Training camp has started, and the first preseason game has been played. It's football time again, my friends. And what better way to kick off the season than by ranking all 32 teams from weakest to strongest on paper?
Keep in mind no games have ever been won or lost because of a listing. Still, I evaluated each team, from free-agent acquisitions and losses to draft choices to early injuries in camp to grade. If your favorite team is ranked too low in your opinion, blame the owner of the team; not me. That being said, let's go!
Offensive Line: Average Aside from 2011 first-round pick Anthony Castonzo at left tackle, this group doesn't have many gems. Samson Satele is decent, but he is no Jeff Saturday.
Wide Receivers: Below-Average Aside from Reggie Wayne, there isn't much to work with. Wayne is also getting up there in age.
Running Backs: Average I have a higher opinion of Donald Brown than many. I also love rookie Vick Ballard. Adding Mewelde Moore gives them a steady veteran presence as well. None of these guys wow you, but they all are at least serviceable.
Tight Ends: Slightly Above-Average I hate to project rookies to be any better than average, but the Colts may have hit the jackpot in the draft with Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen. Those guys could turn out to be a pretty special tandem.
Quarterbacks: Average I like Andrew Luck, but he doesn't have a lot to work with. He is also still a rookie no matter how well-prepared he is. His backup is Drew Stanton, who hasn't exactly distinguished himself in his career so far. Not exactly a recipe for success.
Defensive Line: Average To be clear, this covers the down linemen in the newly-installed 3-4 defense, which excludes outstanding 4-3 defensive ends Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney. I do think it's smart that head coach Chuck Pagano brought Cory Redding and Brandon McKinney with him from the Ravens to ease the transition to a 3-4.
To be clear, however, both guys are only serviceable, and no one else contending for playing time is outstanding in any particular way either. I liked Drake Nevis coming out in 2011, but I'm not sure if he is built for a 3-4.
Linebackers: Outstanding I happened to catch a clip of the aforementioned Mathis doing a pass-rush drill on the NFL Network standing up in a linebacker stance. He was every bit as explosive and effective as he has been with his hand in the dirt. I don't think the transition will be any harder for Freeney either.
The young guy, Jerry Hughes, should also be an effective outside speed-rusher. Pat Angerer might be the one guy on the defense more who was more suited to a 3-4 defense anyway.
Secondary: Average I still like Antoine Bethea, and I think Tom Zbikowski is decent also. Everyone else is pretty "meh."
I don't think most of the corners will do well with the Colts switching from the traditional Tampa 2 coverage they predominantly played since Tony Dungy was named head coach to more of the kind of man-to-man the Ravens employed under Pagano.
Special Teams: Above-Average When you have one of the best kickers of all-time in Adam Vinatieri, it's hard to be anything but above-average on special teams, if not better. Punter Pat McAfee, however, was middle of the pack in net punt yards average. I don't think anybody knows who will return punts or kickoffs for the Colts at this point.
Coaching: Average I don't mean this to say that Chuck Pagano is an average coach. However, with this being his first year as an NFL head coach, he is likely to go through some serious growing pains. I like Bruce Arians as the offensive coordinator. I'm not high on Greg Manusky as defensive coordinator. Some of the position coaches worked for the Bucs when I was playing, and I am not particularly impressed with them either.
Wide Receivers: Average With the free-agent signing of Laurent Robinson and the drafting of Justin Blackmon, this unit has definitely been upgraded. Robinson has to prove last year wasn't a fluke.
There are also some decent veterans behind those guys, like Lee Evans, who is finally healthy.
Running backs: Potentially Outstanding Maurice Jones-Drew led the NFL in rushing last year. He isn't in camp, however, as he's holding out for a new contract. Greg Jones is a high-quality fullback. It comes down to when or if Jones-Drew plays this year. If he holds out for the whole season, they go from outstanding to decidedly below average.
Tight Ends: Above-Average Marcedes Lewis has all the physical tools to be a dominant pass-catching tight end. Zach Miller is decent as well. The current quarterbacks may struggle to get them the ball, though.
Quarterbacks: Below-Average Blaine Gabbert was awful last year. In response to his awful play, the Jaguars signed Chad Henne, who was last seen in Miami being benched in favor of Matt Moore. If Jones-Drew decides not to come to camp, having a successful passing game becomes a lot more important. I just don't see Gabbert making a big leap this year.
Defensive Line: Above-Average This unit was really good last year. With the addition of rookie Andre Branch to go along with Jeremy Mincey, Tyson Alualu and Terrance Knighton, the defensive line has the potential to be even better. Can't give them an outstanding rating until we see how Branch pans out, however.
Linebackers: Above-Average Paul Posluszny is a quality player at middle linebacker, and Daryl Smith and Clint Session are steady on the outside.
Secondary: Average The secondary is the only suspect area of the defense. Rashean Mathis' play has really fallen off in recent years. The jury is out on whether free agent Aaron Ross will make any major difference.
Special Teams: Slightly Above-Average Kicker Josh Scobee is one of the best in the business, but the Jaguars will have a rookie punter and their returners are about average.
Coaching: Above-Average Mike Mularkey has definitely put the time in as an assistant coach and one-time head coach of the Bills to be well prepared for this stint as the man in charge. The Jags did the right thing keeping Mel Tucker in charge of the defense that ranked sixth in the NFL last year without much help from the offense.
Hiring Bob Bratkowski, who had coached with Mularkey in Atlanta, was also a smart move for continuity and trust.
Offensive Line: Average There are no bell cows up front for the Rams, and that will once again be a problem for third-year quarterback Sam Bradford as he tries to get his career on track. Both offensive tackles, Jason Smith and Rodger Saffold, missed significant time last year.
The interior of the line consists of fair-to-middling guys from other teams. They all have some ability, but they have to stay healthy for the Rams to have a chance of improving on offense.
Wide Receivers: Below-Average Danny Amendola is likely their best receiver, and he is coming off injury. I'm not sure he would even be a quality second option in most offenses. Second-year player Austin Pettis still has to serve two more games of his four-game suspension from last year for PED use. Overall, the Rams may have the worst wide receiver group in the NFL.
Running backs: Above-Average Steven Jackson is a beast at running back, but he will once again have to gain his yards with eight men in the box. No defense will respect the Rams' ability to hurt it in the passing game with their receivers. I really liked Isaiah Pead coming out of college, and the rookie will provide a spark as a change of pace back. Free-agent pickup Ovie Mughelli is a very good lead blocker and solid all-around fullback.
Tight Ends: Below-Average Lance Kendricks is just OK heading into his second year. There are a bunch of average to below average tight ends behind him on the depth chart. I wouldn't expect a ton of production from this group.
Quarterbacks: Average In fairness, it's hard to judge Bradford considering the talent, or lack thereof, around him. This year won't be any different, as he can't do it all by himself.
Defensive Line: Above-Average The Rams have two good young defensive ends in Chris Long and Robert Quinn. Quinn, however, was arrested this offseason for a DUI and may face punishment from the league.
They also picked up Kendall Langford from the Dolphins, where he was a quality backup, and drafted Michael Brokers in the first round. They should mix well with veterans William Hayes and Trevor Laws to form a deep rotation.
Linebackers: Above-Average James Lauriniaitis is a solid young player at middle linebacker, and free-agent pickup Jo-Lonn Dunbar should fit in nicely on the outside. Mario Haggan was hurt most of the 2011 season, but he has been a solid player as well when healthy.
Secondary: Above Average The cornerback position should be much improved with free-agent pickup Cortland Finnegan and second-round draft pick Janoris Jenkins. Quintin Mikell is still a quality player at safety.
Special Teams: Below Average The Rams selected a kicker in the sixth round of this year's draft and will have a punter with little-to-no NFL experience when the season starts. The saving grace will be what Pead can bring to the return game. If he doesn't make an impact this unit will be abysmal.
Coaching: Average I realize most people have a high level of respect for Jeff Fisher as a head coach and I can agree with that. But it appears that he will be the defensive coordinator as well which might be putting too much on his plate. He also hired Brian Schottenheimer from the Jets to be his offensive coordinator. Schotty's suckitude balances out Fisher's awesome in my opinion. I do like the rest of the staff on both sides of the ball. I just think Schottenheimer's playcalling will be a major liability.
Offensive Line: Above-Average Having two Pro Bowlers on your offensive line usually qualifies it as Outstanding. However, aside from left tackle Joe Thomas and center Alex Mack, two very impressive players, the Browns have a lot of youth at the other three positions.
Mitchell Schwartz is a rookie second-round pick who should start at right tackle, and that in and of itself could be a problem. For that reason, I'm only prepared to give them an above-average rating.
Wide Receivers: Average I'm more impressed with the Browns wide receiver corps than a lot of people, but they don't have that standout No. 1 receiver. Greg Little, Mohamed Massaquoi and Josh Cribbs are all decent, dependable receivers, but that is about it.
Josh Gordon, whom the Browns selected in the supplemental draft this year, might be that dynamic receiver they have been looking for. He is a rookie, though, and there's a reason he was available in the supplemental draft. It's probably not wise to count on him for big contributions until he has proven himself.
Running backs: Average Before you give me the Jim Brown treatment, I'm not saying rookie first-round pick Trent Richardson will have a mediocre NFL career. I am saying that nobody can know how good or bad he is until he proves it on the field. Rookie running backs putting up big seasons are a lot more rare than people tend to acknowledge.
Behind him is Montario Hardesty, who has ability but can't seem to stay healthy. There is potential for a pretty good tandem between those two, but for right now, that's all there is. The fullbacks definitely aren't anything special.
Tight Ends: Below-Average Ben Watson is coming off a year where he dealt with several concussions, and Evan Moore is just a "guy." Brad Smelley is a rookie who might see some action, but for right now, he appears to be more of a fullback/halfback guy.
Quarterbacks: Below-Average A year ago, I would've rated Colt McCoy as at least average heading into his second year as starting quarterback for the Browns. But after the season he had in 2011, the Browns felt compelled to go out and find a new starting quarterback in the draft. Rarely has a team turned on a signal-caller so fast strictly due to his play on the field.
To make matters worse, after they drafted Brandon Weeden and all but crowned him the starter before he had participated in even one practice, the Browns found themselves unable to trade McCoy. Now they have a third-year quarterback who isn't very good and an older rookie who isn't much better.
Considering the lack of superior at talent at the skill positions, the Browns would need a highly skilled quarterback to be successful. Needless to say, that's not what they have.
Defensive Line: Above-Average There are reports that injured second-year nose tackle Phil Taylor will only miss a few games to begin the season. After a strong rookie campaign, he could once again anchor a defensive line that also features Jabaal Sheard.
Sheard, who was also a rookie in 2011, quietly notched 8.5 sacks last season. With the addition of defensive ends Frostee Rucker and Juqua Parker via free agency as well as John Hughes and Billy Winn in the draft, this unit can be pretty special for the Browns.
Linebackers: Average This group is solid, but not special, and with Scott Fujita suspended for the first three games, I would expect a drop off from 2011.
*Update: Chris Gocong was lost with a ruptured Achilles on Saturday, dropping the rating to below-average*
Secondary: Above-Average Joe Haden is as good of a young cornerback as there is in the NFL. Veteran cornerback Sheldon Brown still appears to have something left in the tank. T.J. Ward is also a decent safety.
Special Teams: Average Josh Cribbs all by himself is why this unit isn't rated as below average or awful. Cribbs is one of the most dangerous return men in the business when he isn't running down on the coverage units blowing people up. Phil Dawson is a very average field-goal kicker, and the Browns don't have an established punter on their roster.
Coaching: Average Rarely am I impressed with the rest of the staff more than the head coach, but that's certainly the case with the Browns. I don't think head coach Pat Shurmur is bad, per se. I do believe its rough for first-time head coaches. His coordinators are both former head coaches and know as much as anybody about how hard that first rodeo can be.
While I didn't like Brad Childress as a head coach, I have a lot of respect for him as an offensive coordinator. The same goes for Dick Jauron at defensive coordinator. Those guys will put players in position to make plays.
Offensive Line: Above-Average The Bucs have two Pro Bowl guards in Davin Joseph and new addition Carl Nicks. Left tackle Donald Penn made the Pro Bowl in 2010, but is currently out with a calf injury. Jeremy Zuttah moves from guard to his more natural position of center. Right tackle Jeremy Trueblood is a decent player, but gets too many boneheaded penalties.
Wide Receivers: Above-Average New addition Vincent Jackson gives the Bucs the true No. 1 receiver threat that they haven't had in years. Mike Williams caught 65 balls a year ago, but 2011 was considered a disappointing season for him. Being the No. 2 option should take some pressure off and help him be more productive.
Preston Parker had a good year as the slot receiver last season and is looking to keep that momentum going. Arrelious Benn, who was the starter opposite Williams last season, has been sidelined most of camp with a leg injury. Another new addition, Tiquan Underwood, appears to be having a strong camp and may make a push for playing time.
Running backs: Above-Average LeGarrette Blount rushed for over 1,000 yards as a rookie two seasons ago. Now, after a disappointing 2011, he is in competition with rookie first-round pick Doug Martin for the starting position.
Blount's major deficiencies were fumbles and blocking on third down. He appears to have improved on both this offseason. However, Blount is most impressive when there is live contact and he is breaking tackles.
Martin, on the other hand, has very good lateral quickness as well as straight line speed. He can look impressive even in shorts.
No matter who wins the starting job, new head coach Greg Schiano has already said he wants a committee approach to running the ball. Both guys will get touches, and the running game should flourish behind the retooled offensive line
Tight Ends: Above-Average Dallas Clark has been hurt a lot in recent years, and in turn, his production has dropped off. He has looked good in camp so far, but there is still the chance that he might get hurt again during the season. Second-year tight end Luke Stocker is a blocking specialist for the run game.
Quarterbacks: Above-Average Josh Freeman is a very gifted young quarterback. This year will be an important one to find out which Freeman is the real Freeman, however. Two years ago, he led the Bucs to a 10-win season. Last year, he had a major hand in a 10-game losing streak.
There have been a lot of excuses thrown out on either side, but the time for excuses is over. Freeman has to step up and move forward in his development, or it will soon be time for the Bucs to move on. With Dan Orlovsky behind him, they likely won't be moving on this year.
Defensive Line: Above-Average Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy has to play 16 games. It's more important that he play a full season than if he reaches certain statistical goals because one tends to go with the other. If he plays every game this year, he should finally have those sack and tackle numbers that Bucs fans have been waiting for.
The Bucs have already lost defensive end Da'Quan Bowers for what will probably be the whole season with an Achilles tear. He was set to battle Michael Bennett for the starting left defensive end spot. Bennett is a good player, so him starting isn't an issue. But with Bowers out, the lack of depth may be an issue.
Adrian Clayborn notched 7.5 sacks as a rookie a year ago and hasn't come close to tapping into his full potential yet.
Linebackers: Average Second-year middle linebacker Mason Foster is a solid player. I believe he is better suited to play outside linebacker, however. Quincy Black was awful in 2011, but so far, he is reportedly having a good camp. I'll believe it when I see it.
Rookie second-round pick Lavonte David is the other likely starter on the outside. He will be a good player in time, but I think he is going to have a lot of ups and downs this year.
Secondary: Above-Average Ronde Barber is finally making the transition from corner to safety heading into his 16th season in the NFL. I think he will do a great job there, especially in pass coverage.
The other safety is rookie first-round pick Mark Barron, and he will give the Bucs a presence in the box defending the run that they haven't had since John Lynch left. Corners Aqib Talib and Eric Wright should be able to hold their own.
Special Teams: Above-Average Connor Barth only missed two field goals on the season a year ago. Punter Michael Koenen was in the top 10 in the NFL in average net punt yardage. Preston Parker and Sammie Stroughter are capable if not dangerous return men.
Coaching: Average Coach Schiano did a great job building up the football program at Rutgers. The transition from college coach to NFL coach has been a rough one of late, though. In addition, he hired an offensive coordinator in Mike Sullivan, who has never been an offensive coordinator before.
On the defensive side, he hired Bill Sheridan, who was fired after one year, the only time he had been a coordinator previously, to be defensive coordinator. That is not to say these guys can't do the job. I just have to point out that they will all be learning on the job together.
I do believe running backs coach Earnest Byner was an excellent addition to the staff.
Offensive Line: Slightly Below-Average I have no idea why the Cardinals decided to re-sign Levi Brown, but they needed to upgrade the left tackle position, and they didn't do it. They did draft a big right tackle in Bobby Massie, but who knows what he will be as a rookie.
Center Lyle Sendlein is decent, but if your best offensive lineman can only be described as decent or "underrated," that's never a good sign.
Wide Receivers: Above-Average Larry Fitzgerald is one of the top three wide receivers in the NFL right now. Early Doucet had a breakout season in 2011 with 54 receptions. Rookie first-round pick Michael Floyd will start early this season and is a physical specimen. Quietly, Andre Roberts caught 51 balls last season in his second year in the NFL. This group may end up being outstanding with better quarterback play.
Running backs: Average Beanie Wells is nicked up. Again. Ryan Williams is coming off tearing his ACL a year ago during a preseason game. It wouldn't be wise to bet on much production from this group. I like Williams, but it's very hard to perform that first year after ACL surgery.
Tight Ends: Below-Average The Cardinals basically have Todd Heap and a bunch of other guys. Unfortunately for Arizona, Heap has lost a step in recent years.
Quarterbacks: Average If your quarterback is in a serious competition with John Skelton for the starting job, what you're really saying is that you need to sign or draft a new franchise quarterback next year. Whoever wins the job will still be average at best, which is a shame when you consider the talent the Cardinals have out wide.
Defensive Line: Above-Average 3-4 defensive ends Calais Campbell and Darnell Dockett make life hell for opposing offensive lines, and Dan Williams was just coming into his own at nose tackle last year before he broke his arm. If Williams can pick up where he left off, you won't find a better 3-4 defensive line in the NFL. Vonnie Holliday provides solid veteran depth.
Linebackers: Above-Average Sam Acho started off his NFL career with a bang, notching seven sacks in 2011, which was the second-highest sack total on the team. Aside from Acho, what strikes you most about the Cardinals' linebacker unit is the depth at each position.
Quentin Groves and Stewart Bradley, who have both been quality starters in the NFL, are likely to be backups this year for Arizona. Daryl Washington is an ascending player at middle linebacker.
Secondary: Above-Average Patrick Peterson made a name for himself as a return man last season, but he also came along big time at cornerback. He has all the skills necessary to be a true shutdown corner, and I expect him to take a big leap forward this year.
Safeties Adrian Wilson and Kerry Rhodes are both quality players. There are question marks as to who the other starting cornerback will be, but there are good veteran contenders for the spot.
Special Teams: Above-Average Jay Feely made less than 80 percent of his kicks for the first time in seven years last season, but he is still a better-than-average kicker. Punter Dave Zastudil had a good gross average, but his net punt yards average was near the bottom of the league. Peterson had four returns for touchdowns last season as a rookie, tying an NFL record.
Coaching: Above-Average I still like Ken Whisenhunt as a head coach, and I love Ray Horton as the defensive coordinator. Mike Miller as offensive coordinator? Let's just say I'm still waiting to be impressed.
In fairness, it's hard to look good as an OC with mediocre quarterback play.
Offensive Line: Above-Average Left tackle Jake Long and center Mike Pouncey are two outstanding players on the Dolphins' offensive line. Richie Incognito and Artis Hicks are serviceable veteran linemen. Newly-signed Eric Steinbach adds quality depth if he is fully recovered from back surgery.
That leaves rookie Johnathan Martin, the Dolphins' second-round pick, as the only question mark. If he can at least hold his own, this should be a very good group.
Wide Receivers: Average Davone Bess, Brian Hartline, Chad Johnson and Legedu Naanee are all quality NFL wide receivers but none of them possess elite speed. It's hard to have a productive receiver group with nothing but possession receivers. I do think that the West Coast offense will mitigate the need for a deep threat somewhat. But I still don't see enough collective talent to say this unit is much more than average.
Running backs: Above-Average Say what you will about Reggie Bush, the guy can be a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses. He also had the best season of his career running the ball in 2011. I look for rookie Lamar Miller to have a prominent role at running back as well. A shoulder injury caused him to fall down some draft boards, but he has elite ability in space.
Daniel Thomas and Steve Slaton are also quality backups. The Dolphins have a promising young fullback in Charles Clay as well.
Tight Ends: Below-Average Anthony Fasano is a decent all-around tight end, but not special in any facet of his game. He will block well in the running game and catch around 30 balls, but that's about it. And there isn't much behind him either.
Quarterbacks: Average There are three quarterbacks competing to be the starter in training camp. In reality, that means they don't have a starting quarterback. I thought Matt Moore got a bad rap in Carolina, and I don't think Jaguars fans ever appreciated David Garrard's contributions, but neither guy is the long-term answer for the Dolphins.
Rookie Ryan Tannehill is likely the long-term answer, but I also don't think he is ready to jump into the fire just yet. That is quite the conundrum for the Dolphins' brass.
I think Moore or Garrard will begin the season as the starter, and as soon as the coaching staff feels comfortable with Tannehill, he will take over. The problem, of course, is that Garrard or Moore will be trying to win games as they're simultaneously looking over their shoulders, waiting to get yanked. It's hard to perform in that situation.
Defensive Line: Above-Average I'm probably underselling how good this defensive line can be. I want to be cautious, however, because they are transitioning from a 3-4, two-gapping style defense, to a 4-3, attacking-style defense. I'm sure everyone expects Cameron Wake to have another big year rushing the passer, and so do I.
But I also think Jared Odrick and Randy Starks are going to get after people. Paul Soliai is gonna be a load to move at nose tackle. Then they have quality depth with Tony McDaniel and rookie Oliver Vernon.
This may turn out to be the best position group overall on the whole team.
Linebackers: Above-Average Karlos Dansby can play outstanding football in any scheme you put him in. Kevin Burnett is probably better suited to a 4-3 anyway. The same can probably be said for Koa Misi as well, who seemed to struggle in the 3-4 scheme.
Secondary: Above-Average Vontae Davis is an elite player at cornerback, and Sean Smith has elite ability. Reshad Jones looks poised to make a big impact as a playmaking safety. With Richard Marshall being added to the mix in free agency, I believe the secondary can be dominant this season.
Special Teams: Average Dan Carpenter is a very good place-kicker. Punter Brandon Fields is more middle of the pack. The Dolphins need to find more explosive return men.
Coaching: Average I loved what head coach Joe Philbin did as an offensive coordinator with the Green Bay Packers. I have to point out, however, that this is his first time being a head coach. I think Mike Sherman is a decent offensive coordinator. I'm not sure how Kevin Coyle will be as a defensive coordinator, but at least he has been one on the collegiate level.
On the whole, I think 2012 will be a learning year for Philbin.
Wide Receivers: Above-Average Marques Colston, Devery Henderson and Lance Moore are all high-level NFL wide receivers. Reports out of training camp say rookie fourth-round draft pick Nick Toon looks like a keeper as well.
Running Backs: Outstanding Darren Sproles put on a show last season in his first year with the Saints. He was a blur running the ball, catching the ball and on returns. Pierre Thomas and Mark Ingram both had to battle through injuries in 2011. Chris Ivory is a tough runner who had injuries of his own who may also be in the mix for carries.
If they are all healthy, the running game will be very productive for the Saints.
Tight Ends: Outstanding Jimmy Graham had 99 catches for more than 1,300 yards last season. Those are ridiculous numbers for a tight end—especially for a team that has plenty of other options at wide receiver. David Thomas does more of the dirty work on offense like blocking in the run game but he can catch the ball well also.
Quarterback: Outstanding Drew Brees set the single-season record last year with 5,426 passing yards. Maybe as impressive is the fact that he only threw 14 interceptions against 46 touchdowns. I see him having a small regression this year. This team will go as far as Brees leads it.
Defensive Line: Above Average The suspensions on defense will have a ripple effect on the whole team. Will Smith, the Saints' best defensive lineman, will miss the first two games. Defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley will be stout against the run inside. The Saints have to hope that last year's first round-pick, defensive end Cameron Jordan, takes a big step forward.
Linebackers: Above-Average Even with Jonathan Vilma suspended for the season the Saints have a pretty good linebacker group. They brought in middle linebacker Curtis Lofton from the Falcons and outside linebacker David Hawthorne from the Seahawks. Both appear to be upgrades.
Secondary: Average This unit was torched repeatedly in 2011 yet the Saints didn't do much to upgrade the group and let Tracy Porter walk. They had better hope that cornerbacks Jabari Greer and Patrick Robinson pick it up or it's going to be a long year.
Special Teams: Outstanding Darren Sproles with his returns is enough to grant this unit a rating of outstanding. Punter Thomas Morstead was also excellent, however, finishing second in the league average net punt yards. The Saints appear to have a kicking competition going on. If I had to guess I think they will go with John Kasay.
Coaching: Not Available You know it's bad when the interim coach won't be with the team for the first six games of the season. This Saints coaching situation is just a mess. Sean Payton wasn't just the head coach, he was also the offensive coordinator. That's two guys you have to replace.
Steve Spagnuolo had already replaced Greg Williams as defensive coordinator, but now he loses Joe Vitt for at least the first six games as his linebacker coach.
Oh by the way, when Vitt does return, it will be as the interim head coach. Does he also then coach linebackers. Can he be Spagnuolo's boss and simultaneously his subordinate?
OK, my head is starting to hurt.
Needless to say, I believe the coaching situation will be a huge drag on the season.
Offensive Line: Outstanding Four of the five starters along the offensive line for the Titans have been with the Titans their whole careers and have been starters for more than two years. One of those four, Michael Roos, has been selected to the All Pro team multiple times.
The one "outsider" to the group is free-agent signee Steve Hutchinson, one of the best interior offensive linemen in the NFL over the last decade. Barring injury this offensive line will be dominant.
*Update: Eugene Amano is out for the season after a triceps injury on Saturday. That reduces the ranking to Above-Average*
Wide Receivers: Average Kenny Britt is the most dynamic wide receiver on the roster, but he is coming off injury and will likely be suspended for his actions this offseason. Rookie Kendall Wright should pick up some of the slack in his absence. Nate Washington had a breakout year in 2011 with 74 catches, but that was as much out of necessity as anything else. When you're the only option in the passing game then your numbers are likely to go up. That doesn't mean you are a legit No. 1 wide receiver though and I don't think Washington is.
Running backs: Above-Average After seeing his stats fall off in almost every category last year, Chris Johnson will be looking to quiet all of his doubters. He certainly still has the physical tools, as he showed in a few games last season. The question is can he consistently produce again as he had for most of his career? Javon Ringer has shown flashes of ability but in three years he still doesn't have 500 rushing yards for his career.
Tight Ends: Average Even though Craig Stevens is technically the starter, all eyes will be on Jared Cook to see if he can finally develop into a dominant pass-catching option for the Titans. Catching 49 balls is good, but I think the Titans coaches and fans are expecting much more than that from Cook. I'm not sure he will be able to deliver.
Quarterbacks: Above-Average This is one time where I believe that even though there is a quarterback competition, either guy is good enough to win with. Matt Hasselbeck still has something in the tank but Jake Locker is obviously the quarterback of the future. I expect the Titans will decide the future is now and let Locker take his lumps this season.
Defensive Line: Average This unit could easily be rated below average. If it weren't for them picking up Kamerion Wimbley, they would be. But Wimbley can certainly rush the passer no matter what position he plays so he is an upgrade there for the Titans. The other guys up front are young and still learning. Shaun Smith provides veteran depth inside but he wasn't very productive last year either. The Titans have to hope that Derrick Morgan and the rest of the youngsters on the defensive line take a major step forward this year.
Linebackers: Average Colin McCarthy looks to be the real deal at middle linebacker but he doesn't have much help on the outside. Akeem Ayers started every game as a rookie so I look for him to be improved this season.
Secondary: Average Michael Griffin is a good young safety but everyone else in the secondary is pretty average. The group is really going to miss Cortland Finnegan this year.
Special Teams: Average Rob Bironas is money kicking field goals but punter Brett Kern is only average. Wright may help as a return man.
Coaching: Above Average I think Mike Munchak is going to be a good head coach in time even though it's his first time running the show. I also have respect for both Chris Palmer, his offensive coordinator, and Jerry Gray, his defensive coordinator. But no matter how good you are as a coach you need good players to succeed.
Offensive Line: Average Currently, this group might be closer to below average with injuries to projected starters guard Kory Lichtensteiger and right tackle Jamaal Brown. If they both get healthy its a solid but not spectacular group. Left tackle Trent Williams has a chance to be special, however, and early indications are that he has looked really good in camp so far.
Wide Receivers: Above-Average Pierre Garcon and Santana Moss will be a dynamic duo at wide receiver. Second-year receiver Leonard Hankerson has looked good so far in camp after a disappointing rookie campaign in 2011. Brandon Banks, Josh Morgan and Dezmon Briscoe can all be quality backups.
Running backs: Average It's never good when the top three guys at a position all have durability concerns. Tim Hightower is still hurt and may not be ready for the season opener. Roy Helu and Evan Royster are solid players but have had injury problems of their own. Maybe more importantly, none of the three options look like game changers even when healthy. And to top it off, fullback Marcel Young is injured now as well with a strained hamstring.
Tight Ends: Above Average Fred Davis has major pass-catching potential. Chris Cooley is no slouch either, but he is coming off an injury-plagued 2011 season. If both guys stay healthy and out of trouble they are a top-five tight end tandem in the league.
Quarterbacks: Slightly Above Average I'm not ready to crown rookie Robert Griffin III just yet. He does, however, have plenty of weapons to work with at the skill positions, aside from running back. Mike Shanahan's offensive scheme also seems to be tailor made for a quarterback with Griffin's skill set. Behind him Rex Grossman is a serviceable backup and rookie Kirk Cousins is also very talented. I still believe Griffin will struggle some in his first year. I also believe, however, that the good and great plays he makes will more than offset the bad by the end of the season.
Defensive Line: Above Average Stephen Bowen, Barry Cofield, and Adam Carriker are very stout as the starting defensive linemen in a 3-4. I expect Cofield to play better at nose tackle than he did a year ago after a full season in a 3-4 under his belt. Behind those guys are second-year players Jarvis Jenkins, who missed his rookie season with injury but has been impressive in camp, and Chris Neild to go along with Chris Baker. Kedric Golston should also be in the mix but it seems he has gone missing. Again.
Linebackers: Outstanding I had my doubts about whether Ryan Kerrigan would be able to make the transition to outside linebacker in a 3-4 last year. After an impressive rookie season in which he racked up 7.5 sacks, he put those doubts to rest. Brian Orakpo is an elite pass rusher opposite Kerrigan, and London Fletcher is a timeless wonder in the middle. Lorenzo Alexander provides quality depth.
Secondary: Slightly Average I believe Tanard Jackson will be starting at safety when the season starts even after he missed the first few days of camp. Between he and cornerbacks DeAngelo Hall and Josh Wilson, the Redskins should be pretty good against the pass.
The question is, will anybody in the secondary tackle? Jackson seems to have lost the ability to bring ball carriers down in 2011 and Hall has never been fond of sticking his nose in there. Brandon Meriweather has been known to throw his body around, but lately, he seems to get fined for illegal hits whenever he does.
New secondary coach and former Buccaneers head coach Raheem Morris will help this group get better. I'm just not sure they will help the front seven much in trying to stop an opponent's running game.
Special Teams: Above Average Between Graham Gano and Neil Rackers, the Redskins should have a very good kicker this year. Brandon Banks is becoming a much feared weapon in the return game.
Coaching: Above Average Mike Shanahan and his son Kyle still know how to direct an offense, and Jim Haslett seems to have adjusted well to directing a 3-4 defense after spending much of his career coaching a 4-3. Along with Morris, I like several other position coaches as well, including my former college defensive line coach for a year, Jacob Burney.
Offensive Line: Above-Average It was hard to rank this group because only one guy stands out to me, and that's left tackle Jared Gaither, who resurrected his career last year filling in for an injured Marcus McNeil. Nick Hardwick is a long time starting center and definitely a good player but not necessarily elite at the position. The other three guys are just guys, basically. But I think with Gaither and Hardwick and no obvious weak link, they can't be considered just average.
Wide Receivers: Above-Average I don't know that there is another team in the NFL with more quality wide receivers on their roster at the moment. The questions are, who makes the final cut and can any of them emerge as an elite No. 1 option? Malcom Floyd and Vincent Brown are the holdovers, Eddie Royal and Robert Meachem are the new big free-agent acquisitions.
But those guys have mostly been complementary pieces and not the focus in the passing game. Add in Roscoe Parrish and Micheal Spurlock, who both have ability as slot receivers and in the return game, and you have one potent group. Now it's just a matter of how to most effectively use them.
Running backs: Above-Average Most teams nowadays will be lucky to have one good fullback. The Chargers have two in Le'Ron McClain and Jacob Hester. They will be leading the way for Ryan Mathews, who has shown some flashes of brilliance, but has been hampered in his first two seasons with injuries.
Jackie Battle should also have some quality rushes, but the key to this group is keeping Mathews healthy for a full season. I'm not sure Ronnie Brown has anything left, and he won't be needed if Mathews stays healthy.
Tight Ends: Outstanding Antonio Gates appears to be healthy and back to All-Pro form. With Vincent Jackson gone via free agency I look for him to become an even more prominent figure in the offense.
Behind him, Randy McMichael is still playing well and they drafted Ladarius Green, another pass-catching tight end, out of Louisiana-Lafayette. But make no mistake about it, Gates is the key to the production from this unit. If he can stay healthy look out!
Quarterbacks: Above-Average Quietly, Philip Rivers passed for over 4,600 yards last year, but his 20 interceptions were the highest of his career. His favorite wide receiver, Jackson, is gone, replaced with some unfamiliar faces. He can, however, still sling a football with the best of them, and I look for him to bounce back in 2012. Charlie Whitehurst is back as his backup after a couple of years in Seattle, where he didn't play much.
Defensive Line: Average Admittedly, 3-4 defensive linemen don't tend to be stat-sheet stuffers. However, the Chargers' front three don't stand out by any measure. They are young to be sure, but at some point, they are going to need to be productive. The recent addition of Aubrayo Franklin should help this unit.
Linebackers: Average With the addition of rookie Melvin Ingram, I look for the Chargers linebackers to be a lot more productive this year. Shaun Phillips' sack output took a big step backwards last year, and only time will tell if that was an anomaly or if that's what you can expect out of him going forward. Larry English was supposed to provide pass-rush ability, but he has yet to live up to expectations.
There is quality depth, but someone has to step up and lead this group. Maybe it will be Ingram, but you never what to expect from a rookie.
Secondary: Average Aside from Eric Weddle, this group was below average in 2011. Considering the fact that they didn't look for upgrades in free agency, I wouldn't bet on it much changing.
Special Teams: Above-Average As I mentioned previously, the Chargers have several good options in the return game. Nate Kaeding is back after missing most of 2011 with an injury. Mike Scifres is a capable punter as well.
Coaching: Average Norv Turner. Do I really have to explain?
I do like Rich Bisaccia the special teams coach, however.
Offensive Line: Average There will be new faces on the offensive line for Minnesota. New doesn't necessarily mean better, however. Gone are Steve Hutchinson and Anthony Herrera at guard. In their places will be last season's left tackle, Charlie Johnson, and somewhat untested Brandon Fusco.
Geoff Schwartz was supposed to battle Fusco for that starting position, but he was recently diagnosed with a sports hernia. Replacing Johnson at left tackle will be rookie first-round pick Matt Kalil, who has looked good so far in camp. At right tackle is the massive Phil Loadholt, who is a powerful run blocker but is still trying to find his way in pass blocking. As a unit these guys may eventually be an upgrade over last season but they will have to prove it first.
Wide Receivers: Slightly Above-Average On talent alone this group should be solidly above average. But new free-agent addition Jerome Simpson, a dangerous deep threat starting to come into his own, is suspended for the first three games of the season. Percy Harvin, who is one of the most dangerous offensive players in the game when healthy, can have a debilitating migraine headache at any time that limits his availability. Rookie Greg Childs has been making some outstanding catches in training camp and Michael Jenkins is a former starter at the position. On paper this group can be very explosive, but it's keeping them all on the field and available that's key. *Update: Greg Childs tore the patellar tendon in both knees on Saturday ending his season.*
Running backs: Above-Average If Adrian Peterson was healthy this group would definitely be outstanding. It's hard to predict how he good he will be coming off an ACL tear last season, however. Toby Gerhart is a very good backup who averaged almost five yards a carry last year with Peterson out. And look for former Miami Dolphins running back Lex Hilliard to be in the mix as well. I don't think the Dolphins gave him a good opportunity to show what he can do. Peterson's comeback will still be the focus. How well he performs will go a long way in determining how successful the Vikings are this year.
Tight Ends: Below-Average Until John Carlson went down with an injury to his MCL I would have rated he and Kyle Rudolph as slightly above average. These are two big guys who can catch the ball and are also decent blockers. Rudolph is coming off his rookie season and his production needs to pick up a bit before he is considered above average. Carlson is supposed to be a good veteran mentor for him and I already consider him to be above average. Carlson missed all of 2011 with a torn labrum, however, so you have to wonder if injuries will derail the rest of his career.
What may have been a strength before camp may end up being a weakness now because the pickings are slim behind those top two guys.
Quarterbacks: Average Christian Ponder was pretty bad in his rookie season last year. Not Blaine Gabbert awful, but still bad. His offensive line didn't give him much help and losing Adrian Peterson was a huge blow as well. If there was one positive to take away from 2011 for him it was that he didn't look overwhelmed. Even when he didn't play very well he looked as if he at least knew what he was supposed to do. He should have a better shot at success this year if Peterson is healthy. His offensive line looks to be improved and the Vikings did add some new weapons at the skill positions. Put simply there won't be many excuses for Ponder if his play doesn't improve this year. There also won't be much the Vikings can do about it if he regresses since Sage Rosenfels is his backup.
Defensive Line: Outstanding It's really rare that one guy can push a whole defensive line into this category but that's how good Jared Allen is. He doesn't have the flashy spin moves or speed rushes, but what he does have is a rare combination of amazing pad level and strength that translates into assorted variations of a violent bull rush. The guy has 47.5 sacks in the last three years for Pete's sake! Brian Robison and Kevin Williams aren't exactly slouches either. After a quiet rookie season, I expect Christian Ballard to provide quality depth as well. I do wonder what effect if any there will be from losing defensive line coach Karl Dunbar to the New York Jets. Allowing him to walk was a big head scratcher to me.
Linebackers: Average Chad Greenway is a good football player. I kind of think the Vikings kept the wrong Henderson brother, however. Replacing E.J. Henderson with Jasper Brinkley after Brinkley was out all last year with an injury is a huge risk. I don't know what to make of moving Everson Griffen to linebacker full time either. Aside from Greenway, this group has a lot of question marks.
Secondary: Average Rookie first-round pick Harrison Smith will probably start at some point this season. Jamarca Sanford and Mistral Raymond will likely fight it out for playing time opposite him. None of those guys will be anything special this year. Aside from an aging Antoine Winfield there isn't much to be excited about at cornerback either. The good news is new defensive coordinator Alan Williams is likely to implement a lot of Tampa 2 coverage which tends to be the kind of coverage that otherwise average defensive backs can excel in.
Special Teams: Below-Average Chris Kluwe was near the bottom in net punting yards average last season. The Vikings drafted rookie kicker Blair Walsh in the sixth round. Harvin can be a dominant return guy but can the Vikings risk having him on special teams?
Coaching: Below-Average I like Alan Williams. I got to know him a little bit in 2001 when he worked for the Buccaneers. But if my job were on the line I don't think I would've offered Alan Williams his first ever opportunity to be a defensive coordinator. Even if you bring in Williams why did you need to let Dunbar walk? Maybe Leslie Frazier knows something the rest of us don't but this is a risky move in my opinion. The jury is still out on Bill Musgrave as offensive coordinator also. His play calling helped lead to some of those early season fourth-quarter implosions last year that eventually got Donovan McNabb benched.
Offensive Line: Above-Average I'm not sure how many people outside of Raider Nation noticed but Jared Veldheer was greatly improved last year in his second year as a starter. He even helped to stop Jared Allen's streak of 11 straight games with at least one sack. Newly acquired guard Mike Brisiel should fit right in as he came from the Texans where new Raiders offensive coordinator Greg Knapp was the quarterbacks coach. With solid veterans Cooper Carlisle and Khalif Barnes back as returning starters, that just leaves center Stefen Wisniewski as the only potential weak link.
Wide Receivers: Above Average The Raiders have a lot of talent and speed at wide receiver with Darius Heyward-Bey, Denarius Moore, and Jacoby Ford. Staying healthy is, however, a priority as those top three guys were all nicked up at some point last year. The Raiders also picked up talented Juron Criner in the draft.
Running backs: Above-Average Every year Darren McFadden teases Raiders fans with his talent and then goes down to injury for long stretches. The talent is obvious but soon he will have to play a full season or it will be time to move on. Backup Taiwan Jones is a threat to score every time he touches the ball. Fullbacks Marcel Reese and Owen Schmitt are very physical as well.
Tight Ends: Below-Average Brandon Myers looks to be the starter and is a blocking tight end. David Ausberry is trying to make the move from wide receiver to pass-catching tight end. I wouldn't expect much production from this group.
Quarterbacks: Above-Average Carson Palmer is an above average quarterback with a cannon hanging from his right shoulder. He does make some bonehead throws at bad times but he can also be outstanding when he is "on." Matt Leinart hasn't been very good as a starter in the NFL but he is at least servicable. Terrelle Pryor has a ton of potential. At the end of the day, Raiders fans will be praying that Palmer stays healthy though.
Defensive Line: Oustanding Richard Seymour and Tommy Kelly form a very formidable tandem inside. Lamarr Houston and Matt Shaughnessy are above average pass rushers at defensive end. The Raiders added Dave Tollefson from the Super Bowl champion New York Giants this offseason as well. This group will be dominant barring injury. The question will be how much the Raiders employ the 3-4 that head coach Dennis Allen employed as defensive coordinator for the Denver Broncos versus staying in the traditional 4-3 most of these guys are more accustomed to.
Linebackers: Above-Average Rolando McClain has all the tools you want for your middle linebacker but he can't seem to stay out of trouble off the field. If he gets his life in order he could be a good one. Aaron Curry and Phillip Wheeler are both above average outside linebackers who show flashes at times. Depth is a concern as there isn't much experience in the group behind the starters.
Secondary: Above-Average If Ronald Bartell stays healthy, he and Shawntae Spencer should immediately upgrade the cornerback position from a year ago. I really like second-year corner DeMarcus Van Dyke as well. Tyvon Branch and Michael Huff make up a solid but not spectacular tandem at safety.
Special Teams: Outstanding Talk about a plethora of riches. Special teams should be a weapon for the Raiders with Sebastian Janikowski's big-time leg kicking field goals, Shane Lechler punting after being in the top five of average net punting yards last year, and an Olympic track team's worth of speed available in the return game. This unit, as much as any, should keep opposing coaches up at night worried about how to counter it.
Coaching: Average I have to say, I wouldn't exactly be thrilled if my new head coach was also going to be a coordinator of either side of the ball. I just don't think many head coaches can handle that added responsibility. Especially if it's your first time being a head coach on the collegiate or NFL level. Especially if it would only be your second year being a coordinator on either level as well.
But that's what the Raiders have with Dennis Allen.
That doesn't mean it won't work; I just think the cards are stacked against him. It doesn't appear he has a mentor on staff either with more extensive experience as a defensive coordinator at the NFL level.
On the offensive side of the ball, I think Greg Knapp is a decent choice as offensive coordinator. He has done it in the past and has a proven track record.
Offensive Line: Average The offensive line in Dallas could be a mess. Last year's left tackle Doug Free is now flip flopped with last year's right tackle Tyron Smith. Why? Good question. Phil Costa will be back at center because his competition keeps getting hurt. And the two free agent guards signed to start are also both out with injury. Unreal.
Wide Receivers: Average Miles Austin is looking to bounce back from an injury-plagued 2011. Unfortunately he went down with a hamstring injury this week. Dez Bryant is hell when he's well but he was injured a lot too last season. He also has gotten into enough trouble off the field since being drafted that owner Jerry Jones recently had to have a "come to Jesus" meeting with him. Behind those two guys are a bunch of unproven players looking to replace Laurent Robinson as the third wide receiver.
Running backs: Above Average DeMarco Murray burst onto the scene as a rookie in 2011 racking up almost 900 yards in only seven starts. He averaged a whopping 5.5 yards per carry as well. With the offensive line in flux the need for a good running game will be even more pressing. Felix Jones, Murray's backup, just can't seem to shake the injury bug. He has shown flashes throughout his short career of being a home run hitter. He just can't stay on the field, however. He also failed the conditioning test to start camp and missed several days of practice trying to pass it. In better news new fullback Lawrence Vickers has looked solid thus far.
Tight Ends: Above Average Jason Witten has been a consistent weapon in the passing game for the last eight years. He is the rare tight end that can get open downfield but also doesn't mind sticking his nose in there to run block. John Phillips has a chance to replace the departed Martellus Bennett as the backup to Witten. He hasn't done much in his career thus far.
Quarterbacks: Above Average Tony Romo is a good quarterback. He can make all the throws. He is mobile enough to avoid the rush. He even shows flashes of greatness at times. He also makes huge mistakes at crucial moments that hurt his team. You can't argue Romo's statistics because they generally stack up pretty well. But at some point he has to learn to reign in his gunslinger mentality based on the situation. A good quarterback can bring his team back from a deficit and win the game. A great quarterback can also manage an offense well enough in the fourth quarter to keep a lead. It's the latter that Romo has to work on if he ever wants to be great. Kyle Orton is the first viable backup quarterback the Cowboys have had in a long time.
Defensive Line: Above Average Jay Ratliff is a Pro Bowl player at nose tackle who brings a unique skill set to the position. Defensive ends Marcus Spears and Jason Hatcher are pretty good players. Unfortunately all three guys are currently nursing injuries. Thankfully they all sound relatively minor in nature.
Linebackers: Above-Average DeMarcus Ware is a dominant pass rusher as a 3-4 outside linebacker. He racked up 19.5 sacks a year ago, the second highest total of his career. Sean Lee is a really good player at middle linebacker heading into his third season in the NFL. He took over the starting job last season and looked like a seasoned vet. The other outside linebacker, Anthony Spencer, is solid, although he doesn't have the double-digit sack numbers of Ware.
Secondary: Above-Average Last season offenses feasted on the Dallas secondary. This year the team signed Brandon Carr away from the Chiefs, drafted Morris Claiborne in the top 10 of the first round of the draft, and brought in several free agent safeties to battle for a starting position opposite Gerald Sensabaugh. The result should be a much-improved secondary that will enable defensive coordinator Rob Ryan to send more pressure after opposing quarterbacks.
Special Teams: Above-Average Kicker Dan Bailey was above average last season. Punter Chris Jones was in the top 10 in average net punt yardage. Bryant is a dangerous punt returner but the Cowboys may try to limit his opportunities. Felix Jones is the kick returner and he is just OK.
Coaching: Above-Average Jason Garrett is like a kid who has too many toys. He has a big playbook with a lot of nice schemes, but no bread-and-butter plays. It's hard to watch week after week and see a play that works once and never see that play again the whole game. I think he would do well to cut down on his play sheet and run what works until someone stops it, and then run it again just to make sure it wasn't a fluke.
I do like Rob Ryan as the defensive coordinator. Hopefully with better talent in the secondary he will have a better opportunity to show what he can do.
Offensive Line: Slightly Above-Average This group had a bunch of injuries last year and didn't gel until late in the season. It has plenty of talent, however. Russell Okung can be dominant when he is healthy. Breno Giacomini at right tackle might be the only weak link but he held his own last season. If the O-line can stay healthy for most of the year then it should build off the momentum from the end of 2011.
Wide Receivers: Above Average Doug Baldwin and Golden Tate are two good young receivers. Sidney Rice is a big-play, stretch-the-field receiver when healthy. Braylon Edwards appears to still have something left in the tank after a year with the 49ers. Antonio Bryant is attempting to come back after a degenerative knee condition sidelined him the last two seasons. The talent is there but so are a bunch of question marks.
Running backs: Above Average I don't think anybody has ever questioned Marshawn Lynch's ability to run the ball. Its his ability to stay out of trouble off the field that most are unsure about. A DUI arrest this offseason has once again put his name in the news for all the wrong reasons. On the field he is a beast and truly a pleasure to watch. Leon Washington is a good change of pace back and Michael Robinson has transformed himself from a college quarterback to a high-quality fullback.
Tight Ends: Above Average Zach Miller and Kellen Winslow, Jr. should make for a very productive tight end tandem for the Seahawks.
Quarterbacks: Slightly Above Average Yet another quarterback battle, this one featuring three quarterbacks. Tarvaris Jackson, the incumbent, appears to have been supplanted by heralded free-agent acquisition Matt Flynn. Rookie Russell Wilson may ultimately beat out both guys, however. At the end of the day, whoever wins the job will likely be a better than average quarterback and the other guys backing him up will be more than capable of coming in and running the team if need be.
Defensive Line: Above Average With Chris Clemons notching 11 sacks each of the past two seasons and the addition of rookie first-round pick Bruce Irvin, this group should be able to generate a consistent pass rush. Red Bryant is one of the best defensive linemen you've never heard of.
Linebackers: Slightly Above Average K.J. Wright is a player I really like at outside linebacker. Leroy Hill is a good player as well. Barrett Ruud will be looking to bounce back from an injury-plagued 2011
Secondary: Above Average Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas comprise the best young safety tandem in the NFL. Both will make multiple Pro Bowls barring injury.
Special Teams: Above Average Punter Jon Ryan was a little better than average last year. Kicker Steven Hauschka was a little worse than average on field goals. Leon Washington is still a dangerous return man.
Coaching: Above Average I like Pete Carroll as a head coach. I think offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell and defensive coordinator Gus Bradley are above average as well.
Offensive Line: Above Average The Bills offensive line surrendered the fewest sacks in the NFL last year. They return four of five starters as well. The left tackle spot is the only one open and there are two quality players vying for the position. Second-year tackle Chris Hairston played some left tackle in 2011 due to injuries. Cordy Glenn is a rookie second-round pick out of Georgia. Both of these guys are huge and either would likely be a good option. The one concern is injuries. Center Eric Wood is still working himself back into competition after knee surgery. Starting right tackle Erik Pears is currently after offseason hernia surgery.
If those two guys are ready to roll when the regular season rolls around then I would expect another good year from this group. If not, well...
Wide Receivers: Average Stevie Johnson is a good wide receiver when he isn't distracted. The Bills don't have a quality number two to put opposite him yet however. David Nelson filled the role last year decently. But he has been out with a strained knee. Third-round pick TJ Graham has flashed with speed during training camp and Marcus Easley has practiced well also. Third-year player Donald Jones is also in the mix. There is plenty of talent in the group to be sure.
Until someone separates themselves from the rest of the group I can only rate them as average, however.
Running backs: Above Average If CJ Spiller and Fred Jackson stay healthy for the whole season, you won't find a better running back tandem in the NFL. Unfortunately that's a big if.
Tight Ends: Average Scott Chandler is a huge target at six foot seven but he only had average production as a pass catcher last season. Lee Smith is basically just a blocker. Both are quality players but nothing special.
Quarterbacks: Above Average Ryan Fitzpatrick started off smoking hot last year then tailed off in the second half of the season. He threw for almost four thousand yards but he also was picked off twenty three times. He reportedly had a rib injury that contributed to his decline and I look for him to bounce back with an even better season in 2012. There is a battle for the back up position between Tyler Thigpen and Vince Young. I happen to think Young is still at least a quality quarterback who can perform well in spot duty if given the chance. Then you have the Wildcat quarterback/wide receiver Brad Smith who can do so many things to help your team win.
Overall a very talented group.
Defensive Line: Oustanding Mario Williams, Marcell Dareus, Kyle Williams and Mark Anderson. Oh, and according to practice reports Shawne Merriman is looking explosive off the line as a pass-rusher again as well. If you're scared buy a dog.
Linebackers: Average Kelvin Sheppard, Kirk Morrison, and Nick Barnett are all solid players but none of the three are special. Morrison and Barnett are grizzled veterans and Sheppard is trying to find his way in his second year as a starter. They will make plays, they just won't make SportsCenter.
Secondary: Above Average The Bills will have second year player Aaron Wilson and rookie Stephon Gilmore at the cornerback position and both guys look to be playmakers. George Wilson and Jairus Byrd are quality starters at safety. Da'Norris Searcy figures to be in the mix at safety as well and the Bills are looking into signing Jim Leonard.
Special Teams: Above Average Kicker Rian Lindell and punter Brian Moorman were both middle of the pack guys last season. The one special teams area where the Bills have an embarrassment of riches is at returner. Leodis McKelvin, CJ Spiller and Brad Smith are all dangerous return guys.
Coaching: Above Average I like Chan Gailey and his offensive schemes and play calling. I'm not as high on Dave Wannstedt as defensive coordinator but you would have to work hard to screw things up with the talent the Bills have up front. It can't hurt to have Pete Metzelaars coaching your tight ends in Buffalo either.
Offensive Line: Above Average Jeff Backus and Dominic Raiola are both long time standouts and left tackle and center respectively. Gosder Cherilus seems to have finally come into his own.
Wide Receivers: Outstanding Calvin Johnson is simply ridiculous. The crazy thing is he is still getting better. When you have a weapon like him who can regularly beat double coverage it makes play calling a lot easier. Nate Burleson is quite talented as well and second year player Titus Young is pushing for playing time. Rookie Ryan Broyles has to work his way back into football shape after rehabbing his ACL tear, but if he comes close to being the player he was at Oklahoma the Lions will have another weapon in the slot. The sky is the limit for this group.
Running backs: Below Average Right now, Jahvid Best still hasn't been cleared to practice with the Lions because of his recurring concussions. Putting aside whether he should still be playing at all, that leaves Mikel Leshoure, he of the two offseason arrests, and Kevin Smith as the primary ball carrier. I have no idea what kind of NFL player Leshoure will be and we may never find out if he keeps getting in trouble. I have seen Kevin Smith play and he is an average NFL running back on his best day.
It's really a shame that the Lions don't have a viable running back because there is no telling how much more potent their already impressive offense could be with that added dimension.
Tight Ends: Above Average Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler are both potent weapons in the passing game. Pettigrew is also a decent blocker in the running game.
Quarterbacks: Above Average Because of injuries it took awhile to see how good Matthew Stafford can be but he made up for lost time in 2011. Throwing for over five thousand yards is just silly but his most impressive stat might have been the 41 touchdown passes thrown versus only 16 interceptions. Sick, sick numbers. Shaun Hill has shown early in Stafford's career that he can step in and do the job in his absence.
Defensive Line: Above Average Without a doubt the Lions defensive line should be rated outstanding. Cliff Avril still hasn't shown up to camp, however. And Nick Fairley can't stay out of trouble. We probably won't know if Fairley will be suspended for awhile but that possibility is definitely out there. It's a shame too because I don't know if there is a defensive line 8 players deep that is any better pound for pound than the Lions ability wise. Ndamukong Suh still needs to work on his finesse moves but it's hard to argue against the effectiveness of his bull rush. Willie Young is turning heads filling in for Avril in camp. Kyle Van Den Bosch is still as intense and relentless as ever. And defensive tackle Corey Williams may be the most underrated defensive lineman in the NFL.
Linebackers: Average Stephen Tulloch is a better than average player but he is the only linebacker on the Lions roster I can say that about. Very average group.
Secondary: Bad For a secondary that was bad last year you lose one starter Eric Wright in free agency and then his replacement Aaron Berry keeps getting in trouble so you have to release him. The only free agents signed to help the secondary were Sean Jones and Jacob Lacey. Do we really have to do the math here? I do like Louis Delmas but he seems to be banged up so far in training camp. I wish I could find something more positive to say.
Special Teams: Average Jason Hanson was an average kicker last year. Ryan Donahue was below average in net punt yards average. Stefan Logan is a decent return guy but he isn't special either.
Coaching: Above Average I wasn't wild about Jim Schwartz's meltdowns last year and I think they directly contributed to some of his players being undisciplined. They were just following his lead so to speak. But there is no denying that he has changed the losing culture in Detroit. Now he just has to clean up the details. I love Scott Linehan as an offensive coordinator.
I also think Gunther Cunningham is over rated as a defensive coordinator at this point.
Offensive Line: Average Will Beatty looked shaky at left tackle before he got hurt last year. David Baas wasn't all that much better. The rest of the line is solid, but they can't afford to have the injuries like last season.
Wide Receivers: Above Average Hakeem Nicks is out until the middle of August and Mario Manningham left via free agency. I still believe this group can be special. Victor Cruz put on a show last year and rookie Rueben Randle will take up some of the slack from Manningham's departure. Nicks when healthy is a Pro Bowl type receiver, he just has to hope he doesn't aggravate the injury by rushing back to early.
Running backs: Above Average Ahmad Bradshaw is an excellent all-around running back. DJ Ware is a high quality backup. Rookie first-round draft pick David Wilson will be in the mix for carries as well.
Tight Ends: Average Martellus Bennett has all the potential in the world, but he doesn't produce when the lights are on. Bear Pascoe is just a "guy" and Travis Beckum still hasn't been activated from the PUP list.
Quarterbacks: Elite Eli Manning backed up his words last year when he declared himself in the same class as the top quarterbacks in the league. After throwing for just shy of 5,000 yards in 2011, I see no reason to believe he won't at least equal that output this year. It has been a while since we saw his backup David Carr in regular season action but he is a serviceable backup.
Defensive Line: Outstanding I wouldn't be surprised if Jason Pierre-Paul won defensive player of the year this year. That's how good he is heading into his third year in the NFL. Osi Umenyiora, Justin Tuck, Chris Canty and the list goes on and on. These guys are dominant and deep, which allows them to rotate in and out and run people into the ground. With Osi basically on a one-year deal, I would look for him to turn the intensity up even more when he is the game, trying to audition for his next team.
Linebackers: Above Average Mathias Kiwanuka has really taken to his role as an outside linebacker. Chase Blackburn and Mark Herzlich are battling it out for the middle linebacker position during camp. Michael Boley is solid but if he slips, Keith Rivers is right behind him to step right in. I expect the linebacker group to be better than they were in 2011.
Secondary: Above Average Terrell Thomas recently went down with another knee injury, so his availability for the season is once again in doubt. The Giants have Prince Amukamara, their first-round pick from 2011, waiting in the wings to take over. Corey Webster posted six interceptions last season, so I don't think anyone is worried about him. Antrel Rolle and Kenny Phillips return at safety. Will Hill is reportedly having an excellent camp at safety also.
Special Teams: Average Punter Steve Weatherford, kicker Lawrence Tynes and the returners are all just middle of the pack.
Coaching: Outstanding Tom Coughlin, Kevin Gilbride and Perry Fewell are all outstanding coaches.
Offensive Line: Above Average Andrew Whitworth, Andre Smith and Kyle Cook are all quality returning starters. Kevin Zeitler was taken in the first round and will probably start at right guard. Travelle Wharton was long time starter for the Panthers and he is the likely starter at left guard.
Wide Receivers: Average AJ Green will look to build on a superb rookie season. After Green, however, there are more question marks than answers. Armon Binns and Brandon Tate are fighting to start opposite Green. Tate had his first twenty four career catches last year playing for the Patriots. Binns has yet to catch a ball in an NFL regular season game. Jordan Shipley, who started off with a strong rookie campaign with fifty four catches in 2010 is trying to bounce back from an ACL tear he suffered early last season.
With Jerome Simpson gone someone is going to have to step up and take pressure off of Green in the passing game.
Running backs: Above Average BenJarvus Green-Ellis looks to be the starter after leaving the Patriots for the Bengals. He is underrated as a running back and should be very productive. Bernard Scott and Brian Leonard are quality backups and Chris Pressley is a physical lead blocker at fullback.
Tight Ends: Above Average Jermaine Gresham will likely help take up the slack in the passing game from the loss of Simpson in free agency I look for him to catch more than the 56 passes he hauled in last year. Fourth-round pick Orson Charles will likely see some action in the passing game as well.
Quarterbacks: Above Average Andy Dalton will try to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump. It's going to be hard for him to duplicate the success he had in his rookie year without a reliable number two receiver however. Bruce Gradkowski is his backup and he provides quality depth as he has been a starter in the NFL before with the Raiders and the Buccaneers.
Defensive Line: Above Average Geno Atkins made the Pro Bowl in his second season last year. I loved him coming out of college and he will only continue to improve. Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap are two very athletic defensive ends. Dunlap has to be a more consistent player, however, to move into the starting lineup and become and every down player.
Linebackers: Above Average Rey Maualuga has all the physical tools to be a force at middle linebacker. Manny Lawson is very athletic and has some decent pass rush ability. Thomas Howard kind of came out of nowhere last season and led the team in tackles. This group could be very good with another season under their belt.
Secondary: Above Average Nate Clements, Reggie Nelson and Leon Hall are all quality veteran starters. Taylor Mays looks like he is finally putting it all together as well. Rookie first round pick corner back Dre Kirkpatrick is out for now with a fractured knee but should be back just after the regular season starts. There is a bunch of veteran depth behind the starters so this is one group I wouldn't worry about.
Special Teams: Above Average Mike Nugent was very good on field goals last year. Kevin Huber was just better than middle of the pack in net punting yards. The Bengals are blessed with several players with above average return ability including Adam Jones.
Coaching: Above Average Marvin Lewis gets knocked a lot but considering the owner he works for I think he has done a pretty good job. I love defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. I'm not totally sold on Jay Gruden as an offensive coordinator yet but he is growing on me.
Offensive Line: Above Average Maurkice Pouncey is a Pro Bowl type player at center. Willie Colon will likely benefit greatly by moving inside to guard.Rookies Mike Adams and David DeCastro have an opportunity to come in and start right away at left tackle and right guard respectively. Ramon Foster and Max Starks give the Steelers the veteran quality depth they have been missing up front in recent years.
Wide Receivers: Above Average A lot about the Steelers' season will hinge on when/if Mike Wallace reports to camp and what kind of shape he is in. Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders are good receivers in their own right. Neither of those two guys consistently force teams to double team them, though. Wallace is a factor even when he isn't being targeted because he helps to open up the underneath routes. If he isn't on the field that allows defenders to cover just a little bit tighter than before.
If Wallace shows up right before the start of the season and or is out of shape that likely means the Steelers will struggle mightily on offense this year.
Running backs: Average Rashard Mendenhall is still rehabbing his knee after a torn ACL and he was really the bell cow of this group. Isaac Redman is a solid player but I don't think he is a game changer. The same goes for Jonathan Dwyer. Rookie Chris Rainey is intriguing because of his speed and shiftiness, characteristics you don't normally associate with a Pittsburgh Steelers running back. When its all said and done, however, they need Mendenhall to come back strong this year.
Tight Ends: Above Average Heath Miller is still a viable threat in the passing game. Second year player Weslye Saunders should be primed to make a larger contribution. Leonard Pope continues to be a good blocker.
Quarterbacks: Above Average Ben Roethlisberger is still playing at a high level and I would expect him to be even better with an improved offensive line in front of him. There's all kinds of quality depth and experience behind him with Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch returning as well.
Defensive Line: Slightly Above Average When Casey Hampton comes off PUP then he along with Ziggy Hood and Brett Keisel would definitely qualify as Above average.
Linebackers: Above Average Normally this group would easily be outstanding but James Harrison and back up rush linebacker Jason Worilds are both on PUP. This speaks to a larger issue of some guys getting older and getting nicked up. As good as the Steelers defense is when everyone is healthy, will we ever see everyone healthy at the same time in 2012? Seems doubtful.
Secondary: Above Average I have to say I was leaning towards saying the Steelers secondary is average and not because of any injuries. The truth is Troy Polamalu still makes a lot of plays and Ryan Clark is a factor patrolling the middle but cornerback is increasingly starting to look like a liability. Ike Taylor only has six interceptions in the last four years combined, and it's not because quarterbacks are avoiding him. Isn't it about time the Steelers at least attempted to upgrade the position?
Special Teams: Average The Steelers weren't very good statistically kicking field goals or punting the ball in 2011. They signed an undrafted free agent kicker in Danny Hrapmann to compete with Shaun Suisham and brought in two new punters to compete for the job in Drew Butler and Jeremy Kapinos
Coaching: Above Average I have a tremendous amount of respect for Mike Tomlin and I think he is one of the best coaches in the NFL. Dick LeBeau is obviously one of the all time best defensive coordinators in NFL history. The father of the zone blitz is still going strong.
I'm not as big of a fan of new offensive coordinator Todd Haley, however. It just seems that this guy brings chaos and turmoil with him every where he goes. That's not to say he isn't a good game planner or play caller. I'm just not sure you would want everything else that comes with that.
Offensive Line: Above Average . Center Nick Mangold, guard Brandon Moore and left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson are all much better than average offensive linemen. Left guard Matt Slauson is a quality player as well. Wayne Hunter, however, could fairly be described as a living, breathing, turnstile when it comes to pass protection. The Jets tried to solve their Wayne Hunter problem by trading for Jeff Otah, but unfortunately he failed his physical and the trade was voided. So now, of course, they have to act like Hunter was their guy all along. But that's not going to help Matt Sanchez one bit when he is lying on his back seeing stars after Mario Williams blows by Hunter and almost kills him.
It is such a shame to have a line that good at the four other positions and so very bad at the remaining one.
Wide Receivers: Average Santonio Holmes is still very good at his job. He doesn't have a lot of help at his position in that regard, however. Chaz Schilens has been very average in his career so far. Stephen Hill is a rookie first rounder who can fly but doesn't know how to run crisp routes yet. Jeremy Kerley whom the Jets were looking for to become a threat out of the slot has been hurt and not practicing most of camp. If it weren't for Tone this group would be well below average.
Running backs: Above Average Shonn Greene is a high quality starting running back. Bilal Powell has the potential to do a lot of the same types of things as Greene does in a back up role. Joe McKnight brings the change of pace and home run threat to the mix.
Tight Ends: Above Average Dustin Keller is still playing at a high level but the Jets better hope he doesn't get hurt because the cupboard is bare behind him.
Quarterbacks: Above Average Mark Sanchez might not be in Tom Brady's league but he is still a quality starting NFL quarterback. He may appear to be digressing this year, however, with the lack of talent at the wide receiver position. Tim Tebow love him or hate him is a decent football player playing quarterback. The problem is that when, not if but when, Sanchez struggles the fans (and some teammates) will yell for Tebow. This will be even worse if Tebow is made the "goalline quarterback" as they are reportedly planning to do. If the team scores a high percentage of touchdowns when Tebow is in the game people won't care that he isn't the one who marched the offense down there. I look for there to be a quarterback controversy right around the time of their bye week mid-season.
Greg McElroy and Matt Simms will battle it out to see who gets the job of holding a clipboard all year.
Defensive Line: Above Average The Jets are moving to more of a 4-3 this year so it will be interesting to see how the defensive linemen adjust. I don't think Muhammad Wilkerson will have any problem with the switch and everything coming out of the Jets camp says he will be a dominant player this year. Aaron Maybin has also been making a lot of noise rushing the passer. With Sione Pouha and Mike Devito kicked inside, rookie first round pick Quinton Coples will also have an opportunity to get after the quarterback.
Linebackers: Above Average It remains to be seen as to who will move where in a 4-3 system but its safe to say that Bart Scott and David Harris will still be on the field. Those guys can still play at a high level and rookie third round pick Demario Davis may get an opportunity to get on the field as well. The Jets are really high on Davis and his leadership abilities.
Secondary: Outstanding Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie form the best cornerback tandem in the NFL for my money. The Jets should have improved play out of the safety position provided LaRon Landry can stay healthy and Yeremiah Bell hasn't lost a step. If Landry starts all16 games I shudder to think what this defense might accomplish.
Special Teams: Above Average As long as Mike Westhoff is in charge of this group I would never worry about them if I were a Jets fan.
Coaching: Outstanding Rex Ryan said he is one of the best defensive minds in the NFL and I agree with him wholeheartedly. The addition of Tony Sparano as offensive coordinator is likely going to ensure that the offense takes care of the ball and that they don't waste the great defensive efforts the Jets have been putting forth the last few years.
Offensive Line: Outstanding The Broncos led the league in rushing last year behind an offensive line that started all 16 regular season games together as a group. The offensive line returns intact and should be one of the strongest units on the team. Chris Kuper is back in action during training camp after suffering an ankle injury that required surgery at the end of last year. Ryan Clady is already a perennial Pro Bowler heading into his fifth season. Orlando Franklin should be even better after starting every game of his rookie season in 2011.
Wide Receivers: Above Average Eric Decker morphed into a Tim Tebow's No. 1 target a year ago and is primed to carry that momentum in to 2012 with Peyton Manning at quarterback. Demaryius Thomas, who has been hampered by injuries much of his young career, also started to put everything together last season. He is a big target with good top end speed who should only get better with Manning throwing him the ball. Brandon Stokley can resurrect his career if he can stay healthy. Andre Caldwell has elite speed on the outside and is looking to get his career back on track as well.
Running backs: Average Willis McGahee notched over 1,100 yards for the fourth time in his career in 2011. With an improved passing game I look for his numbers to be even better this year barring injury. Former first round pick Knowshon Moreno will be looking to get his career on track after rushing for just one hundred and seventy nine yards last season. He will have to battle it out with this year's third-round pick Ronnie Hillman for playing time behind McGahee.
Tight Ends: Above Average Manning will have a familiar target at tight end in Jacob Tamme. The last time they were together on a football field Tamme notched sixty seven catches in 2010. Tamme's backup, Joel Dreessen, is also a good option in the passing game.
Quarterbacks: Above Average We still don't know how well Peyton Manning will play coming off a neck surgery that sidelined him all of 2011. The reports from training camp have been overwhelmingly positive but he still hasn't taken a hit yet. Even if he isn't 100 percent, Manning at 90 percent is better than most of the other quarterbacks.
Defensive Line: Above Average The Broncos are going back to a 4-3 defense, which I think will help defensive end Elvis Dumervil tremendously. Robert Ayers will be the left defensive end which I also think comes more naturally to him. Inside new defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio wants huge defensive tackles. Ty Warren definitely fits the bill there. Kevin Vickerson and rookie second round pick Derek Wolfe are battling for the other defensive tackle spot.
Linebackers: Above Average Von Miller was amazing as a rookie in 2011, especially when rushing the passer. He will be off the line more at outside linebacker in a 4-3 but I would look for him to still blitz a lot. He will also likely go to defensive end in many nickle rushing situations. Joe Mays looks to be the man at middle linebacker. DJ Williams is still facing a six game suspension but Wesley Woodyard should be able to hold the spot down until he gets back. Maybe even longer.
Secondary: Above Average Champ Bailey is going to the Hall of Fame at some point after he retires. For now he is still playing at an elite level at cornerback. Safety Quinton Carter is battling through some injuries in camp so the Broncos signed Jim Leonard to help solidify the position. Tracy Porter comes over from the Saints but I'm not sure he has a lot left in the tank.
Special Teams: Average Britton Colquitt is a top notch punter. Matt Prater was near the bottom of the league in field goal percentage a year ago. The Broncos don't have any return men that scare anybody.
Coaching: Outstanding I thought John Fox did an excellent job as the Carolina Panthers' head coach and I'm still somewhat confused as to why they thought they needed a change. Their loss was definitely the Broncos' gain.
Mike McCoy may have done the most impressive coaching job as offensive coordinator last year that I've ever seen. Transforming their offense to play to Tim Tebow's strength is a lot harder than it looks but he pulled it off to great effect. Now with Peyton Manning at the helm I'm excited to see what he can come up with.
Jack Del Rio seemed to implode his last few years as a head coach in Jacksonville. I do think he is still a top not defensive mind however.
Offensive Line: Above Average . Left tackle Jordan Gross and center Ryan Kalil have both made the Pro Bowl multiple times. The only new starter is likely to be rookie second-round pick Amini Silatolu.
Wide Receivers: Above Average Steve Smith rejuvenated his career in 2011 becoming Cam Newton's favorite target. With seventy nine catches and almost fourteen hundred yards receiving, he shows no signs of slowing down. Brandon Lafell is a capable number two receiver but he needs to pick up his production this year to ease some of the pressure off Smith. David Gettis and newly acquired Louis Murphy will probably battle it out for the third wide receiver spot whenever Gettis is able to practice after coming back from an ACL tear in 2011.
Running backs: Outstanding The Panthers already had a dynamic duo at running back with DeAngelo Williams and Johnathan Stewart, but the rich got richer when they signed fullback Mike Tolbert from the San Diego Chargers. Tolbert is a pretty good runner in his own right. He rushed for almost five hundred yards in 2011 with a four yard per carry average. Considering how much of the Panthers' offensive attack is predicated on being able to run the ball well the addition of Tolbert should make them even more explosive.
Tight Ends: Average Greg Olsen is an above average pass catching tight end but there isn't much quality depth behind him.
Quarterbacks: Above Average Cam Newton had one of the best seasons ever for a rookie quarterback. He passed for over four thousand yards and ran for over seven hundred yards. In all he accounted for thirty five touchdown which was just phenomenal. But his gaudy statistics didn't lead to many wins perhaps because he also threw seventeen interceptions.
If he can limit those turnovers the sky is the limit for what he can accomplish.
Defensive Line: Above Average This group was supposed to be a strong point for the Panthers last year but when defensive tackle Ron Edwards went down in the first training camp practice they never seemed to recover. Defensive end Charles Johnson still notched nine sacks but the defense ended up being the weak part of the team. With the return of Edwards I look for the defense to perform a lot better, especially against the run. The other defensive tackle Terrell McClain should make a tremendous step forward in his second year as well.
Linebackers: Above Average Thomas Davis is attempting to come back from his third ACL reconstruction. But if he can't make it all the way back the Panthers have James Anderson who played well the last two years filling in for him. Jon Beason is a monster at middle linebacker but he is coming off an injury as well having torn his Achilles Tendon last season. Rookie first round pick Luke Kuechly is expected to step right in and start from day one at outside linebacker. It will ultimately all come down to whether or not this group stays healthy. If they do they will definitely make a lot of plays.
Secondary: Average The Panthers' secondary may have literally been the worst in the league in 2011 giving up over eight yards per pass attempt. There is competition at every position now but I don't think the players the Panthers brought in are much of an upgrade. I expect this group to continue to struggle this season. They have to hope the front seven stays healthy and takes some of the pressure off of them.
Special Teams: Average Olindo Mare was near the bottom of the league in field goal percentage last year and the Panthers will have a new punter. They may have found a dynamic return man in fourth round draft pick Joe Adams, however.
Coaching: Above Average I like Ron Rivera as a head coach so far. Rob Chudzinski was phenomenal directing Cam Newton as offensive coordinator last year. I know Sean McDermott did some good things as defensive coordinator with the Eagles but I'm waiting to be impressed with his Panthers defense.
Offensive Line: Above Average Four out of five starters return with the exception of the injured left tackle Jason Peters. Left guard Evan Mathis and right tackle Todd Herremans are really good players. Demetress Bell who will replace Peters has been a decent starter for the Buffalo Bills in past years.
Wide Receivers: Outstanding DeSean Jackson is one of the league's true game breakers. Jeremy Maclin has number one receiver talent. Jason Avant is a better than average wide receiver. Riley Cooper is out with a broken collarbone but may be back for the beginning to the regular season. He gives the Eagles a bigger target than the other three guys.
Running backs: Above Average LeSean McCoy is another game breaker out of the backfield. He has elite field vision and lateral quickness which makes him dangerous anywhere on the football field. Dion Lewis shares some similar characteristics with McCoy and headed into his second season he looks to be locking down the primary backup role.
Tight Ends: Above Average Brent Celek is a weapon in the passing game. He is however out with a knee injury for now. His back up Clay Harbor isn't in his league as a pass catcher but he is serviceable.
Quarterbacks: Above Average If Vick could stay healthy for a full season he would easily raise this category up to outstanding all by himself. That hasn't happened since 2006, however. Listen, we all know about the amazing things Vick can do on the football field but at this point in his career that isn't enough. His highest output for touchdown passes in a season is twenty one. Cam Newton did that in his rookie season. It's time for Vick to stay healthy, be consistent, and lead his team deep into the playoffs. Anything less should be considered a failure.
Mike Kafka hasn't done much of anything so far in his NFL career but it really doesn't matter. The hopes and dreams of the Eagles and their fans depend on Vick making it through the season healthy.
Defensive Line: Above Average If everyone on the defensive line gets healthy before the start of the regular season then they will definitely be outstanding. For now both starting defensive ends, Jason Babin and Trent Cole are out with injuries and defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins has missed some time in training camp as well. I wouldn't count on Mike Patterson to come back from off season brain surgery, his health is much more important anyway. But the Eagles drafted Fletcher Cox in the first round and he should provide some instant impact up front. If the Eagles can finally get some production out of Brandon Graham they will have one of the deepest and most talented defensive lines in the NFL.
Top three easily.
Linebackers: Above Average DeMeco Ryans is a major upgrade at middle linebacker. Not just with his play but also with his leadership. Brian Rolle is undersized but you wouldn't know it watching him play. I expect him to make a big leap forward this season. On the strong side the Eagles have basically gifted the job to rookie second round pick Mychal Kendricks. Jamar Chaney did enough to warrant keeping his job in my opinion and he is reportedly pushing to get back in the lineup so far in camp so it will be interesting to see how it all plays out.
Secondary: Above Average The secondary was supposed to be a strength if not the strength of the team in 2011 after trading for Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and signing Nnamdi Asomugha. Instead they spend the season looking more confused than dominant as a group. Gone is Asante Samuel which allows Rodgers-Cromartie to move back to the outside where he is more comfortable. Nate Allen is back at safety after being hurt for much of 2011. Rookie fourth round draft pick Brandon Boykin may be able to help right away as a nickle corner. OJ Atogwe provides much needed quality veteran depth should injuries occur again.
Special Teams: Above Average Alex Henery was quietly in the top ten in field goal percentage last year. DeSean Jackson is your punt returner and Boykin will likely see some time on returns as well. This group would be outstanding if they had a better punter than Chas Henry or Mat McBriar.
Coaching: Above Average Andy Reid is a great head coach and offensive coordinator. I will go to my grave trying to figure out why he hired Juan Castillo to coach his defense. Surely someone more established, or for that matter someone who had coached anywhere on defense in the last decade, could do a better job with the collection of talent they have on that side of the ball.
Offensive Line: Above Average Bobbie Williams will bring some nastiness at left guard after coming over from the Bengals via free agency. I know that Bryant McKinnie is still having some weight and conditioning issues but the guy can still play on Sundays. And with Matt Birk at center those three guys are going to be a formidable force on the left side of the line. On the right side Marshal Yanda is coming off his first Pro Bowl season at guard. Michael Oher rounds out the group at right tackle and he is pretty dang good also. If McKinnie gets his weight issues handled and everyone stays healthy these guys are going to be really really good.
Maybe even outstanding.
Wide Receivers: Above Average Anquan Boldin is still playing at an elite level at wide receiver. Torrey Smith flashed well as a rookie in 2011 and should be an even bigger part of the offense this season. LaQuan Williams also appears to be flashing some big play ability in practice.
Running backs: Outstanding Ray Rice is one of the best running backs in the NFL and Vonta Leach may be the best fullback in the league as well. Rookie third round pick Bernard Pierce and second year player Anthony Allen appear to be battling for the number two running back position.
Tight Ends: Above Average Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta are supposed to be a pretty good tight end tandem for the Ravens this year. Unfortunately Pitta broke his hand during training camp. If he can come back and not miss a beat then both guys will be weapons in the passing game.
Quarterbacks: Above Average Joe Flacco isn't a bad quarterback. Much like Mark Sanchez he just isn't an elite quarterback yet. And people tend to grade quarterbacks as either their great or they suck. Flacco does not suck, but he does need to do a better job of consistently moving his team down the field. He has been stuck at around three thousand and six hundred yards the past three seasons. It's time to take the next step and put up better numbers if he wants to be considered elite and he wants to lead his team to a championship.
His backup is Tyrod Taylor and the Ravens coaches seem to really like what they have seen of him.
Defensive Line: Above Average Haloti Ngata is the best 3-4 end in the game for my money. Terrance Cody will only continue to get better at nose tackle and he is already pretty darn good. Art Jones and Pernell McPhee are both battling through injuries as they vie for the other defensive end spot.
Linebackers: Above Average It will be impossible to replace what Terrell Suggs brings to the Ravens defense but they are still a very talented group. A slimmed down Ray Lewis is still holding it down in the middle along side Jameel McClain. Paul Kruger and rookie second round pick Courtney Upshaw will collectively try to replace Suggs' pass rush presence. There's quality depth behind each position as well.
Secondary: Outstanding Ed Reed is obviously a sensational player but I don't think enough people noticed how well last year's free agent addition Bernard Pollard performed along side him. Where as Reed is known for being a ball hawk, Pollard was out there just hammering guys all over the field. Ladarius Webb, Cary Williams and second year player Jimmy Smith are all starting caliber NFL corners. As a group I expect this unit to do the most to take up the slack from missing Suggs up front.
Special Teams: Average Sam Koch was in the lower part of the NFL in net punting yards average and Billy Cundiff was bad even before he missed the big kick in the playoffs. And yet both guys still have jobs...so far. I'm not sure how good any Ravens fan should feel about Jacoby Ford being your probably return guy either.
Coaching: Above Average I like John Harbaugh as a Head Coach. I think Dean Pees will do a good job of replacing Chuck Pagano as defensive coordinator. I have no idea however how Cam Cameron still has his job as offensive coordinator.
Offensive Line: Above Average Free agent addition right tackle Eric Winston and left tackle Brandon Albert are very talented. Ryan Lilja is a quality left guard. Center Rodney Hudson and right guard Jon Asamoah are both ascendant young players.
Wide Receivers: Above Average The tandem of Dwayne Bowe and Jon Baldwin could be a potent one. Bowe however still hasn't reported to training camp. He is unhappy with having the franchise tag placed on him for this season so he is staying away for now. In his absence Baldwin is reportedly putting on a show every day in practice. Steve Breaston also returns after catching sixty one balls last season. When you sprinkle in Dexter McCluster working in the slot, the Chiefs are poised to have a very explosive passing game.
That's if Bowe ever decides to show up.
Running backs: Above Average Jamaal Charles is coming back off of an ACL tear and Peyton Hillis had an injury marred season of his own in Cleveland last season. If both guys stay healthy they will provide a great contrast in running styles as they share the rushing load.
Tight Ends: Above Average Tony Moeaki is also coming back from a knee injury that caused him to miss much of the 2011 season. If he is healthy he and Kevin Boss will be utilized a lot in the passing game.
Quarterbacks: Average Matt Cassel is another Chiefs player who struggled through injuries in 2011. If the Chiefs are to get back to the playoffs he is going to have to step his game up big time. Brady Quinn and Ricky Stanzi are the backups but if either of those guys have to play you can chalk this season up to a lost cause.
Defensive Line: Average Tyson Jackson and Glenn Dorsey are good, solid 3-4 ends. The Chiefs are hoping rookie first round pick Dontari Poe will start from day one at nose tackle and be disruptive.
Linebackers: Above Average Tamba Hali is a Pro Bowl type rush linebacker. Derrick Johnson is a Pro Bowl type middle linebacker. Between the two of them they make a lot of impact plays.
Secondary: Above Average Eric Berry made the Pro Bowl as a rookie in 2010, then he too was lost to a knee injury for most of 2011. If he has fully recovered he and Kendrick Lewis will be in competition with Seattle's safeties for the best young tandem in the league. Free agent addition cornerback Stanford Routt should excel in the Chiefs' aggressive defense as should hold over cornerback Brandon Flowers. Javier Arenas is still developing as a slot corner.
Special Teams: Above Average Arenas is a threat to take any return back to the house. Dustin Colquitt is an excellent punter with a top ten net yards per punt average last season. Ryan Succop wasn't to hot on his field goals last year, finishing near the bottom of the league percentage wise.
Coaching: Above Average I'm a huge fan of Romeo Crennel and I think he will do a tremendous job his second time around as an NFL head coach. Looking at his resume offensive coordinator Brian Daboll has experience working with pretty average quarterbacks and still being relatively successful. For that reason I'm optimistic about him.
Between Crennel and defensive backs coach Emmitt Thomas that's a lot of defensive knowledge on the staff. I expect big things from that side of the ball.
Offensive Line: Average The offensive line is in transition in Atlanta. Center Todd McClure right tackle Tyson Clabo and left guard Justin Blalock are set to return as starters. Clabo is the only one from that group to have ever made the Pro Bowl and that was just one time. The left tackle and right guard positions appear to be up for grabs. Rookie second round pick Peter Konz is expected to push for that open right guard spot.
Wide Receivers: Above Average Roddy White, Julio Jones and Harry Douglas caught one hundred and ninety three balls combined in 2011. Keep in mind that Jones was just a rookie last year and he will only get better. There is no reason why that trio shouldn't increase that output this year.
Running backs: Above Average Michael Turner is the bell cow but Jason Snelling is a very good running back as well. Jacquizz Rodgers is the change of pace guy and he did a pretty good job as a rookie last season.
Tight Ends: Above Average Tony Gonzales owns all of the career receiving records for tight ends. If last season was any indication he isn't slowing down. Eighty catches in his fifteenth season is just sick. Given that his backup Michael Palmer only caught ten balls, Falcons fans had better hope Gonzales stays healthy.
Quarterbacks: Above Average Matt Ryan threw for over four thousand yards and twenty nine touchdowns against only twelve interceptions. Unfortunately he picked a bad time to have a mediocre game in the playoffs. It's not going to be enough anymore for Ryan just to put up stats. Falcons fans want to see playoff wins as well. Chris Redman is Ryan's backup and he is at least decent.
Defensive Line: Slightly Above Average John Abraham has over one hundred career sacks and he can still rush the passer with the best of them. Ray Edwards came to the Falcons from Minnesota where he had a reputation for being able to rush the passer as well. His first season in Atlanta was a little rocky however and he only produced three and a half sacks. I expect his sack total to get back up closer to double digits this year. Corey Peters is out until the regular season starts and the Falcons are already pretty average at defensive tackle.
It seems like every year they look for answers on the interior of the defensive line and every year they fail to come up with any.
Linebackers: Average First the Falcons let their middle linebacker Curtis Lofton walk in free agency. Then his replacement, Lofa Tatupu got hurt and is out for the season. That led them to resign Mike Peterson, a guy who went from starter to back up in 2011. I like Stephen Nicholas but a line up with him, Akeem Dent and Mike Peterson isn't scaring anybody.
Secondary: Outstanding Asante Samuel isn't going to make a lot of tackles but the guy has a knack for coming up with interceptions. With Samuel, Brent Grimes, and Dunta Robinson the Falcons have three outstanding corners. Thomas DeCoud and William Moore are above average safeties as well. It's a good thing there's so much talent on the back line because aside from Abraham there won't be much pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
Special Teams: Above Average Matt Bryant had the best field goal percentage of all full time kickers in the NFL last year. Punter Matt Bosher was a middle of the pack guy. Harry Douglas is an excellent return man.
Coaching: Average I like Mike Smith as a head coach. I think Mike Nolan is overrated as a defensive coordinator. Dick Koetter did some really good things in Jacksonville so it will be interesting to see what he has in store for the Falcons. I'm also a huge fan of defensive line coach Ray Hamilton.
Offensive Line: Average This group has nothing but question marks around it. Left tackle Matt Light is retired, right guard Brian Waters hasn't reported, left guard Logan Mankins and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer are both on PUP with injuries that may linger into the regular season and right guard/center Dan Koppen is trying to return from an injury made him miss all but the first game in 2011.
With so much of the success of the Patriots predicated on quarterback Tom Brady performing well I would be really worried about who is going to be protecting him up front.
Wide Receivers: Above Average The Patriots have an embarrassment of riches at the wide receiver position with all of their offseason additions. Brandon Lloyd will be able to give them the deep threat they lacked in 2011. Wes Welker is back under a franchise tender for at least another year. Last year's starter Deion Branch is still with the team. Quality NFL veterans Donte' Stallworth and Jabar Gaffney will have to battle just to make the team.
Running backs: Above Average Stevan Ridley appears to have the edge to take over for BenJarvus Green-Ellis as the starter at running back. He will have to overcome his ball security issues to earn head coach Bill Belichick's confidence however. Danny Woodhead will again be the third down back,, a role he has excelled at.
Tight Ends: Above Average The Patriots have the best tight end tandem in the NFL with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. They also recently signed former Vikings tight end Visanthe Shiancoe who is also an accomplished pass catching tight end which really is unfair.
Quarterbacks: Outstanding Tom Brady is now the guy all other quarterbacks are measured by. All he did last year in his twelfth season in the league is throw for over five thousand yards along with thirty nine touchdowns. That's all. And he did it without having a lot of talent at wide receiver other than Welker. Brian Hoyer is his backup and he is highly regarded around the league. Second year player Ryan Mallet is also extremely talented.
Defensive Line: Above Average It's hard to know whether the Patriots will use the 3-4 or a 4-3 as their predominant base defense. Either way Vince Wilfork and Kyle Love will be strong in the middle. Rookie first round pick defensive end/outside linebacker has reportedly looked strong as a pass rusher early in camp. He should help to upgrade the position right away.
Linebackers: Above Average Brandon Spikes and Jerod Mayo are two outstanding players and linebacker for the Patriots. Spikes has to find a way to stay healthy though. Rookie first round pick Dont'a Hightower is an upgrade at outside linebacker and may challenge for rookie defensive player of the year.
Secondary: Average The secondary was a weak point for the Patriots defense last season. Safety Patrick Chung missed half the regular season with various injuries. Cornerback Devin McCourty regressed in his second year in the league. Ras I Dowling missed almost the entire season with injuries. Somehow the defense overall was still good enough to get them to the Superbowl. The Patriots definitely noticed they needed some help on the back end, however. They went out and signed Steve Gregory from the Chargers. They spent a first round draft pick on safety Tavon Wilson and a sixth round draft pick on Alfonzo Dennard. If Chung can stay healthy and McCourty can bounce back this season the secondary should show a lot of improvement.
I will have to see it before I will believe it however.
Special Teams: Above Average Kicker Stephen Gostkowski was middle of the pack in field goal percentage. Punter Zoltan Mesko was in the top three in net punt yards average. Julian Edelman and Welker are sure handed return men but they are not home run threats.
Coaching: Outstanding Bill Belichick is the best head coach in the NFL. There, I said it. Josh McDaniels may be hard to like personally but he is a beast as an offensive coordinator as well. Matt Patricia has the title of defensive coordinator but we all know Belichick will be heavily involved on that side of the ball.
Offensive Line: Average The Bears offensive line will be much improved this season over 2011. It's hard for me to say they will be above average yet, however. The left tackle position is still up for grabs between J'Marcus Webb and Chris Williams. Gabe Carimi is still battling back from a knee injury that caused him to miss most of his rookie season in 2011. The interior of the offensive line is solid, however until the offensive tackle situation plays itself its hard to grade them as a group.
Wide Receivers: Above Average Wide receiver Brandon Marshall is looking to rekindle the chemistry he had with quarterback Jay Cutler in Denver. Marshall has matured quite a bit off the field but he still has the occasional lack of focus on the field. When he is really on he is hard to handle. Devin Hester is still the starter on the opposite side. He is going to have to be more productive in order to keep that job. Earl Bennett is a favorite target of Cutler, especially when he is in trouble. And Bennett finds a way to come up with big catches at crucial moments. With Johnny Knox still out recovering from a serious back injury and not expected back any time soon, rookie second round pick Alshon Jeffery will have an opportunity to contribute. I really believe he may turn out to be the steal of the draft. When he and Marshall are on the field together Cutler will have two tall, strong options who can go and get the ball at its highest point.
Running backs: Outstanding Matt Forte is one of the best all around backs in the league. He can do it all, great runner, great receiving option out of the backfield, good blocker on passing downs, you name it. Now he has Michael Bush, the Raiders leading rusher in 2011, on the team to help share the load. Those two guys are going to give teams headaches this year.
Tight Ends: Average Its hard to say what the Bears have at tight end because former offensive coordinator Mike Martz refused to use them in the passing game. New offensive coordinator Mike Tice intends to feature them more, however. We should find out together if they are any good after the season starts.
Quarterbacks: Above Average All the chatter about his demeanor and his facial expressions aside, Jay Cutler is a really good quarterback. He has a cannon for an arm and he isn't afraid to get hit while delivering the throw. His decision making could be better at times, yes. And that's the one area he needs to work on to help get his team back to the playoffs. The Bears brought in Jason Campbell to be his backup and that gives them quality depth in case anything happens to Cutler.
Defensive Line: Outstanding Julius Peppers is a top 3 defensive end in the NFL. In my book he is the best but I know that's debatable. Henry Melton is developing into quite the force at three technique with seven sacks last year. The Bears are hoping Corey Wootton and rookie first round pick Shea McClellin can help them get after the passer as well. They recently traded for Brian Price and I think he will make an impact as a pass rusher inside as well this season.
Linebackers: Outstanding Middle linebacker Brian Urlacher and outside linebacker Lance Briggs are top three at their respective positions. It doesn't even matter who lines up with them.
Secondary: Average In 2011 the Bears couldn't seem to settle on two safeties that they liked most of the season. Now Major Wright and Chris Conte appear to be the front runners. The jury is still out on both guys so far. Charles Tillman is one of those timeless wonders and he has a knack of creating turnovers from his cornerback position.
Special Teams: Outstanding Punter Adam Podlesh and kicker Robbie Gould were excellent in 2011. Devin Hester is still Devin Hester. The most feared punt returner in the game.
Coaching: Above Average I still believe in head coach Lovie Smith and I think he will get a ring before his time is done in Chicago. I'm totally biased about Rod Marinelli and I'll be the first to admit that but he is a great defensive mind in my opinion. I think the promotion of Mike Tice to offensive coordinator will go a long way in helping the Bears challenge for the division title.
Offensive Line: Above Average Chris Myers is one of the best centers in the NFL. Left tackle Duane Brown more than held his own last season as did left guard Wade Smith. The Texans do have to replace right guard Mike Brisiel and right tackle Eric Winston, however. Those guys were key parts to the offensive line last year, especially Winston. Replacing them won't be easy but the Texans feel comfortable with right guard Antoine Caldwell and right tackle Rashad Butler, both of whom have some starting experience.
Wide Receivers: Above Average Andre Johnson has been one of the best Wide Receivers in the NFL during most of his nine year tenure. He missed seven games last year with injury, however, and he just strained his groin during training camp. The Texans have to hope he doesn't have a repeat of last year. Kevin Walter is a solid number two receiver. The Texans also spend a third round pick on DeVier Posey is having a pretty good camp and will be in the mix as well.
Running backs: Outstanding Arian Foster missed three games with an injury in 2011 and still found a way to rush for over twelve hundred yards. His backup then rookie Ben Tate started two of those games he missed and ended up with over nine hundred yards rushing. That is one hell of a one two punch.
Tight Ends: Above Average Owen Daniels is a legitimate threat in the passing game but there isn't much behind him.
Quarterbacks: Above Average The one good thing about quarterback Matt Schaub missing time to injury last year was that the Texans were able to see what they had in then rookie TJ Yates. Yates didn't set the world on fire but he showed enough that the Texans are more than comfortable with him backing up Schaub again this year. Of course the hope is that Schaub can stay healthy because he is knocking on the door of being an elite quarterback in the NFL.
Defensive Line: Above Average JJ Watt was a monster at defensive end his rookie season a year ago. Unfortunately he dislocated his elbow in camp earlier this week and there is no way to tell when he will be back from that injury. Even when he comes back he might not be as effective. The Texans still have defensive end Antonio Smith and nose tackle Shaun Cody who are pretty good players in their own right. They also drafted defensive end Jared Crick in the fourth round so they should be OK at the position.
Linebackers: Outstanding Outside linebacker Brooks Reed was another rookie in 2011 who had a superb year. He notched six sacks while outside linebacker Connor Barwin tallied 11.5 of his own on the other side. Brian Cushing is a beast at one middle linebacker spot. I'm not sure about whether former Cowboys player Bradie James has much left in the tank but he rounds out the starters in the middle.
Secondary: Above Average Cornerback Johnathan Joseph was outstanding in his first year with the Texans last season. Danieal Manning appeared to find his groove again also after coming over from the Bears.
Special Teams: Average Punter Brett Hartmann was near the bottom of the league in average net punting yards. Kicker Neil Rackers is gone replaced by rookie fifth round pick Randy Bullock. None of the Texans' return men are anything special.
Coaching: Outstanding Head coach Gary Kubiak is pretty good at running an offense. But he looks great as a head coach now because he hired Wade Phillips to run his defense. That was a major upgrade to his staff.
Offensive Line: Above Average This is a solid group up front for the Packers. Former Pro Bowl center Jeff Saturday comes over from the Colts and I don't think he will have any problems fitting in. Left guard TJ Lang and right tackle Brian Bulaga are good young players. Marshall Newhouse is the weakest of the group but he can hold his own. The one problem the group has is a lack of depth. If someone gets hurt there will be problems.
Wide Receivers: Outstanding This group goes five players deep with high quality guys. Jordy Nelson and Greg Jennings are the lead dogs. Donald Driver is still around contributing as is James Jones. Second year player Randall Cobb is really explosive and will likely have a bigger role in the offense this year.
Running backs: Average The Packers aren't big on running the ball. Still this group is pretty average. James Starks flashes at times but he is too inconsistent. John Kuhn is a decent fullback who can do everything well.
Tight Ends: Above Average Jermichael Finley is an explosive weapon in the passing game at tight end. He still isn't even close to reaching his potential either. Tom Crabtree is a decent blocking tight end.
Quarterbacks: Outstanding Aaron Rodgers makes playing quarterback look so easy. The guy threw for over four thousand six hundred yards and forty five touchdowns which helped him secure the Associated Press' NFL MVP award last season. That was after he led his team to a Super Bowl win the previous year. I can't wait to see what he has in store this year. With Matt Flynn gone, his backup will be Graham Harrell who hasn't thrown a pass in a regular season game.
I would say keeping Rodgers upright is the highest priority on offense this year.
Defensive Line: Above Average BJ Raji is a load inside at nose tackle. But he is also nimble enough to generate good pass rush for a guy his size. Ryan Pickett is a quality starter at defensive end. Rookie second round draft pick Jerel Worthy figures to be in the mix up front as well.
Linebackers: Above Average Clay Matthews' sack numbers were down a year ago. He will try to rebound in 2012 and get them back in double digits. AJ Hawk, Desmond Bishop and Erik Walden were all quality starters last year. Rookie first round pick Nick Perry will battle Walden to start opposite Matthews. For the first game at least Perry should be in the lineup as Walden will be suspended for off field conduct.
Secondary: Above Average The Packers are very talented on the back end. It will be interesting to see how former cornerback Charles Woodson transitions to safety, however. Tramon Williams, Sam Shields and Jarrett Bush should really get after it at cornerback.
Special Teams: Above Average Kicker Mason Crosby was a little bit better than average last season. Punter Tim Masthay was a little lower than average. Randall Cobb is back again on returns and he is dangerous.
Coaching: Above Average Mike McCarthy is an outstanding offensive minded head coach. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers has been great but he will have to find a way to get the defense back on track this year.
Offensive Line: Above Average Left tackle Joe Staley is coming off his first Pro Bowl season. Center Jonathan Goodwin and right tackle Anthony Davis are better than average players. Left guard Mike Lupati really helps get the running game going when he pulls on counters and power Os. The one new comer will be Alex Boone at right guard. The 49ers weren't good in pass protection last season but that's not really what their offensive line is made for anyway. For what they want them to do this is a good group.
Wide Receivers: Above Average Michael Crabtree caught seventy two balls last season but it's still hard to know how good he is or isn't without better quarterback play. I'm trying (and failing) to temper my excitement about the addition of Randy Moss to this team. It doesn't help that every single report coming out about the 49ers camp offers glowing assessments of his work so far. Even if he isn't what he used to be, Moss can still make a difference as a deep threat. Especially with teams having to load the box to defend the run.
Mario Manningham comes over from the Giants where he had an up and down tenure. He has all the physical tools to be a weapon but he seems to have a problem with keeping his focus during games.
Rookie first round pick A.J. Jenkins may also get in the mix, but with so many veterans he doesn't have to be rushed along.
Running backs: Above Average If the 49ers can get Brandon Jacobs to run down hill every play can you imagine trying to tackle Frank Gore and then have Jacobs come in to spell him? Talk about a nightmare for most defenses. That's a big if though. Kendall Hunter is also a quality running back. With rookie second round draft pick LaMichael James the 49ers also have an option with big time speed out of the backfield now.
Tight Ends: Above Average Vernon Davis is about as dominant a tight end in all phases as you will find. I asked some friends to imagine if Davis had Tom Brady as his quarterback. Hopefully at some point the quarterback play improves to the point that Davis can really showcase his talent fully. I will say that I have no idea how you could defend the guy if he had a consistently accurate quarterback throwing him the ball. His backup is Delanie Walker, a very underrated player in my opinion. They use Walker in a variety of roles both in the running game and the passing game and he does everything well.
Quarterbacks: Average I could sit here and talk down quarterback Alex Smith all day but the truth is he has had to endure a bunch of coaching changes that would've stunted any quarterback's development. Having said that, I also have to say that the time for that excuse is over. The rest of the team is too ready for a championship for one guy to hold all of them back. I know that the 49ers pursued Peyton Manning and then when they didn't land him they gave Smith a vote of confidence. However if it were me I would give Smith a chance to go out and show he has improved but if he hasn't I wouldn't hesitate to give someone else a shot.
They drafted Colin Kaepernick in the second round last year. The brought in veteran Josh Johnson in free agency.
Management did that for a reason and there's no sense in leaving those guys on the bench if Smith isn't performing well.
Defensive Line: Outstanding Justin Smith is just a beast at defensive end. He physically mauls the offensive line all game. Ray McDonald is no slouch either at the other defensive end spot.
Linebackers: Outstanding The 49ers have the best 3-4 linebacker group in the NFL and its not really close. Patrick Willis is on another world with his talent. Aldon Smith made a big splash as a rookie last year with fourteen sacks. Ahmad Brooks isn't talked about as much but he had seven sacks of his own.
Secondary: Outstanding Cornerback Carlos Rogers and safeties Donte Whitner and Dashon Goldson all has monster years in 2011. The other starting corner Tarell Brown wasn't too bad either notching a career high four interceptions.
Special Teams: Above Average Punter Andy Lee led the league in average net punt yardage. Kicker David Lee led the league in made field goals. Ted Ginn Jr. may never be a big contributor as a wide receiver but he is definitely a dangerous return man
Coaching: Above Average Jim Harbaugh's first year was very impressive. He did have a lot of talent to work with in place but he found a way to put it altogether and almost made the Super Bowl. It will be interesting to see if he can repeat that success in his second year. Vic Fangio is the new defensive coordinator. I know he has done a good job in the past both on the NFL and collegiate level.
I have to wait and see what he does with this defense before I can make a judgement either way.