6 NFL Teams Ready to Take a Leap in the 2012 Season
Six teams are primed to take a leap forward as the 2012 season nears.
The group includes a franchise that may finally have everything in place to end a playoff drought stretching back to 1999. There is also a team built around the talent of a dynamic, young quarterback, with bold expectations entering the 2012 campaign.
Here are the six teams primed to take a leap this season.
The Philadelphia Eagles played way below-par in 2011, but Andy Reid's talented squad is ready to take a big step forward this time.
Having had a year to adapt to so many new faces, the so-called "dream team" can finally let their considerable ability propel them back into contention.
The Eagles defense was better than most thought last season and the unit promises to be even better with the addition of middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans in 2012. Rookie defensive linemen Fletcher Cox and Vinny Curry complete a scary rotation up front.
If the offense can avoid the turnover epidemic that struck last season, Philadelphia will again be a front-runner in the NFC.
New Orleans Saints
Amid the controversy of the "Bountygate" scandal and the suspensions that followed, the New Orleans Saints have managed to make a series of excellent offseason moves.
First they landed free-agent guard Ben Grubbs to replace the departing Carl Nicks. Grubbs is an elite interior lineman and there should be little dropoff between his performances and the level of play Nicks produced during the last four seasons.
On defense, the Saints have significantly upgraded what was a lacklustre unit, particularly by appointing Steve Spagnuolo as the new coordinator. His preference for zone coverage concepts will limit the big plays the Saints usually give up. Spagnuolo will also have some impressive new weapons to work with.
Defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley and linebackers Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne suddenly give the Saints a powerful front seven. This defense is now strong enough to ease the burden on Drew Brees and the offense.
This can help the Saints to avoid the playoff meltdowns suffered over the last two seasons and maybe take them back to a Super Bowl.
The competition to join the Saints as NFC South playoff representatives will be fierce, but the Carolina Panthers are primed to be the leading candidates.
With Cam Newton under center, the offense simply has too many weapons for most teams to handle.
However, the defense is a different story. The pressure is on head coach Ron Rivera and coordinator Sean McDermott to craft a unit that won't undermine Newton and company.
The talent is there, particularly in the form of playmaking duo Charles Johnson and James Anderson.
Top draft pick Luke Kuechly will join Anderson and Jon Beason to form a formidable set of linebackers. However, the interior of the defensive line must improve from a poor 2011 showing.
Ryan Kalil's Super Bowl prediction is too much to hope for, but if Rivera can scheme better defense, the Panthers have enough weapons to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
San Diego Chargers
Although it's difficult to ever really trust Norv Turner's teams to play up to talent, the San Diego Chargers have enough to take back the AFC West after two dismal seasons in 2012.
The emergence of running back Ryan Mathews can help Turner get back to the balanced play-calling he favours. That means all of the pressure won't be on the arm and decision-making of Philip Rivers.
Rookies Melvin Ingram and Kendall Reyes will boost a defensive front seven that needs strong competition. Signing run-stuffing nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin was a smart move in a division featuring Darren McFadden, Jamaal Charles, Peyton Hillis and Willis McGahee.
This team has what it needs to get back to the playoffs. Even the Chargers' usual dose of self-inflicted mishaps shouldn't derail those chances this season.
If anybody is going to come out of the AFC East along with the New England Patriots, it should be the Buffalo Bills. The team that hasn't been to the postseason since 1999 made some bold moves in free agency and have transformed a shaky defense.
Adding rush ends Mario Williams and Mark Anderson to hulking tackle tandem Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams gives the Bills a ferocious front four. Top draft pick Stephon Gilmore is the kind of ball hawk who will capitalise on the pressure up front.
With these new pieces in place, the Bills should field a top-10 defense. New coordinator Dave Wannstedt can make that kind of difference. His unit will take the pressure off an offense already able to match anyone.
Buffalo will never have a better chance of getting back to the playoffs. Competition in the AFC East will be tough, but with legitimate playmakers on both sides of the ball, the Bills seem the only team in the division capable of keeping pace with New England.
St. Louis Rams
This isn't a worst-to-first prediction, but after winning only 15 games in five seasons, the St. Louis Rams can take a big leap towards respectability under Jeff Fisher.
Fisher will change the culture in St. Louis and the Rams won't be an easy game for anybody in 2011. After securing additional first-round draft picks for the next two years, Fisher has everything he needs to build a winner.
The first steps will be taken this season. Fisher can let an underrated defense, brimming with young talent, lead the way. A back-to-basics approach will fix the offense and help quarterback Sam Bradford.
The Rams are still short of playoff contention, but don't expect to seem them too far below .500 once the season ends.