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Archive for August, 2009

NFC North Preview

Posted by mizzou1028 on August 29, 2009

Teams listed in projected order of finish.  I will say that I think this division is very tough to project as the top three teams could end up all being very close.

1. Minnesota Vikings – I tipped my hand in an earlier post before the season preview that I think the Vikings will be scary good in 2009.  Last year they did manage to win this division, thanks largely to winning five of their final six regular season games, only to get surprised at home by the Eagles in the first round of the playoffs.  There is no question that Minnesota has talent all over the board, and now they might have enough to take the next step and really give people in the Twin Cities something to celebrate.  There is also little doubt the Vikings offseason was very eventful, and according to many very controversial (even perhaps causing some tension in the locker room?), but I think in the end it will prove to make all the difference for the Vikings.

The reason for the controversy surrounding the Vikings is Brett Favre.  I am on record as saying I think he can still play and will end up being a good fit in Minnesota.  I do think his will he or won’t he retire saga did get very old very fast, especially because it seems the whole thing was planned all along for him to miss the arduous training camp.  The fact is that prima donna or not, Favre is still good enough to make a difference for the Vikings.  I don’t think anyone can make a reasonable argument that he isn’t an improvement over Tarvaris Jackson and Sage Rosenfels.  Jackson’s performance last season was shaky enough that coach Brad Childress felt compelled to trade for Rosenfels back in Februrary.  Even at his age Favre is an improvement over both, and he knows the offense.  Favre will also have the benefit of throwing to veteran wide receiver Bernard Berrian, who will be joined by first round draft pick Percy Harvin of Florida.  Harvin has blazing speed and should be a terrific fit on the Metrodome surface.  Tight end Visanthe Shaincoe also gives Favre a reliable target over the middle, and Bobby Wade is a good option in the slot.  The biggest strength for the Vikings though is the running game, anchored by the NFL’s top running back, Adrian Peterson.  The scary thing for opponents is that Peterson worked very hard in the offseason to improve his pass blocking and his receiving ability.  As it is, Peterson won the league’s rushing title last season with 1,760 yards, and that was without a consistent passing game.  If Favre is even just above average, teams will have to respect the passing attack with those receivers, and that could mean even better numbers for Peterson.  Chester Taylor also gives Minnesota a good option for a few carries per game as well as a third down back so they don’t have to wear down Peterson.  The offensive did lose center Matt Birk in free agency, but they still have an excellent left side of the line in tackle Bryant McKinnie and perennial Pro Bowler Steve Hutchinson at guard.  They also drafted Oklahoma’s Phil Loadholt in the second round for depth.

There is also no question the Vikings defensive line is an easy top three unit and probably the league’s best.  Defensive end Jared Allen made a huge splash last year as Minnesota’s big free agent signee with 14.5 sacks, while tackles Kevin and Pat Williams both made the Pro Bowl as well.  The Williams’ could be facing a four game suspension by the league if the courts ultimately rule in the league’s favor that the duo used a banned diuretic last season.  Right now their fate is unknown, but the Vikings are hopeful that they’ll be able to play a full season.  It is worth noting that the Vikings’s first four games are very manageable so a suspension may not cripple the team in any case.  The Vikings’ front seven is also boosted by linebacker E.J. Henderson, who is an excellent tackler.  For years teams have been unable to run against the Vikings, plus they are able to get great pressure on the quarterback.  I see no reason that won’t continue this year.  The secondary did lose safety Darren Sharper to New Orleans, but the coaches also felt his talent was slipping after he intercepted just one pass last year.  The Vikings are confident that Tyrell Johnson can take his place, and the corners are solid, anchored by Antoine Winfield.

The kicking game is in great hands with veteran Ryan Longwell.  Punter Chrs Kluwe took a lot of criticism last year (mainly for not kicking away from Reggie Bush in a Monday night game last year), but he does have a strong leg and the coaches have confidence in him.  Percy Harvin is expected to handle the return duties, and he should be able to make an impact there.

I said before I started this preview that I think the Vikings are headed for the Super Bowl.  They had most of the pieces in place already, and I think Favre will put them over the top.  A decent passing game coupled with the league’s top running game and a very stingy defensive front seven is a tough combination to beat.  In any case they are clearly the class of this division.

2. Green Bay Packers – The Packers as expected had a rough first season post-Favre.  The irony is it wasn’t really Aaron Rodgers’ fault.  Rodgers did a much better job than expected of handling the pressure of replacing the Packer legend, throwing for over 4,000 yards and 28 touchdowns.  What doomed the Packers was the defensive side of the ball.  In a six day span in late November, Green Bay surrendered a staggering 86 points in losses to New Orleans and Carolina.  The Packers did finish on a positive note, winning their final game against 0-16 Detroit, but they had lost six straight prior to that, finishing 6-10 overall.  The Packers should be much improved this year, and they are confident that lying in the weeds quietly is a better approach than the big splashes made by their division rivals.

We touched on Rodgers’ season a year ago, and his first full season as a starter certainly exceeded expectations.  Now he needs to put it together when the game is on the line.  The Packers were 0-7 last year in games where the offense got the ball with less than five minutes to go in the game with a chance to tie or win.  Rodgers took that stat personally, and he vows to be better in 2009.  He will have plenty of help from an offense that returns largely intact from a year ago.  Running back Ryan Grant rushed for over 1,200 yards, but his yards per carry dipped from 5.1 in 2007 to 3.9 last year.  To be fair, he played through a hamstring injury last year and is now healthy, so the Packers feel he should be back to his old self.  They also hope to find a complementary back, such as Brandon Jackson, who can spell Grant on occasion and keep him fresh.  The receivers are also strong, with Greg Jennings and Donald Driver both very capable of stretching the field.  The duo combined to catch over 150 balls last year, and if Rodgers improves in his second season as a stater, that number should go up.  Tight end Donald Lee is also an excellent red zone presence as well as a blocker in the running game.  The offensive line is a bunch of unknowns, but it returns intact save for the addition of center Duke Preston from Buffalo and the loss of tackle Mark Tauscher to free agency.  Since the unit is virtually the same from a year ago, the Packers hope the continuity will breed improvement.

Defensively, the Packers got quite possibly the steal of the draft in Boston College nose tackle B.J. Raji at number nine overall.  Raji was clearly the best defensive player available in most scouts’ minds, and his presence should be huge for the Packers in the middle of their defense, especially since they will play a 3-4 this season.  The linebacking core is also starting to mature with former Ohio State standout A.J. Hawk and steady veteran Nick Barnett.  The secondary is anchored by cornerbacks Charles Woodson and Al Harris, both of whom made the Pro Bowl last year despite the struggles of the defense as a whole.  Both are aging, but are still among the best in the league.  Their play will offset that of the young safeties, Atari Bigby and Nick Collins.  I do expect the defense to be better than last year mainly because of the presence of Raji, and I think that could be enough to make the Packers a contender for a wild card slot.

The Packers are set at kicker for a long time with Mason Crosby, who has a very long leg (he kicked a 60-yard field goal in college at Colorado).  Punter is another story however, as Derrick Frost was so horrible he got the boot after 12 games last year.  Jeremy Kapinos of Penn State will take that over this year.  Will Blackmon returned two punts for scores last season, so the Packers do appear to be in good shape there.

I think the Packers could be in play for a wild card.  I like Rodgers and the offense to be better, and I also think the defense will be tougher with the presence of Raji.  The Packers didn’t make many moves in the offseason, but it’s possible their stability could make the difference as opposed to the big shakeups of their prime rivals.

3. Chicago Bears – The Bears have a very different look from the team that made the Super Bowl in 2006.  For years they have been a run and play defense kind of team, winning lots of low scoring games.  Last year they did finish 9-7, but they let a playoff spot slip away with a bad loss at Houston in the final game of the season.  The Bears still have their running game and defense to rely on, but now they have a quarterback to go with it, as they pulled off the offseason’s biggest trade by acquiring Pro Bowl quarterback Jay Cutler from the Broncos.  All of Chicago is ga-ga over Cutler, who is only 25, has a rocket arm, and may be Chicago’s best quarterback in 30 years.  The Bears feel Cutler is the missing piece for a run at the Super Bowl.  While they have good reason to be excited, I don’t see a Super Bowl in Chicago’s future just yet.

Cutler no doubt has posted good numbers in Denver.  Last year he threw for over 4,000 yards and 28 touchdowns, but he also threw his share of interceptions, many of them forced into double coverage, and is just 17-20 as a starter.  Cutler also played very poorly in Denver’s final three games last year, resulting in a Broncos’ collapse out of the playoffs.  The Bears do have reason to be very excited about Cutler, for they have gone through a whopping 37 quarterbacks over their last 171 games, a span of nearly 11 seasons.  Given that you can’t blame Chicago for paying a steep price to land a quarterback.  Cutler does have a lot of years ahead of him and is very talented.  Chicago does need to hope that he cleans up his attitude (the Broncos felt many of his interceptions came when he got impatient and frustrated), and Cutler does need to show that he has what it takes to win in the clutch.  The good news for the Bears is they may not need to rely much on their passing game, because Matt Forte is quickly emerging as one of the league’s top running backs.  Forte rushed for over 1,200 yards last year, and he has shown an ability to run inside and outside.  The Bears are counting on the mere presence of Cutler to open up the running game significantly.  They also hope that Cutler’s presence will improve the passing enough to make their offense a threat not seen in Chicago in a long time.  Cutler will have to work magic with a very suspect group of receivers, the best of which is probably Devin Hester, who is still adjusting after transitioning from cornerback.  The Bears do have a good tight end in Greg Olsen, but the rest of the group consists of rookie Juaquin Iglesias of Oklahoma, and a pair of relative no-names in Rashed Davis and Earl Bennett.  The offensive line also took hits with losses of John Tait (retirement) and John St. Clair (to Cleveland).  They did sign veteran Orlando Pace to protect Cutler’s blind side, and Olin Kruetz remains an excellent, albeit aging, center.

Defense has long been a Bears’ staple, and this year shouldn’t be much different.  The defensive line has good talent in Alex Brown, Adewale Ogunleye and Tommie Harris.  The linebackers are outstanding, led by Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs.  Despite all this talent in the front seven, the defense wasn’t always its usual self last year, surrendering 41 and 37 points respectively vs. division rivals Minnesota and Green Bay.  One reason is that their secondary can be considered average at best.  Charles Tillman can’t really be considered a shutdown corner, and Nathan Vasher is a liability against the run, and has also battled injuries the last two seasons.  The Bears did add safety Josh Bullocks from New Orleans.  If the secondary is average again, the Bears will have to rely very heavily on their front seven.

The Bears are in great shape at kicker with Robbie Gould, who has hit on 85 percent of field goals in his career despite kicking in windy Soldier Field, as well as punter Brad Maynard, who placed 40 punts inside the 20-yard line last season.  Devin Hester’s reputation as a returner is well documented, but the Bears might want to be careful not to let him get too distracted by trying to play wide receiver that he loses steam as a returner.  Daniel Manning as well as the rookie Iglesias could be capable of stepping in that role as well.

The Bears could well be a playoff team despite playing in a brutal division.  I know many people in Chicago think Cutler is their knight in shining armor, but I think he has some work to do before he becomes an elite player.  The question marks at receiver, offensive line and secondary could prove to be their undoing.  Despite that, it should be a great battle with the Packers and Vikings in this division.

4. Detroit Lions – Last season was obviously one to forget for the Lions, who became the first team in NFL history to go 0-16.  Most of their games weren’t even close, and perhaps the only positive thing for Lions fans was that the team sent general manager Matt Millen packing after years of ineptitude.  Not surprisingly, the head coach also lost his job, and the team used its first overall draft choice on a new quarterback.  Oh, and the logo is new too, because we all know that makes all the difference.  Of course it will take much more than a new logo to generate success in Detroit, but at least they can’t be any worse this year right?

Clearly there will be a lot of pressure on Matthew Stafford, the talented signal caller from Georgia who was the Lions’ choice at number one overall in the draft.  The Lions are hoping for some good karma here.  See, Stafford went to the same high school as the only legend quarterback in Lions’ history, as well as the last one to lead them to a championship.  That would be Bobby Layne, and the year of that championship was 1957.  The Lions hope that Stafford will prove to be a good selection, and he definitely has the tools to be a good player.  He will have competition this year though from Daunte Culpepper, who has bounced around to several teams but lost 30 pounds in the offseason and has actually looked good in the preseason.  Either way, the Lions hope the position will be improved over last year, when Dan Orlovsky memorably symbolized the futility by running out of the back of the end zone untouched for a safety against the Vikings.  Whoever is at the controls will have the luxury of throwing to one of the league’s top receivers in Calvin Johnson.  Despite the awful quarterback play last year, Johnson ranked fifth in the NFL in yards and first in touchdowns.  With improvement under center, Johnson might be able to post scary numbers (Be sure to tab him in fantasy this year if you can). He will be joined by Bryant Johnson, who comes over from San Francisco and Ronald Curry, signed from Oakland.  Not necessarily household names, but they are decent enough to be able to take some pressure off Johnson.  Second round draft pick Brandon Pettigrew of Oklahoma State also adds an intriguing option.  The Lions top running back is Kevin Smith, who nearly hit 1,000 yards last year, and he will be backed up by Maurice Morris, who is looking for a fresh start after leaving Seattle.  The offensive line wasn’t really addressed save for the addition of no name Daniel Loper from Tennessee.  Odds are the line will be a mess, and that means the offense overall will unfortunately still be a work in progress for Detroit.

New coach Jim Schwartz is frantically trying to get his defensive linemen to bulk up. Last year no one on the line weighed over 300 pounds, which put them at a disadvantage against opposing offensive lines virtually every week.  One of the Detroit’s free agent signings was tackle Grady Jackson from Atlanta, who weighs roughly 345 pounds.  They also drafted Sammie Hill, a 329-pound tackle out of little known Stillman University.  The linebackers should be significantly improved with the additions of Larry Foote, a key player on Pittsburgh’s Super Bowl winning teams in ’05 and ’08, as well as Julian Peterson, who comes over from the Seahawks.  The secondary was also addressed in the offseason, a good call considering they unit picked off just one pass last year.  Phillip Buchanon comes over from Tampa Bay, and the Lions also tabbed Anthony Henry from Dallas.  Couple those additions with holdover Keith Smith, who actually has good cover ability, and I’ll go out on a limb and say the Lions’ secondary will pick off more than one pass this year.

Detroit’s longest tenured player is kicker Jason Hanson.  He was vocal in his displeasure last season, and he is back for another year in the Motor City.  Punter Nick Harris has bounced around to multiple teams, but was very consistent last year (Hey, he had plenty of practice!).  Rookie Derrick Williams from Penn State is a candidate for return duty, as is Avion Cason, who was solid but not spectacular in the role last season.

I will make a bold prediction and say the Lions will not stumble to 0-16 two years in a row.  It may not be in the first few weeks, but there are a few winnable games on their schedule.  The defense is completely rebuilt, and the offense has some talent.  It will take a few years, but believe it or not there is a new direction here.

Coming next: the AFC South

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AFC North Preview

Posted by mizzou1028 on August 28, 2009

Once again, teams listed in predicted order of finish:

1. Pittsburgh Steelers – The Steelers have certainly been the standard for NFL franchises over a large part of their history.  They have won two of the past four Super Bowls (a league high six total) and seem built for big time success again this year.  Pittsburgh returns largely intact from last season’s championship club, which is fitting for a franchise that seems to symbolize stability in the NFL.  The Steelers also remember 2006, when they missed the playoffs they year after winning the Super Bowl.  They vow to not let that happen again.

The Steelers’ offense returns virtually identical to last year, and that’s bad news for NFL defenses.  The Steelers attack can really be defined by their game winning drive in the Super Bowl last year against Arizona.  Ben Roethlisberger showed everything you would want in a quarterback.  He showed ability to make plays with his feet out of the pocket and avoid critical sacks.  He showed he is willing and able to take a pounding, which not only allows him to be durable and not miss time due to injury, but also allows him to extend plays many quarterbacks won’t.  Even when he scrambles out of the pocket, Roethlisberger is willing to wait that split second longer for a receiver to get open even if it means taking an extra hit at the end of the play.  Roethlisberger has won Super Bowls in his first four years in the league, and the scary part is he can still get even better with experience.  He also has good targets to throw to in veteran Hines Ward and the speedy Santonio Holmes, along with his favorite red zone target, tight end Heath Miller.  Shaun McDonald was also signed from Detroit to provide depth.  The running game might also be even better than last year with the return of Rashard Mendenhall.  The first round pick of ’08 was shelved for the season in week four last year with a broken shoulder.  Mendenhall will join the very capable Willie Parker and should improve a running game that believe it or not ranked just 23rd in the NFL last season.  The fact the Steelers won it all with that stat is incredible, and they should benefit from a better running game this year.  The Steelers offensive line isn’t regarded as a top unit in the league and certainly isn’t flashy, but the entire line returns intact and continuity is never a bad thing.  Besides, they obviously got the job done well enough for the team to win the Super Bowl.

The defense did sustain two losses in linebacker Larry Foote (now with Detroit) and cornerback Bryant McFadden (gone to Arizona).  The Steelers do however still boast a sure top five defensive player in linebacker James Harrison, who turned the Super Bowl in Pittsburgh’s favor with a 100-yard interception return TD.  The defensive front seven also boasts other good talent in nose tackle Casey Hampton, defensive end Aaron Smith and linebacker James Farrior.  The Steelers also added more depth in the draft, selecting defensive end Ziggy Hood from Missouri in the first round.  His 6-3, 300 frame should fit right in with the Steelers’s smashmouth philosophy.  The secondary is also still very solid, anchored by Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu.  Cornerbacks William Gay and Deshea Townsend will need to step up to offset the loss of McFadden.

It is also surprising to realize that the Steelers really played musical chairs at punter last season (not that they needed one too often), but Daniel Sepulveda is back to take that job again after undergoing ACL surgery last season.  Kicker Jeff Reed is among the best in the business and has learned how to handle to tricky kicking conditions at Heinz Field, especially in the open end of the stadium.  The Steelers do hope that third round draft choice Mike Wallace of Ole Miss can emerge as a capable kick returner, but Mewelde Moore can handle those duties as well.

I say the Steelers are as close to a lock as you can get to returning to the playoffs.  They have shown over the years they can stand up to tough competition, they can win on the road, and they know how to win.   Factor in that they are still motivated, and the Steelers should repeat as division champs.

2. Baltimore Ravens – The Ravens bounced back last year to make the AFC title game, even though the had a rookie coach and a rookie quarterback.  The fact that both of those positions had changed tells you that things weren’t so good the year before.  The Ravens have a solid veteran presence in other areas, which helped them overcome a 2-3 start.  At one point Baltimore had won seven out of eight games, and they won playoff road games at Miami and Tennessee.  However, the Ravens were 0-3 against the Steelers, including the AFC title game loss.  Baltimore knows that in order to take the next step, they need to learn how to beat Pittsburgh.

The Ravens have always been known as a defensive team, and that’s still the identity and strength, but the offense also proved they could score points last year.  Quarterback Joe Flacco shocked almost everyone in his rookie season, Flacco showed good ability to read defenses, has a strong arm, and an ability to make plays with his feet.  He is the only signal caller to win two road playoff games as a rookie, and also posted a solid 90.2 quarterback rating, which is among the best ever for a rookie.  With another year of experience, Flacco could be even better this season.  He is also pleased to have veteran receiver Derrick Mason back for another season.  Mason retired during the offseason, but it wasn’t long before he changed his mind and said he got the itch to play one more season.  He’ll be paired with the talented Mark Clayton, who along with tight end Todd Heap gives the Ravens an underrated group of receivers for Flacco to find.  The running game should also be a strength of the team, for Willis McGahee is showing a renewed attitude after a disappointing season last year in which he rushed for under 700 yards.  Ray Rice showed lots of flash as a rookie last season, and could prove to be a good compliment to McGahee.  The odd man out could be Le’Ron McClain, who was actually Baltimore’s leading rusher last year, but he has been getting more work at fullback and could be limited to goal line duty.    The offensive line did a great job last season, and the Ravens feel they have fortified it with the addition of first round pick Michael Oher of Ole Miss, and the signing of center Matt Birk from Minnesota.

The Ravens’ defense has consistently been a top three unit for virtually the entire decade, and there isn’t much reason to think it won’t be terrific again.  Linebacker Ray Lewis could be a future Hall of Famer, and his enthusiasm and intensity trickles down to the entire defense.  Terrell Suggs is a terrific pass rusher, and the Ravens also have good push on the edge with Trevor Pryce and Haloti Ngata.  The front seven will feel the loss of Bart Scott to the Jets, but they hope that some of that void can be filled by second round pick Paul Kruger of Utah.  The secondary is still very good with ballhawking safety Ed Reed leading the way.  The Ravens also have veteran corners in Samari Rolle and Fabian Washington, and they hope new addition Dominique Foxworth will add depth as well. The Ravens defense should be stingy again, but age could be a concern for this veteran group.

The Ravens lost veteran kicker Matt Stover to free agency, so they will go with an unknown in Steve Hauschka.  Punter Sam Koch is solid, the Ravens hope the return game will be solidified with the addition of the speedy Chris Carr from Tennessee.

Baltimore certainly has the talent to return to the playoffs.  The defense will keep them in every game and the veteran leadership is always a plus.  They do will face stiff competition in the AFC, and age and injuries could catch up with them.  The key coud well be the play of Flacco in his second season at quarterback.

3. Cincinnati Bengals – It has been 19 years since Cincinnati has won a playoff game.  The Bengals have long been a symbol for league futility, except for their division title in 2005.  Even then, they stubbed their toe in a home playoff loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion Steelers.  Since then, the Bengals have not come close to achieving their potential, especially with all the talent they have had on offense.  Fans are getting restless, games may not sell out this year, and last year’s 0-8 start only made things worse.  The good news for Bengal nation is they did win their final three games last year, and hope may be coming.

For starters, Carson Palmer is back under center.  Palmer missed most of last season with an elbow injury.  Palmer managed to avoid offseason surgery, and the Bengals hope he will be back to his old self.  Palmer is quite possibly the most accurate deep passer in the league, and he is outstanding in the pocket.  There is no question in my mind that Palmer is a no brainer top 5 QB when healthy, and his presence should spark something in the Bengals’ offense.  The Bengals did lose start wideout T.J. Houshmanzadeh to Seattle, but they still have Chad Ochocinco (I really want to type “Johnson” but the dude actually changed his name legally).  I believe that Ochocinco has a renewed attitude this year and something to prove.  He wants to prove he is not a me guy and that he can really help the team win.  The Bengals also replaced Houshmanzadeh by raiding the Jets for Laveranues Coles.  Coles is still very capable, and paired with third wideout Chris Henry, the passing game has the potential to be very dangerous as it was in ’05.  The Bengals also found a very pleasant surprise in their running game last year in Cedric Benson.  The former top five pick from the Bears has found new life in the Queen City, and could be in line for another good year if defenses are concerned with stopping the passing attack.  The Bengals do have issues along the offensive line, losing Stacy Andrews and Levi Jones in free agency, and as of yet have not signed their first round draft pick, tackle Andre Smith from Alabama.  The selection of Smith with the sixth overall pick was a curious one indeed being that he missed most of the scouting combine and showed very questionable attitude during the pre-draft period.  Oh, and he was woefully out of shape too.  Now he is embroiled in a lengthy holdout.  It is imperative that the Bengals get good play from the line so they can keep Palmer healthy.  Right now, that is a question mark.

The Bengals did make an effort to beef up their defense in the offseason.  They signed defensive tackle Tank Johnson away from Dallas, and while he has had character issues in the past, the Bengals hope he will benefit from the fresh start.  They are desperate after getting just 11 sacks from their down linemen last season.  The Bengals also addressed linebacker in the draft for the second straight year, tabbing USC linebacker Ray Maualuga in the second round.  I thought Maualuga was clear first round talent, so the Bengals appear to have gotten great value there.  Paired with last year’s first round pick Keith Rivers, The Bengals’ linebackers appear to be on the way up.  The Cincinnati secondary also benefited from the Cowboys’ overhaul, as safety Roy Williams also signed with the Bengals.  Cincinnati does have decent corners in Leon Hall and Jonathan Joseph, so Williams’ presence should help .  Overall, the Bengal D should be at least somewhat improved this season.

Kicker Shayne Graham is one of the best in the league.  The Bengals think so much of him they used their franchise tag on him.  Fifth round draft pick Kevin Huber is projected to be the starting punter, so that area could end up being an adventure for the Bengals.  Unknowns Andre Caldwell and Antonio Chatman will handle the return duties.

Cincinnati is trying to rebuild.  They seem to have added some good pieces and with Palmer healthy there should be some improvement.  This is not a playoff team yet, but they might be moving back in the right direction.

4. Cleveland Browns – The Browns fell back to Earth last year after a surprise run in 2007 that almost had them in the playoffs.  Last year the team took several steps back thanks to a quarterback controversy that still lingers and a six game losing streak to close the season in which they didn’t score a single offensive touchdown and got shut out in their final two contests.  Not surprisingly, this cost Romeo Crennel his job as head coach.  He was replaced ironically by fellow former Patriots assistant Eric Mangini.

The Browns still do not know who will be under center week one against the Vikings.  Last year Derek Anderson had the job at the start of the season only to lose it to Brady Quinn in November.  Neither one performed well, and now the competition is still open through the preseason.  It had seemed to be Quinn’s job for good when he got it last year, being that he was Cleveland’s first round pick in 2007, but he performed so poorly that it opened the door back up for Anderson.  Neither player has done enough to gain an edge yet in preseason, so this could be shaping up to be another year of musical chairs at the position for the Browns, and that is never a good thing.  The Browns do have a very talented wideout in Braylon Edwards, but he can’t do it all by himself.  Second round picks Brian Robiskie of Ohio State and Mohamed Massoquoi of Georgia will be counted on heavily to contribute, as will journeyman wideout David Patton and tight end Steve Heiden.  The running game could also be a question mark, even though Jamal Lewis still has the talent to be an outstanding tailback.  Lewis still rushed for over 1,000 last year, but he didn’t have a single 100-yard game.  It wouldn’t come as a surprise if Jerome Harrison got more carries as the year went on.  The offensive line is a mixed bag, for left tackle Joe Thomas has made two Pro Bowls, and Eric Steinbach is solid alongside him at guard, but the line will be anchored by rookie center Alex Mack of California.  Mack was the team’s first round draft pick, and will need to learn under fire quickly.

The defense will definitely have a new look.  Mangini brought along a staggering six players from his old defense with the Jets to Cleveland (Eric Barton, David Bowens, Kenyon Coleman, Abram Elam, C.J. Mosley and Hank Poteat).  For those keeping score at home, that’s that’s two defensive ends, two linebackers, one cornerback and one safety.  None of those players is exactly a household name among football fanatics, and it’s not like the Jets defense was that great at stopping people last year. Mangini obviously sees something he likes to bring them all over, or perhaps he just doesn’t want to deal with the unfamilar.   The new additions will join defensive tackle Shaun Rodgers, who was Cleveland’s big ticket free agent signing before last season.  The linebackers took a big hit with the retirement of Willie McGinest and the departure of Andra Davis to Denver in free agency.  Needless to say, the entire Browns defense still looks like a need area.

The special teams might be the one strength of the team.  Kicker Phil Dawson and punter Dave Zastudil are both very reliable, and Josh Cribbs might well be the most excting kick returner in the NFL.  Cribbs is so dangerous that he’ll be counted on to set the offense up in good enough field position that they won’t have to do much to score.

A rebuilding year is definitely in the cards for the Browns.  There are just too many need areas to expect a good year.  At some point they need to get the quarterback situation figured out, and that is the first step.  This team is very young.  If they can show improvement throughout the year, they might be able to at least have something to look forward to in 2010.

Coming next: the NFC North

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NFC East Preview

Posted by mizzou1028 on August 27, 2009

Teams listed in predicted order of finish:

1. Philadelphia Eagles – The Eagles certainly peaked at the right time last season, winning four of their final five regular season games to sneak into the playoffs.  They then won playoff road games in Minnesota and at the Giants before losing a tough NFC title game battle to Arizona.  This year the Eagles are very confident they can keep that momentum going and take the next step.

Offensively, the Eagles are as talented as any team in the NFL.  Start with Brian Westbrook, arguably the most talented back in the NFL.  Westbrook did have offseason surgery that he hopes will extend his career, but so far it appears that Eagles fans can expect another big year out of their star back.  The Eagles did also draft LeSean McCoy out of Pittsburgh in the second round of the draft in hopes they can give Westbrook an occasional break and keep him fresh.  The passing game is also among the league’s best thanks to signal caller Donovan McNabb.  I really think McNabb does not get the respect he should as a top quarterback in the league.  After he got benched at halftime in an embarrassing loss at Baltimore last season, McNabb played some of the best football of his career in leading the Eagles to the NFC title game.  The receivers are solid with last year’s rookie standout DeSean Jackson and this year’s first round pick, Jeremy Maclin of Missouri (I might be biased as a Mizzou alum, but I think Maclin was clearly the best wideout available in the draft).  Factor in the dangerous Kevin Curtis, and Philadelphia has no shortage of targets that can stretch the field.  Philadelphia also boosted the offensive line with additions of Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters (from Buffalo) and guard Stacy Andrews from the Bengals.  Oh yeah, and they also signed this Vick guy that’s supposed to be talented.  In all seriousness, do not underestimate Michael Vick’s potential impact here.  The Eagles have possibilities of lining him up at tailback, pairing him with Westbrook on plays where either could run the ball, using Vick in the Wildcat, using him to spell McNabb for a few plays, or even having him and McNabb on the field together.  This is of course assuming Vick is still the talent he was two years ago.  Keep in mind Vick will not be allowed to play until at least week six.

The defense in Philly will have a very different look because they lost captain and fan favorite Brian Dawkins to Denver in free agency.  Dawkins was the heart and soul of the Eagles defense and he will be sorely missed, not just in the secondary but throughout the entire defensive unit and in the locker room as a leader.  It is imperative that someone else on the defense take the reigns as leader, or else there will be complete chaos and it could end up dooming the Eagles.  The secondary itself is still loaded with talent thanks to Asante Samuel and Sheldon Brown at corner.  The front seven is still a fairly young group, but they did rise to the task last year.  Tackles Mike Patterson and Brodrick Bunkley are good run stuffers, and linebacker Trent Cole has shown great ability to rush the passer.  The Eagles will also be impacted by the summer passing of defensive coordinator Jim Johnson, who sadly died of cancer.

The Eagles don’t have many concerns on special teams.  Kicker David Akers is among the best, and punter Sav Rocca does a capable job.  With Jackson and Maclin both extremely capable of handling returns, along with new addition Ellis Hobbs from New England, Philadelphia will be dominating the field position battle more often than not.

Overall, I don’t think there is much doubt the Eagles will return to the playoffs, and I like them to prevail in this very difficult division primarily because of their offensive firepower and special teams.  Plus, I’ve learned not to pick against Andy Reid.

2. New York Giants – For awhile last season, the Giants looked every bit like the defending champs.  In fact they were pretty much dominating the league, starting 11-1 and winning many games that weren’t close.  The turning point came when Plaxico Burress accidently shot himself in a New York nightclub.  The Giants proceeded to lose three of their final four regular season contests and then looked listless in a home playoff loss to the division rival Eagles.  Burress is gone, being that he’s about to serve a two year jail sentence.  The question for the Giants is can the move past that and get back to their Super Bowl level?  They think they can.

With Eli Manning at quarterback, that is the half the battle for the Giants.  Manning recently signed a 6-year $97 million extension, so he will be around for a long time.  More importantly for the Giants, he is starting to show that he might just be as good a quarterback as his older brother after all.  The Giants also have good running back talent with Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw.  Jacobs is considered the starter, but both will be major factors in the running game.  Don’t forget that Derrick Ward rushed for over 1,000 yards last year in a supposed backup role to Jacobs, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Bradshaw is able to duplicate that.  As for the question of replacing Burress at wide receiver, much of that burden falls on their first round draft pick, Hakeem Nicks of North Carolina.  I think the Giants got great value considering they were picking toward the end of the round and several other wideouts were already gone.  Nicks looks like he has the potential to be a factor right away.  The Giants also have the capable Steve Smith as well as Dominik Hixon (who I am still upset my Broncos let go).  Tight end Kevin Boss also made Giants fans forget Jeremy Shockey pretty quickly last year.  The offensive line is one of the best around, anchored by Pro Bowlers Shaun O’Hara and Chris Snee.

If there is a reason besides Burress’ off the field behavior for the Giants’ collapse at the end of last year, it was injuries along the defensive line.  New York is thrilled to have defensive end Osi Umemyiora back, for he sat out last year with a knee injury.  The Giants also sustained a major injury to defensive tackle Justin Tuck, whose presence is vital to creating pass rushing opportunities for Umenyiora and Mathias Kiwanuka.  The linebacking core is reasonably solid with veteran Antonio Pierce leading the way, but the secondary could be an issue.  The Giants did sign safety C.C. Brown from Houston in free agency, but he can’t be considered a viable starter.  The key will be the play of corners Aaron Ross and Corey Webster.  The Giants spent big bucks to keep Webster from leaving via free agency, so they have confidence in him.

Lawrence Tynes is back as the full time kicker this year, after he missed significant time last year, first to injury and then sitting behind the ageless John Carney.  Carney has retired, and the equally capable Tynes is back.  Pro Bowler Jeff Feagles is an oustanding punter, and Dominik Hixon is a very good returner.  Not much to complain about on special teams for the G-men.

I think the Giants could well be a playoff team, but they do play in arguably the toughest division in football.  Three of their first four are on the road, so the Giants need to hope they don’t dig themselves a hole they can’t get out of.

3. Dallas Cowboys – The Cowboys were needless to say a major disappointment last year.  I will admit that I picked them to win the Super Bowl.  Things started out good for Dallas with a 4-1 start, but things started to go south fast.  The Cowboys ended up losing three of their last four, and missed the playoffs altogether after getting trounced by Philadelphia 44-6 in the final game.  Gone are Terrell Owns, Zach Thomas, Roy Williams (the safety, though the receiver is still there), and Pacman Jones.  In is a new glitzy stadium and supposedly a better attitude.

Quarterback Tony Romo has a very good record as a starter (27-12), but he is just 5-10 in December and January when the pressure is on.  Romo has a terrific arm and has shown ability to make great plays, but now he needs to put everything together and show consistency.  The Cowboys did have a rough stretch last year when Romo was out with a fractured pinikie, so they signed Jon Kitna, who is a very capable backup.  The Cowboys do have few worries in the running game with Marion Barber, who did have a good year last year, and Felix Jones, who looked nothing short of outstanding before suffering hamstring and toe injuries in the sixth game.  Both are healthy and could make the Cowboys running game a real threat.  The biggest offensive change is at receiver, where Owens is gone, and Roy Williams is the main guy now.  Williams was largely a disappointment after Dallas surrendered three draft picks to get him midseason last year, but he might be better suited to be the number one guy.  Jason Witten also gives Romo a great target at tight end, and the Cowboys do have depth with Patrick Crayton and Miles Austin.  There is no question the talent level will be down without Owens, but the attitude and chemistry of the offense could be much improved.  The biggest concern on this side of the ball is the O-line, which is aging and doesn’t have much depth.

The defensive side of the ball has been completely retooled, but it remains to be seen if this will be a good thing.  An underrated loss could be defensive end Chris Canty, who was one of Dallas’ more effective pass rushers.  Nose tackle Jay Ratliff did have seven sacks last year, and DeMarcus Ware is an excellent pass rusher as well.  Beyond that, Dallas will go with several unknowns on defense.  Greg Ellis really started to slow with age last season, and Anthony Spencer has not even come close to justifying his selection as a first round pick in 2007.  The Cowboys did sign veteran Keith Brooking from Atlanta, and that should help stabilize the linebackers a little.  Terence Newman has the potential to be a shutdown corner, but he has not been healthy for the past two seasons.  The rest of the secondary is average, and will miss the loss of the other Roy Williams.

The Cowboys will have punter Mat McBriar back after he broke his foot last season.  Kicker Nick Folk has also been excellent, connecting on 46 of 53 field goals the last two seasons.  A healthy Felix Jones should also make a difference in the return game, and Patrick Crayton is capable there as well.

This could well be an interesting season in Dallas.  Jerry Jones wants to win bad, especially now that he has opened his new, expensive pleasure palace.  The Cowboys play a very tough schedule, largely because of the division they play in.  The Cowboys believe they have improved chemistry and that will help them win.  It may or may not.  If it doesn’t, expect coach Wade Phillips to be out.  Mike Shanahan could be coaching this team in 2010.

4. Washington Redskins – The Redskins are always a tough team to figure out.  Over the years they have made several big splashes in free agency, or in the coaching ranks, or in some other way.  There are always expected to be good but never seem to be a serious contender.  Last year looked good with a 4-1 start, including wins at Dallas and Philadelphia.  Things started to unravel though, and Washington finished a mediocre 8-8.  The Redskins made another big splash this offseason, but it remains to be seen if this team will be any better than medicore in the rugged NFC East.

This is a very important year for quarterback Jason Campbell.  The Redskins were rumored to be very involved in the Jay Cutler sweepstakes, but ultimately couldn’t swing the deal, perhaps because Denver may not have been enamored with Campbell.  The Redskins hope that Campbell will be highly motivated this season, for they feel he hasn’t shown the fire they expect out of the quarterback position thus far in his career.  One fact many don’t know is Campbell’s quarterback rating has actually gone up every season, so there is a chance he could reach his potential this year.  The running game is in great shape with Clinton Portis, who is a workhorse and isn’t afraid of a high carry total, and Ladell Betts, who has proven capable of spelling Portis when necessary.  There is also talent at receiver with Santana Moss and Antwaan Randle El, as well as tight end Chris Cooley.  The offensive line could be a problem, as it is a very aging unit and doesn’t have much depth.  The Redskins offense has been puzzling at times because the pieces seem to be there for the most part, but they have been unable to really get it together.

The Redskins wasted no time in free agency, spending $100 million over seven years to sign defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth from Tennessee.  The Redskins wanted Haynesworth so badly they signed him on the first day that free agency was open.  He could prove to be worth it, as his presence alone usually ties up two blockers, allowing other players to get pressure on the quarterback and stop the run.  The downside to this move is that Haynesworth has missed time due to injury more than once in his career, so this could be a risky investment.  The Redskins also addressed defensive line in the draft, tabbing Brian Orakpo from Texas with their first pick. The linebackers could also be in good shape with London Fletcher leading the way.  Fletcher is a very underrated player who should be regarded as one of the best tacklers in football and a guy who can make plays all over the field.  The cornerbacks are also outstanding with Fred Smoot and DeAngelo Hall, whom the Redskins signed to a 6-year extension in February.  It’s amazing how much better Hall played in a Redskins uniform than when he was in Oakland last season.

The special teams were a huge problem for Washington last season. Percentage wise, Shaun Suisham was the worst kicker in the league, so it is puzzling that he is still around.  The punting game was also ineffective last year, but the Redskins addressed that by raiding the Colts for Hunter Smith.  Randle El has the talent to be a good punt returner, but he has yet to show that potential with the Redskins.

Washington has the talent to be a playoff team.  On paper this looks like it could be a dangerous team, but everything seems so precarious (the play of Campbell and the health of Haynesworth in particular), that it seems like it could fall apart like a house of cards any moment.  Coach Jim Zorn has to win to save his job.

Coming next: the AFC North

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AFC East Preview

Posted by mizzou1028 on August 26, 2009

We’re about halfway through the preaseason, and that means it’s about time for me to make my predictions on the season.  I will point out last year was just flat dismal for yours truly in this regard.   Neither of my two Super Bowl picks even made the playoffs,  and in fact I missed on half of the playoff teams.  Heck, I was 0 for 4 on conference championship game picks.  (If you’re still reading with baited breath to see what I’m picking this year I am stunned).  Nevertheless, I will attempt to do better this year.  On the plus side, I had a roughly 68 percent success rate on individual games last season, and that’s not bad considering how tough it is to pick today’s NFL.  In an effort to do justice to each team before the season, we will look at one division at a time, and wrap things up right before the season with the full unveiling of wild card and Super Bowl picks.  Today we look at the AFC East, with teams listed in predicted order of finish.

1. New England Patriots – Last year the Patriots got flat robbed.  Despite finishing 11-5, winning their final four games in the process (including a 47-7 thrashing of NFC champ Arizona), they missed the playoffs, while 8-8 San Diego got in.  Oh, and they still posted a good record despite losing Tom Brady to injury in week one.  Brady is back, and that alone has the Patriots poised to retake this division and maybe return to the top of the AFC elite.

Brady’s return should mean better numbers for Randy Moss.  While Matt Cassel did an admirable job filling in, his arm isn’t that of Brady’s.  I expect a big bounce back year for Moss, and I once again expect the big play to be an important part of New England’s attack.  Wes Welker should also benefit from Brady’s return, and could well top 100 catches again in the slot.  The Patriots also got a boost in the running game with the signing of Fred Taylor, who while aged is still very capable, and should take some pressure off Laurence Maroney.  The offensive line remains solid as well with few changes from last year’s unit that paved the way for 2,278 rushing yards last year, the most for the Patriots since 1985.  If the Patriots can also get solid tight end production from Benjamin Watson and trade acquisition Alex Smith, the offense could return to the scary good levels of 2007.  New England did lose their play caller from last year, as Josh McDaniels is now the head coach in Denver, but that shouldn’t prove to be much of a problem.  Remember the Patriots replaced Charlie Weis too after he took the Notre Dame head coaching job.

Defensively, the Patriots must stay healthy to be effective.  This is true for any team of course, but in New England’s case they are battling age and a lack of depth in this area.  The 3-4 defense favored by Bill Belichick relies on solid pressure, particularly from the nose tackle.  New England has a solid one there in Vince Wilfork, but ends Ty Warren and Richard Seymour both battled injury last season.  If both are healthy, the Patriots should be able to get the rush they need.  If not, the pressure will be on a linebacking core that lost Mike Vrabel to the Chiefs.  There is no reason to think that Jerrod Mayo shouldn’t duplicate his outstanding rookie season, but he can’t do it all by himself.  New England may need one of their young unknowns to step up.  The Patriots added Shawn Springs in the secondary, but that could still be question mark for a unit that gave up 27 touchdown passes last season, second most in the NFL.

New England’s special teams remains solid with kicker Stephen Gostkowski and punt Chris Hanson.  Kickoff returns could be an issue after the loss of Ellis Hobbs (traded to Philadelphia). New England also has a new long snapper after the departure of Lonie Paxton to Denver.

Overall expect a big year for the Patriots.  It will be a major upset if they don’t make the playoffs, particularly after they missed them last year.  Five of their first eight games are at home, but four of their final six are on the road.  New England also plays in London this year against Tampa Bay.

2. Buffalo Bills – The good people of Buffalo have had a tough decade.  The Bills have missed the playoffs nine years in a row and the fans have had very little to cheer about.  Despite a promising 5-1 start last year, they flamed out and finished 7-9, losing four of their final five games.  In an effort to turn their fortunes around, the Bills had a very active offseason.  I think it will be an improvement, but will it be enough to get them back in the playoffs?

Trent Edwards is a good quarterback when he is healthy.  His record as a starter is just 12-11, but I think he showed improvement in several areas last year, and this year he might finally have the weapons to really help him.  The Bills made perhaps the league’s biggest splash by bringing in Terrell Owens.  While Owens certainly has his problems, he does have a proven track record of being extremely successful his first year in a new place.  Hence, the genius of the Bills to sign him to a one year contract.  With Owens around, defenses can’t key on Lee Evans anymore.  Factor in Josh Reed, and suddenly the Bills have a very dangerous trio of wideouts.  I think Owens’ impact will be staggering, not only for his own numbers but for his impact on the rest of the offense.  Unfortunately for the Bills, running back Marshawn Lynch is suspended for the first three games of the season, but I expect a big year from him once he is in the lineup.  Until then, Fred Jackson should help provide some depth, and new acquisition Dominic Rhodes should be good for a handful of carries as well.  Buffalo also will have a completely retooled offensive line, so it remains to be seen if those changes will be good or bad, particularly the loss of Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters to the Eagles.

The defense should be improved, if nothing else because most of the players are back and should have a better grasp of the Tampa 2 scheme.  Marcus Stroud is a good a defensive tackle as there is in the league, but the Bills will need to get better pressure on the quarterback.  Last year they accounted for just 46 sacks and takeaways, which ranked near the bottom of the NFL.  The addition of first round draft pick Aaron Maybin of Penn State could provide a big impact in this area.  That is, if he’s not too far behind after a lengthy holdout.  I really like their linebackers, particularly Paul Posluszky, who returns after suffering a broken arm last season.  The secondary has talent, but they will need an improved pass rush in order to see better interception totals.

The special teams is a good as any around.  Returners Leodis McKelvin and Roscoe Parrish can be scary returning punts or kickoffs, Kicker Rian Lindell and punter Brian Moorman are also very solid.

If the Bills don’t get walloped  and get their confidence shattered in a week one Monday nighter at New England, their schedule might just be conducive for a playoff run.  However, their fate may hinge on a tough final three games: home vs. New England, at Atlanta, and home vs. the Colts.

3. Miami Dolphins – There is no doubt that Miami made one of the most staggering turnarounds in NFL history last season, recovering from a 1-15 finish in 2007 to an 11-5 effort last year and a division championship.  However, reality hit when they were waxed by the Ravens at home in the first round of the playoffs.  Miami introduced the Wildcat formation to the league with tremendous success, and it appears that the culture is changed in South Florida for the better.  Now they face the task of doing it again.

Miami had to be pleasantly surprised by the play of Chad Pennington at quarterback last season.  It’s funny that if the Jets didn’t sign Brett Favre before last season, Pennington never would have been available.  While Pennington is successful for now, the shadows of Chad Henne, Miami’s QB of the future, and of Pat White, Miami’s second round pick out of West Virginia, loom large especially if Pennington struggles early.  The running game is very solid with Ronnie Brown and a much more focused Ricky Williams.  Brown’s presence and ability to throw should make the Wildcat effective for Miami again this year should they choose to use it.  There are some questions about the receivers.  Ted Ginn Jr. has shown promise but has not played to anywhere near the potential he showed at Ohio State, and Greg Camarillo, while capable, doesn’t strike fear into opponents the way many other receivers do.  The Dolphins should have a good offensive line if they’re healthy, especially since a solid line is a trademark of teams run by Bill Parcells.

The Dolphins released veteran Vonnie Holliday, but should benefit along the defensive line from the return of Jason Taylor.  Taylor played in Washington last year after falling out of favor with Parcells, but is now back in Miami, and if he’s his old self, Miami should see improved sack totals.  Miami also needs a great year from start linebacker Joey Porter.  Porter was a force last year with 17.5 sacks, and with Taylor’s presence it might even open up him for more sack chances.  The Dolphins secondary is young, but the Dolphins feel they should be upgraded last year with the return of Will Allen and the additions of draft picks Vontae Davis from Illinois and Sean Smith from Utah.

Miami has unknowns at kicker (Dan Carpenter) and punter (Brandon Fields) but both did a very serviceable job last season.  The Dolphins really need more out of the return game, especially from Ginn Jr.  The Dolphins drafted him 10th overall in 2007 in large part because of his return ability.  He needs to start showing that in order for the Dolphins to really justify that pick.

The pressure is on for the Dolphins to return to the playoffs and take the next step.  Their first three games (at Atlanta, home vs. Indy, and at San Diego) will make a good start difficult.  Not to mention their last game against Pittsburgh could prove to be a tough hurdle to overcome for a playoff spot.

4. New York Jets – The Jets were off to the races at the start of last year.  At one point they sat 8-3 after two big roads wins over the Patriots and Titans, and were poised to make a playoff run behind Brett Favre.  Suddenly Favre stumbled, the Jets lost four of their last five, and they missed the playoffs.  Certainly not what they envisioned after surrendering three first round picks to get Favre.  Favre is gone, and so is coach Eric Mangini.

Former Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan takes over as head coach, and the Jets hope he can make the defense as nasty as unit in Baltimore has been for years.  One of the first things Ryan did though was address the other side of the ball, trading up to take USC quarterback Mark Sanchez fourth overall in the draft.  The Jets hope that a recipe of a rookie coach and quarterback will mean success, as it did for Atlanta and Baltimore last season.  After what those teams did last year, I’m not going to discount anything.  However, rookie coaches and quarterbacks together generally aren’t a very good combination, and last year for the Falcons and Ravens seems to be the exception, not the rule.  That being said, Sanchez has a rocket arm and he’ll be the starter at some point this year, and he should have it week one based on his preseason performance over Kellen Clemens.  New York does have an excellent running game with the physical Thomas Jones and the speedy Leon Washington, and both of them running behind fullback Tony Richardson, who has several Pro Bowl appearances on his resume.  What has caused me serious head scratching is the Jets’ receiving core.  For some reason they dumped Laveraneus Coles and tight end Chris Baker, and didn’t really replace either.  They still have Jerricho Cotchery, but when David Clowney is listed as a starting wideout on the depth chart, that’s not a good sign.  New starting tight end Dustin Keller can catch, but isn’t near the blocker Baker is.  That means Keller isn’t really a good fit for smashmouth style that Ryan wants to implement.  The good news for the Jets is they have a very good offensive line, led by Alan Faneca and Damien Woody.

Defensively, the Jets could well show their age along the line.  The Jets will play a 3-4 under Ryan, and all three starting defensive linemen are over 30.  Granted, Shaun Ellis and Kris Jenkins can still play, but the Jets’ lack of depth behind them is almost alarming considering their age.  Rex Ryan did raid his old defense in Baltimore for linebacker Bart Scott, who is a tackling machine and should prove to be an excellent leader in Ryan’s new defense.  New York’s other linebackers are underrated and could really benefit from the new scheme, particularly Calvin Pace and Bryan Thomas.  Ryan also overhauled the secondary, highlighted by the acquisition of cornerback Lito Shepherd from the Eagles.  Shepherd was in Andy Reid’s doghouse in Philly, but could benefit from a fresh start.

The Jets do have a decent kicker in  Jay Feely, and their return game is among the league’s best with Washington back there, but their biggest question mark is punter.  Right now that position is still unsettled.  It might seem insignificant, but if the Jets fail to move the ball offensively, the lack of a good punter could prove to be a real problem.

I think the Jets are in a rebuilding year.  The running game is good and the defense should be improved, but I just don’t like the idea of a rookie quarterback in New York without reliable targets to throw to.  I think Sanchez could well have an excellent career, but I think the Jets are a year away from contending again.  They tried to win with Favre last year and it backfired, and now they have to pick up the pieces.  A rigorous schedule doesn’t help either.

Coming Next: the NFC East.

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Favre + Vikings = Super Bowl

Posted by mizzou1028 on August 19, 2009

I have to admit I thought the whole Brett Favre saga was done.  I thought he was really retired this time.  I know I know, he’s done this before, and undoubtedly he now holds the NFL record for false retirements.  Wasn’t it three seasons ago he had what essentially was a tearful goodbye right after the season finale, a Sunday night game at Chicago?  Nevertheless, Favre will apparently play for the Vikings this season, which has to be a tough pill to swallow for Packers fans (Imagine John Elway in a Raiders uniform or Dan Marino in a Patriots jersey for comparison).  Green Bay thought they had dodged that bullet when they traded Favre to the Jets last season.  Heck, they even put a clause in the thing that required any team that acquired Favre from the Jets to surrender three first round picks to Green Bay.  Unfortunately for the Packers, they said nothing about the Jets releasing Favre (which the Jets did after they drafted Mark Sanchez).  This now means the Packers will have to contend with Favre head to head twice this year  Favre vs. Rodgers, one of them on a Monday night.  I can’t wait. 

Let’s make no mistake about this: Favre can still play a little.  He led the Jets to a 7-3 start last season before they collapsed.  While Favre was not on top of game in December last year, he was also not the only one responsible.  The Jets defense fell apart and so did their running game.  Favre can still throw the ball with zip for sure.  The biggest thing working against Favre is the same thing that has been his downfall at times his entire career: his tendency to throw interceptions.  The flipside of that is Favre has been able to make throws into traffic that few quarterbacks can make.  

Brett Favre, even at his age, is an upgrade over Tarvaris Jackson and Sage Rosenfels, and that automatically makes the Vikings a better football team.  Minnesota was already a Super Bowl contender with their running game and defense, and this move may just put them over the top in the NFC.  In fact, I’m going to go ahead and pick the Vikings to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.  My season picks are still coming in the next few weeks, but I think considering the Vikings were already good, considering the fact that they were set at essentially every position except for QB, I think even a halfway decent Favre will be enough to put the Vikings over the top.  They have the league’s top running game with a physical offensive line and Adrian Peterson, and they also have arguably the league’s top defensive line and an excellent secondary.  Factor in their friendly schedule, and I think this is shaping up to be a big year for the Vikings.  In fact, they could have had this last year if they had been able to swing the deal for Favre then.  

I do feel bad for Jackson and Rosenfels.  They were both competing for what they thought was a starting QB job.  Now both are relegated to backup duty.  I think there is a decent chance one of them will be traded, especially if some team sees their signal caller go down in preseason and get desperate.  I do think Favre should have been up front and honest about his desire to return instead of waffling.  It is obvious that both he and the team knew exactly what was going on being that Favre was already practicing yesterday.  I know this makes me and others tired of Favre’s act.  Despite all that, I see a good year for him and a big year for the Vikings.  Minnesota is going to the Super Bowl.

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What Will We See From Mr. Vick?

Posted by mizzou1028 on August 14, 2009

It comes as no surprise that Michael Vick has found an NFL team.  To say otherwise would have been ridiculous, for everyone knew that Vick was going to latch on somewhere.  The question was, where?  The answer to that question is a surprise for me, for I did not see Vick in Philadelphia.  That being said I can’t say for sure that I had any clue where he ended up.  I was absolutely certain he wouldn’t be a starter right away if at all this year, so that opened up a plethora of teams as possibilities.  I was reasonably certain that there would only be a handful of coaches who would say no to him outright without a look.  Even though he hasn’t played in two years, those involved in the game know without a doubt that he is a unique talent.  I would even go as far to say that he was the most exciting player in the game when he was playing.  Not the best player by any means, but most exciting.  Coaches remember that talent and therefore we knew he would end up somewhere.  The question now is, what to expect out of him in Philadelphia?

The Eagles obviously are set at quarterback with Donovan McNabb, so we know right off the bat that Vick will not be in the starting lineup.  Let’s also remember that Vick is suspended by the commissioner until week six at the earliest (although he’ll be allowed to play in preseason).  Once week six rolls around, Roger Goodell still has to pull a trigger on full reinstatement.  Let’s assume for a moment that happens and Vick is allowed to play.  I think the biggest thing that Vick brings to the table is the ability to make plays with his feet.  That was always a much stronger part of his game than his ability to throw the football.  Given that, I think there are some very intriguing possibilities for the Eagles, and if they work, it could vault them to favorite status in the NFC.

Imagine for a moment the Eagles lining up in the following formation: McNabb in the shotgun, flanked by Brian Westbrook on one side and Vick on the other.  Just that alone can cause nightmares for a defense, because all three are very athletic and can make defenders miss in the open field.  Imagine being a defender and trying to figure out if it’s going to be Vick or Westbrook getting the football, or will it be McNabb trying to make something happen instead?  This is all assuming of course that we’re talking about the Michael Vick before his football exile.  Assuming that though for the moment, this could make the Eagles offense very exciting and tough to stop.  There could also be Wildcat possibilities with Vick throwing on occasion even while McNabb is on the field.  Factor in the other explosive weapons on the Eagles offense, including DeSean Jackson and rookie Jeremy Maclin, and Philadelphia could be lighting up the scoreboard often this season.  Then again, Vick may not be near the same player and could be a complete non-factor, in which case the Eagles still have a pretty darn good team that has to be rated toward the top of the NFC.  If Vick can be productive however, it could prove to be the tipping point for the Eagles.

I’ve heard a lot of chatter that Vick should not be allowed to play, and I think that is hogwash.  He’s been out of the game for two years without pay so he has certainly paid a stiff penalty.   I absolutely don’t condone what he did, but many other players in multiple sports have been back in the game after as bad or worse.  Besides, if Tony Dungy is in his corner (Dungy has been very active in working with Vick and in essence campaigning for him), that is good enough for me.  I just hope Vick doesn’t tear apart the Broncos defense when the Broncos play in Philadelphia on Dec. 27.  I still have vivid memories of Vick shredding the Broncos on Halloween in 2004, as the Broncos surrendered a franchise record 567 total yards.

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Quick Opinion: Marshall Will Stay, and He Will Have a Big Year

Posted by mizzou1028 on August 3, 2009

It is extremely difficult to believe that football season is fast approaching and that teams have already opened training camp.  This of course includes the Broncos, who are dealing with the distraction that is Brandon Marshall.  Despite his beef with the organization, Marshall has actually shown up on time, which is more than rookies Knoshawn Moreno and Robert Ayers can say, but he has missed lots of action already due to injury.  Nevertheless, it is no secret that Marshall demanded a trade in June, and many think he will still get it before the regular season starts.  I don’t.  Not only will Marshall be a Bronco this season, but I believe he is about to have a monster season in Josh McDaniels’ system.

The biggest issues that Marshall has with the Broncos are a lack of trust in the medical staff (owning to the fact that he played through a hip injury last season that he feels the team misdiagnosed), the changes in quarterback, and the departure of Mike Shanahan.  The medical staff issue is understandable, although it certainly seems as though they are being much more cautious with Marshall early in camp this year.  There obviously isn’t anything Marshall can do about the changes on the coaching staff and at QB, but I feel that once Marshall sees first hand what this offense could be capable of doing, he will find himself in no shortage of opportunities to make plays.  Josh McDaniels is a very good offensive mind.  Different from Shanahan maybe, but an excellent offensive mind nevertheless.  I also think that this offense will be much better than people realize.  While Kyle Orton does not have the raw talent of Jay Cutler, he has shown a much better attitude and seems to be a good fit for McDaniels’ system.  I also think that once Moreno shows up (and it had better be any day now), he will have a tremendous impact in the running game.  Couple those things with that fact the Broncos also expect big things from Eddie Royal, Brandon Stokley, et al, and Marshall should find this offense very much to his liking.

The bottom line on Brandon Marshall is that he is one of the most talented receivers in football.  His off the field issues have been well documented, but if he can ever get his head on straight he has a wonderful future in the NFL.  Given his issues, he is lucky not to be suspended by the league this season, and he is really playing with fire if he is trying to get a lucrative contract extension right now.  I believe in the end Marshall will realize he needs to have a good year  and also stay out of trouble in order to earn the extension and raise he is seeking.  I expect Brandon Marshall to be highly motivated when the regular season rolls around, and that will be terrific news for the Denver Broncos.

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