NFL Preview 2012: AFC

5 09 2012

 

 

 

Co-writer: Josh McSwain

 

AFC east

1. New England Patriots (12-4)

Offense — (A).      With a great line and a bevy of offensive weapons, they are primed to put up a lot of points again. The question remains in the backfield though. Who will be the starter a running back? Stevan Ridley has impressed the most so far, but fellow 2011 draft pick Shane Vereen and the versatile Danny Woodhead will also contribute. Brandon Lloyd will also be an x-factor for them. Can he be the guy that stretches the field for them? No matter what roles are taken on by which players, this will surely be another dazzling year for Tom Brady.

Defense — (B-).     They got aggressive in the draft, trading up for Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower. With Vince Wilfork, Brandon Spikes, Jerod Mayo and a host of others up front, such as Trevor Scott and Kyle Love, they should be passable up front. The secondary is the question mark. They allowed Joe Flacco to look like an All-Pro quarterback in the AFC title game, and once again allowed Eli Manning to beat them. With the names they have back there – Patrick Chung, Devin McCourty and Kyle Arrington – they should have played better. With a much lighter schedule and only one All-Pro starting quarterback going up against them, we’ll see if a this new season provides a boost.

Special teams — (A-).      Stephen Gostowski is a solid kicker, and Zoltan Mesko has been respectable ever since breaking the starting lineup 2 years ago. Woodhead is a decent return man, but I imagine Jeff Demps will be taking over in that department this season.

 

2. Buffalo Bills (9-7)

Offense — (C+).      Kind of a work in progress. But with Fred Jackson carrying the load in the backfield, they will be fine. They really missed him after he got hurt last season. Ryan Fitzpatrick is the big question mark. He was Dr. Jekyll during the first part of last season and Mr. Hyde at the end. Injuries to the line and receivers certainly played their part in that though. As long as he takes care of the football, they should be just fine. The line has improved, and they got a steal with Cordy Glenn in the second round. He’s going to be a fine player.

Defense — (A-).      They were awful last year, I realize. But with Kyle Williams returning from injury, they have a front that can rival any in the league. Mario Williams will command attention. You can only double one of them. After those two, you have to deal with Marcel Dareus. And when you think you’re done, you have to deal with 10-sack man Mark Anderson. At linebacker, they have a solid core with Nick Barnett, Kelvin Sheppard and Arthur Moats, with depth with veteran Kirk Morrison. Adding Stephon Gilmore to the secondary will help. Aaron Williams and Gilmore will form a good duo for years, and Jarius Byrd and George Wilson are solid at safety.

Special teams — (A).      Brian Moorman is a very good punter, still as good as ever, and Rian Lindell is still a solid kicker. Leodis McKelvin averaged almost 20 yards per punt return, and Justin Rogers averaged almost 30 per kick return.

 

3. Miami Dolphins (6-10)

Offense — (C+).      Ryan Tannehill is raw and ordinarily would not be ready for the NFL, but playing in his college coach’s system will certainly decrease the learning curve, though it will still be there. It also doesn’t help that his receivers are absolutely awful. Davone Bess, their slot guy is their best receiver. Brian Hartline, Roberto Wallace, Legedu Naanee? They leave a lot to be desired. By the end of the year B.J. Cunningham and Jeff Fuller, Tannehill’s college teammate could be starting. The only constants on their offense are Jake Long and Reggie Bush. Mike Pouncey and Jonathan Martin are both young linemen that could be pretty good.

Defense — (A-).      They have a very good unit here. Paul Soliai anchors a 4-3 line that also features Cameron Wake, Randy Starks and Jared Odrick. Karlos Dansby is a very good ILB, and Kevin Burnett and Koa Misi are a solid group of LBs. Trading Vontae Davis will hurt their secondary, but they do have a good group back there still with Sean Smith, Richard Marshall, Nolan Carroll at the nickel, Reshad Jones and Chris Clemons at safety.

Special teams — (A-).      Dan Carpenter has been up and down in his 3 NFL seasons, kicking with a 89% accuracy rate in 2009, regressing to 73% in 2010 and improving back to 85% last season. Brandon Fields is one of the best punters in the league. Rookies Marcus Thigpen and Lamar Miller will fight it out for the kicker returner spot, and Davone Bess anchors the punt returner duties.

 

4. New York Jets (5-11)

Offense — (D).      They have a recipe for disaster. Sanchez is a competent but not confident QB, and Tebow is an unorthodox quarterback that is going to be hemmed into a box when he takes over the starting job (you know he will unless Sanchez lights it up). It honestly wouldn’t surprise me if McElroy finished the season, and wouldn’t surprise me if he did well. But they have lots of other issues than the QB spot. Shonn Greene has not been anything spectacular at running back, their WRs are very lackluster, Santonio Holmes, Stephen Hill and whomever else they have at WR won’t scare anybody. They have to hope Dustin Keller has a pro bowl caliber year. Right Tackle is another problem. The rest of the line is solid with Ferguson, Mangold, Moore and Slauson. But they have to find a starter out of Vladimir DuCasse, who though listed at guard could slide over, ex 2nd overall pick Jason Smith who failed epically in St Louis, Austin Howard and Paul Cornick.

Defense — (A-).      They have always been very good and hard-nosed on this side of the ball. Starters Mike Devito, Muhammed Wilkerson and Quentin Coples, their first round pick, will wreak havoc, and Sione Pouha is a solid anchor at NT. They need to find an edge rusher. Calvin Pace and Bryan Thomas are not that guy. But David Harris and Bart Scott are a good duo. Their secondary is good, with Revis Island leading the way. But the injury prone LaRon Landry will be a liability, particularly in coverage. Yeremiah Bell and Antonio Cromartie are both solid players back there.

Special teams — (C).      Who will be the kicker? Nick Folk? After you brought in Josh Brown? What does that say about Folk? TJ Conely is a serviceable punter, and they do have some spark in the return game with Joe McKnight and Jeremy Kerley.

 

 

AFC west

1. San Diego Chargers (10-6)

Offense — (B+).      Rivers had a down year last year, but he will bounce back this season. Vincent Jackson is gone, but he is very overrated. He’s great one week and terrible the next. Gates needs to stay healthy, and hopefully for them, Robert Meachem will be more consistent than Jackson. But Rivers is a superstar QB who has shown he can play at a high level no matter who is around him. Ryan Mathews needs to step up though. He finally passed 1000 rushing yards last season, but he needs to take the next step forward. After losing Marcus McNeill and Kris Dielman, they will need to work out the kinks of their offensive line, but they can get those worked out.

Defense — (B).      They regressed under Greg Manusky last season, but under the leadership of John Pagano, they should rebound. They need to find a duo of rushers. Shaun Phillips, Larry English, first round pick Melvin Ingram and Antwan Barnes are all vying for that spot. Barnes had 11 sacks last season. Phillips had 11 in 2010. They need to all get on the same page to have success. Jammer is a solid corner, but is getting old. Cason is young but has broken in well. Weddle is a great safety. Is Atari Bigby the answer beside him? We’ll see.

Special teams — (B).      Kaeding is the most Jekyll and Hyde kicker in the league, being great in the regular season and terrible in the playoffs. Mike Scfries is a phenomenal punter. Eddie Royal will spice up the return game, and Richard Goodman will compete for returns as well.

 

2. Denver Broncos (8-8)

Offense — (B+).      Though Manning will turn their passing game upside down and make the true talent of their receivers come out, he will hinder the run game, which was tops in the league last season. Willis McGahee also figures to not have as good of a year. The offensive line will have to adjust from all the run blocking to a lot of pass blocking. The level of rust Manning has will be the ultimate determinant of how well this season goes.

Defense — (C).      They kept them in a lot of games last season. But can Tebow’s energy boost that made them play over their heads last season be preserved this season? They have a great pass rush with Ayers, Dumervil and Miller, but after that they have a primordial secondary and weak interior.

Special teams — (B).      Prater is a good kicker, and Britton Colquitt is a solid punter who will be very good in time, particularly in the thin air in Denver.

 

3. Kansas City Chiefs (8-8)

Offense — (C).      Even with Jamaal Charles coming back, they still have issues on this side of the ball. First, Matt Cassel. He is not and never will be an NFL starter. He is merely a good backup who looked good in the Pats system the two years he was in it. They thank the Lord every day they have Dwayne Bowe, a top 5 NFL receiver. That guy is a monster. They need Baldwin to step up and be a #2 guy. Tony Moeaki returns from injury, which will also help at least some. Peyton Hillis brings a good bruising back to complement Charles, and they will carry the ball a lot this season.

Defense — (A-).      They have a chance to be an excellent unit. They need more out of Tyson Jackson and Glenn Dorsey though. But Tamba Hali is great. Derrick Johnson is great. Brandon Flowers and Eric Berry lead a good secondary. But losing Brandon Carr will hurt. Kendrick Lewis stepped up last season when given the chance, and they need him to continue this season.

Special teams — (B+).      Ryan Succop is a serviceable kicker. Dustin Colquitt is a fine punter. Dexter McCluster and Javier Arenas are both threats to take the ball back all the way every time they touch it.

 

4. Oakland Raiders (7-9)

Offense — (B-).      Carson Palmer is a gunslinger. He resembles a lesser form of Brett Favre… now you have the picture. He will throw for a lot of TDs, may even lead the AFC in TDs (yeah, I said it). But he may also lead it in ints, and he will accumulate seemingly good stats because of the fact their defense is so bad and he will have to throw a lot. If McFadden gets hurt, then he will have to throw even more. If McFadden stays healthy, they could have one of the most lethal offenses in the league. But without Michael Bush, if he goes down they don’t have a reliable backup.

Defense — (D).      They are simply awful. They have too much talent to have been as bad as they have over the last few seasons. Tyvon Branch is good at safety, but Michael Huff has not lived up to his draft spot, and their corners are a big question mark. LBs are another concern, and while the DL can rush the passer, they do need to stop the run better.

Special teams — (A).      They have the best punter in the AFC, if not the league, and the kicker with the strongest leg. They set the standard. Whether they will get the chance to play a part toward winning football is still to be determined.

 

 

AFC north

1. Baltimore Ravens (11-5)

Offense — (B).      Joe Flacco proved he can be counted on to win in the playoffs last season. Ray Rice is a great back. But they have below average receivers and OL. Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta are both coming into their own right now at TE. Unfortunately, they are average at best at the WR position. Boldin has struggled to stay healthy, and Torrey Smith was kind of a feast or famine player last season. The offensive line has also been nothing spectacular. They used to have one of the best in the league, but now Ben Grubbs is gone, Birk is old, and Oher has played nothing close to his level of fame. Yanda is great at RG, and Bryant McKinnie has shown he has a little left, but how much will he have this season?

Defense — (A).      Even without Suggs, they have a loaded unit. Ngata is the scariest DL in the league, and Terrance Cody and Pernell McPhee are both excellent. Ray Lewis is still solid, Courtney Upshaw was a steal in the second round, Jameel McClain is solid, and Paul Kruger is a solid fill in who will move back to a situational rusher when Suggs comes back. Jimmy Smith and Lardarius Webb are a great duo of corners, and Ed Reed is still a ball hawk, even though he is declining. Bernard Pollard is a good run defending safety.

Special teams — (B).      Justin Tucker, the rookie from Texas who has shown off an impressively strong leg in the preseason. Sam Koch is one of the most underrated punters in the league, never gets much credit because of Shane Lechler’s stranglehold on the AFC pro bowl spot.

 

2. Pittsburgh Steelers (10-6)

Offense — (B+).      They have a one of a kind QB that can make plays that no other QB in the NFL can. He is the toughest QB in the league, and has played through all kinds of injuries. With Mike Wallace, the league’s premiere deep threat and up and coming star Antonio Brown in the fold, as well as the solid handed Heath Miller. Finding a runner will be one concern. Can Isaac Redman carry the load? Will Jonathan Dwyer be able to contribute? Chris Rainey has looked good so far, and will certainly make some plays this season. Getting Mendenhall back for the stretch run will certainly help them. Having David DeCastro would have made their offensive line a lot better, but unfortunately they have lost him for what we presume is for the year. But, as they have proven in the past, they can win without a great offensive line.

Defense — (A-).      They have undergone a lot of change this offseason, but they are still the Steelers. No matter who is out there, they put out a successful unit. James Harrison needs to come back quickly though. He is a guy who absolutely scares the crap out of people. He and Lamarr Woodley are both players to fear. With James Farrior being released this offseason, Larry Foote slides into the starting lineup. He is on the tail end of his career, but if they can get any sort of leadership out of him he has done his job. Timmons and the outside guys are the playmakers. On the line, Hampton and Keisel are certainly getting up there in age, while Ziggy Hood is only 25. Cameron Heyward provides good depth. Troy Polamalu is still one of the ultimate playmakers on the defensive side of the ball in the league. He is the MVP of the defense. When he is out due to injury, they aren’t the same. Ryan Clark is serviceable at FS, and Ike Taylor is still solid. Keenan Lewis has a lot on his plate on the other side, and should get plenty of attention this season.

Special teams — (C).      The Achilles heel of this team if there is one. Shaun Suisham has always been a very inconsistent kicker, and they cleaned house at punter, going with undrafted rookie Drew Butler. Emmanuel Sanders held the return duties last year, but Rainey will certainly push him for those jobs. I expect him to take them at some point.

 

3. Cincinnati Bengals (5-11)

Offense — (C).      I think they overachieved last season. Andy Dalton has a very low ceiling at QB, and was the most NFL ready QB in his class of QBs. For all those who expect huge things out of him, they will be disappointed. A.J. Green is a phenomenal receiver, but they need a #2 guy. They drafted Mohammed Sanu for that (twice, by some estimates). Jermaine Gresham is a fine tight end, arguably one of the ten best in the league. But they went 9-7 with one of the easiest schedules in the league last season. I think they will get knocked back to reality this season.

Defense — (B).      A solid unit under Mike Zimmer, they have been one of the best in the league in the 2009 and 2011 seasons. They were roasted by injuries in 2010. They have a who’s who of corners with Leon Hall, Adam Jones, Nate Clements, Jason Allen, Terence Newman and first round pick Dre Kirkpatrick. Geno Atkins and Domata Peko are one of the better DT duos in the league. Those are the two strongest points of the unit.

Special teams — (C+).      Mike Nugent comes back from injury at kicker, and Cincinnati Bearcat turned Bengal Kevin Huber is a serviceable punter. Brandon Tate is not as spectacular as others, but he can get it done returning the ball.

 

4. Cleveland Browns (3-13)

Offense — (D).      Brandon Weeden is a gunslinger at QB, and because Cleveland will be behind a lot this season, he will rack up the interceptions this season. Unfortunately, with only Greg Little, Mohammed Massaquoi and others at WR, the TDs don’t figure to come easily. Trent Richardson was a wasted pick at #3. He may end up being good someday, but they could have picked up a good runner later. They could have had Justin Blackmon at #3, or traded down for more picks, because they have a lot of holes.

Defense — (B).      One of the more well coached units in the league under Dick Jauron. Joe Haden, DTs Phil Taylor and Ahtyba Rubin, D’Qwell Jackson are the best players on the unit. Jabaal Sheard and Frostee Rucker are two decent rushers off the edge, but won’t give offensive coordinators sleepless nights. But give Sheard time and he could be great. T.J. Ward is a big hitter at safety, and newcomer Eric Haag will be good.

Special teams — (C).      Phil Dawson is not what he used to be, missing 10 kicks over the last two seasons. Reggie Hodges has been a journeyman punter, and missed all of last season with injury. Don’t expect much from him. Josh Cribbs – he used to be a big factor in the return game, but not as much anymore. He hasn’t returned a kickoff for a TD since 2009 and only one punt return for a TD in the last two years. Returners never seem to be great for that long.

 

 

AFC south

1. Houston Texans (12-4)

Offense — (A-).      Their only real weaknesses are a lack of a #2 WR, which is a problem because of the fragility of Andre Johnson, and the health of Matt Schaub. Can they really depend on him to lead them to a title? He has always been solid when healthy, but he has not played in a playoff game his whole career. Assuming they make it back to the playoffs and he can stay healthy, how will he react? Will he be the same guy? We may find out this season. The offensive line is terrific, but losing Eric Winston was a difficult blow. I have no doubt they can adequately replace him, but there will be a drop off. Owen Daniels is another fragile player that is a great threat over the middle when he is healthy.

Defense — (A-).      They were one of the best defenses in the league last season after having terrible defenses ever since the franchise began a decade ago. Personnel wise, there is not much fault you can find with them. Antonio Smith, JJ Watt and Shaun Cody are terrific, Connor Barwin, Brooks Reed and rookie Whitney Mercilus are a QBs worst nightmare, Brian Cushing is great inside, and Johnathan Joseph leads a good secondary. My questions for this unit are as follows- will Wade Phillips finally sustain success? And will complacency ever get into their heads? They need one more year before I give them an A grade, as I did with the Ravens, because the Ravens have been a dominant defense for years. The Texans have the ability to be that good, but will they?

Special teams — (B).      Shayne Graham and Donnie Jones are both journeymen. Trindon Holliday is an electrifying return man, but health must be a concern moving forward because he is so small.

 

2. Jacksonville Jaguars (8-8)

Offense — (C+).      This is a very conditional grade. I always thought Gabbert would improve this season because of the fact he had an offseason and got a competent offensive coaching staff. In the preseason, he has improved for sure, but still has a ways to go. Justin Blackmon will help get him there. Anything they can get out of Marcedes Lewis is a bonus. Even with all the talk about MJD, he will be there this season. He has nothing to gain from holding out. As long as the offensive line holds up, they could be a sneaky productive offense.

Defense — (B+).      They have a fundamentally solid unit, but the injury bug has always hit them hard. Particularly in the secondary. Mathis is over the hill and Cox needs to stay healthy. But they have a front 7 that can rival most in the league. Terrence Knighton is one of the best DTs in the league that nobody has ever heard of. But Tyson Alualu needs to start playing like the 10th overall pick he was. Upgrading the pass rush is also essential. Maybe Andre Branch will be the guy who can complement Jeremy Mincey.

Special teams — (A).      Josh Scobee is one of the best kickers in the game, very underrated. Bryan Anger was picked extremely high, but he can really boot it. Experience doesn’t mean a whole lot at the punter spot. Finding a return man is a must. I would think they could use MJD on returns a little bit now that their offense can throw more, and with Jennings and Toston taking carries it can free up some touches for MJD in that way. Otherwise Cecil Shorts and others will be duking it out for those spots.

 

3. Tennessee Titans (6-10)

Offense — (C-).      Jake Locker. A bad pick at #8 two years ago. He was never a very accurate QB at Washington, and he won’t be in the NFL. He does have intangibles and can run, which basically makes him much like Tim Tebow. Without Kenny Britt, who is constantly in legal trouble, he has a bunch of #2 guys like Nate Washington, Damian Williams, etc. to throw to. Jared Cook at tight end will have a break out year this year. He could be in the pro bowl. He’s a big target with freakish athletic ability. But the key is Chris Johnson. Can he get back to his 100+ ypg form? That will be the key to the season.

Defense — (B-).      With former first rounder Derrick Morgan and free agent addition Kamerion Wimbley, they could have a good pass rushing duo. Dave Ball is a good third end as well. But after that it gets a little shaky. Jurrell Casey and Sen’Derrick Marks are two young DTs that need to get stouter inside. Akeem Ayers had a decent rookie season, but he should be better in his second year. Colin McCarthy and Will Witherspoon are decent starters as well. In the secondary Michael Griffin and Alterraun Verner lead a decent group, along with Jordan Babineaux and Jason McCourty, who had a great rookie year but lost the form last season.

Special teams — (B-).      Rob Bironas is a great kicker, has been for years. Brett Kern struggled the last two years punting in Tennessee. He had his best numbers in Denver. Darius Reynaud is slated to handle the kickoff and punt returns, after missing last season with an injury.

 

4. Indianapolis Colts (4-12)

Offense — (C+).      I think Andrew Luck will gel with his new players fairly well, though it might take some time. Knowing Coby Fleener from college will certainly help him. Dwayne Allen is another playmaking tight end, and having Reggie Wayne stick around will help Luck immensely. Donald Brown showed flashes of brilliance last season, and he figures to be the permanent solution there. Putting a line in front of Luck and Brown will be the challenge.

Defense — (D+).      This could be a long year for the defense, which switches to the 3-4. Longtime starters Freeney and Mathis move to pass rushing OLBs. Cory Redding follows former coordinator to Indy to play for Chuck Pagano. Antonio Johnson and Fili Moala round out the D-line. Pat Angerer and Kavell Conner start inside, and they both are good players they will just need time to adjust, as will much of the unit. Vontae Davis will be an upgrade at corner, starting alongside Jerraud Powers, Antoine Bethea and another ex Raven, Tom Zbikowski.

Special teams — (A-).      Adam Vinateri is still there kicking FGs, and still great. Pat McAfee has blossomed into one of the better punters as well. LaVon Brazill is a rookie taking over the return spots, along with fellow rookie T.Y. Hilton. This will be a long rebuilding process, but after last year’s lost season, anything will be an improvement.

 

 

 

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