NFL Predictions: 32 Reasons Every Team Has Hope in 2012
As NFL training camp gets underway, every team has the same record.
Fan boys and girls everywhere with an impenetrable bias will tell you why their team will go to the playoffs or even the Super Bowl. You'll roll your eyes, shake your head, and laugh.
For this season, however, those typically nutty notions may not be as far fetched as usual.
Whether it was hitting a home run in the draft, scoring key free agents, or keeping a valuable nucleus intact, not many teams have the look of cellar dwellers this year.
It is allegedly the year of the apocalypse, but here are 32 reasons fans of every NFL team should be excited and optimistic in 2012.
Reason: The savior from Stanford
Why it's enough to be excited: It's amazing what a franchise quarterback can do. The consensus among NFL scouts is that Luck is the most pro-ready QB in years.
Luck was able to develop under Jim Harbaugh for the majority of his college career. That alone would be enough to prepare for a moderately successful career at the next level.
As we all know, though, Luck is also incredibly talented and has the mental makeup to go with his ideal collegiate foundation. He was the key player in turning around the Stanford football program, and will be the driving force behind a new era for the Colts' organization.
The Colts accommodated Luck's wishes to select tight end Coby Fleener in the second round of this year's draft. Fleener was Luck's college roommate, as has been well-documented.
Along with third-round pick Dwayne Allen, Luck has two viable targets that can develop and grow with him.
He also relied heavily on tight ends in his senior year of college, so there will be a bit of continuity in that regard.
Not to mention, Reggie Wayne is on the outside and can produce no matter who is under center.
Although defensive depth is still a huge question mark for the Colts, having the savvy Luck guide an efficient offense could benefit the defense significantly.
It may be difficult to imagine how last year's worst team could make such a big leap the next year with a rookie signal-caller, but Luck isn't your average rookie.
According to offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, Luck just "gets it."
St. Louis Rams
Reason: A new, dynamic cornerback duo
Why it's enough to be excited: With so many dangerous passing attacks in the league today, the value of the secondary is higher than ever.
Although the Rams had the seventh-ranked pass defense in 2011, they have managed to get even better in that area.
New head coach Jeff Fisher was a cornerback himself in the NFL, and has produced quality players at the position. He brought over Cortland Finnegan, whom he coached with the Tennessee Titans.
Thereafter, the troubled but talented Janoris Jenkins fell in the Rams' lap early in the second round of the draft.
Fisher has dealt with players who have had off-field issues before, but after being dismissed from the University of Florida and playing a season at North Alabama, Jenkins shouldn't be too much trouble.
Jenkins sat down for a candid pre-draft interview with draftcountdown.com's Scott Wright to talk about the humbling experience of transferring to a Division II school:
"I decided to go to North Alabama because I didn't want to run from my problems. I had done things that I wanted to face up to as a man and I wanted to go...[to] show everyone that I'm not the kid they say I am."
The bolstered secondary, along with third-round pick Trumaine Johnson, should alleviate the pressure on the rest of the defense.
Defensive tackle Michael Brockers was selected in round one to shore up a 31st-ranked rush defense, whose numbers were awful mainly due to the ineptitude of the offense.
Long stretches on the field resulted in the defensive unit getting gashed on the ground, and may have been why the pass defense numbers looked much better by comparison.
The amount of time the Rams will be able to cover will improve the entire defense, and the entire team.
As long as the offense improves—it should if it stays healthy—the revamped Rams secondary could provide a legitimate top-five pass defense this season.
In an NFC West division with spotty quarterback play, this could be a huge asset.
Reason: A full offseason for Christian Ponder
Why it's enough to be excited: The Vikings would not have invested a first-round pick in the former Florida State QB if they didn't think he could be the long-term answer at the position.
On a team with a decimated secondary, a suspect offensive line and a shortened offseason, Ponder didn't have much success as a rookie.
The plan was to keep Donovan McNabb as the starter until Ponder was ready, but McNabb's poor play thrust Ponder into the saddle perhaps prematurely.
Ponder showed enough flashes last season to justify where he was selected in the draft, and he has plenty of assets at his disposal to lead the Vikings to a successful season.
Top receiver and explosive playmaker Percy Harvin was second-guessing his commitment to the organization, reportedly demanding a trade. However, after consultation with head coach Leslie Frazier, Harvin appears to have changed his tune. He will report to training camp, which is a huge plus for Ponder.
Assuming superstar running back Adrian Peterson can recover from his gruesome knee injury suffered at the end of 2011, Ponder will have a strong running game to lean on.
Kyle Rudolph is also an emerging stud at tight end, and will be counted on heavily in his second year as a pro.
The pieces are in place for Ponder to succeed. Frazier's defensive genius will hopefully result in an improved unit this season.
With a full offseason this time around and certainty of being "the man" in 2012, Ponder should at least make the Vikings more competitive despite the tough competition within the division.
Reason: Overnight offense
Why it's enough to be excited: From the 2012 draft alone, the Browns made significant improvements to the foundation of a putrid offensive unit.
Injuries on the offensive line certainly didn't help in 2011, as well as having a No. 1 wide receiver who hadn't played football for an entire year.
A new coaching staff and a new system, along with a lockout-shortened offseason, spelled disaster for the Browns.
However, the following exchanges should massively upgrade the offense:
Trent Richardson for Montario Hardesty at running back, Brandon Weeden for Colt McCoy at quarterback and Mitchell Schwartz for Tony Pashos at right tackle.
A former second-round pick, Hardesty has blown out both knees and has been a minimum impact player, while Richardson is widely considered the most talented rookie back since Adrian Peterson.
The nightmarish situation of last year plagued McCoy after a promising rookie campaign. Weeden brings prototypical size and arm strength to combat NFL adversity better than McCoy.
Pashos tried to play last season with a ruptured tendon, according to Cleveland Plain Dealer beat writer Mary Kay Cabot. He has been cut and already underwent season-ending surgery.
If Schwartz's early showing is any indication, he will fill in exceptionally right away at right tackle.
All-Pro tackle Joe Thomas has a great first impression of Schwartz already, and praised him in an interview with the Akron Beacon Journal's Nate Ulrich:
“He’s in the meeting room already making calls and answering questions that, frankly, as a rookie, I’m kind of surprised he knows the answers to.”
Then there's the addition of Josh Gordon in the supplemental draft.
All in all, four big pieces were added to what was a stagnant, predictable offense.
Depending on the impact each rookie can have, along with a stellar Dick Jauron-coached defense, the Browns may be in for a massive, immediate improvement.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Reason: Most aggressive front office of the offseason
Why it's enough to be excited: It's amazing the difference a year makes in the NFL, and no one has undergone as much change this offseason as the Bucs.
After being one of the hottest teams at the end of the 2010 season and starting last year off at 4-2, the Bucs lost 10 straight.
The franchise then showed head coach Raheem Morris the door, and brought in Greg Schiano from Rutgers University. GM Mark Dominik had the second-most salary cap room in the league to work with, and he spared no expense.
In free agency, the Bucs signed No. 1 target Vincent Jackson, and also acquired Pro Bowl guard Carl Nicks. After a down year, talented tight end Kellen Winslow was traded to the Seahawks, and the team picked up Dallas Clark.
While I would argue overpaying for cornerback Eric Wright was a mistake, the Bucs definitely required help in the secondary.
That need was further addressed in the draft, as Alabama safety Mark Barron was selected at No. 8 overall. He will be an upgrade after lackluster safety play from the likes of Sean Jones, Corey Lynch, Cody Grimm and the especially disappointing Tanard Jackson.
The Bucs traded down from the fifth slot to draft Barron, but traded back into the first round to take Boise State running back Doug Martin.
Lavonte David of Nebraska was the team's second round pick, and will step in right away to shore up the linebacker corps and the NFL's 32nd ranked rush defense.
Rick Stroud of the Tampa Bay Times reports that quarterback Josh Freeman is rededicated to his craft at quarterback.
Freeman is in the best physical shape of his life after losing 20 pounds this offseason.
The bold acquisitions expect to have an instant impact, but the returning starters are seeking redemption from a nightmare finish in 2011.
Such a drastic talent influx will go a long way in accomplishing just that.
Reason: Robert Griffin III
Why it's enough to be excited: Owner Dan Snyder seems to have a "One Best Way" philosophy on building a team, which is to be as aggressive as possible.
The costly trade necessary to draft Griffin, though, is far removed from other boneheaded moves of the past.
Seeing as how quarterback is the make-or-break position for every NFL franchise, the Redskins saw an opportunity to grab the answer they've desperately been seeking for years.
It was no surprise Griffin was considered a more attractive option than incumbents Rex Grossman and John Beck. Moving forward, head coach Mike Shanahan has himself the most physically gifted and athletic quarterback to come along since Michael Vick.
What Griffin brings to the table is unbelievable speed, a cannon arm with touch on the deep pass and a wonderful perspective for someone just entering the league.
Griffin shared his thoughts after Wednesday's practice about being the so-called face of the franchise:
“There really is no true face of the franchise, because if we just had faces, we’d all be dead. You’ve gotta have a heart, some legs, some skin. That’s those guys in there. I’m just the mask. Those guys are the body of the real team”
The Heisman Trophy winner sounds like a team player despite his high status as the No. 2 overall pick.
The talent around Griffin is also exceptional.
Wide receivers Pierre Garcon, Josh Morgan and Santana Moss, H-back Chris Cooley, and tight end Fred Davis give the new QB viable targets to get the ball to.
Even with those weapons at their disposal, Grossman and Beck have proven to be relatively ineffective quarterbacks no matter the situation.
With Griffin, it will be a different story.
Reason: Receiving help for Blaine Gabbert
Why it's enough to be excited: Even the NFL's leading rusher Maurice Jones-Drew and a Top 10 defense couldn't prevent Gabbert from struggling as a rookie.
The 2011 No. 10 overall pick was a massive disappointment in his first season, but the receivers he threw to weren't exactly stupendous.
Mike Thomas was the only dependable target on the outside, and tight end Marcedes Lewis was inconsistent and didn't provide much help.
This offseason, the Jags made a splash by drafting Justin Blackmon and also netted Laurent Robinson in free agency, who enjoyed a monster season with the Dallas Cowboys.
The young 1-2 punch should provide some relief for Gabbert, and the addition of head coach Mike Mularkey should also benefit every receiver on the roster. Mularkey is known for being a bright offensive mind, and also played receiver in the league for nine seasons.
Training camp will certainly be interesting with Jones-Drew holding out, as he hopes to land a new contract. It may hinder offensive chemistry early on, but the Jags will likely end up paying MJD eventually.
Blackmon hasn't finalized a deal yet either, but such an agreement is inevitable.
What is certain is that the offensive side of the ball looks more promising for the Jags.
Reason: Championship-caliber characteristics
Why it's enough to be excited: Running the ball and stopping the run are usually the ingredients to win a championship.
That blueprint may cause some skepticism. The New York Giants just blew it up, winning the Super Bowl with the league's worst rushing attack and allowing 121 yards per game on the ground.
Nevertheless, the Dolphins have a chance to have a great season by controlling time of possession.
With Jake Long at left tackle, Steinbach and Mike Pouncey at center, the Dolphins will definitely have the ability to run left. Second-round pick Jonathan Martin will likely start at right tackle, too.
The quarterback's blindside will also be well covered this season. Whether it ends up being Matt Moore, David Garrard or No. 8 pick Ryan Tannehill remains to be seen.
On defense, linebacker Karlos Dansby leads the way. He is possibly the most under-appreciated player at his position, considering he's never made a Pro Bowl despite an impressive career.
Two draft picks from the hometown University of Miami will help the running game on both sides: explosive running back Lamar Miller, and talented DE/OLB Olivier Vernon.
After ranking 11th in rushing offense and third in defending the run, the additions to the Dolphins roster could improve those impressive numbers in 2012.
Reason: Superman's Sophomore Season
Why it's enough to be excited: Few non-playoff storylines—if any—were more exciting than Cam Newton's rookie season.
Despite a condensed offseason, the pressure of being the No. 1 overall pick, and fielding tons of criticism for how raw of a passer he was, Newton obliterated rookie passing records out of the gates.
Not to mention, he utilized his uncommon mobility to run for over 750 yards and 14 touchdowns.
It's year two, and Newton doesn't seem like the type to succumb to a sophomore slump.
The abysmal Panthers defense will be revived by the return of emotional leader Jonathan Beason from injury.
Also, first-round pick Luke Kuechly has garnered extremely high praise from NFL.com's Mike Mayock.
In his draft profile of Kuechly, Mayock remarks that the linebacker may have the best instincts and pass-coverage ability he's ever seen in a college prospect.
An improved defense will definitely help. However, all eyes will be on Newton, who has the opportunity to become the top quarterback in the league in just his second year.
If the beginning is any indication, Newton may revolutionize the way quarterback is played in the NFL.
Two teams in the NFC South are in serious flux, and one team can't seem to get over the hump.
Considering his decision-making and accuracy is almost guaranteed to progress, Newton could easily spark the Panthers to a playoff appearance.
Reason: Super Mario and the terrifying D-Line
Why it's enough to be excited: Marcel Dareus, Mario Williams, and a healthy Kyle Williams?
Talk about some big men on the defensive front four.
Defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt will have some creative latitude for this group, and will return the unit to a 4-3 scheme.
Dareus had 5.5 sacks as a rookie lining up at nose tackle. Kyle Williams is a two-time Pro Bowler who looks to bounce back after a nagging foot injury forced him onto Injured Reserve after Week 9.
The biggest free agency splash of the offseason, though, arguably goes to the Bills for picking up Super Mario. A six-year, $100 million contract brought the big man to B-Lo from the Houston Texans.
Mario Williams returns to his natural position of defensive end, and the personnel the Bills have now matches their defensive scheme.
After a promising start, the Bills dropped eight of their final nine games in 2011. The defense allowed just over 27 points per game, third worst in the NFL.
The struggles on defense seem to be a thing of the past with Super Mario in the fold.
Kansas City Chiefs
Reason: Star players return
Why it's enough to be excited: Rewind to a little less than a year ago.
Stud safety Eric Berry tore his ACL in Week 1. So say it was a bad omen of things to come for the Chiefs would be the understatement of the century.
Breakout tight end Tony Moeaki had already suffered the same fate in the preseason. To make matters worse, Jamaal Charles tore his ACL in the second regular season game.
Needless to say, the Chiefs had a rocky season that included the firing of head coach Todd Haley.
Oh, and did I mention QB Matt Cassel was also placed on injured reserve?
The silver lining to such an unmitigated disaster is that the Chiefs have one of the most talented young rosters in football, along with a more player-friendly head coach in Romeo Crennel.
Berry, Charles, Moeaki and Cassel will all be ready to go to start the year.
The Chiefs looked to be on the right track after a playoff berth in 2010, until a last-place finish in the AFC West and the array of injuries delivered in blindsiding fashion.
The division is wide open, as no team ended the previous year with a winning record. Although every team seemed to improve, the Chiefs have the most talent on their side.
Reason: Best young secondary in the league
Why it's enough to be excited: Earl Thomas may get all the attention as far as young stars on Seattle's defense, but the rest of the defensive backfield has plenty more to offer.
Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman stand at 6'4" and 6'3", respectively. These physical, sizable cornerbacks provide one of the league's best up and coming duos.
Browner got his first NFL action in six years after toiling away as an All-Star in the Canadian Football League. He came up big with six interceptions last season which landed him in the Pro Bowl.
According to Nathan Jahnke of Pro Football Focus, Sherman is a secret superstar.
Even without his expert opinion, I agreed with that notion a while back based on his background at the University of Stanford.
And yes, I really do hope Sherman is dubbed, "The Shermanator." It will catch on, I swear.
While that trio is incredible in and of itself, don't sleep on strong safety Kam Chancellor, with emphasis on the strong.
Chancellor is 6'3", 232 lbs. and made the most recent Pro Bowl along with Thomas.
So let's see—three players coming off Pro Bowl seasons, and a "secret superstar."
The Seahawks may change their mascot to the Ballhawks with this many studs on the back end.
Reason: Patrick Peterson's ascent
Why it's enough to be excited: With four punt return touchdowns in his first season, Peterson showed how dangerous he can be with the ball in his hands.
The position he was drafted to play, however, was more of a mixed bag in terms of success. Matt Hogue of Pro Football Focus points out some fascinating trends in Peterson's numbers at cornerback.
Despite ranking among the league's worst corners in the site's pass coverage rating, Peterson allowed hardly any yards after the catch and only let up three touchdowns.
What's so exciting about a player of Peterson's talent at the cornerback position is that he can use his athleticism to make up for what he's lacking in technique.
The more fine-tuned his technique becomes, the scarier he will be. Eventually, offenses will stop throwing his way entirely.
Having the opportunity to go up against Larry Fitzgerald in practice will only help Peterson's efforts to be one of the league's elite corners.
Reason: Rob Ryan's defensive scheme locking in
Why it's enough to be excited: The Cowboys missed the playoffs last season for the third time in four years, and were consistently gashed on defense against the pass.
Secondaries are a big theme around the league, and the Cowboys' situation is no exception.
Terrence Newman is in perpetual decline, and Mike Jenkins has never lived up to the hype as a first-round pick. As a result, Newman was released at season's end, Jenkins was put on the trading block, and the Cowboys went out and got two new projected starters.
Brandon Carr is a solid player who comes over from the Kansas City Chiefs, and Jerry Jones traded up to No. 6 in this year's draft to take highly-touted LSU corner Morris Claiborne.
Ryan has had recent success in bringing along a first-year corner in Cleveland. Joe Haden snagged six interceptions for the Browns in 2010, and got better as the season went along.
The difference, of course, being that the Browns weren't playing meaningful football late in the season, but this year, the Cowboys very well may be.
Just like brother Rex, Rob Ryan can coach him some defense. With a full offseason of preparation, the unit has enough talent—and complexity—to make the Cowboys legitimate contenders.
Reason: Drafting defense
Why it's enough to be excited: It would be unwise to sleep on the "Dream Team" Eagles, who just missed the playoffs thanks to winning their final four games.
The acquisition of DeMeco Ryans is a huge upgrade at middle linebacker, but the Eagles took every opportunity in the draft to create a youthful defensive foundation.
Turnovers on offense really plagued the team, but poor defense for the first three quarters of the 2011 campaign was the overriding story.
First-round pick Fletcher Cox was viewed by some as the best defensive tackle prospect in the draft. He will step in and contribute right away, along with third-round defensive end Vinny Curry.
Mychal Kendricks is a stellar, rangy linebacker who played on the inside at Cal. However, he will be an upgrade over the Eagles' current outside linebackers, assuming the team moves him there.
There are a good mix of veterans and youngsters in the front seven. The Eagles used the draft to improve the quality of the less experienced personnel in that area.
Lower expectations and fewer turnovers by the offense will put less pressure on the defense, and the players from the top of this draft should contribute right away.
New York Jets
Reason: Tony Sparano sparks offensive versatility
Sanchez just got a huge contract extension, but clearly needed a new voice after an uneven three seasons under former offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer.
Sparano's staff introduced the Wildcat a few years back with the Miami Dolphins, and Tebow's talents will likely be used in similar ways.
With that said, Sparano likes to put more of an emphasis on the running game, which will take pressure off of Sanchez.
That philosophy is also more in tune with head coach Rex Ryan's preferences.
The Jets drafted Stephen Hill, a blazing fast, 6'4" receiver out of Georgia Tech who is used to playing in a run-heavy offense.
Hill may be far away from a polished receiver, but based on his experience in his college scheme, Sparano may find a way to make the most of his talents in the running game.
Defense has been the unquestioned strength of this team under Ryan, but Sparano's enthusiasm and fresh perspective could result in Sanchez's best season yet.
Reason: Young, electric receiver corps
Why it's enough to be excited: Plenty of question marks lurk on Raiders defense, but they have one of the most exciting groups of receivers in the NFL.
Darrius Heyward-Bey just had by far his best season, and is finally justifying the bold move the franchise made drafting him seventh overall in 2009.
Beyond him, Denarius Moore came out of nowhere to play shockingly well in 2011. He averaged nearly 19 yards per catch, and scored a touchdown about once every six touches on offense. Jacoby Ford is also lightning fast, and has the ability to emerge as a dangerous option in the slot.
For "coming off of the couch" to play last season, Carson Palmer played exceptionally well. The Raiders haven't had a quarterback in years, and Palmer may finally be the answer.
The explosive group of receivers should only grow under Palmer's guidance.
Darren McFadden's return will also help open up the passing game, especially in play-action situations where deep shots down the field can be had.
San Diego Chargers
Reason: Bounce back season for Philip Rivers
Why it's enough to be excited: He may have still made the Pro Bowl, but Rivers can't be content with a second consecutive underachieving Chargers season under his command.
A slight dip in accuracy and a career-high 20 interceptions for Rivers contributed to the Chargers finishing with an 8-8 record.
Losing wide receiver Vincent Jackson may be a good thing for Rivers, since Jackson was frequently unhappy about his contract situation in San Diego.
Robert Meachem joins the team, and he will compete for the No. 1 job with fellow big target Malcom Floyd. Free agents Eddie Royal and Vincent Brown round out the receiving corps for the Chargers.
Ryan Matthews finally played to his first-round potential last season, and Rivers still has his reliable tight end in Antonio Gates, who will hopefully be 100 percent for the first time in years.
Really, Rivers's relatively off year was a product of decision-making. A slightly new-look offensive attack and a slightly improved defense should be just what he needs to bounce back.
Reason: Cutler to Marshall, Act II
Why it's enough to be excited: If the aforementioned tandem can replicate the success they had with the Denver Broncos, watch out.
Marshall is the first ray of hope the Bears have had at receiver in the past decade. Cutler is the Bears' first franchise quarterback since...Jim Harbaugh?
Before a season-ending thumb injury, Cutler was arguably playing the best, smartest football of his career last year. Jeremy Bates was both the quarterbacks and wide receivers coach at times in Denver, where Cutler and Marshall started out their careers.
He's back again, coaching up Cutler at QB on Lovie Smith's staff in Chicago.
It will already be Cutler's third offensive system in his fourth year as a Bear, but with his favorite target by his side, it's hard to imagine anything but a career year from Cutler.
Even though the NFC North may be the toughest division in football, the Bears have the most complete all-around team in the division.
The addition of Marshall will help the offense exponentially. Cutler will have his first legitimate receiver since landing in the Windy City.
Reason: CJ2K back in shape
Why it's enough to be excited : There is cause for concern over Kenny Britt's knees. Whether he'll be able to perform at the level he has at times in his young career remains to be seen.
The Titans can take solace in the fact that they have the fastest running back in the league back in shape and under contract.
Chris Johnson still ran for over 1,000 yards despite a very slow start to 2011. Now that he has been paid, Johnson should be the driving force behind a team that came very close to the playoffs.
Whoever is quarterback between Matt Hasselbeck and Jake Locker will have a more dependable back to turn to this season. A tantalizing possibility rests with the potential of Locker as the starter.
Locker is among the fastest quarterbacks in the league. Whenever he's finally handed the reins, having Johnson behind him could make the Titans offense much more dynamic.
Think: a faster Tim Tebow with way more arm talent and one of the best backs in football.
With a veteran like Hasselbeck, Locker may continue to be brought along slowly.
One thing is certain, though: Johnson is primed for a huge year.
Reason: Building on a shocking 2011
Why it's enough to be excited : The combo of Andy Dalton and A.J. Green alone totally turned the Bengals' fortunes last season.
There are plenty of red flags about the Bengals' surprising playoff appearance, not least of which is one win against teams that finished with winning records.
Still, Dalton, Green and the other youngsters got a taste of the playoffs and gained invaluable experience.
The Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens are two of the best teams in football year in and year out. Such a level of competition will only help the Bengals grow, especially when they find ways to win against their division rivals.
The schedule looks a little more difficult this time around. Injuries in the secondary may hamper this team's efforts to build on their recent success.
While it's assumed the team will drop off since they were the beneficiary of an easy schedule and a lot of "breaks," this resilient group of Bengals have proven they can blow away negative expectations.
Reason: Due for a breakthrough
Why it's enough to be excited : There really are no excuses for the Falcons anymore.
Quarterback Matt Ryan has led his team to the playoffs in three of his first four seasons, but has failed to advance each time.
Roddy White and Julio Jones form one of the best receiver duos in the league. Legendary tight end Tony Gonzalez is back for one last go.
According to a report by the AtlantaFalcons.com's Daniel Cox, the Falcons plan on cutting down running back Michael Turner's workload this season. A by-committee system will be in place, but more emphasis will also be placed on the passing game.
This time around, Ryan has to come through. If he really is a franchise quarterback, he should be able to notch at least one victory in his fourth playoff appearance.
If the Falcons can't win a playoff game this year, the seat will heat up a little bit for head coach Mike Smith. If the Falcons somehow fail to reach the postseason, Smith may be shown the door.
With the talent on offense, and one of the best defensive coordinators in Mike Nolan added to the coaching staff, it'd be a massive disappointment if the Falcons didn't make the playoffs.
With that said, the pieces are in place for the Falcons to finally make the most of their loaded roster and push for a Super Bowl appearance.
Reason: The offense can improve
Why it's enough to be excited: A shoddy running game and leaky defense prevented the Lions from being a Super Bowl contender in 2011.
A lot of inexperience and mediocrity still litters the defense, but the offense that thrived a year ago can become better.
With those two dynamic backs, the Lions have the personnel to have an even better, more balanced attack this season.
What is working in the Lions' favor is a healthy Matthew Stafford.
The lockout didn't prevent the 2008 No. 1 overall pick from developing enough chemistry with his pass-catchers to throw for over 5,000 yards. Obviously, having Calvin Johnson makes life a little easier, but rookie Titus Young and veteran Nate Burleson proved to be bankable for Stafford as well.
Stafford took a lot of hits, so the Lions drafted talented offensive tackle Riley Reiff out of Iowa in the first round of the draft.
Another receiver weapon in Oklahoma WR Ryan Broyles to go with Reiff should only enhance the offense. Any greater contribution from the running game will also be a huge plus.
As long as the defense can tread water, the Lions will be capable of beating anyone.
Reason: It's the Pittsburgh Steelers
Why it's enough to be excited: Questions about age, Ben Roethlisberger's health, who their running back will be and plenty more are on tap for the Steelers.
Those are doubtful to persist for very long, if recent history is any indicator. Six of the last seven years, this franchise has managed to find the postseason, and haven't posted a losing record in that span.
Head coach Mike Tomlin has already reached two Super Bowls at age 40, and Ben Roethlisberger seems injury prone yet indestructible at the same time.
New offensive coordinator Todd Haley is reputed to be a fantastic mentor for wide receivers. Seeing as how the Steelers have two of the best younger ones in the business in Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown, the Steelers' passing game is bound to get even better.
Bleacher Report's AFC North lead blogger Andrea Hangst beats back the notion that the Steelers' offense will drastically change under Haley.
In that context, the passing game looks to be in great shape moving forward. Wallace's future with the organization is slightly uncertain, though.
CBSSports.com's Chris Adamanski notes how GM Kevin Colbert avoided Wallace questions in a press conference, preferring to discuss Brown's new contract extension instead.
Even if Wallace continues to become a problem, Emmanuel Sanders is another bright receiver ready to step up.
Combine the improved receiver coaching with a relatively intact, elite defense, and another deep playoff run seems like a lock for Pittsburgh.
Reason: Peyton Manning
Why it's enough to be excited: Other than the fact that Manning is the greatest regular season quarterback of all-time, I guess there's no reason to be too pumped up.
It remains to be seen how well off the running game will be, since much of the league's reigning No. 1 rushing attack depended on Tim Tebow's unique skill set.
Manning's ability to throw the ball should open up running lanes regardless, and will keep the offense on the field much longer than Tebow could.
Former Indianapolis Colts teammates Jacob Tamme and Brandon Stokley join Manning in Denver. This gives the veteran quarterback two familiar faces to throw to, along with last year's top receivers Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker.
The Broncos have given Manning plenty of weapons to work with, and the defense should improve with Mike Adams stepping in at free safety.
In an AFC West division that seems wide open, the Broncos have far and away the best quarterback. Last year's team had plenty of flaws, but still found a way to win a wildcard playoff game.
Under Manning, perhaps the Broncos can do a few games better than that.
Reason: Most complete team in football
Why it's enough to be excited: If not for an injury to Pro Bowl QB Matt Schaub, the Texans had a legitimate chance to go to the Super Bowl last season.
Even without him, the Texans won the AFC South and beat the Cincinnati Bengals in the playoffs under the direction of fifth-round pick T.J. Yates.
The fact that Yates succeeded so quickly after being thrust into the lineup is a testament to the quality of coaching on the Texans' staff, but also their exceptional showing in recent drafts.
The franchise has built its current defense almost entirely through the draft, giving coordinator Wade Phillips a loaded lineup across the board.
Connor Barwin came into his own at defensive end in his third season with 11.5 sacks, while rookies J.J. Watt and Brooks Reed made instant impacts.
The offense has turned into more of a run-oriented attack thanks to the emergence of two great backs in Arian Foster and Ben Tate.
Superstar receiver Andre Johnson, along with Schaub, has struggled to remain healthy throughout his career.
Assuming those two can stay on the field—a bold assumption, for sure—the Texans offense will be among the best all-around units in the league.
The defense ranked inside the top five in the major statistical categories in 2011.
In that context, the Texans look to be the team to beat again in the AFC South.
New Orleans Saints
Reason: Drew Brees just signed an extension
Why it's enough to be excited: The Brees news seems to be the only salvageable aspect of the Saints' offseason.
The well-documented Bountygate fiasco has led to middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma being suspended for a year, along with head coach Sean Payton.
It will be mighty interesting to see how Brees operates without Payton calling the plays, but it would be unwise for anyone to doubt Brees based on his past.
The quarterback has played with a chip on his shoulder his entire career, and it has driven him to break the single-season record for passing yards and to become a Super Bowl MVP.
The Saints may not appear to have the makings of a team destined for greatness in 2012, but their best player is under contract for the rest of his career.
Also, take a look at what happens when Brees does make the postseason. His stats are nothing short of spectacular (via profootball-reference.com):
Jimmy Graham has emerged as a top-three receiving tight end, and Brees still has 6'4" receiver Marques Colston to chuck it to, along with one of the NFL's deepest backfields.
It has been a tumultuous time for the Saints lately, but they still have No. 9.
Green Bay Packers
Reason: Redemption for the defense
Why it's enough to be excited: The worst pass defense in league history has too much talent not to recover from an awful season.
Difficulties on defense didn't stop the Pack from going 15-1 last season, but eventually the electric offense quarterbacked by reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers couldn't make up for the team's shortcomings.
When the Packers won the Super Bowl two seasons ago, they had a top-five defense along with a high-powered passing game.
Cornerback Tramon Williams got paid following the team's championship run, but struggled last season to live up to his huge contract.
Charles Woodson may be moving to safety, according to ESPN's NFC North blogger Kevin Seifert. That may be a smart piece of strategy, since that position has been riddled with inconsistent play.
If Woodson does move to safety, Williams and his talented, speedy counterpart Sam Shields must be able to hold up their end of the bargain.
Defensive end Nick Perry was selected in the first round of this year's draft out of USC. He should help rush the quarterback, which the Packers desperately need.
Part of the bad pass defense can be blamed on a lackluster pass rush, as the Packers tied for 27th with just 29 sacks in 2011.
Dom Capers has proven that his 3-4 scheme can work with nearly the same nucleus of players.
The offense will still put up plenty of points, and the defense looks as though it will only improve.
That's a scary thought for the rest of the NFL.
Reason: Ed Reed returns
Why it's enough to be excited: Never has a free safety had the playmaking ability that Reed has displayed, and the future Hall of Famer is back for at least one more season in Baltimore.
Reed brings so much to a defense, and has a way of preying on younger quarterbacks by reading their eyes.
After losing Terrell Suggs for what looks like the entire year to a torn Achilles, having Reed return is essential for the Ravens' success.
The defense will need to be great if the Ravens want to keep winning with Joe Flacco as their quarterback. As ESPN AFC North blogger Jamison Hensley points out, Ron Jaworski has Flacco as the No. 9 ranked QB in the NFL.
Everyone's entitled to their opinions, but Flacco regressed last season despite an improved supporting cast. The notion that he's a Top 10 quarterback is absolutely ridiculous.
I know he almost guided them to a Super Bowl appearance and played well against the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship game.
Remind me: what did he do in the previous game, against a legitimate defense?
Raven fans must be counting their lucky stars that Reed is back in action. The defense will once again need to be among the league's best to continue winning in spite of Flacco's shortcomings.
San Francisco 49ers
Reason: New offensive toys
Why it's enough to be excited: It doesn't make any sense to dismiss Alex Smith's 2011 season as a fluke.
The top wide receiver Smith had to throw to last season was Michael Crabtree, who has been pretty good in his first few years, but doesn't look to be a superstar.
Beyond Crabtree, there was Ted Ginn Jr. and Kyle Williams.
As Chad Johnson would say, "Child, please!"
Super Bowl hero Mario Manningham, first-round pick A.J. Jenkins and one of the all-time greats in Randy Moss have dramatically improved one of the weakest receiving corps in the NFL.
If that weren't enough, the Niners also added home-run threat LaMichael James in the second round of the draft.
James will provide a great change of pace from the powerful style of Frank Gore, and Kendall Hunter has also played exceptionally well in a backup role.
A backfield that runs three-deep, as well as a bolstered group of targets on the outside should improve what was one of the NFL's worst red zone offenses.
More importantly, it gives Smith an improved supporting cast.
Fun fact: renowned tight end Vernon Davis has never had a 1,000-yard season.
With this new set of receivers to keep the defense occupied, expect that to change come January.
New England Patriots
Reason: Luck of the draw
Why it's enough to be excited: Based on last year's records—a dubious measurement—the Patriots have the "easiest" schedule.
CBSSports.com's Pete Prisco goes so far to predict that the Patriots will go undefeated.
While it's easy to disagree with that, the Patriots have averaged between 12 and 13 wins over the past eight seasons.
To bet that they'll come away with a similar amount in 2012 isn't out of the question.
Oh, and the Patriots have the best tight end duo possibly ever with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
Head coach and quintessential GM Bill Belichick also made defense a priority in the draft. The upgrades there certainly won't hurt a unit that has been a masterful patchwork job the past few years.
Brady and Belichick have won three Super Bowls together, but have now lost in each of their past two appearances.
Any resemblance of improvement on defense will go a long way, as will an offseason under Belichick for the youngsters to learn the "Patriot Way."
It wouldn't be the least bit shocking to see the Pats at the Superdome on February 3, gunning for ring No. 4 in the Brady-Belichick era.
New York Giants
Reason: Upgrade in the running game
Why it's enough to be excited: As mentioned in the Miami Dolphins slide of what seems like yesteryear I'm sure, the Giants had the worst running game in the league in 2011.
Thankfully, the Giants also had Eli Manning to bail them out.
Manning set records for most regular season touchdown passes in the fourth quarter, and orchestrated seven fourth quarter comebacks in the regular season.
In the playoffs, Manning guided the Giants to an overtime victory in San Francisco, and put together another game-winning drive to defeat the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI.
The Giants also had a crummy defense, so in many ways Manning and his brilliant receivers Hakeem Nicks and breakout stud Victor Cruz carried that team.
Now, at least on Manning's side of the ball, help is on the way.
Ahmad Bradshaw was battling injuries last year, and Brandon Jacobs wasn't happy in New York, but is no longer with the team.
Wisely, Virginia Tech running back David Wilson was selected with the 32nd pick. Wilson is explosive, and can be equally dangerous as both a runner and as a receiver, according to NFL.com's Mike Mayock.
Bradshaw says he feels as great as he's ever felt entering this year than any other year in his career, according to a report by Ralph Vacchiano of the New York Daily News.
With a healthy Bradshaw and the No. 32 pick, the reigning 32nd-ranked ground game should produce more in 2012.