With the results of the 2012 NFL draft fresh on everybody’s mind, it’s a good time to think big picture and predict this year’s biggest winners and losers.
But finding the biggest winners and losers goes beyond lending grades on paper. For teams, it means turning all the offseason preparation, hard work and decisions into fruition by succeeding on the field on Sundays.
The culmination of the draft marks the end of one offseason phase and the beginning of another, as NFL clubs prepare to hit camp and sculpt their rosters into contenders.
Here is a look at five teams who will surprise in 2012 by taking bigger strides than most would expect.
New head coach Greg Schiano had himself quite an impressive offseason. In free agency, the Bucs landed two of the top available players in wide receiver Vincent Jackson and offensive guard Carl Nicks. Those two guys alone will provide an immediate boost to Tampa Bay’s offense. Jackson is a legitimate deep threat who will often require double coverage, while Nicks is one of the league’s best interior linemen.
The roster saw even more improvement in the draft. First-round pick Mark Barron is a playmaker at safety, and if all goes according to plan he could turn into one of the NFL’s best players at his position.
Boise State’s Doug Martin is a three-down back who will upgrade the Bucs’ running game. At linebacker, Lavonte David offers tremendous speed and cover skills on the weak side, while Najee Goode should be a strong inside presence at middle linebacker.
Add in cornerback Keith Tandy, and Tampa Bay’s defense just got a lot more athletic.
Expect a big rebound year for quarterback Josh Freeman, who now has a well-rounded supporting cast. Schiano is bringing a new, blue-collar attitude to the Bucs, and the players he has brought in reflect that attitude.
Much like the Buccaneers, the success of the Buffalo Bills’ offseason reaches back to free agency as well. After struggling mightily to put pressure on the quarterback last year, the team went out and signed two of the best free-agent pass-rushers on the market: Mario Williams from Houston and Mark Anderson from New England.
An improved pass rush should do wonders for the Bills’ defense, which already finished tied for sixth in the league in interceptions last season despite finishing tied for 27th in sacks.
Buffalo also strengthened their secondary by adding cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore in the first round and Ron Brooks in the fourth round. Gilmore figures to start right away opposite second-year player Aaron Williams, and Brooks will likely play inside.
Needing depth at offensive tackle, the Bills landed a steal in Cordy Glenn in Round 2, and fifth-rounder Zebrie Sanders could be quite a value, as he dropped on draft day due to a poor Senior Bowl performance.
The Bills effectively filled needs by finding good value in each round. While North Carolina State receiver T.J. Graham may have been a slight reach, he fits what they were looking for in a complement to Steve Johnson. Graham is just a tad under 6’0”, 190 pounds and can fly. Hopefully he can become the deep threat the team is looking for.
After a strong offseason of getting bigger and faster, the Bills hope to make the postseason for the first time since 1999. And in year three under head coach Chan Gailey, the pieces may finally be in place to do so.
Obviously, Robert Griffin III is one of those rare athletes who will come in and be a threat from day one. His athleticism and dynamic playmaking ability at quarterback are undeniable, and he’ll be a big weapon for the Redskins’ offense.
But don’t forget about rest of the team’s draft and offseason moves.
Washington’s other selections, save for quarterback Kirk Cousins, made little splash, but they’ll be valuable additions nonetheless. Josh LeRibeus, Adam Gettis and Tom Crompton all offer athleticism along the offensive line, as head coach Mike Shanahan attempted to protect his franchise signal-caller with zone-blocking big men.
Heading into 2012, Washington will have some new faces at wide receiver as well. Pierre Garcon comes over from Indianapolis and could find major success with Griffin at the helm. Josh Morgan too, from San Francisco, has shown a lot of promise in his young career and now has an opportunity to shine.
Outside of RG3, Shanahan has quietly established a solid roster. Roy Helu and Evan Royster return at running back, while tight end Fred Davis will look to cash in big time in his franchise-player contract year.
Though they face a pretty tough schedule in 2012, Washington should be able to improve on their five-win season from 2011.
While the Cincinnati Bengals may not be much of a “surprise” team, per se, they’re starting to put together a seriously competitive roster.
They added several immediate contributors at various positions in the draft. First-rounder Dre Kirkpatrick should step in right away at cornerback. Kevin Zeitler offers consistency at guard and will start. Devon Still should be a cog on the defensive line. Mohamed Sanu will surprise at wideout opposite A.J. Green.
The list goes on: Brandon Thompson (defensive tackle), Orson Charles (tight end) and Shaun Prater (cornerback) are all very likely to see extensive playing time in 2012.
Add all these guys to an already strong roster, and the Bengals are making a case to consistently challenge for the division.
The AFC North could have some of the tightest division races over the next several seasons, with Baltimore and Pittsburgh keeping ground year to year. But those two teams have another foe to worry about out in Cincinnati.
It wouldn’t be at all surprising to see Andy Dalton and the Bengals reach the 12-win mark for the first time since 1988.
The No. 1 overall pick in the draft Andrew Luck has some big shoes to fill in Indy as he takes over for Peyton Manning.
Last year was a humbling one for the Colts and their fans without Manning running the offense. But as atrocious as the Colts were across the board last year, the turning of a new leaf could be sooner than expected.
While their draft may not look impressive on paper, it makes a ton of sense. Andrew Luck reunites with former teammate Coby Fleener at tight end, which gives him a familiar face and a safety blanket in his first year.
Then, Indy took another tight end by drafting Clemson’s Dwayne Allen at No. 64 overall. Luck needed weapons, and he got them. The Colts landed this year’s top two tight end prospects.
Veteran Reggie Wayne returns to be a part of this new era of Colts football, led by new head coach Chuck Pagano. Wayne’s presence should be valuable for the young guys, such as rookie wide receiver T.Y. Hilton. Hilton is a bit undersized, but he’s a home run threat with incredible speed. He’ll also contribute on special teams.
Josh Chapman was a nice addition at nose tackle at pick No. 136 and should help stuff the run up the middle.
They have a lot of ground to make up in the AFC South, but the Colts should turn some heads in 2012. Luck should be able to sustain drives and manage the game much better than the offense did last year, which should in turn help the defense.
While the playoffs may be out of the question, there’s no reason to believe they can’t leapfrog the Jacksonville Jaguars next year and get out of the cellar of the division.