As training camp draws closer, so does the start of the 2012 NFL season. And the best part of this season: no lockouts or collective bargaining agreement disputes. Thus, fans are able to follow their teams' offseason activities to their fullest extent.
As a result of the lockout, a bigger emphasis has been put on the organized team activities and minicamps that were sorely missed by some teams last season that were either rebuilding (i.e. Carolina Panthers and St. Louis Rams) or by teams that took some steps back as a result of a cut-back offseason (Philadelphia Eagles).
However, now that we have an offseason to watch and observe, we now ask ourselves, what dark-horse teams are out there this year? Sure, we know about the likes of Green Bay Packers, the New England Patriots, the Pittsburgh Steelers the Baltimore Ravens and the world champion New York Giants. What teams, though—ones that oft struggled last season—could possibly push for the chance to make a big impact in their conference and secure a playoff bid?
A team that is steadily gaining some form of ground each year, the Bills are slowly becoming the kind of team that can't quite be counted out of the playoff hunt every year.
While the Patriots are most likely to remain the dominant force of the AFC East, their runner-up remains in flux between the New York Jets and the Buffalo Bills. If there was ever a year for the Bills to make that jump, that time would be now.
Looking to spark a long-forgotten pass rush, the Bills signed an elite pass-rusher in former Houston defensive end Mario Williams and Mark Anderson. Williams was signed to a big-time contract to counter the likes of opposing quarterbacks who have had their way with a porous Bills pass defense and give them an outside threat in addition to Marcell Dareus on the inside.
What holds them back besides their defense, though? A quarterback and another pass-catcher.
While Ryan Fitzpatrick has had his moments, the Bills need a long-term answer at the position, and Fitzpatrick is not the answer to a Super Bowl, and receiver Stevie Johnson needs more consistent help at the position.
This year is a make-or-break season for Jets head coach Rex Ryan. And they still have the capability to make it.
Making it to the AFC Championship Game in his first two seasons, quarterback Mark Sanchez has faced plenty of scrutiny as a quarterback, especially with the signing of former Denver quarterback Tim Tebow, who, despite his erratic throwing ability, managed to lead Denver to the playoffs and a first-round win.
However, the key to a good Jets team is a great defense and smart decisions on offense. A lack of both in 2011 lead to the Jets missing out on the playoffs, and locker room problems have done little to resolve the matter. The Jets have focused on getting their defense back to form, though, holding on to linebacker Bart Scott and drafting Quinton Coples in the first round to augment a pass rush that saw little pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
On offense, the Jets gave Sanchez another outside option in addition to Santonio Holmes by drafting Stephen Hill out of Georgia Tech, who, despite his intangibles, will require a bit of an adjustment from the spread-option offense he played in.
Unless he wishes to be added to a list of washed-up USC quarterbacks, Mark Sanchez will improve his decision-making and trust his offensive line to make it back to the playoffs.
Just missing out of the playoffs last season due to some late losses, the Titans pleasantly surprised by not only naming their top-10 pick quarterback Jake Locker the starter, but making it a full season with Matt Hasselbeck as the starter, who performed well enough to have the Titans in the picture with the now-dominant Houston Texans.
Now the Titans want to actually play in the playoffs and are probably the only team capable of challenging Houston for the division. They have the options in the passing game with receivers Kenny Britt and Nate Washington, rookie first-rounder Kendall Wright, tight end Jared Cook and running back Chris Johnson.
They just have to solve their quarterback problem: Hasselbeck, or Locker?
Locker performed well in relief of Hasselbeck late in the season, though Hasselbeck kept the team afloat and competitive all season. This may be a competition that goes into training camp, though at this point Hasselbeck seems to have the edge—that is, as long as he stays healthy.
Let's face it. Were it not for the presence of a Philip Rivers in the AFC West—and of course the fact that Peyton Manning did not play for a full season due to his neck —many would be quicker to peg the Broncos at the top of the West. We're sure NFL fans would happily take a Peyton Manning over a Matt Cassel or a Carson Palmer any day of the week.
However, the Broncos' challenge lies in their entire schedule, not just the lower-scaled competition of the West.
The Broncos do have more than Manning in place who could essentially be a big missing piece of their offense. Without the Tebow option attack that had its limitations Denver will now be led by a more conventional NFL offense, with many curious what offensive coordinator Mike McCoy will do to tailor the offense to Manning. If McCoy could tailor an NFL offense to suit Tim Tebow and make it to the playoffs, then having a more conventional offense led by a future NFL Hall of Famer should be no problem.
The key is to keep Manning healthy, and the Broncos have invested plenty into their offensive line, headlined by left tackle Ryan Clady and center J.D. Walton.
On defense, the retirement of Brian Dawkins will leave a void in the secondary, where the Broncos' two young safeties in Rahim Moore and Quinton Carter struggled at times, especially in deep coverage. Led by a strong front seven with the likes of defensive end Elvis Dumervil, Von Miller and D.J. Williams, the Broncos have the defense to contend with their difficult schedule.
One of the teams that took a major step backwards in 2011, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers now have a new head coach at the helm and a new attitude and adjustments to make under Greg Schiano, who is quickly making it known about the kind of attitude he wants to instill in these once playoff-contending Buccaneers.
Now, Josh Freeman must step out of his slump to lead the Bucs' passing attack, and the Bucs hope to revive their running game, and will do so with the likes of LeGarrette Blount and 2012 first-round pick Doug Martin out of Boise State. The addition of Vincent Jackson from the Chargers will hopefully be enough to pair on the outside opposite Mike Williams.
On defense, a poor secondary that gave up too many big plays in the passing game will be further bolstered by first-round safety Mark Barron out of Alabama, and the return of Ronde Barber, despite his age, will only aid in the secondary's development. Tampa Bay also hopes to revive its front four, though the oft-injured Gerald McCoy and the rest of the promising, yet injured defensive line may continue to hinder the pass rush.