Stock Up, Stock Down for Each NFL Team in 2012
The hustle and bustle of the NFL offseason has cooled to a simmer as training camp approaches, but there is no shortage of news.
Bounty scandals and police blotters aside, what is the outlook for each team? Will the 49ers be able to repeat their success? Did the Giants do enough to stave off their divisional rivals?
Here is the state of the NFL stock market going into the 2012 season.
The Cardinals got off to a horrendous start in 2011, exacerbated by the fact the 49ers were unbelievably good.
Arizona followed up a 1-6 start with a 7-2 finish, however, largely in part to an improved defense. They gave up 26.1 points per game (PPG) through the first seven games but just 18.3 PPG after that.
That defense returns mostly intact after the Cardinals re-signed Calais Campbell, with their biggest loss being defensive back Richard Marshall.
Of course, they still have to deal with a quarterback competition between two less-than-elite players in Kevin Kolb and John Skelton.
The former received a $7 million bonus this offseason, but that does not preclude Ken Whisenhunt from giving the latter a real chance to win the starting job during the preseason.
Arizona had a good draft as well, starting with arguably the best receiver in Michael Floyd to give Larry Fitzgerald a bona fide running mate at the position.
This might be do-or-die time for Matt Ryan, who has helped lead the Falcons to the playoffs three of his four seasons in the league only to get flushed from the postseason after just one game each time.
Atlanta certainly seems to be in "win now" mode, having traded a bundle of draft picks for Julio Jones last season and doing little to get younger since then. Aside from Jones and Ryan, the Falcons offense is headlined by Roddy White (30), Michael Turner (30 going on 37), and Tony Gonzalez (age unknown in human years).
Even their starting center Todd McClure is 35-years-old, though he will likely be pushed by third-year lineman Joe Hawley for the starting gig.
Perhaps the addition of Asante Samuel on the defense will help get them over the hump—the Falcons were 12th in total defense and 20th in passing defense last season.
If they can improve just a bit on both sides of the ball, the Falcons might finally win a playoff game. If they can do more, the sky is the limit.
Sterling Moore should be cast as the villain in Baltimore's failure to reach the Super Bowl, not Billy Cundiff. After all, the New England defensive back knocked the game-winning touchdown out of Lee Evans' hands.
Will the Ravens get over the hump?
Much like the Falcons, Baltimore is banking on the present, only the Ravens are a bit younger outside of future Hall of Famers Ray Lewis and Ed Reed.
Unfortunately, last season may have been a high point for this iteration of the Baltimore Ravens. With the loss of Ben Grubbs, Jarret Johnson, Chris Carr and Cory Redding to free agency and Terrell Suggs to an injury, the Ravens seem to be going in the wrong direction.
Joe Flacco might think he is the best quarterback in the league, but he has a long way to go.
The Bills had a similar season to the Cardinals in an eerily inverse way. They started 5-2 only to lose eight of their last nine games. Much like in Arizona, the defense had a lot to do with it.
Buffalo gave up nearly 32 PPG as it went 1-8 to finish the season, almost 11 points more per game than it gave up through its first seven. Injuries were involved, but every team deals with injuries.
As a result, the Bills were aggressive in trying to improve their defense this offseason. They succeeded.
Mario Williams signed a massive $96 million contract, and the Bills were able to land Mark Anderson as well. An improved defensive front will give the secondary a fighting chance, but adding first-round cornerback Stephon Gilmore should be a big boost as well.
The offense also flamed out during the second half of the season, though. Perhaps defenses caught up to Ryan Fitzpatrick and the rest of the league after the lockout or Fred Jackson's injury affected the offense more than we know despite C.J. Spiller's emergence. But the real problem was the offensive line.
Buffalo did little to improve the O-line in free agency, even letting Demetress Bell walk without an offer. Cordy Glenn and Zebrie Sanders were great value picks for them in the draft, however, and one of them should push to start right away.
Were it not for the New England Patriots, the Bills would be my pick to go from worst to first this season. They should be in the hunt for a playoff spot nonetheless.
A year removed from hitting rock bottom, the Panthers are firmly on the rebound with reigning Rookie of the Year Cam Newton at the helm.
Can they continue that forward momentum?
Despite Newton's emergence, the Panthers went 6-10 on the year. They were actually better when Newton was not forced to put up gaudy statistics. Why? A porous defense, naturally.
Carolina's defense was mangled by injuries to Jon Beason and Thomas Davis, but it simply was not very good—the unit gave up 26.8 PPG, 27th in the league.
Beason and Davis are back, and the Panthers drafted Luke Kuechly, making for a fearsome set of linebackers if they can stay healthy, but there are still question marks along the interior of the defensive line and at cornerback.
The Panthers have perhaps their best opportunity to pounce on the NFC South this season, with the turmoil embroiling the Saints and the Buccaneers trying to rebound themselves. They must improve on defense and hope Cam Newton is indeed not overrated.
This time, a team's late-season crash had little to do with the defense.
Da Bears were 7-3 last season before Jay Cutler injured his thumb. As you might expect, Chicago's season went down in flames after that, despite superb efforts on the part of the defense in some of those losses.
Cutler is back, and so is that defense, with some added firepower on both sides.
The trade for Cutler's old running mate and perennial 1,000-yard receiver Brandon Marshall has been well documented. The offense has a bona fide weapon on the outside for the first time in a long while, one who will help Cutler maximize his talent. Marshall's impact cannot be overstated, assuming he can keep his head on straight.
They also made some underrated moves, grabbing Michael Bush as Matt Forte's insurance policy—they would do well to get their star running back into training camp—and Jason Campbell to give Cutler a decent backup for once.
Defensively, Julius Peppers may have finally gotten a pass-rushing threat on the other side when the Bears drafted Shea McClellin. Israel Idonije was simply not getting that job done last season. A Bears defense with an improved pass rush should strike fear into the rest of the NFC North—even Aaron Rodgers is not immune to hard hits.
Chicago has been plagued by ill-timed, devastating injuries during the past two seasons. The Bears are a real threat to the Packers if they can stay healthy. Hopefully, for the offense's sake, their decision to avoid any significant moves on the line does not land Cutler on injured reserve (IR) again.
It should come as no surprise that defense keyed a playoff run in the vaunted AFC North. A division that features perennial defensive stalwarts Pittsburgh and Baltimore can add a third team to the defensive heavyweights: the Cincinnati Bengals.
Andy Dalton and the Bengals were the surprise of the 2011 season, making the playoffs in the face of criticism and bad predictions.
Dalton and fellow rookie A.J. Green were marvelous for the Bengals, but they owe their playoff berth in large part to a top-10 defense under Mike Zimmer. The Cincinnati defensive coordinator molded his unit into a solid group.
They should be even better with the addition of cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick and defensive tackle Devon Still via the draft. Kirkpatrick will push Leon Hall, who is recovering from a ruptured Achilles, for a starting spot. That defensive backfield will make things difficult for opposing receivers.
Of course, if Dalton takes a step back, Bengals fans might be in for a long season.
Butch Davis coached the Browns to a playoff berth with Tim Couch and Kelly Holcomb at the helm.
Think about that.
The year was 2002, and it was the last playoff appearance for a once-proud franchise. Nowadays, from Couch to Derek Anderson to Colt McCoy, the Browns have had no luck at quarterback since the franchise was reborn.
The next man up is Brandon Weeden, the 28-year-old rookie quarterback out of Oklahoma State. The Browns have faith in him to lead them out of the abyss, showing their trust by selecting him with the 22nd overall pick in the draft.
Of course, he will not be alone.
Cleveland took talented running back Trent Richardson with the third overall pick, and it just selected risky receiver Josh Gordon in the supplemental draft to pair with Greg Little. Weeden will also have tight ends Benjamin Watson, Evan Moore and Jordan Cameron at his disposal.
If the offense can catch up to an improving defense—a unit that was surprisingly ranked fifth and 10th in scoring and total defense, respectively, though they did allow the third-most rushing yards in the league—the Browns might make some noise.
Unfortunately, it would be drowned out in a loud AFC North.
The rebuilding process is ongoing in northern Ohio.
Stock: Bottoming out
Defense damned Dallas last season.
The Cowboys secondary was not very good last season, leading them to spend $50.1 million on Brandon Carr and trade up for Morris Claiborne in the NFL draft. Both were good moves for a team that needed a boost in the defensive backfield.
Offensively, they lost Laurent Robinson, who was a pleasant surprise for the team as their third receiver. The do not have a clear replacement for him right now, which could prove to be a problem if they lose some quality at the position.
Jason Garrett might have Jerry Jones' confidence right now, but his credit line will eventually dry up. If the Cowboys stumble in the vaunted NFC East again this year, it could be a ticket out of town for the head coach.
Talk about a charmed team.
The Broncos made the playoffs on the wings of improbable come-from-behind victories spearheaded by a 47 percent passer and a 30-year-old running back, though they did back into the playoffs with an 8-8 record.
They managed to turn their fortunes around and beat the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Wild Card Round on a heave and a prayer—all right, it was a pretty good pass against a defense that was too daring throughout the game—finally succumbing to the inevitable with a loss to the eventual AFC champion New England Patriots.
After the unexpected success of 2011, John Elway was able to convince legendary QB Peyton Manning to graduate from a Colt to a Bronco, signing the future Hall of Famer to a $96 million contract. He was able to jettison his erratic passer as a result.
Hence, in two fell swoops, the Broncos have become a serious contender, though everything rides on the health of the new 36-year-old starting quarterback. We all saw how Caleb Hanie handled the job when Jay Cutler went down last season.
For all the credit the defense got last year for being a part of those comeback victories, they ranked just 20th and 24th in total and scoring defense, respectively. That must improve if the Broncos are going to be a serious contender to retain the division crown and move on to bigger things.
Still, things are looking up in Mile High.
Do off-field issues affect teams on Sundays? The Lions will be an interesting study in that regard after six arrests this year. Hopefully no more are in store for Jim Schwartz.
The Lions were one of the league's surprises last season. (Note: The author picked the 2011 Lions to make the playoffs, so it was not a surprise to him.) Matthew Stafford lit up the league in his first healthy season as Detroit's starter, throwing for over 5,000 yards as the fifth quarterback in history to do so.
It was the porous pass defense that ultimately doomed the Lions, however. They hope that Jacob Lacey or rookie Dwight Bentley can do what Eric Wright could not last season.
If the Lions can remained focused, they should be in the playoff hunt once again. Schwartz has a tall task ahead of him, however.
Green Bay Packers
Aaron Rodgers is entering his prime. Ponder this and tremble with delight in Wisconsin and fear elsewhere.
Not only is Rodgers in his prime, but he has dealt with some horrendous offensive line play in recent years. Unfortunately, the Packers did little to fix that situation, their only move being signing Jeff Saturday to replace Scott Wells.
Hopefully, Rodgers can stay upright this coming season.
Rodgers had little to do with Green Bay's postseason flameout last season, however. The defense was a shell of its 2011 self, despite having retained most of its personnel. Injuries did not help, but the pass rush was simply not there, which put extra pressure on the secondary.
The Packers aimed to solve that by drafting Nick Perry and Jerel Worthy to bolster that defensive front.
If that defense can return to form, the Packers stand an excellent chance to follow up a near-perfect season with another Super Bowl trip.
After years of agony and frustration, the Houston Texans finally broke the seal on the postseason. Unfortunately, their playoff run was bittersweet after injuries to key players.
Matt Schaub was knocked out for the season with a foot injury, and Matt Leinart broke his collarbone in his first game as a replacement. That meant the Texans were forced to throw fifth-round draft pick T.J. Yates into the fire.
All things considered, the rookie performed admirably, helping the Texans reach the playoffs and even win their wild-card matchup against the surprising Bengals.
Schaub returns, but injury concerns abound for him and wide receiving stud Andre Johnson. Though the Texans are a run-heavy team featuring Arian Foster and Ben Tate, Schaub and Johnson are vital to this team's success.
Unfortunately, the offseason saw the departure of Mario Williams—who was not an ideal fit in the new 3-4 defense—and Eric Winston, DeMeco Ryans, Joel Dreessen and Lawrence Vickers, all good-to-great players.
Their draft was not bad, though they are taking a chance replacing Williams with Whitney Mercilus, who was a one-year wonder at Illinois.
The Texans have a good team despite personnel losses, and their path to a division championship should be relatively easy, though Tennessee will put up a good fight. If they can stay healthy, another playoff run is in store.
There is nowhere to go but up for the Colts.
After seeing his team go 2-14 without Peyton Manning, Jim Irsay felt compelled to let his franchise quarterback go as Indianapolis headed in a new direction.
Andrew Luck takes the reins now for a team in full rebuild mode.
The Colts did a nice job laying the new cornerstones of the franchise this offseason. They landed Luck with the top overall pick and then took his safety blanket Coby Fleener in the second round. All in all, the Colts took eight offensive players in the draft while virtually abandoning the defense.
They are saving that part for next season.
Shad Khan bought the Jaguars at the end of last season. That was nice.
He let Gene Smith stick around as general manager, however, which might prove to be a bad decision considering the offseason the Jaguars have had.
Smith pledged to attempt to improve Jacksonville's worst position: wide receiver. He did so by signing a journeyman to a big contract and drafting a polarizing wideout with a top-five pick in the draft.
Though Smith had no way of knowing Justin Blackmon would get himself arrested for an aggravated DUI—aside from his previous arrest for DUI, of course—the incident was somewhat metaphorical for Jacksonville's offseason.
Setting aside free agency and draft-day blunders, the Jaguars hope Blaine Gabbert has put his horrific rookie season behind him and improves in his second season. That might be wishful thinking, but players have bounced back from worse.
The only things that kept the Jaguars from being at the absolute bottom of the league last season were a top-six defense—one that returns most of its starters for 2012—and a great running game thanks largely to Maurice Jones-Drew.
Jones-Drew is embroiled in a contract dispute with the team that threatens to keep him out of training camp, which could be detrimental to him and the offense (see: Chris Johnson, 2011 Titans). It is likely he will return sooner than later, though, and the Jaguars have a capable backup returning from injury in Rashad Jennings.
All in all, the Jaguars seem to have their wheels stuck in the mud right now. Much of it rides on the development of their young starting quarterback, who might not have the pocket presence to be effective in this league.
Put it this way: If Chad Henne starts a game for any other reason than injury, the Jaguars season has already been lost.
Kansas City Chiefs
A year removed from a playoff berth, the Chiefs rebounded from devastating injuries to Eric Berry, Jamaal Charles and later Tony Moeaki and Matt Cassel to finish the season 7-9, just one game back of division winner Denver.
Head coach Todd Haley was fired in the process, and Kansas City retained his interim successor, Romeo Crennel. The defensive-minded coach went 2-1 over the final three games, beating playoff-bound Green Bay and Denver while allowing just 11 PPG in that span.
The Chiefs had a good offseason, signing Eric Winston to upgrade the right tackle position and Stanford Routt to replace the departed Brandon Carr. They may have reached on Dontari Poe in the draft, but he will fit their 3-4 defense nicely. Overall, they had a solid draft that went under the radar.
Kansas City will be getting its studs back from injury as well, which should make it a serious contender to reclaim the AFC West crown. It will not be an easy fight in that division.
A new regime is in town, but somehow Jeff "Fireland" survived.
The Dolphins are wallowing in mediocrity right now, a common theme for a team that has struggled to remain relevant in recent seasons.
Ticket sales are down, and the team has become the butt of jokes in recent years. They did little to change that perception this offseason.
Jeff Fisher and Peyton Manning rejected Miami's overtures, leaving Miami with Joe Philbin and David Garrard instead.
The Dolphins selected Ryan Tannehill with the eighth overall pick, a reach in the eyes of many.
Things are not looking good in South Florida, to the point where Stephen Ross gladly opened the door when Hard Knocks came knocking.
Not all was bad this offseason, however. Aside from the Tannehill pick—one Ireland had to make in light of the team's quarterback situation—the Dolphins had a great draft, grabbing Jonathan Martin and Lamar Miller with great values.
The Joe Philbin hire was also widely praised around the league, and he has done a good job thus far.
Still, Miami has the look of a NFL bottom-feeder right now, though a good defense will prevent it from sinking all the way to the floor. The Dolphins might have a shot at proving their critics wrong if one of their quarterbacks can step up and play well.
That might be wishful thinking.
The Vikings lost a lot of close games last season, but a loss is a loss. That helped them nab the third overall pick in the draft, which they shrewdly traded to the Cleveland Browns for more picks.
In the end, the Vikings wound up with a franchise left tackle in Matt Kalil, a starting safety in Harrison Smith, a speedy cornerback in Josh Robinson and a pair of receivers to develop in Jarius Wright and Greg Childs.
In the end, is Christian Ponder the man to lead this team back from the cellar? The Vikings certainly believe so.
He played well in spurts last season, but the Vikings were just 2-8 in his starts. Hopefully a full offseason will help him take that step forward.
Of course, it would be great if Adrian Peterson was back and fully healthy. The stud running back is targeting a Week 1 comeback despite tearing his ACL and MCL on Christmas Eve last year. Hopefully he is not pushing his recovery, risking another injury.
Counting on him to return that early and be effective might be asking too much, but the Vikings can use all the help they can get.
New England Patriots
Fall down. Get back up. Dust yourself off. Get better.
The Patriots might have taken it on the chin from the Giants once again this past February, but if there is one team that might be immune to Super Bowl hangovers, it is the Patriots.
Even looking back at 2008, after losing to the Giants the first time, New England still racked up 11 wins and just missed out on the playoffs due to a tiebreaker. With Matt Cassel.
The Patriots are locked and reloaded once again, bringing Brandon Lloyd into the fold on an already loaded offense. Assuming Wes Welker plays amidst his contract dispute, Brady will have an arsenal rivaling a small island nation's.
Of course, the defense was a big problem for the Patriots last season, one that surely kept defensive-minded Bill Belichick up at night. New England simply did not have the personnel to run his hybrid 3-4/4-3 defense effectively, though his alignment and game plan masked deficiencies.
He hopes to have changed that with a solid draft that saw them take Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower in the first round.
Regardless, as long as Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are together, this team will be tough to beat.
New Orleans Saints
The Saints ended their season in an epic playoff battle against the San Francisco 49ers that went down to the wire. They simply had no answers for Vernon Davis in that game as he ran amok, catching the game-winning touchdown and propelling the 49ers to the NFC championship game.
New Orleans looked to remedy that issue this offseason, signing linebackers Chris Chamberlain, David Hawthorne and Curtis Lofton to bolster their linebacking corps.
It also re-signed Marques Colston and managed to mitigate the loss of Carl Nicks by signing Ben Grubbs away from the Ravens.
Of course, none of this matters if the Saints cannot get their biggest priority squared away: New Orleans must re-sign Drew Brees.
The franchise savior and reigning Offensive Player of the Year has done everything on and off the field to merit his payday, but he cannot come to terms with what the Saints are offering. The two sides are reportedly $10 million apart, and Brees will not be attending training camp until they can come to an agreement.
The likelihood that Drew Brees will be starting for the Saints in Week 1 is nearly 100 percent—barring injury, of course—but the sooner they get him into camp the better.
(Hey, I made it through this post without mentioning the bounty scandal!) (D'oh!)
UPDATE: ESPN reports Brees and the Saints have agreed to a deal.
New York Giants
It is difficult to get much higher than hoisting the Lombardi Trophy.
New York's stock is soaring—the blue chip, not gang green—after defeating the favored New England Patriots in the Super Bowl again. Whether they can keep that stock up or not is a good question heading into 2012.
The Giants did not get worse this past offseason despite losing Brandon Jacobs and Mario Manningham. David Wilson and Rueben Randle will fill their roles admirably, even if differently.
They lost Jake Ballard to the nemesis Patriots, but he was likely going to be out for most of the season with a knee injury, and they signed Martellus Bennett away from the Cowboys to fill that void. (Note: A 291-pound tight end can certainly fill a big void.)
Eli Manning is in his prime and seems to have figured out that whole "elite quarterback" thing once and for all.
So why would the Giants falter in 2012?
Well, the NFC East has done its best to catch up. The Giants did barely make the playoffs last season with a 9-7 record, just one game ahead of the Cowboys and Eagles. Both of those rivals have improved this offseason, at least on paper, and the Redskins are not going to be an easy out.
The Giants must improve defensively if they are going to make the postseason again, let alone another Super Bowl run. They were ranked 25th and 27th in scoring and total defense, respectively, last season. They will need the defensive line to stay healthy and the secondary to improve.
New York Jets
What are we to make of the New York Jets?
On the one hand, they have a great defense anchored by the best cornerback in the league. On the other, their offense is led by two overrated quarterbacks.
Indeed, Mark Sanchez has improved statistically each year in the league, but a closer look will show you that he has simply gotten better volume.
He had his career-best completion percentage in 2011, but 56.7 will not cut it in the NFL. His yards per attempt (YPA) have actually gone down each year in the league, bottoming out at 6.4 last season. Sanchez has been the second-worst quarterback in the league in two of his three seasons according to Pro Football Focus.
The fourth-year man out of USC has had his moments, but he will need to take a big leap to carry this team forward. Unfortunately, he might be compromised by the presence of Tim Tebow on the roster.
Aside from personal punt protector, Tebow will get on the field at quarterback in specific packages, which will eat away at Sanchez's playing time. Should the incumbent falter in a game or two this season, the catcalls for Tebow will begin.
Is this a recipe for success?
The organization seems to think so. It will be interesting to find out.
These aren't Al Davis' Raiders anymore.
Well, aside from all the speed guys still littering the roster.
Reggie McKenzie has taken over out of Green Bay, and he has brought his philosophy with him. Gone are the days of trading away future picks and drafting for speed, and it was evident in McKenzie's first draft with the team.
Antithetical to the previous several decades, Oakland's draft featured two defensive linemen, two linebackers, one offensive lineman and a possession receiver. They managed to add picks by trading down rather than the opposite.
While the Raiders hemorrhaged players in free agency, they retained a good core on both sides of the ball.
The offense should continue to be good as Carson Palmer actually gets a chance to practice with the team before getting thrown out there a few weeks removed from retirement, and he has a host of weapons to throw to.
Hopefully Darren McFadden can stay healthy for once as well. Particularly for fantasy owners around the league.
The Eagles won free agency just a year ago, and look where that got them.
A team with Super Bowl expectations fell far short of those goals last season as they stumbled out of the gate. Injuries and a terrible middle to that defense ultimately doomed the team, though they wound up just one game back of the eventual Super Bowl-winning Giants.
Things have been far more quiet this offseason for the Eagles, who look to bounce back from the Dream Team debacle.
They look to have done just that, nailing the draft and filling holes when necessary. DeMeco Ryans should be the middle linebacker they were missing last season, and Fletcher Cox will boost a good defensive front even more.
Philadelphia has a good shot at overtaking the New York Giants in the division, but it must stay healthy to do so.
Eagles fans will also be pleased the team did not ax Andy Reid.
Being sacked the most times over the past six years has got to hurt.
Ben Roethlisberger was a one-legged man by the end of last season thanks to a horrendous offensive line. The Steelers wound up losing in the first round of the playoffs to the Denver Tebows, and Big Ben's injury likely played a role.
Thankfully, for him and the Steelers, the team has done something about it this offseason. They stole guard David DeCastro with the 24th overall pick and then took tackle Mike Adams—whom many had mocked to the Steelers in the first round—in the second.
With Willie Colon moving to left guard, the offensive line will be sporting a major makeover that is sure to give Roethlisberger a bit more time in the pocket on average.
The Steelers are perennial stalwarts on defense, and there is little reason to believe they will not be again in 2012.
San Diego Chargers
After a decade of playoff contention, the Chargers could not recover from another slow start and missed the 2011 postseason.
Has the Super Bowl window been slammed shut for the organization?
This is not a new question, and on the surface it seems like the question was answered with San Diego's failures last season.
Upon further inspection, though, the answer is still up in the air.
Despite a down season, Philip Rivers is still in his prime. He may have looked off last year, but he improved as the season went on—not coincidentally, Jared Gaither's arrival and solidifying Rivers' blind side coincided with his improvement—and wound up just 86 yards shy of his career high.
His YPA took a hit, and he threw a career-high 20 interceptions, but he threw just six of those in the second half of the season. Again, Gaither's presence seemed to help, as Rivers had his four best games in terms of NFL rating after the big left tackle's arrival. The 30-year-old QB was sacked just twice with Gaither in the lineup compared to 28 other times.
Gaither was re-signed, surely to his quarterback's relief, and the Chargers have reloaded. Though Robert Meachem and Le'Ron McClain are not quite Vincent Jackson and Mike Tolbert, the offense should keep ticking.
Notice we have yet to discuss the defense, which will also need to improve from its middle-of-the-road ranking last season. With Peyton Manning and Carson Palmer in the division and the Chiefs getting healthy, San Diego must get better.
The defensive front took a step in that direction when San Diego signed Jarret Johnson and drafted Melvin Ingram. The Chargers hope to improve their pass-rush from a year ago, and Ingram is a good candidate to do that.
Of course, the team may be doomed no matter what as long as Norv Turner is the head coach if his track record is any indication. Perhaps this is the year Turner will get the monkey off his back.
It will not be easy with an improved AFC West to contend with.
San Francisco 49ers
Encores are not easy in today's NFL, particularly from a surprising team. If any coach can coax one out of his team, though, it is Jim Harbaugh from the 49ers.
To repeat their success from a year ago, the 49ers must improve on offense. Alex Smith was surprisingly efficient if not explosive, tossing just five interceptions in a resurgent year. All that got him was a seat at the kids' table this offseason as San Francisco entered the fray to sign Peyton Manning.
Smith ultimately re-signed with the 49ers after little interest from elsewhere around the league, and the 49ers rewarded him by signing Randy Moss and Mario Manningham and drafting A.J. Jenkins.
Smith said it felt like "Christmas." There is merit to his sentiment considering some of the receivers he has had to deal with in his tenure with the 49ers.
If Smith can improve with his new toys, the 49ers will be a force to be reckoned with once again. They boasted the league's second-best scoring defense last season, and there is little reason to think they will not be dominant once again.
Seattle has been sneaking up on the NFL in recent seasons. It made some dubious headlines two seasons ago when it made the playoffs at 7-9 and then shocked the world by beating the Saints in the Wild Card Round.
The Seahawks were not able to improve on that record last season, but this is a young team with a solid defense. They were seventh in the league, allowing just 19.7 PPG. They have a great defensive front including Red Bryant, Brandon Mebane, Chris Clemons and rookie Bruce Irvin, whom the Seahawks hope will be the sack artist he was in college.
Of course, they have to perform well on offense as well if they are going to get anywhere out west.
They made sure to retain the man at the end of the Skittles rainbow, Marshawn Lynch, although hopefully his shiny new contract does not mean he will regress.
Their biggest question mark is at quarterback, where Pete Carroll is staging a three-man battle. The likelihood that third-round pick Russell Wilson will win the job in the preseason is low, however, so it becomes a two-horse race between incumbent Tarvaris Jackson and free-agent signing Matt Flynn.
Thus far, Flynn has done nothing to win the job, but teams have not put the pads on yet. Jackson will open camp as the starter by virtue of seniority on the team, and it is up to Flynn to overtake him.
Are any of these guys going to be Aaron Rodgers for this team? No, no they are not. But they might be better than you think.
Stock: Creeping up
St. Louis Rams
If ever "sophomore slump" was epitomized, Sam Bradford's second season would be a prime candidate.
Granted, Bradford's receivers seemed to apply nonstick cooking spray to their gloves before each game, but the 2010 first overall pick did not look very good himself in his second campaign with the Rams.
Bradford and his receivers were not the only issues for the Rams last season, however.
The defense was ravaged by injuries, particularly in the defensive backfield, where the team's top six cornerbacks were knocked out for the season at various points in the year.
Ironically, it was the rush defense that was terrible—the Rams allowed the second-most rushing yards and fifth-most rushing touchdowns last season. A poor set of defensive tackles had a lot to do with that.
That has all changed.
St. Louis experienced perhaps the biggest overhaul this offseason, starting with Jeff Fisher. The veteran coach joined the Rams with a great chance to right the ship straight away.
The Rams also addressed their most glaring needs aggressively. It started at cornerback, where they signed Cortland Finnegan to a big contract. They continued upgrading the position by drafting Janoris Jenkins in the second round and will also be getting Bradley Fletcher and Jerome Murphy back from injury.
The interior of the line got a boost as well when the Rams signed Kendall Langford and drafted Michael Brockers.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
A year removed from an improbable 10-6 record, the Buccaneers crashed back to earth. Raheem Morris was exiled, and the Bucs brought in college coach Greg Schiano.
Will a fresh face help these young Bucs?
Kellen Winslow doesn't seem to think so.
Personnel-wise, however, Tampa Bay had a nice season. Aside from overpaying a bad cornerback in Eric Wright, the Buccaneers signed free-agent prizes Vincent Jackson and Carl Nicks to big deals.
They followed that up with a nice draft that saw them land Mark Barron and Doug Martin, two starters on this team.
Tennessee actually tied for the final playoff spot with a 9-7 record but missed out on the postseason because of tiebreakers.
Despite Bud Adams' ill-fated pursuit of Peyton Manning, Jake Locker is the future of this franchise. Hopefully, for the Titans' sake, he will prove that during training camp and the preseason, as Matt Hasselbeck still stands in his way.
Whoever ends up under center certainly has a bevy of weapons at his disposal. If Kenny Britt can stay healthy and out of trouble, the Titans will have three good receivers for Lockselbeck to throw to, not to mention Jared Cook, who may as well be a receiver where he lines up most of the time.
They also have a man named Chris Johnson, who has vowed to return to his pre-holdout form. Perhaps the addition of veteran Steve Hutchinson will help the running game, as Johnson has not exactly seen gaping holes open up for him in the past couple of seasons.
The Titans lost out on plenty of free agents as they awaited Manning's decision, but they managed to snag Kamerion Wimbley for their defense.
With Indianapolis rebuilding and Jacksonville reeling, the Titans have a shot at catching the Texans in the division. The stars might have to align for that to happen, but Matt Schaub might have just injured himself trying to mow his lawn.
What's this? An air of optimism in Washington, D.C.?
The Redskins have been mired in mediocrity for 20 years, making the playoffs just four times in that span. Lacking a franchise quarterback for most of that time—Mark Rypien fell off considerably after leading the Redskins to a Super Bowl victory in 1992—Washington clamored for one with a real chance to lead it back to the promised land.
No pressure, Robert Griffin III.
Expectations are high for the rookie out of Baylor after the Redskins paid a handsome price to move up four spots in the NFL draft to take him.
While expecting a Cam Newton-like rookie season is ludicrous, Griffin should have a good year considering he is surrounded by talented players.
This is a team heading in the right direction. If only the Redskins didn't play in the NFC East, they might actually get somewhere this year.
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