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Power Ranking Every NFL Division, Pre-Training Camp Edition

Vincent FrankCorrespondent IJuly 23, 2015

Power Ranking Every NFL Division, Pre-Training Camp Edition

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    A team's ability to succeed in the National Football League over the course of a season can be directly attributed to its strength of schedule. One of the primary components to that schedule is the fact that each team plays six games within its own division.

    Would the San Francisco 49ers have won 13 games in 2011 if they were playing the Baltimore Ravens, Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals a total of six times, instead of their three opponents in the NFC West?

    I highly doubt it.

    And the reverse applies for the Chicago Bears: I am pretty sure they would have won more games if they were playing in the pedestrian AFC West.

    Either way, this is an extremely important thing to look at heading into the 2012 season. A team's strength of schedule is directly related to the six games played within the division. Therefore, the strength of the division in which a team plays goes a long way in determining whether it will make the postseason.

    So, let's take a look at my division rankings leading up to training camp.

8. AFC South

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    Houston Texans

    While the Texans were probably much better than their final record suggested, this is a team that lost a myriad of different pieces in the offseason. The departures of Eric Winston, Mike Brisiel and Mario Williams are going to hurt.

    The one saving grace that Houston fans have is the fact that both Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson appear to be back at full strength.

    Just take a look at the strengths of this team.

    They possessed one of the most improved defenses in the entire National Football League, under Wade Phillips. Moreover, the core of that unit is still incredibly young. J.J. Watt, Connor Barwin, Whitney Mercilus and Johnathan Joseph have not hit their primes yet.

    Arian Foster and Ben Tate make up the best running game in the entire league, as well.

    If Schaub and Johnson can stay healthy, there is no reason to believe that this team won't contend for a conference championship in 2012.

     

    Tennessee Titans

    They were a surprise team in 2011 and were in playoff contention up to the final week of the season. Many people did not expect this to be the case after Tennessee parted ways with long-time head coach Jeff Fisher and was looking to "rebuild," selecting Jake Locker in the first round that April.

    Adding more fuel for the naysayers was the fact that 2010 NFL rushing leader Chris Johnson stumbled out of the gate and had a disastrous season.

    Despite ending up with nearly 1,500 total yards, Johnson saw his touchdown total drop from 12 to four.

    The Titans are now looking to take that next step.

    There is going to be a full-fledged quarterback battle between the aforementioned Locker and incumbent starter Matt Hasselbeck. Whoever wins that job should have a nice amount of weapons on the offensive side of the ball, with Kenny Britt returning from injury and first-round draftee Kendall Wright on the other side of the field.

    There is still a lot of competition for the final two playoff spots heading into 2012, which leads me to believe that Tennessee might be on the outside looking in once again.

     

    Jacksonville Jaguars

    Talk about a team in disarray.

    The Jaguars are currently without Maurice Jones-Drew, who appears intent on holding out into training camp for a larger sum of money.

    2012 first-round pick Justin Blackmon was arrested for a DUI shortly after Jacksonville selected him in April.

    Blaine Gabbert was among the worst starting quarterbacks in the National Football League as a rookie in 2011. He compiled a quarterback rating of 65.4 and failed to surpass 100 passing yards in a whopping four starts.

    To say that this team is in rebuilding mode would be an understatement; they are in complete shambles heading into the 2012 season.

    There is no hope of Jacksonville returning to the postseason for the first time since 2007.

     

    Indianapolis Colts

    Andrew Luck now takes over for Peyton Manning as the Colts' franchise quarterback. He is going to be asked to lead a team that won just two games last season and lacks the necessary talent to compete on a consistent basis.

    Indianapolis, which is in a full-scale rebuild, will ask for baby steps from its new signal-caller and the rest of the Colts young offensive players.

    With that being said, the Colts should be a lot more competitive this season than they were in 2011. The switch to a 3-4 defense is going to help Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis a great deal as pass-rushers. It seems both have transitioned well from defensive end to linebacker, which is great news. That should help what promises to be a pedestrian secondary.

    Either way, a six-win 2012 season would be considered a success in Indianapolis.

7. AFC West

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    Denver Broncos

    The addition of Peyton Manning immediately makes this club a contender for the conference championship heading into 2012. Despite amazing come-from-behind wins last year, Tim Tebow led an offense that was, by all accounts, flawed.

    This will not be the case come September.

    Denver also added a nice amount of talent for Manning to work with.

    They added tight ends Joel Dreessen and Jacob Tamme to the mix, which should help the future Hall of Fame quarterback between the hashes.

    Adding more offensive firepower via the draft, Denver went out and selected former San Diego State standout running back Ronnie Hillman. He is going to be an instant-impact performer as a rookie this season.

    In the end, it is all on the ability of Manning to return to 2010 form.

    If he is able to do that, the Broncos should win the AFC West and vie for a spot in the Super Bowl.

     

    San Diego Chargers

    The enigmatic Norv Turner is back at the helm for San Diego as this franchise tries to figure out what exactly has gone wrong in each of the last two seasons.

    By all accounts, this is a team that should be contending for Super Bowls, not finishing around .500.

    Philip Rivers easily had the worst season of his eight-year NFL career in 2011. He threw 20 interceptions and accumulated a quarterback rating under 90 for the first time since 2007. If San Diego is going to have any shot at capturing the division, he will have to regain 2010 form.

    Despite losing Vincent Jackson in free agency, San Diego's wide receiver unit should be a strength in 2012. Both Malcom Floyd and Vincent Brown appear to be budding superstars. Moreover, the additions of both Robert Meachem and Eddie Royal in free agency should make this unit rather deep.

    San Diego also did a great job addressing a relative weakness on the defensive side of the ball by adding two solid 3-4 outside linebackers.

    Jarret Johnson has been a staple of the Baltimore Ravens defense for the last eight seasons and will provide experience playing in this type of scheme. 2012 first-round pick Melvin Ingram was probably the best natural pass-rusher in the entire draft. Expect him to flirt with double-digit sacks.

    If things go right, the Chargers could be looking at a division championship.

    One thing is for sure: They cannot be considered the odds-on favorites to capture the division heading into training camp.

     

    Oakland Raiders

    In order to get out of salary cap hell, new general manager Reggie McKenzie had to cut the proverbial fat from his roster. In the process, Oakland lost Stanford Routt and Kamerion Wimbley, who would've counted way too much against the cap in 2012.

    Despite being stuck behind the proverbial eight-ball, McKenzie did a damn fine job in adding solid talent to an already talented roster.

    Under-the-radar signings such as Mike Brisiel, Shawntae Spencer and Dave Tollefson should help out areas of the team that were deemed weaknesses in 2011.

    The trade for former Carolina Panthers running back Mike Goodson should lesson the blow of losing Michael Bush in free agency. Goodson, who gained nearly 800 total yards in 2010 before missing most of last season due to injury, should be a nice complement to both Darren McFadden and Taiwan Jones in the run game.

    Overall, I would have to say that Oakland is going in the right direction.

    The Raiders' ability to contend in 2012 is going to be all on Carson Palmer and the offense, because the defense is going to struggle a great deal.

    It might be hard for the Raiders to compete for a playoff spot in 2012, but at least they are heading in the right direction under the leadership of both McKenzie and new head coach Dennis Allen.

     

    Kansas City Chiefs

    Let's be clear about one thing: The Chiefs were nowhere near as bad as some stretches of the 2011 season would indicate.

    Any team in the National Football League would struggle if it had to play the entire season without its best offensive and defensive players. This is the situation that Kansas City found itself in when both Eric Berry and Jamaal Charles went down before the third week of the season.

    Think about it this way: Would the Baltimore Ravens have made it to the 2011 AFC Championship Game if they were missing Ray Rice and Terrell Suggs for the entire regular season?

    I highly doubt it.

    With those two players back in the fold, Kansas City set out to address areas of weakness this offseason. They added Eric Winston, the best run-blocking tackle in the NFL, from the Houston Texans. The addition of Peyton Hillis should do wonders for the run game, as well, as he brings a nice change of pace from the aforementioned Charles.

    You have to remember that Kansas City is just one season removed from the AFC West championship.

    You can fully expect them to contend for the division title once again in 2012. It is all about staying healthy and Matt Cassel actually performing up to 2010 levels.

6. NFC West

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    San Francisco 49ers

    With the brutal schedule that San Francisco will have to endure in 2012, I highly doubt that they will match the 13 wins we saw a season ago. In fact, the 49ers could actually be a better team with a worse record. That is the nature of the NFL today.

    San Francisco added a multitude of weapons on the offensive side of the ball. They signed veteran wide receivers Randy Moss and Mario Manningham to cap-friendly deals, while selecting former Illinois pass-catcher A.J. Jenkins in the first round of April's draft.

    It appears that Moss is looking as though he is ready for a breakout season after a one-year hiatus from the league. If the future Hall of Fame receiver can be just 60 percent of what he was with the New England Patriots, it will be huge for this passing game.

    The 49ers also added two solid running backs to form a fearsome foursome.

    Brandon Jacobs immediately becomes San Francisco's short-yardage back after accumulating a total of 36 rushing touchdowns over the course of the last four seasons.

    LaMichael James was one of the most explosive running backs in the recent history of college football with Oregon over the course of the last two seasons. He adds an entirely new dimension to an offense that struggled with big plays in 2011.

    The 49ers defense is returning all 11 starters from a unit that set a pretty high bar for performance in 2011.

    In all, the 49ers are serious contenders to bring their franchise a sixth Lombardi Trophy.

    It just isn't going to be a walk in the park.

     

    Arizona Cardinals

    It seems that 2012 is going to be a make-or-break season for Ken Whisenhunt and the Cardinals. After struggling a great deal through the first half of 2011, Arizona picked it up big time by winning seven of its final nine games.

    It is this momentum that leads some to believe the Cardinals are ready to take that next step and challenge for a division championship.

    I just don't see it.

    Whether it is Kevin Kolb or John Skelton at quarterback, Arizona is going to struggle a great deal in the passing game. They allowed a whopping 54 sacks in 2011, so they need this unit to get better if they want to have any shot at the postseason.

    The selection of Michael Floyd in the first round of April's draft was huge. He was the No. 1 receiver on my board and will be a standout performer as a complementary guy to Larry Fitzgerald.

    Moreover, the Cardinals' running game appears set with both Beanie Wells and Ryan Williams.

    If someone like Floyd steps up at receiver and the Cardinals' running game is improved, this will help out their offense a great deal.

    Arizona's defense is also prepared to take that next step.

    Patrick Peterson is quickly becoming one of the absolute best cover guys in the NFL. The Cardinals also selected former Oklahoma standout Jamell Fleming in April. He should be able to make an immediate impact. If the Cardinals secondary can step up, it is going to be huge for the defense, because the Arizona front seven is stacked.

    While I don't think Arizona is in position to vie for a division championship, they could surprise some people with a run for a wild-card spot.

    All hands will have to be on deck for this to become reality.

     

    Seattle Seahawks

    Probably the biggest threat to San Francisco in regard to the division, Seattle boasts a tremendous amount of talent on both sides of the ball.

    The Seahawks defense was among the best in the entire league last season and should take a step forward in 2012 with the addition of pass-rusher Bruce Irvin in the draft. While I do still think that selection was a reach, the former West Virginia prospect should be solid as a situational player in 2012. It wouldn't surprise me to see him surpass double-digit sacks in an Aldon Smith-type role.

    One of the biggest surprises of the 2011 season for this team was the performance of its secondary. Brandon Browner stepped up big time in his first season as a starter, accumulating a whopping 23 passes defended. He will produce All-Pro play this upcoming season.

    Richard Sherman also stepped up as a rookie for the Gus Bradley-led defense. The former Stanford standout and 2011 fifth-round pick started 10 games and amassed four interceptions and 17 passes defended.

    Those two have the looks of a dynamic duo.

    As always, Seattle's front four is absolutely stacked.

    The combination of Red Bryant, Jason Jones, Brandon Mebane, Chris Clemons and Alan Branch makes up one of the deepest units in the league. In fact, it could challenge the 49ers, Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants for the best defensive line in the conference.

    It is all going to be about solid quarterback play for this team.

    If Tarvaris Jackson holds off Matt Flynn for Seattle's starting job, it is going to be bad news for fans in the Pacific Northwest. All the Seahawks need is someone to hold the fort, manage the game and limit mistakes.

    Right now, I just don't see Jackson being that guy. 

     

    St. Louis Rams

    This is a team that really improved in the offseason. The additions of Cortland Finnegan, Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson in the defensive secondary are going to be absolutely huge and are going to help the rest of this much-maligned defense step up from a disastrous 2011 campaign.

    Moreover, I fully expect Robert Quinn and Chris Long to form one of the best pass-rushing duos in the league this season. Both have the talent to be dominating, and they seem to complement each other really well.

    Overall, the Rams defense is set for a breakout season.

    As it is with so many rebuilding franchises, the ability of St. Louis to surprise people this year is going to rely on improvements in the passing game.

    Sam Bradford regressed a great deal from his rookie season, but the talented quarterback just didn't have the necessary talent around him.

    This is why the Rams went out there and drafted both Brian Quick and Chris Givens. Those two are going to help form a vastly improved receiving group from a season ago. Quick, a second-round pick from Appalachian State, could eventually turn into a true No. 1 receiver.

    I don't see St. Louis contending for postseason spot or even a .500 record in 2012. What I want to see from them is improvement, and it looks like that is bound to happen.

    Either way, this is a franchise that is set to turn the corner within the next couple seasons.

5. AFC East

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    New England Patriots

    It goes without saying that Tom Brady and company will be right in the midst of another shot at the Super Bowl in 2012. In fact, they have quickly become this generation's version of the 1980s and 1990s San Francisco 49ers: consistent contention throughout a long period of time.

    The additions of Brandon Lloyd and Jabar Gaffney are only going to make this offense that much more prolific. They team up with Wes Welker and Deion Branch to form a reputable receiving group.

    Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski represent the best tight end tandem in the entire league, and it really isn't that close. Those two combined for 169 receptions, over 2,200 yards and 24 touchdowns in 2011.

    In order for New England to get back to the mountaintop, it is going to have to improve vastly on the defensive side of the ball.

    Bill Belichick and the Patriots fully understood this when they went defense with all but one of their 2012 NFL draft selections.

    Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower were great additions to the front seven and should help out the secondary by their mere presence on the football field.

    I fully expect Jones to become the Patriots' most consistent pass-rush threat as a rookie.

     

    New York Jets

    This is a team that completely fell apart last season.

    After starting the year with Super Bowl aspirations, the Jets were left to watch the postseason from home following two consecutive AFC Championship Game appearances.

    Mark Sanchez failed to progress as a quarterback and leader for the suddenly struggling offense. While his stats were all improved from 2010, Sanchez saw his quarterback rating still hover in the high 70s. He needs to improve this season if the Jets are going to have any shot at catching the Patriots or even contending for a postseason spot.

    The pressure is also on Rex Ryan, who came on like gangbusters during his first couple seasons as the Jets head coach.

    It appears that the mouthy head man lost his team in the locker room. This led to division among the players and a growing concern that chemistry was going to be a consistent problem.

    As it stands, I believe the Jets will take a step back in 2012 and give way to the Buffalo Bills as the second-best team in the division.

    If Ryan is able to right the ship and get the most out of his aging players, New York could surprise.

    I just don't see that happening.

     

    Buffalo Bills

    2011 was a tale of two seasons for the Bills. They started out on fire by winning five of their first eight games, before going 1-7 in the last half of the season.

    There were multiple reasons for this.

    First, Ryan Fitzpatrick took a turn for the worst when Fred Jackson went down to injury. The quarterback finished 2011 by throwing four touchdowns compared to nine interceptions in the Bills' final four games. He needs to become a more accurate and consistent quarterback if the Bills are going to break their 12-season playoff drought.

    Secondly, their defense just couldn't stop anyone. Buffalo gave up 30-plus points in five of its final eight games as they struggled in nearly every aspect of the game.

    The powers that be fully understood the necessity of improving this unit, as they signed both Mario Williams and Mark Anderson in free agency. Both are going to have dramatic impacts as pass-rushers off the edge, helping the Bills secondary by forcing the quarterback to get rid of the ball more quickly.

    2012 first-round pick Stephon Gilmore is going to be a starter out of the gate. He already possesses the ability to be a shutdown corner.

    If the Bills get a more consistent performance from Fitzpatrick and their defense improves a great deal, this is a team that could make the postseason in 2012.

    They, however, will not be challenging New England for the division crown anytime soon.

     

    Miami Dolphins

    It seems that there is little hope for this team of climbing out of the cellar in 2012.

    It isn't that Miami doesn't have the talent to be competitive on a consistent basis. It is more about the fact that they just don't compare in terms of talent to the rest of the AFC East.

    It really is going to be a long, drawn-out process for this franchise. Whether David Garrard or Matt Moore is starting, Miami needs above-average play from the quarterback position. Moreover, Ryan Tannehill seems destined to run the scout team after being a top-10 pick in April.

    One saving grace for fans in South Beach is the fact that Miami promises to boast one of the better run games in the entire AFC in 2012.

    Rookie fourth-round pick Lamar Miller joins Reggie Bush and Daniel Thomas to form a three-headed monster at the running back position. This should help take the pressure off of Miami's passing game.

    Additionally, the Dolphins aren't necessarily lacking talent on the defensive side of the ball. Jared Odrick, Paul Soliai, Randy Starks and Cameron Wake form a stout front four.

    Their cornerback trio consisting of Sean Smith, Vontae Davis and Richard Marshall should also lead an improved secondary.

    If things go according to plan, Miami could be in contention for a postseason spot into December.

    That being said, everything would have to fall in place for this team to surpass six wins in 2012.

4. NFC South

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    New Orleans Saints

    One of my favorite aspects of training camp starting in about three weeks is the fact that we will then be able to focus on actual football.

    "Bountygate" has been the NFL equivalent to watching cable news cover the presidential election. Enough with it already; let's start talking about something of actual substance.

    The effect that Bountygate might have on the balance of power in the NFC South is going to be profound.

    Joe Vitt is being tasked with replacing head coach Sean Payton, who is currently serving a year-long suspension. Vitt doesn't even have as much as coordinating experience in the NFL. You can expect the Saints coaching to suffer early on in 2012 because of this.

    Drew Brees has not attended any offseason activities and is currently in a contract dispute with the Saints. While the future Hall of Fame quarterback has stated that he won't miss a season due to a contract issue, this is still a relatively big story.

    Assuming that Brees reports to camp on time, this Saints team will be right in the thick of the NFC postseason race and one of the top five contenders for the conference championship.

     

    Atlanta Falcons

    The issues that New Orleans has had to deal with this offseason have only helped the Falcons.

    This is a team that continues to perform extremely well in the regular season before laying eggs in the postseason. In reality, Atlanta is almost etched in stone as a playoff team because of the superior talent that they boast.

    In the end, the Falcons' success as a team is going to be dependent on a lengthy playoff run.

    Matt Ryan is entering near-elite status. He has progressed as a quarterback in each of the last two seasons and had his best year in 2011. Ryan completed over 60 percent of his passes, threw for nearly 4,200 yards and a career-high 29 touchdowns last year.

    He was helped by vastly improved play from the skill positions.

    Roddy White and Julio Jones combined for over 2,200 receiving yards and 16 touchdowns. While we all know White is a true No. 1 receiver in the NFL, it appears that Jones is on the brink of taking that next step.

    Team those two up with Michael Turner and Tony Gonzalez, and the Falcons have what looks to be one of the most dynamic offenses in the league.

    The addition of Asante Samuel via a trade with the Philadelphia Eagles was absolutely huge. This enables Atlanta to move Dunta Robinson to the slot, a position he seems better suited to cover. Samuel's teaming up with Brent Grimes as the starting corners is going to have a dramatic impact on the success of the Falcons defensive unit as a whole.

    I am a huge fan of what Mike Smith is building here. However, the Falcons are going to have to win a couple playoff games in order for Arthur Blank's public support of Smith to be more than a PR ploy.

    I have faith that Atlanta will take that next step, but it is time for them to actually prove it on the field in January.

    Until they do, there will be a tremendous number of questions in Atlanta.

     

    Carolina Panthers

    Is Carolina prepared to challenge the Saints and Falcons for the division crown?

    I am not sure that Cam Newton and company are actually at that point right now. What I will say is that this franchise has a tremendously bright future ahead of itself after seemingly being stuck in the doldrums of ineptitude just 16 months ago.

    Newton had one of the most spectacular rookie seasons in the modern league history in 2011. His total yards (4,757) and touchdowns (35) were absolutely stunning.

    You have to realize exactly how much the Panthers offense improved from 2010 to last season. After finishing 32nd in the NFL in scoring (12.2 PPG) and accumulating 16 total offensive touchdowns in 2010, Carolina improved a great deal in each statistical category last year, averaging 25.2 points and scoring a whopping 47 offensive touchdowns.

    That is simply amazing.

    They now need to take the next step, and Newton must limit the mistakes that seemed to plague him at times as a rookie. A year of experience and a full offseason should help.

    Defensively, the Panthers were ravished by injuries last year.

    Jon Beason and Thomas Davis played in a total of three games in 2011. As the Panthers' two best defensive players, this hurt the unit a great deal. The addition of Luke Kuechly in the first round of April's draft is going to be huge for the Panthers' front seven.

    Carolina will have to address issues in their run defense. They gave up 150 or more rushing yards a total of six times in 2011, ranking them in the bottom third of the league in that category.

    Overall, Carolina is definitely on the upswing and could actually contend for a postseason spot in the ultra-competitive NFC.

    Their major issues are going to be the level of talent of other teams in the conference and the ability of Newton and company to mature a great deal.

     

    Tampa Bay Buccaneers

    2011 was a mighty disappointing and frustrating season for Tampa Bay. After winning 10 games in 2010, the Buccaneers accumulated a total of four wins, losing their final 10 games after a 4-1 start.

    Issues arose in terms of Josh Freeman's decision-making, the run defense and actual commitment to the schemes that Raheem Morris was running on a weekly basis.

    Freeman, who had a spectacular 2010 season, saw his game drop off a great deal last year. His quarterback rating dropped over 20 points, as he threw nearly four times more interceptions than he had in the previous season.

    Two of the primary issues relating to Freeman's lack of progression as a quarterback were decision-making and an inability to get consistent play from wide receivers.

    The latter is why general manager Mark Dominik made the decision to pursue Vincent Jackson in free agency. The talented receiver gives Freeman a true No. 1 target on the outside and is going to help Mike Williams, who will now be going up against opposing No. 2 corners.

    The addition of Doug Martin in April's draft was absolutely huge. I had the former Boise State product as a top-15 overall prospect heading into the annual event in New York City. He provides a true every-down running back and is extremely strong on both pass protection and receiving out of the backfield.

    Expect Martin to take over the Buccaneers' primary running back duties from the enigmatic LeGarrette Blount.

    Tampa Bay's run game is also going to improve thanks to the addition of Carl Nicks, the consensus No. 1 guard in the National Football League. He opens up massive holes between the hashes and fortifies what promises to be a strong offensive line.

    While the Buccaneers defense has shortcomings, Mark Barron and Ronde Barber are going to be godsends at the safety positions. Barron, one of the Buccaneers' two first-round picks in April, might be a Pro Bowl performer out of the gate. Future Hall of Famer Barber is making the transition from corner to safety, which should be relatively seamless, considering his skill set.

    The Buccaneers are going to be vastly improved in 2012.

    That being said, it is hard to imagine their being able to shovel out of the cellar and into playoff contention.

    The NFC South, let alone the NFC as a whole, is just too good at this point.

3. NFC East

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    New York Giants

    This team might have won the Super Bowl in 2011, but it is important to note that they needed a season-finale win against the Dallas Cowboys just to make the postseason. The bounces also went right for this team against the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship Game.

    That being said, they are still defending champions until someone unseats them.

    It will take a few different things in order for this team to make it back to the playoffs and repeat as champions.

    First, they need solid play from a couple rookies on the offensive side of the ball to make up for the departures of both Brandon Jacobs and Mario Manningham.

    The Giants selected former Virginia Tech standout David Wilson with the last pick of the first round. Wilson possesses a tremendous amount of raw talent, but he needs to gain some more experience before he can be counted on as a consistent performer.

    Rueben Randle should probably be able to match the production that New York saw from Manningham last season.

    If those two step up, the Giants will be in a good position.

    Another issue for this team is going to be pass protection. David Diehl struggled a great deal last season and is going to need to step it up at right tackle moving forward. He could actually face some competition from veteran Sean Locklear as well as youngsters Matt McCants and James Brewer.

    Either way, that area of the offensive line needs to be solidified.

    Moreover, David Baas struggled a great deal after coming over on a free-agent contract from the aforementioned 49ers. The Giants need to keep Eli Manning upright if they're going to win in 2012.

    In the end, New York will find it a tough task not only to repeat as champions but to win the NFC East once again.

    The margin for error really just isn't there at this point.

     

    Philadelphia Eagles

    To say that the 2011 season was a disaster in Philadelphia would be a major understatement. They came into the year with Super Bowl expectations, only to lose four of their first five games before coming on strong at the end.

    They were, by all accounts, all hype and no substance.

    That has changed heading into 2012.

    Eagles general manager Howie Roseman set out to deal with all these issues during the offseason.

    He went out and traded for DeMeco Ryans, who is a major upgrade over what the Eagles had at middle linebacker last season. Mychal Kendricks was shooting up draft boards prior to April's event in Radio City Music Hall, and for good reason. The Cal product can absolutely fly to the ball and was probably the surest tackler in the entire draft.

    Those two players immediately upgrade a previously weak linebacker group.

    Both Brandon Boykin at corner and Vinny Curry at defensive end are also going to pay immediate dividends on a rotational basis.

    Their offense has to be considered one of the most dynamic in the NFL. Michael Vick, despite struggling last year, possesses the athleticism and talent to be a dominating figure on a consistent basis. He needs to improve his decision-making process and avoid throwing the ball into extremely tight windows.

    LeSean McCoy accumulated nearly 1,600 total yards and scored 20 touchdowns in a breakout 2011 campaign. Expect the 23-year-old running back to continue his rise among the best players at this position in the NFL.

    With DeSean Jackson back in the fold and on a long-term contract, the Eagles also appear to be set at wide receiver. Jackson and fellow star Jeremy Maclin will make Vick's job relatively easy in the passing game.

    In total, the Eagles should be a double-digit-win team and vie for a conference championship when all is said and done in 2012.

    They just need all this talent actually to translate to the field.

     

    Dallas Cowboys

    This is another team that failed to meet expectations.

    The Cowboys finished off the 2010 season by winning five of their final eight games under interim head coach Jason Garrett.

    When Garrett got the full-time gig last offseason, expectations were incredibly high in Dallas. They had the talent at the skill positions and seemed to have a few solid components on the defensive side of the ball.

    The bane of the Cowboys' existence last season was a failure to make big plays when games were on the line. Five of their eight losses came by a combined 20 points, which speaks volumes about the Cowboys' inability to perform in the clutch.

    These issues weren't solely on Tony Romo, either.

    For example, Dez Bryant struggled a great deal late in games. While the talented receiver put up 330 receiving yards in the first quarter of games last season, he barely matched that total in the second half.

    For his part, Romo performed extremely well in the fourth quarter last season. The former Pro Bowl quarterback accumulated 10 touchdowns compared to just two interceptions, good for a quarterback rating in the triple digits in the final stanza.

    Romo will have to continue that success and have other players step up if Dallas is going to make the postseason in 2012.

    2011 breakout running back DeMarco Murray appears to be at full health and will take over the regular duties in the run game from Felix Jones.

    Dallas went out there and added the best corner on the free-agent market in the form of Brandon Carr before trading up for the consensus No. 1 defensive player in the 2012 NFL draft, Morris Claiborne. Those two defensive backs promise to fortify a pass defense that struggled last year.

    The talent is there. The indicators of success are there. Dallas just needs to put it all together on a consistent basis in 2012.

    If they do, you can expect the Cowboys to challenge for the NFC East title.

     

    Washington Redskins

    The difference in talent between the 'Skins and the rest of the NFC East is apparent. Washington will not contend for a postseason spot and will probably end up in the cellar once again.

    That being said, this franchise is going in the right direction.

    The selection of Robert Griffin III has given Washington a true franchise quarterback for the first time in a quarter-century. The Baylor product is going to dazzle fans with exciting plays as a rookie and should be a Pro Bowl performer at some point in the not-so-distant future.

    The Redskins also made the decision to surround RGIII with some real talent in the passing game. Despite Washington's overpaying for both Josh Morgan and Pierre Garcon, those two are going to help the team open up its offense.

    The Redskins also have a tremendous number of young players on the defensive side of the ball. While there are issues in the secondary, mainly at safety, Washington has built a solid nucleus in the front seven.

    They might be a couple years away from true contention, but Washington is definitely heading in the right direction.

2. AFC North

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    Baltimore Ravens

    Make no mistake about it, the loss of Terrell Suggs to a torn Achilles is going to hurt the Ravens' chances to contend for a conference championship.

    The success of a 3-4 defense is predicated on solid pass rush from the outside linebacker position, and right now this is a major question mark for Baltimore.

    A combination of Courtney Upshaw, Sergio Kindle and Paul Kruger is going to have to step up for the Ravens' dominance on defense to continue.

    Also in question is the progression of Joe Flacco from pedestrian to elite quarterback. The enigmatic signal-caller struggled to stay consistent in 2011 and is going to have to step it up big time in the passing game.

    Flacco went four games without throwing a touchdown and possessed a quarterback rating of under 70 five different times in 2011. That cannot happen this season if Baltimore hopes to repeat as AFC North champions.

    The building blocks for a deep postseason run are there.

    Ray Rice has transformed into one of the best all-around running backs in the league, as evidenced by his 2,000-yard output last season.

    Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta formed a solid tight end combination, accumulating nearly 1,000 receiving yards combined.

    Torrey Smith looks to take that next step towards Pro Bowl status after nearly surpassing 900 yards as a rookie in 2011.

    This team will be in the thick of things heading into January.

    Now it is up to the players to take their games to the next level and actually take home a conference championship.

     

    Pittsburgh Steelers

    Pittsburgh was handcuffed by a bad salary-cap situation this offseason. The Steelers weren't able to go out and acquire anyone of substance in the free-agent market. While this hasn't been the M.O. of the franchise, it is important to note that there were holes that needed to be filled.

    That being said, Pittsburgh did a tremendous job in the draft.

    They brought in an immediate Pro Bowl performer at guard in the form of David DeCastro, after the Stanford product fell on draft day. Pittsburgh then went out and selected talented tackle Mike Adams from Ohio State. These two acquisitions should definitely help bolster what was a weakness last season.

    In the end, it is all about the Steelers' ability to keep Ben Roethlisberger upright. When the Pro Bowl quarterback is healthy, their offense is among the best in the league.

    The window might be closing in Pittsburgh, but the Steelers probably still have a run or two left in the tank.

     

    Cincinnati Bengals

    On the other end of the spectrum is Cincinnati, a talented young team that made amazing strides in 2011.

    Andy Dalton and A.J. Green led a young offense to a winning season and a postseason appearance after it had seemed this franchise was, once again, doomed to the cellar.

    A ragtag unit of veteran castoffs and unproven youngsters helped the Bengals defense become one of the best in the league last year. They finished in the top 10 in scoring defense.

    Now this team must take the next step toward contending for a division championship.

    Cincinnati did a great job adding more young talent to the roster via the draft. Both Dre Kirkpatrick and Kevin Zeitler should start to make immediate impacts as first-round picks. The additions of Mohamed Sanu, Marvin Jones and Orson Charles give Dalton a plethora of weapons to work with in the passing game.

    Probably more than anything, the Bengals made the smart decision to take best player available throughout the draft. This is where the additions of Brandon Thompson and Devon Still come into play. These two defensive tackles are going to make immediate impacts against the run as rotational players in the front four.

    Anyone expecting Cincinnati to take a step back in 2012 is going to be sorely mistaken. This is a team that has the right combination of veteran leadership and youthful exuberance to contend.

     

    Cleveland Browns

    The difference in talent between Cleveland and the rest of the AFC North is absolutely stunning. I am actually having a hard time believing this team is going to win one single division game all season long.

    They lack the necessary weapons to succeed in the passing game. They are replacing Colt McCoy with an unproven rookie in Brandon Weeden. They don't have a single player outside of Trent Richardson on offense that opposing defenses are going to have to plan for.

    In short, it is going to be a long season in Cleveland.

    One saving grace is the Browns defense, which ranked fifth in the NFL in scoring.

    The young talent is definitely concentrated on that side of the field. Jabaal Sheard, Joe Haden and T.J. Ward make up a strong nucleus.

1. NFC North

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    Green Bay Packers

    Make no mistake about it, Green Bay is one of the top contenders to win the Super Bowl in 2012. While the Packers' 2011 season ended in bitter disappointment after 15 regular-season victories, Green Bay is absolutely stacked on both sides of the ball.

    Aaron Rodgers had one of the best seasons in modern NFL history for a quarterback last year. He completed nearly 70 percent of his passes for nearly 4,700 yards and 45 touchdowns, en route to a stunning 122.4 quarterback rating.

    Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson combined for over 2,200 yards and two dozen touchdowns as Rodgers' go-to guys on the outside. Randall Cobb made a name for himself as a rookie and should get more action on offense.

    All the while, players such as Donald Driver and James Jones contributed a great deal.

    Green Bay will need to get a more consistent running game going in 2012, because it just cannot expect Rodgers to duplicate his absurd 2011 performance.

    Defense was another story.

    Despite having talent along all tiers of this unit, Green Bay was among the worst defenses in the entire league, especially in pass defense.

    That being said, we all know that a consistent pass rush is key to success against the pass.

    This is why the Packers selected USC product Nick Perry in the first round. He should help Clay Matthews a great deal at outside linebacker.

    The Packers will not repeat their 15-win performance from last season, but they will be right there in contention for a Super Bowl berth in January.

    You can lock that in right now.

     

    Detroit Lions

    Let's not even get into the Lions' offseason issues. At some point we just need to start focusing on what is going to happen on the football field.

    Detroit had an amazing run in 2011, making the postseason for the first time since 1999. They have the best wide receiver in the NFL in the form of Calvin Johnson and a quarterback nearing elite status in Matthew Stafford. What those two did last season was nothing short of amazing.

    Stafford surpassed 5,000 yards and 40 touchdowns in his first fully healthy season as a pro.

    Johnson, on the other hand, put up one of the best receiving seasons in the recent history of the league. Not only did he lead the NFL in yards with nearly 1,700, but Johnson also had one of the best stretches we have ever seen toward the end of the year. Over the course of the Lions' final four games, including the postseason, Johnson caught 36 passes for 771 yards and six touchdowns.

    That's simply insane.

    Detroit will need to get a more consistent running game going in order for its offense to become balanced. The Lions are also going to have to improve a great deal against the pass on defense.

    If these two things do not happen, the Lions will not take that next step. If they do, Detroit could easily contend for a conference championship.

    It really is that simple.

     

    Chicago Bears

    I think it is safe to say that the Bears are back and ready to contend for a postseason spot in 2012.

    The additions of Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery this offseason are going to go a long way in helping Jay Cutler improve in the passing game. They immediately become the Bears' two most talented receivers.

    Depending on how the Matt Forte contract situation plays out, Chicago could also have a dynamic running game. They added Michael Bush as a complementary back. The former Oakland Raider accumulated nearly 1,400 total yards last year.

    As with most teams in the NFL, it all comes down to pass protection. Cutler, who missed the final six games of the 2011 season, has been sacked sacked 140 times over the course of his last 41 starts.

    This just isn't acceptable.

    The return of 2011 first-round pick Gabe Carimi, who missed all but two games of his rookie season, should help out a great deal.

    Chicago's defense will be a strong point again in 2012.

    Brian Urlacher, Julius Peppers and Lance Briggs form one of the best trios in the entire league. The Bears also have some nice talent in the defensive secondary. This unit will definitely not be an issue moving forward.

    In reality, the protection that Cutler gets—or doesn't get—will go a long way in determining the fate of this team in 2012.

     

    Minnesota Vikings

    Once again, you have to feel sorry for another cellar-dwelling team.

    The Vikings have absolutely no shot at contention heading into 2012. They are vastly inferior to each team in the NFC North in nearly every category.

    What the Vikings hope to do is progress as a team from an absolutely dreadful 2011 campaign.

    Christian Ponder was making strides as a rookie last year and should become a more consistent performer. Adrian Peterson, despite a recent bout with the law, should be back at some point early in the season after suffering a horrible knee injury last year.

    With that being said, the Vikings are going to have to improve in both the passing game on offense and in nearly every aspect on the other side of the ball if they want to see their win total increase in 2012.

    I just don't see much hope for that right now.

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