Why Your Favorite NFL Team Should Feel Good About the Upcoming Season

Russell S. BaxterContributor IJune 14, 2013

Why Your Favorite NFL Team Should Feel Good About the Upcoming Season

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    When it comes to the National Football League, the offseason is usually full of optimism for all 32 teams.

    And we’re certainly not here to burst any bubbles.

    So here’s a look at the positives for each club as we prepare for NFL season No. 94.

    In some instances, it’s a matter of showing how a past problem area has suddenly reversed its fortunes. For other teams, we’re merely stating the obvious.

    In any case, this is a feel good piece that should indeed make fans of their respective teams excited for the upcoming season.

    And hopefully we’ll make you feel better about any concerns that you have with any areas of your favorite club.

    Of course, we still have to wait roughly three months to find out if any or all of these suggestions are correct.

    But we are patient.

Arizona Cardinals: Passing Game

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    We have seen the Arizona Cardinals minus quarterback Kurt Warner the last three seasons. And it hasn’t been pretty.

    Since 2010, the Cards are 18-30. Seven different quarterbacks have played over that span (six starters) and they’ve combined for 42 touchdown passes and 79 turnovers. Those seven signal-callers were also sacked a combined 162 times over that span.

    Bringing in new head coach Bruce Arians, who is known for his work with quarterbacks, is a big plus for the team. Trading for veteran quarterback Carson Palmer was a positive move as well, provided the Cardinals can protect him.

    And having wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald certainly doesn’t hurt. Add in a ground game that figures to be much improved with running back Rashard Mendenhall, and don’t be surprised if Fitzgerald tops last season’s total of four touchdown receptions within the first month of the season.

    Add in second-year wideout Michael Floyd, receiver Andre Roberts and tight end Jeff King, and look for the Arizona passing attack to surprise some foes in 2013.

Atlanta Falcons: Quarterback

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    While we have yet to see a Super Bowl appearance lately, it’s been a good run for the Atlanta Falcons.

    Five straight winning seasons, four playoffs appearances and the best record in the NFC two of the last three years.

    Will the 2013 edition of Mike Smith’s team be better than a year ago? Quarterback Matt Ryan had his latest career year. But the running game was a non-factor and the Atlanta defense had its issues, particularly against the run as well as rushing the passer.

    So what has changed from 2012? Running back Steven Jackson replaces Michael Turner in the backfield. But that could be good news for Ryan in a different way. The Falcons continue to emerge as a passing team and the former Rams Pro Bowler has had his share of career receptions.

    With Jackson, tight end Tony Gonzalez and wideouts Roddy White and Julio Jones, look for Ryan to keep his personal streak intact. The standout signal-caller set another career high in 2012 with 32 touchdown passes. And with the team increasing its dependence on him, that may be a necessary thing.

Baltimore Ravens: Offensive Line

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    There were two major factors when it came to the Baltimore Ravens’ championship run in the 2012 postseason.

    In four playoff wins, quarterback Joe Flacco threw 11 touchdown passes and zero interceptions. In those victories, John Harbaugh’s team came up with a combined 10 takeaways.

    There was also a third factor. The team revamped its offensive line just before the start of the playoffs and it paid off handsomely.

    For the most part, that line returns intact this season as the Ravens look to repeat as Super Bowl champions. It will be left tackle Bryant McKinnie (who didn’t start during the regular season in 2012) and right tackle Michael Oher. The guards are second-year pro Kelechi Osemele (left) and Pro Bowler Marshal Yanda (right).

    The difference is at center, where veteran Matt Birk is now retired. Gino Gradkowski, a fourth-round pick a year ago, takes over at the pivot.

    This unit will go a long way in dictating Baltimore’s fortunes this upcoming season.

Buffalo Bills: Running Game

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    The Buffalo Bills have finished dead last in the AFC East each of the last five seasons.

    New head coach Doug Marrone is hoping his team can make a run in 2013…literally.

    Only five teams in the NFL totaled more yards rushing than the Bills last season. The catalyst proved to be former first-round running back C.J. Spiller, who came into his own a year ago courtesy of a career-high 1,244 yards rushing in 2012.

    But perhaps the happiest person in Orchard Park this upcoming season (provided he winds up the starter) will be quarterback Kevin Kolb.

    How so? We mentioned Spiller’s 1,244 yards on the ground last season. Kolb was with the Arizona Cardinals in 2012. As a team, the Cardinals ran for a league-low total of 1,204 yards.

    With veterans Fred Jackson and Tashard Choice in reserve, look for Marrone to take advantage of this team's strength.

Carolina Panthers: Defensive Line

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    It may surprise some that the Carolina Panthers ranked 10th in the NFL in fewest yards allowed last season.

    And while the team finished 7-9, an emerging defensive unit was part of the reason that Ron Rivera’s team allowed 363 points in 2012, down from 429 points the previous season.

    NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Luke Kuechly led the team in tackles as the standout linebacker roamed the field. But he was supported by an emerging defensive line that looks like it has gotten a whole lot better.

    Ends Charles Johnson (12.5) and Greg Hardy (11.0) and defensive tackle Dwan Edwards (6.0) combined for 29.5 of the team’s 39 sacks. Now add first-round draft choice Star Lotulelei inside and suddenly, the Panthers have one of the up-and-coming defensive fronts in the league.

    And it’s a unit that could make the race for the NFC South title this year very interesting.

Chicago Bears: Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

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    The rapport between Chicago Bears teammates Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall last season was very evident.

    In some instances, it was far too evident.

    In 2012, Marshall totaled 118 receptions for 1,508 yards and 11 scores. The rest of the team totaled 169 catches for 1,788 yards and 10 touchdowns.

    Look for that to change this season, especially with new head coach Marc Trestman at the helm. Wideout Alshon Jeffery showed some promise as a rookie, totaling 24 grabs for 367 yards and three scores in 10 games. Earl Bennett totaled 29 catches for 375 yards and two touchdowns in a dozen outings. Both dealt with injuries in 2012.

    The free agent addition of tight end Martellus Bennett could be a huge pickup for Cutler. The downfield threat totaled career highs in receptions (55), receiving yards (626) and touchdowns (five) last season for the New York Giants and gives the Chicago passing attack another option.

    And with a new-look offensive line keeping Cutler out of harm’s way…look out.

Cincinnati Bengals: Running Backs

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    With all of the talk regarding quarterback Andy Dalton and Pro Bowl wideout A.J. Green, some may be surprised to know that the Cincinnati Bengals have a running game.

    And it’s an entity that’s about to become a little more significant.

    Last season, free agent pickup BenJarvus Green-Ellis ran for 100 or more yards in four of his final six games and wound up finishing the season with 1,094 yards rushing.

    Now add rookie running back Giovani Bernard to the mix. Cincinnati added the former North Carolina standout in the second round in April. Bernard was the first running back drafted in 2013 and gives the Bengals a homerun threat not only out of the backfield, but the former Tar Heel could be an option on kickoff returns.

    It will be interesting to see how veteran Bernard Scott fits into the team’s plans this season. The runner missed four games a year ago with a knee injury, but when he's healthy can also be a factor in the backfield as well as on special teams.

    The Bengals finished 18th in the league last season in rushing. Don’t be surprised at all when Marvin Lewis' ground attack winds up in the Top 10 in 2013. 

Cleveland Browns: Coaching

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    Stability has not been a strong suit during the current era of the Cleveland Browns.

    Perhaps that is finally about to change.

    In any case, the team will now be under the guidance of some up-and-coming as well as veteran football minds.

    Rob Chudzinski did a solid job with quarterback Cam Newton as the offensive coordinator of the Carolina Panthers. Now he takes over as a head coach for the first time.

    While Norv Turner has absorbed his share of criticism as a head coach, his prowess as an offensive coordinator and quarterback mentor is highly regarded. He should be a boon to second-year pros Brandon Weeden and Trent Richardson.

    New defensive coordinator Ray Horton could do wonders with a Browns unit that has some promising talent. The highly-regarded coach did a terrific job with the Arizona Cardinals, making them one of the most physical and opportunistic defenses in the league the last two seasons.

    For the first time in a number of years, the Browns are a team with plenty of intrigue.

Dallas Cowboys: Linebackers

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    How ‘bout them Cow…uh, you know the rest.

    So what about Jerry Jones’ franchise, which won the NFC East in 2009 and actually won a playoff game that year?

    It’s been pretty much downhill for the Dallas Cowboys the last three years, none of which has resulted in a winning season. Jones’ club is a combined 22-26 since 2010.

    While quarterback Tony Romo seems to be the focus of all of the problems, there’s plenty of blame to go around. And for the third time in four years, the team will turn to a new defensive coordinator.

    Under Monte Kiffin, the Cowboys will return to the traditional 4-3 defense that has been the norm more than not throughout the team’s 53-year history.

    That could mean very big things for middle linebacker Sean Lee and outside backers Bruce Carter and Justin Durant. The latter comes over from the Detroit Lions, while injuries robbed Lee and Carter of big chunks of the 2012 season.

    The key will be the play of the Dallas front four, with former outside linebackers DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer now at defensive end and Jay Ratliff and Jason Hatcher inside. The Cowboys’ linebacking corps could come up very big if the line lives up to its promise.

Denver Broncos: Offensive Line

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    When you have quarterback Peyton Manning leading your offense, you can expect a few things.

    One is plenty of points and touchdown passes, as in 481 points and 37 touchdown passes in 2012.

    The other is the fact that your team will be amongst the league leaders in fewest sacks allowed.

    More importantly, a talented offensive front may have gotten a little better this offseason. And that bodes well for a Denver Broncos team looking for a little more balance in 2013.

    The left side tandem of tackle Ryan Clady and guard Zane Beadles both wound up in the Pro Bowl a year ago. Center J.D. Walton is solid, but he is coming off an injury-shortened year which saw him limited to just four games. Right tackle Orlando Franklin is a player on the rise. But it’s the addition of right guard Louis Vasquez that could make this unit one of the best in the entire league.

    Add in some fresh legs in the ground game in the form of rookie runner Montee Ball and the Denver offense could be on its way to a big year. And that line will play a major part in it all coming together.

Detroit Lions: Secondary

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    A closer look at the numbers in 2012 shows that the Detroit Lions weren’t nearly as inept on defense as the numbers may indicate.

    Jim Schwartz’s club gave up a disturbing 437 points this past season. Detroit defenders surrendered 39 offensive touchdowns, including 26 scores through the air. But these Lions also gave up 10 touchdowns on returns, elevating that first number.

    So what will be different in 2013? Hopefully this unit’s health as cornerback Chris Houston missed the start of last season and strong safety Louis Delmas played in only eight games.

    But the addition of free agent free safety Glover Quin this offseason was a major coup for a defensive unit that never seems to get much better. After beginning his career with the Houston Texans at cornerback, he’s emerged as one of the better free safeties in the league. Second-round pick Darius Slay appears to be the new starter at the other cornerback spot.

    With the returning talent and this unit’s additions, the Lions secondary could be a major surprise in 2013.

Green Bay Packers: Running Backs

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    Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers has put up mind-boggling numbers since he became the team’s starter in 2008. And over the last two seasons, the 2011 league MVP has simply been off the charts.

    But those 84 touchdown passes and 14 interceptions in the regular season since 2011 haven’t even been good enough to get Mike McCarthy’s club to the NFC title game.

    So when the opportunity arose for general manager Ted Thompson to upgrade the ground game in April, he not only added running back Eddie Lacy in the second round, but the team’s executive opted for Johnathan Franklin in the fourth round as well.

    In each of the last three seasons, the Packers have ranked 20th or lower in rushing. That should and must change for numerous reasons in 2013 as the lack of balance has taken its toll on Rodgers (sacked a league-high 51 times last season) and the defense as well.

Houston Texans: Linebackers

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    When it was all said and done, the Houston Texans had to be disappointed with the way 2012 played out.

    A team that was 11-1 after 12 games lost three of its last four contests. And for the second straight year Gary Kubiak’s team went no further than the divisional playoffs.

    While quarterback Matt Schaub had his issues down the stretch, it was injuries on the defensive side of the ball that wound up catching up with the team. Including the playoffs last season, the Texans allowed 242 points in their last nine games after giving up 143 points in their first nine outings in 2012.

    But help and health is on the way.

    The return of Brian Cushing, who missed the final 11 games of last season, is a major plus. Outside linebacker Connor Barwin has moved on via free agency (Philadelphia Eagles) but that opens the door for 2012 first-rounder Whitney Mercilus. The talented youngster finished third on the team with 6.0 sacks a year ago. He’ll team with promising Brooks Reed, who missed four games late last season.

    Add fourth-year inside linebacker Darryl Sharpton and this is a young and talented group capable of some very big things.

Indianapolis Colts: Quarterbacks

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    There’s little doubt that rookie quarterback Andrew Luck played an enormous part in the Indianapolis Colts' stunning turnaround in 2012.

    A roster that had been overhauled in nearly every aspect went from two wins in 2011 to 11 victories and a playoff berth this past season.

    Luck had a big year, throwing for a rookie record 4,374 yards and 23 touchdown passes while running for five more scores. But the number-one overall pick of a year ago also committed 23 turnovers during the regular season and two more in the team’s playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens.

    And that’s where veteran quarterback Matt Hasselbeck figures for this team. The veteran signal-caller was released this offseason after a few seasons with the Tennessee Titans. Now Hasselbeck brings his years of experience to Indianapolis where he’ll prove to be an ideal mentor for Luck.

    It’s all good for a team that could make things interesting for the Houston Texans in the AFC South this fall.

Jacksonville Jaguars: Defensive Line

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    Lost in the disaster that was the 2012 season for the Jacksonville Jaguars was the play of a defensive unit that showed promise a year earlier.

    And while most people point to the woes of the Jacksonville offense, that defensive unit was an ever bigger disappointment a year ago.

    However, look for a turnaround this upcoming season thanks to Gus Bradley, the only one of the eight new head coaches in the league this season with a defensive pedigree.

    In 2012, only five teams in the NFL gave up fewer total yards per game. The Jaguars also finished in the Top 10 against both the run and the pass.

    But that all changed a year ago as Jacksonville allowed the third-most total and rushing yards in the league. And the team was ranked 22nd against the pass.

    How do you fix that? Start with additions at defensive tackle. The team was busy signing its share of defensive tackles this offseason. Roy Miller (Tampa Bay Buccaneers) and Sen’Derrick Marks (Tennessee Titans) are the likely starters but former New England Patriots Brandon Deaderick and Kyle Love could figure as well.

    And when you consider the team will have one-time Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Jason Babin at the start of 2013 (he was a midseason pickup last season), as well as former first rounder Tyson Alualu, this could be a group that surprises this year.

Kansas City Chiefs: Offense

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    When you finish 2-14, there aren’t a lot of positives to point to.

    So it’s safe to say that there’s nowhere to go but up for the Kansas City Chiefs this season.

    And new head coach Andy Reid will be at the helm, and the former Philadelphia Eagles sideline leader has his work cut out for him.

    The Chiefs scored a league-low 211 points in 2012. Their offensive unit produced only 17 touchdowns, as many as Houston Texans running back Arian Foster.

    Of course, 37 turnovers didn’t help the team’s cause. And since quarterback Matt Cassel and Brady Quinn combined for 27 miscues, they won’t be back this season.

    Reid and the club traded for veteran quarterback Alex Smith, who has specialized in ball security the last two seasons. Running back Jamaal Charles comes off a banner year and wideout Dwayne Bowe leads a receiving corps that now includes Donnie Avery, late of the Indianapolis Colts.

    And the team suddenly appears loaded at tight end with incumbent Tony Moeaki, free agent pickup Anthony Fasano (Miami Dolphins) and rookie Travis Kelce.

    It’s only natural to expect the Chiefs to rebound from such a dismal offensive performance. But that improvement could be better than many may forecast.

Miami Dolphins: Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

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    Following a 1-3 start last season, the Miami Dolphins were a .500 team the remainder of 2012.

    But that can’t change the fact that the franchise finished with a losing record for the fourth straight year.

    There were signs of progress under first-time head coach Joe Philbin as rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill opened more than a few eyes. Still, the young signal-caller threw more interceptions (13) than touchdown passes (12).

    But help is on the way and there’s plenty of it.

    An aggressive offseason for the team resulted in the free agent additions of wide receivers Mike Wallace (Pittsburgh Steelers) and Brandon Gibson (St. Louis Rams). They join Brian Hartline, who led the team in catches and receiving yards last season but scored only one touchdown.

    The signing of free agent tight end Dustin Keller (New York Jets) gives the club and Tannehill another downfield target.

    While the Dolphins were more than respectable on defense last season, they averaged only 18.0 points per game. Look for Philbin’s offense to close the gap between his two units this year.

Minnesota Vikings: Secondary

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    Some may question this choice in terms of the Minnesota Vikings. Why not running back Adrian Peterson and the club’s ground game?

    In many ways, that would be stating the obvious. But we’ll point to another area that has been a source of concern in recent seasons.

    In 2011, the Minnesota Vikings allowed a league-high 34 touchdown passes. And before you get too excited about any dramatic improvement shown a year ago, head coach Leslie Frazier’s club gave up 28 scores through the air a year ago.

    But the secondary has been overhauled in recent years via the draft, with all four starters totaling three years or less of NFL experience. And a season after adding promising free safety Harrison Smith in the first round, the Vikings selected cornerback Xavier Rhodes in the first round in April.

    Cornerback Chris Cook and strong safety Mistral Raymond make up the starters. But the draft has also brought cornerback Josh Robinson and safeties Robert Blanton and Jamarca Sanford since 2009.

    And if the Minnesota pass rush remains potent, look for the team to dramatically increase its interception total (10) from 2012.

New England Patriots: Defense

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    The New England Patriots have totaled 500 or more points in three straight seasons and four times in the last six years. They are the only franchise in NFL history to reach the 500-point mark that often.

    And yet, there’s no Super Bowl championship to show for their labors over that span.

    The culprit has been the defense, which has had its issues for any number of reasons. But combine the 2012 first-round additions of defensive end Chandler Jones and linebacker Dont’a Hightower along with some key veteran pickups this offseason and things could be looking up for a unit that’s been down in recent seasons.

    Veteran strong safety Adrian Wilson and defensive tackle Tommy Kelly were both released this offseason by the Arizona Cardinals and Oakland Raiders, respectively. And with talented cornerback Aqib Talib around for the start of camp this year, there’s a nice mix of youth and veterans on this unit.

    And that could finally be the difference in the Patriots picking up that fourth Super Bowl title.

New Orleans Saints: Quarterback

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    Okay, we are talking the obvious here.

    But has there been anything more consistent in recent years for the New Orleans Saints than quarterback Drew Brees?

    Over the last two seasons, he’s thrown for more than 5,000 yards each year. The prolific passer has thrown for a combined 89 scores the last two years, leading the league in both 2011 (46) and 2012 (43) in this category.

    And when you consider that the only game Brees has missed since joining the Saints in 2006 was a basically meaningless contest in 2009 vs. the Carolina Panthers (when he sat down after the team had already wrapped up home field advantage in the NFC that year), durability is not an issue.

    Now if head coach Sean Payton and new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan can only get the other side of the ball figured out (and that doesn’t expect to be easy), we could be talking Super Saints again very soon.

New York Giants: Quarterback

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    Yep, back to the obvious answer once again.

    But how can it be anyone other than quarterback Eli Manning for the New York Giants?

    While no one man makes an entire team, the two-time Super Bowl champion signal-caller has become the focal point of a club that appears to rise to the occasion when it needs to.

    However, that was not the case a year ago when the Giants' defense became an issue. Tom Coughlin’s team allowed the second-most total yards in the league in 2012 and was a disappointing 25th vs. the run. Last December, Perry Fewell’s defense was pushed around in losses to the playoff-bound Atlanta Falcons and Baltimore Ravens.

    Meanwhile, Manning has now started 135 straight games (146, including playoffs). And while his play can be erratic at times, he’s always there and keeps his team in the game. There’s a lot to be said for dependability.

    And there will also a lot to be said by the Giants if they can get their defense back up to par this season.

New York Jets: Front Seven

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    You have to figure that there have been a lot of sleepless nights in recent seasons for head coach Rex Ryan.

    That’s probably because he remains at the helm of one of the teams that represent the city that never sleeps.

    All clever puns aside, this will be a much different team than we’ve seen the Jets field in recent seasons. Between salary cap moves, free agent departures and trades, you will definitely need a scorecard when watching the Green and White in 2013.

    But you may also be treated to some solid play by Ryan’s defensive front seven—a unit suddenly with talented former first-round draft choices.

    In April, the Jets used the second of their two first-round picks on defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson. In 2011, the team added emerging defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson and a year ago, New York drafted Quinton Coples with the 16th overall selection. He’ll line up at left outside linebacker this season.

    With veteran David Harris at inside linebacker and veteran free agent addition Antwan Barnes (San Diego Chargers) the new starter at right outside linebacker, this unit could surprise in 2013.

Oakland Raiders: Secondary

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    It’s been a rough few years for the Oakland Raiders.

    Make that more than a few years. But general manager Reggie McKenzie is trying to change that. In April, the team made 10 selections in the draft, the most by the organization since 2006.

    Via free agency, the Raiders added cornerbacks Tracy Porter (Denver Broncos) and Mike Jenkins (Dallas Cowboys), as well as safety Charles Woodson (Green Bay Packers), who returns to the franchise that made him the fourth overall pick in the 1998 draft.

    And let’s not forget rookie cornerback D.J. Hayden, the team’s first-round pick in April. His story has been well documented.

    Let’s not forget that the Raiders allowed 443 points last season and that the defense allowed 28 touchdown passes. But with a little youth, some veteran free agents and talented incumbents such as strong safety Tyvon Branch, things are looking up in the Bay Area.

Philadelphia Eagles: Linebackers

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    The times have certainly changed in the City of Brotherly Love.

    Now at the helm of the Philadelphia Eagles is head coach Chip Kelly. And while the new-look Philadelphia offense has been the talk of the offseason in regards to the team, the Birds will be a different looking unit on the other side of the ball as well.

    Under defensive coordinator Billy Davis, the Eagles will switch to a base 3-4 defense. That means former defensive end Trent Cole makes the switch to right outside linebacker, while free agent pickup Connor Barwin (Houston Texans) will man the other outside spot.

    Inside, it’s second-year pro Mychal Kendricks and former Pro Bowler DeMeco Ryans that need to come up big against the run. Philadelphia ranked 23rd in rushing defense a year ago, and with this switch, which also includes the addition of nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga (San Francisco 49ers), the team figures to be better.

    Make that much better. Or it will be another long season in the land of cheesesteaks.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Wide Receivers

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    Could it be disaster for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers offense minus big-play wide receiver Mike Wallace in 2013?

    This is a franchise that has had a plan for quite some time. And during the free agency era dating back to 1993, the Steelers have been very successful under the current rules.

    So who will make up for Wallace’s departure now that the speedster is a member of the Miami Dolphins? The cupboard is far from bare. Young wideouts such as Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders are the starters, while veteran Jerricho Cotchery and Plaxico Burress are in the mix as well. And general manager Kevin Colbert added a pair of receivers in Markus Wheaton and Justin Brown in April’s draft.

    So just how much are the Steelers going to miss Wallace? That remains to be seen. But knowing this team, they will find a way (as usual) to make it work…and work well.

St. Louis Rams: Passing Game

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    If it’s a Jeff Fisher team, you can expect it to be very physical…especially when it comes to the defensive side of the ball.

    And the St. Louis Rams were a better team in 2012 under the veteran head coach. On defense, they tied for the league lead with 52 sacks.

    But buried in the team’s 7-8-1 record last season (up from 2-14 in 2011) was the play of quarterback Sam Bradford. The former No. 1 overall pick threw 21 touchdown passes compared to just 13 interceptions in 16 games. A year earlier, Bradford threw for six scores and was picked off six times in 10 contests.

    With Danny Amendola and Brandon Gibson gone via free agency, the Rams will now turn to their very young wide receiving corps and the possibilities are exciting. Over the last three drafts, the team has added Austin Pettis (2011) as well as Brian Quick and Chris Givens (2012). In April, the team moved up in the first round to grab electrifying Tavon Austin and also selected his college teammate Stedman Bailey in the third round.

    Add free agent addition Jared Cook (Tennessee Titans) and this could be one of the most improved offenses in the league in 2013.

San Diego Chargers: Defensive Line

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    While it’s been a steady decline in recent seasons for the San Diego Chargers, things may be looking up for one unit in particular.

    Although only the Arizona Cardinals gained fewer total yards than the Bolts in 2012, the San Diego defense rebounded a bit from a subpar campaign. In 2011, the Chargers were 16th in the NFL in yards allowed, including a disappointing 20th vs. the run.

    A year ago, those numbers were much better. San Diego was a Top 10 unit in terms of total yards allowed (ninth) and rushing defense (sixth). And credit should go to defensive coordinator John Pagano, who returns in 2013 under new head coach Mike McCoy.

    The three-man line of nose tackle Cam Thomas and defensive ends Corey Liuget and Kendall Reyes, all drafted since 2010, make up what could be a promising group moving forward.

San Francisco 49ers: Running Backs

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    Persistence is the key to a great running attack. That and the fact that a good team doesn’t abandon its running game even when things may look a little bleak.

    And that’s what makes the San Francisco 49ers a very good football team.

    Of course, we are referencing the team’s 28-24 win in the 2012 NFC title game in which Jim Harbaugh’s club trailed the Atlanta Falcons, 17-0, in the second quarter. Led by Frank Gore and LaMichael James, the Niners would finish the game with 149 yards rushing on 29 attempts. That was far more than the team that had the lead, as Atlanta ran just 23 times for 81 yards.

    But back to Gore and James, as well as Kendall Hunter and Anthony Dixon, as the 49ers are loaded at the position. And what of rookie runner Marcus Lattimore, who we may or may not see in 2013?

    Harbaugh has to be feeling extremely good.

Seattle Seahawks: Offense

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    We all know what quarterback Russell Wilson did for the Seattle Seahawks in 2012.

    While he wasn’t a one-man show on the offensive side of the ball by any stretch of the imagination, he did tie Peyton Manning’s rookie record of touchdown passes in a season (26) and got steadily better as the season wore on.

    And let’s not forget the contributions of running back Marshawn Lynch, who ran for 100 or more yards in 11 of his 18 total appearances in 2012. And there’s some depth in the form of Robert Turbin and rookie Christine Michael.

    This offseason, the team gave up plenty to get wide receiver Percy Harvin from the Minnesota Vikings. The former first-rounder can be a factor as a runner, pass catcher or return artist.

    Remember, this is a team that caught fire in terms of scoring after a slow start a year ago. Including playoffs, the Seahawks totaled 348 points in their last 11 games (scoring 20-plus points in each contest). Pete Carroll’s clubs scored just 116 points in their first seven outings, including 16 points or less in five of those games.

    Combine that with a team that gave up the fewest points in the league in 2012 and it could be quite a year for Carroll and company in the Pacific Northwest.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Wide Receivers

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    There’s been some talk about who will be the quarterback of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2013.

    Will it remain incumbent Josh Freeman, a first-round pick in 2009 who has had his ups and downs? Or will it be rookie Mike Glennon, a third-round pick in April?

    Regardless of who’s throwing the football, both signal-callers have to be smiling at their options.

    Freeman would throw for 27 scores in 2012 and 17 of those touchdowns were courtesy of wide receivers Mike Williams (nine) and Vincent Jackson. The latter totaled 72 receptions for 1,384 yards (19.2 yards per catch) and Williams pulled down 63 passes for 996 yards.

    In an NFC South in which every team has at least one star wideout, the Buccaneers' starting tandem could rival the Atlanta Falcons duo of Roddy White and Julio Jones as not only the best in the division, but one of the best in the league.

    And that’s a nice luxury to have if you’re Freeman or Glennon…or both.

Tennessee Titans: Offensive Line

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    Some may think that with explosive running back Chris Johnson in the backfield, the Tennessee Titans offensive line would have already been a team-strength.

    But that wasn’t necessarily the case in 2012. Last season, the Titans ranked 21st in the league in rushing despite 1,243 yards on the ground by Johnson. And quarterback Jake Locker and Matt Hasselbeck were sacked a combined 39 times.

    But via the free agent addition of guard Andy Levitre (who just recently got back to work) and the first-round addition of guard Chance Warmack, head coach Mike Munchak is hoping that he’s found the answers on the interior of his offensive line.

    And it’s safe to say that the Hall of Fame guard knows a thing or two about the position.

    Meanwhile, there's former Pro Bowler Michael Roos and David Stewart at the tackles and one-time undrafted free agent Fernando Velasco at center. And the Titans added swingmen Chris Spencer and Robert Turner during the offseason.

    You have to like what you're seeing here if you are Johnson and/or quarterback Jake Locker.

Washington Redskins: Quarterbacks

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    Remember a year ago when many were questioning the Washington Redskins' decision to draft two quarterbacks?

    Safe to say no one is questioning that now.

    Even if 2012 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year Robert Griffin III is back behind center for this year’s season opener, having backup Kirk Cousins is a big plus.

    Last season, the fourth-round pick was pressed into duty on more than one occasion when Griffin was injured. That includes a late relief appearance in an overtime win over the Baltimore Ravens, as well as a start against the Cleveland Browns in December, a 38-21 Washington victory in Week 15.

    But back to Griffin, who injured his knee in last year’s playoff loss to the Seattle Seahawks. But all signs have been pointing to a very steady recovery.

    Yes, the Washington ground game was the best in the league last season. And head coach Mike Shanahan is looking for his defense to bounce back in 2013. But the Griffin and Cousins tandem at quarterback is a nice up-and-coming luxury to have.