to carry some of the load. Knile Davis and Cyrus Gray are on the roster. Neither have much NFL experience, but were both very productive college players. Dwayne Bowe is one of the most underrated receivers in the NFL, mainly because he hasn’t had a half decent QB throwing to him at any point during his career. Alex Smith should fix that. Prediction- Andy Reid will make this offense one of the 10 best this season.

Defense: C

Tyson Jackson still has not lived up to the potential he had coming out of college. Dontari Poe was a huge gamble at #11 last season, but he seems to have paid off, being rated as one of the top run defenders by pro football focus. Mike DeVito was a solid pickup, and with Allen Bailey rotating in they should have decent depth up front. Their back eight are clearly stronger though. Hali and Justin Houston are two very good pass rushers. Derrick Johnson has become one of the best MLBs in the league, and Akeem Jordan should fit in well, Reid coached him in Philadelphia. Their secondary should be quite a bit better. After losing Brandon Carr the offseason before this one, they now have picked up Dunta Robinson and Sean Smith to fill the void alongside Brandon Flowers. Eric Berry is a great hitter who struggles in coverage sometimes, but Kendrick Lewis played well last year and should do fine. He will need to- they will be tested this season against Denver, Dallas, NYG and other pass happy offenses this season.

Special Teams: B

Dustin Colquitt is among the best punters in the game, and Ryan Succop has been passable as a kicker. Devon Wylie is an average return man, nothing special. They need to use McCluster as a return man most–his game-breaking ability is something they could really use.

Coaching: A

Andy Reid brings instant credibility and instant respectability to this team. Not sure they’ll be quite what he made the Eagles when McNabb was there, at least not immediately, but they’ll be a competitive team. Doug Pederson should help as OC, being a former quarterback, he also knows Reid’s system well after working in Philadelphia since 2009.

Bottom line:

Even though last year was a disaster, hope remains for this team. There is a lot of talent to work with here. Andy Reid may not have them in the Super Bowl this season (in fact, he likely won’t), but they hopefully found the QB they’ve needed ever since Trent Green left and they can make get back to the playoffs, maybe even get their first playoff win since Joe Montana was on the team.

 

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3. San Diego Chargers: 5-11

Offense: D

This group is certainly not what it used to be. Rivers, while still a productive quarterback, has taken a step back. Turnovers have been a massive problem for him over the last two years, and a lot of his favorite targets have jumped ship as well. Sproles has left for New Orleans, Jackson for Tampa Bay, etc. Antonio Gates is also not what he used to be. Doesn’t have the same explosiveness and has been banged up a lot recently. Their offensive line has also taken a BIG step back. Other than the declining Hardwick and rookie Fluker, they’re starting a group of journeymen. Malcolm Floyd is still in the fold, and Danario Alexander is out, so the burden falls on rookie Keenan Allen, Vincent Brown and Eddie Royal. But the key to this season is going to be Ryan Mathews. He is the guy that could sink the ship, or if he plays well could vault the team into playoff contention and take a lot of pressure off Rivers.

Defense: C

Some new faces on the defense. Dwight Freeney takes over for Shaun Phillips after almost a dozen years in Indianapolis, but he is going to be overshadowed by the addition of that Notre Dame guy in the middle. Derek Cox is a skilled corner who has been up and down throughout his career, and injury prone. He is slated to take over for the departed Quentin Jammer. But they actually weren’t too bad last season. 6th against the run and 18th against the pass, 16th in points. Eric Weddle is easily their best player on defense, he’s one of the best safeties in the league. Jarret Johnson and Donald Butler are serviceable at the other LB spots. Their line is young, but it could be good. Garay is gone, but Cam Thomas, Kendall Reyes and Corey Liuget were all fairly high picks that are all somewhat inexperienced, but could become a good group. Bobby Taylor and Marcus Gilchrist are both young guys in the secondary. If all their young players can get on track this season, they actually could have a formidable defense. They have a decent mix of veterans and young talent.

Special Teams: C

Scifres is a good punter, but Nick Novak has been subpar his whole career until last season. How well he’ll do this season is still a mystery. Richard Goodman has been inconsistent as a return man, Eddie Royal seems to have lost the spark he had in Denver earlier in his career. Danny Woodhead may take over one of the return spots. But as a whole I think this unit is just average.

Coaching: B

Mike McCoy has been a great coordinator the last couple of years in Denver, and I think in time he’ll become a fine head coach. Picking up Ken Whisenhunt after he was fired by the Cardinals was smart. He will be a better playcaller and should help Rivers some. John Pagano is a good coordinator, has done a great job since he was LB coach starting in 2005 until now.

Bottom line:

The Ravens game was the epitome of this team last season. Talented enough to compete and take down the big boys, but mental errors ended up costing them the chance to win. Right now overall I think they’re about an average team, but they could get into the playoffs if Rivers rebounds to his pre-2011 form. But with all the changes going on around him, that seems like a stretch.

 

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4. Oakland Raiders: 2-14

Offense: D

Their four thousand yard passer from last season is gone. Darren McFadden is about as durable as a glass vase. A receiver they picked seventh overall is gone. The man with the most celebrated two starts at QB in league history takes over, and only two of their top four receivers in terms of yards from last season- Rod Streater and Denarius Moore. Their best player on offense is their fullback, Marcel Reese. He caught 52 passes last season and averaged 4.6 ypc on 59 carries last season. They need to find more creative ways to get him the ball. Brandon Myers was their leading receiver last season, and now he’s in New York. Their line has some issues. Mike Bristel is a system player playing out of system, Menelik Watson is a big guy who didn’t play too much at Florida State. Stefen Wisniewski has what it takes to succeed, and Jared Veldheer is one of the better tackles in the league (unfortunately he’s out for at least half the season), and Alex Barron takes over (collective facepalm). At least Flynn will have serviceable protection, but if he is the guy or if he’ll have anyone to throw to are two pressing issues.

Defense: D

This unit was bad last season and might be worse this season. Lamarr Houston led the team with a whopping 4 sacks. As a team they had 25. But they added Jason Hunter to upgrade the pass rush so….wait nevermind. Richard Seymour is gone, so good luck Vance Walker and Pat Sims replacing his production and leadership. I am bothered by the fact they aren’t letting Miles Burris start. He was one of their best players last season- second on the team in tackles aside from the departed Philip Wheeler. At that point, I stop feeling sorry for this team sucking for so long when they do crap like that. I think their secondary is okay, best unit on the team in all likelihood. D.J. Hayden was overdrafted for sure, but he could be a good corner in this league. Mike Jenkins was up and down in Dallas (not exactly bucking the trend on that team), but he was 12th in yards per coverage snap, according to pro football focus. Tyvon Branch is a good safety, and Charles Woodson will bring some leadership to those young guys. But still, this unit looks to be well below average.

Special Teams: B

Janikowski remains a top of the line kicker, Kluwe is an okay punter- definitely not the guy who he replaces, who had a monster leg. Kluwe is more the accurate punter. But they should have good return units with Jacoby Ford (if he can ever stay healthy) and Philip Adams.

Coaching: TBD

It’s hard to judge Dennis Allen after one season, in a job that should have not been his. Reggie McKenzie was an idiot for firing Hue Jackson. It’s no wonder why this team sucks and has sucked for so long with moves like that. They have some notable offensive coaches, with Al Saunders as assistant coordinator, Greg Olson as OC, and Tony Sparano as assistant HC and OL coach. These men have a lot of work ahead of them.

Bottom line:

This team has imploded after making some stable progress in 2010 and 2011. I still think their offense could be good if Flynn turns out to be legit and McFadden stays healthy for 16 games (which is about as probable as me winning the lottery). They played some teams tough last season, specifically the Falcons in Atlanta, as well as the Chargers twice and the Broncos in their second meeting. At best I think they could push San Diego for third in the division.

 

 

AFC North

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1. Cincinnati Bengals: 11-5 (3)

Offense: B

Based simply on last year’s performance alone, I would have given them a C. But I think they could get a lot better this season. With Tyler Eifert coming into the fold, it takes some pressure off Gresham, and gives defenses another man to worry about. Andrew Hawkins is good at short routes, but unfortunately A.J. Green still looks like the only guy who can really stretch the field. Maybe they can get something out of Marvin Jones, who missed quite a few games last season. Their passing game will need to be on point, because their run game isn’t more than average. BenJarvus Green-Ellis is serviceable, Bernard Scott is good as a change of pace back, so it really falls on rookie Giovani Bernard to make the run game anything more than average. Ultimately, it comes down to Andy Dalton. He needs to take the next step out of the realm of serviceable QBs and become a difference maker. He has struggled against the good teams in his first two years, going 2-9 against the Ravens, Steelers and Texans. But if he can take the next step, look out.

Defense: A

They have one of the best defenses in the league that nobody knows anything about. They don’t have many big names, but they’re a dang good unit. Heard of Geno Atkins? He is a 4-3 DT, led the team with 12.5 sacks. He’s the best 4-3 DT in the NFL. DE Michael Johnson added 11.5 sacks. All in all they were third in the NFL with 51 sacks last season. But they have depth too. Wallace Gilberry and Carlos Dunlap added another 12.5 sacks, and rookie Margus Hunt will be able to spell them as well. Leon Hall is a shutdown corner who doesn’t get a whole lot of attention from the media, quite frankly none of these guys do because they play in Cincinnati. If they played for New England they’d be known by every fan in the country. But Terence Newman has played well in the latter stages of his career, Adam Jones has been a solid nickelback, but they need to see if they have anything in Dre Kirkpatrick. He was a first round pick, but just hasn’t seen the field much in the NFL. But if he can get it together, their secondary could rival anyone’s. With the addition of James Harrison, Vontaze Burfinct and Rey Maualuga become a fearsome group of linebackers. Ultimately, this group doesn’t have many weaknesses. George Iloka, a second year man from Boise state, takes over at Strong Safety. We’ll see how he works out there.

Special Teams: B

Huber is a good punter, and between Bernard Scott, Brandon Tate and Adam Jones, they have among the best group of return men in the NFL. Mike Nugent is okay at kicker, always had a big leg but never been incredibly accurate. His career percentage of field goals made is 81.1%.

Coaching: C

It’s a shame there are so many good assistants on this staff wasted by a terrible head coach. Marvin Lewis has overall been a failure in his time in Cincinnati, but somehow he manages to always keep his job, no matter how badly the team underachieves. Jay Gruden, Hue Jackson and Mike Zimmer are all NFL caliber head coaches. If they don’t win a playoff game, one of them will be the head man next season.

Bottom line:

Don’t ever trust this franchise, that’s what I’ve learned ever since I started watching the NFL. But the talent is undeniable. They’ve upgraded the outside of their offense, and have built a stout defense. All the pieces are in place to win this division. Time for them to go out and make it happen!

 

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2. *Baltimore Ravens: 9-7 (5)

Offense: C/B

Flacco is an excellent quarterback, but losing your top two targets is never fun. But I still expect him to produce his typical line of between 20-25 TDs and around 10 picks. Torrey Smith is a very good deep threat, but has only caught 99 passes in his first 32 regular season games (averaging 17.1 ypc). New starter Jacoby Jones obviously has a lot of speed and big play ability, but I feel like they need a possession type guy. They may have something in Deonte Thompson, a second year receiver from Florida. If he can fill that role, great. Otherwise comes down to Ed Dickson, who fell off after a breakout 2011 season, or Dallas Clark. But the running game is key. Obviously Ray Rice is one of the most versatile and productive running backs in the NFL, and Bernard Pierce has blossomed into a very good #2 back–he averaged 4.9 ypc on 108 carries last season. With the return of Vonta Leach, I think they can return to a power running based offense and be productive if they need to. They have the line to do it too- considering new center Gino Gradkowski is smallest at 300 pounds. Speaking of which- I doubt the transition will be much of an issue unless he’s awful-but as a fourth round pick in 2012, I doubt that happens. They brought in A.Q. Shipley from the Colts if he does. So the condition on this grade is how well Flacco’s new targets perform.

Defense: B

Gone are longtime anchors Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. That would phase an inferior team, but not these guys. They have Haloti Ngata, one of the scariest players in the league anchoring the middle of the defense, and savvy vets in Arthur Jones and former Giant Chris Canty at ends. The biggest thing for them will be Terrell Suggs playing to his full ability this season- he wasn’t the same due to the achilles injury. Daryl Smith is a great replacement for Ray Lewis. He was among one of the most well kept secrets in Jacksonville for nine years, will bring instant leadership to the middle of the defense. Rookie Arthur Brown is another perfect fit for this team–just a tough, gritty guy. He could easily start as a rookie. Elvis Dumervil opposite Suggs will scare quarterbacks. Rotating in Upshaw, the better run defender, will only make both of them better. Michael Huff replaces Ed Reed in the secondary, and while he may share some of Reed’s ballhawking ability, Huff was rated as one of the worst tackling DBs in the league by pro football focus. Jimmy Smith also joined him on that list. But the additions of Lardarius Webb (coming back from injury, before he was among the best corners in the league) and Matt Elam should give the unit a much needed boost. I think they have a good unit, but not a great one like they used to.

Special Teams: A

Koch is good punter, and Tucker had one heck of a rookie season. Jacoby Jones is a dynamite returner. It figures they’re so good considering Harbaugh used to coach special teams.

Coaching: A

Harbaugh in my opinion is the best coach in the NFL. When he got there he took a 5-11 team without a QB to the playoffs, obviously he inherited some talent on the defensive side, but he managed to pull it together after falling short all those years. Caldwell is a great OC, and Dean Pees has been great at DC. Since he left New England after 09, they’ve struggled. Coincidence? I think not.

Bottom line:

The reigning champions have been in the playoffs every year since 2008, and they have a great chance to make it back this season. As I have noted, they have some holes that can be exploited, but the great teams always find ways to fill them or compensate for them. I expect nothing less from them this season.

 

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3. Pittsburgh Steelers 7-9

Offense: C

They get this grade only because of Big Ben. The rest of the unit is just not very good. If Big Ben stays healthy for 16 games, they’ll have a very good chance at making the playoffs–but that is no sure bet. However, their line has gotten better with the additions of David DeCastro, Mike Adams and Marcus Gilbert, but it’s still just an okay line. They’re young, and they should be good for a while, but it’s gonna be a maturation process for them. Their RB and WR situations are somewhat in flux. Le’Veon Bell was a beast at Michigan state, and should compete for the starting job and the bulk of the carries if he can return from injury. Redman is nothing special. Larod Stephens-Howling is more a return man than a running back. Mike Wallace is gone from the receiving corps, leaving the responsibility to Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery and unproven guys like Markus Wheaton. I don’t think Plaxico will play again- too old and too brittle. Tight end could be an issue if Heath Miller can’t rebound from offseason ACL surgery.

Defense: B

I no longer feel like this is a fearsome unit. Gone are longtime cogs Casey Hampton, James Harrison, and Keenan Lewis. Steve McClendon, Jason Worldis/Jarvis Jones and Cortez Allen are their replacements. McClendon is only 280 pounds, undersized for a nose tackle. Worldis got five sacks last season in part time, but the addition of Jarvis Jones should be able to cover the pass rush adequately. Not sold that either will be able to defend the run or have the same presence Harrison did. Allen is a concern though–was beaten for 27 TDs or first downs last season on only 340 defensive snaps, according to pro football focus. It is almost surprising that they were the top rated defense against the pass last season, considering Troy Polamalu isn’t what he used to be- and he really has a hard time staying on the field. Ryan Clark is getting up there in age as well. Simply because of how dominant this defense has been recently, I’m not ready to bury them, but they do have some holes to fill, and they need to find new leaders on this unit.

Special Teams: B

Suisham has been a journeyman kicker who seems to have found a home in Pittsburgh, converting about 85% of his kicks, almost 4% higher than his career average. Butler is not great punter, but they went with him over Brian Moorman. Between Stephens-Howling, Sanders and Antonio Brown, they have good return men.

Coaching: C

Todd Haley didn’t work too well with Big Ben, but hopefully for them that duo can work better together this season. LeBeau has kept the defense at the top of the league for a while though. At the top, Mike Tomlin has done a fair job handling the team that Cowher left behind, but despite his two Super Bowl appearances, I just feel like there’s just something missing. Quite a few of his picks have struggled.

Bottom line:

Last season they endured a lot of injuries, and sputtered to 8-8 and missed the postseason. Despite their losses in personnel, they still have the talent to make it back to the postseason, but there will be some issues they will have to work through to make it back.

 

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4. Cleveland Browns: 6-10

Offense: C

Brandon Weeden was erratic his rookie season, but one thing about him though is this is his fourth straight year in football. He had to adjust to coming back to football at OSU, then had to adjust to the NFL. There’s no doubt he has a strong arm, but his accuracy was shaky last season. But toward the end of the year he started to level out. I think the added reps will help him more than it will other rookie QBs, who have been playing QB for 10 years or so at some level. Josh Gordon made a difference for them when he started getting into the flow last season. His ability to stretch the field is as good as up there with the best of them. Davone Bess in the slot will be a good addition. But they still need more out of Greg Little, the second round pick from UNC in 2011. In 32 career games he has passed 100 yards once. But I figure all will look better this season. Where they can improve is the run game. Richardson was great in the red zone, scoring 11 touchdowns on the ground, but he only averaged 3.6 ypc. I think it starts up front. Joe Thomas is a great pass blocker, but he is shaky in run blocking. Alex Mack and Mitchell Schwartz are solid at center and right tackle, but they could use an upgrade at guard over Jason Pinkston and Shawn Lauvao.

Defense: C

They were 19th in points allowed and 23rd in yards allowed last season, but they should be better with their upgrades in personnel. Adding Des Bryant to an already huge line of Rubin and Phil Taylor will make them hard to run against (Bryant is considered small at 310 pounds). Paul Kruger is not worth as much as they paid him, but he will certain help their pass rush rotation. He, Sheard and sixth overall pick Barkevious Mingo will form a formidable trio. D’Qwell Jackson seems to have overcome the injury issues that plagued him earlier in his career, starting in 32 games the last two seasons. Craig Robertson played well beside Jackson in his rookie season, accumulating  93 tackles. The North Texas product played so well he is starting over former TCU standout and Rose Bowl hero Tank Carder. While they were middle of the pack defending the run last season they need to shore up their secondary, particularly in this division. Tashaun Gipson, a second year man from Wyoming takes over at safety, alongside standout T.J. Ward. We’ll see how that works. Joe Haden is a fine corner, but Buster Skrine got beat like a drum last season. I still think that part of the defense is a liability that will cost them games.

Special Teams: D

Shayne Graham is on the downside of his career, but he connected on 31 of 38 field goals, including four from 50+ yards last season. But they cut him and don’t have a kicker presently. Their punting situation is a competition between Spencer Lanning, who has never punted in the NFL since entering in 2011 and Jets castoff T.J. Conely. Ouch. Travis Benjamin’s returning ability redeems them some.

Coaching: B

New head man Rob Chudzinski better get more than two years to rebuild this team. He can do it if given time. He made two good choices by bringing in Norv Turner and Ray Horton. Turner loves to throw the ball deep, and Weeden does that pretty well. Horton built the Cardinals defense into a pretty stout unit. Now his 3-4 should work well with the crew here.

Bottom line:

They are a sleeper to be good this season. I could see them getting out of the cellar this season, I’m just not sure who they would pass this season, barring a major injury to a critical player on one of the other teams in the division.

 

 

AFC South

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1. Houston Texans: 13-3 (1)

Offense: B

Can Matt Schaub get them to the top of the mountain? That’s what fans in Houston and pundits nationwide are asking. In 2011 he was lighting it up before he was injured- with 15 TDs and only 6 picks in 10 games. My biggest concern was his tendency to play it safe at times last season. Prior to 2011 when their defense was horrible he carried that team and didn’t have any fear. He needs to play to win again, and not play not to lose. With the run game they have, and now with DeAndre Hopkins added to complement Andre Johnson, the ageless wonder, and Owen Daniels, the skilled yet oft-injured tight end, the weapons are there for him. Their other three receivers- DeVier Posey, Lestar Jean and Keshawn Martin have a combined 22 catches in the NFL. Hopkins will need to be good and be that field stretching guy quickly. Their bread and butter is their run game, which will be good regardless of Foster’s health, because Tate is a very good back, and arguably the best backup back in the league. Duane Brown is a stud at LT, and with Wade Smith, Chris Myers and Ben Jones in the middle they are thick up front. Derek Newton is a good run blocker, and improving in pass protection. But one of the most underrated signings of the offseason was them bringing in Greg Jones from the Jaguars. He had been clearing holes for MJD for years.

Defense: A

They have the best defensive player in the NFL at left end, as long as they have that man they should be very good on this side of the ball. It’s amazing that he has accumulated 26 sacks as a 3-4 end. Antonio Smith had a great season at right end, racking up 7 sacks himself. He may not be an all-pro, but with all the attention paid to Watt, he gets a lot of single blocks. Earl Mitchell has been solid inside, and Tim Jamison and Jared Crick provide depth. The biggest boost for them will be getting Cushing back from injury. Their run defense suffered immensely without him last season. He and Joe Mays should be solid inside. Even though they lost Connor Barwin, Whitney Mercilus should be able to fill in adequately. They need more out of Brooks Reed though- after getting six sacks in his rookie year, he dropped to 2.5 last season (though he missed four games). The secondary was maligned for giving up big plays, and that is one area Ed Reed should help in, and he should provide leadership as well. Johnathan Joseph needs to stay on the field–they have been taken up and down the field by opponents when he has been out. Glover Quin going to Detroit takes away a top tackler from their secondary, and they need to find a real number 3 CB between Brandon Harris and Brice McCain, though his chances are slim as he was one of the worst tackling corners in the game according to PFF.

Special Teams: B

Lechler has a power leg, his average of 47.2 yards per punt last season was low for him. In 2011 he averaged over 50. Randy Bullock takes over the kicking job full time after sitting behind Shayne Graham last season. He made 29/33 kicks and one over 50 his senior year at A&M. Keshawn Martin was pretty good returning both kicks and punts last season, and will continue to handle both this season.

Coaching: C

They stuck with Kubiak, an average coach, and Rick Dennison, who came from Denver with him. Wade Phillips really made a difference at DC, but his luck has run out quickly at his previous stops–when will it end in Houston?

Bottom line:

In a wide open AFC, there really aren’t any excuses left for this team. They have a pretty soft division, and need to get a high seed to host the hard teams in the playoffs.

 

titans

2. Tennessee Titans: 7-9

Offense: C

This may be one of the fastest offenses in the league. Starting with their QB, Jake Locker. While he can run, he certainly has a lot of room for improvement as a passer. Honestly, with his accuracy, he seems like a right handed version of Tim Tebow. Honestly, I think Ryan Fitzpatrick is better than he is and wouldn’t be surprised if he came off the bench at some point this season. The team seemed to play better under Matt Hasselbeck last season. But anyways, back to the speed. Chris Johnson may not be able to outrun a cheetah, but he might be the fastest back in the NFL. But his inconsistency after his 2000 yard season is why they brought in Shonn Greene, to take away some of the carries and run more between the tackles. Moving to their receivers, more speed. Nate Washington, Kendall Wright, Kenny Britt=all speed. Delanie Walker at tight end was a great addition. He gives them a lot of flexibility and versatility in what they can run. What’s surprising though is for such a questionable offense they have a fantastic line. Michael Roos is a pretty good LT, bringing in Andy Levitre from the Bills was an excellent move– he and 10th overall pick Chance Warmack will make some holes for sure. David Stewart is solid on the right side and Brandon Schwenke takes over at center. I would rate them higher with the amount of skill and level of line play, but I just have no faith in Locker. But if he can become the player they drafted him to be, this could be a hard unit to play against.

Defense: D/C

They allowed the most points in the league and were 27th in yards allowed. They have little pass rush. In his first full season last year, Derrick Morgan racked up 6.5 sacks. He needs to live up to the sixteenth overall pick he was. Akeem Ayers, Zach Brown and Kamerion Wimbley can help in the pass rushing department, but none of them had over 6 sacks last season. So pass rush, particularly with their secondary, will be an issue. Bernard Pollard is well known as a big hitter, but he isn’t great in coverage. Michael Griffin has regressed, Verner and Jason McCourty are decent at best corners. Not sure how to gauge their run defense–Mike Martin and Jurrell Casey were among the highest rated DTs at stopping the run according to PFF, but projected starter Sammie Hill, a free agent from Detroit, was one of the lowest. For the record they were 24th against the run last season. But MLB Colin McCarthy missed nine games last season, and has missed twelve games in his first two seasons. So I am not confident in his ability to stay healthy, and thus not confident in their run defense. But if they can stay healthy, they could be much improved.

Special Teams: B

Brett Kern is an okay punter- got a powerful leg but is high on the number of touchbacks and struggles a bit with putting punts down inside the 20. But Rob Bironas, even though he had a bit of a down year in 2012, and return men Marc Mariani and Darius Reynaud are among the best in the league at what they do. Mariani returned three kickoffs or punts for scores in 2011, and Reynaud did the same last season. Unfortunately Mariani is on the shelf again this season. Reynaud will get his chance to be the man for both jobs.

Coaching: C

Mike Munchak has been under fire in his first two years at the helm. Dowell Loggains had worked as the QB coach before previous OC Chris Palmer was fired, and even though he’s only 32, he’s got a huge job to do. Jerry Gray and Gregg Williams are good coaches, but they have a long way to go to make this defense into a good unit.

Bottom line:

They are putting all their eggs in Jake Locker’s basket. I never thought he’d be that great coming out of college, but this year could be his opportunity to prove me wrong. Offensively they have the tools to be good if Locker can be. But their defense has a lot of issues to work through.

 

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3. Indianapolis Colts: 6-10

Offense: B

It’s hard not to like what this offense could be. With the addition of Ahmad Bradshaw to the duo of Vick Ballard and Donald Brown, they could have a pretty productive running game, which would be a stark change from their pass-dominant offense last season. Luck had a very decorated rookie year, leading the team to an 11-5 record, but I’m not putting him with the best of the best yet. Simply looking at his numbers, you’d think he was below average. But he had issues in protection and a lack of balance on offense, but he showed all the intangibles one could ask from a rookie QB, even from a veteran. Even though Reggie Wayne is still as good as he’s ever been, they need a number two receiver to replace Donnie Avery. Darrius Hayward-Bey doesn’t do it for me. He was a bust in Oakland, and even though he has speed being fast isn’t enough in the NFL. Hilton and Brazill should get plenty catches, as will tight ends Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener. Gosder Cherilus was the 20th rated tackle in pass efficiency last season, but I don’t know if he and acquisition Donald Thomas will fix their line issues. Castonzo allowed 41 pressures on 501 plays last season, one of the lower marks in the league, but he should get better with another year under his belt.

Defense: D

They were among the lowest rated units in the league last season, and while they may not be absolutely awful, I figure they will be close to the bottom again this season. Aubrayo Franklin was the highest in run stoppage percent last season, but the fact San Diego was willing to let him go makes me think there’s more to it than that–I think there’s a good chance he doesn’t have much left in the tank and may not be able to be a full time starter anymore. Ricky Jean-Francois was a castoff of the 49ers, which concerns me because Vic Fangio knows his stuff, and he didn’t want him back. Redding has been solid for a long time, but I question how much tread is left on the tire. Walden is nothing special, no idea why people thought bringing him in was such a great move. He’s an effective role player at best. Mathis is their only established threat to rush the passer–they’re gonna need a lot out of first rounder Bjoern Werner this season. Angerer has become a pretty good MLB (great name for that position) and Jerrell Freeman played well in part time duty last season, should be a good starter. Bringing in Toler will help the secondary, but Laron Landry is a hitter who gets beat deep in coverage and has a hard time staying healthy. Bethea and Davis are solid though.

Special Teams: C

Adam Vinateri is a very well known kicker, but his reputation is an overstatement of how good he actually is. He still has a strong leg, but he missed 7 of 33 kicks last season. McAfee is a fairly good punter, he averaged over 48 yards per punt last season. Seventh round pick Kerwynn Williams will take over the kick returning job, and T.Y. Hilton did a good job returning punts last season, averaging about 12 yards per and scoring one TD.

Coaching: C

Chuck Pagano gets a rain check due to what happened last season, but he has made them into a tougher team. It is worth noting they were 2-3 with him at the start of last season before Arians took over. Pep Hamilton worked with Luck at Stanford, and should know him well enough to use his strengths well. Greg Manusky continues to underwhelm as DC. SF got better after he left, and SD fell after he came, and rose up again after he came to Indy. Coincidence? I think not.

Bottom line:

Last year’s cinderella story faces a different set if challenges this season. Teams will know what they are capable of this season, and be better prepared. Not to mention the schedule is simply harder. Luck may be elite very soon, but I think as a team they are primed to take a step back.

 

Jaguars_Secondary_2013

4. Jacksonville Jaguars: 5-11

Offense: C

Much like the Vikings, this grade is boosted by the presence of their great running back. MJD should come back invigorated in a contract year. But otherwise, there isn’t a whole lot to write home about. Starters Cecil Shorts and Justin Blackmon (who is suspended for the first four games) and tight end Marcedes Lewis have talent, but it won’t matter too much if there isn’t a guy to get them the ball. Gabbert will start week one, but he’ll be on a really short leash, and if he struggles the first four games, Henne could be put in and Gabbert may not get another chance. The line has a lot of question marks. Can Will Rackley become the player they drafted him to be in 2012? Will Monroe be able to hold of Joeckel from taking over the LT job? Can Meester still play at his age? Then right guard is a problem. Nwaneri was paid big bucks by Gene Smith, but he ran this franchise into the ground. Bradley and Caldwell should look for their guy. Other than MJD, the most interesting players on this offense are rookies Ace Sanders and Denard Robinson. They need to find ways to use both of them immediately.

Defense: D

Think the offense is bad? The defense is worse. Bradley will have to get really creative to make this defense into a good unit. But there are some talented players here. Jason Babin got 18 sacks in 2011, so he can play. Andre Branch was a high pick in 2012, and pass rush has been their weak point for years. Bradley has gotta use these guys creatively to get some pressure on the opponent’s QB. Unfortunately, there isn’t much inside to take blocks off of them. Tyson Alualu has been a bust so far, and while they did get Roy Miller, a FA from Tampa Bay this offseason, he’s no all-pro. Paul Posluszny is a very good middle linebacker, but he can’t do much without players to take blocks away from him. Russell Allen and Geno Hayes are both just a guy. Losing Daryl Smith and his leadership will hurt. Their secondary was almost completely overhauled with second round pick John Cyprien taking over at strong safety and Dwayne Gratz, a third round pick from Uconn, taking over at the other corner–opposite Alan Ball (facepalm). Good luck Bradley.

Special Teams: B

Anger is a very good punter, and Scobee had a pro bowl caliber season last year. Jordan Shipley was a great return man at Texas, but has bounced around in the NFL, obviously not able to hold a job with any team too long. If he can give them anything returning punts, it certainly would help their offense, which could use all the help it can get. Jordan Todman gets his chance as a kick returner, though it makes you wonder why they don’t give Justin Forsett a chance back there.

Coaching: TBD

I’ve gushed over Gus Bradley quite a bit I realize, I think he’s gonna get this team turned around- I think the way he shored up the D in Seattle is what he can do for this team. But it will require 2-3 years, and finding a QB, whether he be on the roster or not. Jedd Fisch and Frank Scelfo have quite a bit of work ahead of them with this offense and quarterbacks specifically. Bob Babich, who had been in Chicago since 2004, takes over as DC. But the Bears D, despite having basically the same players, was much better when he was not DC. Confident? I wouldn’t be.

Bottom line:

There isn’t much anyone can expect from this team this season. It’d take a borderline miracle for this team to make the playoffs. The biggest thing for them is finding out if they have their future signal caller or they’ll have to find one in the offseason.

 

 

Playoffs

Bengals over Chiefs, Ravens over Patriots, Packers over Saints, 49ers over Cowboys

Texans over Ravens, Broncos over Bengals, Falcons over 49ers, Packers over Seahawks

Texans over Broncos, Packers over Seahawks

Super Bowl 48:

vince-lombardi-trophy.20

Packers over Texans

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Mavs Add Blair and Frontcourt Depth

30 07 2013

BlairMavs

He may have no knees, but he has better knees than another big man the Mavs were pursuing.

The Dallas Mavericks have come to terms on a one-year deal worth $1.4 million (the veteran’s minimum) with DeJuan Blair, according to Marc Stein of ESPN.

The 6-7, 270 lb. power forward/center was drafted No. 37 out of Pittsburgh by the San Antonio Spurs in 2009 and fell that low due to the fact that he has no ACLs in both of his knees. Even though this seems like it would be a cause of concern, he has had a fairly healthy career during his four years with the Spurs, missing only three games during his first three seasons.

Blair has career averages of 7.8 ppg and 5.8 rpg on 52.8 percent shooting from the field. He also has averaged only 18.9 mpg during his four seasons, showing his ability to make an impact with minimal minutes. The 24-year-old bruiser’s per 36-minute stats last season were 13.9 points and 9.7 rebounds on 52.4 percent shooting, according to Basketball Reference. He is known for his scrappy play, rebounding and ability to just find a way to get the ball in the basket. Last season, 81.1 percent of Blair’s shots came in the restricted area or painted non-RA for the Spurs and shot 57.3 percent in these areas. What this means is that Blair does most of his damage in the paint off put-backs or broken plays.

The major downside to Blair’s play is his defense. He may work his tail off on every play, but that’s often not enough when it comes to playing against seven footers in the NBA. Being about as tall as most small forwards, Blair struggles to hold his own against much taller opponents who can shoot over the top of him. Since Brandan Wright (6-9) is also undersized for his position, head coach Rick Carlisle will need to make sure his rotations have enough size on the floor or things could get ugly on defense.

As Mavs fans have grown to love about their own Wright, Blair has always been ready to play, not worrying about his role or how many minutes he gets. (With a coach like Carlisle, who doesn’t care about those things as well, that’s a good quality for a Mav.)

Just take last year’s NBA Playoffs. Due to Tiago Splitter‘s emergence as the starting center, Blair eventually fell almost completely out of Gregg Popovich‘s rotation. That’s why his minutes dropped from 21.3 two seasons ago to 14.0 last season. After only playing trash time in the first two games against the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round, Blair got 14 and 19 minutes in Game 3 and 4, scoring 13 points  in both games on 12-of-15 shooting. He also added 12 total boards.

Even though he didn’t receive consistent minutes during a run to the Finals after being the team’s main center early in his career, Blair didn’t show any sort of frustration or discontent. This team-first attitude is something any organization going in any direction wold be happy to have in the locker room. As Popovich mentioned when asked about Blair falling out of his rotation last season, “To his credit, DeJuan has been a true pro.”

With this signing, it seems that the Mavs have taken themselves out of the Greg Oden race or Oden told them that they were out of the race, so they moved on to Blair. Even if there are those out there that say the Mavs are still in the race, I don’t see Dallas as Oden’s likely destination. It will probably be the New Orleans Pelicans or Miami Heat—teams that can offer him money with no pressure or the chance to win now.

Unlike Oden, who hasn’t played an NBA game since 2009, Blair hasn’t missed a substantial amount of games yet. Oden’s ceiling may be higher than Blair’s, but Blair has a higher floor.

With a higher floor, Blair gives the Mavs a proven rebounder and competitor. For a team whose leading rebounder was their small forward (Shawn Marion) last season, rebounding was clearly an issue. Dallas had a rebounds per game differential of -3.7, which was third worst in the NBA. By bringing in Samuel Dalembert and Blair, the team should be more respectable on the boards.

Dallas management clearly missed out on all their “big fish” targets these past two seasons; however, they do deserve credit for their ability to fill out the roster while maneuvering around the cap line and put together pieces that make the Mavericks a potential playoff team. Mark Cuban and Donnie Nelson should be criticized for the “plan powder dry” approach but praised for finding economically-savvy answers to their roster problems. (The only exception this offseason is Jose Calderon, who was given too long of a contract.) On paper, they have their answers: pass-first point guard (Calderon), No. 2 scorer (Monta Ellis) and low-post defensive presence (Dalembert). And they didn’t go over the cap to fill these needs.

Now it’s just time to see these pieces fit together and give Dirk another shot at a postseason run.

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Soto Saves The Day

29 07 2013

Whether it was due to the inundation of injured pitchers, the disappearing act of the bats or the absence of any sort of energy, the Rangers had plenty of reasons to begin considering their season a lost cause as Oakland’s lead grew bigger and bigger with each consecutive Rangers loss. Before Monday, they had gone 2-8 during the second half of the season and fallen six games behind the A’s in divisional standings. At one point during Monday’s game, the Rangers had gone 26 scoreless innings. Things seemed dire. Things seemed hopeless.

Then, Geovany surprised ESPN’s nationally-televised audience and possibly saved his team’s season.

After a two-out, walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth, catcher Geovany Soto met his teammates at the plate for celebration as the Texas Rangers had themselves a 4-3 comeback victory over the Los Angeles Angels to end their four-game losing streak.

Former Chicago Cubs pitcher Matt Garza started his second game in a Rangers uniform. He lasted seven innings and gave up three runs on five hits with six strikeouts and three walks. Angels Jered Weaver pitched a solid seven innings, holding Texas to only one run and retiring 12 straight Rangers hitters at one point.

Soto followed up an A.J. Pierzynski game-tying home run that came two batters earlier in the inning.

The last time the Rangers won in walk-off fashion was May 26, 2012 when Josh Hamilton knocked one out of the park to take down the Toronto Blue Jays.

With the win, Texas is now within one game of the Baltimore Orioles for the second AL Wild Card spot.

During a 162 regular season, it seems that one game can only mean so much in the big scheme of things. Yet, given the Rangers current state, it felt as though the Rangers were being pushed far enough down the ladder that they eventually couldn’t climb back up emotionally. The team has been in a mediocre daze where wins at first felt like they were coming far and few between and then were actually coming far and few between. They seemed one crushing loss away from spiraling downward for good.

But they fought back with two crushing home runs in the bottom of the final inning. The way this game was won in Rangers Ballpark provides a much needed spark that has been absent, well, since the beginning of the season. Even Dirk Nowitzki knew this was big.

By getting a walk-off home run and getting one from Soto, who now only has five home runs on the year, the Rangers can build on this and hopefully find their once strong stride. The MLB postseason has shown us quite frequently of late that momentum is a huge part of the game, and if found at the right time, a team can make some noise in October. (Example: 2011 St. Louis Cardinals.)

This isn’t to say that Soto has homered the Rangers into October and beyond; however, he might have homered the Rangers back to their winning ways.

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Fun Fact Friday

26 07 2013

After an 11-8 loss to the Cleveland Indians, the Texas Rangers have now dropped four games behind the Oakland Athletics in the AL West standings. This is their largest deficit since the final day of the 2009 season.

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Current Tiers of the NBA

26 07 2013

Championship contenders: Heat, Pacers, Nets, Bulls, Thunder, Spurs, Clippers, Grizzlies, Warriors (Fringe: Knicks, Rockets)

Playoff contenders: Hawks, Bucks, Pistons, Wizards, Cavaliers, Nuggets, Lakers, Mavericks, Blazers, Timberwolves (Fringe: Celtics, Bobcats, Raptors, Pelicans)

Lottery contenders: Sixers, Magic, Jazz, Suns, Kings

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Mavericks Current Depth Chart

21 07 2013

bernard blocking ellis

With the recent re-signing of second-year center Bernard James after he cleared waivers, the Dallas Mavericks now have 13 of their 15 roster spots filled. Here’s where things currently stand:

 

PG — Jose Calderon, Gal Mekel, Shane Larkin

SG — Monta Ellis, Vince Carter, Wayne Ellington, Ricky Ledo

SF — Shawn Marion, Jae Crowder

PF — Dirk Nowitzki, Brandan Wright (pending)

C — Samuel Dalembert, Bernard James

 

Possibilities for the last two roster spots: Devin Harris (very likely), Leandro Barbosa, Greg Oden, D.J. Stephens, Drew Gooden, Tyrus Thomas, Jackie Carmichael, Ivan Johnson, Josh Akognon

 

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