NFL Preseason: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of Every Roster
Image courtesy of Boston.com
Every team must contend with its bad side. Most teams hope to eliminate their ugly side all together if the treasure at season's end is to be procured.
The key to attaining that ultimate prize coveted by all 32 teams vying for glory is to know exactly who you are as a team. You must know the good, the bad, and the ugly of your franchise.
In this slideshow we take a look at the whole spectrum from the "good" to the "ugly" of every franchise in a delightful combination of positive and negative sure to offend and delight every NFL fan.
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The big boys up front on both sides of the ball should be able to compete against any team in the league. They lead the way for a dynamic combo of runners in Fred Jackson and C.J Spiller.
Their offensive line ranked ninth in my ranking system last year. They have a ton of depth at the position as well.
The addition of the highest paid defensive player in history via free agency—Mario Williams—has to upgrade the front four exponentially.
There are some lingering concerns about the second receiving option in Buffalo behind Stevie Johnson. Not without talent at the receiver position, someone is going to have to step up and take pressure off of Johnson when he's double teamed.
By the second half of the season, rookie T.J. Graham should emerge as a dangerous slot option. He is a quick little firecracker with exciting skills after the catch.
Unfortunately, preseason action provided no clarity to this issue and many start to worry whether or not a reliable second option is on the roster.
The recent exhibition of quarterbacking by Ryan Fitzpatrick has been downright disheartening. If the Bills are to have any hope for the playoffs, they’re going to need consistent play from Ryan Fitsy.
Unfortunately, all indications point to another roller coaster ride with the Harvard Alumni. But if we want things to get really ugly, try replacing him with Tyler Thigpen or, according to the Associated Press via boston.com, newly added Tarvaris Jackson. Both QBs have looked far from impressive in a Bills uniform and offer no hope as a backup plan.
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Romo is back to lead a group of highly talented athletes, all ready to take control of perhaps the toughest division is the league.
The Cowboys are loaded with both potential and proven stars who have consistently underachieved as of late. Perhaps this is the year they can stay healthy and make a run for the title.
This bad may only be temporary, but bad nonetheless. The Cowboys continue to struggle with staying healthy on offense. Without so much as a single regular season game played, the entire receiving corps is suffering from various forms of nicks and bruises.
As BR’s Ryan Davenport reports, the Cowboys could face some early season struggles as this unit fights to get healthy.
Tyron Smith may be the one bright spot in an injury-riddled offensive line that looks forced to play several unproven rookies who have struggled throughout preseason play.
Without decent play upfront, the Cowboys may be in for a long, injury-filled season. No part of the offense can produce without adequate linemen to give the quarterback time and running back holes.
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The Dolphins seem to be quietly collecting some impressive talent on both sides of the ball, but this doesn’t mean Miami is anywhere near being a true contender.
Joe Philbin inherits a solid front seven on defense equipped with one of the league’s best pass rushers in Cameron Wake. On the other side of the ball, he can look forward to leaning on running back Reggie Bush—who is coming off the best year of his career.
Playing a rookie quarterback who isn’t ready can be downright troublesome for any team looking to have a productive season and vie for a Playoff spot.
Tannehill may be the quarterback for the future, but all indications point to him not being ready right away.
Who do the Dolphins plan on throwing the ball to this season?
According to an article by Bleacher Report’s own Erik Frenz:
Miami general manager Jeff Ireland himself lamented the lack of top-end pass-catching talent on a recent episode of Hard Knocks, saying:
"We've got fours, fives and sixes. What we need are threes, twos and ones. And we have to find out who those threes, twos and ones are and if we have any of those guys."
New England Patriots
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Belichick is still the head coach and Brady is still throwing the passes. Heck, they even added some new weapons on offense in Brandon Lloyd and a proven offensive coordinator in the returning Josh McDaniels.
We’re all too familiar with the struggles of the Patriots secondary last year. The good news is the unit was extremely young and inexperienced. Plus they’re fortunate enough to be under the tutelage of defensive genius Bill Belichick. Expect a much-improved defense all around this year.
Another exciting feature to the Patriots defense should be the incredibly big and physical linebacker unit consisting of Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes and Donte Hightower. This group should be formidable against the run, setting a physical tone for the entire team.
One of the big weaknesses of the Patriot pass-rush a year ago was its inability to put pressure on the quarterback.
The addition of first round draft pick Chandler Jones will prove inadequate in terms of the pass rush. He is a big, long, physical player who gives immense effort, but his ability and skill as a legitimate and consistent pass rusher are very limited.
The Patriots also chose not to resign Andre Carter and Mark Anderson, who each tied for the team lead in sacks in 2011 with 10.
Although the defense should be improved from a year ago, in reality, there really isn’t much room for that secondary to get worse. The Patriots allowed nearly 300 yards per game and finished ranked 31st in the league, only in front of the Packers.
This unit is likely to be the greatest weakness of the team throughout the season despite the improvement. But for what it’s worth, this ugly group is making some much needed trips to the cosmetic surgeon.
New York Giants
Eli Manning has willed himself into an elite quarterback in this league who can take control of big games. With two Super Bowl rings to his credit, both coming against Tom Brady and the Patriots, Eli has proven that he can compete in a shootout under the biggest stage imaginable—against the best in the business—and come out on top.
The Giants also have a prolific pass rush that has carried them deep into the playoffs several times. This area has always been a primary focus for the Giants' organization.
Despite a fantastic run late in the season led by Eli and a dominating pass rush, the Giants fought against the poor play of their offensive line. This year, the line looks to be playing at the same level as last year which isn’t a positive. It’s unlikely that this standard of play upfront will suffice in one of the toughest divisions in the NFL.
The Giants barely slid into the playoffs last year despite later becoming the reigning Super Bowl champs. The big question that looms over this organization is this: did the team that barely made the postseason do anything to improve their situation?
They lost WR Mario Manningham, RB Brandon Jacobs and TE Jake Ballard on offense. Those guys were replaced with some promising young talent, but will they be able to fill the void quick enough for another year of miracles and close calls?
The real issue with the Giants’ offseason was every team in their division seemed to make big strides to improve this year while the G-men seemed to be content with maintaining. Even if they’re able to achieve the same level of play from a year ago, they still may fall short of a repeat playoff performance considering the competition in the division.
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Pass rush is premier, speed is all over the field at every position, and talent abound.
The Eagles may be the fastest team in the league. They also may be the most talented team in the league. Shady McCoy is a game breaker, DeSean Jackson is a playmaker and Mike Vick is a deadly weapon.
The cornerback situation looks solid and ready for a good year with the addition of Brandon Boykin and a full offseason of development for their big additions from a year ago in Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominic Rodgers-Cromartie.
Big time offseason additions in DeMeco Ryans and second-round pick Mychal Kendricks should shore up a weak linebacking corps from a weakness to a potential strength of the team.
On paper, the Eagles have done everything right. But paper is thin, talk is cheap and the game can be brutal. Can the speedy Eagles fight with passion and intensity?
Eagles may have world-class speed, but when a team hit them in the mouth last year, Philadelphia seemed to fold and often would hand the ball over. This team must up the ante on their physicality. This is what led to an intensely physical camp orchestrated by head coach Andy Reid.
Well, Mike Vick was able to demonstrate enough value for the Eagles to get his big payday. Now he has to prove he’s capable of surviving a full 16 game season. Most criticism of the Eagles’ potential seem to be rooted in the idea that Vick is unreliable in the clutch and in his ability to stay healthy. These are definitely valid concerns.
In fact, Vick's fragility could make him more of a liability to the team than an asset. In order for the Eagles to maximize the potential on this roster, Vick must stay healthy and produce when it matters most.
New York Jets
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Hey, the Jets are finally receiving more press coverage than their big brother the Giants. This is even more noteworthy considering the Giants are coming off a Super Bowl season. Of course, the cause of all this attention is the result of their controversial decision to trade for some guy named Tim Tebow.
We all know what Darrelle Revis can do, and his status as the premiere cornerback in the league remains unquestioned. That might end up being the only thing for the Jets to go unquestioned all season.
With a strategy to ground and pound all the way to the Super Bowl, who exactly will the Jets be handing the ball to?
Shonn Greene has never lived up to the potential he displayed late in his rookie season, including the playoffs. The much anticipated wildcat lead by Tebow should provide an interesting change up, but there really isn’t anyone on the roster that can provide the Jets’ offense with the punch they’ll need to compete week in and week out.
Rex Ryan was able to find success with his coaching style do largely as a result of who he replaced as head coach. Eric Mangini could not have a more different style of coaching than Rex. During his reign as head honcho for the Jets, Mangini was a stern disciplinarian who demanded a high standard of detail-oriented execution.
This type of habit-forming was starting to take shape amongst the team providing many advantages for the players and organization as a whole.
Once Rex took over, he was able to provide the extreme opposite in terms of coaching, which essentially provided the Jets with the perfect balance of both coaching styles. This advantage is slowly diminishing year after year, and now the detriment and weaknesses of a loose, player-friendly coach are starting to dominate the team dynamic. Unfortunately, this may become the ugliest thing to watch all year for the boys in green.
The Rex Ryan-act is wearing thin and the locker room is slowly falling apart.
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The pairing of a Mike Shanahan offense and the playing style of Robert Griffin III is nothing short of a match made in heaven.
Shanahan is a master at designing effective play-action offenses which take advantage of mobile QBs who are skilled throwers on the run. This is the reason Shanahan was able to milk the best years out of former Bronco, Jake Plummer.
Expect Shanahan and RG3 to flourish for years to come as they become the next great coach-QB duo following in the footsteps of Drew Brees and Sean Payton.
Shanahan and company are still building this roster from the ground up and have done a decent job thus far, but the fact remains that in order to compete in the NFC East—perhaps the toughest division in the NFL—the Redskins are going to have to add some more playmakers on both sides of the ball.
Losing LaRon Landry to the Jets will be a greater loss than they anticipate as he brought a rare intensity to his game. Keep a close eye on the safety position this year as it may be a hole that needs patching.
It’s a good thing RG3 can run fast because the Redskins’ offensive line was among the worst of 2011. In all fairness, Washington addressed this need in the draft by dedicating three picks to the offensive line.
If the big guys upfront are unable to protect the new face of the franchise, it’s bound to get real ugly for the Redskins.
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Ray Rice is locked up for the long term while Flacco has been impressive over his career and into the preseason. The Ravens were fantastic against the pass last year allowing a league-low 11 touchdown receptions.
This type of stellar play in the secondary should be possible to duplicate on some level considering the talent of Lardarius Webb, Jimmy Smith, and Ed Reed.
Terrell Suggs will miss a large part of the season after tearing his Achilles in an offseason basketball game. This is the returning Defensive MVP and will not be replaced easily. The big question will be whether or not Suggs can return to form in time to finish the season and head into the playoffs. This is highly unlikely and as a result, the Ravens are in big trouble.
Perhaps this year Flacco can quiet his critics and prove once and for all he is a top QB in this league. The knock on his career has been his ability—or lack there of—to orchestrate a high powered pass attack capable of lighting up scoreboards and winning those high scoring affairs. Unfortunately, this may not be in his DNA.
Age is crawling up the legs of Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, causing them to decline in performance. This year they may finally be too old to dominate against all the youth in the NFL. One thing is for sure, both of these players will need to step up their game in the absence of Suggs, and one has to wonder whether or not this is possible.
No one has more respect for these players than I, but Father Time catches up to every man. This could finally be the season that forces both players out of the game for good. Sadly, as this process commences, the downfall of the Ravens should be close behind—at least for a while.
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The Bears added some huge weapons at wide receiver in Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery which should pay dividends in the red-zone.
Cutler has been nothing short of a warrior with his ability to stand in a shaky pocket time after time and deliver under extreme pressure.
Brian Urlacher is the leader and quarterback of the defense. His knee may end up causing more trouble for the future Hall of Famer than initially expected—it’s being reported that he may end up missing the season opener against the Colts.
This could also mean that the season as a whole will be a struggle for the 34-year-old Urlacher, who is getting up there in age.
One thing Bears fans have come to know over the years is that when Urlacher is not in the starting lineup, the defense is merely a shell of itself.
If the Bears cannot shore up their troubles on the offensive line, Jay Cutler will never make it through another season like last year. This concern is paramount for Chicago considering they're very much in contention for the the division title against the Green Bay Packers.
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Consistency at the head coaching position in this day and age of no-patience-football is a novel experiment that I believe is paying off. The Bengals have been drafting well the last few years and have completely rebuilt the roster from the Carson Palmer-led playoff team of ’09.
In a comprehensive and dynamic rating system I used for a couple of articles, I rated the Bengals’ offensive line performance last year as middle of the road.
This year they added a first round talent at guard in Kevin Zeitler. He was expected to take the unit to the next level, but with the season ending injury of Travelle Wharton in preseason action should cause some setbacks to the chemistry upfront.
For a team that loves to run the ball as much as the Bengals, you would think they would have invested a bit more in their running game. From the perspective of the front office, it would appear they believe they upgraded the run game by replacing Cedric Benson with “The Law Firm.” But when BenJarvus Green-Ellis is asked to carry the ball 20 plus times a game. I think his ability and production will start to look a lot like Benson’s.
When I posed the question of what are the Bengals' primary concerns this year, Bengal expert and writer Joe Goodberry had this to say:
The Bengals are one of the last teams still committed to the run. They're going to run it 450 times in 2012. Yet they have one of the poorest depth charts in the league at RB. Without having a consistent threat, Andy Dalton and the young passing offense will need to carry the team.
The bottom line here is the Bengals offense relies heavily on a productive run game, and it just doesn’t appear they properly addressed this in terms of depth and talent this offseason.
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“Megatron” is the best non-quarterback weapon in the NFL, Stafford passed for more than 5,000 yards last season, and the defensive line for the Lions should be one of the most dominant in the league.
Other than a few QBs, the most dominating player in the game today is Calvin Johnson. This man is the real-life version of create-a-player on a video game. Anyone fast enough to run with him will never match up to his size, while anyone big enough to battle for the ball will never be able to run with him. He is truly the most unstoppable force in the league. Even double-teams are rendered useless more often than not.
Running game anyone?
Sure the Lions can pass, but with the head issues of speedster Jahvid Best and no viable backup capable of carrying a load, the men of the “Motor-City” are pinning their hopes on an injury prone QB who injured his hand in Saturday’s preseason action and a passing game that still needs a No. 2 target to step up.
Clearly the Lions have a proficient passing attack, but when you become a one-dimensional offense you put more strain on the entire offense. Over the course of a 16 game season the lack of running game can really wear out the receivers and quarterback.
Discipline, character and the maturity of the team are by far the ugliest part of the team.
With an offseason loaded with DUIs, arrests, suspensions and a season last year that seemed to lack maturity during key periods of the season, the Lions could be in for a downswing if Jim Schwartz fails to take control and set a positive example. This became apparent in his embarrassing postgame hand shake with 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh.
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The good? Uh, hey they have a new owner, and uh, they have an elite rookie running back...with knee issues.
Jabaal Sheard and Joe Haden are two guys worth building around.
Greg Little is a big, strong target who can muscle his way out of a tackle or two.
Weeden is a first round draft pick. That should be promising right. I mean how many first round quarterbacks end up being disappointments...right?
The bad is the receivers. Greg Little is a nice young talent and we all know the things Joshua Cribbs can do, but this unit as a hole is subpar in comparison to the rest of the league. But with the late addition of Josh Gordon in the supplemental draft, Cleveland may have a shot at a decent group of pass catchers.
The fact that half of my statements in the good were sarcastic is pretty ugly. This team is going through a major identity crisis compounded by a series of questionable decisions thanks to Mike Holmgren.
Don’t get me wrong—the Browns future shows some promise, but they won’t be able to compete in this division anytime in the foreseeable future.
Trent Richardson may be the next Jim Brown, but as of right now he just needs to suit up and help them win games. He is the brightest spot for the future of this franchise, and he isn’t even able to play right now. Good news is he should play in the home opener, but with that being his first opportunity to experience the speed and talent of the NFL, don’t expect much from Trent in his first few games. In fact, expect those games to be downright ugly.
Green Bay Packers
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The team as a whole is peaking all at the same time. They appear to be a more complete team than the one that just finished the season with a stellar 15-1 performance. Scary to think the Packers can actually be a better team than last year.
In a quarterback-run league, the Packers have the best in the business. Aaron Rodgers should continue to etch his name in the record books and add to his growing status as a legend.
On defense, the “Pack-attack” has two Defensive MVP-type players in Charles Woodson and Clay Matthews.
Not only were the Packers the lowest-ranked team in passing yards allowed, but they also were one of the worst teams in average yards per carry against the run. This combination of deficiencies can be improved over one season, but it’s unlikely any team can improve both facets significantly so quickly.
I expect the majority of defensive improvement to come in passing yards allowed, but there still should be some struggles against the run.
Can the Packers rely more on their running game?
From what I observed in preseason action, the Packers appear to be doomed to another year dominated by the passing game. This isn’t all bad, though, considering this passing game is capable of demolishing the record books and becoming one of the most prolific groups in the history of the game.
But as history tells us in the playoffs, the ability to run the ball becomes increasingly important.
Some people may think the ugly of this team is the secondary. I disagree. The Packers are going to have a big turnaround in secondary play this year. They are likely to continue to give up more yards than most in passing because teams that play against them often find they have to play catch-up and thus abandon the running game.
The real weakness and question will be the running game which may not cause a lot of regular season damage, but come playoff time, the weakness becomes magnified and ultimately exploited.
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Big Ben is still the same guy who has guided his team to three Super Bowl appearances. He also seems to have a pair of fantastic options in Antonio Brown and Mike Wallace. Brown especially appears poised for a breakout season as the number one receiver and a top pass-catcher in the NFL.
Defensively the Steelers have always been able to retool and reload the talent. There is no reason not to expect another dominant unit of defenders for the “Steel Curtain.”
Can Steelers fans expect the same production level out of Mike Wallace? History has shown players who hold out of preseason action and training camp tend to experience a major drop in production from previous years. This opinion is based off the lack of examples I can pull from players having their best years after missing all of training camp and preseason action.
Mike Wallace is an explosive weapon, but I can’t see him matching his 2011 numbers considering the way his offseason has gone. This is bound to hurt the Steelers as a team who will need every capable playmaker in order to compete in the AFC North.
The Steelers offensive line is in big trouble. They recently lost first-round pick David Decastro who was expected to help a unit that has allowed 184 sacks since 2008—the most in the NFL as reported by ESPN stats. ESPN also stated that the Steelers led the league with 25 different offensive line combinations in 2011.
The front office attempted to address this dismal unit in the draft last April, but Decastro appears to be out for the season and Mike Adams has shown only that he shouldn’t even be an active member of the team come the start of the regular season.
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Jared Allen has been a fantastic acquisition who has done nothing but be a model of consistency during his tenure in Minnesota. He should continue to harass opposing QBs as we have yet to find a left tackle capable of blocking him for a full 60 minutes.
Percy Harvin seems ready for a career year as the offense should rely more on his playmaking and versatility in light of the ongoing recovery of Adrian Peterson. Harvin is establishing himself as one of the best young talents in the NFL and made my list of 25 best players under 25.
Adrian Peterson appears to be recovering better than anyone could hope for. This is a true testament to his work-ethic and physical superiority. Peterson will be faced with an entirely new set of challenges in his recovery when he is asked to trust his knee while playing the physical style of football he is accustomed to playing.
Some players never fully return from the type of knee injury Peterson encountered. It would be a shame if his best days are already behind him. Either way, the question of his status is not good for the Vikings organization.
Can Christian Ponder compete with and consistently defeat the quarterbacks of the NFC North? The short answer is NO.
Even though I personally believe Ponder was drafted far too early over a year ago, he still showed some potential last season and in the preseason this year. But in regards to the 2012 season, he simply isn’t ready to go toe-to-toe with the likes of Aaron Rodgers, Jay Cutler and Matthew Stafford. Those games are bound to get ugly for the Vikings as the maturation process of Ponder continues.
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Much is good for the Texans as expectations are at an all-time high. Wade Phillips’ defense is solid and ready to take yet another step towards dominance. The offense can run and throw the ball with the best in the league.
Despite the departure of some big names from a year ago, all the pieces seem to be lined up here for a fantastic year. Indications point to an improved, more experienced roster which happened to rank second in total defense and 13th in offense despite losing Matt Schaub to injury.
Can Matt Schaub be a Super Bowl quarterback? This concept may have seen far-fetched a few years ago but with the talent surrounding him and a system that works, Shaub may ironically end up doing something his former starter in Atlanta Mike Vick failed to do—win a championship.
Losing such talents as Mario Williams, Eric Winston, Lawrence Vickers and DeMeco Ryans may end up being more than the Texans can handle. The magnificent part of these key losses is the Texans are still considered legitimate contenders for a Super Bowl title.
Andre Johnson could be wearing down as he enters the twilight of his career. His body can no longer sustain the abuse of a 16 game season as a the primary receiving option. The Texans better start making plans to spread the rock around if for no other reason than to give Johnson a break. They're going to need his contributions most come this winter.
This is the kind of ugly relative to a true Super Bowl contender.
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This team is solid all around and appears ready to take control of the South. The Saints are dealing with too many offseason issues that should carry over into their performance on the field. The Buccaneers and Panthers are talented but young and at least a year or two away from dominating.
This is the year of the “Dirty-Bird” gang led by Matty Ice, Roddy White, Julio Jones, Michael Turner, and Tony Gonzalez. Gonzalez has gone public in a sideline interview claiming this is the most talented team he has ever been on. I happen to agree with him.
Perhaps to the surprise of many, Matt Miller recently ranked the top CB trios in the NFL, and he just so happened to rank the Falcons as the best trio in the League. It's a pretty impressive honor in a league built around passing teams tearing up the record books. Maybe this dynamic trio of cornerbacks can slow these receivers down and give Atlanta the edge they need to make a serious playoff run.
This is more of a legitimate question than a knock, but have the Falcons taken a step backward by letting Curtis Lofton go and relying on Akeem Dent?
Watching Lofton play this preseason has shown me his value and skill to a defense. The trouble is that he is doing this for the division rival Saints. Dent is projected to be the starting middle linebacker and this may be the pivotal piece of the puzzle for solid defensive play.
Judging by the impressive play of Lofton, I can only assume this roster decision will be a downgrade to the position.
Last season’s performance by the offensive line was poor enough to just miss being named in my 10 worst lines in 2011. If the offense is to have any success, the line must do their job. Unfortunately, they may be too soft. This could be the downfall of the Falcons’ high hopes for 2012.
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The Colts orchestrated a masterful draft last April, acquiring a bunch of quality talent—including the top overall pick Andrew Luck. Clearly this team is in the rebuilding process, but this group should be able to improve from their two win season of a year ago.
Luck could be the most NFL-ready QB to ever enter the league and looks to be capable of making Colts fans forgot all about Peyton Manning.
Rookie head coach Chuck Pagano was the secondary coach for the Raiders while I was there, so I feel comfortable personally attesting to his promising potential. Pagano was perhaps the most cerebral coach on the entire coaching staff in Oakland, while also managing to achieve a high level of respect and likability. He has a great shot at rebuilding a winner in Indy once again.
Obviously this team is loaded with rookies and should be at least three years away from playoff-caliber potential.
The level of youth and inexperience across the board for Indianapolis will be the bad news for the 2012 season.
Chuck Pagano is implementing a defensive scheme he has come to appreciate from his time as defensive coordinator in Baltimore. This scheme is a dramatic change from the speed rushing 4-3 style the Colts built their team around for the last several years.
Unfortunately, the personnel needed to execute the new defense are nowhere near in place this year. The Colts should suffer mightily all year long as they try to fit a round peg into a square hole.
It should be interesting to see how Dwight Freeney adjusts to his new responsibilities and alignment. Long established veterans tend to despise the idea of having to learn a completely new position. Just ask Warren Sapp and his brief experiment as a 3-4 DE in Oakland.
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A full offseason and a year of experience for star QB Cam Newton should give Panther fans a lot to be excited about.
Carolina also boasts the best running game in the league with the deadly combination of James Stewart, DeAngelo Williams, Cam Newton and new addition Mike Tolbert. This group of backs should be able to control the clock and open up plenty of options in the passing game.
Can Cam Newton avoid the Sophomore slump and stay healthy at the same time? History tells us there is a chance that 2012 will not be kind to Newton who should face defenses that have had an entire year to discover and exploit his weaknesses. If Cam has been working hard at his craft looking to improve as a quarterback as opposed to living the life of a celebrity, then this should be a non-issue.
But even if he is truly an improved version of his rookie year, there is always the chance of injury—which is a bit more likely considering the physical nature by which he plays.
Perhaps a little-known ranking that should surprise people is the often forgotten special teams unit. Based off a ranking system I discovered at dallasnews.com which combines a score derived from 22 kicking game categories, the Carolina Panthers were awarded the embarrassing honor of being the worst ranked special teams unit in the NFL last year.
Carolina did address this problem by drafting perhaps the most exciting return man in the nation in Arkansas’ Joe Adams. Despite this, all indications are the Panthers’ special teams as a whole has too many holes to fix with one or two additions.
For example, last year the Panthers allowed a league-high four kicks to be blocked. These are the types of issues that seem to stem from coaching and the ugly thing about this whole thing is the return of special teams coach Brian Murphy who enters his second year with the team.
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The preseason has apparently given the Jaguars no reason to panic about the high-profile holdout of Maurice Jones-Drew thanks to the impressive play of Rashad Jennings who has averaged 4.9 yards per carry in his first 36 carries of the preseason. The interesting component to this statistic is understood when you see that Jennings has yet to run for 20 yards in a single carry.
This might sound like a negative, but one positive it suggests is that he has been extremely consistent on each and every carry.
Justin Blackmon is playing like he is the best rookie receiver in the NFL, which does not exceed expectations of his ability considering he was in fact the first wideout chosen in last April’s draft. What makes this most impressive is that Blackmon is performing at such a high level without the advantage of a full training camp under his belt to adjust to the speed of the NFL.
Few players beyond the two mentioned earlier are really worth bragging about up to this point. Although second-year QB Blaine Gabbert has looked improved from his rookie campaign, he still has not lived up to the billing of a 10th overall draft pick.
Gabbert has often looked out of place as an NFL-caliber QB which has raised serious concerns for fans and members of the organization.
The holdout of MJD has really been the huge blemish on the face of this franchise all summer long. It appears the drama from this contract dispute has no silver lining for either party. All indications seem to suggest MJD’s days in Jacksonville are numbered. If he happens to play for the Jags this year, this will almost certainly be his last.
These scenarios are ugly for the entire league and nobody likes to see a contract dispute go this deep. The Jaguars front office has made it clear their heels are dug deep in the ground while MJD has shown no signs of return anytime soon.
New Orleans Saints
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Well, the face of the franchise is content and set to retire a Saint with his new record-breaking long-term deal.
Drew Brees is clearly a top five QB heading into the 2012 season, which immediately means the Saints are capable of winning any given week. The value of an elite QB in this pass happy league can make any team an immediate playoff contender.
Suspended head coach Sean Payton is a big deal when you consider the relationship and influence Payton has over the productivity of the offense.
Payton is denied access to anyone in the Saints organization. We can only wait and see how the replacements can handle the team while competing at the high level we’ve come to expect from New Orleans.
For a team which was able to find its motivation by carrying the hopes of the city on its back and becoming a symbol for inspiration to all the victims looking for something to be excited about, the Saints likely have lost that magic having stained their reputation as bounty-hunting savages looking to intentionally hurt their fellow players.
As a result, the Saints have gone from the feel good story of the NFL to the most despised and disgraced team all in a matter of a couple years.
The impact of this massive paradigm shift is still a mystery, but coupled with the suspensions of Sean Payton and Jonathan Vilma, it’s likely to spell decline for New Orleans in 2012.
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Chris Johnson looks much quicker than he did a year ago after a long holdout which caused him to miss the entire preseason. Considering the success the team had despite his struggles, there is a lot to look forward to in Tennessee.
Darius Reynaud has looked amazing all preseason long and could provide the Titans with a bonus weapon on offense and special teams.
Jake Locker has issues with accuracy after about 10 yards. This isn’t a good sign considering he's going to be the starter heading into week one. One thing he does do well, though, is run the ball.
But will Locker be able to lead this offense into the playoffs? It seems very unlikely considering the development necessary for Locker to become proficient as a pocket passer. These growing pains at QB are likely to cause a minor setback for the Titans.
Considering the type of cash the Titans dealt to Chris Johnson in their contract negotiations, Johnson would have to generate MVP like numbers to justify his paycheck. Unfortunately, it would be an accomplishment in of itself if CJ2K manages to stay healthy for another complete season in the NFL.
Given his small stature and the fragile nature of speedy legs, it would be nothing short of a miracle if Chris is able to continue to avoid the types of injuries that impede performance or cause some time to be missed.
If Johnson stays healthy, I would be surprised to see him ever come close to the type of numbers he had three years ago. I’m not suggesting that CJ2K can’t be a productive back. I’m simply saying his price tag will always outperform his production. Especially when you consider the workload his tiny frame has been handed.
Despite his age, Johnson may actually be on the downswing of his physical abilities.
The real ugly part about all of this is the way Johnson’s contract will limit the Titans from adding more talent considering they’ll be limited in cap room.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
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In an article I worked on earlier this year ranking the teams with the best young talent, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were awarded the No.1 spot on that list. However, this doesn’t mean they will be a great team this year. It simply means this is a team with a significant amount of highly talented young players.
Greg Schiano could be the stern entity capable of creating a disciplined and cohesive unit out of this group of talented individuals. After all, he was hand-picked for almost exclusively for this reason.
Youth is the enemy of the Bucs heading into 2012. It isn’t exactly terrible to be young, but it can prove to be a liability.
Last year—as of August of 2011—the Bucs were the youngest team in the NFL with an average age of 25 years old. This may be bad for the immediate future, but more often than not this tends to be a promising benefit a few years down the road.
One has to wonder how Tampa Bay could win 10 games and barely miss the playoffs in 2010 and then follow that up with only four wins in 2011. The bottom line is the team looked very distracted, immature and undisciplined.
If Schiano fails to control these kids and can’t earn their respect, the Bucs season should get pretty ugly yet again.
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The good news is the Broncos made it to the playoffs despite the shaky QB play of Tim Tebow. If they were able to win their division with almost no passing attack, imagine what they can do with Peyton Manning at the helm.
The Broncos also have Knowshon Moreno back from injury. His presence combined with Willis McGahee—who shocked critics with a highly productive season in his first year as a Bronco—should provide Peyton with some much needed protection, which is critical side effect to a potent running attack.
Something the Broncos found great success in.
Manning has a tendency to make the players around him better. Demarius Thomas and Eric Decker could use some of Manning’s magic and will have to have career seasons if the Broncos are going to have a successful season.
What it boils down to offensively—aside from Peyton Manning—is there really isn’t a true established star on offense. Knowshonn Moreno has been a disappointment relative to his draft position, but he still should be a decent weapon when healthy.
This is the theme all the way down the line for the Denver offense. Can a team full of C+’s through Bs put up enough points to be an A-level Super Bowl contender this year?
It seems likely the Broncos can fight their way into the playoffs this year, but I doubt they have enough firepower to take it all the way.
The potential fragility of Peyton’s neck may cause an early ending to the Manning party in Denver. For the sake of the Broncos, Peyton and the league as a whole, let’s pray this doesn’t happen.
The rumor around the league is that Manning is still trying to build up his arm strength and lacks the ability to launch it downfield. Personally I doubt this is the case, but if there is any truth to the gossip it could be very bad for Denver.
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If there was a league that didn’t use quarterbacks and offensive linemen, the Arizona Cardinals could be one of the best teams available.
Arizona has one of the best receivers in Larry Fitzgerald and a burgeoning star at CB with Patrick Peterson. Throw in a solid defense and the most electrifying return option from last year in Peterson, and you have a team with some real bright spots.
Things aren’t looking very promising at the QB position. Kolb was paid big money to come to Arizona and be the face of the franchise while providing years of top level play at the position. Unfortunately, Kolb has failed to even look worthy of a starting job on the team.
Whether the starting job is won by John Skelton or Kevin Kolb, the Cardinals should have ongoing question marks at the most important position in the league well into the regular season.
The offensive line play has looked terrible all preseason. This glaring issue doesn’t appear to be going away any time soon and could spell disaster for the Cardinals this season.
The quarterback competition has barely been given the opportunity to play itself out considering the lack of time to throw the ball. At this point I’m not sure Kolb even wants to win the starting job considering the beating he would have to endure.
Kansas City Chiefs
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The Chiefs were decimated by injuries last year. Now they can benefit from the return of a handful of key players like safety Eric Berry and running back Jamaal Charles.
Kansas City should bring a formidable pass rush, a powerful running game, and big physical receivers to each and every matchup this year. It’s hard to see any one game on their schedule that’s deemed "unwinnable."
Bad news for Kansas City fans—first round pick Dontari Poe is looking more and more like a confirmed bust. This doesn’t bode well for a defense which struggled to stop the run last season.
Let’s hope the knee of Jamaal Charles can hold up for him in 2012, and just as importantly, let’s hope he has the confidence to make cuts and plant on it without second-guessing the structural integrity of his reconstructed knee.
Time for Matt Cassel to really demonstrate he belongs as a starting QB in this league. Up to this point he has been a marginal starter at best and may be the biggest weakness of the Chiefs heading into the season opener.
Cassel also must take a leadership role on the team if he’s to earn any respect from his teammates. I struggle to see Matt Cassel having any success in playoff games when it matters.
St. Louis Rams
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Bringing in well-respected coach Jeff Fisher is a smart move. He should be able to bring the Rams back to the playoffs in a few years thanks to their franchise QB Sam Bradford.
The Rams are clearly rebuilding whether Fisher wants to admit it or not. Eventually things will start clicking on all cylinders for this franchise, but until then they’ll have to focus on the incremental positives along the way.
Despite an offseason that addressed the receiver position, they head into the season opener without a reliable No. 1 option. Nor is this unit very deep with talent, but they do have a couple of talented rookies who may provide much needed help.
Essentially the Rams receiving corps is made up of threes and fours. If one of these young guys doesn’t step up as a go-to-option, Bradford will be throwing a lot of balls in the dirt in 2012.
Last year the Rams had a number of significant injuries on the offensive line which contributed to them being ranked as the worst line in 2011. However, without the injuries the boys up front are still suspect as Sam Bradford is clearly struggling to trust them this preseason.
Bradford is not the most durable QB in history and if he is subjected to a Cutler-type beat down, he isn’t likely to survive the season.
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“Raider Nation” should be loaded with talent at WR. Darius Heyward-Bay has shown consistent improvement each year and could be poised for a breakout season. On the other side is speedster Denarius Moore, who can be a factory of big plays all season long. Last but not least, let’s not forget about Jacoby Ford and talented rookie Juron Criner.
Some more good news for the Raiders has got to be the much-anticipated return of “Run DMC.” He has the ability to carry this offense to the next level while leading the league in rushing. His only issue as a pro has been his health. McFadden has yet to play a full 16 game season.
The cornerback position should be a major area of concern as they currently have 49er cast-off Shawntae Spencer and Ron Bartell as starters. Needless to say, this is anything but a glorious pair of starting cornerbacks. Nor is it anywhere near the standard the Raiders are used to, considering they’ve always had a ton of speed and talent at that position.
It’s bad enough watching Carson Palmer make ridiculously bad decisions with the ball over and over, but it’s just downright ugly to think about what Oakland traded away for the rights to his services. This was a terrible move by all accounts, and Palmer may be one of the most overrated QBs in the last 15 years.
Anyone can clearly see Carson has a big arm—that has never been a question—but throughout his career he has had a pattern of forcing the ball into double and triple coverage almost as if he's giving up.
There is little chance for the Raiders with Palmer behind center, and given his age, it’s unlikely there will be a silver lining down the road for the Palmer-in-Oakland experiment.
San Francisco 49ers
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The defensive front seven are perhaps the best in the business. This group should be able to carry the boys in gold all the way back to the playoffs and give them a legitimate shot at their Super Bowl appearance since 1995.
The 49ers backfield is fully stocked and should be able to handle the bulk of the offensive load. With Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter, Brandon Jacobs, LaMichael James and more, it’ll be interesting who the 49ers will keep on their 53-man roster.
The good news for the 49ers offense is they definitely gave it their best shot this offseason to acquire some offensive explosion, which has been a major team weakness for the past few years now. Expect more big plays from the offense this year and, ultimately, more scoring.
The 49ers lack the luxury of being able to ask their quarterback to win the game for them. This is why they embarked on their covert mission to acquire the services of Peyton Manning.
Alex Smith was able to put together a pretty solid season, but when it came time to get paid on the open market, the demand for his services became clear. No team believed in him more than the 49ers, which isn’t saying much considering they were simultaneously trying to upgrade the position.
Perhaps with the new offensive additions designed to add explosion and big play capability, Alex Smith can finally take the step into being a franchise QB.
At least the 49er faithful can find solace in his proven ability as a game manager.
Considering the style of play the 49ers demonstrated last year, it may be surprising this highly physical group of offensive linemen have actually struggled. The unit as a whole is young and getting better, but they really struggled all season in pass protection.
Their big area of concern upfront is on right side of the line with underachieving first round pick Anthony Davis and a big question mark at right guard.
If this trend continues for the 49ers in 2012, things could get pretty ugly for the boys by the Bay.
San Diego Chargers
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The Chargers have always had a talented squad. Philip Rivers is a top quarterback in the NFL if you omit last year’s performance. Ryan Matthews should be a powerful weapon if he can stay healthy.
Rookies Kendall Reyes and Melvin Ingram should be solid contributors on a defense that’s already a solid group. It was only two years ago the Chargers had the top-ranked defense in the league. They look to return to elite form in a must-win year in San Diego.
Ryan Matthews has flashed impressive talent in San Diego, but if he is unable to stay healthy—which history shows is a high possibility—the Chargers are left with the slowed legs of Ronnie Brown and marginal backup option from the Chiefs, Jackie Battle.
This is bad news for the Bolts, who would be forced to rely on a relatively new group of receivers that’s likely a downgrade from last year’s group who played a role in the terrible season of Philip Rivers.
The ugliest part of this franchise starts and ends with the poor leadership abilities of their offensive coordinator who is masquerading as the head coach. Norv Turner’s inability to be a leader is the primary reason the Chargers have failed to make it to the Super Bowl during his tenure as coach.
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This is one of the most talented secondaries in the NFL. Big, young and loaded with playmakers, the Seahawks should give opposing quarterbacks nightmares all season long.
Last year, this unit demonstrated unlimited potential improving as the season progressed.
Adding veteran receivers Terrell Owens—who was cut after the third preseason game, according to ESPN's Mike Sando and the Associated Press—and Braylon Edwards illustrates the lack of talent the Seahawks have at WR. Seattle is looking for any able body to step up and contribute, as of right now, their best bet may be to start Golden Tate and Doug Baldwin while Edwards steps in at the number three spot.
Offensive firepower should prove to be a major factor in the undoing of Seattle’s hopes of a division title.
When your 5’10” third round rookie QB is winning the battle of the starting job, there is a clear problem. This is not an attack of Russell Wilson, but rather the organization’s decision to sign Matt Flynn as the future of the Seahawks.
Luckily they didn’t pay Flynn the big bucks a starting free agent QB normally commands, but this clearly indicates a problem for the Seahawks entering the 2012 season.