With 32 NFL Offseason Grades Come 32 Shades of Wishful Thinking

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With 32 NFL Offseason Grades Come 32 Shades of Wishful Thinking

Those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it (hint, hint).

At this point in the NFL off-season, nearly every team has locked-in the roster for 2009. Question marks still hang in regards to Anquan Boldin, Braylon Edwards, Chad Ochocinco and Julius Peppers, but for the most part, I feel safely that the bulk of moves have passed.

The maxim I apply in analyzing teams is simple: Stay healthy, step up, and strike down, which is always easier said than done.  That alliteration means that players must stay healthy (duh), rise to level of their opponent, and then be better than their opponent is.

In some cases, the best defense is a good offense.  I generally prefer to believe that the best defense is a good offense and the best offense is a good defense, while special teams will make the difference.  The key for us writers is to see the big picture.

Position coaches and players can worry about key-matchups.  The coordinators and head coach worry about the overall function of the units (offense, defense, special teams), while the executives worry about the unpleasantness of ticket sales, pay roll and public relations.

San Francisco 49ers: B

After the San Francisco 49ers finished 7-9 in 2008, I believed that the Niners had to maximize their opportunities in the off-season. I am not sure that they did that, because they have stayed roughly the same.

The addition of rookies WR Michael Crabtree and RB Glen Coffee along with the swap of Jonas Jennings for Marvel Smith and Bryant Johnson for Brandon Jones appear to be positive moves for the offense, but the San Francisco defense needed an infusion of depth, which the Niners did not achieve.

Instead the Niners will need DT Kentwan Balmer, LB Manny Lawson, LB Parys Haralson and S Dashon Goldson to stay healthy, step up, and strike down, which is always easier said than done. 

By the way, when I say that Haralson must 'step up' it is because he has yet to prove that he can be an every-down linebacker rather than a sack-specialist. 

Moreover, the question mark still hangs over the quarterback position. The Niners signed Damon Huard while Shaun Smith had a decent season statistically. Instinctively however, I think the Niners should stick with Alex Smith. 

Smith might not be Steve Young or Joe Montana, but I think he can be a Chad Pennington-type of player.

I prefer to defer from the term 'game manager,' because I think there is a false connotation to that word.  Many seem to think of it as, "don't screw up."  Like an actor however, their brain will ignore the word 'not' and only hear 'do screw up.'

An offense must have an efficient quarterback to make smart plays and maximize the situations, and Smith has the intelligence to do that. 

Smith though came from a non-pro style offense at Utah and went into a team influx that expected Smith to be great the next day. Smith should get another chance, and I think he is the best chance that the Niners have.

2009 Outlook: The 49ers can compete for the NFC West, but need to play smart football rather than force things that are not there, so that the “breaks” go their way.

Chicago Bears: A-

The Bears made the right moves by bolstering the offensive line (Orlando Pace, Kevin Shaffer) and acquiring QB Jay Cutler. 

However, I think Cutler will need to understand that his best receivers are at tight end (Desmond Clark, Greg Olsen) and runningback (Matt Forte) and to rely on the wide receivers mostly as deep-threats (Rashied Davis, Devin Hester).

In other words, throw to Forte, Clark, and Olsen to move the chains but take shots down field for the big-play with Davis and Hester, rather than key-in on them as go-to receivers. 

That might make the Bears offense transparent, but I think those players have the physical ability to beat their man.

Defensively, the Bears should be stingy like always with the additions of safeties Josh Bullocks and Glen Earl as starter and depth. 

Nevertheless, I think that the Chicago pass rushers (Adewale Ogunleye, Alex Brown) are on the wrong side of their career as premiere rushers, thus, the Bears need for Mark Anderson to regain his presence as a sack-specialist, or hope that rookie Jarron Gilbert can produce. 

Furthermore, the Bears need strongside linebacker Nick Roach to prove he is an every-down linebacker.

Fortunately, for the Bears, the NFC North is weak in terms of experienced offensive-lines and quarterbacks, thus, the Bears should not need a premiere rusher in order to claim the Division title. 

2009 Outlook: Even if Brett Favre signs with Minnesota, this NFC North will be tough, but because Chicago has more definition on offense and defense, when compared to Green Bay and Minnesota—I think Chicago has the edge.

Cincinnati Bengals: C+

Back in 2003, when the Bengals finished 8-8, I wrote that Marvin Lewis should have earned the honor of Coach of the Year. It was an enormous accomplishment to overcome that culture of losing.  Especially in Cincinnati where you could not give tickets away. 

The Bengals though, took too many fliers on troubled players and thus regressed, while quarterback Carson Palmer never took control, so Chad Ochocinco and the others ran amuck.

Defensively, Cincinnati ranked twelfth overall with a non-existent pass-rush in 2008. In the draft, the Bengals added defensive-players in LB Rey Maualuga and DE Michael Johnson.  I am not sure whether they have solved their true issue on defense—the pass rush, which is why I have opined that the Bengals should consider installment of the 3-4.

Offensively, the Bengals had the task of replacing three starters on the offensive-line (center Eric Ghiaciu, right-tackle Stacy Andrews and left-tackle Levi Jones). 

The Bengals thus selected tackle Andre Smith and center Jonathan Luigs in the draft, both of whom have pro-potential, while the Bengals penciled-in Anthony Collins as the replacement on the right side.

The Bengals replaced TJ Houshmandzadeh with Laveranues Coles, which was an upgrade in terms of touchdown catches. The Bengals still must deal with Chad Ochocinco, while the Bengals have good receiver prospects in Andre Caldwell, Jerome Simpson, and rookie tight end Chase Coffman.

The move I have wondered about the most is why the Bengals passed-on RB LeSean McCoy in the second round of the draft in favor of LB Rey Maualuga.  Both had good value at Cincinnati’s spot, but runningback was clearly the bigger need.

2009 Outlook: The Bengals probably *improved* but they still have an uphill battle in the AFC North, so I’m not certain that they are better than Pittsburgh or Baltimore but probably better than Cleveland. 

They might have enough to win six or seven contests in 2009.  If the Bengals can regain their offensive form from 2005, then they could be a dark horse, but with three new starters on the offensive-line, a disgruntled star receiver, and retread runningbacks—that is hard to imagine, but stranger things have happened in the NFL.

Buffalo Bills: B-

The Bills seem to have all the right pieces in place, except definition on the lines of scrimmage. 

They traded All-Pro left-tackle Jason Peters for a draft pick that they used to select center Eric Wood, while guard Derrick Dockery left in free agency so the Bills selected Andy Levitre as Dockery’s replacement in the draft. 

Thus, Wood and Levitre should compete for starting positions, while the Bills have penciled-in Kirk Chambers as the new left-tackle.

The Bills also selected defensive-end Aaron Maybin, but has begged the question as to which side they want Maybin to play—the left or right. 

Aaron Schobel is the better player on the right side, but if the Bills replace Schobel with Maybin, then they probably have not netted on-field talent.

The Bills should be able to “stretch the field” with Terrell Owens and Lee Evans, which will help the running game of Dominic Rhodes and Marshawn Lynch. Yet, the inexperience of the offensive line will likely cause problems in critical situations. 

The defense looks capable of being efficient but without explosive play-making (sacks, turnovers), which I think is a critical need in the AFC East.

2009 Outlook: Unlikely to claim the AFC East division, because the Dolphins, Jets, and Patriots are significantly better, but with that said, the Patriots claimed the AFC East in 2001 with a scrappy team. 

Thus, it would not be unheard of for the Bills to surprise the league, but I would not count on it. It might sound convoluted, but the Bills look like a strong fourth place team.

Denver Broncos: D+

Even though the Broncos barely passed in the off-season, it is probably better for Denver in the future, but unlikely in 2009. I see more question marks than clarity with the Broncos, nevertheless, I doubt that Denver will lose games by mental errors, but rather, lose games by a lack of talent and definition.

Something tells me Cutler wanted out of Denver once the Broncos fired Mike Shanahan, and used the trade talk and the inexperience of McDaniels as an excuse, but Cutler has looked like a crybaby regardless of his tactics.

After Jay Cutler threw his hissy fit, there was no turning back for Cutler and new coach Josh McDaniels, because had the Broncos kept Cutler—questions would abound about the relationship between Cutler and McDaniels at every sight of struggle. 

In order words, the Broncos would struggle either way, so they were better off to just ‘cut and run’ from Cutler. 

Kyle Orton at quarterback is capable of being a ‘game manager,’ but I do not see much for Orton to manage. The offense will be slower, while the defense will not be able to keep points off the board. 

Nevertheless, the selection of RB Knowshon Moreno made sense and I even had the Broncos taking Moreno in some mock drafts but I had erred on the side of defense in the end.

The defense is still neither ‘here nor there’ and their best defenders are getting older, while the Broncos appear to have four outside-linebackers with two openings and a lack of prospects at the other defensive positions. 

Trading a 2010 first-round pick to select CB Alphonso Smith in the second round of the 2009 Draft was a desperation move, because the speed of Oakland’s new and current wide receivers has clearly intimidated the Broncos, whom have struggled against Oakland in the previous two seasons. 

Technically, the Broncos have been 2-2, but one of those wins was the “Iced Kicker Game” in which Sebastian Janikowski missed a game-winning field goal, thus the Broncos barely won that game while the Raiders routed Denver in their other two losses.

2009 Outlook: The Broncos will be lucky to win four games, while they traded their 2010 first-round pick, which could be in the top five, but at least they have Chicago’s 2010 first rounder to fall back on.

Cleveland Browns: C-

Long story short, the Browns fired coach Romeo Crennel and replaced him with Eric Mangini.  If you can tell me how that was a net-gain, please do. 

One thing we have learned about New England assistants coaches and coordinator is that they do not pan-out, even though their executives do (Thomas Dimitroff, Scott Pioli). Spygate or whatever, the fact has been, New England coaches are over-rated.

With that said, I think Cleveland is better on the defensive side of the ball by adding LB David Bowens, LB Eric Barton, and DE Kenyon Coleman in the draft-day trade that allowed New York to select QB Mark Sanchez.

With some work, the Cleveland linebackers could be stars, especially D’Qwell Jackson.  Meanwhile, Leon Williams and Kamerion Wimbley have shown enough in the past for me to believe that they can shine or make significant contributions if given proper attention.

On offense however, it has looked liked aimless jockeying. It has appeared to me that the termination by the Jets of Eric Mangini made him incredibly insecure. Thus, Mangini felt he had to make an immediate imprint on the Browns in order to feel safe in his job.

They traded Kellen Winslow II; have attempted to trade Braylon Edwards and drafted Brian Robiskie and Mohamed Massaquoi; have threatened to trade Brady Quinn or Derek Anderson; released starting right-tackle Kevin Shaffer; and drafted center Alex Mack to compete with starter Hank Fraley.

To me, unneeded turnover on the offensive-line is a cancerous move for an offense, because it will create the most instability—the Browns, I think, would have been better off to keep Shaffer, draft Mack as they did, and move Fraley to guard.

Yet, of all the players that they left alone, the Browns have vainly held onto the runningback, Jamal Lewis, whom victimized them so often as a Baltimore Raven.

2009 Outlook: They added good potential but will unlikely compete in 2009, because the offense is in total rebuild mode (for no good reason) and the Browns have not done so tactfully, which could cause discord and dysfunction. 

I knocked down the grade, because I did not believe it was necessary for Cleveland to tear-up their offense, but the defense is slightly better.

Without an experienced and coherent offense, the Browns cannot compete with the defenses of Pittsburgh and Baltimore, while the matchup with Cincinnati is a tossup, but I will give Cincy a slight edge. 

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: B-

In some cases, the best defense is a good offense. I never thought I would say that about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. I generally prefer to believe that the best defense is a good offense and the best offense is a good defense, while special teams will make the difference.

In Tampa Bay’s case: They need to focus on their offense.

Another team in need of a quarterback, so the Buccaneers signed Byron Leftwich and selected Josh Freeman in the draft, but it is hard to say whether either player will step up in 2009.

Byron Leftwich has the arm, but I think he should focus on playing smart-ball in which he plays more like a maestro than a magician would.

The Bucs upgraded the offense by acquiring Kellen Winslow II and runningback Derrick Ward, so that should help whoever the quarterback is.

Defensively, the secondary looks good, while question marks still riddle the front seven.  However, if Tampa Bay can sustain an offense, then I believe that their secondary can stay healthy and shutout the opposing receivers, which should take pressure off the front seven. 

If the offense struggles however, opponents will challenge their front seven and that will force their defensive backs to play closer to the line to help in run-defense, which can expose them to the greater possibility of injury. 

Once that happens, injuries often become contagious.

2009 Outlook: Good but not great, 2009 can go either way because it just depends on whether their quarterback is willing to play smart-ball or force things that are not there. 

With that said, the NFC South features Drew Brees, Jake Delhomme and Matt Ryan, so it is hard to say whether Leftwich (or otherwise) can out-duel those quarterbacks.  Like Buffalo, this could be a strong fourth place team.

Arizona Cardinals: B-

For a franchise that had wallowed mostly in mediocrity since the end of the Second World War, the Cardinals have managed to do some things right. 

World empires had declined or fallen since the previous time that the Cardinals had been a legitimate contender in the NFL.

Mainly, protecting their strengths (i.e. drafting RB Chris Wells), which is an accomplishment for a team that has squandered success with wide receivers (i.e. Roy Green, JT Smith, Rob Moore, David Boston) even with mediocre quarterbacks (one year, their lead passer was a future punter) only for their receivers to get disgruntled and leave or taper out. 

For a while, their best receiver was fullback Larry Centers.

I do believe that it is relevant to mention the history of the Cardinals, simply because those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it.

It has looked like Arizona has been on the same road with Anquan Boldin as they were with David Boston and the fictional Cardinal from Jerry McGuire Rod Tidwell who of course used the word ‘kwan’ (or quan), which has reminded me of the name Anquan, which has of course reminded me of, “Show me the money!”

Well, Arizona, I think it is time to show him the money and protect, possibly, the best receiver trio in the NFL (Boldin, Larry Fitzgerald, and Steve Breaston), rather than repeat the same broken record of disgruntled receivers.

Aside from that, the Cards still lack a legitimate pass-rush and have to count on inexperience and backups on defense, but because the NFC West is not exactly stacked, I think Arizona is still the team to beat, but need to shed any distractions.

2009 Outlook: The team to beat in the NFC West, but that is contingent on what San Francisco does—a team I see as their best divisional rival.

San Diego Chargers: B+

Sometimes, no news truly is good news.

Even though this team squeaked by the AFC West in 2008 and into the postseason with only 8 wins, they are still a formidable team when Shawne Merriman is healthy.

The Chargers could have embarrassed themselves by trading or releasing runningback LaDainian Tomlinson, but they resolved the issue rather than jockey around.

As for the overall offense, the Chargers have transitioned well from a run heavy offense to a pass heavy one, even if they lack a star at wide receiver.

In the Draft, San Diego selected rusher Larry English in the first round. 

There are several possible explanations to that choice. Protect the health of Shawne Merriman; leverage against Shawne Merriman; have English play as a down lineman in the 3-4; install hybrid defenses of the 3-4 and 4-3; a desperation pick in which the Chargers question their rushers and wanted insurance because of Oakland’s speed at wide receiver; or all of the above.

Bottom line is however, I think that San Diego has planned to experiment with their defense in order to maximize the potential of the front seven in order to create opportunities for a questionable secondary.

2009 Outlook: Still the *team to beat,* but that does not mean they cannot or will not be beaten.  It is about letting the players decide that on the field (which is not always true). 

With that said, I do believe that Oakland is San Diego’s best opponent and that San Diego’s draft pick of Larry English (and Denver’s pick of Alphonso Smith) has indicated that they are taking the Raiders seriously, whereas the Raiders had been ignored in the past. 

Moreover, the Chiefs could be a dark horse or spoiler, while I think Denver will be the new doormat.

Kansas City Chiefs: A-

I have been no stranger to saying what I think about the New England Patriots and their ‘blissfully ignorant’ fans.

Nevertheless, there is one thing that I do not question about the New England Patriots: Draft strategy and understanding their personnel, which is why I believe that new Kansas Cityexecutive Scott Pioli has made the right moves.

Even though New England coaches have flopped and floundered like fish out of water, their executives have succeeded.  The Chiefs added QB Matt Cassell, rookie DE Tyson Jackson, LB Mike Vrabel, and LB Zach Thomas.

With that said, Kansas City is probably another season away from being legitimate, but they have hit a home run for this off-season, and thus they are closer than they would have been under different management.

Trading Tony Gonzalez for a 2010 draft pick has set them back temporarily in terms of on-field talent, but will help them in the end.  Still no word on the future of Larry Johnson, but I think the Bengals might be interested in acquiring Johnson at the right price.

2009 Outlook: Probably a spoiler team that will finish with five to seven wins, and is in the right direction.

Indianapolis Colts: B

The Colts will be without two stars in Marvin Harrison, Coach Tony Dungy and several other coaches for the first time since 2002.

The Colts will enter 2009 with new coach Jim Caldwell and a defense that has had turnover at defensive tackle and linebacker.

I have made my opinions about Tom Brady quite clear, while I maintain that Peyton Manning is the class act of the NFL.

I wonder whether the Colts need another receiver in the mix, or if Anthony Gonzalez will rise to the level of a go-to receiver. Perhaps the Colts should consider an addition by trade of Braylon Edwards for the price of a lineman like Charlie Johnson or a 2010 draft pick.

I still remember the days when the Colts struggled to find a number two receiver to compliment Marvin Harrison (are you out there Jerome Pathon?). Since the Colts can dominate when their offense fires on all cylinders, I think then it would be a wise move for Indy to acquire Edwards in order to maintain a trio of talented receivers.

2009 Outlook: I would say that Indy matches-up nearly equally but oppositely to Tennessee, but I will take the experience of Peyton Manning over Kerry Collins any day. 

It is mostly a matter of whether Jim Caldwell can take control of the defense as a rookie head coach. Furthermore, the Texans are on the rise, while I still question Jacksonville’s direction, yet both said teams could be spoilers if Tennessee and Indy are not careful.

Dallas Cowboys: C+

The Cowboys are another team that makes you wonder why exactly they lose.

The Cowboys did not add any starters in the off-season, but released WR Terrell Owens and safety Roy Williams. The Cowboys loaded up on second day rookies in the draft, which should help support the starters.

In my mind, the future of this team relies on whether the other Roy Williams can regain his Pro-Bowl form at receiver, and whether Romo can maintain his focus. There are not any holes in *talent* but rather in leadership and focus; as Ron Jaworski would say, the Cowboys are “mentally weak.”

Tony “That’s my quarterback” Romo tends to zone in and out for reasons the public is well aware of, yet I cannot say I blame Tony Romo for being distracted, but unless he can produce for Dallas, then he is not helping them.

That is why it would make sense for Dallas to commit to the running game in order to alleviate the pressure on Romo.  The Cowboys have the talent to do so, and I do believe that they should.

2009 Outlook: Hard to say, this team (minus Terrell Owens) can dominate the regular season, or just plain frustrate their fans. 

Tossup with Washington on paper, while the Cowboys are still looking-up at Philadelphia and New York (unless changes are made) and they seem like a team that will frustrate analysts week by week with erratic play of good and bad.

Miami Dolphins: B

It is clear that Bill Parcels has injected the roster with plenty of talent to challenge starters in training camp and so it seems that the theme of this off-season for the Miami Dolphins has been that of no complacency.

The areas of competition are the secondary and receiver corp. 

The Dolphins selected corners Vontae Davis and Sean Smith in the first two rounds, while they signed Eric Green to compete with Will Allen, Jason Allen, and Nate Jones. 

Davis and Smith have an inside edge, simply by fact of being first-day rookies, but any of the other four can enhance their value by playing safety.

At receiver, Ted Ginn II, Greg Camarillo, and Davone Bess have shown strides but must continue to improve, while the Dolphins selected Pat White in the second round of the draft, seemingly to challenge those three in training camp, which tells me that Parcels is discontent with Ernest Wilford.

As for the rumors that the Dolphins want Chad Henne to be the quarterback, I hope that the Dolphins err on the side of winning and stick with Chad Pennington, because there is no real need to rush Henne. 

Thus, the Dolphins should wait until the roster has more all-around definition and stability before giving the reign over to an inexperienced quarterback.

2009 Outlook: The AFC East will be decided by the head-to-head matchups in the division.

Assuming that Tom Brady stays healthy in New England, the Dolphins are probably the second best team in the division (unless the Jets can replicate the success of the 2008 Ravens with Mark Sanchez). 

The East is easily the Division to watch in the AFC, but not necessarily the decider of the conference.

Philadelphia Eagles: A

For a roster that had begun to stagnate, the Eagles once again proved why they continue to contend.

On offense, the Eagles replaced tackles All-Pro Tra Thomas and Jon Runyan with All-Pro Jason Peters by trade and Stacy Andrews by free agency. The Eagles also selected runningback LeSean McCoy and the dynamic wide receiver Jeremy Maclin in the 2009 Draft.

They moreover added blocking fullback Leonard Weaver in free agency. Never underestimate the value of a good blocking fullback. A good blocking back is like a roaming lineman with the mind of a quarterback who can open things up for the offense and add another blocker to protect the quarterback and halfback. 

It is an overlooked position, but when a team finds a player willing to do that job, that is golden.

The defense has the talent to remain stout, but I wonder who the leader is, now that All-Pro Brian Dawkins has left.  The most seasoned defender is sack specialist Darren Howard, thus I think it is on Howard to step up to that role.

2009 Outlook: Probably the best team in the NFC East.  Both the Eagles and Giants are deep and feature inexperienced receivers with experienced quarterbacks. 

The Giants have won the Super Bowl in recent years and loaded up on depth, but the Eagles seem to have an answer for everything with a slight edge. Obviously, this will be a good division to watch, and I do believe it will decide the conference.

Atlanta Falcons: C+

The Falcons have added to the offense with the addition of future Hall of Fame TE Tony Gonzalez, probably to mask the fact that they gutted their defense for the immediate future.

The Falcons lost DT Grady Jackson, LB Michael Boley, LB Keith Brooking, S Lawyer Milloy, and CB Dominique Foxworth, and conversely, gained rookie DT Peria Jerry, signed LB Coy Wire, signed LB Mike Peterson, penciled-in CB Von Hutchins, and penciled-in S Thomas DeCoud.

The Falcons though have a deficient pass-rush, because Jamaal Anderson has not lived-up to his first-round status, while Chauncey Davis might be a backup at best and rookie Lawrence Sidbury does show some promise as a sack specialist, but it is difficult to expect top production from a rookie.

Subsequently, it is difficult for me to say that Atlanta has netted-talent on defense for 2009 and they probably did not do so for a questionable defense to begin with, thus it probably hurt the Falcons for the immediate future, but should position them well for the future.

2009 Outlook: The NFC South is a crapshoot, but I think Atlanta is likely behind Carolina and New Orleans.  Often times, dark horse teams fall flat the next season if they do not progress in the off-season.

New York Giants: B+

The Giants made a big splash in early free agency with the signings of LB Michael Boley, DL Chris Canty, DL Rocky Bernard and rookie LB Clint Sintim. One of the best moves for the Giants was the one not made, and that will be the return of DE Osi Umenyiora. 

With the said moves, the Giants now have two defensive-lines capable of starting and solid depth at linebacker.

In the draft, the Giants added WR Hakeem Nicks, WR Ramses Barden, and TE-RB Travis Beckum as replacements for WR Plexico Burress and RB Derrick Ward. 

The selections of Nicks and Barden will likely spell the end for either Mario Manningham or David Tyree, though I would think that the G-Men would keep Tyree.

The Giants certainly have no significant deficiency in talent, but lack experience in the key position of wide receiver, thus the Giants should maximize the talents of short-yardage players to move the chains (Kevin Boss, Darcy Johnson, Ahmad Bradshaw, and Travis Beckum). 

That should allow the receivers (Domenik Hixon, Steve Smith, Ramses Barden, and Hakeem Nicks) to make big plays but not the majority of plays.

2009 Outlook: Probably a wild card team by a hair—yes, they loaded-up in free-agency and the draft, but those moves will not mask the lack of a go-to wide receiver, while the Giants could lose the critical field-position and big-play battle in contests with Philadelphia who now feature the very speedy Jeremy Maclin and DeSean Jackson.

Jacksonville Jaguars: C

Here is a team that has frustrated many in the past season.

The Jags can dominate a single game and then flop the next week.  Why?

My supposition is that the Jags have too much veteran experience and not enough productive youth.  Those players can play high-energy smash-mouth football one week, but seem to gas out the next week. 

As they say, the season is a marathon not a sprint.

Thus, those players try to pace themselves through the season by taking a game or two off because they figure they have to lose at some point.  Yet, they fail to climb from that funk.

The Jaguars needed to bolster their offensive line, add a go-to receiver, another runningback, a pass-rusher, and to infuse the defense with youth.

Subsequently, the Jags signed WR Torry Holt and OT Tra Thomas, drafted OT Eugene Monroe, and OT-OG Eben Britton, and must hope that Quentin Groves and Derrick Harvey step-up as pass rushers.

The front seven is still a mess, because the Jags lack depth and definition at linebacker and a legitimate pass rusher.

David Garrard is an efficient passer, but without dynamic weapons at wide receiver. If however the Jags can run the ball effectively, I think Garrard will have enough to succeed on offense.

2009 Outlook: Not sure, but I think they need another runningback, perhaps Larry Johnson, in order to balance their offense.  They look to me like a 6-10 or 8-8 team.

New York Jets: B+

The Brett Favre and Eric Mangini experience is over and now the Jets can move forward with quarterback Mark Sanchez and coach Rex Ryan.

The Ravens succeeded in 2008 with a lights-out defense, rookie quarterback, ho-hum receivers (Mark Clayton, Todd Heap), and a runningback by committee situation, in which the lead runner wss fullback Le’Ron McClain.

The question in my mind is: Will Rex Ryan duplicate the Baltimore success in New York?

Barring a rash of injuries, the Jets should once again be stingy on defense.

We know that the Jets played stout defense under Eric Mangini, and added to that defense in free-agency with CB Lito Sheppard, LB Bart Scott, S Jim Leonhard, and DE Marques Douglas.

On offense, the Jets on paper have similar statistical talent to the Jets at the end of last season, with the exception of QB Mark Sanchez who has no pro-stats.

BAL – Mark Clayton: 16 games, 695 yards, 3 TDs

NYJ – Jericho Cotchery: 16 games, 858 yards, 5 TDs

BAL – Demetrius Williams, 180 yards, 1 TD

NYJ – Chansi Stuckey: 359 yards, 3 TDs

BAL - Todd Heap: 16 games, 402 yards, 3 TDs

NYJ – Dustin Keller: 16 games, 535 yards, 3 TDs

BAL – Willis McGahee: 13 games, 844 yards, 7 TDs

NYJ – Leon Washington: 16 games, 803 yards, 8 TDs

BAL – Le’Ron McLain: 16 games, 1025 yards, 11 TDs

NYJ – Thomas Jones: 16 games, 1519 yards, 15 TDs

2009 Outlook: As you can see, Brett Favre in New York played like Joe Flacco; thus, if Joe Flacco can succeed with personnel that are, nearly identical to New York’s in terms of stats, then Mark Sanchez is officially on the New York hot seat. 

Possibly a wild card team, assuming that Mark Sanchez can play smart-ball as a rookie and rely on the running game, defense, and just making critical plays.

Detroit Lions: A-

Similarly, to the Kansas City Chiefs, this grade is about the infusion of talent, even if the Lions will need another year before they are close to legitimate.

They still have to work with just about everything, but I think the priorities should be special-teams, the front seven, and the offensive-line. 

Better field position will always help any team, but, especially an offense in transition and a defense as well. 

Take it from Brian Billick after Ozzie Newsom gutted the Baltimore roster in 2002—they rebounded quickly because they focused on special-teams by drafting punter Dave Zastudil, who Billick referred to as a “weapon.” 

The Lions though have lacked a legitimate returner since Eddie Drummond, and appear to be lacking in terms of coverage players.

They also need the line to protect the quarterback and open the lanes for the runningback with the offensive-line. 

Meanwhile, they need the defense to protect the scoreboard and the clock and an explosive front seven will create opportunities for the secondary.

Lately, it seems like the answer I have had for defensive woes is the 3-4, but only if I think the personnel is more reflective of that system because that defense relies on linebackers to make plays and for the defensive linemen to be efficient. 

With the Lions, they seem to have a glut of linebackers, while their linemen could handle the 3-4.

On offense, I like that Detroit focused on the completeness of their receiver corp, rather than put a target on the back of Calvin Johnson. 

They added veterans Bryant Johnson and Ronald Curry and rookie Derrick Williams along with rookie tight end Brandon Pettigrew. Instead of tearing-up the offensive-line—a last ditch move if you ask me—the Lions added blockers, such as tight end Brandon Pettigrew and fullback Terrelle Smith.

Why take the QB and not the OT?  Here is the reason: Offensive-linemen are more pro-ready than quarterbacks are, thus, if you take the quarterback sooner, then you can build around his learning curve with pro-ready players like offensive-tackles. 

Especially since, there was no consensus as to who the best tackle was, while most believed that Stafford was the best quarterback. Thus, the Lions were wiser to take the passer and build around his learning curve.

2009 Outlook: Detroit is in the right direction but needs to improve special-teams and the front seven, and will likely need to wait until the 2010 Draft for a left-tackle and left-guard.

Green Bay Packers: B+

The Packers have converted their defense to the 3-4, and added two rookies that fit the system, DT BJ Raji and LB Clay Matthews.

I really do not have much to comment in regards to Green Bay.  On paper, they are a talented team. 

With only a difference in quarterback, the Packers appeared in the 2008 NFC Championship Game, but I think Chicago has improved significantly since then.

The only question I really have is whether the defense can transition to the 3-4.

2009 Outlook: As of now, I think Green Bay is better than Minnesota, but not Chicago.  I give Chicago and Green Bay an edge over Minnesota because I think the three teams are very similar, with exception to the fact that Minnesota plays on turf. 

I know, I know—Adrian Peterson is the best runningback right now. I think that Chicago and Green Bay have better balance in the offensive backfield though. 

Carolina Panthers: B-

I once wrote that Calvin Johnson should have earned a Pro Bowl berth instead of Steve Smith. Mainly, because I thought Johnson had overcome far more adversity in order to succeed.

With that said, the Panthers mainly lack a third receiver in the slot, so Smith does a lot for the Panthers offense.

The Panthers also need to resolve the issue with Julius Peppers and could probably net another receiver in a trade. The Panthers added DE Everette Brown in the Draft, likely as the replacement to Peppers.

The Panthers are a talented team, but it does appear that their inability to cover the critical situations has hindered their success.

2009 Outlook: The "team to beat" in the NFC South, but Tampa Bay, Atlanta and New Orleans can all challenge the Panthers.

New England Patriots: B

By now, it is redundant to state my complaints about the Patriots.

Like I have emphasized though, the Patriots get the draft right.

Aside from the health of Tom Brady, the Patriots also need a legitimate rusher. They loaded up on defensive players in the draft which should support the veterans.

2009 Outlook: The team to beat in the AFC East. 

Oakland Raiders: C+/B-

This grade is partially based on the intangibles.  First, the fact that Al Davis has come out the public victor over Lane Kiffin.

Secondly, the Raiders did not splurge in free agency.  They added OT Erik Pears, OT Khalif Barnes, and C Samson Satele to compete for starting spots.

On offense, I think the Raiders should utilize Darren McFadden (when healthy) as a Charlie Garner or Marshall Faulk type player to run and catch.  I also want to see Michael Bush as the lead runner. 

The Raiders have three speedy receivers in place with Johnnie Lee Higgins and rookies Derrius Heyward-Bey and Louis Murphy. Say what you want about their hands, but their speed demands coverage and prevents double-teams.

As for quarterback, the philosophy of Al Davis is to score fast and then run the ball and play defense. This is just a thought, but perhaps the Raiders would benefit by rotating JaMarcus Russell and Jeff Garcia, as Atlanta did with Michael Vick and Matt Schaub. 

Before you make reactionary comparisons between Russell and Vick, the only reason for making that analogy is that rotating quarterbacks is not unprecedented. 

Russell has the arm and the receivers have the speed to score early, but I think Garcia has the experience to control the game after that. The problem that Oakland has had since 2006 is in closing-out games.

Despite the records of 2-14, 4-12, and 5-11, the Raiders would lead at half time and even into the fourth quarter, only to blow the lead.  Maybe then, the Raiders can use Garcia like a veteran closer in baseball.

With that said, Heyward-Bey and Higgins have the speed to take a short pass a long way, so I’m tempted to say that Garcia should be the starting quarterback, because the Raiders badly need to change their image and start winning, and once they start winning, winning becomes contagious.  But I could be wrong.

As for the defense, I think the Raiders added good talent from the draft with S Michael Marshall and DE Matt Shaughnessy, but I am left wondering as to the direction of the defense: Is this a 3-4 or 4-3 system?

2009 Outlook: I'm still wondering about the direction of this team, but I think they have plenty of talent in the mix.  Perhaps some creative use of players would benefit the team, which Al Davis has never a stranger to doing.  I think they have the talent to challenge for a wild card spot, if not the division, but it all hinges on the direction and focus.

St. Louis Rams: B

In an offense that stagnated, the Rams parted ways with OT Orlando Pace and WR Tory Holt, yet kept QB Marc Bulger, but was rumored to have been interested in Mark Sanchez.

The Rams selected OT Jason Smith in the draft, while they need Donnie Avery to step-up as a go-to receiver in place of Tory Holt.  I still wonder if Marc Bulger is on the wrong side of his career, and whether the Rams will need to replace Bulger in 2010.

Defensively, the Rams could get by if their defensive-tackles, Adam Carriker and Clifton Ryan, can improve, and if DE Chris Long can dominate as the Rams expected when they selected him second overall in 2008.

The secondary looks complete with corners Tye Hill, Ronald Bartell, and safeties Oshiomogho Atogwe and James Butler.

They released their lead tackler, Pisa Tinoisamoa – likely to move rookie James Laurinaitis into a starting position.

2009 Outlook: Likely a third place team in the NFC West, behind Arizona and San Francisco.

Baltimore Ravens: B-

The Ravens lost LB Bart Scott and S Jim Leonhard in free agency, but Baltimore has a track record of developing rookies.  The Ravens will also see the return of nose-tackle Kelly Gregg.

Without going into the unneeded detail, this team is more or less the same as it was in 2008, and should compete again in 2009 for a wild card spot if not the division.

The main question is whether Joe Flacco will continue to progress or hit a sophomore slump.

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